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Men of prowess and women of piety: a case study of Aceh Dar al-Salam in the seventeenth century.


Studies on leadership in Southeast Asia's early modern era have tended to centre on men as leaders. In his revised edition to History, culture and region in Southeast Asian perspectives, O.W. Wolters describes 'men of prowess' as being endowed with an 'abnormal amount of personal and innate soul stuff which distinguished their leadership from that of their kinsmen and other contemporaries. This 'spiritual identity and leadership capacity' was recognised by others who would pledge their allegiance to such a man so that they in turn would receive material and spiritual benefits. (1) Lineage played a less significant role in determining leadership. Wolters questioned 'whether Southeast Asian women in earlier times should be attributed with the vastly more energetic role of "women of prowess"' and what their relationship with contemporary "men of prowess" would have been. He conceded that the concept of men of prowess would have to be reconsidered when early Southeast Asia 'becomes a field for extensive gender studies'. (2)

Despite Wolter's invitation for further research and new studies in gender relations in early Southeast Asia, the concept of female leadership (queenship) is still little researched. Yet, one striking feature of early modern Southeast Asia is the preponderance of female rulers in insular Malay-Muslim polities. From scattered epitaphs that mention queens regnant, travellers' observations, court narratives, and folklore to European records from the sixteenth century onwards, it is clear that politically influential women and female monarchs were not rare in this region. (3) To take a prime example, the kingdom of Aceh Dar al-Salam was ruled by four female rulers in succession from 1641-99. Besides Aceh, in Patani, another Malay-Muslim polity in what is now southern Thailand, six queens ruled: Raja Ijau (1584-1616), Raja Biru (1616-24), Raja Ungu (1624-35), Raja Kuning (1635-49), Raja Mas Kelantan (1670-98), Raja Mas Chayam (1698-1702, 1716-18). (4) There were also female rulers in Sukadana, Borneo (1608-22), in Jambi, Sumatra (1630-55) and in Solor, Lesser Sundas (c.1650-70). (5)

This article analyses the rule of the four Sultanahs of Aceh in the seventeenth century--in particular, the thirty-five-year reign of Sultanah Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah (1641-75). This case study demonstrates that there were crucial gender differences in styles of leadership amongst the Acehnese rulers and that the notion of the successful and effective ruler based on charisma and prowess needs to be re-examined. Under these female sovereigns, legitimacy relied less on notions of sacral and charismatic power based on prowess than on Muslim notions of piety and the just ruler whose leadership is based on consensus (muafakat) and accommodation. In this regard, the female rulers may appear to have been soft and weak, but as this article will illustrate, soft power could be just as effective as the use of force.

Weak ceremonial queens?

In the seventeenth century, Aceh Dar al-Salam achieved its 'golden age' under the famous Sultan Iskandar Muda (r.1607-36), famed as a centre of Islam (the 'Veranda of Mecca'), and for its pepper trade. In contrast, the female rulers of Aceh (r. 1641-99) were seen to be weak, bringing about the decline of royal power and the kingdom itself by the end of the seventeenth century. (6)

Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah, daughter of Sultan Iskandar Muda, was widowed at twenty-nine when her husband Sultan Iskandar Thani (r.1637-41) died unexpectedly. She was inaugurated as Sultanah Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah three days after. In the unprecedented and unique period in Acehnese history that ensued, she was succeeded by three more female rulers: Sultanah Nur Alam Naqiatuddin Syah (1675-78), Sultanah Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah (1678-88) and Sultanah Kamalat Zainatuddin Syah (1688-99). How could these queens have ruled Aceh for half-a-century when female rule seemed anathema in a Muslim and largely patriarchal state such as Aceh? Furthermore, this unique period in Aceh's history happened when the European trading companies--the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) and the English East India Company were gradually increasing their commercial hold and flexing their military muscle in the region. Indigenous polities suffered increasing interference and pressure from Westerners. It is curious that in such perilous times, when a strong ruler in the mould of Iskandar Muda was especially needed, that the male elite of Aceh placed the fate of the kingdom in the hands of women for almost 58 years.

The reign of the Acehnese queens has provoked much comment (from hearsay to scholarly opinion) from enquirers past and present. Nineteenth-century European historians generally adopted an unfavourable view of these queens, seeing them as 'pageants', powerless ceremonial puppets of the male elite. (7) Early-twentieth-century scholars such as Snouck Hurgronje and T.J. Veltman were even more scathing. Hurgronje claimed that Aceh's weak female governments were responsible for undermining the monarchy. (8) Veltman saw all the Acehnese female sovereigns as weak, manipulated by the orangkaya (male elite) and concluded that Sultanah Safiatuddin's reign contributed little to the greatness of the realm. (9)

Acehnese historians themselves had conflicting views of their past under the Sultanahs. Whilst M. Said saw this era as part of a long-standing Acehnese tradition of having women in positions of power, I.S. Pamenan saw it as an aberration and argued that female rule was never accepted by the Acehnese. (10) More recent historians such as Amirul Hadi and Auni Luthfi saw the balance of power tilting in favour of the orangkaya during the reign of these queens. Amirul contends that:

   with the death of Iskandar Thani in 1641, the power of the
   orangkaya reasserted itself in the midst of the resulting political
   confusion, as he had left no son to succeed him. The orangkaya
   played a major role in the crisis by installing his widow on the
   throne [...] the accession of this ruler marked the beginning of a
   gradual transferral of power into the hands of the aristocrats.

Auni saw the rise of the orangkaya under the reigns of female rulers and the transition of power from royalty to nobility as 'possibly due to the mildness of the queen in governing the state'. (12)

Scholarship based on contemporary accounts has tended to adopt a more favourable view of these monarchs. Mulaika Hijjas, like Marsden, concluded that these Acehnese women rulers were 'pageant queens', but unlike Marsden, she asserts that because of the Malay sense of the importance of these spectacles and of theatre in state power, the queens who presided over rituals and ceremonies were not frail, but were successful exponents of traditional kingship. (13) Leonard Andaya described Sultanah Safiatuddin's government as humane and that she ruled with great skill and was successful in adapting to the aggressive policies of the Dutch. (14) Anthony Reid asserted that under the queens, 'the orangkaya found that they could govern collectively with the queen as sovereign and referee and there was something of the quality of Elizabethan England in the way they vied for her favour but accepted her eventual judgement between them'. (15) Takeshi Ito claimed that despite the decline of royal authority after the reign of Iskandar Muda, Sultanah Safiatuddin was able to maintain integrity and respect for the monarchy. (16)

An examination of contemporary records reveals a predominantly favourable view of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah and her three female successors. These include accounts written by indigenous court chroniclers, such as the famous seventeenth-century ulama and Syeikh al-Islam Nuruddin al-Raniri, employees of the Dutch and English East Indies Companies and European travellers. Bustan us-Salatin, written by al-Raniri, depicts Sultanah Safiatuddin as a great and generous queen. (17) VOC officials favoured female rule and reported that the Sultanah was a better ruler than her predecessor husband, Iskandar Thani, since she was able to maintain peace and control outright rivalries amongst her nobles. (18) The institution of 'queenship' appears to have been firmly established in the kingdom after a few decades of female rule. In the 1670s, Thomas Bowrey observed that because Aceh had for a considerable length of time been governed by a Queen, the very title of King proved to be nauseous to them. (19) In the 1680s, William Dampier noted that the English residents of Aceh were of the opinion that a Queen had ruled the country since the beginning, from the antiquity of the present constitution; it was believed that the Queen of Sheba was the queen of this country. (20)

A further scrutiny of the archival Dutch materials including VOC records and Malay manuscripts reveals a more complex picture of the relations between these female rulers and the male elite, where power was contested and shifting rather than simply tilted in favour of the orangkaya. By examining some key but lesser-known episodes during the reign of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah, this article illustrates how her rule differed from her male predecessors' and how this could be attributed to a certain extent to her sex. This female leadership style, I suggest, was key to her ruling successfully for thirty-five years till her death. This 'queenship' model served somewhat as a template that survived her demise and was adopted by her three female successors.

Men of prowess and pragmatic women

In contrast to the Sultanahs, their male predecessors, Iskandar Muda and Iskandar Thani, rulers of Aceh Dar al-Salam from 1607-41, were seen as powerful kings presiding over Aceh's golden age. Indeed they typified the indigenous conception of kingship--they were men of prowess, or at least projected themselves to be, obsessed with power and prestige. They were experts in manipulating this public image by adopting grandiose titles, and displaying fine jewellery, armies, royal elephants and horses during ceremonial parades to elicit support from subjects and to entice new followers to accept them as overlords. They did not hesitate to use coercion, at times with extreme cruelty for good measure, to eliminate rivals and enemies.

