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Fatimid Princess - Sitt al-Mulk
- By Sakar Datoo - my dear friend and teacher in High School
"Every history has its landmarks and its reference points, its periods
of order and disorder, its golden ages and its eras of decadence, and
among them all, the events that ‘count’." And I would add: men and women
who count. One of the traumatic aspects of the history of Islam is the
role, the status and the power of women in Islam.
It is a paradox that while Islam is generally viewed as a religion that
suppresses women, there are Muslim women whom history has recognized as
symbols of sovereignty, as women of the people, with extraordinary
abilities, stunning beauty, unparalleled intelligence - ‘princesses’ who
ascended the hierarchy and reached the summits traditionally and
officially reserved for men.
Indeed Islam is replete with examples of queens and princesses who
though forgotten and confined to realms of history, have left indelible
imprints upon their times and states.
One such unique example is of Sitt al - Mulk, the Fatimid Princess, whom
extraordinary circumstances led into fulfilling imperial duties when she
assumed power in 411/1020 after the disappearance of her brother, Imam
Hakim bi Amr Allah.
Sitt al -Mulk, which means ‘lady of power’ was one of the most beautiful
Fatimid princesses. She did not have to struggle to gain the first place
in the eyes of the caliphs. They were always rallying around her,
fascinated by the mixture of her great beauty and immense intelligence.
Sitt al - Mulk was the daughter of Imam al - Aziz and the older sister
of Imam Hakim bi Amr Allah. Sitt al - Mulk’s mother was a Christian of
Byzantine origin and was proud of her origin and determined to remain
Christian. Mowlana al - Aziz simply adored his daughter.
With hands richly adorned with the dynasty’s most precious jewels, the
young girl was dressed in gowns of the finest silk, and royal brocade
specially designed by an industry that served the Fatimid Dynasty. In
some ways, this was in contradiction to the Fatimids’ call for
simplicity and asceticism, for the Fatimids generally dressed in white
to manifest their difference from the Abbasids whose ceremonial attire
was black. But the white robes were enhanced with gold and silver
embroidery interspersed with precious stones to reflect the light of
the divine. These robes were supplied from the costume house founded by
Mowlana al - Moez, where master designers created clothes of dazzling
brilliance, in keeping with the official imagery of shining splendour
and divine light.
Mowlana al - Aziz had built two of Cairo’s most beautiful palaces - Qasr
- al - Bahr(the river palace) and Qasr al - Dhahab(the golden palace).
Sitt al - Mulk spent her happy childhood days in the elegant and
imposingly beautiful Qasr al - Bahr designed by the royal astrologers to
be in unison with the stars.
The reign of Imam al - Aziz was exceptional from every point of view. He
was described as ‘generous, courageous with a propensity for clemency,
since he gave pardons freely.’
Under his rule, non-Muslims - Christians and Jews - had privileges they
had never had before. They could occupy the highest offices of the
empire. They participated in all the political activities and acquired
pre-eminence which frequently rendered Mowlana al - Aziz target of
criticism. But he held out against the pressure and made his sense of
tolerance the ideal of education that he transmitted to his daughter,
Sitt al -Mulk. She inherited his personal qualities, particularly his
openness and tolerance. She also inherited two of his characteristics -
beauty and the heroes’ courage. From her early days, her father involved
her in decision making and in power by seeking her opinions and by
encouraging her to express them freely and frankly. Even as a young
adult, she was used to seeing her opinion taken into consideration, and
this continued to be so even after the death of her father.
She was born of a mixed marriage - an Imam and a Christian - and she was
proud of her birth and heritage and always defended he dual identity
rather vehemently. Her regard for Christians and Jews was an issue that
almost endangered her life.
In evaluating a caliph, his degree of toleration and his capacity to
avoid bloodshed was an important consideration, and the reign of Imam al
- Aziz , which lasted 21 years, was acknowledged as highly successful,
and he himself an exceptional prince.
The rule of Mowlana al - Aziz came to an unexpected and abrupt end. He
had personally set out to lead the Fatimid armies in an expedition
against the Byzantines when he suddenly fell ill and died at Bilbays, en
route to Syria in the month of Ramazan 386/996.
Most sources regard Mowlana al - Aziz as the best and wisest of all the
Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. He was an excellent administrator, politically
tolerant, who ‘loved pardon and used it often’. He was succeeded by his
young son, Hakim bi Amr Allah who was then 11 years old.
Mowlana al - Hakim faced many problems during his relatively ling
caliphate. He is known to have issued endless series of the most
extraordinary decrees which were ofetn abolished or reversed later.
However, he is also considered to be a ‘wise and tactful’ leader, and
his patronage of arts and sciences were praiseworthy. One of his most
important contributions was the foundation of Dar al - Hikma(House of
Wisdom). This institute of learning propagated Shia doctrines in general
and Fatimid Ismailism in particular.
In the closing years of his reign, Mowlana Hakim bi Amr Allah had
increasingly become ascetic. He used to take long nocturnal walks in the
streets of Cairo and Fustat as well as long excursions in the
countryside, especially in the hills outside Cairo. On 27th Shawwal
411/1021, he left for one of his usual outings and never returned. A
futile search was mounted for the Imam who was 36 years old at the time.
After 40 days, Sitt al Mulk had his only son and heir, al - Zahir, then
16 years old proclaimed as Imam and Caliph and Sitt al -Mulk became
The Egyptians created no problems for Sitt al - Mulkand accepted he
regency with calm and order. Cairo held its breath. The military, like
the people, retreated into silence. She organized the palace and the
regency skillfully and officially. She appointed some competent
ministers and settled down for four hears to putting the economy in
order and settling down the people. And this she accomplished with
In Islam, no woman who has held power has borne the title of caliph or
imam. Caliph is a title exclusively reserved to a tiny minority of men
because of its religious and messianic dimension. However, although no
woman ever became a caliph, as such, there have been women who became
sultanas and malikas(queens). One such famous woman was Razia Sultana,
who took power in Delhi in the year 634/1236. Another queen bearing the
title of sultana was Shajarat al -Durr, who gained power in Cairo in
648/1250 like any other military leader. In fact, she brought the
Muslims a victory during the Crusades and captured the King of France,
The Caliph is tied by divine law, and given its spiritual nature, is
also in charge of the Beyond:"This power belongs to the guardians of
divine law, namely ‘al - anbiya’(prophets) and those who fill their
place, that is, the caliphs", as they must "influence the community …in
matters that concern its interests in this world and the next."
Sitt al - Mulk, who was fully aware of the caliphal scene, was
intelligent and careful enough not to violate any of these rules and
requirements, and while she carried out virtually all the functions of
caliph, she did so and directed the affairs of the empire quite
effectively as Regent. She had the title of ‘Naib us Sultanat’.
She died in 415/1024, having brought order and stability to the state.
1 The Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatima Mernissi
2 The Ismailis: Their History & Doctrines by Farhad Daftary
Women in the Quran
Role of Women by Ikhwan
Princess Zahra's Speech Toronto 1997
Princess Zahra Speaks at the IAVE Conference in Canada
Mata Salamat Aga Khan Interview 1992
Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Receives Living Legacy Award
Mowlana Hazar Imam's Speech at the All India Women's Conference
Hazrat Mowlana Sultan Mahomed Shah's Message to all Pakistan Women’s Association and more!
<"http://www.amaana.org/akf/zahraspeech.htm"> Speech by Princess Zahra at the International Ismaili Women's Forum
Rabia, the Mystic
Zamzam, the Well of Ishmael The story of Hajar
History of the Imams Over 1400 Glorious years!
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