Saturday, July 02, 2016

Religion and secular power in the Almoravid dynasty

I just came across a set of notes I made back in 2007 that I thought I would turn into a blog post. They have to do with the Almoravid ascendancy in what is now Spain.

The Umayyad dynasty endured in the Islamic Caliphate from 657 to 750. In Islamic Spain, however, the Umayyads ruled for another two and half centuries until 1031, more or less factually independent of the Caliphate, which they nevertheless formally recognized. They were eventually succeeded by the Almoravid dynasty.

12th century Almoravid gold coin

The Almoravids were a reform movement that originated among the Berber tribes of North Africa, in the Sahara. It advocated a return to the basics of Islam, interpreted as always with its own particular emphasis. Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn (died 1106) founded the dynasty based on the Sanhaja group of Berber tribes. Ibn Tāshufīn established Marrakesh as his capital, around 1062. At that time, the Almoravids controlled the Berber parts of Morocco and western Algeria.

By this time, Islamic Spain was ruled by local kings in several different small states, making them vulnerable to the Christian Reconquista. King Alfonso VI of Castille and Leon (1040—1109) took Toledo and pressed for further conquests of Muslim-held areas.

Carlos Fuentes writes in El Espejo Enterrado (1992), "But if the Reconquista was indeed a war against Islam, it was also a war of the Christian kings among themselves." Yet "this combat was also an embrace" because of the complex and shifting alliances involved. In Alfonso VI's drive on the southern Muslim kingdom of Grenada, his most famous warrior Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-1099), better known to history as El Cid, allied with the Muslim king of Zaragoza. El Cid had earned his reputation as a great Christian warrior against the Muslims ("Moors"); ironically, his name comes from Arabic, meaning "my lord." But his main subordinate commander made a competing alliance with the king of Grenada. In feudal times, loyalty could be a complex and shifting quality, founded on a much different basis than that to which we are now accustomed.

El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar; 1043-1099)

But the Muslim kings didn't have to pick only from Christian allies. Several of the remaining Spanish Muslim petty monarchs called on Ibn Tāshufīn for assistance. After defeating Alonso VI i the Battle of Zallāqah in 1086, the Christian advance was halted. Ibn Tāshufīn and his Almoravids were eventually left in control of the remaining Muslim areas of Spain.

The Berber reformer Ibn Tūmart was born around 1080, in the era when Ibn Tāshufīn had become the most powerful leader in western Islam. After study in the great centers of Islamic earning, Córdoba, Alexandria, Baghdad and Mecca, Ibn Tūmart became the founder of yet another back-to-basics Berber reform movement, the Almohads (al-Muwaḥḥidūn) movement, their name meaning "those who recognize the unity of God." styled himself as the mahdī, an eschatological savior in Islamic thought. The mahdī is more often associated with Shi'a Islam but has also been part of the Sunni tradition.

By 1147, Ibn Tūmart and his successor ʿAbd al-Muʾmin (1145-63), who was also a close disciple of Ibn Tūmart Islamic renewal beliefs, had taken Marrakesh and were in control of the former Almoravid kingdom in northern Africa.

Once again, Islamic Spain splintered politically, and it was Alfonso VII (c. 1104—1157) this time who attempted to exploit their military weakness. And, again the Spanish Muslim kings invited the rulers in Marrakesh, this time ʿAbd al-Muʾmin and the Almohads, to help. ʿAbd al-Muʾmin reversed the territorial gains of Alfonso VII and expanded Almohad rule into the whole Maghreb. Eventually the Almohads rule Islamic Spain and what is now Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

But the Almohads' impressive moment of historical prominence lasted only a century or so. As Fred Donner writes in "Muhammad and the Caliphate" (The Oxford History of Islam [1999]):

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 1 212 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: Merida (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 r 244 one of the rulers had signed a treaty recognizing the vague overlordship of the kingdom of Castile.
W. Montgomery Watt, the great Western scholar of Islam, took up the question of "The Decline of the Almohads" in the Summer 1964 issue of History of Religions. His article focuses on ways in which the religious reform movement aspect of the leadership of Ibn Tūmart and ʿAbd al-Muʾmin may have facilitated their political and military success. And, conversely, how the decline of the worldly power of the Almohads was related to changes in their religious orientation. But 1230, the Almohads embraced a more Orthodox Sunni Islam and the Mālikite variety of sharia (Islamic law).

Watt looks at why the back-to-basics Almohad religious movement faded so quickly. He uses the Prophet Muhammad's original founding of Islam as a reference point.

Watt suggests that part of the answer lies in the following areas. Ibn Tūmart emphasized peripheral ritual issues such as forbidding the use of musical instruments, which Watt sees as in large part a protest by rural tribesmen "against the soft life of the city-dwellers, not an attempt to reform themselves." The Prophet's original movement was an urban-based one, addressing issue which made broader demands for reform necessary and which called for real self-examination. "For one thing," Watt writes, "Muhammad is more concerned with basic social injustice, as, for example, in the perversion of traditional custom for the advantage of individuals."

Ibn Tūmart asserted doctrinal points against his Almohovid opponents. He argued for an abstract, non-anthropomorphic concept of God, stressed the role of reason and criticized the Almorovids' approach to the Mālikite school of sharia. But, Watt writes:

If Ibn-Tūmart's moral and social preaching was peripheral and sectional, his doctrinal emphases are a hotchpotch; that is to say, they consist of a number of unrelated and apparently incompatible points, which have been adopted because of some immediate practical relevance. The root of the difficulty is that Ibn-Tūmart has no radically new conception of the state or a way of life. Basically he accepts the Sunnite conception of the Islamic polity and way of life.
Ibn Tūmart was a charismatic leader, a role which had a strong tradition among the Berbers. But Watt suggests that their religious doctrines lacked a corresponding appeal. Watt credits the emphasis on reason in Almohadism as being what "made possible the flourishing of philosophy in Spain in Ibn-Ţufayl and Averroes (Ibn-Rushd). Yet the section of the population which experienced the need for a rational religion must have been small; and the problem of how a rational theology was to be related to the religion of the masses was never adequately solved in Spain."

Watt's comments on the Prophet's original movement by way of contrast to Ibn Tūmart's are intriguing:

There will always be something of a mystery about the growth and development of Islam, as indeed there is about all the great religions. When one reflects on the facts, it is truly astounding that the message of the Qur'an, originally addressed to the relatively uncultured citizens of Mecca, should have been capable of becoming the basis of a great civilization whose leading exponents stood for centuries in the highest ranks of human culture. It might be suggested that military success contributed to the development, together with the existence of a situation in which military success on the scale of the Arab conquests was possible. Yet the military success itself owed something to the religion and, at the same time, was never more than one facet of the whole. ...

The conclusion that the failure of Almohadism was essentially a failure to make converts from all sections of the community and converts of sufficiently high quality is supported when we turn back to look at the prophet Muhammad. As already noticed, in the moral and social field he was constantly aiming at the reform of his own community; though he accepted current morality in certain respects (e.g., the blood-feud or corporate responsibility for crime), most of the points he emphasized were central and concerned with basic social injustice. From a doctrinal and general point of view he was putting forward a radically new conception of the community and way of life. ... Thus the Islamic community came to be regarded as a community actually constituted by its possession of a divinely revealed way of life-the way or sunna of Muhammad, given to him by God and practiced by him. It was above all this conception of the charismatic or divinely founded and guided community that inspired countless men to labor at the solution of the practical and intellectual problems confronting the Islamic body politic in its early centuries. They were not merely converted but made to respond from the depths of their being.

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