We flip through the pages of history to the Sultanate of Delhi of the year 1211. Its Sultan, Qutbuddin Aibak, originally a Mamluk slave from Turkestan, known for having commissioned the Qutub Minar in Delhi, died in 1210 from injuries sustained while falling from a horse playing polo, after only four years of rule. He was succeeded by Aram Shah, who held the throne for only eight months before his own death at the hands of forces loyal to a former slave and Aibak’s son-in-law, Shamsuddin Iltutmish. As Sultan of Delhi over the next quarter century, Iltutmish proved extraordinarily able. Backed by the umara chihalgani (forty amirs), the elite corps of Turk nobility, he extended the Sultanate’s realm from the Khyber Pass, along today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan border, east to the Bay of Bengal, on the opposite side of the subcontinent. He won a reputation for courage, wisdom and generosity while staving off not only internal usurpers, but also the armies of no less a threat than Genghis Khan. The strength of his sultanate allowed for endowments to religious and scholarly institutions, the standardization of a currency and support for poets and philosophers. Closer to what ended to be the end of his reign in 1229, he received a title and robes of honor, a clear recognition from the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.
A century later, the Moroccan traveler and writer Ibn Battuta noted that Iltutmish was remembered for being “a just, pious and of excellent character.” As an example, Ibn Battuta recorded Iltutmish’s decree that the seeking of justice be open to anyone who sought it, signaled by wearing a red-colored robe. When Iltutmish held a public audience or rode out from the royal court and would see anyone wearing a red-colored robe, he would look into his petition and rendered him his due from his oppressor.” (Ibn Battuta)
In short, he had positioned himself well for his son Ruknuddin Firuz to inherit a stable, prosperous and highly cultured monarchy, except for one critical factor: Firuz’s “inclinations were wholly towards buffoonery,” according to contemporary chronicler Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani’s Tabaqat-i Nasiri. Firuz’s younger brother Bahram Shah proved equally inept.
Aware of the shortcomings of his sons, Iltutmish took a bold decision to appoint a woman as his successor and named his only daughter and the most self-disciplined of his four children, Razia, as his heir apparent. It was an unprecedented step and a break from the Muslim tradition and yet he was confident that it would work. Born in Badaun in 1205, Razia was a bold young woman, trained in military warfare and administration. The 16th-century Persian historian Firishta described her as a model of “every good quality which usually adorns the ablest princes.” During her father’s reign, Firishta continued, “she employed herself frequently in the affairs of government; a disposition which he rather encouraged in her than otherwise, so that during the campaign in which he was engaged in the siege of Gualiar [modern Gwalior, a city south of Delhi], he appointed her regent during his absence.”
When the umara chihalgani questioned his appointment, Firishta recorded Iltutmish’s attempt to reason with them: “My sons give themselves up to wine and every other excess and none of them possesses the capability of managing the affairs of the country.” He added that Razia “was better than twenty such sons.”
However, none of this stopped Firuz from pushing aside his step-sister to seize the throne for himselfupon his father’s death on 30 April 1236,, saying that Razia could claim the crown only after her brothers died. He even had his youngest brother killed to intimidate Razia and force her to abdicate. He received full support of his mother, the harem’s chief concubine, Shah Turkan. Even before Iltutmish’s death, she had taken advantage of the umara chihalgani’s misgivings about Razia as the future female ruler and bribed them to support Firuz. After Iltutmish died, she set her sights quickly and firmly on the 31-year-old Razia. She arranged for a deep pit to be dug along the path where the princess frequently went horseback riding. Fortunately, the plot was discovered in time and Razia survived.
“The minds of the people revolted at these scenes,” wrote Firishta, and they began to rally around Razia, and although they acted briskly to advance Razia to the throne, Firuz retaliated militarily. This brought on the stirring event for which Razia is most remembered: Recalling her father Iltutmish’s decree, on the eve of the battle, Razia appeared wearing not her royal attire, but the red-colored robe as one who seeks a redress of grievance. She appealed directly to the people and the armyfor justice at the Jamia Masjid of Delhi. During this period, Firuz had proved to be very incompetent as a ruler. Shah Turkan was running the government for all practical purposes while the so-called ruler had immersed himself in pursuit of pleasures. The common folk displayed their intrinsic love of fair play. Firuz was arrested for the murder of his own brother, tried before a Sharia court and executed, along with his mother Shah Turkan.
Razia ascended the throne on 10 November 1236 as Razia Sultan. She refused to be addressed as ‘Sultana,’ the appropriate title to address her according to her gender. Her justification was that Sultana meant “wife or mistress of a Sultan”. She proudly proclaimed that she be addressed as “Sultan”, true to her status. Upon becoming the sultan, she adopted a gender-neutral attire and gave up the pardah/veil in a move which shocked the conservative Muslim society, inviting their fury. She wasted no time in establishing her authority as the sovereign of Hindustan and ordered for coins to be minted in her name as “Pillar of women, Queen of the times, Razia Sultan, daughter of Shamsuddin Iltitmish”.
However, her authority was not considered legitimate until the Caliph in Baghdad accepted it. Even though he had lost all of his dominions in Asia to the Mongols, the Caliph was still the spiritual and titular head of Sunni Islam and carried the title of Amir ul Momineen (leader of the believers). Only he could bestow legitimacy upon a sultan. Razia, a Turk and a Sunni, declared her allegiance to the Abbasid Caliph with the following proclamation: “In the time of Imam al Mustansir, Amir ul Momineen, Razia Sultan, daughter of Sultan Illtutmish, she who increases the glory of Amir ul Momineen”. The Caliph recognized her as the “Malika” of Delhi in 1237, partly because he himself also needed a Sunni bulwark to the east of the vast territories now controlled by the Mongols, who were closing in on Baghdad itself.
