Arwa al-Sulayhi

Photo of the Queen Arwa Mosque, Jibla. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Johanna Strong

Arwa al-Sulayhi of Yemen was born Sayyida Hurra of the Isma’ili Sulayhid dynasty between 1045 and 1048 to Admad b. Ja’far b. Musa al-Sulayhi and al-Radah bint al-Fari b. Musa. She was raised and educated to be a queen and contemporary sources note her intelligence and education.

She married al-Mukarram bi Allah in 1065 and was queen consort from 1067 until his death in 1084, holding increasing power as he retreated from public life due to paralysation. At her husband’s death, she became regent for their son Ali Abd al-Mustansir until his death in 1094. She was now queen in her own right.  She later married her second husband, Saba ibn Ahmad, who died around 1100.

She kept Yemeni tribal leaders in check balanced a relationship with Fatimid imam-caliphs in Cairo while maintaining Yemeni independence. She set up centres for education for cultural and religious studies and encouraged infrastructure projects such as road-building, the construction of mosques, and creation of the palace of Dar al-Izz. Significantly, she held political and religious authority simultaneously.

She was affectionately known as the “Little Queen of Sheba” by her subjects, but perhaps most importantly she was given the title of Hujja, the highest title in Islam. She died in 1138 and is buried in the Friday Mosque at Dhu Jibala in a gold- and silver-covered mausoleum.

Recommended Reading

Lauralee, ‘Queen Arwa of Yemen – The pearl who brought light to a place of darkness’, History of Royal Women, 2018.

“Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi,” Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, 2021.

Shahla Haeri, “Sayyida Hurra Queen Arwa of Yemen: “The Little Queen of Sheba”,” in The Unforgettable Queens of Islam: Succession, Authority, Gender, Shahla Haeri, 79–105 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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