Was Calling the Almoravids a Religious Imperative for Medieval Muslim Spaniards?

In 478-9AH (1086CE), armies of the Almoravid Amazigh dynasty in North Africa arrived in the land that had once been al-Andalus and was now a fragmented composite of competing ta’ifas (city-states). These fighters had been solicited by the Andalusians to aid them in the struggle against the growing territorial acquisition and political power of Alfonso VI of Castile-Leon who had sacked Toledo the year before and showed no signs of slowing his expansion across the peninsula. Historians like Maria Rosa Menocal have ruminated on the reasons for the calling of the Almoravids. She concluded with the argument that there was a religious dimension to this solicitation that made it of urgent importance. It was not enough that Alfonso was growing evermore politically and economically strong (which would threaten to snowball and might result in his taking of Iberia) but when this very real possibility was combined with the fact that he was Christian, the prospect of his ruling over Muslim subjects caused the panic that led to the Almoravid arrival. In this paper, I will examine the various factors (ethnic, economic, political and religious) that could have gone into the decision to call the Almoravids by the Andalusians, weighing each factor in terms of its importance according to representations of Alfonso and Christian rule in the primary source materials that are available. In the end, it will become clear that Menocal’s argument does not entirely hold. Religion does not stand alone as an impetus for the intrusion but might have been mobilized as a means for political-economic (and potentially ethnic) ends. Looking at the coalescence of factors will help to nuance our understanding of the peninsula-changing event that was the arrival of the Almoravids.

At this point in the Iberian narrative, the day-to-day interactions between Muslims and Christians in the city-states would have largely been affected by issues of demographics, first and foremost. According to Richard Fletcher’s analysis of Bulliet’s conversion rates for al-Andalus two centuries prior, the acculturation of Christians into Islam (as Muslims) or into Muslim culture (as Arabized Christians) at this point would have been almost totalizing.[1]For the small minority of Christians who had not converted or emigrated from Muslim polities, intermingling with Muslims was inevitable but still mediated by the politics of separation. Prohibitions on employment, trade and gendered interactions continued to prescribe boundaries between the groups which were (likely in practice) fluid and porous.[2] Further, geographical separation with Christian princes in the northern territories would also have been physical markers of the Christian-Muslim divide on a political, if not a mundane cultural level. At this point, it is clear that despite the lack of total clarity on whether or not religious and cultural factors represented a gulf between Muslim and Christian subjects in the ta’ifas, their division was still of primary importance to political and religious elites taking measures to prescribe it.

In speaking of demographics, one also has to ask the question of ethnicity and if it played a role in aligning the Amazigh Almoravids with the Amazigh Ta’ifa leaders against the Christians of largely non-Amazigh and non-Arab descent. Was this an alliance against their influence, but not in favour of an Arab political resurrection? To what degree was the decision to call the Almoravids mediated by Amazigh ta’ifa leaders, to the exclusion of Arabs? These are questions which require a great depth of research that cannot be done here but it is worth putting forth as an added dimension to the overall historical question at hand. We can, however, speculate on economic-political impetuses for employing the Almoravids.

Economically-speaking, the takeover and continuing expansion of Alfonso would mean the gobbling up of valuable resources, manpower and land that would have a cumulative effect on his power. The more resources one acquired, the more one had to continue expansions and, more importantly, finance such expansions (particularly as it regards the payment of military forces). In the Primera Cronica General de Espana dating from two centuries later, there is evidence of Alfonso’s mobilization of “crops, the vineyard and the other fruits from all the surrounding areas of Toledo” to feed a starving urban population that would, in turn, support him.[3] While this is not objectionable in and of itself, for ta’ifa leaders elsewhere, a prosperous and complacent population governed by Alfonso would ensure his economic supremacy over that area and would be alarming. That this practice was applied to surrounding towns and involved the filling of Extremadura (which was allegedly “uninhabited” despite actual towns existing there) with presumably loyal populations would further raise the alarm for other ta’ifas as it represented a level of permanency in non-urban environs before unseen in the destabilization of their period.

