Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya
Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhiyya
Two Ismai’li queens of Yemen: Asma (ca. 406 AH/1028 CE to
462 AH/1084 CE) was mother-in-law to Arwa (430 AH/1052 CE
to 515 AH/1137CE). They were fully recognized as equal ruling
partners with their husbands, Ali ibn Muhammad al-Sulayhi and
Ahmad ibn Ali al-Mukkaram. Asma brought the orphaned Arwa to
the court to be reared alongside her son and educated together.
Arwa was eighteen when she married al-Mukkaram, just two years
before Ali al-Sulayhi’s death. She ruled Yemen for forty years.
Asma sits in her prison cell, breathing Ethiopian dust. She cannot see through the only window. Her view is obstructed by the impaled head of her husband. If she could watch the stars, she might know what’s in store for her. She might perceive, as she has been taught, the hidden meaning behind this obvious circumstance: She has been kidnapped, her husband murdered.
She will sit and wait. Secrets will remain hidden behind her enigmatic face, and behind those secrets are more veiled secrets. No one wants her secrets. They want only to lure her son and the armies of Yemen. It has been two years.
The head rotting outside her window contained the brilliance of sunlight mirrored on water. She wishes she could turn to look at it – the peeling then yellowed then bleached skull that was once her beloved husband – but she fears the loss of her dignity. It is all she has left in this dungeon. Her queenliness. Her nobility. Her faith.
They established their reign together. It was ordained. From childhood. Ali ibn Muhammad al-Sulayhi was initiated in the Shi’a belief … and beyond. He studied law. He inherited his teacher’s library and memorized each book from front to back. He rose from one level of knowledge to the next, gently removing the veils that concealed each secret, and he was recognized by the caliph in Egypt himself as the one who would bring the Fatimid Dynasty, the Ismai’lis, to the Yemen.
Asma, his cousin, waited for Ali. He journeyed as a guide for poor pilgrims and like the Prophet spoke gently to them in close circles about the seven successors and the last, Ismai’l, who will return on the Day of Judgment.
She does not need to turn to the window to recall how he dazzled her. And she him. Together, they planned the future carefully. She lived as his wife in modest circumstances for fifteen years until the moment the imams in Egypt empowered him to being the conquest. Ali did so with the dispatch of one who has prepared all his life. In only a few months he installed Asma and their son Ahmad in San’a, now their capital.
What are Ahmad and his wife Arwa doing there now? Do they know what has happened? Asma stops the thoughts, for they will lead to longing and that will lead to restlessness and that will lead to grief.
In San’a, she conducted affairs of state, unveiled, unlike the women of Egypt. She built a new government and rooted out the old corruption. And the imams spoke her name alongside Ali’s in the Friday khatub.
Meanwhile, he conquered Mecca. And the world bowed down.
What glory and what joy when at last he could realize his dream of a pilgrimage made in state, no longer a lowly guide, no longer a soldier, but arriving at the holy city in grandeur, yet with the humility of the truly devout.
This was his happiness, his crowning achievement. Ali and Asma gathered their splendid retinue of princes and set forth, leaving Ahmad and Arwa in San’a. A thousand horsemen. Five thousand Ethiopian warriors. Hundreds of jawari dressed in silks and cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-Damascus. Horses and white camels and banners and bells and trumpeters. The poets and singers Asma so treasured came, too. The caravan shimmered along the Pilgrim’s Road and stopped for the night at the oasis of Bir Umm Ma’bad.
In her solitude, Asma’s vague picture of all that happened – the thundering, the chaos, the screams and shouts and blood – has gradually taken shape and come clear. Sitting for nearly two years, waiting and watching, the secrets behind the secrets, the tale has revealed itself, unveiled itself, not like the mystic levels of the Divine, but like an onion, each layer drawing forth tears.
The tents were pitched. Asma attended to her duties. Ali attended to his. He was in his own tent talking with his brothers when Sa’id ibn Najah burst in, flanked by seventy fighters. Pandemonium as ibn Najah put to the sword all the princes of the Sulayhi. Men ripped open the queen’s tent flap and ordered her out. Her women screamed and pleaded, but Asma raised her head and walked forth into the presence of the prince of Zubayd, blood-splattered and triumphant now that he had avenged himself on his father’s killer.
Why did the warriors not protect the king and the princes? Precisely because they, too, were Ethiopians. Ibn Najah’s army increased that day by 5000. They gave her women to their officers. They escorted her here, to this little cell. They set her husband’s head on a pole outside her window.
