A descendant of the Moslems of Turkish extraction who invaded India in the eleventh century, Razia (died 1240) was the only woman ever crowned in the Delhi sultanate, which ruled parts of India from 1210 to 1526. Razia reigned for approximately three and a half years (1236-1240), and although she made important reforms in government, she was ultimately unable to reconcile her Muslim nobility to her ruling as a woman.
The Delhi Sultanate
In 1192 A.D., the Turkish leader, Muhammad of Ghur, defeated the Rajputs at the second battle of Tarain, gaining control of the Kingdom of Delhi. After establishing his reign, Ghur returned to Afghanistan, leaving his conquest in the hands of his trusted slave, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. When Ghur died in 1206 without leaving an heir, Qutb-uddin declared himself Sultan of Delhi. Qutb-ud-din's reign marked the beginning of the Delhi sultanate under the Slave dynasty—so named because many of the sultans of this time were former slaves. Qutb-ud-din is best remembered for his destruction of Hindu and Jain temples and for building mosques.
Although Qutb-ud-din's son Aram Baksh inherited the throne in 1210 following the death of his father, he quickly proved himself to be incompetent. Following an abbreviated reign, Qutb-ud-din's son-in-law, Shamsuddin Iltutmish, assumed power.
Iltutmish had come to Delhi as a slave. After gaining the confidence of his master, Qutb-ud-din, he rose to become a provincial governor. Upon Qutb-ud-din's death, Iltutmish had the backing of the Amirs—the Turkish nobility—to succeed Qutb-ud-din as sultan.
At the time of Iltutmish's death in 1236, he had been in power for 26 years. As sultan, he had consolidated Turkish control of northern India and his empire extended from Prashar in the northwest to the Brahmaputra River in Bengal and Gujurat and Orissa in the south. Iltutmish had introduced important reforms to the Delhi sultanate—including a monarchy, a ruling class, and coinage—and had left a legacy as a patron of the arts.
Iltutmish became the first sultan to appoint a woman as his successor when he designated his daughter Razia as his heir apparent. (According to one source, Iltumish's eldest son had initially been groomed as his successor, but had died prematurely.) But the Muslim nobility had no intention of acceding to Iltutmish's disregard of tradition in appointing a woman as heir, and after the sultan died on April 29, 1236, Razia's brother, Ruknuddin Feroze Shah, was elevated to the throne instead.
Ruknuddin's reign was short. With Iltutmish's widow Shah Turkaan for all practical purposes running the government, Ruknuddin abandoned himself to the pursuit of personal pleasure and debauchery, to the considerable outrage of the citizenry. On November 9, 1236, both Ruknuddin and his mother Shah Turkaan were put to death—after only six months in power.
With reluctance, the nobility next agreed to allow Razia to reign as sultana of Delhi. As a child and adolescent, Razia had had little contact with the women of the harem, so she had had little opportunity to learn the customary behavior of women in the Muslim society that she was born into. Even before she became queen—during her father's reign—she was reportedly preoccupied with the affairs of state. As sultana, Razia adopted men's dress; and contrary to custom, she would later show her face when she later rode an elephant into battle at the head of her army.
A shrewd politician, Razia managed to keep the nobles in check, while enlisting the support of the army and the populace. Her greatest accomplishment on the political front was to manipulate rebel factions into opposing each other. At that point, Razia seemed destined to become one of the most powerful rulers of the Delhi sultanate.
But the sultana miscounted the consequences that a special relationship with one of her Assyrian slaves, Jamal Uddin Yaqut, would have for her reign. According to some accounts, Razia and Yaqut were lovers; other sources simply identify them as close confidants. In any case, before long she had aroused the jealousy of the Muslim nobility by the favoritism she displayed toward Yaqut. Eventually, the governor of Bhatinda, a childhood friend named Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, rebelled, refusing any longer to accept Razia's authority.
A battle between Razia and Altunia ensued, with the result that Yaqut was killed and Razia taken prisoner. To escape death, Razia agreed to marry Altunia. Meanwhile, Razia's brother, Muiuddin Bahram Shah, had usurped the throne. After Altunia and Razia undertook to take back the sultanate from Bahram through battle, both Razia and her husband—neither one more than 30 years of age—were both killed on October 14, 1240 (some sources say October 13). Bahram, for his part, would later be dethroned for incompetence.
End of the Delhi Sultanate
The Slave dynasty would come to an end some fifty years after the death of Razia. The most memorable of her successors was Balban (1266-1287), who succeeded in establishing a strong, central government and saw the position of sultan elevated to divine status. Following his death in 1287, the Slave dynasty would continue three more years under the competing rule of his inept grandsons.
Under other dynasties, however, the Delhi sultanate would persist until 1525, achieving its maximum physical extent under the reign of Muhammad ibn Tughluk in the first half of the fourteenth century, when most of the subcontinent was under the sultan's dominion. But in 1398, Timur the Lame (Tamurlane) plundered Delhi. By the early fifteenth century, the sultanate consisted only of Delhi and immediately adjacent lands. Although the Delhi sultanate regained control of most of northern India in the early sixteenth century, it was finally destroyed by Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, in 1526.
The Tabakat-I-Nasiri is a generalized history of Delhi that ends at about 1259, about twenty years after the death of Razia. The work's author, Minhajus Seraj, served Iltutmish, Razia, and Balban. Although Minhaj's history of the times is considered to be among the most reliable sources of information about Razia, Mihaj spent the last years of his life in the service of Balban, who had brought an end to Razia's rule.
