About the historical figures in Sultana

Last updated Aug. 5, 2020

I wrote Sultana after many years of research into the lives of the last dynasty to rule the southern half of the country, the Moorish family of Banu’l-Ahmar, alternatively known as the Nasrids in a later period. 


The Hud Dynasty 


At the dawn of the thirteenth century, others vied for control of Andalusia before the rise of the Nasrids. The Hud family, which originated in northern Spain, controlled the southeastern portion of the country from the 1100s onward. In AD 1228, an alliance between the Nasrids and the Ashqilula threatened Hud control over the region. With their new allies, the Nasrids encroached on the domain of their enemies and aided the Castilian Kings in wresting control of the last significant Hud stronghold at Ishbiliya or Seville. 


The Ashqilula Family 


The Ashqilula or Escayola family, as they were called in Spanish sources, formed an alliance with the Nasrids against their mutual enemy, the Hud, but their allegiance lasted nearly thirty years. Their name might have alternately been "Išqalyūla" based on recent studies; as per this recent paper, the name was definitively Išqalyūla. Whatever the truth of the clan's name, it remains fact that the two families had intermarried for several generations, beginning with the marriage of Fatima, the daughter of the chieftain Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Ashqilula, who married Yusuf ibn Muhammad, the father of Sultan Muhammad I of the Nasrids 


In later years, Muhammad I’s daughter Mumina would wed Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s son Ibrahim and Mumina’s sister would marry another son of Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Ashqilula, Abdallah. When Muhammad I wedded his granddaughter Sultana Fatima to her cousin Prince Abu Said Faraj, the orphaned son of the Sultan’s brother Ismail, the Nasrids and Ashqilula warred over the balance of power for the next decade. 


Sultan Muhammad I 


The first ruler of the Nasrid Dynasty was Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar and his people hailed him as Muhammad, “victorious through God” (al-Ghalib bi-llah). Sultan Muhammad I was born in Arjuno, part of the Andalusian province of Jaen as early as during the AD 1191 or Muslim year 587 AH. Alternatively, his birth occurred as late as AD 1195 or 591 AH; I've now seen both dates and can't verify either. He was a son of Yusuf ibn Muhammad ibn Nasr ibn al-Ahmar and his wife, Fatima bint Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Ashqilula. Muhammad’s brothers included Ismail, Yusuf, and Faraj. According to Moorish sources, Muhammad inherited extensive lands from his parents, the source of his wealth and prestige. I'm uncertain whether he was the eldest son. Primogeniture did hot hold sway in medieval Islamic society; all heirs, male and female took their share of an inheritance. 


At the time of Muhammad’s birth, the territory of Islamic Spain encompassed the lower half of the peninsula. A loose confederation of emirates, known as the Tai’fa states, had evolved after the collapse of the dynasty of Almohade. Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Yusuf of Hud controlled the province of Gharnatah or Granada. His family purportedly had settled in the Tai’fa of Zaragoza in northern Spain, close to the border with France. In AD 1118, King Alfonso of Aragón claimed the region and so, Muhammad’s family moved south to the Arjona area.   


Muhammad became the leader of his home region of Arjuno (AD 1231 or 628 AH); I don't know what happened in this particular time to precipitate the notable change, i.e., if his father had died. Certainly, there was no power vacuum. Arjuno had by then fallen under the jurisdiction of the clan Ibn Hud, which ruled the Tai’fa of Murcia and had also originated in Zaragoza. When Muhammad revolted against Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Yusuf of the clan Hud in the quest for political dominance in Andalusia, Muhammad began with his base in Arjuno (July 16, AD 1232 or 27 Ramadan 629 AH). He extended his influence only as far as Cordoba after its political and spiritual leaders rejected his claim. 


Focusing on other areas under Muslim control, Muhammad soon conquered the following principal cities: Guadix (AD 1232 or 630 AH), Granada (AD 1237 or 634 AH), Almeria (AD 1238 or 635 AH), and Malaga (AD 1239 or 637 AH). With the aid of his allies among the family of Ashqilula, other Islamic leaders in the provinces recognized Muhammad as a ruler. His enemy Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Hud died in AD 1238 at Almeria, assassinated by the Hudid governors who had previously sworn loyalty to him. The next Hudid leader was Ibn Hud al-Dawla, uncle of the former ruler. Ibn Hud al-Dawla would later surrender his control of Murcia in the Treaty of Alcaraz (AD 1243) and his territory became part of Castile. 