She jumps as one who is falling asleep stumbles on the step between consciousness and dream. An armored shadow stands in her cell door. Asma scrambles to sit up, to regain her posture. She will not let ibn Najah nor do his henchmen see her in any other posture than that of a throned queen.
The shadow sways and greets her in all politeness, with subservient blessings.
“Who are you?” Asma says coldly.
“I am Ahmad ibn Ali,” the masked warrior replies.
“There are many Ahmads, sons of Ali among the Arabs,” she says.
He raises his helmet. She suppresses her smile; she holds back her elation. She stands and greets him – “I bid welcome to our master, al-Mukkaram” – not as a son but as a king.
It is not she who falls to her knees before him, but he before her. His eyes roll back in his head, he grips his left side. She rushes out of the prison door, still unsure whether he has come to liberate her or to be her companion in this place. She calls to warriors wearing the colors of the princes of the Sulayhi and they come running. Indeed, they have defeated ibn Najah. Now they place their young king on a litter. They bear their queen and her wounded son home.
She did not see him enthroned. It took two years before he discovered she was alive and could defeat the enemy and release her. Now she returns with him to the cheers of their people. And Asma rules for her son with her daughter-in-law by her side.
And the Friday khatub is spoken in the name of al-Mukkaram, Asma, and Arwa.
Like her mother-in-law, Queen Arwa bows to no superior authority. Like Asma, her subjects call her balqis al-sughra, the queen of Sheba reborn, for Asma and Arwa remind the people of that splendid ancient time when a woman ruled, a time that is forever observed in God’s words.
But he tarried not long, and said,
“I have comprehended that which you
Have not comprehended, and I have come
From Sheba to you with a sure tiding.
I found a woman ruling over them,
And she has been given of everything,
And she possesses a mighty throne”
Arwa is only twenty-six, but she, too, possesses a mighty throne. Asma is dead. Al-Mukkaram grows weaker every day. It seems with every day another stroke overtakes that once bold warrior, vivid thinker, fair ruler, vital young man. His mother held the ambitious cousins at bay. Asma governed with such skill that the Yemenis stand firm against any pretenders.
Arwa is frightened. From Asma she learned to love knowledge, she learned the principles of good governance. Ali had told Asma to treat Arwa “with respect, for God has ordained that she will be guarantor of our descendants, preserving this regime for those of us who survive.” It is a daunting responsibility. She watched as Asma, widowed, her son debilitated, brought the kingdom to further greatness and vaster territories. Now it is hers to preserve and al-Mukkaram cannot help.
Her first act is to tour the domain. When she returns to San’a, she has al-Mukkaram bundled into a palanquin. They look out from the highest point of city.
“What do you see?” she asks her husband.
He sits up with great effort, gritting his teeth. “I see our capital. The sun flashing off swords and spears…” He gasps and collapses onto his pillows.
The small royal caravan moves away from San’a into the countryside. Soon, they are in Jabala, nestled against a mountain and embraced by two rivers. A fortress looms above the town, a sentinel guarding the gentle shepherds, the children, the women carrying vessels of honey and oil and water on their heads.
“Now what do you see?” Arwa asks her husband.
“I see no weapons. I see peace.”
“Life is better here,” Arwa says. “Here is where we will move our capital.”
From Jabala, Arwa rules with efficiency and renewed confidence. She administers projects for new roads, new fountains, increases agriculture, the raising of cattle and trade. She builds hospitals for women, where they are taught family planning and birth control.
She builds schools and the Big Mosque at San’a, the al-Gurba mosque in Yarim in the south and the al-Game mosque in Jabala.
She lowers prices and supervises tax collection, making it fair for all. She keeps meticulous records, as she was taught by her father-in-law, Ali al-Sulayhi, when he put her in charge at the age of sixteen of collecting the tax revenues of Aden, given to her as a dowry.
She conducts the government with her face veiled. She is young and beautiful; her husband, the sultan, lies paralyzed in his bed. The strategy will vouchsafe the dynasty; the officials will take her seriously. As she speaks from behind the veil, they will sense that she is merely a conduit, a medium, speaking for al-Mukkaram.
She loves peace. She strives for peace. She abstains from the use of force, preferring persuasion, conciliation, and bribery. Better to purchase a fort from the rebel who has taken it than to fight. She is a woman and law forbids her from riding at the head of the army. The clans compete to seize local power. Without this authority, though Arwa appeases and uses diplomacy where others would use the military, the Sulayhi clan is weakened.
But there is one violent goal that Arwa cleaves toward. She will find and kill Sa’id al-Najah. It will be a victory to exhibit the might of the Sulayhi despite its misfortunes. And the Yemeni Sunnis, afraid that the Sulayhis may be vassals of the Fatimids in Cairo, will be silenced.