Minhaj's point of view is therefore suspect given that he was unlikely to have included details in his account that would have brought embarrassment to his patron. Every other chronicle of the times is based on Minhaj's history.
Rafiq Zakaria, writing in his book, Razia Warrior Queen of India, quotes Minhaj on Razia as follows, "[She was] a great sovereign, sagacious, just, beneficent, the patron of the learned, a dispenser of justice, the cherisher of her subjects and of warlike talent, and was endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for kings… . She was endowed with all the qualities befitting a king, but she was not born of the right sex and so in the estimation of men all these virtues were worthless."
In his research, Zakaria consulted early sources to put together a work of historical fiction based on the life of the sultana. In Zakaria's portrayal, Razia was essentially hamstrung by her emotions. Zakaria believes that Altunia was deeply in love with Razia, but that he was repeatedly rebuffed by her aloofness. Zakaria speculates that the queen may have been too preoccupied with the affairs of state or may have been psychologically blocked—possibly from her upbringing—to have given sway to her emotions.
Zakaria argues that besides the prejudice Razia would have faced because of her sex, she would also have been targeted for her racial tolerances. On one hand, she met criticism from the Turkish Amirs, who were the royal multi-tribal leaders, and the Maliks, who led the small communities, for the favoritism she showed toward her Abyssinian slave, Jamaluddin Yaqut. Whether Yaqut was Razia's lover has been debated for centuries, but even if he was not, Zakaria feels that the fact that he continued getting promotions to higher ranks would have elicited the envy of the Maliks. (Casting a new slant on the historical debate, Zakaria points out that Altunia would probably not have married Razia if he had been convinced she had had an affair with her slave Yaqut.) In any case, Razia aroused the jealousy of the nobility, and some have held this jealousy to have been a major factor in her dethronement.
Razia's marriage to Altunia was apparently endorsed by their followers, and it proved central to the revolt against those who had dethroned her at Delhi. Razia's popularity with her subjects must have further aroused the envy of the Amirs and Maliks, setting the nobles against her on yet another score. According to Zakaria, it was because Minhaj shared the attitude of the nobles and of his patron Balban that he portrayed her in his writings as a coward—for example, saying that she met her death hiding in a corner where she was killed by Hindu robbers—in the final battle with Balban that claimed her life.
Besides Minhaj, there are two other contemporary chroniclers of Razia's life: Fakhr-I-Mudabbir and Sadruddin Hasan Nizami. But their accounts have never achieved the authority of Minhaj's. Two later historians, Isami and Barani, attempted to reconstruct the facts from family accounts (Isami) or independent analysis (Barani). Isami's history is noteworthy for its contradiction of Minhaj's account of Razia's death; in Isami's telling, the sultana fought along with Altunia in two battles before she was finally killed. Other sources, while providing valuable details about the time that Razia lived, attribute little significance to her life.
As sultana, Razia reportedly sought to abolish the tax on non-Muslims but met opposition from the nobility. By way of response, Razia is said to have pointed out that the spirit of religion was more important than its parts, and that even the Muslim Prophet spoke against overburdening the non-Muslims. On another occasion, Razia reportedly tried to appoint an Indian Muslim convert from Hinduism to an official position but again ran into opposition from the nobles. In this case she yielded, having concluded that the bonds of Islam were weaker than old prejudices.
Razia was reportedly devoted to the cause of her empire and to her subjects. There is no record that she made any attempt to remain aloof from her subjects, rather it appears she preferred to mingle among them. Her tolerance of Hinduism would later bring her criticism from Muslim historians.
Razia established schools, academies, centers for research, and public libraries that included the works of ancient philosophers along with the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet. Hindu works in the sciences, philosophy, astronomy, and literature were reportedly studied in schools and colleges.
Today Razia's unpretentious tomb lies among the narrow lanes of Old Delhi in Northern India. Crumbling and covered by dust and grime, the tomb has clearly suffered the ravages of time. The grave is surrounded on all sides by unattractive residential buildings. Meanwhile modern-day encroachers have placed plastic sheets around the tomb and started to live in it, turning it into an urban ghetto.
In the thirteenth century, the site of the tomb was a jungle, and no one knows how Razia's body ended up where it lies today. Though a second grave accompanies Razia's, the identity of the occupant is unknown. Some of the local residents have turned the tomb into a place of worship, where prayers are conducted five times each day.
Olsen, Kirstin, Chronology of Women's History, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Zakaria, Rafiq, Razia Queen of India, Oxford University Press, 1966.
"The Delhi Sultanate," Historytoday.com, http://www.historytoday.com/index.cfm?articleid=1371 (February 2003).
"History of Razia Sultana," http://www.angelfire.com/ga/filesgirl/history.html (February 2003).
Santwana Bhattacharya, "Old Delhi walks all over Razia Sultan's tomb," Indian Express, http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/20000208/ina08051.html (February 2003).
"The Slave Dynasty," History of India, http://www.historyofindia.com/hist-text/slave.html (February 2003).
"The Slave Dynasty," Delhi 123, http://www.delhi123.com/history/slave.php3 (February 2003).
"Sultana Razia of Delhi," http://www.crescentlife.com/thisthat/razia.htm (February 2003).
Swapna Khanna, "She lies among the untrodden ways," The Rediff Special, http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/mar/27razia.htm (February 2003).
"The Turkish Invasions," History of India, http://www.historyofindia.com/hist-text/turks.html (February 2003).