The First Woman in Islam to Assume the Throne on her Own Right
Hijra Unknown-635 (AH); Common Era Unknown-1257 (CE)
Shajarat al-Durr ( ‘Pearl Tree’ or ‘Spray of Pearls’), also known as Ismat al-Din and Umm Khalil, resided in the harem of Abbasid caliph Mustasim, who sent her as a gift to the Sultan of Egypt, Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Salih Ayub. Instantly in love, the Sultan married her and, after she gave birth to his son, pronounced her his favorite wife. She impressed his court with her devotion to him in his illness.After her husband was captured and imprisoned by his cousin, she accompanied him to prison. Sultan al-Salih Ayub died at a time that Egypt was being threatened by Louis IX’s crusader forces. Upon his death, Shajarat sent for his son, Turanshah, but – understanding that it would take months for him to arrive – began issuing political and administrative decisions in his name, hiding his death from the public and forging his signature, while being supported by many of his closest companions. As a result of her actions, the Franks surrendered and Louis IX was captured for ransom. Although Turanshah became sultan briefly, his policies were disastrous and he was murdered. Shajarat was elevated to the sultanate in her own name. Despite the threats from the French, she was able to keep Egypt unthreatened and politically stable. The Caliph, however, deemed this situation unsatisfactory and demanded that Egypt find a male ruler. To ensure stability, Shajarat agreed to marry again and abdicate her position. Although she married Aybek, the nominal sultan, Shajarat ruled behind the scenes for the next seven years. Eventually, Aybed tired of his wife’s control and proposed to marry someone else. When Shajarat learned about his proposal, she had him murdered. As a result, she was imprisoned and Aybek’s son Ali (from his former marriage) was pronounced the new sultan. In retaliation, Aybek’s former wife and Ali’s mother had Shajarat beaten to death.