The rare Queen of Yemen who ruled for more than five decades
A rare Queen
Brave, devout, intelligent, and highly educated Arwa al-Sulayhi was truly a rare queen of medieval times. She was the longest-reigning female Muslim ruler in Islamic history. And she ruled Yemen as the sole sovereign for over five decades in the 11th and 12th centuries. She was an able ruler during whose reign Yemeni economy improved significantly. She took particular interest in spreading school education, building roads, and improving agriculture. Her tomb at Zi Jibla became a place for pilgrimage after her demise.
Life and times of Arwa
Arwa al-Sulayhi was born in Haraz, in 1048 CE, the stronghold of the Sulayhi dynasty in Yemen. Unfortunately, the person who would in coming years become a rare queen, was an orphan when she was just a child. Luckily her aunt Asma bint Shihab, who was to become her mother-in-law as well later, took her under her wings. She was brought up under her strict tutelage, and Asma bint Shihab made sure that Arwa received the best of education. At that point of time, her uncle Ali al-Sulayhi was the king of Yemen.
At the age of 16 she was married to one of her cousins, Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali bin Muhammad As Sulayhi, a son of Asma bint Shihab. On her marriage, she received Aden, a major port city, as ‘mahr’. By that time she had grown a great love for literature, she had studied the Quran and the Hadith, as well as various sciences. Ali al-Sulayhi died in 1067, and Arwa’s husband Ahmad al-Mukarram became the king. However, he soon became very ill and unfit to rule. He gave his queen, Arwa, all the authority to rule on his behalf. Thus began the rule of a rare queen.
The longest ruling queen of Yemen
Arwa, during the first 20 years of her reign ruled as the co-agent of her mother-in-law. She was only 17 when she assumed these responsibilities. However, she soon proved her mettle. While she did use the Burqa, but she never shied away from interacting with her male courtiers. On the contrary, she regularly attended the meetings in person, and never addressed them from behind bamboo curtains, as was often the convention for medieval female rulers.
On becoming the sole ruler in 1087, she immediately shifted her kingdom’s capital Sa’na to Jibla in southwestern Yemen. Arwa had the honor of receiving the prestigious rank of Hujjat from Imām Al-Mustansir Billah in 1084. This obviously made her popular among her subjects, which in turn made it easier for her to rule in a male-dominated society. The Ismaili community of Gujarat traces its roots to missions the rare queen sent to western India.
Arwa ruled with conviction, ability, and style. She built for herself a huge palace at Jibla, which survives in part to this day, and a huge mosque in her capital. Arwa also renovated the grand mosque at Sa’na. She worked hard and planned for the betterment of her subjects: for this, she built many schools and improved surface transport facilities, and agricultural systems within Yemen. This rare queen reigned till 1138 and passed away in Jibla, where Arwa was buried beside her husband.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)