Sayida Al-Hurra: One of history’s most remarkable Muslim Women
The sovereign lady
By all means, she was one of history’s most remarkable Muslim women. Born as Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami by dint of her courage and talent she earned the title of Sayida Al-Hurra, meaning a free lady. She was a pirate queen of the late 15th – 16th century, respected even by her powerful Christian opponents. For decades Sayida controlled much of the western Mediterranean. She was the only woman governor of Tetouan, a major city in Morocco, and took the title of Hikmat Titwan.
Life and times of Sayida Al-Hurra
To understand how Sayida Al-Hurra become one of the most remarkable Muslim women of medieval times it is important to understand her times. She was born in 1485 in Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. Her father Ali ibn Rashid was a tribal king, and her mother’s name was Zohra Fernandez. Zohra was originally a Christian who later converted to Islam. Sayida’s family roots could be traced to Idris I, the ruler of Morocco in the 8th century and the founder of the Idris Dynasty.
In 1492 Granada finally fell to the Reconquista forces, and the Christian rulers immediately embarked on a policy detrimental to Muslims. While many of them fled from Granada, others embraced Christianity to escape discrimination. Sayida’s family also left Granada and settled down in Chouen. She never forgot this humiliation and sought to resist these discriminatory policies through counter aggression. This is what steered her to become one of the most remarkable Muslim women in many centuries to come.
Transformation into one of the most remarkable Muslim Women in history
Sayida Al-Hurra, her displacement notwithstanding, got excellent academic training. She became deft in several subjects, such as mathematics, theology, and languages. This naturally built-in her the capacity to think and decide independently. Sayida Al-Hurra had a clear understanding of the geopolitics of her times. No wonder, she was growing up to be one of the most remarkable Muslim women. By her father’s wish, she married one of his friends, Ali al-Mandri, who was the Hikmat Titwan. But he was 30 years older than Sayida, and he died with a decade and a half of their marriage. In a remarkable decision, Sayida Al-Hurra sought to become the Hikmat Titwan after her husband’s death, and the people of the city welcomed the move.
Sayida Al-Hurra in Morocco
History was thus created, and soon she became so powerful that the Spanish and the Portuguese began to respect her as their ‘partner in the diplomatic game’. According to some scholars, her power came from being the undisputed leader of pirates in the western Mediterranean ocean. In 1541 she created history again. Sayida accepted a marriage proposal from Moroccan Sultan Ahmed al-Wattasi. However, she refused to leave her own city, Tetouan. In an unprecedented gesture, the Moroccan Sultan came from Fez to Tetouan to marry Sayida. In the years to follow reiterating her role as one of the most remarkable women in Islamic history she appointed her brother, Moulay Ibrahim, as a vizier to the Moroccan Sultan. This made the Rashids one of the key players in building a bulwark against Spain and Portugal.
After being queen unchallenged for 30 years, her son-in-law Muhammad al-Hassan al-Mandri finally overthrew her. Although stripped of all power she lived in peace for another two decades and passed away in 1561. Indeed as one of the most remarkable Muslim women in history, Sayida lived an unparalleled life of adventure and romance.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)