Promises to allow “Moors” to “retain their houses and estates as they had before”[4] and protection of the Mosque in Toledo would make Alfonso’s takeover seem rather innocuous at first, and similar in method to Muslim ta’ifas when conquering and reconquering one another. However, political moves carried out by Alfonso that went against these promises showed that something far more calculated was taking place. In a charter from twenty-five years after the conquest of Toledo and after the arrival of the Almoravids, Alfonso privileged Mozarab Christians under his rule in matters of lands and holdings, testimonies, and the manipulation of land.[5] It is possible that this retroactively confirms suspicions that were likely present at the time of his initial takeover. For these, we have to look at an event contemporary to his takeover: the conversion of the Mosque of Toledo. The Primera Cronica alleges that Alfonso guaranteed that the mosque would remain as it was, and yet within a month of the city falling to him, the building was consecrated as a Church. While the text that accounts for what happened[6] was written at least a century after the fact (making it more likely to be representative of its own era rather than the one it is describing) and even though the blame for the consecration was placed on Archbishop Bernard de Sedirac and Alfonso’s wife Constanza, while Alfonso was allegedly “outraged and deeply grieved…with the Saracens concerning the mosque”, this account is highly suspect.[7] To have the Moors of Toledo gain his audience and absolve him of his bond of protection the mosque is too convenient to be realistic. In reality, the takeover of the mosque would be of huge symbolic value for Alfonso when establishing a Christian polity over Muslim subjects from whom he could now exact tribute. Herein lies the rub and the crossover between political and so-called religious anxieties held by ta’ifa leaders witnessing what happened in Toledo and its surrounding areas: how could they, as Muslim leaders, pay tribute to a Christian who was converting mosques into churches in Toledo while threatening to overtake them? It is important to dissect this question for it contains two parts that are not mutually inclusive. It is just as easy to ask the question of how leaders could pay tribute to another leader that would conquer them, thereby contributing to their own downfall. But when you add the religious dimension and a reversal of the master-subordinate form between Christians and Muslims to the mix, one can see that this is doubly intolerable.

The perfect example of this impossible dilemma can be read the memoir Tibyan by AbdAllah ibn Buluggin of Granada while in exile in Morocco in from 487-8AH (1095CE). Attempting to defend himself against the “double-dealing” accusations lobbed at him by al-Mu’tamid of Seville, ‘AbdAllah noted that if he did not pay tribute to Alfonso to keep his land, he “would be unable to provide for the annual campaigns…launched against the Christians and for hospitality extended to the Almoravids” on their arrival.[8] It is critical to note, that nowhere is there mention of religious sanctioning or prohibiting of paying tribute to Christians as the reason for his anxiety about paying it. Rather, tribute was seen (by ‘AbdAllah at least) as a placation of the “enemy” and a way of protecting one’s own interests.[9]

Menocal’s portrayal that the solicitation of military aid from the Almoravids was a religious imperative against the infidels finds little bearing in the primary source documents examined thus far. At most, it might have been rhetorical tactic employed to achieve a political-economic end, rather than a religious end-in-itself. That this might have been pitched to the Almoravids (who were much more fundamentally religiously oriented) as a Jihad, is possible and even likely, but that it was perceived as a jihad for the ta’ifa rulers who called them remains to be seen.

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992: p 94

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Description of the Conquest of Toledo from the Primerq Cronica General de Espana” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p. 133

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Privilege Given by Alfonso VI to the Mozarabs of Toledo” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 137

[6] Jimenez de Rada, Rodrigo. “Conversion of the Mosque of Toledo” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 134-5

[7] Ibid. p 135

[8] Ibn Buluggin, ‘AbdAllah. Tibyan in in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 143.

[9] Ibid.

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