As Sultan, Muhammad I maintained his expanding territory by ceding nominal control to Ashqilula governors and members of his own family. He appointed his brother Ismail as the governor of Malaga. Ismail retained that post until his death (AD 1257 or 655 AH). However, early attacks on Muhammad’s power base eroded his jurisdiction over portions of Andalusia. Christian armies reclaimed the following territories: Murcia (AD 1243-1244 or 642-643 AH), Arjuno (AD 1244 or 643 AH), and Jaen (AD 1245 or 644 AH).   


Muhammad I also began construction on his palace in Granada, over the foundations of an Islamic fort from the Zirid period in Spain (AD 1238 or 635 AH). There is also the theory that the site was a Jewish fortress originally. Whatever the origins, it would become one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the West, Alhambra Palace complex or “the red fortress” named for its red, brick walls. 


At various periods throughout the majority of his reign, Muhammad I paid tribute to the kings of Castile or Castilla-Leon, who considered the Nasrid kingdom a vassal state (beginning in AD 1246 or 645 AH). The estimated tribute was forty thousand dinars or gold coins. Although Muhammad I submitted to the Castilian demand for aid, particularly in the conquest of Muslim Seville (December AD 1248 or Ramadan 646 AH), he did not always accept the terms of vassalage. The initial period of vassalage only lasted approximately 20 years. Muhammad I began openly inciting or aiding the Mudejar populations of the Jerez and Murcia regions to revolt against Castile’s rule (beginning AD 1264 or 662 AH). 


After his brother Ismail’s death, Muhammad I gave dominion over Malaga to Abu Muhammad of Ashqilula, who was likely also his nephew by marriage; despite this possibility, none of the brothers of Muhammad I are noted as having married Ashqilula women nor are any of the sisters of Muhammad I named. Muhammad I raised his orphaned nephews Abu Said Faraj and Muhammad, sons of the former governor Ismail, at Alhambra Palace. The wife of Muhammad I, Aisha, was a cousin and the daughter of his paternal uncle, Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Nasr. Muhammad I had at least four sons of his own: Nasr, Yusuf, Faraj, and Muhammad. The latter would reign as the Sultan Muhammad II, with his full name as Abu Abdallah Muhammad; he and his brother Faraj were likely the sons of Aisha. Another unnamed partner of Muhammad I became the mother to his daughters Mumina, who married Ibrahim ibn Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Ashqilula, and Shams, who married Ibrahim’s brother Abdallah ibn Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Ashqilula. 


The first Sultan died after he accidentally fell from his horse while raiding the frontier town of Martos (January 22, AD 1273 or 1 Rajab 671 AH). Muhammad I was approximately 82 years old at his death. 

Facts versus fiction about Muhammad I 


In Sultana, Muhammad I is portrayed as having complex relationships with the Ashqilula family from the start when he married his granddaughter Fatima to her cousin Abu Said Faraj. No one knows when the alliance between the Nasrid and Ashqilula families began to unravel or whether the union of Faraj and Fatima was the cause. Also, whether Muhammad I married a woman among the Ashqilula remains uncertain, but if he did, she was not the mother of his heir Muhammad II. 


Sultan Muhammad II 


The second Nasrid Sultan, Muhammad II was born in the Arjuno region shortly after his father declared his suzerainty (AD 1237 or 634 AH). He was the son of Sultan Muhammad I and a paternal cousin among Nasrids named Aisha. Among Muhammad II’s youthful studies included works in astronomy, philosophy, writing, and poetry. The Moorish people called Muhammad II al-Fakih, “the jurist” or “Lawgiver” for his swift justice. During his reign, he added to his father’s work at Alhambra Palace. Feuds with the Castilians, the Marinid rulers of Morocco, and an enduring civil war with the Ashqilula plagued his reign. His young cousin, Abu Said Faraj ibn Ismail, became a trusted and loyal advisor. Abu Said Faraj also married the Sultana Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad II (AD 1265 or 664 AH). 