It is not in the least surprising that these men wished to project charisma and prowess; Sultans who claimed the title of King of Kings displayed symbols of magnificence befitting their status to impress other lesser leaders. Audience days and royal processions during festivals provided the perfect opportunity to display magnificent precious and rare jewels to inspire awe from foreigners and subjects alike. On these important days, the Sultans bedecked with dazzling jewellery truly resembled the glittering sun and moon they were so fond of associating themselves with. Iskandar Thani described himself as, among other things, 'King of the whole world, who like God, is glittering like the sun at midday, whose attributes are like the full moon'. (21)

Iskandar Thani inherited not only all the treasures and jewels from his predecessor Iskandar Muda, but also his love for these expensive jewels for their beauty, their reflection of wealth and royal status and for their innate magical qualities or sakti. The Sultan's penchant for diamonds is illustrated by the order that he made from the VOC before his death. He asked for: a gold chain with 1,064 diamonds, 2 arm-rings with 306 diamonds, a golden kris with 211 diamonds, 2 pendants with 58 diamonds, 4 hoop-rings set with table-diamonds, 4 ruby rings with set diamonds, 4 diamond rings, 1 hoop-ring set with 16 table-diamonds, and 4 gold earrings. (22) Moreover, he insisted on these diamonds being cut and set in the Netherlands in the Acehnese style, thus making them more expensive. The jewels were brought by the Dutch to Aceh, where they were received not by Iskandar Thani but by his widow and successor, Sultanah Safiatuddin, just after his unexpected death in February 1641.

Sultanah Safiatuddin and her orangkaya initially flatly refused to accept and pay for the jewels ordered by her late husband even after the Dutch envoy, Justus Schouten, offered the jewels at cost price. Sultanah Safiatuddin stated that her late husband had been too extravagant resulting in the depletion of the Treasury. (23) The Acehnese queen reasoned that the jewels were a waste of money, that these were 'dead' assets not particularly useful for exchange, unlike cash, and that the kingdom already had too many jewels; furthermore, what would a Sultanah do with male accessories? This caused the then Governor-General of Batavia, Antonio van Diemen great consternation over the potential loss of thousands of guilders. (24) Flushed with victory after their recent conquest of Malacca from the Portuguese in January 1641, the Dutch were not in the mood to accept Acehnese reasons, viewing them as mere frivolous excuses. A standoff ensued.

Reports from VOC officials who were appointed to lead delegations to Aceh and who stayed there for months on end revealed that the standoff dragged into a series of manoeuvres, protracted negotiations, and at times, heightened tensions that lasted for four years, before this episode I dubbed the 'Jewel Affair' in an earlier study (25) was finally settled. These events are significant in the sense that they reveal the contrast in the style of leadership between the Sultanah and her male predecessors, especially her relations with the male elite and the role jewels play in kingship based on charisma and prowess.

The Sultanah had inherited a very fractious group of nobles and advisers who were divided over the issue of the Dutch and how to respond to them. The pro-Dutch group, led by the Lebai Kita Kali (the Sultanah's half-brother and the kingdom's highest religious judge), was more accommodating whilst the anti-Dutch faction, led by the Maharajah Sri Maharajah and the strident Laksamana, adopted a tough stance. (26) On this issue of the jewels, however, both factions were generally against accepting and paying for the jewels; but the pro-Dutch faction was willing to negotiate a compromise in order to maintain peace with the Dutch whilst the hardliners demanded that the Dutch envoy take the jewels back to Batavia. Sultanah Safiatuddin generally took a more accommodating approach to the Dutch, but this time she too was adamant that she would not accept and pay for all the jewels ordered by her late husband. Refusing to take any jewels at all was not an option, however, since this was clearly unacceptable to the Dutch. Having successfully conquered Malacca and in the midst of negotiating a treaty with Aceh for more favourable trade conditions in Perak and the west coast of Sumatra, the Dutch took a hard line, which included the possibility of going to war with the Acehnese. The Acehnese' reasoning that the king who ordered these jewels was dead and that his order was no longer valid fell on deaf ears.

A compromise solution had to be worked out, but it was not clear how. The Sultanah played a crucial role by balancing the myriad interests of the Dutch envoys, her orangkaya and her kingdom. Despite the orangkaya's initial objections, the Sultanah was eventually able to get them to compromise; the Sultanah and her orangkaya would accept and pay for a portion of the jewels while the Dutch had to accept some losses. (27) By ensuring that at least a portion of the jewels were accepted and paid for, she accommodated the Dutch, tensions were diffused, and a possible armed confrontation averted.

The orangkaya were also important contributors to the final decision about the jewels in terms of the kingdom's interests. The young queen had her jewel experts, her naleers and the shahbandar to give independent advice about the worth of the jewels. The queen was not directly involved in the preliminary rounds of the negotiations, but she lent her stature to resolving conflicts when discussions amongst her orangkaya and the Dutch seemed to be getting out of hand. The Sultanah was careful and deft at keeping relations cordial and on an even keel. Once, negotiations between the Dutch and the orangkaya got so heated that the envoy Pieter Sourij angrily walked out of the audience hall. This incident could easily have led to a breakdown of diplomatic relations, even battle, but he was stopped and invited to a banquet by the Sultanah. At opportune times, her views were conveyed through her eunuchs to the orangkaya. (28)

The 'Jewel Affair' also shows that the orangkaya were not a homogenous group as commonly believed. Yet, despite their differences, at another level, the orangkaya were actually unanimous and united in their objective of protecting the kingdom's interests. To them, the purchase of jewels was an extravagance that the kingdom could in afford since these jewels served no useful purpose. Even the Kali, who appeared to be pro-Dutch, was not happy that the Acehnese had to pay so much for the generally unwanted and useless jewels. In the end, despite all their disagreements, all factions including the Sultanah were able to reach a compromise for the sake of the kingdom. A balance was struck between meeting the needs and interests of the ruler, the elite and ultimately the kingdom. Notably, despite disagreements about the final price of the jewels, they rallied behind the Sultanah and declared their support for her at the balai (audience hall). The Jewel Affair illustrates that the relations between the orangkaya and the Sultanah were fluid, complex and contested. It does not show the undue rise of the orangkaya as commonly portrayed. (29) Neither does this episode illustrate a weak Sultanah wholly dependent on her elite. More importantly, it shows how relations were successfully managed despite disagreements.

The Jewel Affair illustrates the evolution of what was to be the Sultanah's decision-making style and her management of the male elite during her reign, which was key to consolidating her leadership. In the early years of Safiatuddin's reign, she allowed the orangkaya free access to the inner court, which had been restricted under her male predecessors. (30) She involved them in court decisionmaking; indeed, she tended to allow her orangkaya to lead in the preliminary stages of discussion. Here the different factions would engage in fierce debate and the Sultanah would step in at certain critical junctures to obtain the concurrence of the orangkaya and to assert and stamp her final authority in the final discussion at the audience hall. Under her reign, the decision-making process was more collaborative and reciprocal through consensus-making, as opposed to the arbitrary despotism practised by her father, Iskandar Muda. According to Ito, during the reign of Iskandar Muda, it was not clear whether the orangkaya had to be present at court regularly; their duty was to guard the dalam (palace quarters) every third day and night. Apart from a few senior orangkaya who would be summoned ad hoc to the royal presence, there were no court audiences except on state and religious occasions. There was no need to hold audiences regularly under Iskandar Muda. (31) Jan de Meere first mentioned a Saturday audience in 1640 when he visited Iskandar Thani at court. This practice was institutionalised by Sultanah Safiatuddin since Dutch envoys mentioned the weekly Saturday audiences under her reign. (32) Indeed, the seating order of the state officials based on rank was first regularised and established under Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah. (33)

This signalled a distinct departure from palace procedures under her male predecessors. One prominent feature of the Sultanah's leadership was her ability to get her orangkaya's support through discussions/debates (musyawarah) and consensusbuilding (muafakat). This was key to her success in consolidating her position as ruler. Indeed, this custom of muafakat had been practised in Aceh and instilled in the minds of its people from the simple villager to the court nobles. (34) This age-old decision-making process was revived by Safiatuddin and adopted by her female successors.

Two English envoys who visited Aceh in 1684 during the reign of the third queen, Sultanah Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah, noted that every Saturday, the orangkaya met at the palace where those who had any business would come and appear before the Sultanah. (35) Here, all matters were heard and determined and the orangkaya were silent unless the Queen called upon them. (36) Saturday audiences were held regularly and would be cancelled only during heavy rain and flooding or important religious and state festivities. Sunday audiences later replaced them. The Sultanah and her orangkaya were absent only because of illness. (37) Many weighty matters of state were debated and consensual decisions made and affirmed by all in attendance with the word daulat during these audiences.

