Indian History Part 54 The Slave Dynasty Section IV: A Queen Reigns


Canberra, 14 November 2016

Qutb ud-Din Aibak and Balban (not yet part of this narrative) were actual ‘ghulams’ or slaves who had been manumitted earlier to their becoming ruling monarchs. The rest of the sultans who ruled Delhi and are counted as belonging to the so-called ‘Slave Dynasty’ were never slaves, but born as princes or princesses in the royal household. Therefore, the designations of ‘slave dynasty’ or ‘slave king’ to these rulers are misnomers. In fact, correctly the slave dynasty itself should be divided into two groups; one, the descendants of Iltutmish, who should rightly be called the Shamsids; and two, the descendants of Balban, to be called the Ghiyathids; both the names being derived from the proper names of the founders of these clans. However, for the ease of clarity and understanding, these two clans have been clubbed together under the commonly used term ‘slave dynasty’. This narrative also uses the term to avoid confusion.

Iltutmish died of natural causes. This was a rare feat in those turbulent times when more often than not, the king would either be dethroned through rebellion, assassinated, or die in the battlefield defending his throne. During his last days, when he was on his deathbed, Iltutmish was urged by the courtiers to name a successor in order to avoid the horrors of a disputed succession. His preferred and designated successor, the eldest son Nasr ud-Din, had died earlier and a new heir apparent had not been appointed after his death. Iltutmish wavered in his nomination between his second son who was ineffectual and easy-going and his eldest daughter who was competent and inspirational but was obviously gender-handicapped. In the end he named his daughter Raziya as his rightful successor.

The courtiers, belonging to a totally paternalistic and male oriented society, demurred. The Sultan then told them that Raziya was the ideal person to succeed him since she was the most capable of his surviving offspring and would be able to guide the state into the future. There is no doubt that Iltutmish was very fond of his daughter and that father and daughter shared a deep and mutual admiration for each other. However, events would prove later that the Sultan’s judgement was not merely an expression of sentiment and affection, but one of sound judgement. Raziya was indeed very capable and had gained a great deal of administrative experience since Iltutmish used to leave her in charge of the daily running of the government when he was away from Delhi on his many military campaigns. Above all she was very dignified and meticulous in all her dealings.

Even so, on Iltutmish’s death, his wishes were ignored by the courtiers each one of whom uniformly baulked at placing a woman on the throne. They did not consider having a woman ruler to be in consonance with established Muslim law as they interpreted it. Therefore, the courtiers placed the eldest surviving son Rukn ud-Din Firoz on the throne. Firoz Shah, as he came to be known, was a lazy and indolent person devoted to sensual pleasures. He was not interested in ruling the kingdom and left it to his mother, Shah Turkan, to look after the affairs of state. Shah Turkan was a low-born handmaiden of Iltutmish and was petty, vindictive, vicious and inordinately ambitious. Firoz Shah being placed on the throne was the beginning of about 30 years of instability for the sultanate that very nearly destroyed its fundamental structure.

The lack of laid down rules and traditions of succession has been the bane of Islamic kingdoms around the world and across the ages. The confusion at the death of a ruling monarch and the in-fighting that invariably followed almost always led to internal strife. The court was unable to maintain any sort of continuity in governance, which opened the State to external interferences and internal revolts. When this situation was combined with the naked ambition of powerful nobles and governors, the political condition became ideal for unstable turbulence.

While her son the sultan succumbed to worldly pleasures, Shah Turkan unleashed a reign of terror in the palace. She went on a spree of revenge, avenging real and perceived indignities that she had suffered from other high-born wives of Iltutmish; blinded and killed a young son of Iltutmish who was considered a threat to her own son Firoz; and also hatched a plot to kill Raziya.

Firoz Shah is reported to have been endowed with one virtue before he became sultan—generosity. However, on coming to the throne he turned even this virtue into a vice through the excesses that he practised. He squandered the wealth of the sultanate. It is reliably reported that he used to ride an elephant on the streets of Delhi in a completely intoxicated state, scattering gold coins in the market place. The combination of Firoz’s debauchery and his mother’s ruthlessness led to revolt and rebellion. Several of the provincial governors went into open revolt. The King’s brother, Ghias ud-Din, who was the governor of Awadh rebelled and started to seize the treasure caravans that were coming to Delhi from the Bengal province. He also plundered a number of cities of the sultanate that were outside his own jurisdiction. The coherence of the sultanate slowly started to unravel. At the same time Sai fud-Din Hasan Qarlugh, the ruler of Ghazni, Kirman and Bamiyan, invaded Sindh and Uch, provinces at the outer periphery of the sultanate.

