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Muhammad and the Caliphate >
Islamic Revivalism in the Maghreb

From the late eleventh to the early thirteenth century, the Maghreb (Islamic west) was dominated in succession by two states: the Almoravids (al-murabitun) and the Almohads (al-muwahhidun), both of which began as Sunni revivalist movements among the Berbers of North Africa. In about 1050 North Africa was politically fragmented among rival tribes in the wake of the collapse of Fatimid power and the Hilalian invasion, and Muslim Spain was divided into many small petty kingdoms. Furthermore, North Africa still displayed a great religious diversity; Sunni Islam was strong in the old bastion at Qayrawan, but Kharijism was still widespread, and many areas (particularly in the mountainous far Maghreb, where large towns were few) were still only nominally Islamized.

The Almoravids began as a Sunni reform movement among the lowland Sanhaja Berbers of the Sahara, sparked by a scholar who had become filled with an austere religious zeal from his pilgrimage to Mecca and his studies in Sunni Qayrawan. He returned to his people in the Sahara to reform their Islam, founding a “pure” Muslim community somewhere near the Senegal River in the 1040s. Alliance with Sanhaja tribal chiefs gave the Almoravid movement the military base needed to expand northward, with the aim of establishing proper Islamic practice as they understood it. Under their greatest leader, Yusuf ibn Tashfin (1061–1106), the Almoravids subdued semi-Islamized Berber groups, whom they viewed as heretical, as well as tribes who had been political rivals of the Sanhaja during the 1060s and 1070s. Ibn Tashfin thus conquered much of Morocco and western Algeria. In about 1060 Ibn Tashfin established the settlement of Marrakesh as a kind of military camp; it grew rapidly and became the Almoravid capital.

Ibn Tashfin emerged as the most powerful figure in the western Islamic world, just when the petty kingdoms of Islamic Spain were confronted by the threat of the reconquista. The resurgent Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, led by Alfonso VI, had already seized Toledo and were pressing on the Muslim city-states of Andalusia. In desperation, several of the petty kings called on Ibn Tashfin to enter Spain and ward off the Christians. His decisive defeat of Alfonso's army at the Battle of Zallaqa in 1086 kept southern Spain out of Christian hands for the moment, but the various Muslim kings of Spain were gradually deposed and the area was incorporated into the sprawling Almoravid empire, which now extended from central Spain to the Senegal River. Further Almoravid victories on the battlefield helped to keep the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain at bay; yet many Spanish Muslims resented the hegemony of the Almoravids. In part, this reflected a long tradition of hostility to the Berbers in Spain, legacy of their frequent use as mercenaries; in part, it was because the Muslims of Spain considered the Almoravids culturally unsophisticated; and finally, in part it was because they were repelled by the Almoravids' harsh enforcement of Islam, which included persecution of Sufis and the burning of religious books deemed heretical. Widespread rebellions against the Almoravids in the 1140s heralded the collapse of their rule in Spain.

Islamic Revivalism in the Maghreb

The mosque at Tinmallal (1153–4), located high in the Atlas mountains south of Marrakesh, is the sole vestige of the Almohad capital established there by Ibn Tumart around 1125.

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Meanwhile, in North Africa another revivalist movement, that of the Almohads, was already challenging the Almoravids by about 1125. The founder of the Almohad movement, Muhammad Ibn Tumart (ca. 1080–1130), was a highland Berber of the Masmuda tribe who, after study in Córdoba and the Islamic east, had returned to the Maghreb to preach a message of strict piety, declaring himself to be the mahdi, the eschatological just ruler, and claiming that the Almoravids were impious and corrupt. In about 1125 he established a base at Tinmallal in the Atlas Mountains (modern Morocco) and began to conquer nearby areas, having won many followers among the highland Masmuda Berbers. The speed with which Ibn Tumart won support may have been because his actions conformed to the traditional Berber concept of a charismatic holy man. His attack on the Almoravids and their Sanhaja supporters may also have articulated the highland Berbers' traditional disdain for lowlanders, such as the Sanhaja. In the 1130s and early 1140s Ibn Tumart's successor, Abd al-Mumin (1145–63), defeated the last Almoravids in battle and seized much of northern Morocco and western Algeria, taking Marrakesh in 1147.

