Female Islamic Saints


I. The ḍarîḥ around ’Arwā’s tomb besides her mosque in Jiblah, Yemen.

’Arwā aṣ-Ṣulayḥī (1048–1138) was a Yemeni queen and the last ruler of the Sulayhi dynasty, who greatly influenced the Ismaili da‘wah, or missionary movement. Merely called Sayyidah bint ’Aḥmad in contemporary records, she was the niece of ‘Alī aṣ-Ṣulayḥī, who of the Sulayhi dynasty as a vassal under the Fatimid Caliphate. When ‘Alī was killed by an heir of the rivaling Najahi dynasty, his wife ’Asmā’ acted as regent while his son ’ al-Mukarram was young. ’Aḥmad, however, had suffered paralysis from warring with the Najahis to maintain Sulayhi territory, and so ’Arwā took over as Queen consort. She promptly moved the capital from Sana‘a’ to Jiblah for a better vantage on Zabid, the former Najahi capital, as well as Najahi threats to Sulayhi rule. She also repurposed the old Dār al-‘Izz Palace there into a mosque and erected a new Dār al-‘Izz.

As well as consolidating political power, ’Arwā ascended the hierarchy of the Fatimid da‘wah, becoming the head of the Yemeni da‘wah as her uncle had. Her familial link to ‘Alī and her reportedly intellectual and pious disposition ingratiated her with the current Imam and Caliph al-Mustanṣir, who appointed her to be his ḥujjah or representative. After her husband ’Aḥmad’s death, she even hesitantly married his cousin Sabā’ ibn ’Aḥmad at al-Mustanṣir’s suggestion, although she maintained power as Queen consort. She enhanced the Fatimid da‘wah in India and sent missionaries to Gujarat, where an Ismaili community was first established in 1067. When al-Mustanṣir died in 1094, ’Arwā supported his younger son al-Musta‘lī, who had been throned, over his older son Nizar. Because of her influence in da‘wah and Fatimid politics, Ismailis in Yemen, Gujurat and the Fatimid realm generally accepted al-Musta‘lī as the Imam. When the subsequent Imam, al-‘Āmir, was murdered, his cousin al-Ḥāfiẓ declared himself Imam after being the regent for al-‘Āmir’s infant son aṭ-Ṭayyib, and ’Arwā recognized and backed aṭ-Ṭayyib. Ismailis in Yemen and Gujurat followed suit, while in Egypt and Syria, as well as dynastic rivals of the Sulayhis in Yemen, Ismailis largely recognized al-Ḥāfiẓ. Aṭ-Ṭayyib himself seems to have died or disappeared early on, although it is believed by Tayyibis that he concealed himself, and that his heirs remained concealed. To compensate for a concealed Imam, ’Arwā appointed Dhu’ayb bin Mūsā as the first missionary with absolute authority over the community and as the head of da‘wah, essentially establishing a Tayyibi da‘wah independently of the Fatimid da‘wah and her. The dā‘ī muṭlaq, or sovereign missionary, succeed one another by naṣṣ, or explicit nomination or will, as the Imams had. The line of dā‘īs established by ’Arwā had spiritual authority over the Tayyibi community (often called Bohra in India) in a unified succession until the late 16th century.

II. Devotees display ’Arwā’s wooden prayer beads.

’Arwā was one of the only Muslim Queens to have her name announced in the state-sanctioned Friday sermons, and after her second husband died, almost 30 years before the second Imam schism in her life, she ruled by herself for the remaining 37 years of her life. When she died, she willed to be buried besides the mosque that had been a palace in Jiblah, and she willed her jewelry collection to the concealed Imam. However, there were no remaining Sulayhis, as she likely did not consummate her marriage with Sabā’, and with the exception of short lived forts and hold outs, the dynasty collapsed. Despite this, she is affectionately called Sayyidah Ḥurrah, or noble lady, and the Tayyibi community still visit her tomb and venerate her for her patronage and foundational role in the existence of their communities.

Photo Reference

I: Waddington, Rod. “Mausoleum of Queen Arwa, Jibla.” Flickr, 11 Mar. 2014, www.flickr.com/photos/rod_waddington/13082096983.

II: Md iet. “Tasbih Hurrat-ul-Malaika.” Wikimedia Commons, 13 Aug. 2008, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tasbih_Hurrat-ul-Malaika_.JPG.

II: Artist unknown.

Other Reading

Daftary, Farhad. “Sayyida Hurra: The Isma‘ili Sulayhid Queen of Yemen.” The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2003, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, iis.ac.uk/academic-article/sayyida-hurra-isma-ili-sulayhid-queen-yemen.

Arwa al-Sulayhi • Sayyidah Hurrah • Al-Tayyib

West AsiaIsma‘iliImami Shi‘iMonarchQueen ConsortMissionaryScholar.