The instability reached a stage when the governors of Lahore, Multan, Hansi and Badaun entered into a pact to depose Firoz Shah and started to march towards Delhi. The fact that historians of the time mention this as a ‘pact’ and not as a conspiracy is definitive indication that in the eyes of the people Firoz Shah had lost the legitimacy to rule the sultanate. In order to retain his position as the Sultan, Firoz Shah was left with no options and was obliged to march out of Delhi to meet the rebel forces in battle. As soon as Firoz Shah physically left the capital, Raziya took advantage of his absence and started to cleverly manipulate the public sentiment. It is reported that she appeared before the public in red robes and reminded the people that her father, the Sultan Iltutmish, had nominated her as the heir apparent before his death. She went on to incite a popular uprising against Shah Turkan. The people took over the palace and imprisoned Shah Turkan, while at the same time placing Raziya on the throne by public acclaim. Firoz Shah was arrested, imprisoned and then put to death in November 1236. His reign, or misrule, had lasted a mere seven months.

Sultan Raziya

Although Raziya was installed as the ruler in Delhi and had the full support of the people in the capital, for the rest of the sultanate she was sultan only in name. She assumed the name of Raziya ud-Din and set about consolidating her position. The four provincial governors who had formed a confederacy against Firoz Shah, was now joined by the deposed wazir or prime minister, Muhammad Junaidi, and the combined force besieged Delhi. Raziya was fully aware that her military forces were not equal to the task of defeating the more powerful armies of the confederacy and therefore played a game of diplomacy. She adroitly managed to sow dissention within the five leaders of the combine and made sure that the confederacy collapsed in disorder. When she was certain of the dissonance in the enemy camp, Raziya attacked and captured two of the governors, who were promptly executed on her orders.

The other nobles in the confederacy scattered and Raziya established full control over the sultanate. The wazir Junaidi, fled the scene and died a lonely fugitive in the Sirmur hills. This decisive action that was successfully initiated brought great acclaim and prestige to Raziya. She went on to redistribute high offices to her supporters and consolidated her power. Now the entire sultanate, spreading from Lahore to Bengal was under her direct control.

From a personal point of view, she started to break free of the gender-based constraints of the harem. She regularly appeared in public without a veil, dressed in the male tunic and cap attire, and rode a horse astride like a man while also carrying weapons. Simultaneously she initiated steps to ensure that the sultan’s power was absolute by placing the sultan apart from the group of elite nobles who considered the position to be the leader of equals, a trend that had been customary during both Aibak’s and Iltutmish’s rule. These initiatives were designed to erode the power of the elite ‘Forty’, formed during her grandfather’s time, who had a stranglehold on the power of the sultan. The ‘Forty’ was the actual power behind the throne. She selected and appointed persons of ability from outside the ‘Forty’ to several key positions in the administration in an attempt to dilute their power. However, the ‘slave system’ had by this time become entrenched as a powerful entity within the administration.

Raziya was by now conducting business in open court. She also took steps to emphasise and demonstrate the firmness and vigour of her rule by personally taking part in battles and commanding armies in the field. She was aware of the need to visibly compensate for the disability attached to her sex at that time in a country that was completely male-dominated and purely military in nature and function. She was also acutely mindful of the power claimed by the Turkish nobles who were ‘freedmen’. It was obvious to the astute queen that the initial backers of her claim to the throne had only wanted her as a figurehead and that all of them were taken aback by her assertive independence in ruling the sultanate. In pursuing a judiciously independent path Raziya created two separate animosities within the nobility. First, her personal practices of wearing men’s clothing and appearing in public with her head and face uncovered, she offended the sensibilities of orthodox Muslim nobles who were steeped in ancient prejudices. Second, the Turkish nobles, especially the so-far all powerful group of ‘Forty’ could not tolerate a dominant monarch pursuing policies intended to further entrench her will as supreme, which would at the same time dilute their own power. Resentment on these counts was high in the Delhi court. These were also the ingredients that would go into concocting a real revolution against the queen.

One of Raziya’s appointees from outside the members of the ‘Forty’ was an Abyssinian called Jalal ud-Din Yaqut. He was promoted to Amir-i-Akhur, the Master of the Stables, a position more of prestige than actual power. This appointment of a rank outsider could have been a calculated move on the part of Raziya to break the monopoly of the ‘Forty’. The move was resented by the nobles; especially since an amorous relationship between the queen and Yaqut was also rumoured. There is however no evidence to prove that any personal relationship existed between the two, other than the salacious gossip of the time that have found their way into later-day chronicles.

