By Farhad Daftary
Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage and Piety, edited by Gavin R. G. Hambly (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)
Abstract: This article explores the career of queen Sayyida Hurra, she was the political and religious leader of Sulayhid Yemen, which was an extremely rare occurrence and privilege for a woman in Fatimid times. Hurra was closely linked with the Ismaili da‘wa in Cairo, and rose up the ranks of the Fatimid da‘wa to receive the rank of hujja. Hurra was the first woman in the history of Ismailism to gain high rank in the Ismaili hierarchy, thus making this appointment a unique event. Daftary traces other events such as the Musta‘li-Nizari split and looks at how Hurra dealt with these incidents and the implications for the Ismaili da‘wa.
Introduction: Few women rose to positions of political prominence in the medieval dar al-Islam, and, perhaps with the major exception of Sayyida Hurra, none can be cited for having attained leadership in the religious domain. A host of diverse factors have accounted for a lack of active participation of women in the political and religious affairs of the Islamic world during the medieval and later times; and the associated complex issues are still being debated among scholars of different disciplines and among Muslims themselves. Be that as it may, there were occasional exceptions to this rule in the medieval dar al-Islam, indicating that opportunities did in principle exist for capable women to occupy positions of public prominence under special circumstances. This article briefly investigates the career and times of the foremost member of this select group, namely the queen Sayyida Hurra who, in a unique instance in the entire history of medieval Islam, combined in her person the political as well as the de facto religious leadership of Sulayhid Yemen; and in both these functions was closely associated with the Fatimid dynasty and the headquarters of the Isma`ili da’wa or mission centred at Cairo.