World History 1 245 - 15.3.2 Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Sahel

From the late seventh century, the African communities of West and North Africa were under increasing pressure from the forces of Islam. Home to some Christian communities since the second century, as well as to groups of settled and nomadic pagans, North Africa lay in the path of the powerful and expansionistic new Muslim power centered on the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt, an early bastion of Coptic Christianity and a bulwark of Christian Roman power in North Africa, was conquered by the armies of Islam around the middle of the century. From there, Muslim Arab armies marched steadily across the northern quadrant of the continent. When Byzantine Carthage fell to Umayyad armies in 698, Islamic forces turned to al-Kahina, “the Queen of the Berbers” and likely a Christian convert, who forged a coalition of indigenous African forces against the Islamic onslaught. With her power based in Algeria, al-Kahina roundly defeated an Islamic army sent from Egypt in 698, but five years later, a more determined Islamic vanguard bested her at Tabarka in Tunisia. The way was now clear, and with the help of pockets of Islamized Africans, Arab control of North Africa was achieved in 709.

Link to Learning

A great deal of art originated during the Islamic period, but archaeologists have also discovered troves of pre-Islamic art in the Sahel, including beaded jewelry, pottery, and figures. Follow this link to explore the Sahel collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Conversion of the nomads did not mean their submission, however. Heavily taxed subjects in conquered provinces whose daughters were sometimes enslaved, the Islamized Africans were treated as second-class Muslims. Nevertheless, many Africans regarded themselves as better Muslims than their elite Arab rulers, whom they believed had been corrupted by wealth and luxury and were no longer devoted to Islam. They insisted that cruel rulers be removed from power and replaced by pious men. Widespread opposition took the form of revolts that erupted across North Africa in 739 and 740 and shattered the Islamic Caliphate. In the end, control over the region fell to a variety of Islamic sects and ruling families. It took nearly two hundred years for North Africa to unite under Muslim rulers again. These rulers were known as the Fatimids, Shia Muslims who did not recognize the authority of the Abbasids who had succeeded the Umayyads in 750.

The Fatimids

Fatimid missionaries had long been active in Iraq and Syria before converting the Kutama in Algeria. Beginning in the tenth century, the Fatimids started capturing Muslim strongholds throughout the Maghreb. By the end of the century, armies had captured Egypt and seized control of Palestine, Syria, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula including Mecca and Medina. The Fatimids established a Shi‘ite caliphate in Cairo, but their ultimate goal was to conquer the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and establish a caliphate that was the center of the Muslim world.

The founder of the Fatimid Caliphate, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, had relied on indigenous African soldiers in his conquest of the Maghreb. These soldiers, so crucial to victories in Africa, were no match for the Turkish soldiers of the Abbasid Caliphate, who were often enslaved captives. Taking a page from the Abbasids, the Fatimids diversified their army, enlisting free and enslaved Turks alongside indigenous African soldiers and transforming their tribal force into a multiethnic one. In the short term, this proved a decisive strategy, but in the long term, competition for positions within the military manifested along ethnic lines and resulted in a civil war in Egypt in the 1060s.

Having experienced persecution and status as outsiders, the Fatimids were religiously tolerant and did not attempt to forcibly convert Christians, Jewish people, or Sunni Muslims. Coptic Christians even continued to dominate the financial and administrative realms of the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids sought the spread of Shia Islam through education (they built many madrasas) and an increase in Shia mosques, such as the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, where students could study Islamic law and jurisprudence, astronomy, philosophy, and Arabic grammar. These were effective steps, for by the end of the tenth century, the majority of people in Egypt were Muslim.

Unable to directly rule over the region of the Maghreb, the Fatimid rulers at Cairo appointed emirs or governors from the Zirid family. Like the Fatimids, the Zirids followed Shia Islam. At first, they ruled in the name of the Fatimids, but in the middle of the eleventh century, they declared their independence and aligned themselves with the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate. The Fatimid caliph attempted to reassert Shia Muslim control by encouraging tens of thousands of Arabs to migrate westward, pressuring the frontiers of the breakaway Ziridi state and causing war. Although enormously destructive, the Fatimids failed to achieve their desired ends, and the Maghreb had gone beyond their control.

