Women in Islam: Subh of Cordoba

Luis García / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Women have always played an exceptional role in Islam. It was Khadija, the Prophet’s wife, who made him believe in himself, cast aside doubts and accept the Messenger mission revealed to Muhammad by Allah in the Hira cave. It was Khadija who was the first to accept Islam and who became the most zealous, most devoted Muslim. Thus, Allah emphasized the special role, the special importance that He defined for women.

Subsequently, many women became spiritual and secular leaders of Muslim communities. These are the dervish woman Rabiya al-Alawiya, the founder of the Al-Qaraouin University Fatima al-Fihri, and the woman Sheikh Zeinab bint Abu al-Barakat, and the favourite wife of the Caliph of Cordoba al-Hakam II Subh. This woman is an example which is followed by modern Muslim women who become state figures. She ruled the Caliphate of Cordoba both during her husband’s life and during the life of her son Hisham II.

Subh was originally from the Basque tribe. In her youth, she was captured by one of the Muslim commanders of the Cordoba Caliphate during the war with the Basques. The commander was fascinated by the beauty of the captive. “What is your name?” he asked her. “Aurora,” the girl answered, her eyes lowered bashfully. “And what does it mean?” asked the commander. “That is what the Romans called the goddess of the dawn,” the girl answered. “Then I will call you Subh, because in Arabic it stands for Dawn, too,” said the commander. The commander brought the captive to Cordoba and presented her as a slave to the Caliph al-Hakam.

The Caliph, who by that time was already almost 50 and who still did not have children, was fascinated by the beauty of the girl. Soon she bore him two sons, Abdurahman and Hisham. The Caliph adored his wife, gave her expensive gifts and even allowed her to leave the palace to walk in Cordoba. He ordered her to dress in a man’s dress, however, and introduce herself as Chafar.

Once a handsome young man appeared at the court of the Caliph, the future Hajib Al-Mansur (Europeans called him Almanzor). The young girl and the young man became close friends. Subh began to patronize Al-Mansur, promoting him to the high positions of state treasurer and governor of the caliph’s court. With her help, Al-Mansur secured the undivided confidence of the Caliph, and in addition to secular appointments, he received military appointments.

After the death of her husband, Subh, with the support of Al-Mansur, achieved the enthronement of her son Hisham II and the recognition of herself as the supreme ruler during his childhood. So Subh was at the head of the most powerful state of the Iberian Peninsula. Without her knowledge, not a single matter would be decided and not a single military campaign from the many wars that Cordoba waged with neighbouring Leon and Barcelona would be launched.

After Hisham II reached adulthood, Subh convinced her son that the Caliph’s destiny was to set an example of righteousness and service to Allah. The Caliph did not take the supreme power into his own hands, but focused on prayers and studying the Quran. Subh, along with Al-Mansur, remained the real rulers of the caliphate. After 20 years of co-rule, in 997, Subh began to feel that Al-Mansur had ascended too much and deprived her of real power. She tried to resist him, announcing that her son the Caliph was taking power into his own hands. However, she lost – al-Mansur managed, only Allah knows how, to convince the caliph that he should not listen to his mother. The Caliph left everything as it was, and Subh was forced to admit defeat and retire to her estate, where she died two years later.

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