Lalla Aisha Al-Alami
The Pirate Queen of the Mediterranean (1485-1561)
Photo by Moussa Idrissi
She was a descendant of the Moroccan sufi saint Abd al-Salam ibn Mashish al-Alami, and through him of Hasan ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad PBUH. She was highly-educated in her youth, with the famous Moroccan scholar Abdallah al-Ghazwani even serving as one of her many teachers. She was 7 years old when her family was forced to flee their home by the Catholic Reqonquista invading army.
The Kingdom of Andalusia 711 - 1492 CE
The Reqonquista and Inquisition
The Reqonquista was the forced expulsion, conversion, and genocide of Muslims and Jews in Andalusia by the Catholic Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Following their conquest of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492, the Catholic Inquisition shortly followed, a period of brutal torture and forced conversions of Muslims and Jews to Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition alone was the most brutal and resulted in the execution of 32,000 people (History.com). This lead to the fall of not only 800 years of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula, but to the end of a "religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony" in Europe that was unmatched in its times (BBC). It was not until 1834 that the Spanish Inquisition caame to an end (History.com).
This period was marked by further brutality following the Spanish King and Queen's financing of Christopher Colombus' now infamous journey which accidentally led him to the shores of the American continent, resulting in the merciless Spanish conquest of the native American population and opened the door for the rest of the European countries to pit themselves against one another in the vicious and barbarous fight to conquer the Americas in the Age of Imperialism and Colonialism.
Governess of Tetouan
Lalla, like many noble families that were forced to flee, never forget the pain of the fall of their homeland. She married Sidi al-Mandari II, the son of the governor and founder of the nearby city of Tetouan, a hub to counterattack the Spanish and Portuguese maritime forces. Her husband came from a noble Andalusian refugee family such as her own and her marriage opened the doors of governance for her in Tetouan where she ruled as co-governor alongside her husband. Often times upon his travels, he entrusted her to rule as de-facto governess on his behalf. She ruled with efficacy, and was beloved and trusted by her people. Following the death of her husband in 1515 CE, the people entrusted her to rule as the sole governor of Tetouan. Under her rule, Tetouan experienced a resurgence of wealth and power and she earned the title of "AlSayidda Al-Hurra, Hakimat Tetouan" which means “the noble lady who is free, the ruler of Tetouan"
“The noble lady who is free,
the Ruler of Tetouan"
The Pirate Queen
"Many emigre communities let themselves be deluded by the idea of a return to Andalusia. Conducting expeditions against the Spaniards became the obsession of the bravest among them, and piracy was the ideal solution" (Fatimah Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam).
Never forgetting the pain of losing her home of Granada in her childhood, Alsayidda was adamant on seeking revenge and turned to doing so by gaining control of the Meditteranean sea. As the sole governor of Tetouan, she "made contact with the Ottoman pirate Barbarossa, assembled a fleet, and launched into privateering in the Mediterranean. She took charge of the western Mediterranean sea and Khayreddin Barbarossa controlled the eastern part. They forged an alliance that seriously hindered the activities of the Spanish and Portuguese. Backed by her Ottoman allies, Sayyida's fleet earned a great amount through booty and ransom money from their battles and raids, which turned Tetouan into a flourishing North African city (Middle East Eye).
"The Spaniards and Portuguese maintained close relations with her, as the responsible naval power in the region, and negotiated with her for the liberation of their prisoners. "Al-Sayyida al-Hurra" is the only title given her in the documents of the Spanish and Portuguese, who even wondered if that was not her name." Though she never ventured out in the seas herself, she was so successful in her ventures that she became known as "the undisputed leader of pirates of the western Mediterranean," (Mernissi).
"the undisputed leader of pirates of the western Mediterranean"
The Sultana of Morocco
Her reputation only grew larger and larger, so much so that she was able to gain the attention of the King of Morocco himself. In 1541, she accepted a proposal of marriage from Sultan Ahmed al-Wattasi, ruler of the Berber Moroccan Wattasid dynasty. Having no intention of foregoing her role or responsibilities as the governess of Tetouan, although she would be accepting the role of Sultana or Queen of Morocco, she insisted that the marriage ceremony be conducted in Tetouan instead of Fez, the capital. The Sultan left Fez and made his way to Tétouan to marry her in what became the only recorded instance of a Moroccan king marrying outside of his capital - a mark of the Sayidda’s power and strength of character, which served to prove that she would not give up her role as governess of her city even for the whole of the kingdom.
Growing tired of her "spats" with the authorities in Portugal, the Portuguese governor in Ceuta cut off commercial ties with Tétouan, causing local merchants to criticise AlSayidda's "temper" and "pride," foreseeing it as "bad for business." Around the same time, her son-in-law Moulay Ahmed al-Hassan al-Mandari (Abu Hassan’s grandson), allied himself with the rival tribe of the Wattasids, the Saadis. In 1542, he arrived in Tétouan with a small army and overthrew his mother-in-law. She spent the remaining 20 years of her life in the city that once again took her in as a refugee. The deposed Sultana died in Chefchouan on the 14th of July, 1561.
She was the last Islamic woman ruler to hold the title “Al-Hurra” (Aramcoworld).
The Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatima Mernissi
Daoud, Mohammed (1993). History of Tétouan (تاريخ تطوان) (PDF) (in Arabic)