The first women ruler of Delhi Sultanate: Raziya sultana

Raziya Sultana, a woman who was the first and last women ruler of Delhi sultanate belonged to the 13th century. She was the daughter of Mamluk sultan Shamsuddin Iltumish and Turkan Khatun. Raziya’s father was the son in law of Qutb-al-Din Aibak the first Delhi sultan. After Aibak’s death, there was a battle of succession in which finally Raziya’s father was able to capture the throne and thus ushering in the slave dynasty.

Raziya was a bold and strong girl from her young age. She got training in military, warfare and administration along with her three brothers. Even during her father’s reign, her father took her into his confidence and trained her in the administration. She won appreciation and admiration of her father as she exhibited her extra ordinary ability and intelligence. Raziya did not follow the customary behaviour of Muslim women veiling their face; she showed her face in public gatherings and rode elephants in public. She many times led the army. But her brothers were interested only in the royal privileges and enjoyed their extravagant royal life. They did not have much interest in administration and warfares. During her father’s Gwalior campaign, she was entrusted the charge of the administration. Her administration skills made her father convinced that she is the fit person to wear the mantle of sultanate after him. This was an historical decision never done before in the history of Delhi to have a woman as an heir to the throne. In a country where women are given equal property rights legally only in the 21st century, he made his daughter the ruler of Delhi in the 13th century, something unheard of and never tested. He was liberal-minded and a man way ahead of his time. She learned all the military and administrative skills not to become a good queen to a king but a ruler by herself.

  Even though Iltumish made her the ruler, there were so many uprisings against her becoming the Sultan. Due to the political pressures and intrigues, her brother Rukn ud din Firuz, a drunkard and an incompetent was made the Sultan. Rukn ud din Firuz who indulged in drinking binge and other carnal pleasures did not mind his mother Shah Turkhan taking the rein of administration. Iltutmish’s son Qutubuddin was blinded and exexuted by Shah Turkhan and Rukn ud din Firuz. This led to upsurge and rebellion among the nobels, religious heads and general public. There were also murders of several important Tazik officers. Rukn Ud din Firuz marched towards Kuhram in Punjab to put down the rebellion. In mean time, Shah Turkhan planned to kill Raziya in Delhi. At a congregational prayer, Raziya instigated the general public against Shah Turkhan. Raziya had the backing and support of the public, the army and the nobles which led to the enthronement of Raziya, the first muslim women ruler in south Asia. Rukh ud din marched back to Delhi when he was taken into custody and put in prison, and probably he was executed. Raziya has become the undisputed ruler in 1236.

  She was a secular ruler. She allowed even non-Turks to occupy higher rankings. She was a revolutionary in that she gave up wearing purdah and wearing male attire instead. She did not like to be called the sultana and preferred to be addressed as Sultan. She conquered new territories, established educational institutions, built public libraries. She was the first to abolish ‘Jaziya tax’ which was collected from non-musilms. She also minted coins in her name. Her financial management, general administration and judicial fairness earned her a lasting popularity and admiration among the public.

The nobles, who initially supported her, thought she would depend on them for advice and opinions in administration. But contrary to their expectation she became more and more assertive and independent, exhibiting her innate boldness and manliness. She made important appointments in administration and army whom she trusted to be very loyal to her. She enjoyed a close rapport with the general public. She started appearing in public dressed in traditional male attire, wearing a cloak and a hat. She rode on elephants through the streets of Delhi, making public appearances like the earlier Sultans. She was popularly called the “Queen of the people”.

Some of the governors of the states under the Delhi Sultanate found that Razia was too independent and the chiefs at her durbar began conspiring against her. Armies were readied for an attack on Razia, but she skilfully managed to divide them and make them fight against each other. Her favourite officer was Jamal Yakut, a black African whom the court nobles called a “Habshi” — a derogative term — who was totally loyal to her and whom the chiefs could not accept as a senior officer.

Within 4 years of being a sultan, there rose a coup against her. The religious chiefs and nobles could not accept an assertive and independent female ruler who had become very popular with the general public. Her brother was made sultan and she was imprisoned at Bhatinda fort. She married Altunia the governor of Bhatinda; with his help she recruited an army and fought for her throne which was hers. However, her effort to retrieve her throne met with disaster. She was murdered during the fight. Thus, the reign of the only female ruler of Delhi ended abruptly and sadly. The final resting place of Raziya is obscure some state her grave is in Old Delhi and a ruined building in Kaithal is also stated to be the site of Razia’s original grave.

A contemporary 13th-century Persian historian, Miraj-i-Siraj, mentioned about her in one of his works:

‘She was a great monarch, wise, just, generous, benefactor to her realm, dispenser of justice, protector of her people and leader of her armies; and endowed with all admirable attributes and qualification necessary for a king’

                She might have been eliminated by the unforgiving misogynist religious fanatics but she lives eternally in the hearts and minds of every secular Indians. 

Categories: Culture and History