Sayyida al-Hurra

Modern imagination of Sayyida al-Hurra. Image Credit:

By Johanna Strong

Sayyida al-Hurra was born likely in 1485 (but possibly as late as 1495) to Mulay Ali Ibn Rashid (emir of Chefchaouen) and Lalla Zohra Fernandez. Unfortunately, Sayyida’s real name is unknown. The title al-Hurra means “noble lady who is free and independent” and “the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority”. She was the last person in Islamic history to legitimately hold this title.

Though she was born in Granada, her family fled to Morocco after Granada’s fall to Spain in 1492 during the Reconquista. Throughout her childhood, she received an outstanding education by leading contemporary scholars.

She married Sultan Muhammed al-Mandri likely in 1510 and together they had a daughter. Sayyida and the Sultan ruled together in Tétouan and worked to rebuild the city. Upon her husband’s death – likely in 1529 – Sayyida was given the title al-Hurra and became sovereign in her own right. It was at this point that she became Queen of the Pirates. She worked to disturb and upset Portuguese shipping lines and partnered with Barbarossa of Algiers to achieve dominion over the Mediterranean. Her power over this area was largely respected – albeit feared – by Spain and Portugal. Significantly, most of what we know of Sayyida’s life is from Portuguese and Spanish accounts.

She remarried in 1541 to the King of Morocco Ahmed al-Wattasi, and Sayyida maintained her queenly independence by requiring the King to travel to her for the marriage. This was the only time a King of Morocco married outside his capital city.

Shortly thereafter, in late 1542, Sayyida was deposed by her son-in-law Muhammed al-Hassan and she lost her property and her power. The rest of her life remains largely unknown, though she likely died in 1561 and is buried in Chefchaouen.

Recommended Reading

Hasna Lebaddy, “Sayyida al-Hurra (1492–1552),” in Henry Louis Gates, Emmanuael Akyeampong and Steven J. Niven, eds. Dictionary of African Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Fatima Mernissi, Sultanes oubliées: femmes chefs d’état en islam (Casablanca, Morocco: Éditions le Fennec, 1990).

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