Razia Sultan, A short biography

Razia Sultan was the first Muslim woman to rule India and the only woman to have sat on the throne of Delhi. She was the fifth ruler of the Mamluk Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. She ruled from 1236 to 1240 for a period of 3 years, 6 months, and 6 days. She was a talented, wise, brave, excellent administrator, and a great warrior.

Razia was a benevolent and tolerant ruler. She established schools, academies, centres for research, and public libraries that included the works of ancient philosophers along with the Qur’an and other Islamic Sciences. Other than Islam, different religions were also studied at the schools she established. The works in the sciences, philosophy, astronomy, and literature were prominent among them.

Early life

Razia Sultan was born in around 1205 in Badaun (now in modern-day Uttar Pradesh India) to Iltutamish and Turkan Khatun as their only daughter. Iltutamish was a former slave of his predecessor Qutb al-Din Aibak and the governor of Badaun. Qutb al-Din Aibak was so much impressed with Iltutamish’s hard work that he eventually gave him his daughter Turkan Khatun in marriage.

This photo depicts a scene, in which Razia Sultan, while on her routine round of her kingdom, was attacked by her enemy. Without proper war gear and unpreparedness, Razia managed to defeat the enemy single-handedly. Her power, vigour, strength and her genius were unmatchable at that time | Photo: Pinterest

Razia had three brothers. But Iltutamish saw all of them as equal. Therefore, all of his children, including Razia, received good training in martial arts and administration. However, soon he found out that his sons were incompetent and that Razia was highly skilled and brave. Therefore, it is said that breaking the regal tradition, he nominated his daughter Razia as his heir apparent.

Background

Muizz al-Din Muhammad of Ghor aka Muhammad Ghori did not appoint any heir to his empire either because he had no trust left in any of his family members and the tribal chiefs of Ghor or he could only have trusted his slaves to maintain his far-flung conquests.

After Muizz al-Din’s assassination, Ghiyath al-Din Mahmud ascended the throne at Ghor but most of the conquests in the Ganga Valley were controlled by his slaves Qutb al-Din Aibak, Taj al-Din Yildiz, Nasir al-Din Qabacha and Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji.

In 1206, on Muizz al-Din’s death, the citizens of Lahore invited Qutb al-Din Aibak from Delhi to assume the sovereign authority. Soon around 1208/9, Aibak received a manumission, which freed him from his slave status and recognised his position as a sovereign (as legally a slave could not be a sovereign).

Like Muizz al-Din, Qutb al-Din Aibak also could not appoint his heir. As a result, the Turkish nobles (maliks and amirs) raised an obscure figure of Aram Shah to the throne. However, the other Turkish nobles in different parts of the Sultanate opposed Aram Shah and the Khalji nobles of Bengal rebelled against him. A group of nobles also invited Iltutmish to occupy the throne.

Iltutamish was a former slave of Qutb al-Din Aibak and the governor of Badaun. He was also the son-in-law of Aibak. He immediately responded to the call and marched to Delhi from Badaun as Delhi was a strategic position for guarding his interest.

On the other hand, Aram Shah collected a strong force from Amroha and marched towards Delhi. Aram Shah lost the battle and was slain in the battle. Iltutamish now established his control over the land that had been governed by Aibak.

Razia is nominated

Razia was the daughter of Sultan Iltutamish. She administered Delhi during 1231-1232 when her father was busy with the Gwalior campaign. She was endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for kings. Impressed by her skills, Iltutmish is believed to have nominated Razia as an heir apparent to his throne instead of his incompetent sons who were more interested in wine and music than in the affairs of the state.

Razia is challenged by her step-brother

Turkish nobility raised Razia’s step-brother Rukn al-Din to the throne after the death of Iltutamish in 1236 CE. Rukn al-Din was a complete failure and became unpopular because of his immersion in pleasure. Therefore, his mother and widow of Iltutamish, Shah Turkan controlled the state affairs. Taking advantage of her position, she sought vengeance against those who had looked down upon her earlier.

Unsurprisingly, because of his failures, Rukn al-Din faced a massive rebellion. A strong body of Turkish salve officers (aka Corp of Forty, an elite Corp formed by Iltutamish) had risen against Rukn al-Din. While Rukn al-Din marched towards Kuhram to fight the rebels, Shah Turkan planned to execute Razia in Delhi.

Razia rises to the throne

While Rukn al-Din was busy fighting the rebels outside, Razia took the opportunity to go to Jama Masjid and appealed to the people of Delhi for their support. She also strengthened her claim to the throne by recalling that in his life, her father Iltutamish had named her as his successor. The common people of Delhi displayed their intrinsic love of fair play.

