Raziya Sultan, who ruled the hearts along with the throne of Delhi
As we have been seeing in this column, extraordinarily talented Muslims, some of them geniuses indeed, have enriched the Indian subcontinent’s millennia-old civilization, in every aspect of life, particularly since the late 11th century. One name, however, stands out even in this august milieu, totally unmatched: Sultan Raziyat al-Duniya wa’l Din bint al-Sultan, known more popularly as Raziya Sultan.
Only woman to have ever adorned the throne of Delhi
What the young lady achieved, even if briefly, in her short 35 years is a stunning tale of courage and ability. Raziya Sultan is the only woman to have ever adorned the throne of Delhi, before the emergence of Independent India. She ruled the whole of the northern Indian subcontinent. From the Indus river basin on the eastern fringe of present-day Pakistan in the west to the Brahmaputra basin in the east. Her Kingdom included Bengal and almost the whole of Nepal. It extended from the southern fringe of Kashmir in the north to nearly the whole of present-day Madhya Pradesh in the south.
Long before the basic political rights of women were enshrined in constitutions of any country in the whole wide world, this young lady had proven that women have the same mettle to be heads of state, as men. And more, she had shown to the world that given proper training a woman could match any man in the bloody battlefield too.
Daughter of Iltutmish
Raziya was born to Shasmuddin Iltutmish and Turka Khatun in 1205 CE. Her father’s story is no less exceptional. Despite being born into a fairly affluent family, he was sold as a slave by his brothers. It was by sheer dint of his personal capacities, as a soldier and an administrator, that he become one of the most important rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. He reigned for a quarter of a century (1211-1236), and built hugely on the kingdom of his former master, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the founder of the Mamluk Dynasty’s rule in India. But more importantly, Iltutmish in a sense rewrote history on his deathbed by nominating daughter Raziya, then 31, as his successor.
It certainly was no less than a revolution. But games were soon afoot. Nobles of his court, naturally an unshakable bastion of male chauvinism in keeping with the times, were livid. They just couldn’t bear the thought of being ruled by a woman. Just before Iltutmish’s death, in a huff they probably forced the Sultan to nominate one of his sons, Ruknuddin Firuz, as the next Sultan.
He turned out to be a disaster as an administrator. In what may be termed as yet another revolution, the nobles, now engaged in a whirl of palace intrigues and murders. Ultimately they were forced by Delhi’s common people to hand over the reigns of the Sultanate to Raziya. This happened after a passionate congregational speech from a mosque by Raziya.
But the nobles, despite accepting her willy nilly, had hoped that in the end Raziya would be a mere puppet in their hands. This she refused to be, and in one symbolic move after another she made it clear that as long as she was on the throne, she would call the shots. The new Sultan, for example, quickly began issuing coins in her own name, and started making routine appearances before her subjects riding an elephant, dressed in a qaba, long gown, and a kulah, hat. To cut the story short, this triggered another round of intrigue against her, in which some of her most trusted nobles dethroned, imprisoned and got her killed on October 15, 1240. Thus, sadly, ended the reign and life of one India’s most courageous daughters.
A century later the great scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, noticed that her nondescript humble tomb in Delhi had turned into a pilgrimage for the common people. The legacy of Raziya lived on in their hearts.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)