A Queens Falls Foul of Society

Accounts of Raziya’s relationship with Yaqut vary and are debated even today. Perceptions are coloured by what were the acceptable norms of the time and also the popular stories that are woven around the Queen. By all accounts, their relationship does not appear to have been ‘criminal’ in the physical sense. The author of the famous Tabkat-i-Nasiri only states, ‘Yaqut, the Abyssinian, acquired favour in attendance upon the Sultan’. This is a benign statement. The greatest breech of decorum alleged against Sultan Raziya is recorded by Ferishta, a later-day author, and pertains to ‘the familiarity which existed between the Abyssinian and the Queen in the fact that when she rode, she was always lifted on her horse by the Abyssinian’ (quoted by Ishwari Prasad in Medieval India p. 146). It is stated that when Sultan Raziya mounted her horse, Yaqut would place his hands under her arms to lift and place her on the saddle.

Whatever the truth of the allegations, Raziya committed an act of unpardonable indiscretion by openly demonstrating her preference for the Abyssinian. Such conduct was bound to arouse suspicion and resentment. There can be no doubt that Sultan Raziya clearly transgressed the proper limits of the society of the time, particularly since she was an unmarried princess of the royal family. It was not that a queen was not permitted to love. It was perfectly acceptable for a queen to indulge herself with a submissive prince consort or even to revel in the darkness of the palace harem behind the curtain of at least minimal outward show of decorum. However, an open admission of preference for an individual, that too an Abyssinian, was viewed by the Turkish nobility as an intolerable act of defiance by Sultan Raziya. They would act to set things right!

The ‘Forty’ now felt completely left outside the Sultan’s favour. This was an affront to their sense of entitlement since they had been and to a large extent continued to be the core of the military strength that had established the Muslim kingdom in the heart of North India. It was inevitable that a conspiracy would be hatched to depose Sultan Raziya and install someone who would be more pliable and amenable to their wishes in her place. Accordingly, a group of nobles, led by Aitigin who was the Amir-i-Hajib the Lord Chamberlain, decided to act. The other prime movers in the rebellion were Malik Altunia, the Governor of Bhatinda and Kabir Khan, the Governor of Lahore.

Kabir Khan went into open revolt first, but was almost immediately defeated by Raziya and he fled west. However, he was stopped at the River Chenab by the Mongols and was forced to return and surrender to the Queen. Raziya returned to Delhi in triumph. Almost immediately Altunia rebelled in Bhatinda. Raziya marched to suppress the rebellion, reaching Bhatinda in April 1240. However, on reaching Bhatinda, Yaqut who had accompanied her was ambushed and killed, and Raziya was isolated, captured and imprisoned. The conspirators placed Muiz ud-Din Bahram, Iltutmish’s third son on the throne in Delhi. The events that played out after this could be attributed to one of two factors, or could also be a combination of the two.

First, Raziya was a consummate diplomat and played a careful hand while in captivity in Bhatinda. The second factor could be that being far away from the seat of power, Altunia was not given his fair share of territories and other treasures of victory, when the redistribution of high offices and power was done, which led to his being disaffected. Altunia was himself an ambitious man and therefore, he married Raziya and together they marched on Delhi in August 1240. The Raziya-Altunia forces from Bhatinda were soundly defeated by the Delhi forces and the couple fled from the battlefield, while their troops deserted them. It is speculated that Altunia who was not considered a great field commander was permitted by Raziya, who was a much more capable commander, to make the decisions in the battle, which led to the defeat. It is believed that she deferred to her ‘husband’ during the critical phases of the battle as a self-effacing Muslim lady would normally do. This was behaviour that was completely out of character for the firebrand Queen. No clear reason has been attributed to this change towards docility in Raziya. It could be that the death of Yaqut, her own imprisonment and the forced domesticity that she had to embrace on being married combined to strip her of the steadfastness and courage that had been the hallmark of her reign.

There are conflicting versions of the death of Sultan Raziya. One states that while fleeing the battlefield she was murdered by some ‘Hindu’ robbers for her jewellery. [How the chronicler identified the robbers as ‘Hindu’ has never been satisfactorily explained. The robbers and dacoits of the time could have been of any religious denomination. The anti-Hindu bias of Muslim chroniclers of the time is seen in such nuanced ways.] The other version is that she was captured and send to Bahram, by then ruling in Delhi, in chains where she was put to death. The date of her death has been repeatedly confirmed as 13 October 1240. Irrespective of the version that is true, this was a mundane end to a tumultuous career for the only Muslim Queen to have ruled from Delhi. Her reign lasted just three years and six days. Sultan Raziya was buried on the banks of the River Yamuna with a small tomb to mark the grave. In later days, the tomb became a place of pilgrimage as a ‘place of sanctuary’.

