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THE ALMORAVID DYNASTY
POLITICAL HISTORY

THE ALMORAVID DYNASTY

The term ‘Almoravid’ comes from the Arabic word ‘al-Murabit, literally meaning “one who is trying” but figuratively meaning “one who is ready for battle at a fortress”.

The Almoravid dynasty was an imperial Berber Muslim dynasty centered in Morocco. It established an empire in the 11th century that stretched over the western Maghreb and Al-Andalus. The dynasty was founded by Abdallah Ibn Yasin. The Almoravid capital was Marrakesh, a city which was the ruling house founded in 1062. The Gudala nomadic Berber tribes of the Sahara, traversing the territory between the Draa, the Niger and the Senegal rivers.

The Almoravids were crucial in preventing the fall of Al-Andalus to the Iberian Christian kingdoms, when they decisively defeated a coalition at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086. This enabled them to control an empire that stretched 3,000 kilometers North to South, from Senegambia to Spain.

Abdallah Ibn Yasin was a Gazzula Berber and probably a convert rather than a born Muslim. His name can be read as “son of Ya Sin”. Ibn Yasin certainly had the ardour of a puritan zealot, his creed was mainly characterised by a rigid formalising and a strict adherence to the dictates of the Quran and orthodox tradition.

Ibn Yasin’s arguments were disputed by his audience. He responded to questioning with charges of apostasy and handed out harsh punishments for the slightest deviations. The Gudala soon had enough and expelled him almost immediately after the death of his protector, Yahaya Ibn Ibrahim, sometime in the 1040s.

Ibn Yasin, however, found a more favourable reception among the neighbouring Lamtuna people. Probably sensing the useful organizing power of Ibn Yasin’s pious fervor, the Lamtuna chieftain Yahya Ibn Umar al-Lamtuni invited the man to preach to his people. The Lamtuna leaders, however, kept Ibn Yasin on a careful leash, forging a more productive partnership between them. Invoking stories of the early life of Muhammed, Ibn Yasin preached that conquest was a necessary addendum to Islamicization, that it was not enough to merely adhere to God’s law, law was necessary to also destroy opposition to it. In Ibn Yasin’s ideology, anything and everything outside to Islamic law could be characterized as “opposition”. He identified tribalism, in particular, as an obstacle. He believed it was not enough to urge his audiences to put aside their blood loyalties and ethnic differences, and embrace the equality of all Muslims under the Sacred Law, it was necessary to make them do so. For the Lamtuna leadership, this new ideology dovetailed with their long desire to refound the Sanhaja union and recover their lost dominions. In the early1050s, the Lamtuna, under the joint leadership of Yahya Ibn Umar and Abdallah Ibn Yasin-soon calling themselves the al-Murabitin (Almoravids)-set out on a campaign to bring their neighbours over to their cause.

 

The Almoravid Conquest In Northern Africa

From the year 1053, the Almoravids began to spread their religious way to the Berber areas of the Sahara, and to the regions south of the desert. After winning over the Sanhaja Berber tribe, they quickly took control of the entire desert trade route, seizing Sijilmasa at the northern end in 1054, and Aoudaghost at the southern end in 1055. Yahya Ibn Umar was killed in a battle in 1057, but Abdullah Ibn Yasin, whose influence as a religious teacher was paramount named his brother Abu Bakr Ibn Umar as chief. Under him, the Almoravids soon began to spread their power beyond the desert, and conquered the tribes of the Atlas Mountains. They then came in contact with the Berghouata, a Berber tribal confederation, who followed an Islamic “heresy” preached by Salih Ibn Tarif three centuries earlier. The Berghouata resisted. Abdullah ibn Yasin was killed in battle with them in 1059, in Krifla, a village near Rommani, Morocco. They were, however, completely conquered by Abu Bakr Ibn Umar, and were forced to convert to orthodox Islam. Abu Bakr married a noble and wealthy Berber woman, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyat, who would become very influential in the development of the dynasty. Zaynab was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Houara, who was said to be from Kairouan.

