Raziya Was India’s First Female Muslim Ruler and A Brave Warrior

Given the fact that Shams-Al-Din Iltutmish entered the court of the Delhi sultanate as a Turk slave and died as Sultan of Delhi, might have been the first indication that his daughter, Jalalat-Al-Din Raziya was destined for greatness. In 1236, Jalalat-Al-Din Raziya, historically referred to as Razia Sultan, ascended the throne as the first female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Though, her story might be perceived as romantic in popular culture, reality was anything but romantic.

The First Female Successor for the Throne

Iltutmish arrived at the Delhi sultanate as a Turk slave. He grew to be a great favorite of his master, Qutb Al-Din Aibak, the first Sultan of Delhi and so was married to the sultan’s daughter Qutub Begum becoming an actual part of the ruling family. With Qutb-Al-Din Aibak, he had a son Nasiruddin Mahmud and a daughter Jalalat-Al-Din Raziya. When Raziya was still a child, her grandfather Aibak died and her father became second Sultan of Delhi.

During the final years of his life, Sultan Iltutmish had to make an important decision. Whom would he hand-over the administration of the sultanate? Based on qabliyat (i.e. capability), Iltutmish would have chosen his son Nasiruddin Mahmud, who at that time also ruled as governor of Bengal. Yet, under mysterious circumstance, Nasiruddin Mahmud died and Iltutmish was at a loss. None of his other sons, born from his other wives, were too young to be crowned his successor.

His daughter Raziya had already shown her capability of managing the sultanate. When her father left for business or campaigning affairs, she took charges as a competent regent with the assistance of the Sultan’s trusted minister. She had become a well-educated woman, both in formal education as in the Qu’ran. Moreover, she was skilled in martial arts and, thus, an excellent trained warrior, rode both horses and elephants with an exquisite accomplishment and exercised authority with great dignity.

Without consulting the ulama (i.e.  scholars within the Muslim law), Iltutmish appointed his daughter Jalalat-Al-Din Raziya as his successor, for he saw “the signs of power and bravery” in her. Whenever someone questioned his decision he would reply: “My sons are devoted to the pleasures of the youth, and not one of them is qualified to be king […]. After my death, you will find that there is none more competent to guide the state than my daughter.” As such, Iltutmish became the first Sultan to appoint a woman as his heir apparent.

A Devoted Leader of her Empire and Subjects

She established schools, academics, research centers and public libraries where both Islamic tradition manuscripts and Hindu works shared places.

As a woman, Raziya was not given full support from the noblemen. She only managed to secure her control over the throne by dividing the opposition. After her official accession, many nobles opposed her. Ultimately, she won the majority over and the kingdom slumbered into peace again. She could extend the power of the state widely through the obedience and submission of maliks (i.e. kings) and amirs (i.e. state leaders).

By building a system of roads, she could easily inform herself of the affairs in the distant parts of the empire. She linked towns up with villages and built small forts as guard posts around these routes. In addition, she established schools, academics, research centers and public libraries where both Islamic tradition manuscripts and Hindu works shared places. Only one of the many examples that showed that Raziya considered the Muslim community and the Hindu community on an equal footing.

Raziya was clearly a devoted leader for her empire and subjects. She listened to her people’s complaints and demands, trying to reserve herself as a guiding hand among them instead of an indifferent ruler. By stating her title to be officially Raziya Sultan, rather than Raziya Sultana, she underlined her rightful credibility as a powerful sovereign leader of the Sultanate of Delhi. As her desire was to keep close relations with her people, Raziya Sultan substituted her female attire with that of a man’s head-dress and tunic, abandoned the veil and rode out on elephant without purdah (i.e. covering of the face).

A Conspiracy That Secured the Existing Opposition of Raziya’s Noblemen

Letting Raziya assume power, her noblemen had expected their female ruler to be a puppet in their hands. Instead, Raziya openly confessed herself to be an independent leader which caused much dissatisfaction among her nobles. With the arrival of Jamaluddin Yakut, a Habshi (i.e. Ethiopian) slave, the last straw was drawn.

