Imagine 13th century Delhi. The early years of the Sultanate. The battles for power and the fierce warriors who had come from the far reaches of present-day Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and then imagine, a woman ruling over them. The story of Razia Sultan the only woman to sit on the throne of Delhi is confounding even today. In the staunchly patriarchal society of medieval India, the short four-year reign of Razia (1236-40 CE) is a significant milestone that makes her shine through the pages of history - not just here, but across the world. Romanticized often - what do we really know of her?
A contemporary 13th-century Persian historian, Miraj-i-Siraj, an authority on the history of the Slave dynasty, wrote about her in his work Tabaquat-i-Nasiri. According to him :
Miraj further went on to say that her only tragic flaw was that she was born a woman. This seems to sum up the life and struggles of Razia Sultan.
To understand Razia, we need to understand the society that she was born in. In 1192, Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad of Ghor defeated Delhi’s ruler Prithviraj Chauhan in the Second Battle of Tarain and opened the chapter of Islamic rule over Delhi. It was his general, Qutubuddin Aibak who would become the first Sultan of Delhi and establish what would be called the Slave or Mamluk Dynasty. The Delhi court was dominated by Turkic generals, who were born slaves, but had risen up the ranks based on their talent and brute force. In a world of self-made men and monarchs, succession was naturally based on merit and there were oftentimes, multiple claimants.
After the death of Aibak in 1206, a brief battle of succession ensued before his son-in-law Iltutmish took charge. He was Delhi’s Sultan from 1211 to 1236 CE. Blessed with 3 sons and one daughter, few imagined that his choice of heir would be so controversial. But Iltutmish was a man way ahead of his times.
According to Historian Rukhsana Iftikhar who has published the book Indian Feminism: Class, Gender & Identity in Medieval Ages; Iltutmish is said to have decided to test his children after the untimely death of his eldest son Nasir-Ud Din Muhammad in 1229 CE. This was his way of testing who would be best suited to succeed him. During his Gwalior campaign in 1231-32 CE, Illtutmish made Razia in charge of the administration of Delhi. Razia is said to have managed the state affairs so well, that an impressed father was quick to make up his mind. When he returned, Iltutmish decided to formally nominate Razia as his successor. Not surprisingly, this caused a furore among the Delhi nobles.
Things got ugly within days of Illtutmish’s death in 1236, the Turkish nobles and council disregarded his wishes and set up one of his sons, Ruknuddin Firuz Shah on the throne. However the incapable ruler and his mother Shah Turkan soon got on the wrong side of the people and the nobles. Razia is said to have led a mass protest against them.
Sudha Sharma, former Chairperson of India’s Central Board of Direct Taxes who is also a trained historian and the author of the book ‘The Status of Muslim Women in Medieval India’ writes that:
She gave this arousing speech clad in red which was the colour of protest. By winning over the army, governors and the public, Razia deposed her brother and seized the throne for herself on 19th November 1236 CE and assumed the title of Raziyat-ud-din.
Interestingly, Razia’s accession to the throne was not opposed by the religious ‘Ulema’ or orthodoxy, but the Mamluk nobility and close associates of Iltutmish. The nobles wanted to keep all power in their hands and did not want a strong independent ruler on the throne. Like it often happens even today - the gender card was used, to cover up this motive. Soon the clamour against Razia grew. Opposition spread far beyond Delhi to the provinces of Multan, Lahore and Hansi in Haryana. Razia managed to crush all of this.
Two of the most significant things which Razia’s reign is remembered for are her administrative strategy and her bold public appearance. She tried to break the power of Turkic nobles who enjoyed a monopoly and raise non-Turks to higher positions. She did this by ‘tearing away the veil’, as Amir Khusro the renowned poet of Delhi wrote in the 13th century CE ‘
But fighting patriarchy was just one part of it. Razia also had to fight the tweezer grip of the Turkish nobility. She did this in right earnest by ensuring others got to high positions.
Razia promoted an Abyssinian slave Malik Yakut to the position of ‘Amir-i-Akhur i.e. the master of the royal stables, an important job, which was always reserved for Turkish nobles. This however led to a worsening of the situation for her. Her most loyal nobles now turned against her
A slur campaign was launched and there were even rumours that Yakut was her lover. Interestingly, this was the main plot of the 1983 movie Razia Sultan starring Bollywood actors Hema Malini and Dharmendra. However, it must be noted that there are no historic records to validate this theory and it may have merely been an attempt at character assassination. Ultimately, the Turkic nobles succeeded in putting Yakut to death.
In the face of so much opposition, it is not surprising that Razia’s reign was short. In September 1240, within four years of taking charge, there was a coup against her and she was imprisoned at Bathinda Fort. Her brother Bahram Shah was put on the Delhi throne. There are few references to the immediate events then, but records show that Razia was down - but not out. She is said to have won over her captor Altunia (Governor of Bathinda), in what has been described as a shrewd political move. They married and soon Razia began to recruit a new force of Khokkars, an agricultural community from Punjab and local landlords or zamindars. They marched out together to recapture Razia’s lost throne. During their attempt, they were defeated twice by Malik Jalaluddin Balban and Razia was murdered by local zamindars on 14th October 1240 CE. She was just 35 years old then. After Razia’s death, Balban became the next Sultan of Delhi.
Thus, ended the short and tragic reign of Razia Sultan, the first and the only female ruler of Delhi. We don't even know where she is actually buried. It is claimed that Razia’s grave lies among the narrow lanes of Old Delhi. Another account claims that Razia was buried at Khaital, Haryana. The Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, even visited Khaital to visit Razia’s tomb in 1938. It is also believed that her grave may be in Tonk, Rajasthan.
Razia’s final resting place, like the finer details of her life, remains elusive. All we know is that Razia was a trailblazer. A woman who ruled and fought in a man’s world. No other woman could have made such a mark, in so short a time and be remembered even 776 years after!
Cover Image: Razia Sultan on the Delhi throne / Pinterest via Salar Jung Museum