In 1061, Abu Bakr Ibn Umar made a division of the power he had established, handing over the more-settled parts to his cousin Yusuf Ibn Tashfin as viceroy, and also assigning to him his favourite wife Zaynab. Ibn Umar kept the task of suppressing the revolts that had broken out in the desert. When he returned to resume control, he found his cousin too powerful to be superseded. In Novermber 1087, Abu Bakr was killed in battle – according to oral tradition by an arrow, while fighting in the historic region of the Sudan.

Yusuf Ibn Tashfin had in the meantime brought the large area of what is now known as Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania into complete subjection. In 1062 he founded the city of Marrakech. In 1080, he conquered the kingdom of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) and founded the present city of that name, his rule extending as far east as Oran.

 

The Almoravid Conquest of the Ghana Empire

According to Arab tradition, the Almoravids conquered the Ghana Empire sometime around 1076. An example of this tradition is the record of historian Ibn Khaldun, who cited Shaykh Uthman, the faqih of Ghana, writing in 1394. According to this source, the Almoravids weakened Ghana and collected tribute from the Sudan, to the extent that the authority of the rules of Ghana dwindled away, and they were subjected and absorbed by the Soso, a neighboring people of the Sudan. Traditions in Mali related that the Soso attacked and took over Mali as well, and the ruler of the Soso, Sumaouro Kante (Sumanguru Kante) took over the land.

 

DECLINE OF THE ALMORAVID DYNASTY

Three years afterwards, under Yusuf’s son and successor, Ali Ibn Yusuf, Sintra and Santarem in Portugal were added, and he invaded Iberia again in 1119 and 1121, but the tide had turned, as the French had assisted the Aragonese to recover Zaragoza. In 1138, Ali Ibn Yusuf was defeated by Alfonso VII of Leon, and in the Battle of Ourique (1139), by Afonso I of Portugal, who thereby won his crown. Lisbon was conquered by the Portuguese in 1147.

According to some scholars, Ali Ibn Yusuf provided a new generation of leadership that had forgotten the desert life for the comforts of the city. He was defeated by the combined action of his Christian foes in Iberia and the agitation of Almohads (the Muwahhids) in Morocco. After Ali Ibn Yusuf’s death in 1143, his son Tashfin Ibn Ali lost ground rapidly before the Almohads. In 1146 he was killed in a fall from a precipice while attempting escape after a defeat near Oran.

His two successors were Ibrahim Ibn Tashfin and Ishaq Ibn Ali, but their reigns were short. The conquest of the city of Marrakech by the Almohads in 1147 marked the fall of the dynasty, though fragments of the Almoravids (the Banu Ghanaiya,) continued to struggle in the Balearic Islands, and finally in Tunisia.

 

Military organization

Abdallah Ibn Yussin imposed very strict discipline measures on his forces for every breach of his laws The Almoravid first military leader, Yahya Ibn Umar al-Lamtuni, gave them a good military organization. Their main force was infantry, armed with javelins in the front ranks and pikes behind, which formed into a phalanx, and was supported by camelmen and horsemen on the flanks. They also had a flag carrier as the front who guided the forces behind him, when the flag was upright, the combatants behind would stand and when it was turned down, they would sit.

Al-Bakri reports that, while in combat, the Almoravids did not pursue those who fled in front of them. Their fighting was intense and they did not retreat when disadvantage by an advancing opposing force, they preferred death over defeat. These characteristics were possibly unusual at the time.

 

The Jakhanke Islamic Movement

A history of Islam in West Africa cannot be complete without a mention, however brief, of the Jakhanke Islamic Movement which arose in the 12th century under the charismatic scholar Alhajj Salim Suwareh who helped to spread Islam in the present day countries of Mali, Guinea, Senegal and The Gambia, the most Islamized countries in West Africa today. The Jakhanke Islamization effort indeed have borne rich fruit! But let us begin by addressing the brass tacks: who were the Jakhanke? Why do they deserve attention in our study of the spread of Islam in West Africa?