In addition to their western troubles, the Fatimids faced challenges from Europe in the form of Christian crusaders, who captured Jerusalem from them in 1099. Gradually, the caliphate of the Fatimids shrank to only Egypt. The Fatimids were further weakened in the 1160s when they were divided by a power struggle between two competing factions. One of the contenders appealed to Christian crusaders for assistance, and Egypt subsequently became a crusader protectorate for a short time as a result. His rival reached out to a Sunni Muslim army for aid. By 1169, the Muslim army, under the leadership of a Kurdish general named Saladin, had expelled the crusaders. When Saladin pledged allegiance to the Abbasids a few years later, this brought Egypt back into the Sunni-dominated Islamic Caliphate.

The Almoravids

As the Fatimid Caliphate tried to wrest control of the Maghreb back from the Zirid family, the center of power in the region shifted away from the coast and toward the Atlas Mountain range in Morocco. This part of West Africa was occupied by the Sanhaja, Islamized Africans subdivided into distinct ethnic tribes including the Djuddala and the Lamtuna. It was among these groups that the Islamic jurist Ibn Yasin settled in 1039 at the instigation of Yahya ibn Ibrahim, who sought to reform the tribes to the “true” Islamic religion (that is, Sunni Islam as he saw it). Ibn Yasin worked for over a decade to impose on the Djuddala the Malikite interpretation of Sunnism, which was based on a literal reading of the Quran and the sunna (the deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad). Anyone who fell short of Ibn Yasin’s strict demands for discipline and the observation of religious duties was severely punished.

After more than a decade among the Djuddala, during which time he alienated several leading members of the tribe, Ibn Yasin himself was expelled. While in exile, he received a steady stream of followers from both the Lamtuna and Djuddala Sanhaja, forming a group he soon came to call the Almoravids. Under Ibn Yasin’s direction the Almoravids became zealous reformers committed to imposing his version of Islam on the people of the Maghreb. In 1052, Ibn Yasin and the Almoravids embarked on a years-long campaign to defeat the other tribes of the region, assembling an impressive army in the process.

By 1054, the Almoravids had captured the trans-Saharan trading route between Sijilmasa and Awdaghost. After the death of Ibn Yasin in battle in 1059, his followers continued their northward advance all the way to Fez (in modern-day Morocco), which they captured in 1069. In 1070 they established their capital at Marrakesh. After tightening their grip on Morocco, the Almoravids launched an invasion of Umayyad Spain, conquering the Islamic states of Al-Andalus to create the Almoravid Empire. From 1085, the Almoravid Empire, ruled by the Sanhaja, encompassed all the territory from Awdaghost in the southern Sahara to Zaragoza on the Ebro River in Spain (Figure 15.19). Maliki legal doctrine dominated interpretations of Islam, and study of the Quran and the prophetic traditions contained in the sunna were largely abandoned. Unlike the Fatimids of Egypt, the Almoravids were intolerant of any other faith, including mystic Islamic Sufism and sects of Sunni Islam.

A map is shown of land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. The Atlantic Ocean is labelled in the north and west and the Gulf of Guinea is labelled in the south. A white dashed line in the middle of the map is labelled the Tropic of Cancer. The Niger R., the Senegal R., and the Benue R. are labelled on the map. Land stretching from Spain in the north down through Morocco and into Mauritania is highlighted orange. Cities labelled within this area, from north to south, are: Zaragoza, Valencia, Cordoba, Seville, Tangiers, Fez, Marrakesh, and Awdaghost. The city of Algiers is labelled in the north of the country of Algiers outside of the orange.
Figure 15.19 The Almoravid Empire was founded in the early eleventh century. At its height around the end of the century, it stretched from Zaragoza in the north to the oasis town of Awdaghost in Mauretania to the south. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Almohads

