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Hosting Empires and Faiths: Chapter 1 and 2
Chronicling the Religious History Of a Medieval Moroccan Oasis City
This was a master’s level thesis I completed to graduate from the Liberal Studies Program at Villanova University in 2008. It has been lightly modified. It’s unchanged from what I submitted to the committee however there are a few pieces missing from the Table of Contents. Please get in touch if you’d like a final version in PDF.
Table of Contents
Introduction A summary of the methodology and content of the essay
Chapter 1: Boondocks: An Overview and Study of Islam in Morocco
Themes in Moroccan religion; the peripheral nature of Moroccan Islam; analysis of baraka and the charismatic saint in Moroccan history; Geertz’s analysis of Moroccan Islam; Islamic cohesion
Chapter 2: Dreams of Exiles: Kharijite MoroccoOverview of Kharijite history; Midrar founding of the city; Jews under the Midrar; foreigners in Sijilmassa; Berber allies and the transmission of Islam to Ghana; the Isma’ili mahdi and the first sacking of the city
Chapter 3: "Against the Rigors of the Desert": the Almoravid MovementThe Berbers; the rise of ‘Abd Allah ibn Yasin and the Sanhaja; the invasion of Sijilmassa by the Almoravid; Almoravid practice, the fuqaha, orthodoxy; Sijilmassa’s history under the Almoravid; the religious practices of Sijilmassans under the Almoravid; Sufis; unorthodoxy in Sijilmassa’s practice
Chapter 4: Irresistible Unity: The Almohad Movement
Chapter 5: "The well being and salvation of Muslims": The Marinid State’s Religious Institutionalism and the Decline of Sijilmassa
Appendix A: Glossary of termsPertinent words defined for ease of reading
Appendix B: Map of MoroccoMap created by the author with pertinent points of interest
Writing a history of an ancient society is a process that calls on both the specificity of individuated events and the broad, sweeping currents of greater change. A religious history is an attempt to bridge that gap, and in the case of Medieval Moroccan Islam and religious life in the city of Sijilmassa, one cannot be divorced from the other. This essay is an attempt at providing a history of the religious cultures, movements, practices that possessed Sijilmassa over the course of its lifetime, a history which spanned from the mid 8th century until the end of the 14th century1. Sijilmassa was a remote city in the Tafilalt oasis, standing alone at the edge of the Sahara. It currently lies in ruins, a subject of archaeological research and popular myth and legend2. Its lifetime revolved around its status as a trade center: because it stood at the edge of what was treated as an ocean, it was a port both for those entering Morocco from the Sudan to the south and those leaving Morocco bound for the “land of the blacks” beyond the Sahara. Over the course of its history it alternated between being a private, isolated desert town and being the target of religious revolution. Its founders, Kharijite exiles from Iraq, sought refuge and successful lives on the edge of the desert, and for a a time did just that. Those cities on the other side of the Sahara with which Sijilmassa maintained close contact were mirror images of its own existence, diverse towns in their own right whose status as trade stops sustained and stabilized their otherwise remote geographical location. In between Sijilmassa and these other cities lay the desert and the tribes of nomadic Berbers that inhabited it. These Berbers were not only necessary guides, sustaining their nomadic lifestyle by facilitating that trade, but also proved to be extremely important in the religious history of Sijilmassa: as Morocco evolved culturally, three distinct Berber dynasties, some from the desert, some from the mountains, would sweep over the country, staking a claim in the country’s cultural consciousness. Sijilmassa was among the first towns to be captured by each successive dynasty, as it was isolated from the reigning powers and a critical part of the trans-Saharan trade. As a crossroads for empires and merchants, Sijilmassa possessed an intriguing mix of ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political intrigue. The history of this city is a history of racial diversity and ethnic conflict, prosperity and oppression, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, religious cooperation and clashes of faith. It was simultaneously a remote oasis frontier town, yet proving to be critical for the political-religious movements that defined the Islamic practice of Morocco and the entire Maghrib.
However, this is not a history of inherited Arab Islam, per se, as that would be a mischaracterization of Morocco’s encounter with Islam as well as the spirit in which this essay was written. Instead, this is a history of the unique praxis of the inhabitants of Morocco; it is a facet of a greater story of Berber Islam and the indigenous population’s attempts to come to terms with its own religiosity. The unique locality of Sijilmassa is contrasted with the religiosity of greater Morocco, the latter of which is the basis for the four phases of Sijilmassa’s history. Three Berber religious movements become dynasties, the Almoravid, the Almohad and the Marinid, and each in turn influenced and possessed Sijilmassa politically, and to an extent, culturally. However, each movement in turn was subsumed by Sijilmassa’s own unique religious culture, and the city, despite its occasional loss of autonomy, possessed a religious character all its own, now preserved in the extant sources. In sum, this essay is an attempt to capture both the essence of Sijilmassa’s religious life during the medieval period, as well as place it in context of the greater movements sweeping Morocco: the question asked is, “What religious beliefs, practices, and theological understandings existed in medieval Sijilmassa?” Clifford Geertz defined the tracing of religious patterns as writing the social history of the imagination3; this essay is intended to do just that.
The study of the city will begin with a brief analysis of themes in Moroccan Islam which are pertinent to the religious history of Sijilmassa. The first chapter does not seek to provide a complete analysis of the religious characteristics of Moroccan Islam; this would be impossible. What this chapter seeks to do, instead, is to provide a sociological groundwork for the religious themes that make up a Moroccan mentality toward Islam. The beginning of the chapter outlines Morocco’s exposure to Islam: beginning with the Arab invasion from the East and then from Qayrawan, then outlining the beginning of the Idrisid and Umayyad dynasties in Spain and mainland Morocco respectively, the times in which the town of Sijilmassa were created can be explained in detail. With the early history of Islamic Morocco in mind, the main thesis of the chapter is Morocco’s peripheral status to mainstream Islam. While the caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad sought to control the frontiers of the Islamic world, it was Morocco that defined its own religious beliefs. This is expanded upon by the rest of this essay: each chapter following this first one outlines the history of a particular religious movement which took hold of Sijilmassa during its lifetime. Identifying some of the themes that are evident in Moroccan Islam thus helps put these movements into greater perspective. In terms of specific belief systems which define the Moroccan religious mentality, baraka, the power of the saint in Moroccan Islam, proves to this day to be one of the most characteristic beliefs in Moroccan Islam. It is the charismatic religious figure, the warrior saint and desert ascetic that proves to be the mover of religious history in Morocco. Each of the successive Berber movements was possessed by the spirit of a saint, and thus an analysis of that spirit will provide insight into the Berber movements’ fascination with their singular leader(s). While Islam is the religion of the majority in Morocco, the Jewish minority of Morocco plays an important part in the religious life of both the greater Moroccan population as well as the town of Sijilmassa: over its history, Sijilmassa’s Jewish population would have periods of flourishing (especially in the early period under the Kharijites, and to an extent, under the Almoravid), and periods of intense suffering. The Jew’s place in Morocco will be examined briefly to put Judaism in Sijilmassa into perspective. Islam’s ability to unite disparate ethnic groups will also be examined, which will provide explanation for the rallying of the Berber confederations under the banner of Islam. It also provides at least a partial explanation for the ability for many different ethnic and religious groups to flourish in Sijilmassa during the many phases of its lifetime.