Muhammad II accomplished the overthrow and exile of the Ashqilula. Under pressure from the Sultan and his allies, the majority of the Ashqilula clan fled to Morocco (AD 1279 or 678 AH). The date is not fixed; some historical records indicate the exile occurred ten years later. The earlier date seems correct, given that the Ashqilula fought on the losing side with the Castilians against the Nasrids in two subsequent battles on May 12, AD 1280 / 11 Muharram 679 AH and again, on April 22, AD 1281 / 2 Muharram 680 AH. It seems unlikely that the Nasrids would have tolerated their presence in Spain after these defeats. Muhammad II claimed the city of Malaga and installed his cousin and son-in-law, Abu Said Faraj as the new governor (AD 1278 or 677 AH). The Ashqilula clan died in exile. Their tombs were examined in December AD 1354 by the Nasrid minister Ibn al-Khatib. 

Muhammad II had two known companions in life. His wife Nuzha was a paternal cousin, the daughter of Ahmad, uncle of Muhammad II. Nuzha became the mother of Muhammad II’s children, a boy also named Muhammad who would succeed his father and Fatima, the heroine of Sultana. Muhammad II also had a relationship with a woman named Shams al-Duha, a Christian concubine, who was the mother of his daughters Aisha, Shams, Mumina, and another unnamed daughter who married Sultan Abu’l-Rabi Sulayman ibn Yusuf of the Marinid Dynasty (reigned AD 1308 or 708 AH). Muhammad II and Shams al-Duha also had two sons, Faraj and Nasr, the latter of whom would also gain the throne in future years. 


Facts versus fiction about Muhammad II 


In Sultana, Muhammad II has a fractured relationship with Fatima’s mother Aisha, a woman of the Ashqilula clan, while the historical figure married his paternal cousin Nuzha. His marriage to a Moroccan princess comes from earlier sources, but recent history does not record this union. The Christian mother of Muhammad II’s later children bore the name Shams al-Duha, not Nur al-Sabah as in the novel. I chose the name Shams ed-Duna for the Moroccan second wife of Muhammad II, so it was an interesting twist to learn of Muhammad II’s true companion as having had a similar name. As with many personal relationships in history, it’s difficult to know whether Muhammad II valued his interactions with Fatima, but at least he certainly saw to her education, which was on par with the tutelage her brothers received. Rather than marrying the fictionalized Muna, one of Fatima’s sisters to the ruler of Algeria, Muhammad II wed an unnamed daughter to the Marinid ruler Sultan Abu’l-Rabi Sulayman ibn Yusuf. Another daughter, named Shams, married Abdul-Hajjaj ibn Nasr; by the name alone, I suspect this was a cousin, but he has no line of descent in the family tree. 


Prince Abu Said Faraj 


Faraj was the son of the governor of Malaga, named Ismail, a brother to Sultan Muhammad I. The exact date of Faraj’s birth remains uncertain, but it occurred at some point in AD 1248 or 646 AH. Faraj’s father died when the boy was just nine years old in AD 1257 or 655 AH, Faraj's uncle Sultan Muhammad I raised him, alongside Faraj’s brother Muhammad and presumably an unnamed sister. On his father’s side, Faraj was a first cousin and son-in-law of Sultan Muhammad II, cousin and brother-in-law of the Sultans Muhammad III and Abu’l-Juyush Nasr and cousin to his own future wife, Fatima. The governorship of Malaga came under the control of Abu Muhammad of the Ashqilula clan, named as a nephew of Muhammad I. Since none of the details about Muhammad I’s sisters are certain, no one knows the exact nature of Abu Muhammad’s relationship to the Sultan and Faraj’s family. 


