From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state. Nor has it ever been.

Stretching back more than 14 centuries to the advent of Islam, women have held positions among many ruling elites, from malikas, or queens, to powerful advisors. Some ascended to rule in their own right; others rose as regents for incapacitated husbands or male successors yet too young for a throne. Some proved insightful administrators, courageous military commanders or both; others differed little from equally flawed male potentates who sowed the seeds of their own downfalls.

This six-part series presents some of the most notable historical female leaders
of Muslim dynasties, empires and caliphates. 

Our fifth story takes place during the early 17th century in the Mughal Empire’s royal cities of Agra and Lahore.



It’s hard to be all things to all people, but Nur Jahan came very close.

 
A devoted wife and mother, she was also a politician, a businesswoman, a fashion designer and trendsetter, a developer and garden planner, a philanthropist devoted to women, a battlefield commander and even a tiger-hunting sharpshooter.

The empire she ruled with her husband, Jahangir, stretched at its height across much of India and southern Afghanistan. It had been founded in the first half of the 16th century by Turco-Mongols (hence “Mughal”) who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and Amir Timur through its founder, Babur. From then until the mid-19th century, the Mughal state was renowned for its organization, learning, tolerance, culture and prosperity.

The future Nur Jahan—the name is her later, royal title—was born Mihrunissa (Sun Among Women) in 1577 in Kandahar in what is now Afghanistan, the fourth child to her mother, Asmat Begam, and her father, Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din Muhammad. Aristocrats of Persian descent, they found favor in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Taking the Turkic title beg (pr. bay), Mirza Ghiyas received also the honorific Itimad-ud-Daula (Pillar of the State) while young Mihrunissa received a royal education where she excelled in art, music, literature and dance.

At 17, according to Heinrich Blochmann, an 18th-century translator of Akbar’s official chronicle Akbar Nama, she was wed to another transplanted courtier who had previously served in Persia, Ali Quli Beg Istajlu, upon whom Akbar’s son Shah Salim conferred the title Sher Afkan (Lion Slayer) because of his courage in battle. The union produced Mihrunissa’s only child, her daughter, Ladli Begam. When Salim ascended to the throne in 1605, he adopted the imperial name Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi, or, more concisely, Jahangir (World Conqueror). Two years later, Mihrunissa’s husband was killed in an altercation with the governor of Bengal and his officers. 

Royal diarist Mu’tamid Khan, in his Iqbal Nama, recalled that some four years after the Lion Slayer’s death, during the spring new year celebrations of 1611, Mihrunissa “caught the King’s far-seeing eye, and so captivated him that he included her amongst the intimates of his select harem.” They were married less than two months later, on May 25. She was just shy of 35; he was 41. Among the last of many wives, Mihrunissa became Jahangir’s favorite and chief consort.

“Day by day her influence and dignity increased,” Khan observed. Distinguished from other ladies of the court, she enjoyed lofty titles including Nur Mahal (Light of the Palace), Nur Jahan Begam (Lady Light of the World) and Padshah Begam (Imperial Lady), until Nur Jahan (Light of the World) became her ultimate title. 

In his memoirs, Jahangir recorded how during a hunt, Nur Jahan, mounted on an elephant, shot four tigers with six bullets.


Part of her growing power came from the custom of appointing family members to high court positions: Her father became chief minister; her mother became chief matron of the harem; her brother Asaf Khan became head of the royal household and his daughter Arjumand (Nur Jahan’s niece) married Jahangir’s son Shah Khurram. Her influence was such that Dutch merchant Francisco Pelsaert took note of where real power rested. “[Jahangir] is King in name only, while [Nur Jahan] and her brother Asaf Khan hold the kingdom firmly in their hands,” Pelsaert remarked. “If anyone with a request to make at Court obtains an audience or is allowed to speak, the King hears him indeed, but will give no definite answer of Yes or No, referring him promptly to Asaf Khan, who in the same way will dispose of no important matter without communicating with his sister, the Queen.”

Another of Jahangir’s diarists, Muhammad Hadi, surmised that nothing “was wanting to make her an absolute monarch,” but the symbolic “reading of the khutba [Friday sermon] in her name.” Not only did she conduct administrative business with the public, but nobles came to “receive her commands. Coins were struck in her name, and the royal seal … bore her signature.” 

A character sketch by Venetian Niccolao Manucci, in his history of the Mughal court, qualified Nur Jahan as “a woman of great judgment, and of verity, worthy to be a queen.”

In part, her power was compensatory. The emperor was a self-confessed alcoholic and opium addict. Hadi reported that Jahangir “used to say that Nur Jahan Begam has been selected and is wise enough to conduct the matters of State” while all he desired was “a bottle of wine and piece of meat to keep himself merry.”