Building off of a better understanding of the religious character of Morocco, this space’s history is written from the perspective of Sijilmassa. This history of Sijilmassa is undertaken in four phases: the Sufritic Kharijite founding of the city, the invasion of the Sanhaja Almoravid, the capture of the city by the Masmuda Almohad, and finally the conquest of the city by the Zenata Marinid movement. Each chapter begins with a narrative of the events that defined the religious movements that overtook Morocco. This involves both primary and secondary source material, but is intended to be general, then pointing out Sijilmassa’s place in this political framework. Once these movement’s histories are described in detail, their religious beliefs will be undertaken on a “macro” scale. This will establish the particular brand of Islam that could be considered “popular culture” during the aforementioned phases of the Moroccan medieval era. Finally, analysis of the sources describing Sijilmassa’s religious life will be undertaken. This structure (historical -> macrocultural -> microcultural) allows the reader to grasp the greater context in which Sijilmassa is involved, both historically and religiously: each phase of Sijilmassa’s history was defined by very different religious philosophies, from the exiled Kharijites occupying southern Morocco in the early period to the centralized and politicized Marinid Islam of Sijilmassa’s latter days. However, understanding the greater religious currents that Sijilmassa was part of do not do the history of the city any justice; nor is the first chapter’s analysis of greater themes in any way historically adequate for understanding the beauty of diversity in this space. In order to fully understand what Sijilmassa was actually experiencing during these periods, sources pertaining directly to Sijilmassa’s religious life, preferably surviving narratives written by those who were in or visiting the city during its lifetime, are consulted and read as deeply as possible. There are problems with this method, however. Because the town no longer exists, and because of a crippling lack of surviving sources, this religious history is far from complete: in fact, writing this essay was an exercise in filling gaps that remain unsatisfactorily gaping. The narrative still has enough holes in it to render it problematic. There is no doubt that the writing of this essay relied heavily on interpretation, inference, guesswork and reading between the lines of the extant sources. In doing so, it also becomes problematic that the stories of many individuals living in this city are erased from the narrative now portrayed; while unavoidable, it is always disappointing for the writer and the reader to witness a “glossing over” of the tacit narratives that undoubtedly are yet to be discovered in a forgotten corner of North Africa and beyond. Indeed, this lack of information makes interpretation of the existing sources often misguided, if not completely incorrect. This is the purpose of writing each chapter in this way: while not every minute of Sijilmassa’s history is documented, the narrative nonetheless given a measure of guidance by being placed in the context of each existing power structure. Not only is this the best method with which to investigate Sijilmassa’s religious life, it is perhaps the only way to undertake any serious investigation of its culture. The purpose of recapturing and analyzing what remains of Sijilmassa is to not only discover the imaginations and passions of those who lived there, but also to contribute to the history of Morocco itself, a country which remains one of the most unique in the entirety of the African and Islamic worlds.
A summary of each chapter will give the reader a basic taste of what is involved. The first phase of Sijilmassa’s religious history is that of Sufritic Kharijism. Iraqi Kharijites, fleeing oppression in their ancestral homes in the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula, founded Sijilmassa, most likely hoping that it would prove to be a refuge for their religious. A history of the Kharijite movement, alonside a sociological examination of their status as an Islamic heresy will give deeper meaning to the Kharijite experience in Iraq; this will also assist in explaining Kharijite movement into the cities on the edge of the Sahara and their ability to live amongst different ethnic groups. It is this latter fact, the fascinating diversity of the space both religiously and ethnically, that proved to be the most interesting aspect of this particular phase of Sijilmassa’s history. Even as the Kharijite Arabs arrived and befriended the native Berber population, Jewish scholarship thrived here with correspondences taking place between the geonim of Iraq and the rabbis of Sijilmassa. Commerce with the Sudan was very successful: extant sources remark on events like the “silent trade” with Ghana, and the riches of Sijilmassa during this period are well reported. Thus, Sijilmassa’s role in this period would be both as a hideaway for religious heretics but also as a place in which transmission of Islam to sub-Saharan Africa might take place. The accounts of figures like Ibn Hawqal gives a picture of the ethnic and religious makeup of the city during this early period, and especially praising a population he saw as pious and pure in soul and deed. Sijilmassa’s religious importance was crystallized with the arrival of the Isma’ili ‘Ubayed Allah, the founder of the Fatamid dynasty in Ifriqiya. Claiming to be the mahdi, the promised one, ‘Ubayed Allah and his son sparked a Fatamid invasion of the city and an end to the Midrar’s reign over the city. The Fatamid invasion was followed by a tug of war between the great powers to the north and east, the Umayyad and Fatamid dynasties and their Berber surrogates, as well as with other Kharijite neighbors in the nearby oases. The period ends with the capture of the city by the Maghrawa Berbers, originally allied with the Umayyad dynasty. As the Umayyad dynasty in Spain fell to internal problems, the Maghrawa declared autonomy from the Arabs in al-Andalus and kept the city for themselves.
Disgusted with the pagan Zenata Berber tribe ruling over the city, the population of Sijilmassa wrote a letter pleading for help to the desert Berbers. The many tribes of the Sanhaja Berbers, the same desert guides that were critical to Sijilmassa’s commerce, were rallying under a new name, al-muribatun, “those who retreat”, or the Almoravid. Following the teachings of an extremely conservative and charismatic Maliki scholar named ‘Abd Allah ibn Yasin, the veiled warriors of the desert left their nomadic existence to bring religious reform to the whole of the Maghrib. The religious philosophy of the Almoravid demanded the spread of conservative Islam throughout the region, and their first conquest was that of Sijilmassa, whose population thirsted for their own religious change after suffering under the Zenata Berbers who had occupied the city for decades. From Sijilmassa, the Almoravid would go on to capture Morocco, ushering in the first Islamic Berber dynasty in the history of the country. The movement proved to be a relatively short-lived, but intense reform movement. Reforming the religious life of the country required them to enforce new scholarship throughout the land, and the rise of Maliki fuqaha meant reinforcement of Almoravid doctrine from Sijilmassa to Cordoba. The Almoravid dynasty’s rise and fall is a favorite of the historians and geographers of the medieval period, and Sijilmassa played a distinct role as the first city that the Almoravid would bring their religious reform to. While it had lost the political autonomy that it was accustomed to during the Midrad Kharijite reign over the city, the city’s Jews still found success in both scholarship and commerce. While the Almoravids were opposed to Sufism conceptually, going so far as to advocate the burning of al-Ghazali’s Ihya, fragments from the hagiography of al-Tadili relate that Sufism took hold in Sijilmassa, most notably with a Sanhaja chieftain who removed his veil. Analysis of both the Almoravid movement’s greater reform strategy and the locality of Sijilmassa demonstrates that while the Almoravid sought to enforce a strict Islamic code, the truth of the matter was much more complicated, and the Moroccan frontier remained quite diverse.
However, the Almoravid movement began to disintegrate due to a lack of imperial cohesion among its adherents. With the split of the Sanhaja confederation, one part staying in Morocco, the other returning to the desert, the Almohad (al-muwahhidun, “the montheists”) movement, made up of Masmuda Berbers from the Atlas Mountains would begin a campaign to bring their own vision of Islam to the greater Morocco, capturing Sijilmassa in one of their first campaigns on the edge of the Almoravid Empire. Under the leadership of Ibn Tumart, the Almohad movement possessed a religious philosophy inspired by the Mutazilites and transmitted through Ibn Tumart. Believing in a unified godhead, that is, with no component parts, the Almohad sought to spread their newfound philosophy across Morocco. While seemingly a minor theological detail, the Almohad philosophy made a point of the role of reason in faith: a person could understand the oneness of God through both reason and faith. This environment inspired incredible scholarship from figures like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tumart, both of whom were able to express their logical understandings of the religious life through their logic and philosophical understandings of the world. Yet these positive developments were mitigated by the negative results of this fusion of reason and faith. If one was not able to grasp the tawhid, either through reason or faith, it meant that they were heretical as well as unreasonable. Moroccan Jews suffered greatly under the Almohad dynasty, and the massacre at Sijilmassa is a major part of the Jewish extant sources for this period and provides insight into the frontier city’s culture during this period. However, even though the Almohad dynasty took Sijilmassa by force, killing those who did not agree with their theological doctrine, Sijilmassa managed to recover somewhat from the oppression under the Almohad dynasty. Various extant sources, most notably a letter from the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides, shine light on the positive developments during this period. The religious life during and after the invasion of Sijilmassa by the Almohad dynasty is investigated in depth here, portraying Sijilmassa during the worst of times, but also demonstrating its ability to recover in the face of adversity.
