The state of Aceh, founded in the northern part of Sumatra in the early 16th century, was the most powerful Moslem country (especially in the second half of the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries) in the Far East until it was taken over by the Dutch in 1873. This state offered the most stubborn resistance to the Western powers, particularly Portugal which established a base in Malacca at the beginning of the 16th century.
And like the Maldives and other Islands, also here there was a strong matriarchal tradition before the arrival of Islam. However, the role of the female rulers of Aceh was more passive than it was the case on the Maldives. It was during this period that the Sultanate of Aceh was founded and then established by the appointed ruler Ibrahim. It is reported that Ibrahim, who took the title Ali Mugâyet Shah, was poisoned by his wife, the daughter of the governor of Dyah, who thus avenged her father’s fate (1528).
Ali Mugayet Shah was succeeded by his son Salahuddin who reigned until 1537.
Salahuddin was succeeded by his brother Alauddin el-Kahhar who ruled until 1568.
Sultan Hüseyin (1568-75), who succeeded Alauddin, managed to reach an agreement with the Queen of Japara in 1573 and attacked Malacca, but with no result; another expedition, this time in 1575, also failed.
Nevertheless, Aceh never gave up the struggle against Portuguese colonialism. In 1582, Alauddin Mansur Shah (1577-1586) sent another fleet against Malacca, which again had to withdraw having achieved nothing. Aceh reached the zenith of its power during the reign of Alauddin Mansur Shah. The country was prosperous, and all the kings of Asia courted his friendship. No other country in the Subcontinent could rival it in commerce.
A rebel commander came on the throne with the name of Sultan Alauddin Riayet Shah (1586-1604) after Mansur Shah. His son Ali Riayet Shah (1604-7) followed him, but soon showed that he did not deserve his exalted post; he spent all his time among the women of his harem, and his complete indifference to administrative problems soon led to disorder and restlessness in the country.
In 1606, the Portuguese launched an attack on Aceh and even managed to take the outer fortifications. In this situation, the Sultan’s nephew fought with such valour that the Portuguese had to withdraw. This won the prince great fame and sympathy among the people.
His ambitious mother decided to exploit this event and to put her son on the throne. She began to distribute gifts and money among the emirs and the populace to win their support. By a lucky-for them coincidence, the Sultan died suddenly; the young prince at once took over the palace arid with the help of the guards, officers and the palace chamberlain (to all of whom he had made all kinds of promises) was enthroned as Iskander Muda (1607-1636).
The Sultan of Pedir had been informed of the death of his brother, but was not aware of what had transpired later. He came to Aceh and entered the palace without any precautions, Iskander Muda Shah had him arrested and, a month later, executed.
All the persons and the chamberlain who had helped the new Sultan to the throne soon met with the same fate. Muda Shah proved himself, contrary to all expectations, an extremely cruel tyrant. After friendly overtures to the Dutch and the British and the granting of the privilege of opening trading posts in Aceh, he reversed himself and closed these ports.
In 1613, Iskander Muda invaded Aru and Siyak, and later Johor. In 1615, he organised a vast expeditionary force to capture Malacca, in which enterprise he was unsuccessful, but, in 1618, he managed to take Queda on the Malaccan peninsula and Delhi in Sumatra. Another attempt on Malacca in 1622 was unsuccessful because of the reinforcements received by the Portuguese at the last moment.
After Iskander Muda’s death in 1636, his close relative and son-in-law succeeded to the throne as Iskander II. This Sultan achieved what had eluded all his predecessors: he took Malacca and put the Malacca Straits completely under Aceh control. This marks the second golden age of Aceh history.
When Iskender II died in 1641, he left no male successor to the throne. His wife (and Iskander Muda’s daughter) succeeded to the throne without meeting any objection as Safiyetuddin Taj ül-Alem (1641-1675); thus began a period of 58 years of women’s rule, when Aceh had four woman sovereigns one after the other in succession until 1699. This even led to the mistaken belief among English residents there in 1688 that Aceh had always been ruled by woman sovereigns, even if it was not the case from the beginning of its history, but only during the 17th century.
But as we said in the introduction to this article, the female power was in reality passive and controlled by an oligarchy of emirs.
Safiyetuddin Taj ül-Âlem reigned for 34 years, until 1675. Upon her death, the emirs chose Nakıyetüddîn Nur Âlem as queen. We notice that gradually a tradition was established in Aceh whereby an unmarried elderly lady unconnected with the old royal line was appointed queen.
Queens were virtual prisoners in the palace after their election. Though never seen by the lower classes, she went once a year dressed in white and riding an elephant to bathe in the Aceh river. She also received foreign ambassadors and missions.
When Nakıyetüddîn Nur Âlem died in 1678, the emirs chose Zekiyetüddîn Inayet Shah as queen (1678-88). She is known for having refused to give the British mission the permission to build a fort in Aceh territory. All that the British mission could obtain was the permission to build a trading post of wood, and the promise that their traders would be treated well.
After Zekiyetüddîn Inayet Shah’s death, Zıynetüddîn Kemâlât Shah was put on the throne (1688-1699), but four emirs who wanted a king rather than a queen rose in arms and marched against the capital. Sporadic fighting went on between them and the forces which had remained loyal to the queen and which were on the west bank of the river. After that, during her reign, the opponents of woman sovereigns ruling Aceh obtained an edict from Mecca to the effect that a woman could not be the ruler of a state, and upon her death in 1699, prevented the election of another woman as queen. As we can remember, the same happened to Shejer ad-Durr in Egypt who had to abdicate because of the Caliph’s edict.
However, after this century of female rulers, the internal struggles on the one hand, and the increasing pressure of imperialistic powers to penetrate and conquer these regions on the other hand, had reduced the state of Aceh to a mere shadow of its former powerful self. Finally, in 1873, the Dutch invaded Aceh and put an end to this powerful Muslim nation.
This entry is based on “Female Sovereigns in Islamic States.” You can find it on Amazon here.
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