Breaking the shackles of dominance- Razia Sultana

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razia sultana

Very often we hear stories of female warriors breaking all odds to establish their identities, and less often are the stories of those queens who defied all odds- cultural and social norms to build the identities of millions of people. One such story revolves around the life and death of Razia Sultana, the first female Muslim ruler of the subcontinent. She was a fierce queen with a notable history attached to her existence, yet the world remains devoid of her legends.

She was one such female ruler who proved her mettle in medieval history. The battles for power and plenty of fierce warriors coming from far-off places like Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have never imagined being defeated by a woman. When women don’t have equality even in the parliament of the 21st century, imagining a female queen back in the 13th century hailing from an orthodox kingdom seems like a sensational topic of the bygone era. Let’s take a look at the life, reign, and death of Razia Sultana.

A Look at a Short and Tragic Reign of Razia Sultana

Razia was the daughter of Delhi Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish and her mother Turkan Khatun was the daughter of Qutb al-Din Aibak. She was the eldest and the only daughter of Iltutmish along with his three sons from different wives. But in order to understand the power of her reign, it is important to trace back the male dominant society she was raised in.

In 1192 AD, when Mohammed Ghori from Turk defeated Prithviraj Chauhan in The Second Battle of Tarain, he instated his general Qutubuddin Aibak as the Sultanate of Delhi. When Aibak died in 1206, the throne was succeeded by his son-in-law Shamsuddin Iltutmish. From here start the chapter of Razia Sultana and her reign over Delhi. One notable factor in the Turk rule over Delhi was that none of the rulers hailed from royalty, in fact, were all slaves who had fought their ways to the top. At Delhi’s court no important position was secured by the royalty but by the self make Turks who based on their talent were sitting on their respective positions. Razia was born in a world of self-made men’s and thus proving her capability among them was naturally challenging.

Razia Sultana

Shamsuddin Iltutmish had ascended his eldest son Nasir Ud-din Mohammed as heir apparent of throne. However, due to the untimely death of Nasir Ud-din Mohammed, Iltutmish was forced to decide the successor among his remaining children. Thus, he sorts out to test their capabilities based on which he will declare the heir apparent.  In 1231, during one of his campaigns to Gwalior, Iltutmish placed Razia in charge of the court in his absence. Razia did a commendable job in handling the state affairs and also her responsibility towards the family. Iltutmish was so impressed by her that he immediately assigned her as his successor. One could say that Iltutmish’s open-minded mentality too had a little share in forming what would later go on to become one of the strongest Muslim Queens in history.    

Though Razia was the chosen heir to the throne, after the death of Iltutmish, his son Ruknuddin Firuz was appointed as the Sultan by the Turkish nobles. Because Razia was a woman, only a few supported her in the protest. Yet she never resisted and found her supporters in the subjects of the province. Ruknuddin Firuz was not an able ruler and often relied on his mother Shah Turkan for advice. Following the duo’s planning of executing Iltutmish’s son Qutubuddin, led to a protest. Razia with public support overthrows both Ruknuddin and his mother who are believed to be later executed. In 1236, Razia sat on the throne as the first female Muslim ruler of the Delhi Sultanate.

From the beginning of her reign, she faced stiff opposition from the nobilities of the court. The only decisive factor in not accepting her as their leader was the fact that she was a woman. But Razia never considered herself less than any man and immediately made several important appointments. She changed administrative strategy and gave imperial positions exclusively for Turks to non-Turkic peoples.

One recognizable change she made was of replacing coins that were initially printed in her father’s name, were now issued solely under her name. The coins were minted with her title as “Pillar of Women, Queen of the Times, Sultan Razia, daughter of Shamsuddin Iltumish.” Another profound change was her bold public appearances. Though in the initial months she did maintained Purdah but later the veil bid farewell and she dressed in traditional male attire, wearing a cloak (Aqaba) and a hat (kula). She rode big elephants and made grand public appearances like the rest of the Sultans.

But fighting patriarchy was one thing and maintaining her reign among the opposing Turkic nobles was another. 

Razia Sultana

Razia made Jamaluddin Yaqut, an Abyssinian slave purchased by Iltutmish, Amir-i Akhur. One of the most important imperial position at her court. This one move proved dreadful for her and many of her loyalists turned their backs on her. Rumors ignited of her romance with Yakut; however, there are no evidential records ever found to validate this theory.

The biggest betrayal came to her in the form of Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, who was her childhood friend but had now joined his brother in succeeding the throne. She fought hard with him but was ultimately defeated by Altunia. Razia along with Yakut was imprisoned at Bathinda Fort. Yakut was shortly executed thereafter and Razia unaware of other nobles at Delhi conspiring against her; marched towards Tabarhinda. Upon realizing the growing threat, Razia managed to won over Altunia and married him in a shrewd political move. In 1240, they fought with Sultan Muizuddin Bahram in order to secure Razia’s lost throne, however, both were defeated with Altunia’s assassination. Razia was also killed on 15 October 1240, thus ending her short yet tragic reign of four years.

The first and only Female Sultan of Delhi, Razia Sultana, changed the course of Islamic civilization across the world in existing history. The details of her tomb remained elusive but many believe that she was buried somewhere between the lanes of Old Delhi. But what we do know for sure was that she was a trailblazer, a sensation in a man’s world. No other woman in Islamic history has ever made enough mark to be remembered in the pages of history for eternity.

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