The narrative of the Marinid movement, the final dynasty in which Sijilmassa played a part, begins the final portion of this essay. The Zenata Berbers, coming out of the Rif Mountains, were unlike the Berber dynasties that preceded them. Where both the Almoravid and the Almohad movements maintained a strict reformist message, the Marinid approach harnessed Islam for political purposes, rather than using political force as a means to carry out religious ends as their fellow Berbers had done previously. This dynasty began much the same as the Almohad dynasty, with appeals to towns on the periphery of the Almohad Empire, which was losing its ability to address the concerns of its frontier. As the Marinid took power and established themselves in Marrakesh, Sijilmassa would find itself part of the Marinid’s development of religious infrastructure: the first Moroccan madrassas were set up under the Marinid dynasty, and rather than give power to the fuqaha and the local imam as the previous dynasties had done, the Marinid were more interested in a centralized religious authority in their sultan. Sijilmassa fared well during the early Marinid period, as the gold trade was in more demand due to the proximity of the Marinid capital of Fez. Ibn Battuta’s trip through the city and his experiences within the city and with its inhabitants is one of the clearest records still available for the Marinid period. However, according to what sources are available, soon after Ibn Battuta visited the city in the 14th century, Sijilmassa fell ill to the greater political shuffle taking place in mainland Morocco: as the Marinid dynasty weakened due to competing forces from Ifriqiya, the gold trade began a shift away from the trans-Saharan route, undermining Sijilmassa’s status as central to the gold trade. Leo Africanus provides a detailed summary of the fall of Sijilmassa, allowing speculation on the reasons for this otherwise undocumented event.
After Sijilmassa’s fall is analyzed, stock will be taken as to the value of the purpose of this narrative; namely the idea that Sijilmassa was a unique space in a uniquely peripheral country attempting to construct a religious and cultural identity. There are problems involved in the interpretation of the various texts, as well as methodological questions that should be addressed. Conclusions that are reached, however, are as valuable as the process gone through to reach them. The historian is defined by their particular interpretation, and there is no doubt that this particular narrative arises out of a need to tell a story as the modern world sees it; no doubt the residents of Sijilmassa would think differently if they were writing this history, let alone a Moroccan studying her own country’s history. This thesis, then, is offered up as both a contribution to existing scholarship on the city of Sijilmassa (of which there is hardly enough) as well offering a framework in which scholars, attempting to recover culture through scraps of historical material, can define an urban population. Aristotle located human nature in its desire, if not need for, community; there is now a need to study unique communities not only as they appear to humanity today, but also in their historical form4. Sijilmassa, surviving in such a form as society now has it, demands such attention.
Boondocks: An Overview and Study of Islam in Morocco
Portraying Moroccan Islam, as such is not an easy feat for a work spanning multiple volumes, let alone as a chapter in a thesis investigating the religious life of a single city. However, in the interest of ease of reading and clarity, it is wise to attempt to understand how the Maghrib and its indigenous peoples were introduced to Islam; this is first and foremost a historical concern, a story that begins in the Arabian Peninsula and weaves its way into Morocco, and only later arrives in Sijilmassa. That said, this historical narrative alone will not give the reader an adequate understanding of the complexities of Maghribi Islam. The heart of this thesis lies in particulars, that is, a particular culture in a particular geographic area during a particular time in Morocco’s history, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, the thesis will be a cultural study. The author thus enlists the help of those who have already written ethnographies of Islam in North Africa. Clifford Geertz’s careful analysis of Moroccan Islam in Islam Observed will serve as a canvas for painting a very general portrait of the character of Islam in this space. While his work is primarily a modern pursuit, it is his methodology which will assist this chapter in reaching its goals.
The main theme explored here is that of center versus periphery: Morocco has adapted Islam to suit its own needs, a long-term process which was only possible because of its distance from the center of religious orthodoxy. This development was accomplished with a certain amount of cultural autonomy: because Morocco lay at the very edge of the Islamic empire, much of its religious development was its own. The nature of this relationship to orthodox Islam will be examined through the several distinct religious practices that were unique to this space. Saint worship, charismatic leadership and the concept of baraka are considered because of their uniqueness to Morocco and their later importance in the development of this Islamic society. Also, a short examination of the Jewish communities existing under Muslim law will put into context later developments for the Jews of Sijilmassa. Finally, a look at the way in which Islam transcends tribal systems will be undertaken: its special significance here is in Islam's ability to dissolve tribal barriers in both Arab and Berber ethnic groups. This is not by any means a simple subject to tackle considering how broad the subject matter is, but identifying some of these themes will undoubtedly put later events in Sijilmassa into perspective.
To begin an investigation of Islam in Morocco, any narrative must begin Islam’s introduction to the Maghrib. Geographically, the Maghrib contains modern day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and at times, Libya5. The Arab tribes, now organized under the banner of Islam, found their way into Morocco in the late 7th century of the current era: this was not simply an invasion, but also a religious mission of evangelizing, inspired by the message of the Prophet Muhammad. The indigenous peoples, the Berbers, had been practicing a variety of animism for many generations, believing in the blessings of good spirits, saint worship, and the curses of evil spirits (Arabic: djinni, pl. djoun, the root of the English “genie”) and “the evil eye”6. Fired by the religious zeal that allowed them to overtake the Persian and Byzantine empires in the East, the Arab Muslims succeeded in Islamizing a majority of Berbers. This in part succeeded due to the Arab’s own affinity toward Berber culture and language, which was somewhere between Sub-Saharan African and Mediterranean descent7. It is well known that many Berbers joined the next phase of the Arab conquests in Spain. In 711, Arab and Berber forces crossed into the Iberian peninsula, soon setting up Cordoba as the capital of this province, thus founding a European Islamic community which would continue in that space for the better part of a millennium. With Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Spain conquered, the Western Mediterranean was now part of a greater Islamic empire8
Understanding the loci of power in early Islamic Morocco will mean locating and understanding the early Arab dynasties that settled in North Africa and Spain. To begin: in Damascus, the heart of Islam, the Umayyad dynasty9 had fallen to the next Arab dynasty called the Abassids, who would maintain their rule over the Islamic world for centuries. The Umayyad’s constant conflict with internal forces especially the early heresies like the Kharijites and the Shi’ites, had weakened their position and hastened their decline10. Around the middle of the 8th century, an Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape his family’s fall and fled to the furthest Western reaches of the Islamic world in Spain. There, he set up a new caliphate under the Umayyad name, which would prove to be a major player in the Maghrib and a thorn in the side of the Islamic heartland11. In the latter half of the 8th century and following the example of the Umayyad exiles, Idris, a man claiming descent from the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, founded his own dynasty in the heart of Morocco12. Islam had taken enough root here to make a descendant from the Prophet a valuable commodity: any individual who has read an isnad, the Arabic tradition of writing out the chain of ancestry of the author or subject of study (His name is X, son of Y, son of Z, and so on), knows the prevalence and importance of this tradition in Arab literature13. This claim of ancestry was undoubtedly the reason for Idris' rise to power. His Shi’ite dynasty went on to secure the plains of Morocco for two and a half centuries until this empire was split into regional governorships14. However, the Idrisids never was able to secure the Atlas Mountains or the desert beyond where Sijilmassa lay.
The Berber tribes, now mostly converted to Islam, were an unusual player in the resulting power struggle. Many were somewhat sandwiched between rival Arab dynasties. Many other tribes took refuge in the Atlas Mountains, which insulated them against this Arab invasion. Prior to and for a time following the Islamic conquests, Berbers did not have any centralized society, but instead were fragmented into several distinct societies based on their geography heritage and culture15. While the Berbers living in the areas of Fez and Meknes saw Idris’ dynasty as legitimate, a centralized government established by an outsider was neither a novelty nor preferred by the Berbers, who had lived under the Roman Empire for centuries16. This is not to say that Berbers would not interact with the Arab-Muslim dynasties of the time period. Berber tribes were heavily involved in the inter-dynastic warfare17, often acting as clients of these states. For instance, the Maghrawa Berbers who ruled Sijilmassa during the late 10th century were clients of the Umayyad state in Spain, and, at least for a time, held the city in the name of the Cordoban caliphate. However, it was the Kharijite sect of Islam, the religious beliefs of a huge exodus from Iraq that would be the most appealing to rural Berber sensibilities (this will be covered in more detail in Chapter 2). Therefore, until the Berber dynasties of the 11th-16th centuries, the Berbers had at best a mixed relationship with Islam. It was the Berber dynasties that would transform the practice of Islam in this peripheral space to one of a uniquely Moroccan character. Thus, the political situation in and around the time that Sijilmassa was founded (757-8, essentially a generation after the initial invasion by the Arabs) shows a comparatively decentralized Islamic state, especially when compared to the Levant or the traditional center of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Islam, though introduced through conquest and conversion, was not the political force that it may have sought to be. To visualize Morocco as being Islamic, one can envision a wheel and its spokes: the center of the wheel is Islamic authority, and each of the spokes are the permutations of Islam practiced in peripheral spaces. Distance from the caliphate in Syria and Iraq not only produced a decentralized and unstable political situation for Morocco as a nation18, but was also responsible for creating certain religious practices which would endure throughout the rest of Moroccan history.
Therefore, if it is assumed that during this early period, Morocco stands at a dogmatic periphery to the heart of Islamic orthodoxy, one can attempt to identify particular practices that only reside in that space. The first of these practices it that of saint worship. Much like worship of saints in the Catholic Church, Moroccan Islam contains a strong tradition of infusing holiness into its charismatic figures. It is speculated that this originates in pre-Islamic Berber practice: according to Elaine Hagiopian, pre-Islamic Berbers practiced a cult of saints, a deification of the individual that implied a unique and personal connection with God. She goes on to say that one school of thought regarding traditional Berber religion believes that the joint acceptance of Muslim mystics in Moroccan Islam by both Berbers and Arabs is directly descended from pre-Islamic Berber traditions. As mentioned previously, the Berbers held many cultural beliefs to Arabs coming from the east, such as belief in evil spirits and the evil eye, thus making a fusion of Arab and Berber religious practices much easier19. It may also have been the individualism of the Kharijites, a secessionist Muslim sect, that influenced the development of this belief in the holiness of an individual: Kharijite exiles fostered an egalitarian attitude, one in which natural leadership may not have been put down, and instead encouraged. The Berbers were very sympathetic to this message
Putting aside speculation as to origins of this practice, it is nonetheless a powerful one that characterized much of the formation of Moroccan Islam. From the establishment of the Idrisid dynasty under a sherif, to the Isma’ili mahdi arising in Sijilmassa, and finally in the successive Berber dynasties arising from the desert and mountains under warrior hajjis, the saint is the clearly the catalyst for Islamic historical development in this space. Each saint, in turn, has possessed a property which bears no direct translation into English: baraka. It can perhaps be defined as "supernatural power" or "blessedness"20, but these definitions fail to make real sense of the word: as Geertz says, saints "... have baraka in the same way that men have strength, courage, dignity, skill, beauty or intelligence"21. The first "recorded" instance of this is probably the Berbers supporting Idris, the Shiite sharif claiming descent from Ali himself, whom the Berbers saw Idris as possessing that baraka. It was his ability to capitalize on that belief that allowed him to create such a long lasting dynastic presence in central Morocco22.
Another Islamic theme is not unique to Moroccan or Maghribi Islam, but is nonetheless critical to Morocco's religious development. In fact, Montgomery Watt traces community reorganization according to the concept of the ummah as originating in the infancy of Islam itself. According to Watt, Muhammad had a vision of a religious community that had reorganized the boundaries of the traditional tribal system: in Watt's own words, "It may be noted that the ummah was in some ways conceived as a tribe. In forming alliances with friendly tribes and in waging war against hostile tribes the ummah acts in much the same way as a tribe"23. The phenomenon Watt is describing allowed tribal conflicts to be resolved the moment the warring parties agreed to forgo their conflict because of their brotherhood in Islam. This practice began with Muhammad's resolution of the conflict between the Aws and Khazraj tribes in Medina: according to Watt, the blood feud, the lex talionis of the Islamic world, was at the time a method of social control. No longer was the blood feud acting as a deterrent to conflict, but instead was a catalyst for the expansion to something multi-generational, an all out war in many cases. Muhammad's solution to this was the constitution of Medina, which placed both tribes in the ummah, the new Muslim community. Muhammad forbade the slaying of other Muslims, and the phenomenon of the Islamic community was born24.
This ability to achieve unity so effortlessly is often credited as one of Islam's most powerful traits: Watt attributes it to the harnessing of a dynamic image or idea, something he calls the charismatic community25. As a general rule, Islam has been able to found charismatic communities throughout its history. When examining Morocco, the reader can imagine where it takes place. The initial Arab invasions saw a confrontation between Berbers and Arabs that was largely dissolved because of the willingness of Berbers to submit to Islam. Where there would normally have been a massive ethnic conflict, instead there was a sharing of the mantle of religion. As explained previously, it extended beyond just Islam. The aforementioned Constitution of Medina included Jews in its law, making them members of the religious community; in Morocco, Jews were also active members of the community, with their own religious institutions and trade practices. Many of these practices on a local level will be revealed over the course of this paper.
Thus, there are two types of charismatic community: first, a dissolution of familial and ancestral ties to form a new religious community, and second the formation of a community under a clientelism that encompasses other religious and cultural beliefs. The Berbers would quite often form the first iteration, rallying under a charismatic figure and allying once against as a confederation, or a series of tribes. Jews, in turn, took advantage of the second kind of community, where they were considered protected people, clients, but not equals, in religion. However, the charismatic community, far from being a wholly Moroccan phenomenon, is instead an Islamic one, but here containing a Moroccan flavor, vis a vis the ethnic cooperation that made Moroccan Islam possible. Demonstrated in the next chapter, the power of a religious community based around monotheism and egalitarianism will be presented: the Kharijite founders of Sijilmassa established a unique religious community that was in stark contrast to the powerful forces of the time. The phenomenon of the dissolving of tribal-blood barriers in favor of a larger, more encompassing religious community becomes critical to the success of the Berber dynasties during the latter part of the Moroccan Middle Ages.
The history of Jews under Islam is varied, and Morocco is no different. However the early history of Jews in North Africa is fairly positive. In Islamic communities, Jews are dhimmi, protected peoples under Muslim law. Jews were respected in Qur’anic law as followers of Ibrahim (Abraham), however their beliefs were seen as being outdated and literally corrupted: if the Qur'an was a perfect book, the Torah was simply a confused interpretation of God's word26. Thus, throughout the Islamic world, they were restricted to certain neighborhoods, marriage and inheritance laws, and social conventions. Jews in Morocco were in a particularly interesting position, however. During the original Arab invasions of the early 8th century, Moroccan Jews were among the first minority groups to adopt literary Arabic; Yehuda ibn Quraysh27 was the first non-Arab of Africa to produce a literary work in Arabic, and ironically enough, a book on linguistics! This scholarship extended not only throughout the Maghrib, but also in the great learning centers of Spain: there was more than one mass movement from the urban centers of Morocco to the prestigious schools of al-Andalus28.
