Arwa al-Sulayhi: The Longest Reigning Queen of Yemen
By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer
Throughout history, there were a few instances where women were in a position of power and authority. In many of these cases that power was inherited and in other cases it was assigned due to experience. In this case, both were the reason for the longest ruler in Yemeni history, Arwa al-Sulayhi, to be appointed the sole ruler of Yemen. The history of Yemen before her rule was in chaos and division. It was under her dynasty that Yemen saw a period of peace and prosperity against all odds.
The Sulayhid Dynasty
It was an Arab dynasty established in 1047 by Ali ibn Muhammad al-Sulayhi that ruled most of the historical Yemen at its peak. The dynasty brought to Yemen peace and a prosperity unknown since Himyaritic times. The Sulayhids are from the Arab Yemeni clan of Banu Salouh, descended from the al-Hajour tribe, descended from the Hashid tribe, descended from the Hamdanids. The rise of the dynasty was initiated by the visit of missionaries to Yemen thirty years before the Fatimid caliphate was established. There were many setbacks such as assassinations and raids. However, Ali bin Muhammad as-Sulayhi, who was the son of a respected Sunni chief, aligned himself with the Fatimids.
In 1046, Ali was eventually was appointed khalifa. A year later, he gathered an armed force in Haraz and thus founded the Sulayhid dynasty. In the following years, his regime managed to subdue all of Yemen. The ruler of the Najahids in the Tihaman lowland was poisoned in 1060 and his capital, Zabid, was taken by the Sulayhids. The first Sulayhid ruler conquered the whole of Yemen in 1062 and proceeded northwards to occupy the Hejaz. For a time, the Sulayhids appointed the Emirs of Mecca. Ali also controlled Sana’a since 1063, after bringing fighting against the Zaidiyyah to a successful conclusion. Sana’a was made the capital of his kingdom.
After the passing of Ali, he was succeeded on the throne by his son al-Mukarram Ahmad. The beginning of his rule was not satisfactory, and the area controlled by the Sulayhids was severely diminished, possibly to the Sana’a area. After some years, al-Mukarram Ahmad was able to rescue his mother Asma bint Shihab who had been captured by the Najahids, and the Sulayhid armies regained much territory. He could certainly not prevent the Najahids from keeping outside his power in the Tihamah, but the Sulayhids nevertheless remained the most powerful regime in Yemen. In Aden, the Zurayids, another dynasty, came to power in 1083, at first as Sulayhid tributaries. The reign of al-Mukarram Ahmad ended in 1086 when he turned over governance to his wife Arwa. He may nevertheless have exerted some influence from behind during the next few years. He died in the fortress of Ashyah in 1091.
She was the last of the rulers of the Sulayhid Dynasty, popularly known as Al-Malikah Al-Ḥurrah. As a female sovereign, Arwa has an almost unique position in history: though there were more female monarchs in the international Muslim world, Arwa and Asma were the only female monarchs in the Muslim Arab world to have had the khutbah, the ultimate recognition of Muslim monarchical status, proclaimed in their name in the mosques. She founded several mosques, the most prominent of which is the Queen Arwa Mosque.
Arwa was born in the Haraz. She was the niece of the then ruler of Yemen, Ali al-Sulayhi. Orphaned at a young age, she was brought up in the palace at Sana’a under the tutorship of her aunt, the formidable Asma bint Shihab, co-ruler with Ali bin Muhammad. In 1066, at the age of 17, Arwa married her cousin Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali bin Muhammad Al Sulayhi, with the city of Aden as her mahr, and Queen Asma became her mother-in-law. She assisted her mother-in-law and her husband after the death of Ali al-Sulayhi. It is said by the chroniclers of her time that she was brave, devout, and have an independent character. She was also seen as highly intelligent and well learned, having a great memory for poems, stories, and historical events. She was very knowledgeable in the sciences of the Quran and the hadith. The chroniclers also mention her as being extremely beautiful.
After the death of Sayyid Ali al-Sulayhi, Arwa’s husband Ahmad became the ruler of Yemen, but he was unable to rule, being paralyzed and bedridden. He gave all of his power to Arwa, and she had her name mentioned in the khutbah directly after the name of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mustansir Billah, signifying her authority to rule. She reigned as co-regent of her mother-in-law until Asma passed. In contrast to her mother-in-law, Queen Asma, Arwa did not appear unveiled when she attended councils as Asma had famously done. The reason for that was her youth and beauty that made it controversial for her to appear unveiled.
One of her first actions was to move the capital from Sana’a to Jibla, in order to be in a better position to destroy the Najahid ruler Sa’id ibn Najar of Zabīd. The reason for that was to avenge her father-in-law’s death. This she managed to do by luring him into a trap. She built a new palace at Jibla and transformed the old palace into a great mosque where she was eventually buried. After the death of Ahmad al-Mukarram, Sayyada Arwa was encouraged by Al-Mustansir Billah to marry her late husband’s cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad. This she did reluctantly in order to remain in power, but she probably did not allow the marriage to be consummated. She continued to rule Yemen until Saba died. From that time on she ruled alone.
In Sana’a, Arwa had the grand mosque expanded, and the road from the city to Samarra improved. In Jibla, she had a new Palace of Queen Arwa and the eponymous mosque constructed. She is also known to have built numerous schools throughout her realm. Arwa improved the economy, taking an interest in supporting agriculture. It was not until her death in 1138 that she was buried beside the mosque that she had built at Zi Jibla. Her rule set an example for many future leaders as a woman capable of asserting the authority of the state, as well as showing care and compassion to her subjects.
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