Razia wasted no time in establishing her authority as the sovereign of Hindustan. “The people of Delhi had, for the first time in the history of the Delhi Sultanate, decided a succession issue on their own initiative. Thereafter the support of the Delhi population constituted the main source of Razia’s strength. So long as she did not move out of Delhi, no rising against her could succeed and no palace revolution against her was possible. She gave her accession the form of a contract when she asked people to depose her if she did not fulfil their expectations”, writes Muhammad Habib.

Razia, the sovereign of Hindustan

Razia came to power on 10 November 1236 and ascended the throne with the formal name of Sultan Jalalat al-Duniya wa al-Din. She claimed herself to be the pillar of women and Queen of the times. Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi writes, “Razia combatted intrigues competently, displayed remarkable insight into military tactics, resourcefully implemented her independent decisions, and diplomatically reconciled the recalcitrant iqta (land) holders. Her chief merit was to rise above the prejudices of her age.”

She exercised authority with confidence and ordered coins to be minted in her name as “Pillar of Women, Queen of the Times, Sultana Razia, daughter of Shamsuddin Altumish”. As a ruler, she gave up traditional Muslim woman’s attire and adopted gender-neutral attire, similar to what male rulers before her used to wear. She abandoned the veil, appeared in the court, and rode out on an elephant so that people could see their Sultan openly and directly. As a result, she also won the support of the people of Delhi.

Razia, thus, became the only reigning queen of India who ever sat on the throne of Delhi. She was a dynamic, independent, courageous, vivacious, and fearless queen. She fought not only strangers but also her own brother.

Opposition to Razia’s sovereignty

A shrewd politician, Razia managed to keep the nobles in check while enlisting the support of the army and the populace. But the first opposition to Razia’s accession came from Nizamul Mulk Junaidi, a Tajik and the famous wazir of Iltutamish. He along with other Turkish nobles marched on Delhi but could not succeed because of the support of the people of Delhi for Razia. Later Razia either crushed her opponents or brought them under her control. Junaidi fled Delhi and died afterwards.

Razia appointed a Habshi (Abyssinian), Malik Yakut, as superintendent of the stables or amir akhur. This appointment was resented by the Turkish nobles as this post was previously held by the Turkish officers only. One nobleman Malik Ikhtiyar al-Din Aitigin hatched a conspiracy that there was personal intimacy between Razia and Yakut. However, Razia’s confidence and firmness to exercise power directly became the major reason for the dissatisfaction of the Turkish nobles with her.

The rebellions begin

The first revolt came from Lahore where its governor Kabir Khan rebelled against Razia. She quickly reacted and subdued the rebellion. Razia hardly returned from Lahore and an effective rebellion against her began when provincial governors marched to overthrow her at Delhi. Razia had previously appointed Malik Ikhtiyar al-Din Altunia first to the iqta of Baran and later on to Tabarhinda (or Bhatinda).

Altunia was favoured by Razia so she had little reason to expect a rebellion from him. But to her surprise, when she returned from Lahore, Altunia also rebelled against her. She now marched towards Tabarhinda to subdue Altunia but did not know that he was in league with some Turkish nobles at Delhi. When she set out from Delhi, the Turkish nobles raised the standard of revolt and killed Yakut and imprisoned Razia at Tabarhinda (or Bhatinda) fort. The Turkish nobles at Delhi raised Muizz al-Din Bahram, another descendant of Iltutamish to the throne.

Qila Mubarak or Razia Sultan Fort in Bathinda in Punjab, India. Razia was held captive here by Altunia. | Photo: Wikimedia

At Delhi, the powerful nobles began to distribute offices of the court and iqtas, but ignored Altunia’s claims completely. This irked Altunia and taking advantage of the situation, Razia married him, making an alliance that could potentially become successful in regaining power.

Altunia gathered an army of Khokars, Jats, Rajputs and some resentful Turkish nobles and marched towards Delhi with Razia. On the other side, Sultan Muizz al-Din Bahram marched from Delhi to crush Razia and Altunia. Razia and Altunia were defeated and pushed back to Kaithal. When their remaining forces abandoned them, they were killed by dacoits while in flight on February 15, 1240.

The tomb of Razia in Mohalla Bulbuli Khana near Turkman Gate, Old Delhi | Photo: Wikimedia

The burial place of Razia Sultana is disputed. According to one of the three claims, the grave of Razia is located at Mohalla Bulbuli Khana near Turkman Gate in Old Delhi. The 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta mentions that Razia’s tomb had become a pilgrimage centre.

References

Chandra, S. (2004). Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals-Delhi Sultanat (1206-1526) – Part One. India: Har-Anand Publications.

Habib, M. (1993). A Comprehensive History of India: Vol. 5. The Delhi Sultanat: A.D. 1206-1526. India: People’s Publishing House.

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