The highly regarded Gambian historian Lamin Sanneh who is also the leading authority on the Jakhanke calls the Jakhanke a ‘specialized caste’ of Muslim clerics and educators. ‘Caste’ gives them an aura of belonging to a bigger group, the Serahuli ethnic group also called Soninke in other writings. Today, they are erroneously categorized as Mandinka. They speak a dialect of Mandinka, but their ‘Mandikanization’ was largely because they were hosted by Mandinka chiefs when the Jakhanke moved from present day Republic of Mali to the Senegambia region. ‘Clerics and educators’ indicate their profession as literate and therefore able to proselytize and do missionary work. Apparently, the Jakhanke who are found in the Senegambia region today in large numbers do not put much premium on their ethnic origins but rather on their work as propagators of Islam in the past 800 years.

This is exactly why the Jakhanke should interest us. They started a peaceful propagation of Islam in the Senegambia region. This is all the more relevant as we write today because of the rampant violence associated with Islam in many parts of the world. Much of the subsequent styles, and techniques associated with the peaceful spread of Islam in Senegambia is their creation. In a nutshell, they set the standards for missionary work.

What were these standards? Chiefly, they professed the peaceful path to Islam. They did not raise the sword to spread the religion. They resorted to more peaceful methods such as establishing Koranic schools and mosques, upgrading of mosques, holding sessions on Koranic exegesis, preservation of holy sites where yearly Islamic gatherings take place and being itinerant traders who took Islam to their clients and customers. But just as they had methods, they also had tactics! For example, they believed in numbers and therefore were keen to multiply their talibes or disciples. The disciples having gone through years of tutelage, would be allowed to disperse and then mass up new disciples themselves. Through massification, the Jakhanke helped to strengthen their religion. Also, they had a tactic of withdrawing into enclaves far from the maddening crowds, so to speak. Generally, Jakhanke needed the quietude of the monastery and thus were very good at establishing theocratic entities sometimes deep in the Senegambian Savannah, where they developed self sustaining communities dedicated to Islamic scholarship and renditions. Sutukuho, Sutukung, in The Gambia and Niokhlo and Suna Karantba in Casamance are extant examples of such religious villages.

So far absent in our discussion is the figure of Alhaji Salim Suwareh, the founder of the Jakhanke Islamic movement we have discussed above. He was a central in the success of the Jakhanke missionary work and therefore deserves our brief attention. His early life is shrouded in mystery, but a few strands deserve serious attention and are revealing. He died around 1500 and reputedly made seven pilgrimages to Mecca where he had relatives and lived before relocating to Black Africa to spread Islam, settling in the Jaka region of Masina, in present day Mali. Hence the name of his people Jakankhe, meaning in Mandinka ‘those who hail from Jaka’. When he completed his seventh hajj, he returned to Africa and stayed. He led his people from Jaka Masina to Jaka Bambuku. When the animist ruler of Bambuku became hostile, Suwareh did as the prophet of Islam did when Meccans started to throw stones at him: flee into exile. Suwareh led his band of talibes towards present day Senegambia. The historian Professor Sanneh writes that since this hijra or flight like movement, Jakhanke ‘have been united by a close bond of solidarity based on fidelity to Suwareh characterized by bonds of solidarity’.

So dedicated were the Jakhanke to the spirit of peaceful spread of Islam that when a Serahuli religious hothead, Momodou Lamin Drammeh(1835-1887) opted to wage war to convert Bundu (eastern Senegal) into Islam, the Jakhanke disowned him and fled further down to present eastern Gambia. His swashbuckling style was quite in contrast to their orderly ways of Islamization! Without bearing the sword, the Jakhanke were able to fasten the spread and reform of Islam in contrast to the jihadist like Drammeh, Umar Taal, or Maba Jahou Bah. The paradox here may not be obvious but is palpable: how Jakhanke whose mentor, Suwareh, lived and had relatives in Mecca could have disavowed the uncompromising Wahabi doctrine to espouse the ‘path of accommodation’?

To conclude therefore, what is the significance of the Jakhanke movement? Simply put, the Jakhanke epitomized peaceful and community led spread of Islam which made a deep impact on the recipient societies of Islam as the way of peace. The present day bomb throwers who claim to spread this religion by doing so may want to learn a lesson or two from the Jakhanke movement which started over 500 years ago.

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