As Jahangir’s health declined, he continued to praise Nur Jahan’s “skill and experience” as “greater than those of the physicians,” and he poignantly credited her “affection and sympathy” for diminishing “the number of my cups [and keeping] me from things that did not suit me.”

It is in this context that historians most remember Nur Jahan. She juggled the care of her chronically ill husband with the demands of the empire, and she did so famously. “It is impossible to describe the beauty and wisdom of the Queen. In any matter that was presented to her, if a difficulty arose, she immediately solved it,” wrote Khan.

The range of her accomplishments bears out their praise. In commerce, she turned land grants (jagirs) given to her by Jahangir into profit centers. She collected shrewdly calculated duties on imports, Pelsaert noted, “of innumerable kinds of grain, butter, and other provisions.” She owned her own ships that sailed to and from Arabia, Persia and Africa, trading spices, ginger and dyes for perfumes, ceramics, ivory, amber and pearls. She managed rivalries by playing the English off the Dutch and the Portuguese off them both, granting trade concessions (primarily for indigo and embroidered cloth) for sizeable fees. 

More than a gesture, her concern for the poor—especially poverty-stricken young women—was genuine.


She used wealth and influence to support painters, poets and musicians. Especially keen was her interest in designs for building that impacted Mughal architecture: Her fondness for the domestic art of embroidery, for example, is reflected in ornamental reliefs in the tomb of her father in Agra.

Her refined tastes were also evident in the “very expensive buildings” she erected “in all directions—sarais, or halting-places for travelers and merchants, and pleasure-gardens and palaces such as no one has ever made before,” Pelsaert wrote. She designed, among others, the famed Achabal Gardens in Kashmir state, with its lavish array of fruit trees, fountains and a man-made waterfall illuminated at night from behind by “innumerable lamps,” wrote the gobsmacked French physician Francois Bernier, who traveled almost a century later.

Yet Nur Jahan could also be as thrifty as a village housewife. On one occasion recounted by 18th-century Delhi historian Khafi Khan, Jahangir, upon questioning the expense of finely embroidered caparisons for the royal elephants, was pleased to learn that Nur Jahan spent “practically nothing on them,” having them instead made by palace tailors from used mail bags.

When it came to her own couture, she pioneered what would be regarded today as a line of designer clothing. She set fashion trends at court with her designs of silver-threaded brocades (badla) and lace (kinari), light-weight, floral-patterned cotton and muslin textiles (panch-toliya and dudami) for veils and gowns, and her own signature scent made from rose oil, Atri Jahangiri. For cost-conscious brides (and grooms), she is also credited with creating the (now traditional) nurmahali, an inexpensive set of wedding clothes. More than a gesture, her concern for the poor—especially poverty-stricken young women—was genuine. “She was an asylum for all sufferers,” Hadi recorded. “She must have apportioned about 500 girls in her lifetime, and thousands were grateful for her generosity.”

Yet when the need arose, she swapped flowery gowns for battle gear. Ambushed by rebel forces on her way to Kabul with Jahangir in 1626, Nur Jahan directed the imperial army’s defense from atop a war elephant. When a female servant beside her was shot with an arrow in her arm, the queen “herself pulled it out, staining her garments with blood,” Hadi reported. 

Nur Jahan was praised also by her husband for her skill with a hunting gun from the teetering perch of an elephant litter. In his memoirs, he recorded how she shot four tigers with six bullets, acknowledging that “an elephant is not at ease when it smells a tiger and is continually in movement, and to hit with a gun from a litter (imari) is a very difficult matter.”

An unnamed poet present during the hunt was moved to compose the following verse:

Though Nur Jahan be in the form of a woman, In the ranks of men, she’s a tiger-slayer.
 

That rebellion of 1626 stemmed from earlier unrest stirred up by Shah Khurram, who envied Nur Jahan’s influence over his father. When Jahangir died in 1627, a war of succession followed. Nur Jahan attempted to enthrone Shahryar, the youngest of Jahangir’s sons, who had married Nur Jahan’s daughter, Ladli Begam. But Shahryar was slain, and Shah Khurram ascended the throne as Shah Jahan. The “Light of the World” did not interfere further, and she lived for 19 more years in quiet retirement in Lahore with her widowed daughter. 
Putting aside finery, she is said to have worn simple white clothing and abstained from parties and social functions. Her life drew to a close on December 17, 1645, at the age of 68. She is buried in Lahore, in a mausoleum of her own design, upon which this epitaph to her grace and modesty is etched: 

On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing. 

Art direction for the “Malika” series is by Ana Carreño Leyva. Calligraphy is by Soraya Syed. The logo graphics are produced by Mukhtar Sanders (www.inspiraldesign.com).