Al-Mukkaram had taken Zubayd when he rescued his mother, Asma. Sa’id al-Najah had fled by sea. From her new capital of Jabala, Arwa begins to constrict al-Najah’s movements. She negotiates new alliances and thus gains new terrain to which al-Najah is unwelcome, where it is dangerous for him to tread. Arwa cannot command Yemen’s military, and does not want to ask for it unless and until it’s crucial. She spreads false rumors that her allies are preparing to abandon her. She persuades them to visit Sa’id al-Najah and let him believe that should he attack Jabala, they will be behind him. He attacks. Arwa’s army crushes him.
When he is dead, his wife Umm al Mu’arik is brought to Arwa. An act of cruelty requires its exact proportion in return. A balance. One for one. Umm al-Mu’arik is placed in a small prison cell with one window. Her view is her husband’s impaled head on a pole.
The grief nearly paralyzes her when al-Mukarram dies. All those whom she had loved from childhood are gone. She is alone, carrying the burden of a dynasty. Her first son is eight years old and he must accede, while she is his regent. From Cairo, the caliph al-Mustansur agrees.
Once again love deserts her. Her older son dies and within a few months his younger brother is gone, too. She is sole ruler of Yemen. Alone.
Saba ibn Adman is al-Mukarram’s cousin. He is one of those they had kept at arm’s length so as to preserve the dynasty within Ali al-Sulayhi’s own clan. He proposes marriage. She rejects him. He attacks her castle in Jabal. She repels the attack. He offers her a measureless bride-price. She shakes her head and refuses with the words, “I will never consent to marriage except by order of the caliph.”
Saba takes his case to al-Mustansur. In Egypt, they veil their women. In Egypt they have no balqis al-sughra, no queens of Sheba reborn. The caliph cannot imagine that Arwa should rule alone with no husband, no sons. He sends messengers telling Arwa to marry and let her spouse rule before her. They may say khatub in the mosque for her on Friday, and she may hold temporal power, but she cannot hold religious authority.
She wrangles. She sends ministers and ambassadors. They plead for her. They know their queen. She has been a successful ruler. She will continue to be. And back and forth and forth and back they argue against the implacable caliph al-Mustansur. At last Arwa gives in and signs the marriage document.
Saba sets forth to claim his bride. At Arwa’s castle, the gates are locked. He camps outside and waits. A day goes by and then a week and then two weeks, and then a month has passed. Arwa sends his troops food, paid for with the bride-price he has given for her. All around him the people pass, ignoring him, though the caliph allowed him to be ruler of Yemen. Yet they refer to Arwa as sayyida, malika, al-hurra – our lady.
How does Saba bear the humiliation? He writes a letter to Arwa and sends it in secret.
“Lady, let me spend just one night in the castle. Let me keep up appearances, at least.”
Arwa orders the gates to be opened and Saba rides into the castle. Arwa is nowhere to be seen. He is placed in a bed chamber. The door creaks open. A serving girl enters. She stands before him at the foot of his bed all night. A serving girl! To be ignored, of course. He never looks at her.
At dawn, he says his prayers and leaves.
It is this tale Arwa tells to remind the caliph that she had presented herself to Saba as his wife, she had been by his bed the night long. But he had rejected her. He had never glanced at her!
Never again will Saba appear before Arwa. He is sultan of Yemen, but he serves his queen faithfully and well. She makes him the titular head of the army and thus the conduit through which she can command her military forces. He lives eleven more years.
She is old now. The girl who had power thrust upon her, frightened of her own abilities, terrified of responsibilities, but well-trained and determined. The Yemeni viziers – Sunni who see little good in the Fatimid caliph to whom the Sulayhis have given their allegiance – are less and less trustworthy. They see fissures in her power as she ages. They look toward exploiting her aloneness. The veil cannot disguise her age, it cannot make her seem immortal.
Arwa sends to Cairo, to the Fatimid court for a minister she can truly rely upon. And he is. She shuffles and he marches with energy and enthusiasm to assert her will. She trembles and he holds forth a strong, steady hand.
In Cairo, the dynasty feuds within itself. Her vizier is recalled and he is executed on false grounds.
Arwa is devastated. And suddenly confronted by the new caliph in Cairo, who sends his troops to seize her kingdom. She is old. She is fragile. This is the moment.
The people love their queen. The Yemenis rally against this interloper. The army mobilizes behind her. The Cairo caliph withdraws.
In eight years she is dead. She is eighty-five. They bury her in the mosque she built in San’a.
From The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam
Jennifer Heath, Paulist Press/Hidden Spring, 2004.