Razia proved to be a good ruler, a just and benevolent sultan who genuinely cared about her citizens. A skilled and brave warrior, she led in battles, conquered new territories and attempted to strengthen her kingdom. She was also a good administrator and religiously tolerant, establishing schools, academies, and public libraries that included the works of ancient philosophers along with the Qur’an. Hindu works in the sciences and literature were also studied in the institutions. Under Razia, “all things returned to their usual rules and customs,” Juzjani reported. “Razia Sultan was a great monarch,” he observed, employing the masculine form of her title. “She was wise, just and generous, benefactor to her kingdom, dispenser of justice, protector of her subjects, and leader of her armies … endowed with all the qualities befitting a king,” he recorded. However, the chronicler also states alongside: “But she was not born of the right sex, and so in the estimation of men, all these virtues were worthless.”
This, in fact, was what the power-hungry umara chihalgani was hoping for: a “worthless,” subservient woman they could manipulate from behind the scenes. But Razia was neither so easily fooled nor foiled. Appearing unveiled in public during the traditional royal procession, she used her first official act as Sultan to set the tone for her reign as one of self-assertion and defiance. She ruled as an absolute monarch and mounted a horse like a man, armed with bow and quiver, and without veiling her face,” Ibn Battuta reported. Other historic accounts say she cut her hair short and, wearing men’s robes, sat among the people in the marketplace to listen to their grievances and render judgments.
Not only did she rule astutely, but also, as historian Peter Jackson noted, she was the only Sultan of her time whom Juzjani described as a military commander. Like her father, she took diplomatic steps to keep the Mongols in check, but she also put down insurgencies. While all this may have irked the umara chihalgani, its members didn’t feel compelled to do much about it until Razia started threatening their job security by appointing an Ethiopian slave, Jamaluddin Yaqut, to the post of the Lord of the Stables (Amir-i akhur, or amir of horses, i.e., Sultan’s equerry). The job commanded great prestige as it put him in daily, ear-whispering distance of the sultan. Peppering the court with spies, the nobles began digging for dirt. Lacking anything concrete, they fell back on one of the oldest political tricks in the smear-campaign handbook.
“A very great degree of familiarity was observed to exist between Yaqut and the Queen,” wrote Firishta. Whether or not Razia shared more than just a master-subject relationship with Yaqut will never be truly known. What ultimately mattered, according to Jackson, “was that Razia sought to develop a power-base of her own and ignored the Turkish slave elite which she and Firuz had inherited from their father. Her dependence on Yaqut and his promotion to the rank of the Lord of the imperial stables must be seen in this context.”
To extinguish the threat, the amirs began to openly challenge the sultan. But Razia was beloved by the citizens, especially in Delhi, and the amirs knew that overthrowing her on her home turf would prove difficult. In the spring of 1240, they convinced one of their fellow amirs, the provincial governor of Bhatinda, Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altuniya, to conjure up a rebellion in the Punjab as bait to lure Razia away from Delhi. While she was away, the umara chihalgani got to work and had Yaqut murdered. They dusted off her hapless half-brother Bahram Shah and propped him on the throne.
Worse was yet to come for Razia, as the Bhatinda campaign proved to be a disaster. She was captured and imprisoned by Altuniya. Then, in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist of fate, she and Altuniya, whether from love or ambition or both, got married, and pledged to return to reconquer Delhi. The newlyweds marched towards Delhi, but their army was no match for the forces the amirs had rallied around Bahram Shah. Deserted by their troops after a humiliating retreat, Razia and Altuniya, according to Juzjani, were captured, robbed and killed by the Jats near the Punjab city of Kaithal on October 14, 1240. She was 35 at her death.
A great deal of information about Razia Sultan has come down to us through the writings of Ibn Battuta, one of the greatest world travelers, who visited and lived in India (1334-1341) a hundred years after Razia, during the regime of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. Battuta has recorded a more embellished account of her death: “Defeated, Razia stumbled into a farmer’s field, hungry and exhausted. The farmer gave her some food, and she fell asleep beneath a tree. Catching sight of jewels glinting in the embroidery of her garments, the farmer killed her and buried her, “taking some of her garments, he went to the market to sell them. The plan backfired when local authorities suspected the farmer of theft, forced a confession out of him and recovered Razia’s body. “(To this day, the actual location of Razia’s grave remains uncertain: old Delhi, Kaithal and Tonk, in Rajasthan state, all claim their name in history.)
There is a tomb in old Delhi which many believe is hers. The alleys to this tomb lead a visitor through decrepit buildings and nauseous open gutters. A simple inscription marks the entrance to her tomb, hidden from the alley. Encroachments have all but consumed the site, blocking the sun from the obscure tomb. Her husband Altuniya lies by her side and the graves of two infants of unknown origin lie near their feet. Such was the fate that history has accorded to one of the most celebrated Muslim women the world has known!
In her eventful life, Razia triumphed in her tragedy. She had changed history. The common man saw in her one of their own who rose from being the daughter of a slave to become the first Muslim queen of one of the most powerful empires of the world. She rose like a star and like a meteorite she fell, illuminating the world both in her rise and in her fall. She demonstrated in her brilliance, that a woman could be the head of a Muslim state, in spite of the constraints put upon her by tradition and customs. Women throughout the ages invoke her name in defense of their rights and her name will forever be inscribed indelibly in the lyrics and folklore of the vast subcontinent of India and Pakistan and in the languages of distant lands, on all continents.
Of all the sultans of Delhi, Razia is perhaps the best remembered in popular culture, even eight centuries later. As the subject of poems, plays, novels, Bollywood films and, more recently, an epic TV series in India, she continues to capture the social imagination of Indians, Pakistanis and the rest of the world, leaving her footprints in the sifting desert sands that she had walked on.