Ideology takes over the Caliphate

I’ve taken a week off writing about medieval Islam, so I want to review before going on. After about 950, the nature of the Muslim world began to change profoundly. Each region had its own type of change. In Persia, there were nomadic Turks moving in, converting, ruling various regions, and often moving on toward the Middle East. In Egypt, formerly pragmatic rulers were replaced with the very ideological Ismaili Fatimid dynasty. Instead of concerning themselves mainly with tax collection and frontier security, the Fatimids sponsored an aggressive conversion outreach, the ministry of Dawa.

In Muslim Spain (Andalusia), Islamic rule had been perhaps the most pragmatic and least ideological. Under the central rule of Cordoba, there had been a high degree of co-existence of non-Muslims and Muslim factions. But when the last real Caliph of Cordoba’s power went to a vizier who squandered it, Cordoba fell into civil war in 1009. Its scholars and cultural elite fled to other cities. These cities formed militias and became city-states, called taifas. The taifas went to war against each other, trying to regain central power. Some of them were dominated by Arabs, others by Berbers, others by native Iberians who had converted to Islam.

The Christian kingdoms of Northern Spain took the opportunity to pick them off one by one during the middle of the 11th century. The Reconquista might have taken just a generation or two, instead of several centuries, if nothing more had changed. But to the south, in Africa, fundamentalist Islam was stronger than ever, conquering more and more regions of black Africa. Its Berber capital was Marrakesh, in Morocco. Some of the more powerful taifa kings sent invitations to Marrakesh asking for military help against the Christians. The Almoravid fighters, wearing blue Tuareg face veils as a uniform, crossed over in 1086.

It’s easy to take this alliance for granted, since we live in a world with sharp ideological distinctions. But this is not how Spain had been during the 9th and 10th centuries. There had often been alliances between Muslim Emirs and Christian kings; Charlemagne’s one sally into Spain had been at the invitation of a rebellious Muslim. There had been a great deal of intermarriage, too; records suggest that Abd al-Rahman III had blue eyes from a Christian-born mother or grandmother. The last powerful vizier of Cordoba named his son Abd al-Rahman, but history knows him as Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo: “little Sancho”, nicknamed for his Christian grandfather. It seems possible, in hindsight, that Spain’s 11th century civil war could have resolved some other way, with regional cross-religious alliances.

If that had been a possibility, it was no longer possible after the fundamentalist Almoravid fighters crossed into Spain. Religion began to matter much more. First, the alliance was made on specifically religious grounds. As Almoravid generals took over Spanish cities, they instituted a stricter interpretation of Sharia. They evicted many of the non-Muslims who had achieved positions of wealth and status.

Second, the Almoravids were Berber nomads, infamously hostile to city life. They didn’t care about the Houses of Wisdom, book-copying scribes, musical instruments, three-course meals, white tablecloths, deodorant, fashions or fountains of Cordoba and its satellites. When they didn’t outright destroy these things, they neglected them. Many of the new Taifa kings were illiterate; they didn’t value Hebrew or Latin scholarship, they only valued Quran memorization and their own school of Sharia interpretation.

One of the most famous Jews of the period was Samuel, known as haNagid (“the prince”). He was one of the Cordoban scholars who fled civil war; he started a shop in Malaga, a coastal town. Even before the main Almoravid invasion, Malaga’s taifa had a Berber king who was illiterate. When the king heard that one of his servants had found a man from Cordoba who could write letters, he directly hired Samuel as his chief scribe. Samuel’s education quickly elevated him above all other staff, and he became the Grand Vizier. He even led armies against other taifas.

When Samuel haNagid died in 1056, his son took his place. His son was only in his 20s, and although he too was educated, he was not canny enough to maneuver in Berber politics. In 1066, a fundamentalist mob rioted against Jews, particularly against the young Jewish vizier. After killing him, they went on to kill about 1500 others, most of Granada’s Jewish community. This was the first anti-Jewish violence in a land where Jews had welcomed and helped the Muslim conquerors.


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