Enlightened Leaders or Zealous Moravids?


Seville Spain- In 1086, the last sovereign King of al-Andalusia “Al-Mu’tamid” made a call for help.  He needed support in his battle against the King of Leon and Castile “Alfonso VI.” The support came from Morocco by devotees of an Islamic fundamentalist sect known as the Almoravids (Al-Morabiton in Arabic), a Berber dynasty that emerged from the western Saharan desert.1

Devout and disciplined Muslims, the Almoravids were not just equipped with swords, but with zealous belief in Islamic orthodox doctrine. They successfully managed to conquer al-Andalus ending Al-Mu’tamid’s rule and later sent him to exile. 2

Their conquest signaled the end of Liberal Moorish Spain, an era of love, plots and betrayals and was replaced by a stricter, repressive rule.

Islamic history was always nonlinear; instead, it evolved in a series of incomplete circles. It invariably started with a period of enlightenment and liberalism, which descended into decadence and weakness, followed by an oppressive rule. Later, it would crumble under pressure from a newly emerging power that eventually interrupted the circle and started a new one.

Bullying in the name of Islam:

Almoravids recipe to salvage Moorish Spain from downfall was a rigid rigorous Islamic rule. They imposed their own version of Sharia (they were followers of the strict al-Maliki school of thought) on both Muslims and non-Muslims. Noticeably, they had no clear vision or strategy on how to run the country other than fighting the infidels. They despised the opulent culture of their predecessors; they smashed artifacts and sculptures, Jews and Christians were subjected to harsher tax and intolerant treatment. The church of Granada was destroyed in 10991.

True, they initially prevailed and united Andalucía. However, their policy earned them many enemies not just from outside but also from within. Their fall was almost inevitable

Modern equivalent:

Despite the different narrative, there are some remarkable similarities (at least in broad terms) between Almoravids and many of the current conservative Islamic groups who have emerged onto the political scene and inevitably will cash in on the emerging democracy in many Arab countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and potentially Syria.

1-both started as opposition movements who are very articulate about what they are against but not clear about what they stand for. Their unity was a sign of collective detest of what they perceived as dangerous innovation.

2-both had charismatic fiery leaders, preachers who knew how to win the hearts and minds of their audience. Yusuof ibn Tashfin the leader of Almoravids, currently, Ali Sallibi in Libya, Ghannouchi in Tunisia and Ali al-Bayanouni in Syria.

3-they shared a sheer antagonism to liberalism and a common belief that decadence and lack of implementation of Sharia‘s rule is the root of all problems.

4-they accused their predecessors of treason and submitting to Christian powers.

The battle for the Soul of Islam:

The recent Arab revolts reignited the old battle between two Islamic schools of thoughts. The traditional school, which is not monolithic – but divided into various shades of strict puritan beliefs – and a more liberal rational school. This war of ideas is as old as Islam itself, al-Andalus had its share when Caliph el-Mansour banned and burned the books of the rationalist thinker Averroes.

The torn between reason and dogma impeded linear Islamic progression and contributed to the failure of many Islamic dynasties including the Almoravids.

Most of the current Islamic movements have been insubstantial on the question of liberty, a core issue at the heart of the crisis within the Muslim world.

The basic Koranic rule “ there is no compulsion in religion” is a fundamental aspect of Liberal Islam.4 It was respected in the early Moorish rule and was eventually dismissed in later periods. Non-Muslims enjoyed relative freedom and were allowed to work as public servants and promoted according to their performances and expertise. Women enjoyed this freedom too; historians reported how the poet Wallada bint al-Mustakfi  opened a literary hall in Córdoba, mixed with men, and did not adhere to hijab  (head scarf) or the traditional Islamic dress code. In a twist of fate, Wallada died the same day the almoravids entered Cordoba. 3

In addition, there was clear distinction between the rights of the individuals and the rights of the society. In their quest to win loyalties of their new subjects, the early Moors had instinctively realized the difference between sins and crimes and that coercion would be counter-productive. Instead, they focused on creating a strong, advanced social and political system. They paid particular attention to the economy, science, agriculture and commerce.

Everyone in the Arab and Muslim world pines for the glorious al-Andalus, from Fairuz the legendary Lebanese diva to Osama bin Laden the leader of al-Qaeda, they all yearned for the good old days. However, their perception of what was good is far from identical.

 When it comes to what went wrong, many opt for a superficial, oversimplified explanation, “ The decadent, corrupted leaders and the evil infidels.” This is far from being accurate.

If it was that simple, then why did the Moorish fail to recreate the glory of the empire in Morocco, following their expulsion from Spain?

The fall of al-Andalus was far more complex and multifactorial. The final chapter might be by Fernando and Isabella but the turning point was the invitation of the fundamentalists. Radical Islam may win wars but always fails to achieve peace.

Religious groups are fond of Islamic history and always look back to the past for inspiration. Therefore, it is crucial for them to draw the right historical lessons.  Following years of oppression and tyranny, facts and fictions may not be easy to separate, but it is essential in order to plan a better future in which, Islam, modernity and freedom can co-exists in harmony.

Currently, Islamic parties are learning fast; they soften their tune, changed their vocabulary and start using terms like human rights, democracy and civil state. However, in the absence of any recent precedent, the performance of any democratically elected Islamic party will only be judged in retrospect. Words before the ballot box may differ than actions following elections. Only then, we can judge wither they are enlightened leaders or zealous Moravids.

Further reading:

1-  Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher, November 2001.

2-  The Almoravids and the meaning of Jihad, Ronald A Messier, August 2010.

3-  Le retour de Wallada, Maram Al-masri and Jean- Pierre faye, March 2010.

4-  Islam without Extremes, Mustafa Akyol September 2011

About nervana111

Blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues
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8 Responses to Enlightened Leaders or Zealous Moravids?

  1. Asim Miah says:

    “The recent Arab revolts reignited the old battle between two Islamic schools of thoughts. The traditional school, which is not monolithic – but divided into various shades of strict puritan beliefs – and a more liberal rational school.” This battle can perhaps also be seen in another point in Muslim history. There’s an interesting recently-launched paper here showing that Ottoman sultans in the 18th and 19th centuries promoted the education of women, launched secular schools and decriminalised homosexuality. The paper is titled “The Tanzimat: Secular reforms in the Ottoman Empire”: http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-publications/the-tanzimat-final-web.pdf

  2. nervana111 says:

    Thank you so much Asim for commenting on my post and for the Ottoman document. I shall definitely read it. It is crucial and essential to highlight all the part efforts. Much needed these days.

  3. What an excellent post. Thank you for this thoughtful examination of the period and its particular contributors.

  4. Patrick says:

    hello Nervana,
    Great historical background… wish the Western media took account of the complexity’s
    of history instead of its usual simplifications… keep up the good work!

  5. I every time spent my half an hour to read this web site’s content everyday along with a cup of
    coffee.

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