Yakut had a calm and dependable nature, something that lead to Raziya favouring him so much to elevate him to position of Amir-i-Akhur (i.e. intendent of the royal stables). This position was a strategic position, very close to the sovereign. Raziya Sultan had basically made a non-Turk commander of her army. She did not intend to counter the power of her Turkish nobles whom, at that moment had monopolized that position, but her choice eventually led to their decision to dispose her. Together, Malik-i-Kabir Ikthiyaruddin Aitigin and Ghiyasussin Balban, set a conspiracy into motion against Raziya Sultan and a key chess piece in their plan was Malik Ikhtiyauddin Mirza Altunia.

Malik Ikhtiyauddin Mirza Altunia, a prominent noble man under Raziya’s father reign, had supported Raziya’s accession. Raziya favored him and had him rewarded with governorship of Tabarhinda (Bhatinda).  Before his departure to Tabarhinda, he offered marriage to Raziya which she refused stating that her priority was taking care of the empire. Aitigin and Balban took advantage of Altunia’s absence and told him rumors about Raziya’s and Yakut’s intimacy. The fact that Raziya and Yakut were always together, discussing affairs concerning the empire and she asking him advice about strategies, Aitign and Balban could arouse Altunia’s jealousy by telling them that Raziya was in love with Yakut. In anger, Altunia joined the opposition of the rebels, offered his help to depose the Sultan and by doing so, he would receive a portion of the empire.

A Prisoner Who Wins Over Her Captor to Win Back her Throne

The noblemen could not oppose Raziya in Delhi, as she had joined most her subjects in support for her rule, therefore rebellions were started in the distant provinces. One of the many rebellions came from Tabarhinda, Altunia’s government, a place she never expected rebellion to be stirred. Still, she asked Yakut to prepare the march against Altunia. At that moment, the army was exhausted, having put down a different rebellion in Lahore and Yakut was afraid that victory would come so easily this time. Due to his loyalty, he did not discourage the Sultan.

During the battle, Altunia realized that to defeat Raziya and to gain power for the nobles at Dehli, he had to kill Yakut. With the death of the commander of the army, soldiers lost their confidence and eventually surrendered to Altunia. Still trying to inspire her forces, Raziya sultan failed and was taking prisoner.

Meanwhile, the noblemen at Delhi assigned a new sultan, Raziya’s stepbrother Muizuddin Bahram Shah. He was a drunkard and finally could serve as the puppet the noblemen wanted. During his reign, the people were oppressed and opponents of the empire were unmercifully killed. Th promise that the noblemen had made to Altunia was forgotten. Raziya, still captured, realized that in order to restore her throne, she had to convince Altunia of fighting against a common enemy. Alluring him with the promise of power and rule in the sultanate, Altunia decided to help her. After their marriage, Altunia and Raziya recruited an army to win back Delhi.

A Story Made Romantic

It is not known who made the offer of marriage first. In any case, it did not last very long. Nearing Delhi, Bahram Shah knew that the only way he could win was killing Raziya. The people of Delhi were still allied to Raziya Sultan and merely her presence was enough to harden their love and respect for her. Unfortunately, Raziya Sultan was defeated.

Not much is known about the cause of her death. Some believe she fought as a valiant warrior on the battlefield until an arrow struck her. Others say she was defeated and fled where her survival was depending on a man who gave her bread and a place to sleep. During her sleep, the man saw a tunic of gold and pearls under her male army garment and realized that the man he had helped was a woman. He killed her, buried her body and took her valuables to sell on the market.

Popular culture turns Raziya’s life into a romantic story. The supposed love triangle has been source for various on-screen adaptations: Raziya having an affair with her noblemen but growing overly dependent on the Abyssinian slave, leading to a jealous lover and her subsequent defeat. How many inaccurate versions may exist, we should never forget Raziya Sultan’s true story: that of an independent female ruler who fought until the bitter end for her Empire!

Brijbhushan Jamila: Sultan Raziya: Her Life and Times: A Reappraisal (Manohar Publications, New Delhi : 1990) – Chandra Satish: Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals : Delhi Sultanat [1206-1526] (Har- Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi :1997, rpt. 2015) – Dasgupta Shahana: Razia: The People’s Queen (Rupa & Co., New Delhi : 2001) – Eraly Abraham: The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate (Penguin Books, India : 2014) – Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (Polity Press 1993, 1993)