Who Were The Sultanas?

At a time when women are confronted with false choices between being a so-called career woman or a wife/mother, the Sultana's life reminds us again of the historical possibility of fulfilling these roles simultaneously.
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You can hide the moon in your backyard but one night it's going to come out and shine.
-- Old Persian Proverb

In Arabic pop culture, a Sultana is the object of desire in an old Egyptian folk song, "Bint el Sultan," which literally translates to "Daughter of the Sultan." It represents a familiar reference for those with a particular affinity for Arabic music. In fact, one only needs to peruse the internet to find that a spicier version of the original tune, the lyrics of which revolve around a stunningly beautiful Sultana whom the singer lusts, may be heard at Arabic dance parties, clubs and concerts.

There is, however, a lesser known historical account of the Sultana which has been frequently dismissed or in the alternative, overlooked. Nevertheless, she remains an inextricable part of Islamic history.

She is the female Muslim ruler.

And, her story exemplifies the flexible environment Islam has traditionally provided for women to flourish not only spiritually, but even, politically.

Today, at a time when women are confronted with false choices between being a so-called career woman or a wife/mother, the Sultana's life reminds us again of the historical possibility of fulfilling these roles simultaneously should a woman so choose.

She also reminds us of women's limitless potential, including Muslim women.

Asma bint Shihab as-Sulayhiyya, for example, was wife to the founder of the Fatimid (Islamic) Dynasty in Yemen. Following her husband's murder in 1046, she was imprisoned for two years and subsequently became ruler of Yemen.

Her reign was a prosperous one, spanning approximately 20 years during. Asma successfully promoted her people's economic, political and social well-being -- focusing on infrastructure while avoiding military conflict through skillful diplomacy.

Like Asma, Arwa bint Ahmad as-Sulayhiyy also governed Yemen during the Fatimid Dynasty. During her extensive 47 year reign, lasting from 1091 through 1138, she shifted the country's focus from military arms to agriculture.

Notable among the Muslim female sovereigns is Radiyya bint Iltutmish. Radiyya served as Sultana of Delhi in India. It is worth noting that her father selected her to govern over her brothers. When Radiyya subsequently chose to step down in favor of her brother, the masses demanded her reinstatement and she once again, assumed rule.

While Radiyya's political administration was brief, spanning approximately four years from 1236 to 1240, it was nevertheless fruitful. In her capacity as Sultana, Radiyya established peace, maintained order, encouraged trade, built roads, planted trees, dug wells, supported poets, painters and musicians and constructed schools and libraries. Like those who would eventually succeed her, Radiyya encountered trouble with military officials who overthrew her.

Whereas Radiyya's father facilitated her political ascension, Terken Khatun acquired power by marrying a powerful member of the Salghurid dynasty in Iran. When her husband died in 1261, she became the ruler of Fars, Iran but was murdered shortly thereafter (by her new husband). Shortly thereafter Abish Khatun governed as Sultana of Fars for approximately 24 years, from 1263 to 1287.

Politics, of course, can be tricky -- some administrations were quite brief and resulted at times in the Sultana's untimely demise.

For instance, while Ma'at Layla succeeded her brother to power in Harrar, Ethiopia she governed briefly, from 1285 through 1287. Likewise, the administration of Padishah Khatun bint Qutb ad-din, who led Kirman, Persia was brief running from 1291 through 1295. Padishah was also overthrown and actually executed. Sati Beg also led Persia for only two years beginning in 1338.

There were Sultanas who enjoyed a bit more political longevity in leading. In fact, at least one founded her own dynasty. Sultana Rahandi Kabadi Kilege (also known as Khadija) founded a dynasty of Sultanas who governed the Maldive Islands for forty years.

Indeed, Khadija initially ruled from 1348 to 1379, and was then succeeded by her sister, Sultana Maryam, who governed until 1383. She, in turn, was succeeded by her daughter, Sultana Malikat Dayin Kabadi Kilege, who led until 1388.

Other Muslim women shared their power like Qasa of Mali who served as a co-ruler with her husband and cousin, until 1360. (Tangentially, when her husband divorced her, she organized a revolt against him).

It is also worth noting the Sultanas continued to lead well into the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the 17th century, Nur al-Azam led as Sultana of Sulu located in the Philippines. From 1641 to 1675, Taj al-Alam Safiyyat ad-Din Shah served as Sultana of Atjeh, Sumatra located in Indonesia. She was, in fact, the first in a line of female rulers.

After her, Sultana Nur al-Alam Taqiyyat ad-Din Shah governed Atjeh for three years. In what would be termed a "Golden Age," Inayat Shah Zakiyyat ad-Din Shah then ruled Atjeh for 10 years, until 1688. Sultana Kamalat Shah Zinat ad-Din, followed her lead and governed Atjeh for 11 years until 1699. The latter's reign, too, was deemed a "Golden Age."

In the 18th century, Mfalma Fatima led Pate situated in East Africa. Of course she was not alone. In 1819, Mariambe Adi-Raja Bibi began her reign in the Cannanore State in India for 19 years.

And, as recently as the 19th century, Hadija bint Ahmad Mugne Mku served as Sultana in the Comoro Islands off the south-east coast of Africa.

As we can see, the historical role of Muslim women has by no means been confined to house and home. Arguably, current social, political and educational restrictions on Muslim women represent a fairly modern convention unsupported by the Islamic historical record which, in contrast, evidences diverse contributions by empowered capable women.

The Sultana then should bring to mind much more than the catchy lyrics of a popular (and admittedly enjoyable) Arabic dance tune. In fact, this lesser known record of her life offers inspiration and much needed insight on women in Islamic thought, society and history.

Indeed, treasures are often well concealed.

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