The Jewel Affair is also important because it illustrates that using jewels to gain charisma and sakti did not always necessarily bring about allegiance for the ruler. Indeed, whilst Aceh's rulers evoked awe, they also evoked much dissatisfaction and envy among the elites. Extravagant rulers were not always accepted by the orangkaya--Sultan Sri Mare, for example, was killed. (38) Iskandar Thani's accumulation of jewels became a source of resentment and actually gained him more enemies than admirers. There is a suspicion that Sultan Iskandar Thani too might have been murdered since he was still very young and his death was so unexpected. (39) The orangkaya were certainly unhappy that the Sultan had ordered a lot of very expensive jewellery from the Company and after his death, they had refused to accept these jewels from the Dutch, saying that they were not obliged to carry out his orders any longer. Thus, they rallied behind a Sultanah whom they saw as by nature not given to such extravagance. Indeed the Sultanah's more prudent use of the kingdom's resources gained the nobles' respect and support.

Another feature of the Sultanah's rule which favoured the elite was economic freedom--to share the country's wealth and to acquire more riches. Augustin Beaulieu wrote that the surest ways for the orangkaya to court death during Iskandar Muda's reign was to be notable for their 'good reputation ... among the people, and secondly their wealth.' (40) Such predatory behaviour was not attested during the reigns of the queens. The orangkaya were free to make profits in peace. VOC officials such as Pieter Sourij, Peter Willemszoon and Arnold Vlamingh reported on the numerous orders for gold thread and Japanese paper by the orangkaya in exchange for the pepper they procured from them. Despite tremendous pressure from the Dutch for a larger share of the tin trade of Perak in the Malay Peninsula, the Sultanah also made sure that her orangkaya's right to procure tin from Perak for themselves was protected. Jan Harmanszoon reported that eight vessels that sailed to Perak belonged to the Acehnese orangkaya. The Sultanah, on her part, traded Gujerati cloth in exchange for tin in Perak. (41) Harmanszoon further noted the numerous trading ships belonging to the Sultanah and her orangkaya, which traded up and down the west coast of Sumatra: the Laksamana's ship brought gold, benzoin and camphor; the Sultanah's ship alone brought 100 bahar (42) of pepper from the west coast, the Laksamana's 15 bahar, and the Acehnese Panglima's 20 bahar. (43) In return, the orangkaya presented the customary tribute to her. (44)

As for the Dutch officials' stance in the above affair--while they were certainly awed by Iskandar Thani's jewels, but admiration aside, they viewed the Sultan's obsession with jewels more as a business opportunity. Paulus Croocq was certainly impressed with Iskandar Thani's crown and clothing, which he described as so dazzlingly encrusted mainly with diamonds and some rare gems. Iskandar Thani's throne, he reported, was newly made and he estimated it to be worth 40 bahar of heavy gold or 100,000 guilders! (45) More importantly, however, he wrote to his superiors in Batavia that Iskandar Thani was even prepared to accept jewels instead of reals or cash from the Dutch in exchange for pepper and payment of tolls. (46)

Piety vs pageantry: Comparing the letters of Iskandar Thani and Sultanah Safiatuddin

Processions were important occasions for the Sultans to showcase their jewels and possessions to display their power to other monarchs, envoys and subjects alike. When dealing with monarchs who could not admire this visual display at first hand, especially European ones whom the local rulers sought to impress, the rulers of Aceh would devote a substantial part of their letters to describing and enumerating their kingly possessions and treasures, ranging from the palace, gold mines, elephants, and horses. It is customary in all royal Malay letters to describe the attributes of the ruler (the sender of the letter) to the recipient at the beginning of the letter. These attributes are very carefully chosen and they reveal much about the image the ruler sought to impress upon the recipient.

In line with her more pragmatic style of leadership and in contrast to the more theatrical and narcissistic style adopted by her male predecessors, Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah did not choose to highlight her material possessions to impress other rulers, but represented herself as a moral and righteous ruler. Her extant correspondence in Malay and Dutch reveals that she legitimised her rule on the very basis of Islam. In her letters she stressed that she was chosen by God, she was the khalifat of Allah and it was her duty as ruler to uphold Allah's laws. (47) In a letter by Iskandar Thani, (48) the monarch is heralded as the sultan al-muazzam wa-al-khaqan al-mukarram and his name and title proper were followed by the Muslim epithet of kingship, zill Allah fi al-'alam and khalifat Allah. It is noteworthy that the Sultanah too applied to herself the same full Muslim epithets, i.e., she was the khalifat or Caliph or representative of Allah on earth; similar to that of her male predecessors, regardless of sex. The interesting difference is that she emphasised not only the title but her role as Khalifah (God's Deputy on Earth). By the very title that she chose, Taj al-Alam Safiatuddin Syah or Safiyyat al-Din Syah, (49) 'Taj al-Alam' meaning 'Crown of the world' and 'al-Din' referring to subjection to Allah's laws, she set herself apart from her male predecessors. Whilst basing her rule on her status as crown or sovereign of the world she placed her rule firmly on the foundation that she was chosen by Allah, she was a representative of God, his vicegerent, to rule according to his laws. (50) On 12 Oct. 1661 Sultanah Safiatuddin sent an impressive illuminated letter via the English East India Company to congratulate King Charles II on his accession to the throne. (This is the only surviving original letter in Malay by the Sultanah.) In this letter, she writes that she is one

   who manifests Allah's wisdom and blessings, who upholds Allah's
   laws, who clarifies those that are in doubt, whose shine brings
   forth Allah's light and goodness, who exhorts people to Allah's
   path, who treats Allah's creations with mercy, who dispenses
   Allah's justice with utmost care, who hides that which is ugly and
   forgives those who have sinned, and whose words are gracious. (51)

In contrast, Iskandar Thani attributed no such roles to himself. The Sultanah's modesty and humility in describing herself as dispensing Allah's laws contrasts with Iskandar Thani's arrogant depiction of his own powers. For example, one clause found in Iskandar Thani's letter but not in Safiatuddin's is 'lagi raja yang ngurniai kesukaan akan yang dikasihinya dan kedukaan akan yang dimarahinya' (a king who dispenses good fortune to those he favours and misfortune to those who incur his wrath). (52)

According to Annabel Teh-Gallop, the single most striking feature of the compliments in Iskandar Muda's letter of 1615 to King James I was the absence of any specifically Islamic formulae or references. (53) Instead, there were recognisable Indic vestiges. His titles appeared to have more in common with those of his contemporaries in Ayuthia and Arakan than those found in later Malay letters. What particularly set these compliments apart from those in other subsequent royal Malay letters was the emphasis on the possession of material goods (even when these may have had symbolic or ritual value) and worldly success rather than on moral attributes. Iskandar Thani retained the emphasis on material wealth to project his image as a powerful ruler. He drew attention to the gold deposits Aceh was blessed with, the numerous mosques made of 'copper and gold' (suassa, an alloy of both), the throne he sat on, made of fine gold encrusted with cosily precious stones, and his numerous elephants and horses covered with golden trappings set with precious stones. (54)

In contrast, although Safiatuddin largely continued her husband's self-descriptions, it is important to note that the changes she made excluded descriptions of material wealth. There are 26 distinct sets of attributes in Iskandar Thani's letter. All but five are repeated in Safiatuddin's letter, which also include several new formulations, giving a total of 32 sets of attributes. The five that are not repeated pertain to descriptions of the king's material wealth, such as how shiny (cemerlang cahayanya) his gold (mas kudrati) is and how bright (gilang gemilang) his suassa is. The other omission is the description of the ruler's costume as being studded and decorated with gems and precious stones. In contrast to her husband's emphasis on the material, almost all of the new formulations added by the Sultanah are of a religious or moral nature. (55)

Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah adopted Iskandar Thani's epistolary style with no gendered changes made. The indubitably male sovereign epithets sultan al-muazzam wa-al-khaqan al-mukarram, 'the great sultan and illustrious king', were also applied to the Sultanah. (56) Both the Bustan us-Salatin and Adat Aceh addressed Safiatuddin and her successors with the same title: 'Paduka Sri Sultan'. Indeed, the only gendered epithet was the uniquely Acehnese Berdaulat, 'the Sovereign One', accorded to all queens of Aceh, while all kings of Aceh from the time of Iskandar Muda onwards bore the title Johan Berdaulat, 'the Sovereign Champion'. (57) In their royal seals, however, Safiatuddin and her female successors chose to put the title 'Sultanah'. (58) It appears that Safiatuddin also used the title 'Sultanah' on a new batch of coins minted during her reign, a template copied by her successors. (59)

Teh-Gallop has pointed out that Iskandar Thani likened his sense of justice to that of Nusyirwan Adil (a non-Muslim), but he compared his liberality to Hatim Tai. These names were omitted from Sultanah Safiatuddin's letter. Instead, she likened her sense of justice to that of 'Sultan' Ibn Abd al-Aziz, referring to Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the fifth Umayyad caliph (r.717-720) and to later generations 'an exemplar of the Muslim virtues of piety, equity and humility'. (60)

It is unfortunate that this is the only surviving original letter in Malay from the Sultanah. The rest of her correspondence with the Dutch in Batavia and Malacca and the rest of the Malay states are Dutch translations of her letters. These translated letters come with the attendant problems of omissions, additions and genuine misinterpretations. Nevertheless, the fact that most of these letters have survived make it possible to gain some insights and offer some useful generalisations as to the way the Sultanah represented herself and the basis of her legitimacy and authority. In her other letters written to the various Dutch Governors in Batavia, she usually described herself as one who was chosen by God to succeed and to sit on the throne of Aceh Dar al-Salam. Indeed, one particular letter stood out in terms of not only the compliments attached to the beginning of the letter but, to the main content of the letter. This was the main message of the letter, the other being her request to the Governor General to send a capable and powerful envoy to Aceh so that he would be able to carry out the tasks assigned according to the Governor's intention.

