Terken Khatun: the Empress

Empress Terken Khatun was one of the few women who to play an active role in politics during the Seljuk era. Most notoriously, her name is associated with the assassination of Vizier Nizam al-Mulk.

In 1092 AD, a young Sufi assassinated the great Seljuk vizier. Although the assassination of the minister is known to have been orchestrated by Hassan-i-Sabbah, the leader of the notorious Hashshashin (Assassins) group, a number of historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi and Al-Dhahabi are clear in attributing responsibility for the assassination to the Empress.

It is known that Terken Khatun was deeply involved in the political affairs of the state. When her husband, Sultan Malik Shah I, passed away, she competed with the vizier for influence over the throne.

At the time Terken Khatun was working to ensure the succession of her own younger son, Mahmud, while Nizam al-Mulk backed Barkiyaruq, the eldest son of Malik Shah – dispute between the Empress and the vizier was inevitable.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis ("Order of Assassins") (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092 (source: Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain)
An agent or "fida’i" of the Ismailis ("Order of Assassins"), on the left wearing a white turban, fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier, in 1092. But why are female guardians portrayed as being directly responsible for the assassination of their rivals? Was this too part of the power struggle? Or was it a pattern of narrative that chroniclers resorted to in order to frame power in the hands of women as something unearned or unacceptable?

With the death of Nizam al-Mulk, the path was cleared for the empress and after the death of her husband, their young son Mahmud, who was only four years old, assumed the throne. As her son′s guardian, Terken Khatun attempted to assert her authority over the state as regent.

Her reign was to be short-lived: the eldest son Barkiyaruq quickly rebelled, reclaiming the Seljuk throne for himself, ousting his younger brother and putting an end to the empress′s ambitions for power.

Female guardians in the historical sources

Since most accounts of the caliphate were documented from the viewpoint of chroniclers, it is necessary to comment on their accounts of women rulers in Islamic history.

Firstly, we often find female guardians portrayed as being directly responsible for the assassination of their rivals.

This begs the question: was this too part of the power struggle? Or was it a pattern of narrative that chroniclers resorted to in order to frame power in the hands of women as something unearned or unacceptable?

The latter tendency can be seen in the terminology used to discuss the validity of the guardians′ rule, as they often describe women′s roles in politics to be "interference" or "seizure", despite the fact that these guardians also had experience and political acumen, not to mention strong personalities – all qualities necessary for successful governance and state leadership.

And finally, even when the achievements of these women brought power and prosperity to the caliphate, the historical sources rarely credit them with such.

Mohamed Yosri

© raseef22 2017

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