The ancient East knew women leaders who were successful rulers of kingdoms, yet authority in Islamic history has been exclusively reserved for men. The succession of power has only recognized the right of sons, brothers, and grandsons to heirs.
However, Islamic history is rife with severe crises that almost destroyed dynasties if it were not for the intervention of women who assumed guardianship of the young caliphs and kings as a way to protect the caliphate, and to achieve their own ambitions in power.
So how could these women climb the ladder to power, command armies, run states and kingdoms, while facing cruelty, tyranny, and violence?
None of the women of the Abbasid caliphate were remembered like Al-Khayzaran bint Atta, wife to Caliph Al-Mahdi and mother of both Caliphs Al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid.
Al-Khayzaran was originally a slave of Yemeni descent who was brought to Baghdad. The Caliph Al-Mahdi loved her so passionately; he freed her and married her, breaking all conventions of the Abbasid dynasty.
She was known for the bold role she played in various aspects of running the caliphate. She was always involved in politics and decision-making, supported by her husband's high regard for her.
After the death of Al-Mahdi in 785 AD, and the succession of her son Musa Al-Hadi to the throne of the caliphate, as Al-Tabari recounts, Al-Khayzaran continued to play a vital role in ruling the caliphate as the guardian of her son, the caliph.
In his book History of the Prophets and Kings, Al-Tabari describes her as a woman who controlled her son, pushing him towards "his father's path as the tyrant who ruled with order and strength." Historians thought her relationship with her son was problematic, and it was said that Al-Hadi had asked her to stop interfering, and ordered her to spend the rest of her life praying!
Stories speak of her attachment to power; it was rumored that she was the one to plot the assassination of her son when he fell ill. Al-Tabari writes that Al-Hadi's death was his mother’s fault; as she had ordered one of her slave-girls to suffocate him in his bed.
After the caliphate had sworn allegiance to her younger son Harun al-Rashid, the position of Al-Khayzaran was strengthened and her rule continued until her death in 789 AD, two years after the death of her son Al-Hadi.
In Cordoba, capital of Andalusia under the Umayyad Caliphate, a girl from the Basque region, north of the Iberian Peninsula, came to power through the highest circles of influence. She was called Aurora, but in Cordoba, she was known as Subh the Basque.
Subh came to Andalusia as a slave from her country, and was sold more than once, until she was noticed by the Crown Prince Al-Mustansir al-Ḥakam, who was one of the strongest rulers during the tenth century.
Al-Hakam was impressed by Subh, so he bought her and she became the closest person to his heart, especially after giving birth to his son, Hisham II Al-Mu'ayed.
After the death of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III and the succession of his son Al-Mustansir to the throne of the Caliphate in 961 AD, the doors of power opened up before Subh, who was often involved in the affairs of governance, and in a number of political disputes.
However, it was after her husband's death that Subh became a more active participant in ruling the state. Al-Hakam appointed a tripartite guardianship over his son and heir, Hisham II, who was only a toddler at the time of al-Hakam’s death.
The three regents were first minister Jafar al-Mushafi, Chamberlain Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, and Subh. It was only a matter of time before rivalries and alliances started to form between the three regents. Nevertheless, Al-Hakam's choice for Subh to act as the guardian of her son attests to the Caliph's confidence in her and her political acumen.
Subh sought an alliance with Abi Aamir. They managed to eliminate the influence of the minister, and ruled Andalusia together for a few years, until disputes got between them, leading into her exclusion from the rule. He then ousted Hisham II and confined him with Subh at their palace in the city of Azahra.
Despite her defeat, Subh kept plotting and working on ways to restore the throne of her son until her final days.
The Fatimid dynasty witnessed the emergence of a number of women who spearheaded political action and exercised power.
One of the most prominent among those women, and the most successful, was Princess Sitt al-Mulk, who was born in 970 AD, and the daughter of the fifth Fatimid Caliph Nizar al-Aziz Billah.
Her involvement in politics began during her father's reign when he recognized her intelligence and wisdom. He brought her closer to the upper echelons of his government and was always keen to ask for her advice on state affairs.
After the death of her father and the succession of her younger brother, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, Sitt al-Mulk managed the affairs of the state, and had the upper hand with decision-making. She shared power with Minister Barjuwan, who was the de facto ruler of the caliphate.
Historians recount that Sitt al-Mulk was not on friendly terms with her brother who excluded her and limited her political role. However, most histories indicate that she was able to re-tighten her grip on state affairs again by 1021 AD.
A number of historians, including Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi, in his book Ette'aaz al-honafa be Akhbaar al-A'emma Al Fatemeyyeen Al Kholafaa, had also mentioned that Sitt al-Mulk plotted with some of her allies to kill her brother and spread rumors among his followers that he had disappeared.