Moroccan Jews also shared with Moroccan Muslims a distance from religious authority: Moroccan Judaism was never seen as anything more than peripheral to the practice, jurisprudence and law of orthodox Judaism29. For this reason, Jews were, in many ways, afforded a unique position in Islamic society. They did not have the advantage of being connected to the religious authorities (mostly residing in Baghdad), and thus would form their own community councils who would deal with local concerns30. A complex "social control net" of the takkanot (ordinances) and haskamot (communal agreements) were enacted by individual communities as a way of practicing Jewish law. This locality may have allowed Jews to interact with Muslims on a more equal level: a monetary concern in a Jewish community surrounded by Muslims would be handled the elders of that community, not a central spiritual authority who did not understand the complexities of living in such a "protected" community. For example, a common custom of saint worship and the belief in incantations and charms arose between the Jewish and Muslim communities: the only other place in the world that sees a Jewish prostration before the grave of a saint is the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron31. However, Muslim-Jewish relations in this space, while uniquely peaceable, still were often strained. Centralized government in the Maghrib usually meant the exposure of the Jews within their communities, as laws of citizenship and practice arose during these religious and political revolutions during the Berber dynasties. It was in the peripheral cities, like Sijilmassa or Tahert, that Jews would find the best environment for the flourishing of their culture and religion; however as Sijilmassa became enmeshed in the larger dynasties, Jews found this town to be less and less comfortable. Thus, the life of a minority Jewish population under a Muslim population was mixed: it is the job of the historian to determine where their place was in the locality, and to draw conclusions from that.
The extent to which Moroccan religious life has been covered here should not be mistaken as anything but an introduction. However, its intent was to construct a twofold understanding of early Moroccan Islam, one historical and one cultural, in a manner that will assist the reader in understanding the Islamic themes that arise here. The history itself is only a brief summary of the important events that took place during the initial Muslim occupation of Maghrib, all with the intent of setting up the history of Sijilmassa. Three themes were also touched upon, themes which will become important as the history of Sijilmassa's religious life is explored. The first theme is Morocco's independence from the center of the Islamic world: Morocco's status as the furthest point in the Islamic empire granted it a measure of religious autonomy, which will be critical in a telling of its medieval history. Sijilmassa was even more remote by virtue of its geographic location and economic independence; this gained it a measure of cultural autonomy as well. In many ways, its cultural autonomy vis a vis its distance from central Morocco made it a microcosm of Morocco's periphery from the central Islamic world. Thus, in a rather strange way, Sijilmassa represented a periphery of a periphery. Turning to sainthood, this essay will return over and over again to the fact that the history of Morocco was guided by a cast of powerful characters whose religious importance cannot be understated. Each of these charismatic figures would in turn influence the history of Sijilmassa with the most personal of stories and beliefs. A final theme explored in this first chapter was that of the Islamic community, the ummah. While not a uniquely Moroccan phenomenon, it has nonetheless acquired a certain Moroccan character, exemplified in the cooperation between ethnic groups, the dissolution of tribal alliances, and the formation of a community under Islam and Islam's laws. Sijilmassa and its population were a part of a larger system of religious belief. Starting from the general, the reader can move to the specific, a study of a single town taking place in a larger religious culture.
Dreams of Exiles: Kharijite Sijilmassa
Proceeding with an understanding of the complexities of Moroccan Islam, the religious history of Sijilmassa itself can be examined. This section will proceed from the city’s founding by exiled Iraqi religious minorities in the 8th century, until the sacking of the city by the Sanhaja Berber confederation known as al-Muribatun, the Almoravid. To understand the reasons and circumstances surrounding the establishment of the city by the Kharijites, a short overview of the Kharijite heresy will be undertaken; this, hopefully, will put the city’s establishment into the greater context of an increasingly powerful Islamic world. As referenced in the title of this chapter, the city’s early religious life was, according to many historians, very diverse and egalitarian32. Jews lived alongside Muslims in an incredibly wealthy metropolitan area, isolated from mainland Morocco by virtue of its position relative to the Sahara, the Atlas mountains, and its distance from the dynasties that sought to take advantage of its riches. And this they did: the fascinating early history of Sijilmassa is eclipsed by the successive dynasties that ruled it. Between the Isma’ili Fatamids, the Umayyads of Cordoba, and later the semi-autonomous Maghrawa Berbers, the city spent much of the time leading up to the Almoravid invasions in a state of political flux. Its rapid growth as a central trade entrepot for the trans-Saharan gold trade through Morocco has its origins in the wisdom of its founders, who saw the city as a gateway to the golden, and pagan, lands of Ghana.
Of the surviving works of the Arabic-speaking geographers of the period, al-Abu ‘Ubayd Bakri’s Kitab al-masalik wa-‘l-mamalik, the “Book of Routes and Places”33, stands out for its detailed description of Sijilmassa’s rise. Of this he states that the city was established by Abu ‘l-Qasim Samgu bin Wasul al-Miknasi, the man who initiated the Midrar dynasty that would rule the city for 160 years34. According to al-Bakri’s narrative, Abu ‘l-Qasim, a Miknasa Berber, was a smith fleeing the Rabadi conflicts in Spain. Sijilmassa would be the home for him and the other Kharijite Berbers that settled with him there. al-Bakri’s reference to the Sufri Kharijite religious beliefs of the individuals who created the city is important35. Sufritic Kharijism is a particular strain of the Kharijite heresies that originated in the dynastic wars following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Many of these heretics settled in the southern regions of Morocco, finding a country in which they could practice their religion openly, away from the powers that be. While orthodox Muslims were the first transmitters of Islam to the Maghrib, it was the Kharijite exiles that captured the imagination of the indigenous Berbers and transmitted Islam to sub-Saharan Africa. In order to describe the Kharijite history of Morocco and their influence on Sijilmassa, a short summary of their history should be undertaken36.
The death of the Prophet Muhammad was followed by the reigns of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, ‘Uthman, and Ali ibn Abu Talib. It is with the two last caliphs that we will begin, as it is under their reign that the first schisms of Islamic history begin. ‘Uthman Ibn ‘Affan was one of Muhammad’s most trusted companions and one of his sons in law. However, his reign was marred by internal dissent that ended in his assassination. William Montgomery Watt, a sociologist of early Islam, asserts that the qualitative difference in the lives of early Muslims was not one of economic disparity (a normal cause of rebellion and dissent), but rather the radical social changes that were being undertaken by the caliphate. Early Muslims, Arabs of the deep desert, survived on their own means: pasturing animals and raiding were the two most beneficial occupations these nomads could have. Under ‘Uthman, however, the caliphate brought the population from a nomadic existence to citizenship as Muslims under a central government; stipends became primary means of resource distribution. ‘Uthman’s reign also was filled with nepotism and patronage, and many of ‘Uthman’s direct relatives received land and governates under his reign. For a post-nomadic society, a corrupt system of patronage only served to anger them more. Watt says that this internal dissent arose from a sense of social malaise, a kind of conservatism that longed for a more simple life in the desert: “The bitter hostility of certain groups toward ‘Uthman arose from a sense of insecurity within the new social structure in which they found themselves, and ‘Uthman was, as it were, the representative of this social structure”. His assassination ended his reign in 656, whereupon Ali ibn Abi Talib, the nephew and son in law of the Prophet Muhammad, took the caliphate.
Despite the change in leadership, the caliphate was already moving quickly toward disaster. ‘Uthman’s kinsman, Muawiyah, who at the time was governing in Damascus (a result of the aforementioned patronage of ‘Uthman) sought to set up his own state independent of the caliphate. Upon hearing this, Ali marched out to stop this secession, meeting on the banks of the Euphrates at Siffin, Syria. As the battle raged on, Muawiyah conceived of a strategy to halt the battle: he ordered some of his ranks to place Qur’ans on the tops of their lances, thus tacitly telling Ali that he wished for the Qur’an to settle this matter. After consulting with groups of his own army eager to confront the matter diplomatically, Ali sent a delegation to a tent set up for the proceedings. It is hard to know what went on in the tent. Some speculate that Ali’s delegation turned against him, and others say that a heated argument over whether ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan was justly or unjustly killed. It is said that both delegations decided that ‘Uthman had been unjustly killed, thus ending the battle and allowing both sides to leave in peace. However, there were those in that arbitration who did not believe that ‘Uthman had been justly killed: these men left the tent in anger, thus gaining their namesake, “Those Who Walked Out”, al-khawarij, the Kharijites. They believed that the caliphate was God’s decision alone, and that ‘Uthman’s murder was not subject to judgment.
