Asma bint Shihab – The eclipsed Queen




By Sherenk CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Asma bint Shihab has been regarded as one of Yemen’s greatest queens. While deeply respected by her contemporaries, historians often tend to overlook her story in favour of her more famous daughter-in-law, Queen Arwa. She ruled alongside her husband, her son, and his wife in shaping state politics and handling vast sums of money for the kingdom. A tragic year in her life would bring hardship and mental torture that would break most women’s spirit. However, Queen Asma managed to survive. She continued to be a wise and capable ruler until her death.

Queen Asma was known to be beautiful and well-educated. It was said that her family planned to wed her to one of the kings of San’a or another royal house because she had a dowry fit only for a king.[1] Asma finally married her cousin, ‘Ali bin Muhammad al-Sulayhi, who was the son of a Yemeni Shafi’i judge. ‘Ali bin Muhammad al-Sulayhi gained military support of important Yemeni tribes and eventually founded the Sulayhid dynasty in 1047 C.E.[2] 

‘Ali bin Muhammad al-Sulayhi decided to make his wife co-ruler of Yemen.[3] She bore the title of al-sayyida-al-hurra, which is translated to “the noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”[4] Queen Asma actively participated in state affairs. It was said that ‘Ali often relied upon her advice. He sought her counsel and favoured her opinion.[5] She “attended councils with her face uncovered”[6] and “the khutba (a sermon that affirms the sovereign’s right to rule) was proclaimed from the pulpits of the mosques of Yemen in her husband’s name and in her name”[7].

Queen Asma would appoint her brother As’ad bin Shihab as governor of Tihama. He was to obey joint orders from both ‘Ali and Queen Asma.[8] She was also entrusted with the delivery of vast sums of money that her brother would send to her husband.[9]Queen Asma was also responsible for the education of her future daughter-in-law, Awra. She gave her an education befitting a ruler.[10] 

In 1066 C. E., ‘Ali decided to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. Before he and Queen Asma went on their pilgrimage, ‘Ali made his son, al-Mukarram Ahmad marry Awra and govern his kingdom.[11]  Then, they took a caravan of a thousand horsemen, five thousand Ethiopian troops, the Yemeni princes that he had taken captive over the years, and Queen Asma’s whole entourage at court.[12] On the way to Mecca, they were attacked by the Ethiopian Banu Najah family who believed ‘Ali was responsible for their father’s death.[13] 

‘Ali was decapitated, and Queen Asma, her daughter Fatima, and other women in the entourage became prisoners. Queen Asma tried to plead for the release of the other captive women, but the Najahid leader Sa’id refused.[14] They were to march behind the decapitated heads of Queen Asma’s husband ‘Ali and his brother to Zabid.[15] Throughout her captivity, Queen Asma was forced to watch her husband’s impaled head which was in full view of her cell.[16]  She would remain a hostage for a whole year. [17] 

There is a story that suggests that Queen Asma may have been raped during her captivity.[18] It states that Queen Asma asked her son for help by hiding a letter inside a loaf of bread. The beggar who carried the bread eventually made his way to the palace where the letter reached her son. The letter not only asked for the release of her daughter and the rest of the women but also asked to free her before she gave birth to her captor’s child.[19] Angered by this news, al-Mukarram Ahmad gathered his men and set out to rescue her by fighting against the Najahids. Despite the validity of the story, it shows Queen Asma was a resourceful and cunning heroine, for she used her wits to save herself and the other captive women.[20]

After Queen Asma’s release from captivity, she ruled alongside her son and daughter-in-law.[21] Her son looked up to his mother for counsel and followed her advice.[22] She was heavily involved in state affairs and financial matters. She knew about secret strategic information and controlled the distribution of tributes in provinces.[23]Queen Asma died in 1074 C. E.[24] She was portrayed as a noble and generous lady and was often patronised by poets of the Sulayhid court.[25] One of the poets praised her:

“I say, when people magnified the throne of Bilquis,

Asma hath obscured the name of the loftiest among the stars.”[26]

Sources:

Cortese, Delia, and Simonetta Calderini. Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam.

    Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006.

Daftary, Farhad. Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis. Scarecrow Press, 2012.

Jackson-Laufer, Guida M. Women Rulers throughout the Ages: an Illustrated Guide. Clio, 2000.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo. Lakeland, University

     of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Simcox, E. J. Primitive Civilizations: or Outlines of the History of Ownership in Archaic

     Communities … (Classic Reprint). Forgotten Books, 2015.


[1]Simcox, pp. 521-522

[2]Cortese and Calderini pp. 127-128

[3]Jackson, p. 41

[4]Jackson, p. 41

[5]Cortese and Calderini p. 128

[6]Mernissi, p. 115

[7]Jackson, p. 41

[8]Cortese and Calderini p. 128

[9]Cortese and Calderini p. 128

[10]Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[11]Jackson, p. 41

[12]Jackson, p. 41

[13]Jackson, p. 41

[14]Cortese and Calderini pp. 128-129

[15]Cortese and Calderini pp. 128-129

[16]Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[17]Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[18]Cortese and Calderini pp. 128-129

[19]Cortese and Calderini, p. 129

[20]Cortese and Calderini, p. 129

[21]Jackson, p. 41

[22]Jackson, p. 41

[23]Cortese and Calderini, p. 129

[24]Daftary, p. 23

[25]Daftary, p. 23

[26]Cortese and Calderini, p. 129






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