The Confused Aftermath

Bahram Shah had arrived at a definitive understanding with the leader of the rebellion, Aitigin, before he was elevated to the throne. He assigned the highest executive powers in the sultanate to Aitigin, appointing him Naib-i-Mamlikat or the Regent of the kingdom, which was a newly created post. The nobles had believed that Bahram Shah would be a malleable figurehead. However, this was a simplistic appraisal of the man and a miscalculation. Bahram Shah was a fearless and courageous prince who disliked displays of royal splendour, but unfortunately was also schizophrenic. He was gentle and shy as well as savage and blood thirsty.

Once he was safely ensconced on the throne, his savage side came into prominence. He became brutally repressive towards the nobles, even his benefactors who had colluded to depose his sister and place him on the throne. Aitigin, now the most powerful man in the sultanate, married Bahram Shah’s sister, which offended the sultan. Aitigin was executed, being murdered in his office with the knowledge of the sultan according to some accounts. Bahram felt that the Lord Chamberlain, Badr ud-Din Sunqar who was also a member of the ‘Forty’ was becoming far too powerful. Therefore, he colluded with the wazir, or prime minister and had Sunqar banished from Delhi to Badaun. Perhaps because of his belief that he was powerful enough to defy the Sultan, Sunqar returned to Delhi without having obtained a royal pardon. Bahram promptly arrested him and had him executed.

These tyrannical acts greatly alarmed the nobility. It was normal for certain amount of conspiracies to be rife in the court of Delhi. However, Bahram Shah, in a short span of time, converted the sultanate into a hotbed of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. The nobles realised that the only solution to the rigmarole of the capricious behaviour of the sultan was to depose him. Soon after the execution of Sunqar, Bahram Shah himself was assassinated. Even though the nobles were almost united in initiating this action, there was a great deal of in-fighting to determine the successor after Bahram Shah was killed. Finally, a consensus candidate was agreed upon and Ala ud-Din Masud, Iltutmish’s grandson and son of Firoz Shah, was placed on the throne. Before being made the Sultan, Masud had to agree to the conditions laid out by the nobles—he had to abide by the agreements that had been made with Bahram Shah, now deceased, and he had to delegate all the powers of the sultan to the representatives of the ‘Forty’ and to the wazir. The wazir was to be the most powerful individual in the sultanate, even more than the Sultan himself.

Masud was initially generous and good-natured but gradually changed character, becoming erratic and autocratic in his behaviour. At this stage a minor noble who was very capable emerged within the ranks of the Turkish nobility—Balban. He gradually gained power and was appointed the Lord Chamberlain, thereafter going on to appropriate more power. Masud continued his erratic but tyrannical rule and was finally deposed, being murdered in prison in June 1246. The Turkish nobles placed Iltutmish’s youngest son Nasir ud-Din Mahmud on the throne.

Sultan Raziya – An Appreciation

Raziya was the only Muslim woman to have sat on the throne of Delhi. She was an extraordinary ruler—brave, energetic, a good commander and effective soldier on her own right, adept at administration, skilled in the art of diplomacy and not averse to political intrigue. These qualities in a male ruler would have made him almost invincible, but Raziya suffered the great disadvantage of gender bias. Even so, she raised the power of the crown, making it absolute. Qutb ud-Din, her grandfather was only considered chief among equals by the nobility and her own father Iltutmish was too shy even to sit on the throne in front of his peers. Raziya on the other hand dominated the politics of the Delhi sultanate from the time of her father’s death by the sheer charisma and power that she spread around her through the force of her character and inherent capabilities.

The only reason for her fall was that she was born a woman. When this almost debilitating disadvantage was combined with the Turkish nobility’s aversion to being ruled by a woman and their overriding ambition to keep the power of the sultan under check and within their grasp, Raziya had to fail. There was no opportunity for the course of events to have flowed any other way.

A Curious Coincidence

There have only been three women who have been ‘elected’ to the throne to rule a kingdom in the Islamic East and all three of them did so during the 13th century. First, Shajar-ad-Dur, the high spirited wife of the great Saladin’s grandnephew, the woman who defeated the crusade of Louis IX and later spared the saintly hero’s life, was the Queen of the Mamluks of Egypt in the 1250s. Second was Abish, the last in the princely line of Salghar, the patrons of Sa’adi, who ruled the great province of Fars for almost a quarter of a century in parallel to the time of Mongol supremacy in the region. The third was Raziya who ruled the Delhi sultanate, trying her best to prove herself a ‘man’ in a man’s world—riding an elephant, fighting battles and showing her face in public.


‘Sultan Raziya was a great monarch. She was wise, just and generous, a benefactor to her kingdom, a dispenser of justice, the protector of her subjects, and the leader of her armies. She was endowed with all the qualities befitting a king, but she was not born of the right sex, and so in the estimation of men all these virtues were worthless. (May God have mercy on her!)’

Minhaju-s Siraj in Tabakat-i-Nasiri,

As quoted in John Keay, India: A History, p.245.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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