This began a series of rebellions that were responded to both through reconciliation and military action. At first, Ali succeeded in stopping some of the original Kharijites from rebelling by giving out the same kind of land grants and political positions that ‘Uthman successfully did during his reign. However, several military expeditions were created, putting down tens of rebellions of anywhere from 50-500 people. This was not limited to Ali’s reign, however, as the Kharijites were just as opposed to Muawiyah’s reign as they were to ‘Uthman’s. However, the Kharijites’ most infamous act was their assassination of Ali, thus ending the line of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and bringing Muawiyah to power37. After witnessing the assassination of his former opponent and predecessor and understanding the threat to orthodoxy posed by the Kharijites, Muawiyah continued the oppression of this heresy.
Seeking shelter from the increasing pressure on their people, the Kharijite movement dissolved into disparate groups that eventually formulated their own religious ideas in the farthest frontiers of the Islamic Empire. The most extreme sect of Kharijites were the Azraquites, followers of Nafi Ibn al-Azraq, who left Iraq in 684 and settled in the mountains of Persia. They were extremely violent, raiding the countryside and otherwise engaging in terroristic activity. Being a Muslim, in their eyes, meant a hijra (a minor Hajj) to their stronghold in the mountains; those who did not join them were thus unbelievers, and worthy only of death or enslavement. Another extreme sect, the Najdites under Najdah ibn Amir had a similar religious philosophy, and settled in the deserts of Arabia.
The Ibadiyyah and Sufriyya both were of the more moderate strains of Kharijism, and both sects eventually made their way to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Ibadiyyah were named after one ‘Abd Allah bin Ibad who was a Kharijite religious figure during the reign of the Caliph Marwan (744-749). The Sufriyya strain of Kharijism was a branch of the Ibadiyyah, and were the followers of one Ziyad bin Asfar. They believed in the example of the first two Rightly Guided caliphs, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, seeing them as perfect examples after the Prophet38. Living in Basrah, Iraq under non-Kharijite Muslims, the Ibadiyyah and Sufriyya Kharijites called themselves “the people of paradise” and the people they interacted with every day the “unbelievers”. These Kharijites saw the Muslim community not as the dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and the rest of the world, but instead as the “sphere of openness” and the “sphere of prudent fear” (‘alaniyyah and taqiyyah respectively). Because they were practicing in secret, tolerating the non-believers surrounding them, these Kharijites believed that there were two communities for them: one in which they could practice openly, and one in which they clandestinely practiced their faith. The Sufriyya, in particular, believed also that the surrounding Muslim community was not necessarily Muslim39, but these men and women were monotheists and thus were acceptable to interact with by virtue of their belief in a single God. This is reminiscent of the Muslim attitude toward other monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Judaism, or even more similarly, Zoroastrianism. The Sufris and Ibadis also were forgiving of these outsiders, believing that they were, in a sense, innocent until proven guilty: these Kharijites saw the children of their oppressors as being innocent, not knowing the crimes they committed. This encouraged a strain of individualism that would be an attractive characteristic to the Berbers.
This egalitarian strain, along with the retreat from a more structured social order, was the Kharijite’s answer to the social structure imposed on them by the caliphate. The movement was not one to address economic grievances, as stated previously, but instead to return to a pre-Islamic way of life that suited their nomadic sensibilities. The security of the close-knit tribe was lost in the bureaucracy of the rapidly growing Islamic empire. The sensibilities of the desert, the religious asceticism and hard way of life could not be replaced by the stipends and, indeed, urbanization of the Fertile Crescent under the early Islamic caliphs. The Kharijite’s retreat to the furthest regions of the Islamic empire was part of this transition back to a nomadic way of life: in escaping the empire, the Kharijites escaped not only an oppressor, but a centralized bureaucratic model that they disliked. Ibadiyya and Sufriyya followers left Iraq, moving west into the Maghrib. The Arab conquests of Qayrawan and Spain undoubtedly met the ears of these religious exiles, and their communities saw this as a chance to finally found a society that was their own, al-‘alaniyya, the sphere of openness.
The Kharijites moving into North Africa found refuge in several of the small towns along the Sahara. Some of these towns were the most remote of trading posts, where someone who was normally ostracized could find a hospitable climate both for their religion and for their livelihood. The Ibadiyya made their way through Tunisia and Tripolitania, and though they faced fierce resistance in these areas, managed to make their way to Tahert in Central Algeria, founding the Rustamid dynasty which would rule over that area for some time (and later prove to be a rather callous neighbor for Sijilmassa). But other Kharijites went further, to the western reaches of the Maghrib. A Sufri Kharijite stronghold was founded in Tlemcen and another in the Tafilalt oasis; this town was called Sijilmassa40. The Midrar dynasty that ruled over Sijilmassa during its earliest period was founded by the aforementioned Abu ‘l-Qasim, who is said to have been a Kharijite with Sufri beliefs which he preached to the local population41. The story al-Bakri relates says that others, probably Berbers, joined him in residence there, until they numbered around forty, at which point they laid the groundwork for the city. They elected a leader, ‘Isa bin Mazid the Black, to handle their affairs during the earliest first few years after the town’s establishment. However, he did not last long as a leader, and was blamed by his companions of being a traitorous Sudani thief. He was summarily executed, and Abu al-Qasim became the leader of the town. It is possible that Abu al-Qasim’s rise to power may have changed the ethnic makeup of the town: ‘Isa’s ethnicity may have led to a town with a larger African population, if he was indeed the Sudani as his accusers believed him to be42. The town grew, and quickly, considering the popularity of the market that took place there annually. Additionally, Sijilmassa and the Tafilalt oasis had an advantageous position relative to other parts of North Africa and the Sudan: Ibn Hawqal remarks that the trade routes originally between Egypt and Ghana shifted to a route between Ghana and Sijilmassa. The reason for this was heavy winds that would blow continually on caravans traveling through the region, many of which would become lost in the vast deserts. Sijilmassa proved to be a much more reliable destination and was situated in such a way that it could attract many from the east as well as from Ghana to the south.
The young city soon became one of the richest in the Maghrib. A very interesting anecdote was related by Ibn Hawqal. The geographer that he saw a bill of 42,000 dinars being issued to a trader named Muhammad Ibn Abi Sa’dun who was settled in Awdaghust. The bill was from a trader in Sijilmassa named Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Abdallah and was countersigned by witnesses. Ibn Hawqal remarks that he had never seen any bill or cheque ever issued in this amount, and that he repeatedly told the story to people from Iraq to Persia, yet no one had ever heard of anything comparable43. This story, while confirming the incredible wealth of the town, is eclipsed by his next testimony. He continues, saying that the yearly taxes for all of the Maghrib, meaning Tunisia to Morocco, was around 800,000 dinars44. He says that the Sijilmassa district alone was responsible for 400,000 dinars of that tax income. Most of this tax revenue was collected from caravans setting out for Sudan, but also included tithes, land taxes and taxes on commerce. The implications of Ibn Hawqal’s testimony are extraordinary. Sijilmassa, while it is a peripheral town located relatively far from the interior of Morocco and the central Idrisid government, was incredibly wealthy. The wealth drawing these different ethnic groups together gave Sijilmassa a unique mix of ethnicities and nationalities, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, religious beliefs.
