By Louise Gay
Asma Bint Shibab al-Sulayhiyya was queen-consort (malika) of Yemen and co-ruler with her husband Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Sulayhi, the founder of the Sulayhi dynasty, from 1047 to 1066. Afterwards, she co-ruled with her son al-Mukarram and daughter-in-law Arwa until her death in 1087.
Born into a high-ranking family, Asma was as her husband an Isma’ili Shiite. As such, the Yemeni sovereigns were vassals of the Fatimids of Cairoand opponents ofthe Sunni caliphate of Baghdad. Asma directed with and alongside her husband Ali the important matters of the realm.
Her name was included in the Khutba (the Friday prayer) which proclaimed the name(s) of the sovereign(s), and chroniclers report that she attended the councils of state with “her face uncovered” (unveiled), thus breaking tradition.
In 1066, she went on a pilgrimage with Ali to Mecca escorted by thousands of soldiers. Their convoy suffered an attack on the road by Sa’id Ibn Najah, the prince of nearby Zubayd, which resulted in Ali’s murder. Spared by Sa’id, Asma then spent about a year in captivity.
Sources claim that her cell had a view on the severed head of her late husband planted on a pole throughout her imprisonment.
In 1067, her son al-Mukarram launched a rescue mission to free his mother from her captors with the support of many notables of the Yemeni capital “to save the honour of their imprisoned queen”.
Whilst the operation was a success, al-Mukarram faced an emotional trauma on site which left him permanently partially paralysed. Back at the court, Asma then took over the management of the country until her death in 1087.
Her example was certainly an enabling factor for her daughter-in-law, Arwa Bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya, to become in her turn co-ruler with her husband then her son, and later independently.
Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
Elena Woodacre, “Gender and Authority: The Particularities of Female Rule in the Premodern Mediterranean,” in Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean, edited by Megan Moore, 137-162 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 2019).