Historical discussion of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties tends to conflate the two by labelling them both as Berber and “fundamentalist.” While both dynasties did, indeed, originate in Amazigh tribes from what is now Morocco, their interpretations of Islam were far from the same. Almoravids upheld the Maliki school of fiqh, whereas the Almohads adopted an early form of scripturalism, critical of the Maliki school, combined with ancient philosophy that committed exegesis through the use of reason. To see them as similar or a continuation of one another is a homogenization of their disparate ideological differences and likely arises from a tendency to view their influence as an incursion on an idealized understanding of Andalusian Islams and Iberia’s relegation to the status of an Amazigh colony under both polities. In this paper, I will briefly examine their theo-ideological differences, and other contingencies that separate the two dynasties. I will also examine their similarities and speculate as to the reason for their conflation among historians.

In the Medieval Iberia reader, the distinction between Almoravids and Almohads is ambiguous, partly because the source materials associated with them are lumped into the same chapter, and the dating of these materials can be a bit unclear. The dating of Ibn Abdun’s Hisba Manual is simply “early twelfth century,” which does not leave much information for the reader as to whether it was a specifically Almoravid or Almohad document. Its emphasis on Qur’anic or hadith stipulations for governing the marketplace leaves things up in the air as to who the document could have belonged to as both groups tended towards reinterpreting these key scriptural sources. That being said, the Almoravids did not break from the Maliki school of fiqh as the Almohads did and a thorough study of legal opinions from that school in relation to the prescriptions of this document might help to make the connection (or non-connection) to the Almoravids clearer. The one account we are provided with that is directly attributable to the Almoravids is Al-Idrisi’s Description of Almeria which says little of their ideological preferences or other distinguishing features. It appears that the Almoravids were very much interested in commerce, manufacturing and trade but the same can easily be said about the Almohads whose trade networks would later extend much farther east across the Mediterranean. The other documents in the chapter tend to focus on Almohad theology, their patronage and their treatment of the Jews. It could be that the source materials for the Almoravids in Iberia are simply not available or not directly attributable to them, which leads to a conflation of the two dynasties by virtue of source issues. Looking at how they are arranged in the Medieval Iberia reader is one example of this conflation.

At the beginning of his chapter entitled “Moroccan Fundamentalists” in Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher notes that although the Almohads were of a remarkably different sect of fundamentalism from the Almoravids, the two groups are “confusingly similar” and “there is nothing that can be done about it.”[1] Maria Rosa Menocal describes both the Almoravids and the Almohads as fundamentalist Berbers from Morocco.[2] It seems that the term fundamentalism is being used here to imply a kind of intolerance based on literal applications of Islamic interpretations. The argument that these two are largely indistinguishable from each other, however, remains unconvincing and in the interests of not generalizing about these groups, it is important to find their key distinguishing features.

Constable argues that the Almohads are easier to trace based on their theological projections being clearer than the Almoravids who preceded them.[3] Although Menocal (wrongfully) claims that the Almohad’s “narrow interpretation of Islam made their scholars far less avid than many Latin readers of [the] scientific and philosophical library,”[4] their Almohad Creed is an excellent example of how the influence of Aristotelian metaphysics impacted Almohad interpretations of Islamic doctrine. Arguments made in the Creed were meant to be tested against one’s own Reason and lived experience in order to arrive at the truth of the Almohad ontology. Sources suggest that this approach was unique to the Almohads and was not shared by the Almoravids who exhibited their “fundamentalism” by extinguishing practices in al-Andalus that were against Islamic fiqh rulings but remained within that rigid framework.[5]

Their differences in ideology are just one area we can use to nuance our demarcation between them. Al-Marrakushi’s history of the Almohads and Ibn Tumart’s rise and take over of Almoravid territory is a primary source document that helps to illustrate not only that these groups were different but that they were in contention with one another. The Almohads gained momentum quickly under Ibn Tumart’s leadership, conquering Almoravid territory in Morocco and into al-Andalus. In looking at their historical interaction, it sounds redundant to say, but these are obviously not the same group. I would go so far as to say that they are not the same brand of so-called fundamentalism either – a term problematic for its anachronistic connotations.

So, it remains, in what instances could it seem appropriate to put the Almoravids and Almohads in the same historical category together? Such an exercise might be useful from an Andalusian perspective as distinctions between the two groups might have been a moot point. The usurpation of power by the Almohads was still the unification of al-Andalus under a foreign polity – both polities which practiced radically different forms of Islam, not only from each other but from Andalusians themselves. In trying to uphold a narrative of Andalusian exceptionalism or preference for their cultural-religious practices, it would make sense to put two foreign, less cosmopolitan conquerors (who arrived one after the other) next to each other. For historians seeking to understand the differences between these two groups and to highlight the unique experience of Andalusians under each one, their conflation is of little value.

[1] Fletcher 105

[2] Menocal 141 and 195-6

[3] Constable 237

[4] Menocal 198

[5] Fletcher, 108.

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.

The origins of “The Pact of ‘Umar” are unknown but have been attributed colloquially to ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Righteous Caliph. Scholars have suspected that it derives from a later period, possibly under Umar II, because the need for such a document would have been greater under rapid Ummayad expansion of the Islamic empire. Regardless of the original source, this text is often cited by historians as foundational for understanding pan-Islamic relations between Muslims and Christians. The implication is that its spirit was somehow transmitted across the known Ummah to inform interreligious dynamics everywhere Muslims went. It is included in the reader edited by Olivia Remie Constable (Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources) because of a similar presumption. Though this text is difficult to historically verify in terms of origin or influence, there are a number of ways it can be used to illuminate interreligious dynamics between Christians and Muslims in general. Ultimately, with regards to how it can be used in studying al-Andalus, I take the approach of Janina Safran in her book Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus. Her approach is not to assume that the text directly influenced relations there, but rather, to look at how jurists might have invoked boundary-drawing through legal opinions and practice enforcement in a similar spirit as the “Pact” itself.