One of the groups residing in Sijilmassa during this period was a significant Moroccan Jewish population. As mentioned in Chapter One, Moroccan Jews were dhimmi, protected peoples under Islamic law. However, Moroccan Jews, according to Hirschberg, would often cooperate with Muslim sectarian minorities45. These groups, because of their minority status as unorthodox Muslims, were natural allies of any other protected people. All of the aforementioned Kharijite strongholds held significant Jewish populations as a result. Halakhic questions of Jewish law were sent to the patriarchs of other communities. Mesopotamia, which was a significant location for Jewish scholarship at the time46, destination of many of these questions: one of the most famous exchanges of this period was a question regarding the eating of locusts from a Sijilmassan Jewish scholar to a Gaon (scholar) in Baghdad by way of the Qayrawan Jewish community. Hay (or Hai) Gaon, a famous religious scholar in Baghdad, replied at length about the permissibility of eating these insects. While it appears to be a trite conversation, this was not a trivial matter. In these hot oases, the eating of locusts was a common practice, especially during times of drought or the disruption of normal trade in times of conflict47. There was also evidence of a religious court (Hebrew: batey din Arabic: bayt ad-din) in Sijilmassa: the significance of these small, local courts of elders would serve as sources of religious authority for Jews living in the area. The Jewish population of Sijilmassa found refuge with the Kharijites, probably by virtue of the Kharijite memory of religious persecution: both were minorities and recalled their status as second-class citizens in their respective homelands. Sijilmassan Jews were economically successful in the town as well, able to engage in the mercantile economy. The Geniza documents show many personal relationships between business partners in Almeria, Fez and Sijilmassa along one of the trade routes, and between Fustat, Sijilmassa and Qayrawan along another48. This allowed Jews to create a simple yet powerful trading agreement with their patron Sufritic Kharijites: the Jews, because of their connections, handled much of the trade between Sijilmassa and the Maghrib, while the Kharijites took advantage of the gold and salt trade over the Sahara.
This policy of openness was not limited to Jews, however; al-Muqadassi remarks that, “Sijilmassa has many foreigners. It suits them and they [the foreigners] make for it from every country”49. The city not only attracted foreigners, but it “suited them”, that is, the diversity and attitude of the town was such that any foreigner would feel comfortable there. It is interesting to consider the ethnic implications of this. Were these settlers Arab? Were they of sub-Saharan African descent? Surely, al-Muqadassi is referring to the Kharijite exiles from the Middle East, but were he to only refer to them, it is likely that he would have used more specific language. Regardless, the Tafilalt was attractive to many: Sijilmassa was far from the problems inherent in settling in the empires to the north, and it gave incredible opportunity to any who settled there. Ibn Hawqal says that the paths leading to Sijilmassa allowed people of many lands to travel to the city. “Sijilmassa”, he says, “became inhabited by people from Iraq, and merchants from Basrah and Kufa, and men from Baghdad, who used this road50”. Ibn Saghir described nearby Tahert as being a similar destination for foreign-born immigrants: “No foreigner stayed among them but made his permanent home among them and built (or married) among them because of the opulence he saw in the town, the laudable conduct of its imam and his justice towards his subjects and the security of his person and property”51. The Ibadi Rustamids of Tahert, according to Ibn Saghir, were just and noble, and were laudable in their conduct toward their citizens. Ibn Saghir continues, saying that one could not visit a place without being informed of the foreigners living in that neighborhood; a mosque in one place served a certain population, who lived alongside a district inhabited by people from an entirely different part of the world. He mentions Qayrawan, Basrah, and Kufa specifically. Sijilmassa was most likely quite similar in appearance and spirit to its neighbor: indeed, later extant sources state that it had four cathedral mosques, implying a very deep religious commitment to Islam52 and considering Ibn Saghir’s account, it is likely these mosques served different populations of Sijilmassa. The influence of foreigners on the religious beliefs of the town would be obvious: there would be a healthy mix of religious being practiced. For instance, the foreign-born population from Qayrawan might have been practicing an orthodox form of Islam, perhaps in a different mosque.
One of the more interesting accounts mentioning Sijilmassa’s religiosity is that of Ibn Hawqal53. Writing in 977, he was quite taken by the open mindedness and diversity of the town. In the following passage he explains this at length:
“The inhabitants, too, are well-bred in their actions and perfect in morals and deeds. In their manners they do not share the pettiness of the other people of the Maghrib in their dealings and customs, but act with great frankness… I came to Sijilmassa in the year 40 (340/951-2) and I saw there, more than anywhere else in the Maghrib, shaykhs of blameless conduct and devotion to scholars and scholarship combined with lofty broadmindedness and elevated and pure ambition”
Ibn Hawqal’s visit, while later in the city’s life and during its period of political turmoil, is nonetheless glowing. His praising of the shaykhs of the city, especially in their broadmindedness, seems to imply that they were open, especially to outside ideas. This is obvious if we consider the Kharijite and Jewish trade and religious agreements that made the city unique. The lack of “pettiness” among its population also implies that this diversity was without much conflict: ethnicity and religious differences could easily have become overwhelming for its citizens, tearing the city apart, but as we will see, it was outside forces that threw the city into turmoil. If Ibn Hawqal’s account can be considered beyond obvious hyperbole, the city’s population was religiously active and relatively peaceful.
While Moroccan Jews were Arabic speakers, as were many of the foreigners who took up residence there, the Berber population proved to be some of the most valuable allies for the city of Sijilmassa. The Moroccan surrogates of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus had proved unresponsive to Berber concerns, leading the Berbers to turn away from orthodox Islam, as they tired of the inequity they found after their hard fought battles in Iberia. As the Kharijite refugees from Tunisia and Iraq moved into Morocco, Berbers became quick allies, and they found the Kharijite religious philosophy of individualism to be preferable to the unresponsive caliphate far removed from their local concerns54. The egalitarian philosophy of the Kharijites allowed Berbers to retain their cultural identity, and perhaps even their religious independence; for many Berbers, Islam was very peripheral, a religion that they adopted in name only55. As the Kharijites began establishing their cities, founded in the spirit of equality, Berbers from the surrounding Atlas Mountains flocked to these centers of trade to take advantage of the social atmosphere and the economic success. The Sanhaja, living in the nearby desert, established themselves as powerful allies of the city of Sijilmassa by escorting merchants across the desert. Ibn Hawqal describes the Banu Masufa, a tribe living in the deep deserts between Sijilmassa and Awdaghust, as being guides for caravans, and having a sense of direction that no one but these Berbers possess. The Sanhaja nomads proved to be the economic backbone of the town’s success in the gold trade, which in turn was directly responsible for the transmission of Islam to the Sudan56; there should no doubt the Muslim merchants of Sijilmassa that traveled with these Berbers brought Islam to their communities for perhaps the first time. At the other end of the trade routes, the town of Awdaghust was allied with the greater kingdom of Ghana57, and through its trade partnership with Sijilmassa, became a conduit through which Islam was spread to sub-Saharan Africa58. Islam’s deep connection with commerce had a significant effect on the relationship between these two towns and the two respective nations; in other words, whatever Islam the Berber nomads adopted (Kharijite or otherwise), they were instrumental in the transmission of Islam from Sijilmassa. Kharijite acceptance of diversity was also at work in this trade arrangement with the kingdom of the Africans to the south: according to the anonymous Kitab al-Istibar, the king of Ghana and the Midrar ruler of Sijilmassa were often in contact with one another, and were very forgiving of the other ruler’s religion59.
If one were to stand in Sijilmassa during the early period of its existence, it would be filled with people from a variety of lands. There would be Africans, Berbers, Jews, and Arabs, all hawking their wares in a myriad of languages. The religious practices of these groups would each be unique. The Midrar dynasty was Kharijite, and thus would most likely be happily saying prayers in a traditional Kharijite format. The Jewish population was working openly on Judaic scholarly pursuits, and their correspondence with Baghdad showed sophistication in their scholarship. Most likely, many Berbers still practiced the pantheism of their ancestors, while others practiced Islam alongside Arab immigrants. There is no sign of Kharijite Islam’s “monopoly” on practice, yet there is more than one mention of foreign-born citizens of the city. This implies not only a diverse set of religions being practiced, but a diversity of Islamic practice in this space as well. Sijilmassa was, for all intents and purposes, an oasis paradise.
