Queen Awra of Yemen – The pearl who brought light to a place of darkness

By yeowatzup - https://www.flickr.com/photos/yeowatzup/4325249244/, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Arwa of Yemen ruled for over fifty years. She co-ruled with her mother-in-law, her husband, and her son. She eventually became sole ruler of the Sulayhid dynasty. She was the first woman in Islam history to be given the title of hujja, which is the highest status in Islam. Queen Awra remains greatly celebrated and loved by her own people.

Awra was the daughter of Ahmad of the Sulayhid clan. She was born in Haraz in 1045 A.D.[1] After the death of her father, she was raised by Ali and Asma, co-rulers of Yemen.[2] They gave her an education befitting a ruler.[3] Her knowledge consisted of “the Qur’an, her ability to read and write, to memorise chronicles, poetry and historical events, and her excellence in glossing and interpreting text”.[4]

In 1065, at the age of eighteen, she married their son, al-Mukarram Ahmad. In 1067, al-Mukarram Ahmad became co-ruler of Yemen with his mother Queen Asma. He carried on his father’s tradition of letting his wife share power.[5] Thus, Yemen had three rulers: Asma, al-Mukarram, and Awra. In 1074, after Queen Asma’s death, al-Mukarram was struck with paraplegia.[6] Because her husband was disabled, he transferred the responsibility of governing the affairs of his kingdom to his wife. Queen Awra, who was in her late twenties, objected by saying: ‘A woman who is [still] desirable in bed is not suitable for running a “state”.[7] This implies that it would have been more acceptable for a woman of post-childbearing age to govern the affairs of the kingdom.[8]

Queen Arwa exercised religious authority on behalf of the Fatimid caliph-imams in Egypt.[9] Shortly after the death of her husband in 1084, she was appointed the hujja of Yemen, the highest rank in the Yemeni da’wa.[10] Queen Arwa’s son, Ali Abd al-Mustansir, ruled alongside his mother. However, it seemed that he only played a minor role in the government.[11] The person who held true power was his mother.[12]

In the early 1090s, Ali Abd al-Mustansir died. This left Queen Awra alone on the throne.[13] In order to please the Fatimid caliph-imams of Egypt, she married Saba ibn Ahmad, a relative on her paternal side.[14] Saba ibn Ahmad had already had his sons marry Queen Awra’s daughter and her sister. Thus, this made him an ideal candidate for her second husband. However, it is said that she obliged the marriage on paper, “but refused to consummate or even stage the marriage.”[15]  Thus, “while Queen Arwa bowed to the Imam’s authority, in practice she did not submit to the will of her new husband”[16] and was the “master of her own people.”[17]

Now that Queen Awra was the sole ruler of Yemen, she soon found many challenges. There were many rivals that laid claim to the throne.[18] In 1097, her husband and her loyal commander in chief died.[19] Queen Awra had to wait ten years until she found another close supporter who became her next commander in chief.[20] The relationship turned sour. She captured him and he died in disgrace back in Egypt.[21]

Queen Awra also played a major role in the Fatimid schism of 1094.[22] She supported al-Musta‘lī and later al-Tayyib.[23] The Tayyibis sent Queen Awra a letter confirming the legitimacy of her spiritual authority. In 1126, Queen Awra appointed al-Dhu’ayb b. Musa as the first of what was to be a chain of Tayyibi da’i mutlaq (meaning absolute da’i).[24]

Queen Awra also showed a vindictive side. Her mother-in-law had been kidnapped in 1066 by the Ethiopian Banu Najah family while on a pilgrimage to Mecca.[25] Eventually, her mother-in-law was set free and returned home. However, Queen Awra still yearned for vengeance for what happened to her mother-in-law. She captured and imprisoned Queen Asma’s captor and his wife. She had him beheaded and exposed the head to his wife.[26]

Another occasion occurred when Queen Awra’s son-in-law, Shams al-Ma’ali, took another wife. Fatima, Queen Awra’s daughter, pleaded to her mother for help. Queen Awra sent an army against her son-in-law. She dressed as a man and camouflaged herself among the army to rescue her daughter and returned her home.[27] In the meantime, Shams al-Ma’ali remained under siege until he was expelled from his domains.[28]

Queen Awra died in 1138. She was the last of the Sulayhid dynasty. In her will, she bequeathed her treasure to the Imam al-Tayyib and prohibited anyone from using it.[29] She was buried in the Friday Mosque at Dhu Jibala.[30]

Even though she was queen, her name never appeared on any of the Yemeni coins.[31] She was a great patron of architecture in Yemen. According to historian Abdallah al-Thawr, Queen Awra “left more monuments, buildings, roads, and mosques than the imams who governed San’a from 1591-1925.”[32] Her contemporary al-Sultan al-Khattab said of her praise: “She was the Banu Sulayhi’s pearl, who brought light to a place of darkness.”[33] Today, the Yemenis still remember Awra as a great and much loved sovereign. She is often referred to as the “Little Queen of Sheba.”[34]


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.

[1] Daftary, p. 23

[2] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[3] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[4] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[5] Jackson-Laufer, p. 40

[6] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[7] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[8] Cortese and Calderini p. 129

[9] Daftary, p. 23

[10] Daftary, p. 23

[11] Cortese and Calderini p. 131

[12] Cortese and Calderini p. 131

[13] Cortese and Calderini p. 131

[14] Cortese and Calderini p. 131

[15] Cortese and Calderini p. 131

[16] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[17] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[18] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[19] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[20] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[21] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[22] Cortese and Calderini p. 132

[23] Cortese and Calderini pp. 132-133

[24] Cortese and Calderini p. 133

[25] Jackson-Laufer, p. 40

[26]  Cortese and Calderini p. 133

[27]  Cortese and Calderini p. 133

[28]  Cortese and Calderini p. 133

[29]  Cortese and Calderini p. 134

[30]  Cortese and Calderini p. 134

[31]  Cortese and Calderini p. 134

[32] Jackson-Laufer, p. 40

[33] Cortese and Calderini p. 134

[34] Cortese and Calderini p. 134

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