The collapse of Almoravid rule resulted in a renewed period of political division among the Muslim city-states in Spain, which Alfonso VII, the king of Castile, attempted to exploit. But the Muslims invited Abd al-Mumin to send an army to relieve them, so that between 1147 and 1157 the former Almoravid domains were recovered from Alfonso by Almohad forces. Meanwhile, Abd al-Mumin organized two massive expeditions in the eastern Maghreb. The first, which began in 1151, brought Almohad rule to the central Maghreb, ending the reign of local powers such as the Banu Hammad, a family that had established a small state in the mountains of what today is Algeria. The second campaign was directed against Ifriqiya, which had been seized by the Normans of Sicily. By driving them out of Mahdiyah in 1160 and bringing the region under Almohad control, Abd al-Mumin unified the whole Maghreb from Tunisia to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Islamic regions of Spain.

During the last decades of the twelfth century the Almohads had to overcome the stubborn resistance mounted by the last Almoravid holdouts from the Balearic Islands (near the eastern coast of Spain), who had seized much of Ifriqiya. In Spain the Almohads were engaged in a continuing struggle against the Christian kingdoms, particularly those of Castile and Portugal. Despite promising offensives into Castilian territory in the 1190s, the Almohads were crushingly defeated in 1212 by a Christian coalition at Las Navas de Tolosa (in southern Spain), the battle that really sealed the fate of Islamic Spain. Almoravid control in Spain unraveled over the next two decades, and Christian forces seized in rapid succession the major cities of Andalusia: Mérida (1231), Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248), Murcia (1261), and Cádiz (1262). Virtually all that remained of Muslim Spain thereafter was the small, brilliant kingdom of Granada, which hung on until 1492, partly because of the skill of its rulers, the Nasrids, and partly because in 1244 one of the rulers had signed a treaty recognizing the vague overlordship of the kingdom of Castile.

Matters did not go better for the Almohads in North Africa, where their empire gradually devolved into several independent states. In Ifriqiya a former Almohad viceroy of Tunis, Muhammad ibn Hafs, became effectively independent by 1235, beginning the Hafsid dynasty; Ibn Hafs even dared to take for himself the title amir al-mu'minin. The Banu Marin nomads of the Sahara gradually seized eastern Morocco from the Almohads, occupying Marrakesh in 1269; their capital at Fez would become an important cultural center in their day. Southern Morocco saw the rise to power of the Zayyanid dynasty.

The Almoravids and the Almohads both demonstrated once again the power that could be built on a combination of tribally based military units and compelling Islamic religious ideologies. Their key leaders may also have won support among the Berbers because they fit the Berber tradition of miracle-working holy men (igurramen). The fact that the Almoravids, at least, sat astride important Saharan trade routes and controlled valuable sources of gold in western Africa also contributed to their ability to project their power. The seemingly evanescent nature of the Almoravid and Almohad empires should not mask the fact that they helped create the Maghreb—both as a political unit, which they unified for the first time, and as a distinct zone of Islamic culture. Despite the presence in their religious beliefs of numerous idiosyncratic features, both movements were staunchly Sunni, and their piety-mindedness and intolerance of other religious views caused them to repress many of the remaining Kharijite, Shiite, and other heterodox forms of Islam that were widespread in the Maghreb until the eleventh century. In cultural terms, too, their rule was important to the development of the Maghreb, which had been a cultural backwater before the eleventh century. After their occupation of Spain, with its richly developed Islamic culture, the Almoravids imported many scholars and learned men of religion from Spain to their North African cities, particularly their capital at Marrakesh, which became a new center for the elaboration of Islamic civilization on the highly sophisticated Andalusian model.

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