The Almoravids did not remain in power for long. Ibn Tumart, a member of the Masmuda (an Amazigh tribe) from the Atlas Mountains, launched a countermovement that rejected the legalistic formality of the Almoravids. Through his studies at mosques and madrasas across the Muslim world, Ibn Tumart had developed a broader outlook than Ibn Yasin, and Ibn Tumart’s cosmopolitan approach challenged Ibn Yasin’s scriptural literalism. A reformer, he sought a return to what he believed was the original, uncorrupted Islamic faith and rejected all of the schools of Islamic law because he considered their pronouncements to be heretical interpretations of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Ibn Tumart’s followers adopted the name Almohads, meaning “those of the oneness,” a reference to their belief in the transcendental unity of God. Despite the more cosmopolitan outlook of his movement, Ibn Tumart was no less strict than Ibn Yasin in insisting upon what he considered to be the appropriate way to practice Islam. He once pulled his sister off the horse she was riding because she was not wearing a veil. He was also a frequent visitor to Marrakesh, where he routinely mocked Almoravid government officials and ridiculed their beliefs.

The reach of the Almoravids in the southern extreme of their empire was tentative. Their mounted armies encountered difficulties fighting and maneuvering in the heights of the Atlas Mountains, so the Masmuda nomads who lived there largely escaped Almoravid control. It was among these nomads that Ibn Tumart began to recruit the Masmuda tribes into a force to oppose the Almoravids. By 1130, his control extended across the region. Those groups initially reluctant to join the Almohad cause were persuaded into an alliance by Ibn Tumart’s military. In 1147, the Almohads captured Marrakesh, destroyed what they believed were the symbols of a decadent and corrupt empire, including the Almoravid mosque, and moved on to the coastal region of the Maghreb, which they conquered as far as Tripoli by 1160. At the end of the century, the Almohad Empire extended across all of Muslim Spain (Figure 15.20).

A map is shown of land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. The Atlantic Ocean is labelled in the north and west and the Gulf of Guinea is labelled in the south. A white line in the middle of the map is labelled the Tropic of Cancer. The Niger R., the Senegal R., and the Benue R. are labelled on the map. A white line along the bottom of the map is labelled Equator. Land in the south of Spain and along the northern coasts of Morocco, Algeria and Libya is highlighted green. Cities indicated in this area, from north to south, include: Zaragoza, Valencia, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Tangiers, Algiers, Fez, Tripoli, and Marrakesh. The country of Mauritania is labelled in the west of the land and the city of Awdaghost is labelled within that area.
Figure 15.20 At its height around the year 1200, the Almohad Empire stretched from the Atlas Mountain range in the south eastward across the Mediterranean coast to Tripoli in Libya, and north to Granada in Spain. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Like the Sanhaja before them, the Masmuda dominated both the administration and the military of Almohad Spain. The manuals of Malikite legal doctrine were banned and later burned, to be replaced by the teachings of Ibn Tumart, who died in 1130. Like their predecessors the Almoravids, the Almohads made no attempt to integrate the conquered and subject peoples of Spain into the administration. Almohad dominance turned out to be short-lived, however. No sooner did it reach its peak around 1200 than the empire of the Masmuda started to crumble, due in part to pressures from Christians to the north. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Christian forces had captured all of Spain north of Granada (which fell in 1492). Meanwhile, insurgencies in the Maghreb and the sacking of Marrakesh by rebels in 1275 brought the Almohad Empire to an end.

For two hundred years, the Almoravids and Almohads controlled the Maghreb. Despite being rivals, they had much in common: they shared militant reformist origins, they were independent of Arab rulers (Fatimid Egypt in the case of the Almoravids, Abbasid Baghdad in the case of the Almohads), and they both retained indigenous African cultural attributes (Sanhaja continued to be veiled, Masmuda maintained their Council of Fifty chiefs that adjudicated tribal matters). Yet they were also very different: the Malikite legalism of the Almoravids was in contrast to the cosmopolitanism of Ibn Tumart’s ideology. In the end, although both empires were relatively short-lived, they left lasting legacies in North Africa and along the Mediterranean coast in the form of the spread of Islam and the Arabic language.

Link to Learning

The article, “These West African Artifacts Tell Stories of Great Forgotten Empires but Also the Battle to Own Africa’s Art,” looks at the ownership of African art found in collections held in European museums.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax