When the Delhi Sultanate Was in the Hands of a Female Muslim Ruler: The Tragic Tale of Raziya Sultan

Fareeha Arshad

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Image by ShindevaishuWikimedia Commons
“My two sons have given themselves up to wine, women, gambling, and worship of flattery. Government is very heavy for their shoulders to bear. Raziya, though a woman, has a man’s head and heart and is better than my two sons.”

Shams ud-Din Iltutmish, father of Raziya Sultan

South Asian history is filled with male Sultans, and never once does a female name pop up. Raziya Sultan was the first female ever to bear the title of ‘Sultan.’ What makes it more surprising is her family background. She came from a family of slaves. Her father, Iltumish, arrived in Delhi as a slave.

Over the years, Iltumish gained enough power and influence to inherit the Mamluk Dynasty and become the Sultan of Delhi. He announced his only daughter, Raziya Sultan, as his heir over her two half-brothers on his deathbed. His decision spoke volumes of the crown princess’s wisdom and capability.

Let’s dig in a little deeper to understand how the first female Sultan came into power and how her struggles ended her life.

Family history

In the twelfth century, Muhammad of Ghur, the Sultan of Ghurid Empire, had just toppled the Ghaznavids to become the eastern Muslim world’s supreme power. After conquering the east, Mohammad of Ghur went back to the west and left Qutb-al-Din Aybak, one of his faithful Turk slaves and an army official, in charge in Delhi.

After Mohammad of Ghur passed away, Aybak became the ruler of a new dynasty within the Ghurid Empire — the Mamluk regime — or the ‘slave’ dynasty. His slavery background did not stop him from pursuing his goals in setting up a kingdom of his own in Delhi. Aybak had a faithful Turk, Shams al-Din Iltumish, brought to India as a slave.

Like Aybak, Iltumish was faithful to his master. He was also one of the most important officers in Aybak’s army. Aybak saw a reflection of himself in Iltumish — the zeal, energy, and the need to do something for the underprivileged resonated with the Sultan. Aybak married his daughter to Iltumish, thus strengthening their relationship.

After Aybak passed away in 1210, Iltumish — who was already a governor of many cities — took Mamluk Sultanate’s reins into his hands. Iltumish’s coming into power was well supported by Aybak’s ministers and Islamic religious scholars. Under the new ruler’s influence, Delhi cut off from the original Ghurid Empire and became a complete entity of its own — the Mamluk Sultanate.

Sultan’s dying wish

On his death bed, Iltumish declared his daughter, Raziya, as his sole heir. Despite having two sons, his unconventional decision came as a result of several issues. Raziya, unlike most of the women of her time, was raised with a lot of freedom and open-mindedness. Iltumish himself came from a Turkish slave background and rose through the ranks with hard work and sheer determination. During his struggle period, he was exposed to the struggles of women and the more prominent roles that they played in society. This made him respect them even more. He came from an environment where women were not kept from political aspects and were encouraged to be a part of rulings and decisions.

Seeing an unmatched leadership potential in his daughter, Iltumish chose Raziya to be his heir and not his sons. As expected, his decision was neither happily accepted nor respected by his court members and family members. After Iltumish’s death, his son, Rukn-al-Din, unfairly ascended to the throne, and Raziya was pushed to a corner. Rukn-al-Din, along with his mother Shah Turkan, wreaked havoc on the Sultanate.

Rise of Raziya

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Coins from Raziya Sultan’s periodWikimedia Commons

At this point, Raziya had the choice of sinking into oblivion. She could value her life and be safe from the drama that would never stop following her. But she chose to pursue the legacy her father had left behind. She wanted to hold the banner of justice that the Sultan had until his last breath. Raziya appealed to the empire’s commoners to listen to her and fight along with her against the entire nation’s injustice. Seeing the determination in the female heir’s eyes, the majority of the army supported her claim. Because of the growing unrest that stirred up the nation, within six months after coming into power, Rukhn-al-Din was dethroned and Raziya was bestowed with the power she deserved.

During the four years Raziya reigned, from 1236 to 1240, she became known as a very effective Sultan. She walked like a man, dressed like a man, rode horses like a man, talked like a man, fought like a man. She did not let her feminine characteristics stop her from being the Sultan the nation deserved. Raziya kept the title of ‘Sultan’ and did not change it to ‘Sultana’ — the female word for a ruler; because she swore to act and live like one. She was indeed the ‘Queen of Eras’ as she inscribed on the coins distributed during her rule.

Struggle to keep the throne

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The fort of Raziya Sultan. Presently located in Bhatinda, Punjab, IndiaWikimedia Commons

Raziya Sultan was a very concerned ruler. She was very particular about her people and her country. Following her father’s steps, the lady Sultan alone kept all the kingdom’s power and raised the flag of justice. She ordered the renovation of streets and wells. Raziya placed schools and education institutions on a high pedestal, making education compulsory for her people. She also understood the importance of craftsmanship and culture and progressively worked towards furthering artisans and craftsmen’s reach to the people outside her kingdom.

During the four years of her rule, the female Sultan tried very hard to strengthen her hold on the Mamluk Dynasty. Yet, not everybody was happy with the position and the kind of power a ‘woman’ held — especially the nobles whose ‘manhood was endangered’ because of such a setting. Over the years, the animosity snowballed, forcing Raziya off both the throne and the land. Thus, Raziya left Delhi along with her supporters.

Malik Ikhtiyar al-Din Altuniya was one such noble who was significantly ‘hurt’ being under the shade of a female Sultan. Altuniya was the governor of the state of Bhatinda and also Raziya’s childhood friend. With the rage to restore patriarchy within the dynasty, he teamed up with Raziya’s second brother, Muizuddin Bahram Shah, who was already lusting for the throne.

When Raziya fled the kingdom, Altuniya and his army relentlessly followed the Sultan. When the two caught up to her, it resulted in a short battle, which ended with Raziya on the losing side and being taken as a prisoner in Bhatinda. On the other side, Bahram Shah became the next Sultan of Delhi.

The death of the last woman Sultan of Delhi

The Sultan died at the tender age of thirty-five. How exactly she died and what happened to result in her death remains a mystery. However, several theories point to the behind-the-scenes of what could have possibly happened.

One of the most popular theories is Altuniya’s infatuation for Raziya. Despite being jealous of the kind of power Raziya held, Altuniya was deeply in love with her all along. After being taken as a prisoner to Bhatinda, Raziya was treated like royalty even inside the cage. Eventually, the lady Sultan married Altuniya, who planned to take back the kingdom that was once Raziya’s.

Raziya and Altuniya again found themselves on the battlefield. However, this time, they weren’t against each other, instead, they were together against Raziya’s brother, Bahram Shah. The fate was again not in the Sultan’s favor. They lost the battle against Shah’s forces and fled the kingdom. On the way back to their sanctuary, the husband and wife were robbed and killed by local thieves.

And that’s how Delhi’s only female Sultan’s four-year rule came to a tragic end in 1240. She now rests in her tomb in the Mohalla Bulbuli Khana near Turkman Gate in Old Delhi, India.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

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