First queen of India, who defied the norms of the time to reign as sovereign, and whose courage, intelligence and pragmatism remain unparalleled in medieval Indian history. Name variations: Razia Sultana or Sultana Razia; Raziya or Raziyya Sultana; Raziyyatuddin or Raziyat-ud-din; Razia Iltutmish (or Altamsh). Pronunciation: Ra-ZEE-ya. Born Raziyat-ud-din ("Devoted to the Faith") in 1211 in Delhi, India; died in 1240 outside of Delhi; daughter of Emperor Shamsud-din Iltutmish; mother's name unknown; had private tutors for reading and writing; military training; married Altuniya, in 1240; no children.
While investigating the history of India during the 13th century, historians have rarely attributed any advancement or transformation of the nation to the reign of the only queen of India, Razia Sultana. They have emphasized the establishment of Muslim rule in India, the Delhi Sultanate, while singing accolades to various monarchs and their legacies. Sacrificed to traditional history of this era are the endeavors of a queen whose rule was cut short because she was a progressive and lenient monarch and, above all, a woman. Despite her best efforts to redefine the prevailing notions of gender roles and royalty, in the end, she was a victim of the conventionalities of the era.
Razia's short reign of three and a half years has often been relegated, at best, to a cursory discussion, but there is something remarkable about the mettle of the young woman who became queen in a Muslim society. She was a queen who discarded the purdah system, who threw off the veil, who rode out in combat dressed like any other soldier, who was committed to enhancing the power and benevolence of the kingdom her father had established. The only queen ever to be crowned at the Delhi court in India, Razia is buried in the recesses of history for the simple reason that she was a woman, a mere blip in the continuum of the reigns of the men who came before and after her.
The spread of Islam had crucial repercussions for the East and for the world. India felt its impact in the 11th century when Muslim rulers of the Persian and Turkish empires began to raid its northwestern provinces. By the 12th century, the Muslims had established a dynasty and a throne at Delhi in North India. They then proceeded to expand and assimilate the empire. The period first dynasty until the advent of the Mughals in the 15th century is designated as the era of the Delhi Sultanate, when several dynasties fought for, and some gained control of, the Delhi throne. The first king to establish an empire which was relatively stable was Razia's father Iltutmish of the Mamluk dynasty. He had established a stable empire not solely by usurping power but also by politic and circumspect rule. Iltutmish's judicious court was Razia's classroom, where she closely observed the working of a monarchy, and its attendant triumphs and travails. Her reign is testimony to lessons learned well.
From an early age, Razia displayed an interest in governmental affairs. She was an outstanding student of administration and diplomacy, and an able military cadet. Her capabilities were obvious to her father. Her first experience with governing the kingdom was when Iltutmish went on the Gwalior expedition, leaving her in charge of affairs of state. Razia outshone the best of his aides and was far more effective than any of her effete brothers. Entrusted with imperial power, she wielded it judiciously. Upon his return in 1228, Iltutmish named his 17-year-old daughter to be his successor. Clearly, Razia had demonstrated that she had the necessary courage, alertness, and requisite training to be a consummate monarch. When the astonished and angry ministers remonstrated against this idea, the king responded: "My sons are given over to the follies of youth; you will find there is no one better able to rule this country than my daughter." Iltutmish prepared for his daughter's succession by adding her name to a series of silver tankah (a form of currency). After his death, however, Razia was to bear the burden of her gender until she was finally defeated by the patriarchal order of the day; an arrangement that was upheld and utilized by the nobles of the court.
Following the death of Iltutmish, a colorless rake named Rukn-ud-din Firoz took advantage of the nobles' discomfiture with a queen-regnant (Iltutmish had appointed one of Razia's brothers as her successor). Assisted by his scheming and ambitious mother Shah Turkan, Firoz captured the throne. But Shah Turkan's cruelty and Firoz's ineffectiveness as a ruler managed to alienate their most vocal supporters. The Delhi Sultanate quickly fell into chaos and disrepair, a fact that dismayed the populace and nobles alike. Playing a skilled game of imperial chess, Razia took advantage of Firoz's temporary absence from the capital and beat the duo at their own game. Clad in red, as was customary for the aggrieved, she appeared before a congregation of Muslims at their Friday prayers and roused them against Shah Turkan's machinations. Her rhetorical entreaties revived Iltutmish's memory and incited the crowd to support his choice for succession; they proclaimed her queen. Confident in her abilities, she promised an effective and fair government, stating that if she "did not prove her abilities and if she did not prove better than men, her head was to be struck off." The promise astutely circumvented any arguments that might associate her gender with her inability as a monarch. While the people and the army officers put their weight behind her, the earlier objectors had new reason for opposition—judging Razia's coup an entirely unacceptable method of ascending the throne. To thwart them, Razia sowed dissensions among the nobles, ensuring a period of ineffective opposition and thus giving her the opportunity to strengthen her position as the first woman monarch of the Delhi Sultanate.
