Arwa al-Sulayhi

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Arwa al-Sulayhi (Arabic: أروى بنت أحمد بن محمد بن جعفر بن موسى الصليحي الإسماعيليةʾArwà bint ʾAḥmad bin Muḥammad bin Jaʿafar bin Mūsà al-Ṣulayḥī al-ʾIsmāʿīliyyä, (also detailed in more authentic books as :ʾArwà bint ʾAḥmad bin Muḥammad bin Qaasim bin Mūsà al-Ṣulayḥī al-ʾIsmāʿīliyyä') c. 1048–1138, death: 22nd Shabaan, 532 AH) was the long-reigning ruler of Yemen, firstly through her first two husbands and then as sole ruler, from 1067 until her death in 1138. She was the greatest of the rulers of the Sulayhid Dynasty and was also the first woman to be accorded the prestigious title of hujja in Ismāʿīlī branch of Shi'a Islam, signifying her as the closest living image of God's will in her lifetime. She is popularly referred to as Sayyida Hurra (السيدة الحرة al-Sayyidä al-Ḥurrä, 'the Noble Lady'), al-Malika al-Hurra (الملكة الحرة al-Ḥurrätu 'l-Malikä, 'the Noble Queen') and the Little Queen of Sheba (ملكة سبأ الصغيرة Malikät Sabāʾ al-sagera).

Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi Masjid, Photo taken from her Palace

Early life[edit]

Arwa was born in 440 Hijri, 1048 in Haraz, which was the heartland of Ismāʿīlīsm in Yemen. She was the niece of the then ruler of Yemen, Ali al-Sulayhi. Orphaned at a young age, she was brought up in the palace at Sana'a under the tutorship of her aunt, the formidable Queen Asma binte Shihaab al-Sulayhiyya, her mother in Law, co-ruler with, and wife of, Sayyidna Ali bin Muhammad bin Ali bin Muhammad As-Sulayhi. In 1066, at the age of 17, Arwa married her cousin Ahmad al-Mukarram al-Sulayhi bin Ali bin Muhammad As Sulaihi, with the city of Aden as her mehr, and Queen Asma binte Shahaab became her mother-in-law. Arwa assisted her mother-in-law and her husband after death of Sayyidna Ali al-Sulayhi. She had four children, their names being Mohammed, Ali, Fatema and Umm Hamdan.

Arwa is said by the chroniclers of her time to be brave, devout and have an independent character. She was also seen as highly intelligent and well learned, having a great memory for poems, stories and historical events. She was very knowledgeable in the sciences of the Qur'an and the hadith. The chroniclers also mention her as being extremely beautiful.

Queen Arwa al- Sulaihi Palace Front View

Early rule as queen[edit]

Following the death of Sayyidna Ali al-Sulayhi in 1067, Sayyada Arwa's husband Ahmad became the de jure ruler of Yemen, but he was unable to rule being paralyzed and bedridden. He gave all of his power to Arwa, and she had her name mentioned in the khutba directly after the name of the Fatamid Caliph, Ma'ad al-Mustansir bi'l-Lāh, signifying her authority to rule. One of her first actions was to move the capital from Sana'a to Jibla in order to be in a better position to destroy the Najahid ruler Sa'id ibn Najar of Zabid and thus avenge her father-in-law's death. This she managed to do by luring him into a trap in 1088. She built a new palace at Jibla, and transformed the old palace into a great mosque where she was eventually buried.

After the death of Ahmad AlMukarram, Sayyada Arwa was encouraged by Imām Al-Mustansir bi'l-Lāh to marry her late husband's cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad. This she did reluctantly in 1091 in order to remain in power, but she probably did not allow the marriage to be consummated. She continued to rule Yemen until Saba died in 1101. From that time on she ruled alone.

Courtyard of the Queen Arwa Mosque in Jibla

Religious position[edit]

Arwa was an Ismā‘īlī Shi’i and was well-versed in various religious sciences, Qur'an, hadith, as well as poetry and history. Chroniclers describe her as being incredibly intelligent. She was given the highest rank in the Yemen da'wa, that of hujja, by Imām Al-Mustansir bi'l-Lāh in 1084. This was the first time that a woman had ever been given such a status in the whole history of Islam. Under her rule, Shi'a da'is were sent to western India. Owing to her patronage of missions, an Ismāʿīlī community was established in Gujarat in the second half of the 11th century, which still survives there today as Dawoodi Bohra, Sulaymani and Alavi.[1]

In the 1094, Ismāʿīlī schism, Arwa supported ʿAhmad al-Mustā‘lī b’il-Lāh to be the rightful successor to Ma'ad al-Mustansir bi'l-Lāh. Due to the high opinion in which Arwa was held in Yemen and western India these two areas followed her in regarding Imām al-Mustā‘lī b’il-Lāh as the new Fatimid Caliph.

Through her support of Imām at-Tāyyīb she became head of a new grouping in Ismāʿīlī Shi'i Islam, which became known as the Taiyabi. Her enemies in Yemen in turn gave their backing to al-Hafiz but they were unable to remove Sayyada Arwa from power. The Taiyabi believe that Ismāʿīlī Imām Al-Āmir bi'Aḥkāmi’l-Lāh sent a letter to Arwa, commissioning her to appoint a vicegerent for his infant son Imām Taiyyab . In accordance with this wish, she appointed Zoeb bin Musa as Da'i al-Mutlaq, the vicegerent of the secluded at-Tāyyīb Abū’l-Qāsim. The line of succession continues down to today,

Hafizi Ismāʿīlīsm, the following of al-Hafiz, intimately tied to the Fatimid regime in Cairo, disappeared soon after the collapse of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171 and the Ayyubid invasion of southern Arabia in 1173. But the Taiyabi da'wa, initiated by Arwa, survived in Yemen with its headquarters remaining in Haraz. Due to the close ties between Sulayhid Yemen and Gujarat, the Fatimid and Tayyibi cause was also upheld in western India, which was gradually became home to largest population of Fatimid Taiyabi Ismāʿīlī believers, known there as Sulaimani and Dawoodi Bohra.

Building works and economic policy[edit]

In Sana'a, Arwa had the grand mosque expanded, and the road from the city to Samarra improved. In Jibla, she had a new palace and the eponymous mosque constructed. She is also known to have built numerous schools throughout her realm.

Arwa improved the economy, taking an interest in supporting agriculture.

Death and reputation[edit]

Mausoleum of Hurrat-ul-Malika inside Mosque
grave Hurratul malika

Arwa remained in power until her death in 1138. She was buried beside the mosque that she had had built at Jibla. Her tomb later became a place of pilgrimage. The Queen Arwa University in Sana'a is named after her.



  1. Sayyida Hurra. "The Ismāʿīlī Sulayhid Queen of Yemen by Farhad Daftary"; contained in the book Women in the Medieval Islamic World, edited by Gavin R. G. Hambly
  2. Fatima Mernissi. The Forgotten Queens of Islam.

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