After the disappearance of Al-Hakim, the caliphate swore allegiance to his son, Az-Zāhir li A'zaz li Din-illah, who was still a 16-year-old. Because of his young age, Sitt al-Mulk assumed the responsibility of ruling the caliphate, and her decisions were the final word. She managed all state affairs firmly, and remained on the throne until her death in 1023 AD.
If Sitt al-Mulk was a model for a successful Fatimid woman in the political field, the mother of the Caliph Al-Mustansir was her antithesis; a woman who became a model of utter failure due to harsh circumstances that almost led the caliphate’s desolation.
In 1035 AD, the Fatimid Caliph Az-Zāhir li A'zaz li Din-illah died, and his son, Abū Tamīm Ma‘ad al-Mustanṣir bi-llāh, was instated as the caliph. Since Al-Mustansir was not even seven years old, his mother was his guardian until he reached adulthood.
It is odd that despite all the power and influence that she exercised, we hardly find her name mentioned in the historical texts of the Fatimid era; all of these sources referred to her as the mother of Al-Mustansir, without a name or a distinctive title.
In the early period of her rule, the Fatimid state managed to extend its sphere of influence to include numerous countries and regions. The empire included Egypt, South of the Levant, North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea, and the countries of Hejaz and Yemen.
However, as the years went by, the negative effects started to appear.
According to Ibn al-Athir’s Al-Kāmil fī al-tārīkh (The Complete History), the mother of Al-Mustansir was of Sudanese origin. She wanted to raise the status of Sudanese soldiers who were an integral part of the Fatimid army ranks in Egypt. She wanted to protect her rule, and to create a balance that limits the power of Moroccan and Turkish soldiers, who represented the main and fundamental force in the caliphate.
This led to civil wars between the different sects of the Fatimid army, and the deterioration of the state. The clash took place while famine and drought ravaged the empire for seven years, leading to a severe economic disaster in Egypt, which historians described as "Al-Shidda al-Mustansiriya" (the hard years of al-Mustansir).
As for the mother of Al-Mustansir, some historians like Ibn Taghribirdi and Al-Maqrizi mention that she had left to Baghdad with her daughters during the famine years. She left her son behind, the young caliph, hoping he would salvage his rule in Cairo.
Islamic history is rife with severe crises that almost destroyed dynasties if it were not for the intervention of women How do Arab historians speak of female guardians? why do they label them as interventionists?
Islamic history is rife with severe crises that almost destroyed dynasties if it were not for the intervention of women
How do Arab historians speak of female guardians? why do they label them as interventionists?
Terken Khatun: The Empress
The empress Terken Khatun was one of the few women who had the opportunity to participate in politics during the Seljuk rule, and perhaps her most prominent participation has been linked to the assassination of vizier Nizam al-Mulk.
In the year of 1092 AD, a young Sufi assassinated the great Seljuk vizier. Although the assassination of the minister was known to have been orchestrated by Hassan-i-Sabbah, the leader of the notorious Hashshashin (Assassins) group, a number of historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi and Al-Dhahabi say it was in fact the Empress who was responsible for the assassination.
It is known that Terken Khatun was deeply involved in the political affairs of the state. She competed with the vizier over the throne when her husband, Sultan Malik Shah I, passed away.
At the time Terken Khatun was working to ensure the succession of her own younger son, Mahmud, Nizam al-Mulk was backing Barkiyaruq, the eldest son of Malik Shah, which fueled a dispute between the Empress and the vizier.
With the death of Nizam al-Mulk, the path was cleared before the empress, and after the death of her husband, the throne was assumed by his young son Mahmud, who was only four-years-old. Terken Khatun was guardian over her son and had attempted to impose authority over the state as regent.
However, her reign did not last, as the eldest son Barkiyaruq quickly rebelled and managed to reclaim the throne of the Seljuk state, ousting his younger brother and putting an end to the empress's ambitions for power.
Women guardians in historical accounts
Since most historical accounts of the caliphate were documented from the viewpoint of historians, it is necessary to comment on their accounts of women rulers in Islamic history.
First, we find a redundant portrayal of the female guardians as directly responsible for the assassination of their rivals.
We must ask, was this a part of the power struggle? Or is it a pattern of narrative that historians resorted to in order to frame power in the hands of women as something unearned or unacceptable?
We can see the latter tendency in the terminology used in discussing the validity of the guardians' rule, as they describe women’s roles in politics to be "interference" or "seizure", although these guardians too had experience and political acumen, as well as a strong personality; all qualities necessary for successful governance and state leadership.
Finally, historians fail to mention the positive aspects to these women’s rule, even in the occasions when they are the reason behind the power and prosperity of the caliphate.
Sources: History of the Prophets and Kings by Al-Tabari; The Complete History for Ibn al-Athir; al-Muntazam fi al-Tarikh for Ibn al-Jawzi; Ette'aaz al-honafa be Akhbaar al-A'emma Al Fatemeyyeen Al Kholafaa for Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi; Al-Nujum al-zahira fi muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira for Ibn Taghribirdi