The sultana's first regal act was to organize the government. The governing structure that she set in place would continue to be the system of choice not only for the Sultanate but, with some changes, for early Mughal rule in India. In 13th-century India, the monarch's firmness was the only justification for her/his existence. Razia appropriated considerable authority from provincial chiefs and firmly established the monarch's position as the locus of all power; she placed her staunchest supporters in the most influential positions of governors and ministers; and she carefully planned to break the monopoly of power held by the Turkish nobles. Discarding her female attire, she rode out in public; she also held open court, thus making herself accessible to the nobility and populace alike. Later opponents deemed this same determination, coming from a woman, as scandalous. But Razia did what any monarch would do: she emphasized the vitality and vigor of her rule. She was openly challenging the monopolization of authority by the military aristocracy. In the first two years of her reign, every revolt by a Turkish noble was suppressed quickly and effectively. Razia herself rode out at the head of the imperial army in order to quell any such opposition and open revolt, and swiftly managed to coerce the rebel leaders. While this tactic was initially effective, it later became apparent that the nobles' submission concealed a latent opposition which would soon surface and bring her rule to an end.
Razia's commitment to consolidation of the Sultanate was evident in her superior military expeditions and diplomacy. The furthest corners of the empire were brought under her authority. She led armies against rebelling Hindu princes, who attempted several times to regain control of their territory from the Muslim rulers. There is only one recorded instance in which Razia delegated military maneuvers to a general; otherwise, she was always at the helm of her forces. Her most ingenious diplomatic move was to make peace with the marauding hordes of the Mongols. By 1238, the Mongols had reached the contiguous territories of the Sultanate. When the king of those territories approached Razia for assistance against the Mongols, she refused to ally with him, displaying a prudent disinclination to court Mongol hostility. Her position was tenuous enough within her borders; she did not need pressures from without. The Mongols, apparently pleased with her decision, respected her borders and never attacked her territories. Tacitly, Razia had convened a non-aggression pact with the Mongols, one that ceased to exist once she was deposed.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Razia's reign was her commitment to progressive reform policies. In order to execute such policies, a monarch needs good advisors and sound counsel. Once Razia had fortified her position by quelling the Turkish nobles, she selected for office those who had displayed commitment to, and support for, the empire. She placed competent and exceptional men in such important posts as commander-in-chief of the army, Lord Chamberlain, Lord of the Stables, and Lord of the Nobles. Now Razia was ready to reconstruct the empire. She declared a policy of religious tolerance towards the Hindus and ordered that the jaziya (a tax placed by Muslim rulers on "infidel" subjects) be discontinued; clearly, with this move her rule won much support from the Hindu populace. She often visited various parts of Delhi and surrounding villages to ascertain the condition of her people. Perceiving any grievances, she ordered immediate redress. Razia consciously established a new order under which every subject-citizen, regardless of creed or race, had the same opportunities—distinctions and disparities were removed. Penal code provisions were applicable to all without discrimination. Crimes were punished on the basis of evidence; trial by ordeal was abolished. Interprovincial exchange burgeoned; international trade increased. To encourage trade, Razia centralized authority and developed a uniform system of currency, transport, and communication. To safeguard her empire and territories, the sultana developed a strong, standing army that was recruited, trained, and administered from a central location. In a few short months, the young monarch had consolidated and reconstructed her domain.
[Razia] was a great monarch: wise, just, generous, a benefactor of her realm, a dispenser of equity, the protector of her people, and leader of her armies; she had all kingly qualities, except sex, and this exception made all her virtues of no effect in the eyes of men.