Faraj apparently enjoyed a strong and loyal relationship with his cousin Muhammad II, enough to wed the man’s daughter Fatima in AD 1265 or 664 AH when Faraj would have been eighteen years old. His bride might have six or ten years younger at the time of their marriage. When Muhammad II ascended the throne, Faraj became an advisor to Muhammad II, although I can’t find any reference to him having served among the Diwan-al-Insha, the Sultan’s chancery. After the defeat and banishment of the Ashqilula, Faraj became the governor of his birthplace at Malaga, where he retired with his wife Fatima and their young son Ismail. In 2017, I discovered that Faraj may have had another wife in his first cousin, Sultana Lubab al-Mulk, the daughter of Sultan Muhammad I, Faraj's uncle, and the Sultan's Faraj and Lubab al-Mulk is uncertain, but if they married, it begs the question of what happened to her. Sultan Muhammad I would have authorized the union; did Lubab al-Mulk die before, during, or after Faraj's marriage to Fatima?  Did the couple divorce so Fatima might marry Faraj? There are no children descended from Faraj and Lubab al-Mulk. 

Facts versus fiction about Abu Said Faraj 


I don’t know how Faraj’s father died in AD 1257 or 655 AH. Whether Faraj was the son of an Ashqilula woman as in Sultana is unclear; only his father’s identity is certain. I have dramatized Faraj’s relationship with his younger brother Muhammad, but no sources speak about their association. What Faraj may have thought of his union with his young cousin Fatima is speculation, but he must have been aware of the consequences, or perhaps seen the union as some advantage to him, especially with his cousin Muhammad II as the future heir of Granada. It’s impossible to know when Faraj consummated his union with Fatima; she could have been as old as twelve or as young as eight when he married her at the age of eighteen. Their first son Ismail did not appear until AD 1279 or 677 AH. At least three daughters but mentioned, but again, the determination of their dates of birth does not exist to allow for any assumption about the order of the children’s birth. Since most of the Ashqilula fade from history with their defeat during the reign of Muhammad II, Faraj’s interactions with any of them, including Abu Muhammad of Malaga, remain unknown. 


Sultana Fatima 



Fatima, the daughter of Sultan Muhammad II and his paternal cousin Nuzha, was a remarkable historical figure, so it seemed only right for her to serve as the heroine of Sultana. I don’t know her date of birth; the most common speculation makes her between eight and twelve when she married in AD 1265 or 664 AH by the dictate of her grandfather Sultan Muhammad I; if so, she was born as early as AD 1257 / 656 AH or in AD 1253 / 652 AH. I have even seen recent sources placing her birth in AD 1260 or 1261 / 659 AH. Recent research has led to the determination of her date of death, indicating that she had either reached the age of ninety or approached it before her passing occurred.  

No matter the date, she was a child bride by modern standards when she married. Islamic law allowed such unions, as it also permitted weddings between close family members. Fatima’s father Muhammad II was the paternal first cousin of her husband Faraj. Fatima’s youth at the time of her marriage is also hinted by the fact that her first known child, Ismail, was not born until AD 1279 or 677 AH. 


All the primary and secondary sources describe Fatima as a cultured princess. She studied barnamaj, a repertory of the names of teachers and disciples devoted to religious matters. As I have come to a better understanding of Islam in the Moorish period, I wonder if this study shows evidence of Fatima’s interest in Sufism, which involves masters and disciples in the mysticism of Islam. Her awareness gives an indication of Fatima’s educational upbringing, likely on par with that of her brothers the royal princes. She had one full blood brother from her mother Nuzha, named Muhammad, and two brothers of the half-blood, born of a Christian concubine, Nasr and Faraj, as well as sisters Aisha, Shams, Mumina, and another who remains unnamed. 


Facts versus fiction about Fatima 


Fatima was the daughter of two cousins within the Nasrid family, the future Muhammad II and Nuzha, not the daughter of an Ashqilula woman named Aisha as in Sultana. To my knowledge, the wedding with Faraj did not provoke an immediate hostile response from the Ashqilula, resulting in Fatima’s kidnapping or the death of her mother. Her relationship with her father is speculation, but he ensured her upbringing and education. How she might have viewed her husband Faraj and the relationship they had during the civil war with the Ashqilula remains uncertain, as is her interaction with her full-blood brother Muhammad. 

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Note: All images are mine or derived from public domain artwork.