In her letter to Joan Maetsuycker, the Governor General in Batavia, in 1659, (61) the Sultanah wrote,

   God says that since antiquity there are no better things as these
   two things; namely, think always about God above all and always do
   good to other people. That the Governor General on his part I trust
   shall do. Over such work, one is more and more blessed and is
   honoured and praised by all other men in this world. The Acehnese
   and the Dutch have for many years continued in peace and
   friendship, but now as it has pleased God, we have come to war, but
   these differences are small, and with the help from God Almighty
   and the good resolve of a good outcome from the GG, once again the
   Acehnese and the Dutch are one. Therefore, the Governor General,
   herein, would do no other but to settle [their differences]. The
   wise people in earlier times say to warn [us] that always remember
   two things, namely always think foremost of God and of death and
   forget two things, all the virtues that we do to other men and all
   the bad things that are done to us, so that our conscience will
   remain pure and calm.

In this letter, Sultanah Safiatuddin was almost giving a sermon to the Governor. She used religion to exhort the Dutch to undertake good deeds. Unlike in the past, where her male predecessor, especially Sultan Al-Kahar (d. 1571), who used religion to wage holy war (jihad) against the Portuguese in 1568, Islam was used not as a means to show the differences between the kafir (infidels) and Muslims but as a common denominator, a universal call to do good and bring peace to all mankind. Of course, this letter was carefully composed to persuade the Dutch not to wage war against Aceh and was an appeal to peace by diplomacy since tensions between the VOC and Aceh were high given the murders of Dutch officials in Perak and the west coast of Sumatra. This sermon, in all probability, would not have swayed the Governor General: practical considerations such as the costs of war and stoppage of commerce would have been more important when deciding whether to go to war with Aceh. This letter, nevertheless, reveals an interesting insight as to how the Sultanah used diplomacy tempered by religion. Her religious tolerance was also manifested in her allowing Franciscan priests to minister to the Catholic community in Aceh. This freedom to practise their religion was continued by her female successors but denied with the restoration of male rule in 1699. Indeed even earlier, in 1688 with the death of the third queen, Zaqiatuddin, a few orangkaya and conservative ulama captured Fr Bento de Christo and took away his possessions. It was only after Kamalat Syah was appointed as the fourth queen that Fr Bento was released and returned to his duties. (62)

To what extent did these letters reflect Sultanah Safiatuddin's self-representation or the ulama or the court's Syeikh al-Islam of the time? In 1642, Pieter Sourij mentioned that the Lebai Kita Kali was responsible for drafting the Sultanah's letters and firman. (63) By 1649, however, the position of the Lebai Kita Kali was held by a young and inexperienced man, most probably his son. (64) No mention was made of the Syeikh al-Islam, Nuruddin al-Raniri, and his role in letter writing. Furthermore, he had left Aceh in 1644 and Syaiful Rijal had replaced him. The most senior role in the Council at that time was the Orangkaya Maharaja Sri Maharaja. Furthermore, if the opperste bischop mentioned by the Dutch who was murdered in 1653 was indeed Syaiful Rijal, then in 1659, Aceh was without any known prominent religious scholar and head. (65) The other known prominent ulama, Abdul Rauf al-Singkel, returned to Aceh from Mecca only in 1661. Therefore, it was most likely that the 1659 'letter of sermon' sent to Governor Maetsuyker was a reflection of the Sultanah's own personal leanings.

Piety politics

The extent to which the courts and institutions of state were active and Islamic law meted out largely depended on the ruler. Iskandar Muda and Iskandar Thani often modified the syariah law of the Sultanate--punishments were meted out more on the basis of personal whim and caprice with little use of these law courts. In many cases, the penalties inflicted were based on traditional judicial practices, which Ito described as trial by ordeal and at the sovereign's discretion; such punishments tended to be harsher than the provisions of the syariah. (66) European travellers such as Verhoeff, Broecke, Best and Beaulieu mentioned that delay in attending to Iskandar Muda's needs, defeating him in cockfights or wearing too costly ornaments would lead to a loss of limbs and life. In 1636, Iskandar Thani punished four of his concubines by amputating their hands, feet and noses. Then their bellies were opened and the flesh excised from the bones, after which their bodies were burnt. (67) The wealth and popularity of an orangkaya could cost him his life or his property. (68)

In contrast, under Sultanah Safiatuddin's reign, institutions of state and the courts became more active. She, with a group of religious judges led by Kadi Malik al-Adil helming the religious court and the Laksamana heading the criminal court, administered law and order in the realm. The Adat Aceh mentioned the existence of a number of religious scholars from Pidie during the reign of Safiatuddin. The Kadi Malik al-Adil, referred to by the Dutch as Lebai Kita Kali (Kali being the Acehnese variant of the Arabic Qadhi) was given first place in the order during Saturday audiences. Sometime around 1661, with the return from Mecca of a local ulama, Abdul Rauf al-Singkel, the Sultanah's subsequent royal patronage further stimulated and encouraged the orientation to Islamic law in the judicial administration of the Sultanate. Sultanah Safiatuddin and her successors would have worked closely with Abdul Rauf al-Singkel till his death in 1693 to implement Islamic law in the administration of justice and other religious rituals and festivals.

One example of a case related by Pieter Willemszoon, a Dutch officer-resident in Aceh, reveals the workings of the court system under Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah. A Muslim captain from Bengal by the name of Mirs Mamoet was accused of having sexual intercourse with the daughter of a certain Sayyid Sierip. Whilst the case was still being investigated, the Sayyid killed Mirs Mamoet because Mamoet had refused to marry his daughter. A fellow Bengali merchant, in retaliation for this murder, requested the Sultanah to put the Sayyid and his daughter to death. The Sultanah instead referred this to the relevant courts and adjudicators. The Laksamana and the Lebai Kita Kali eventually settled this case since the case involved a murder (to be tried at the criminal court) and a sexual liaison (under the jurisdiction of the religious court). The verdict was death for both father and daughter. The Sultanah, however, had the right to hear the final appeal. It turned out that the Sultanah intervened and saved the father from the death sentence, but the daughter was sentenced according to the law of the land, which was strangling for fornication. (69)

The advice that rulers needed to share responsibilities with their ministers and to discuss matters of state with them was not merely a customary ideal but also a religious one. This responsibility of the ruler stated in the Taj us-Salatin was reinforced in the Bustan us-Salatin. Women rulers were especially encouraged to do this.

Another key feature of her leadership was her patronage of Islamic learning. A1-Raniri wrote at least seven well-known books not only on religious knowledge but also about history, literature and law during the time of Sultanah Safiatuddin: they include Shiratul Mustaqim (The straight path), Syaiful-Qutub (Medicine for the heart) and Bustanul Salathin fi Dzikril-awwalin wal-Akhirin (The garden of Sultans, concerning biographies of people in the past and future). The Sultanah also commissioned Abdul Rauf al-Singkel to write a book on fiqh (laws pertaining to ritual obligations)--Mir'at al Tullab, the first book on Canon Law written in Malay. (70) This patronage was continued by her successor--Sultanah Inayat Zakiatuddin also commissioned Abdul Rauf to write his Commentary on Forty Hadiths. (71) Although there was no mention of mosques being built on the instruction or sponsorship of these female sovereigns, Dampier noted in 1689 that the kingdom had a great number of mosques. (72) The proliferation of Islamic learning and literature under these queens constituted an Islamic cultural renaissance in the kingdom, a golden age unrivalled till today. This was testament to the effective collaboration between the Sultanahs and the ulama.

Al-Raniri, the Syeikh al-Islam, writes in the Bustan us-Salatin about Sultanah Safiatuddin's religiosity, moral attributes and religious duties:

   Her royal highness, our lord Seri Sultan Tajul Alam Safiyyat al-Din
   Shah Berdaulat, the shadow of Allah on earth, possessed many
   praiseworthy and virtuous traits, as well as being fearful of Allah
   and always praying five times a day and reading the Qur'an aloud,
   repeating the name of Allah and always reading the book of Allah,
   and commanding people to perform good deeds and forbidding them to
   commit bad deeds, as was sent down by Allah to our Prophet
   Muhammad, and was extremely just in the matter of examining and
   sentencing all the servants of Allah. On account of the blessing of
   the royal power and good fortune of Yang Maha Mulia, there were
   many of the servants of Allah who were faithful believers and
   prayed five times a day and pursued knowledge. (73)

Al-Raniri depicted Sultanah Safiatuddin as a great queen, adding that the Sultanah never failed to reward her nobles, captains and soldiers generously. She also accorded missions from abroad with the same generosity. Al-Raniri cited the example of Sultanah Safiatuddin presenting one mission from Gujerat with twenty-eight elephants unparalleled in size and courage, one of which had four tusks instead of the usual two. (74) Al-Raniri remarked that no ruler could give a more generous reward than that given by the queen.

Sultanah Safiatuddin's generosity was evident from the many observations of the various Company delegates who resided in Aceh. Pieter Willemszoon reported in 1642 that Sultanah Safiatuddin granted an English surgeon named Mr. Thomas the title of orangkaya and gave him four slaves as a gift. (75) Besides the customary gifts of clothes and daggers to the Dutch envoys attending her court and her generous gifts of large amounts of pepper and tin to the Governors in Malacca and Batavia, Company officials in Aceh mentioned the thoughtful and frequent gifts of baked foods and fruits, which the Sultanah ordered to be brought to the Company's lodge. The third Sultanah, Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah, was another example of a generous queen. In 1683, she welcomed the delegation from the Syariff of Mecca, headed by the representative of Syariff Barakat named El Hajj Yusuf E. Qodri, with great ceremony. When the envoys returned to Mecca, they were laden with gifts of gold, five golden lamps for the Ka'bah, sandalwood, camphor and money to be donated to the poor in Mecca. (76)

Sultanah Safiatuddin dispensed generous rewards to her own orangkaya, for example, when Maharaja Adonna Lilla returned from an elephant hunt with eleven huge elephants for the queen, she ordained that the elephants be presented to her orangkaya instead: the largest, plus two more, for Maharaja Adonna Lilla himself, one for the Orangkaya Laksamana, one for the son of Maharaja Lilla, one for Orangkaya Maharaja di Raja, one for Raja Lila Wangsa and the remaining four to be given to the children at court. (77) On another occasion, the Sultanah was presented with thirty young Acehnese who were taken as slaves. She instead ordered these slaves to be distributed as gifts amongst her orangkaya. Another example was when the Orangkaya Paduka Mamentri offered her twenty young slaves to be at her disposal. She answered that those slaves under him should be kept by him. (78)

Sultanah Safiatuddin was well known for her piety. A Muslim traveller Al-Mutawakkil who arrived in Aceh during her reign wrote,

   a very gracious, perfect Muslim woman, generous with money, rules
   them. She can read and knows science, beneficence and agreement on
   the Qur'an. She is called Safiyati 'l-Din Shah Bardawla [Berdaulat,
   meaning sovereign]. Her name is written on the coins, on one side
   Safiyati 'l-Din and on the other side Shah Berdawla. (79)

The VOC officials who were present in Aceh mentioned that the Sultanah observed fasting during Ramadhan, the third pillar of Islam. Truijtman, described one such audience day:

   ... we were very welcomed and honourably treated with elephant
   fights, stage plays, etc. It was fasting month, thus could not eat
   or drink. The Sultanah asked to be excused for this and hoped that
   we would not blame her for not treating us with food. (80) Later in
   the evening, we were treated with more singing performances at
   court where the whole court was alight with lighted candles. We
   were treated with food served in gold plates and honoured with a
   betel-box. (81)

Vlamingh noted that during Ramadhan, foreigners and guests at court were not served any food and drinks. However, in the evenings, after sunset, when Muslims broke their fast, the palace halls were filled with banquets once again. Audience days were cancelled if they fell during any of the Acehnese celebrations of the two Muslim canonical festivals. Of course, no mention was made about the Sultanah's observances of daily prayers and reciting the Qur'an since these were private rituals performed in the inner part of the palace.

Whilst Sultanah Safiatuddin maintained good relations with the ulama and played her part as the upholder of Allah's laws, she kept herself above the politico-religious debates and struggles that gripped the kingdom at that time. Iskandar Muda had embraced a monistic brand of Sufism under his protege Syeikh Shamsuddin whilst Iskandar Thani had taken on a more orthodox approach by appointing al-Raniri as the Syeikh al-Islam in Aceh in 1637. (82) This direct involvement of the rulers had resulted in a bloody struggle for power between these two groups. With Iskandar Thani's blessings al-Raniri carried out a bloody purge of Syeikh Shamsuddin's followers. Many were executed, their books burnt and some fled the kingdom. The bitter struggle between these two groups reared its ugly head again in 1643. The return of Syaiful Rijal--a native of Minangkabau, a student of Jamal al-Din and former follower of Syeikh Shamsuddin--to Aceh from Mecca, brought about renewed opposition to al-Raniri. Pieter Sourij described the chaos at court when the Sultanah was called upon to settle this dispute. Instead of involving herself in this and supporting one faction against the other as her predecessors had done, with bloody consequences, the Sultanah declared that she knew little about these religious debates and asked her elites to solve this conflict themselves. (83) The Sultanah waited until the struggle had been played out. Only after a clear winner had emerged in the person of Syaiful Rijal did the Sultanah decide to call him to court to honour him and appoint him as the Syeikh al-Islam. (84) It is especially important to note that despite this bitter struggle repeating itself, and al-Raniri's faction being defeated, this time there were neither vengeful mass executions nor any bloodshed. Al-Raniri was allowed to return in 1644 to Gujerat, where he died in 1658.

The above episode shows that Sultanah Safiatuddin refrained from actively supporting or giving political patronage to any particular ulama and their followers. She took the politics out of religion, yet governed in piety. Nor was there any evidence of her embracing a particular Islamic order, be it orthodox or mystical.

Islam as the basis of legitimacy

By being pragmatic, pious, collaborative yet detached from the male elite, Sultanah Safiatuddin was generally successful in evolving a leadership model which kept her on the throne for thirty-four years and which survived her death in 1675. The question however remains--why was a female ruler elected in 1641 by the orangkaya and ulama in a largely patriarchal and Islamic kingdom such as Aceh?

I suggest that how leadership and female roles and status were contested, conceived, defined and practised in a Muslim society depended on how the powerholders of the time interpreted Islamic tenets. There was no eternally or universally established model of Islamic political, social and cultural forms since such forms were historically constituted. (85) Indeed, Islam as practised during the time of the Prophet and his companions gave women a much more prominent position compared to the later years when religion became institutionalised and bureaucratised by a male elite. So, how was women's involvement in politics viewed in the Malay world in the early modern era, at least in Aceh? According to an Acehnese historian, Rusdi Sufi, Sultanah Safiatuddin was accepted as a ruler only after the ulama Sheikh Abdul Rauf separated religion from politics to overcome the problem of a ruler, given that Islam forbids women from being imams. (86) In contrast, Amirul Hadi suggested that another ulama, Nuruddin al-Raniri, issued a legal ruling allowing a female to rule. (87) Was this the case in Aceh in 1641?

Criteria for succession

Not many countries in the seventeenth century had written succession laws, at least not in the Malay world. The closest indication of any written prerequisites a candidate must possess to be appointed as Sultan is found in the Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh, (88) which is based on syariah. It stated that the candidate must be a Muslim of good lineage, an adult (have reached puberty), an Acehnese citizen, courageous, wise, just, loving and soft-hearted or merciful (lembut hati), conversant with the nuances of language, a keeper of promises, not physically handicapped, truthful, loving, patient, restrained (keeping anger in check, controlling baser instincts), forgiving, firm yet submissive to Allah's will and thankful to Allah. (89) The Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh did not consider being male as a prerequisite to becoming a ruler.

The Taj us-Salatin, a political treatise written in Aceh in 1603 by al-Jauhari, (9) viewed female rule as legal in the absence of a male heir. This was clearly not written as a response to the circumstances that faced Aceh in 1641. One could argue that this treatise was way ahead of its time and was a reflection of the local religious scholars' attitude towards leadership and women in general. In chapter five of the Taj us-Salatin, under the heading of kerajaan (kingship) and the hukumat (laws) regarding the sultan, the writer, albeit reluctantly, (91) stated that a female could succeed a male king, but only in special circumstances, viz. in the event of the nonexistence of a male heir in the royal family and to prevent crisis (darurat) in the country. (92) Although he placed caveats on female leadership, the very discussion on the legality of female leadership put this indigenous scholar's thesis in sharp contrast to the views held by Islamic scholars found in the Muslim heartlands at the time. Mainstream Islamic doctrines formulated in the Middle East implied that a leader should necessarily be male. (93) Taj us-Salatin's explication of theories of female leadership had unconsciously or otherwise taken on a distinctly local interpretation of Islamic doctrines to explain and reflect a local political reality, i.e. the existence of female rulers in the archipelago long before the issue of female succession arose in Aceh.

The Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh (94) laid out rulers' responsibilities as well as the candidate's qualifications. The ruler must uphold Islam, do good deeds for the benefit of the kingdom and its subjects, help the kingdom prosper through trade, be vigilant of all court officials, mediate between court officials who slander and bicker with each other, protect the rights of the poor, punish those who disobey laws, sack officials who do wrong and forgive those who fail innocently. The Taj us-Salatin (95) stated that a ruler must be knowledgeable and courageous, with a high degree of moral fortitude, for he should uphold justice and resist worldly temptations. (96) Neither religious knowledge nor sex were amongst the prerequisites in the selection of a king, nor the yardsticks used to judge the quality of a ruler.

Although al-Jauhari, saw female rule as only slightly more tolerable than chaos, (97) he actually detailed the theoretical basis of female leadership in the Malay world in ways that bridged adat and Islam. One condition attached to a female ruler in the Taj us-Salatin was that she discussed matters with male ministers and heeded their advice. On the other hand, a male raja was forbidden to discuss matters concerning the kerajaan with women, though kings too were encouraged to discuss state matters with their male ministers. (98)

Although al-Jauhari wrote the Taj in Aceh in 1603 before the period of female rule, al-Raniri might have been influenced by his ideas on female leadership. Although heavily influenced by al-Gazali's Nasihat al-Muluk, (99) al-Raniri did not view female rule as contrary to Islamic tenets, despite following closely the Nasihat's explication on intelligence (aql) and women (wanita). (100) Whilst al-Raniri clearly agreed with al-Gazali on women in general, he deviated on the issue of female leadership.

Indeed, in the Bustan al-Raniri stated that Sultanah Safiatuddin's rule was accepted and justified because she had the qualities of a good ruler, i.e. she was just, generous, loving, caring and pious and exhorted her subjects to do good. (101) The possession of these virtues determined rightful rulers, regardless of their sex. There was nothing in the Bustan, al-Raniri sought to explain, about why a female ruler was allowed to rule in the first place; nothing was mentioned in the Bustan about whether her sex qualified or disqualified her to be a legitimate successor. Thus, it is difficult to agree with Amirul when he claimed, 'an orthodox alim like al-Raniri has approved a legal ruling allowing for a queen to take the throne'. (102) No such legal ruling or fatwa allowing a female to rule a Muslim polity was mentioned in al-Raniri's works.

The legitimacy of female rule in Islam appears to have bothered recent Acehnese male historians more since they emphasise the alleged religious debate about whether a female could succeed as a ruler in Islam. As mentioned earlier, Rusdi Sufi claimed that Sultanah Safiatuddin was accepted as a ruler only after Sheikh Abdul Rauf separated religion from politics. He asserted that the Sultanah was enthroned only after three days and conjectured that this delay was due to a debate that took place as to whether female rule was allowed in Islam. To the best of this writer's knowledge, no information is available on the alleged religious debates that seemed to have put the politics of the kingdom in such a state of indecision and Rusdi Sufi does not offer any evidence of the alleged debate. Jacob Compostel, the VOC oppercoopman in Aceh at that time, made no mention of any religious debate. Indeed one contemporary account by Nicolaus de Graaff, a Dutch surgeon who was in Aceh at the time of Iskandar Thani's death, provides an alternative explanation. De Graaff described a problematic succession and wrote about an opschudding (state of commotion) because each of the orangkaya desired to be king, during which time many people lost their lives and the Dutch East India Company's lodge was closed for four to five days. (103) Because of this chaos, it took three days before Safiatuddin was installed. (104) Indeed, compared to al-Raniri who was the Syeikh al-Islam, Abdul Rauf was still a relatively young ulama at that time and had not gone to Mecca yet to further his studies. When he returned to Aceh in 1661, there was no evidence of him not accepting the female rulers as legitimate Muslim rulers in their own right. In contrast to Rusdi Sufi's claim, Amirul Hadi states that Abdul Rauf had no objections to women taking on the mantle of power regardless of whether this situation was born out of necessity or crisis, and that the ulama even saw female rule as nothing exceptional or strange, but as a 'normal phenomenon". (105)

I suggest that this neutral attitude toward female rule reflects a less conservative and extreme interpretation of Islamic tenets regarding female roles and reveals a less gendered indigenous early modern conception of rule and power. It demonstrates a respect for sovereignty (daulat) and lineage regardless of the sex of the person in whom these are manifested. Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah's lineage was impeccable, as she was the widow of Iskandar Thani and a daughter of Iskandar Muda by a royal wife. Whether a woman was accepted in Islam was not a critical question asked by the elites of Aceh in 1641, although it is safe to conclude that without the concurrence of the leading alim of the day, viz. al-Raniri, the first Sultanah would not have been enthroned.


Female leadership under the Acehnese Sultanahs based on moral force, a consensual style of decision-making based on musyawarah, and sanctioned by adat and Islam provides a more diverse picture of statehood and governance during early modernity in insular Malay-Muslim Southeast Asia. It is different from the charismatic and absolutist models of kingship based on prowess that characterised their male predecessors and other kings in the region. Far from being mere ceremonial 'pageants' serving the orangkaya, the Sultanahs ruled in their own right, their authority respected and accepted by the male elite. Collaborative rule based on power-sharing did indeed limit royal power, but far from weakening it as suggested by most scholars, this strengthened and institutionalised the monarchy. I suggest that this model of leadership was just as effective as that of 'male prowess', indeed the style was better suited to facilitating peace, commerce and diplomacy in the age of commerce and it was a key reason that helped Aceh to remain independent and economically autonomous in the seventeenth century.

However, the question whether a leadership style is gendered per se and whether there is a 'female leadership style' in early modern Southeast Asia deserves more detailed and comparative research on the numerous queens that ruled in insular Malay-Muslim Southeast Asia. This also begs the question whether the leadership style of Sultanah Safiatuddin was due to her sex or her personality? Personality would certainly be a factor, however, her leadership style became somewhat of a template for her female successors, which suggests a distinct feminine style compared to their male counterparts. Furthermore, being female enabled them to be above and apart from the male elite, freeing them from the masculine jealousies, rivalries, competition and hierarchical relations that characterised male royal-elite relations. This enabled a more stable and cooperative relationship between royalty and nobility, in contrast to the characteristically more volatile relations between the nobility and Sultans. Pieter Sourij, a Dutch official, believed that Safiatuddin's benevolent and merciful rule, including her tendency to pardon delinquents, was due to her nature as a woman. (106) On the whole, the benevolent and pious rule of these female rulers did constitute a distinct period in Acehnese history and perhaps their greatest achievement was to soften their male predecessors' harsh and tyrannical rule without entirely emasculating it. (107)


Sher Banu A.L. Khan is Assistant Professor at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: I am grateful to Emeritus Professor Anthony Reid and the two reviewers of this journal for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article. I am responsible for the views expressed in this article.

(1) O.W. Wolters, History, culture and region in Southeast Asian perspectives, rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY and Singapore: Cornell South East Asia Program and ISEAS, 1999), pp. 18-19.

(2) Wolters, History, culture and region, pp. 169.

(3) This project identifies both historical and mythical princesses in the Malay world. See, for example, 101 puteri dunia Melayu: Sejarah dan legenda [101 princesses in the Malay world: History and legends], ed. Nisriwani Yahaya and Syed Zulflida Noor (Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Muzium dan Antikuiti, 2003).

(4) See Ahmad Fathy al-Fatani, Pengantar Sejarah Patani [An introduction to the history of Patani] (Alor Setar: Pustaka Darussalam, 1994) and Francis Bradley, 'Moral order in a time of damnation: The Hikayat Patani in historical context', Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 40, 2 (2009): 267-93.

(5) Anthony Reid, 'Female roles in pre-colonial Southeast Asia', Modern Asian Studies, 22, 3 (1988): 641-2.

(6) Anthony Reid has argued that the reduced skill and authority of the rulers who succeeded Iskandar Muda and the growing power of the Dutch led to the decline of royal power. Anthony Reid, 'Trade and the problem of royal power in Aceh--three stages: c.1500-1700', in Pre-colonial state systems in Southeast Asia: The Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Bali-Lombok, South Celebes, ed. Anthony Reid and Lance Castles, Monographs of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 6 (Kuala Lumpur: Percetakan Mas, 1975), p. 52. Merle Ricklefs claimed that Aceh entered a long period of internal disunity and ceased to be significant outside Northern Sumatra. From 1641-99, royal authority was restricted to Aceh itself and the Sultanate became a weak symbolic institution. Merle C. Ricklefs, A history of modern Indonesia since c1300, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 36. See also, Mohammad Said, Aceh sepanjang abad [Aceh through the centuries], vol. 1 (Medan: Pengarang Sendiri, 1961), p. 377; Ilyas Sutan Pamenan, Rentjong Aceh di tangan wanita [The Acehnese rencong in women's hands], (Jakarta: DJ Waringin, 1959), pp. 35-6; Leonard Andaya, Kingdom of Johore 1641-1678 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 56.

(7) T. Braddell wrote that in 1641 twelve orangkaya seized the reins of power and placed the widow of the late king on the throne, without giving her the power to interfere in the management of state affairs. T. Braddell, 'On the history of Acheen', Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 4 (1850): 19. W. Marsden noted that the nobles, finding their power less restrained than when ruled by kings, supported these 'pageants' whom they governed as they thought fit. The queens were mere ceremonial rulers with no power to appoint or remove any of the orangkaya. W. Marsden, History of Sumatra, intro. by John Bastin, 3rd ed. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 447, 454.

(8) C. Snouck Hurgronje, De Atjehers [The Acehnese], trans, by A.W.S. O'Sullivan with an index by R.J. Wilkinson (Leiden: Brill, 1906[1893]), p. 94.

(9) T.J. Veltman, 'Nota over de geschiedenis van het landschap Pidie', Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 58 (1919): 66-7. 10 Mohammad Said, Aceh sepanjang abad; p. 379, Ilyas Sutan Pamenan, Rentjong Aceh di tangan wanita, p. 35.

(11) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state in Sumatra: A study of seventeenth century Aceh (Leiden: Brill, 2004), p. 81.

(12) Auni Luthfi, 'The decline of the Islamic empire of Aceh (1641-1699)' (M.A. thesis, McGill University, Montreal, 1993), p. 124.

(13) Mulaika Hijjas, 'The woman raja: Female rule in seventeenth century Aceh' (M.A. thesis, University of Oxford, 2001), p. 89.

(14) Leonard Andaya, 'A very good-natured but awe-inspiring government: The reign of a successful queen in seventeenth-century Aceh', in Hof en Handel: Aziatische vorsten en de VOC 1620-1720, ed. Elsbeth Locher-Scholten and Peter Rierbergen (Leiden: KITLV, 2004), p. 81.

(15) Anthony Reid, 'Female roles in pre-colonial Southeast Asia': 641.

(16) Takeshi Ito, 'The world of the Adat Aceh: A historical study of the Sultanate of Aceh' (Ph.D. diss., The Australian National University, Canberra, 1984), p. 120.

(17) Bustan al-Salatin, ed. Siti Hawa Haji Salleh (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992), p. 44.

(18) Dagh-register van Batavia, 1640-1682, vols. 1641-1642, ed. J.A. van der Chijs et al. (The Hague: M. Nijhoff and Batavia: G. Kolff & Co., 1887-1928), p. 123.

(19) Thomas Bowrey, A geographical account of the countries round the Bay of Bengal, 1669-1679, ed. R.C. Temple (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1905), pp. 295-6.

(20) William Dampier, Voyages and discoveries, vol. 2., ed. N.M. Penzer (London: Argonaut Press, 1931 [1790]), p. 99.

(21) 'Coninngh vande gantsche werrelt, die gelyck een Godt daerover is, glinsterende als the son op den middach, een Coningh, die zyn schynsel gelyck de volle maen geeft.' Iskandar Thani's letter to Antonio van Diemen in van der Chijs et al., Dagh-register, 1640-41, pp. 6-7.

(22) National Archives, The Hague (henceforth NA), VOC 1141, Letter from the Queen of Aceh to the Governor General in Batavia, 1642, f.146r.

(23) NA, VOC 1141, Letter from Justus Schouten, Johan van Twist in Malacca, 1641, f.339v.

(24) Since the jewels were fashioned in the Acehnese style as ordered by Iskandar Thani, it would have been difficult to sell them to other rulers.

(25) Sher Banu A.L. Khan, 'The Jewel Affair: The Sultanah, her Orangkaya and the Dutch foreign envoys', in Mapping the Acehnese past, ed. Michael Feener, Patrick Daly and Anthony Reid (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2011), pp. 141-62.

(26) NA, VOC 1143, Dagh-register van Pieter Sourij, 1642, ff.572r-576r.

(27) NA, VOC 1143, Letter from Antonio Van Diemen, Governor General in Batavia, to Jacob Compostel, Resident in Aceh, 1642, f.225. The jewels brought by various envoys to fulfil this order amounted to a total of 29,500 taels (Schouten brought 6,834 taels, Pieter Sourij brought 15,000 taels and Vlamingh Oudshoorn brought another 8,500). The Queen accepted a total of 21,000 taels, and the Dutch were left with 8,500 taels (one emerald ring and five diamond rings). 28 Dagh-register van Pieter Sourij, 1642, ff.572r-572v. For more details see Khan, 'The Jewel Affair', pp. 148-9.

(29) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state in Sumatra; Auni Luthfi, 'The decline of the Islamic empire of Aceh'.

(30) Takeshi Ito, 'The world of the Adat Aceh', p. 31; Ito quotes from Augustine de Beaulieu, 'Memoirs of Admiral Beaulieu's voyage to East Indies (1619-1622) drawn up by himself, trans, by M. Thevenot in John Harris's Voyages and Travels (1705), vol. 1, pp. 49-50, 102-3. This may seem a strange practice for a female ruler, but I would suggest that under the male rulers, the harem would be the private quarter whilst under a female ruler, the harem would no longer be in existence.

(31) Ito, 'The world of the Adat Aceh', p. 32.

(32) Ibid., pp. 32, 43. The weekly court audiences are mentioned right up until 1660, the last year for which the Dagh-registers (daily records) of the VOC's commissars are available.

(33) Ibid., p. 44. See also Adat Aceh, transliterated by Ramli Harun and Tjut Rahmah (Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1985), p. 69.

(34) See Hurgronje, The Acehnese, pp. 64-77.

(35) Anthony Farrington, 'Negotiations at Aceh in 1684: An unpublished English document', Indonesia and the Malay World, 27, 77 (1999): 25.

(36) Ibid., p. 25.

(37) The Company officials attending court would faithfully report on who was present during these audiences and who was sick, especially when the Company's affairs were discussed on the audience days.

(38) Bustan us-Salatin, ed. T. Iskandar (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1966), p. 32.

(39) The Bustan reveals a plot hatched by Iskandar Thani's enemies to murder him by poisoning his food. The plot was foiled and the conspirators executed, Bustan, p. 46.

(40) Beaulieu, Memoirs, p. 257.

(41) NA, VOC 1155, Dagh-register van Vervolch van Atchin, 1645, f.460r.

(42) A Malay measure of weight, varying roughly between 210-240 kg.

(43) NA, VOC 1155, Dagh-register van Vervolch van Atchin, f.442V.

(44) Truijtman mentioned that the usual gifts from the Shahbandars were brought ceremoniously to court for her Majesty's satisfaction as part of their duty in serving her. NA, VOC 1171. Dagh-register van Johan Truijtman, 1649, f.223V.

(45) Iskandar Thani described himself as 'the auspicious Sultan, the honoured and revered Paduka Seri Sultan Alauddin Mughayat Syah, Champion Sovereign, shadow of God on earth, the vicegerent of Allah, King of the whole world, who like God, is glittering like the sun at midday [my emphasis] whose attributes are like the full moon, is the king chosen by Allah [and] whose characteristics are like the Pleiades, who is king of kings, descendants of Alexander the Great.' ...'. See Iskandar Thani's letter to Antonio van Diemen in Chijs et al., Dagh-register, 1640-41, pp. 6-7.

(46) Chijs et al., Dagh-register, 1640-41, p. 4. See also: NA, VOC 1131, Letter from Commissaris Paulus Croocq to the Governor General, 1639, f.1162.

(47) See Annabel Teh-Gallop, 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli: Royal letters from Aceh in the 17th century', in Mapping the Acehnese past, ed. Feener et al., p. 124.

(48) Letter from Iskandar Thani to Antonio van Diemen, in Dagh-register, ed. Chijs et al. (vol. 1640-41), pp. 6-7. An orginal Malay letter from Iskandar Thani to Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange (1584-1647), dating from 1639, displays similar titles and compliments. Leiden University Library, Cod. Or.4818.a.I.3. Quoted from Teh-Gallop, 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli', p. 121.

(49) This refers to the Arabic spelling or version of Safiatuddin which is Safiyat al-Din.

(50) Elizabeth I and Empress Wu Zhe Tian also used providentialism as the most effective means of legitimating themselves as female monarchs. See Anne Mclaren, 'Elizabeth I as Deborah: Biblical typology, prophecy and political power', in Gender, power and privilege in early modern Europe, ed. Jessica Munns and Penny Richards (London: Pearson Education, 2003), pp. 99, 105. Empress Wu Zhe Tian (r.683-708) of China argued that she be allowed to serve her country despite strict patriarchal custom on the grounds that she was the reincarnation of a previous female saint to whom the Buddha himself had promised spiritual rebirth. See P.N. Stearns, Gender in world history (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 36.

(51) My translation from the original reproduced in Annabel Teh-Gallop, 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli: Royal letters from Aceh in the 17th century' [henceforth 'Royal letters from Aceh'], paper presented at the First International Conference on Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies, 24-26 Feb. 2007, Banda Aceh.

(52) Teh-Gallop's translation in 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli', p. 126.

(53) Ibid., p. 111.

(54) NA, VOC 1131, Letter from Iskandar Thani to Governor General Antonio van Diemen, 1640, f.1433.

(55) See Teh-Gallop, 'Royal letters from Aceh', pp. 1-46; 14-17, which quotes the Sultana describing her role as the vicegerent of Allah.

(56) Teh-Gallop, 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli', p. 127.

(57) Annabel Teh-Gallop, 'Malay seal inscriptions: A study in Islamic epigraphy from Southeast Asia' (Ph.D. thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2002), p. 89.

(58) Ibid., p. 112.

(59) On the newly minted coins, the obverse side states her title 'Paduka Sri Sultanah Taj al-Alam' and the reverse side simply her name 'Safiat al-Din Syah Berdaulat' (Safiat al-Din Syah, the Sovereign). The high sounding title of 'Berdaulat Zillullah fil Alam' (Who rules as Allah's Shadow on Earth) was not adopted by her. The same format was used by her female successors. See also, Nicholas Rhodes, Gob Han Peng and V. Mihailovs, 'The gold coinages of Samudra Pasai and Aceh Dar as-Salam', manuscript, Singapore, 2007, pp. 58-60.

(60) Teh-Gallop, 'Gold, silver and lapis lazuli', p. 126.

(61) Chijs et al., Dagh-register, 1659, pp. 103-4.

(62) Account by Jeronymo dos Reis, 24 Oct. 1688 in Achilles Meersman, OFM, The Franciscans in the Indonesian Archipelago, 1300-1775 (Lovain: Nauwelaerts, 1967), pp. 129-30, 133-4. Quoted from Witnesses to Sumatra: A travellers' anthology, ed. Anthony Reid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 52.

(63) NA, VOC 1143, Dagh-register van Pieter Sourij, 1642, f.586r.

(64) 'The first Rijxraadt, the Lebe Kitta Calij, should be passed over for now, depending on his state of mind and health. In politics he is of little power since he is young and inexperienced and so we understand not highly esteemed'. NA, VOC1171, Dagh-register van Johan Truijtman, Aug.-Nov. 1649, f.207v208r. Sultanah Safiatuddin appointed the father, the Kali, as the Maharajah Sri Maharajah.

(65) Sher Banu A.L. Khan, 'What happened to Syaf al-Rijal', in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 168, 1 (2012): 100-111.

(66) Ito, 'The world of the Adat Aceh', p. 178.

(67) Ibid., p. 172.

(68) Ibid., p. 180.

(69) NA, VOC 1143. Dagh-register van Pieter Willemszoon, 1642, f.503r-503v.

(70) Rusdi Sufi, 'Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah', in Wanita utama Nusantara dalam lintasan sejarah [Glimpses of prominent women in history], ed. Ismail Sofyan and Hassan Basry Ibrahim Alfian, (Jakarta: Jayakarta Agung Offset, 1994), pp. 47-9.

(71) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state, p. 74.

(72) William Dampier, Voyages and discoveries, vol. 2, p. 90.

(73) Bustan, ed. Siti Hawa, p. 62.

(74) Ibid., pp. 43-4.

(75) NA, VOC 1143. Dagh-register van Pieter Willemszoon, 1642, f.508r.

(76) Snouck Hurgronje, 'Een Mekkaansch Gezantschap naar Atjeh in 1683', Bijdragen Taal-, land-en Volkenkunde, 1, 37 (1888): 553-4.

(77) NA, VOC 1143. Dagh-register van Pieter Willemszoon, 1642, f.523r.

(78) Ibid.

(79) The Hollanders in the Sirrah of Al-Mutawakkil, R.B. Serjeant Collection, Edinburgh University Library, p. 124. I am indebted to Michael Laffan for this information.

(80) NA, VOC 1171, Dagh-register van Johan Truijtman, 1649, f.205r.

(81) Ibid., f.205v.

(85) In the Islamic world, as in the Christian and other world traditions, differing views exist on the role of women in politics. See Brenda Meehan-Waters, 'Catherine the Great and the problem of female rule', Russian Review, 34, 3 (1975): 306.

(86) Rusdi Sufi, 'Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah', in Wanita utama, p. 43.

(87) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state, p. 83.

(88) The Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh [Aceh canonical laws] was written in 1853 by Tengku di Meulek, descendant of Aceh's Arab Jamal al-Din dynasty during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Mansur Syah. The Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh is believed, however, to be based on an earlier kitab, Tazkirah tabakah, written in 1507 during the reign of Sultan Ali Mughayat Syah. See Abdullah Sani Usman, Nilai sastera ketatanegaraan dan undang-undang dalam Kanun Syarak Kerajaan Aceh dan Bustanus Salatin [henceforth referred to as Kanun] (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2005), p. 18.

(89) Abdullah Sani, Kanun, p. 38.

(90) Taj us-Salatin, ed. Khalid Hussain (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992), p. xiv.

(91) Al-Jauhari in his explication of the ten prerequisites to good leadership advised kings to spend less time with women because they lacked good deeds. He also stated that a king, by right, should be a male because a king is also an imam and a woman can never be an imam (ibid., p. 60).

(92) Ibid., p. 60.

(93) Al-Ghazali cited manliness, good horsemanship and skills in bearing arms as necessary qualities a ruler should possess. See Ann K.S. Lambton, State and government in medieval Islam: An introduction to the study of Islamic political theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 121.

(94) Abdullah Sani, Kanun, p. 39.

(95) An examination of the structure and writing style of the Taj us-Salatin reveals that the text, perhaps consciously, copied the style and political writing tradition of the Islamic world.

(96) Khalid, Taj us-Salatin, p. 59.

(97) Ibid., p. 61.

(98) Ibid.

(99) Al-Ghazali, Nasihat al-Muluk: Nasihat kepada Raja-raja [Advice for kings], translit, by Jelani Harun (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2006), p. xvii-xviii.

(100) Ibid., p. xxxix.

(101) Bustan, ed. T. Iskandar, p. 73.

(102) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state, p. 83.

(103) Nicolaus de Graft, Reisen van Nicolaus de Graaff gedaen naar alle gewesten des werelds, beginnende 1639 tot 1687, ed. J.C.M. Warnsinck ('s-Gravenhague: M. Nijhoff, 1930), p. 13. See also, Raden Hosein Djajadiningrat, Kesultanan Aceh (Critisch Overzicht van de in Maleische werken vervatte gegevens over de geschiedenis van her Soeltanaat van Atjeh), trans. Teuku Hamid (Departmen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan: Proyek Pengembangan Permuseuman, Daerah Istimewa Aceh, 1982-83), p. 56.

(104) Djajadiningrat quoted Nicolaus de Graaff (1701, p. 9) as saying that it took three days for the queen's installation to take place; Djajadiningrat, Kesultanan Aceh, p. 188. However, Warnsinck's Reisen van Nicolaus de Graaff does not mention this.

(105) Amirul Hadi, Islam and state, p. 85.

(106) NA, VOC 1143, Dagh-register van Pieter Sourij, 1642. f.565v.

(107) Here, I am paraphrasing Nicholas Karamzin, who wrote that Catherine the Great's greatest achievement 'was to soften autocracy without emasculating it'; Richard Pipes, Karamzin's memoir on ancient and modern Russia: A translation and analysis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 130.
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Author:Khan, Sher Banu A.L.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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