While that wealth and prosperity increased the quality of life for those living in Sijilmassa, that same wealth was also a catalyst for the downfall of that way of life. By the middle of the 10th century, the greater powers of the Maghrib began to take notice of the wealth of this space. The Imsa’ili Fatamid state, a major power that emerged in Tunisia and later became the stewards of Cairo in the East, had their beginnings in the Tafilalt oasis60. 'Ubayed Allah, the future founder of the Fatamids, accompanied by his son al-Qasim, arrived in the Maghrib in 905. 'Ubayed Allah and his son made their way to Sijilmassa, fleeing persecution by the Sunni Abassids, who found the Shi’ite belief in a coming prophet not only unorthodox, but also threatening to the status quo of their caliphate61. Isma’ili belief was that a seventh imam would arrive, the son of Jafar al-Sadiq, one of the Prophet Muhammad's companions. The story goes that 'Ubayd Allah and his son were fulfilling a prophecy that the madhi would come from Mesopotamia to Sijilmassa. They hid among the population of Sijilmassa for four years under the countenance of the Midrar rulers, specifically one Prince Yasa'.
According to legend and the extant sources, 62al-Qasim, the son of the alleged mahdi, with his miraculous powers, caused a spring to gush forth outside of town. A Jew witnessed this, and spread the word throughout Sijilmassa that 'Ubayed Allah was going to attempt to take over the town. At or around the same time, Prince Yasa', the Midarid ruler of the time, received a letter from the Abassids in Baghdad, warning him to close his frontiers and be wary of 'Ubayd Allah63. Yasa' was forced to imprison the men he had previously patronized, however 'Ubayd Allah's servant managed to escape to Qayrawan, which at the time was a stronghold for Isma’ilis. The leader of the Isma’ilis in Ifriqiya was Abu Abd-Allah: he quickly mustered an army to rescue his compatriot. On his way to Sijilmassa, he subdued Tahert, the Ibadi Kharijite stronghold under the Rustamid dynasty. The army arrived in the latter half of 909, and laid siege to the city. Yasa' was killed in that year or the next, and the Midrar dynasty fell. 'Ubayed, now freed, helped pillage the town, and appointed a new governor friendly to his cause, and left for Qayrawan victorious. The Isma’ili conquest of the city, while somewhat neutral toward the Kharijite Muslims, was not so for the Jews: according to the anonymous Kitab al-Istibar, Ubayd Allah himself killed many or most of the rich Jews and took their wealth by torture. He forced the remainder of the Jews into two "professions", one being scavenging and the other being masonry. The appeal of masonry to the Isma’ilis was apparently the belief that this would prevent the Jews from killing a Muslim "treacherously"64. It is interesting that the Isma’ilis believed that their mahdi would arise in Sijilmassa. This lends an amount of religious importance to the city, perhaps a view fostered by ‘Ubayd Allah in order to justify his occupation of the Tafilalt.
The sacking of the city by the Isma’ilis was the end of uncontested rule by the Midrars, and the beginning of a dark period for Sijilmassan citizens where the town would be rocked by constant attacks by outside rulers. Fifty days after this governor was appointed, the citizens of the city overthrew this Isma’ili cohort and put Prince Yasa's nephew Wasul on the throne. He ruled for a time, but within the next ten years, the Rustamids of Tahert, now friendly to their Isma’ili conquerors, retook the city on behalf of Qayrawan, killing Wasul's brother Ahmad Midrar, the Midrar governor of the city after Wasul. The Rustamids appointed a yet another friendly governor to the throne, and ruled for some time. However, in 942, Wasul's son Muhammad ibn Wasul, seized power, yet also rid the city of Kharijism, perhaps in an attempt to appease outside forces. However, this would not be enough to spare the Sijilmassans from the Isma’ilis’ wrath. They sacked the city once again, driving out the Midrars and Ibn Wasul. He retreated to a nearby fortress which was subsequently besieged and then conquered. Ibn Wasul was sent to Qayrawan and publicly executed. The Isma’ilis once more placed a governor on the throne by the name of Jawhar. He stayed on the throne long enough to mint coins in his name before the Sijilmassan people overthrew his dynasty and put the Midrar family back on the throne. While for a time they were left alone by the now powerful Isma’ili Fatamids in Tunisia, the Midrar sought alliance with the Fatamid caliphate in Ifriqiya in or around 976-7.
However, an alliance with one side only makes one the enemy of the other side. The Umayyads in Cordoba took note of this new alliance between the Fatamids and the Sijilmassans. The Fatamids would have been reaping the rewards of the lucrative trade between Sijilmassa and Ifriqiya, which meant that the Umayyad dynasty, currently in intense conflict with the Fatamids, wished to take the city for themselves. They sent the Maghrawa Berbers, an Algerian branch of the Zenata confederation to the city. Their chief, Khazrun, killed Abu Muhammad, the last of the Midrar dynasty and declared that Sijilmassa was now an Umayyad city. These Berbers would rule over the city for some 60 years, and not always as clients of the Umayyad: the Umayyad dynasty in Spain was splintering into warring factions, so the Maghrawa, not happy with paying tribute to the Umayyads, declared autonomy. The Maghrawa would rule the city, attacking other tribes around Aghmat65 and Fez and using the city as a base for their government.
The political situation in Sijilmassa was dire, and so the Sijilmassan elders appealed to their Berber neighbors of the Sanhaja confederation in the deep Saharan desert. With this appeal, Sijilmassa's early period ends and the age of the Berber dynasties begins. The early period of the city’s life was one of opulence and relative religious independence. The Midrar dynasty ruled with a moderate hand, and ethnic and religious conflict was kept to a minimum. The invasion of the Fatamid Isma’ilis spelled an end to Sijilmassa's cultural independence and self-rule: no longer would the city be completely peripheral to the concerns of a central government in Morocco. Instead, the city would become part of a larger empire, a Berber empire stretching from Mauritania to Algeria in the East, Sijilmassa in the South, and Spain the north. While it can be assumed that this is simply the end of a golden age in Sijilmassa's religious and cultural history, this was the beginning of a new era in Morocco's religious development; this era was defined by the indigenous Berbers of Morocco who desired centralized political and religious authority, based around intense religious philosophies that were inspired by charismatic religious figures. The history of Sijilmassa indeed changed, and no longer would the city be far and away from Moroccan political and religious life. Instead, the city would grow in importance and in economic power, proving to be a gem in the crown of the indigenous people's reclamation of their homeland. Sijilmassa’s religious culture was about to be swept up in a movement that was instrumental in changing the way in which even modern Moroccans practice religion. This change was not unwillingly brought upon the populace of the city, either: Morocco was being reclaimed by those who originally inhabited it, and Sijilmassa was the first urban settlement of the Almoravid movement.
Interestingly enough, Sijilmassa is mentioned in a geographical report written in March of 1895 by Major H.G. Raverty. He relates the story of Ubayd Allah and the Isma’ili invasion of Sijilmassa, and also recounts some of Leo Africanus’ visit to the city in this short report. But perhaps most importantly, he says that the modern ruins of the city have some kind of religious significance: “From what I have mentioned above respecting Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, it will be understood why Sijilmasiyah is still a place so venerated, and why on two great ‘ids or feasts of the Musalman year, such concourses of people assemble here to say their prayers at the Musalla, near the mosque. The word (not “msala”) means “a place of prayer” and also “a carpet to pray on”66. Raverty seems to think that the remains of the city retain holiness in some way. It is unknown what religious significance the city retained, whether it was by virtue of Ubayd Allah’s rise to power there, or whether it was the site of a marabout67.