Razia's aptitude was not limited to governmental excellence alone, however, for her humanism and intellectual curiosity led to a renaissance of art, literature and philosophy. The presence of a dazzling galaxy of savants and their pursuits gave a fresh aspect to a traditional and military-bound 13th-century monarchy. Razia was dedicated to the cause of education. Her father had established the Nasiri College, which had begun to languish during the Shah Turkan days. Razia revived it. Scholars were brought to the college from far and near; literary instruction as well as military training received new impetus. In order for the fruits of education to reach a wider proportion of people, Razia also established several schools and employed important literary figures as teachers there. Libraries were established and made available to the public. Literary scholars received her court's patronage, as did musicians and painters. Razia's aesthetic inclinations led to a flowering of arts, music, and painting. A much-acclaimed painting of the period shows Razia dressed in military garb with no veil sitting astride her favorite horse. Her advocacy of music as a viable form of art received severe criticism from the ulema (Islamic theologians). Her response to such criticism was to point towards the sufi (Islamic mysticism) movement that looked upon music as a means of realization attained through ecstasy. On a more temporal level, Razia's endorsement of music allowed for the survival of indigenous Hindu music, which would have declined under the ulema's authority. Under Razia's patronage, compositions of ancient Greek philosophers were translated into Persian and Arabic; the Persian intellectual renaissance was brought to India where Umar Khayyam, Saadi, and Firdausi were read and discoursed; Hindu treatises on science, philosophy, and literature were given special recognition and taught in schools and colleges. Razia's reign was dynamic, energetic, and vital—infectious enough to permeate the entire society. The people viewed her rule as one of great toleration and advancement. But she was still a woman, a fact that continued to beleaguer the nobles.
While Razia's subjects benefited, her centralized authority irked the Turkish nobles. With their supremacy severely curtailed, they were unwilling to remain under the control of the revered woman monarch. They did what they knew best: they revolted, instigating a coup to depose Razia. The irony is that the sultana, deeply involved in governing, did not sense the undercurrents until they became apparent. She was most disturbed about the revolt of the governor of Bhatinda, Altuniya. He was not only one of the more supportive nobles of the empire but also a young man who had proclaimed his undying love for her. Razia personally led her forces against Altuniya but was defeated and then imprisoned. In the meantime, the Turkish nobles had taken control of the throne in Delhi and placed Balban as their king. Razia, whose pride could not countenance this affront, produced a scheme that would assist her in regaining her throne: she proposed to Altuniya that they marry and then as king and queen of the empire return to Delhi to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Altuniya agreed, and the couple combined their forces, along with some Hindu troops who joined her in gratitude, to march on Delhi. But that day, October 13, 1240, the imperial armies outnumbered them in strategy and manpower; soon, Razia and her consort found themselves outflanked, outmaneuvered, and thoroughly beaten. She continued to fight until an arrow pierced her left breast, instantly killing her. It was a tragic end to a remarkable career.
Razia was a phenomenal leader with foresight and a catholicity of outlook unmatched in any ruler of the Sultanate. She had a breadth of vision, a liberalism that was unconventional, and an unshakable belief in justice for all subjects. By sheer will, she created a more liberal and humane foundation for the Sultanate. Her courage and imagination did not allow her to admit defeat or bow to the narrow, sectarian beliefs of her times. She did not consider herself disadvantaged as a woman, though she was confronted and killed for that reason. Razia was the first and only queen of India; the woman responsible for elevating the consolidation and reconstruction of India to a high level of decency and morality. In the words of Minhaj-us-Siraj:
Weep not for her! Her memory is the shrine
Of pleasant thoughts, soft as the scent of flowers,
Calm as on windless eve the sun's decline,
Sweet as the song of birds among the bowers,
Rich as rain with its hues of light
Pure as the moonshine of an autumn night,
Weep not for her!
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Jackson, A.V. Williams, ed. Medieval India from the Mohammadean Conquest to the Reign of Akbar the Great. Volume III. London: Grolier Society, 1903.
Majumdar, R.C., ed. The History and Culture of the Indian People. Volume V. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1957.
Zakaria, Rafiq. Razia: Queen of India. Bombay: India Printing Works, 1966.
Jyoti Grewal , Assistant Professor of History, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa