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Queen Arwa of Yemen: Epitome of Grace and Power

by Farida Haji

Islam has a history of women of faith and courage, be it Khadija, the revered wife of Prophet Muhammed ﷺ or the women of the Prophet’s ﷺ family. Through this article, we share the timeline of a lesser-known Queen of Yemen.  

Queen Arwa of Yemen

When we think of Yemen, we tend to remember the magnificent Pre-Islamic Arab queen, Queen of Sheba, Bilqis, who ruled the South Arabian kingdom of Saba in present-day Yemen and Ethiopia.

We share a glimpse of one more impressive figure in Yemeni history: the last ruler of the Sulayhid Dynasty. Queen Arwa of Yemen exercised exceptional political and religious authority, ruling the country for more than 50 years as Islam flourished through the Golden Age.

She was the first woman to be accorded the prestigious title of hujja by the Isma’ili branch of Shi’a Islam. She ruled for over fifty years and never lost support from the Yemeni people. She was affectionately titled Malikat Sabaʾ Aṣ-Ṣaghīrah (Little Queen of Sheba), As-Sayyidah Al-Ḥurrah, Al-Malikah Al-Ḥurrah, and Al-Ḥurratul-Malikah.

1048 CE:

Queen Arwa was born as Arwā bint Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jaʿfar ibn Mūsā aṣ-Ṣulayḥī in the city of Haraz in Yemen. Orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by her paternal uncle King Ali and aunt Queen Asma of Yemen.

Queen Asma, her future mother-in-law, enriched and educated  Arwa with soulful poetry and an in-depth understanding of the Qur’an.

1065 CE:

Queen Arwa married her cousin, the crown prince Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali, acquiring the title of Sayyada Arwa when she was 18. In a series of traumatic events King Ali, her father-in-law was killed and Queen Asma was captured. After Queen Asma was rescued, the crown prince suffered from paraplegia. His poor health put Queen Arwa in a position of power at a very young age. She co-ruled with her mother-in-law until Queen Asma died in 1074, after which she took sole charge of her kingdom.

1088 CE:

Queen Arwa persuaded her husband, King Ahmad al Mukarram to shift his capital to Dhu Jiblah from Sana’a for two primary reasons. Firstly, her political and strategic insight of Dhu Jiblah, as the city, lay between the upper and lower regions of Yemen. It made it easy to manage the affairs of the kingdom.

Secondly, the foresight of the type of people of the regions. She asked her husband to call upon the people of Sana’a and its neighboring villages. When they gathered, the king saw none but all carrying either a sword or a spear. After the king migrated to Dhu Jiblah with his wife, he summoned the inhabitants of Dhu Jiblah. Where he saw none but either all carrying gifts in their hands or loaded on the backs of animals.

City View of Dhu Jiblah, Yemen

The Queen commented, “Indeed, life should be lived amongst these,’ and thus, Dhu Jiblah was made the capital. Dar al-Izz was chosen as the royal residence due to its strategic position. The ruins of the fortress exist to date. She ruled trade routes within the country and those across the Gulf of Aden into East Africa.

Her contemporary al-Sultan al-Khattab said of her praise: “ She was the Banu Sulayhi’s pearl, who brought light to a place of darkness.

1138 CE:

Queen Arwa's tomb in Yemen

As an efficient and remarkable Muslim sovereign, she held court, minted coins, fought wars, negotiated peace treaties, and built cities and trade routes. She set up several madrasas for cultural and religious studies. She built roads and numerous mosques.

Queen Arwa passed away and is buried in the Queen Arwa Mosque or Friday Mosque in Dhu Jiblah, which has become an important pilgrimage site for pious Yemenis.

A Timeline illustration of the life of Queen Arwa of Yemen

Queen Arwa Mosque or Friday Mosque in Yemen

Yemen's oldest mosque, Queen Arwa or friday Mosque

The magnificent masjid’s construction began in 1056. It was meant to be a palace but was repurposed as a mosque by the Queen after she shifted her capital from Sana’a to Dhu Jiblah. This masjid and numerous other monuments in Yemen are an architectural testimony to her legacy.