If we accept the text’s assertion that it was written by Syrian Christians petitioning ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, certain points come to the fore. First, it would imply that the contents of the text were consensual, rather than a tool for subjugation of Christians by Muslim masters. This would make the enforcement of these rules among other Christians much easier because Christians had originally sought them. It would also imply a greater voice for Christians with the Caliph than one would first assume. Declaring that they “shall not teach the Qur’an to [their] children”[1] would seem more like an assertion of their religious freedom, rather than a stipulation from an Islamic authority dissuading them from conversion. Additionally, the forbiddance of engraving Arabic inscriptions on their seals would seem to be a linguistic-cultural rejection, in addition to the religious one. The points about differing from Muslims in terms of dress, burial of the dead and even house construction would also signify an anxiety among Christians about establishing demarcations between themselves and Muslims. It implies that, like other points in Christian history[2], Christians were well aware of some of the prerequisites of religious conversion (including economic, social custom and linguistic acquisition of a conquering group[3]) and the Pact of ‘Umar represents their attempts to stave off that influence as long as possible. This boldness is only slightly curtailed by the addendum of two additional stipulations by ‘Umar which might then be seen as a reassertion of Muslim dominance over this list of conditions.

If, however, this document is seen as a Muslim composition, then the boldness of the Christian petitioner falls away. It still remains that a Muslim author claiming its Christian origins would make subjugation of future conquered Christians much easier; however, this gives the document a tone of coercion or propagandas that highlights the dominance of the Muslims. In this case, the additional conditions tacked on by ‘Umar signify their ultimate authority over their dominated subjects. Perhaps one of the most interesting turn-arounds in meaning is the clause about forbidding the teaching of the Qur’an to Christian children. Seen as an act of religious self-preservation for Christians, this clause takes on a completely different meaning under a Muslim authority and raises all kinds of historical questions about why Muslims might have been trying to temper conversion rates (likely for taxation purposes or to avoid biddah). This complicates the narratives of Muslim religious coercion by force and, along with the stipulations about dress, other identifying markers and the selling of fermented drinks, signals a Muslim anxiety about mixing with Christian populations.

While thought experiments might be useful for showing how a different text can be viewed in terms of the memoryscape of the group it is ascribed to, it is difficult to historically corroborate its actual use in places in like al-Andalus. In her book’s introduction, Janina Safran notes that Maliki jurists of the ninth and tenth centuries “do not refer to the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, nor do they detail comparably specific terms of any other surrender treaty or contract of protection between Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[4] Rather, while jurists did address issues found in the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, their engagement with these matters ought to be considered independently of its template because overemphasis of the Pact threatens to obfuscate the historical complexities particular to al-Andalus and specific time periods. While differentiating between Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects was of immediate concern to jurists, how this was conducted and negotiated was less straightforward than the Pact would have us believe. Finally, as we have seen, the difficulties of establishing basic facts about the text make such extrapolations speculation at best.

[1] “The Pact of ‘Umar” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2011, pp. 43-44.

[2] Markus, Robert. The End of Christianity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1990: pp. 27-43.

[3] Katznelson, Ira and Miri Rubin, “Introduction” in Religious Conversion: History, Experience and Meaning. Ashgate Publishing, Surrey England: 2014.; Rambo, Lewis R. and Charles E. Farhadian, “Converting: Stages of Religious Change” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies. Cassell: NYC. 1999.; David Baer, Mare. “History and Religious Conversion” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014.

[4] Safran, Janina. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Cornell University, 2013: pp.15 – 17.

In “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography”, Denise Filios uses the figure of Julian and his various representations to examine the role of the historian in the use of primary source materials. Weaving together both Arabic and Hispano-Latin sources according to chronology, Filios drains Julian of any essential, a priori qualities and shows him to be a culturally-saturated figure around which political-historical contingencies orbit. In doing this, Filios reminds students and scholars alike that some of the tasks of the modern historian are in uncovering the meaning inscribed in cultural representations, the weight of their social currency, and how they fit into the larger worldviews (or memory-scapes) in which they are found. As such, the article can serve the learning needs of a wide readership, subtextually introducing them to some of the methodologies found in memory studies and narrative theory, regardless of interest in the historical particularities of her subject.

From the beginning of the article, Filios is clear that her purpose in analyzing the source material is not in determining their “historical reliability” which “misconstrue[s] the nature of the truths that the chronicles attempt to construct.”[1] While it is important for the historian to determine if a source is a complete fabrication (and even that is valuable to explore in terms of how and why that might occur), Filios is clear and adamant that the best “truths” to be found in these sources are in determining how they were used to represent and develop “a meaningful reality”.[2] In “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning,” James Wertsch highlights this difference in scholarship as divided between determining “accuracy criterion” of texts versus how they provide us with a “usable past”.[3] Previous scholars such as Nora and Halbwachs (the fathers of continental memory studies) pitted collective memory against history. However, what Wertsch further outlines and Filios negotiates very well is that the tasks of differentiating accurate representation from the creation of a usable past need not be mutually exclusive endeavours for the historian any longer. In focusing on what social memory expert, Ehud Ben Zvi calls “Future Memories” or how these texts sought to persuade their readers about the future, Filios is careful and quite right to not label them as elite propaganda of their time. Studies on collective memory, particularly where narrative theory is concerned, view a narrative “memory” (or in this case a cultural representation or text) as neither a simple copy of reality, nor entirely active (re)constructions.[4] Filios balances both in her analysis of Julian by asking poignant historical questions. Rather than trying to determine if Julian was real per se, she is instead focused on what he meant to his authours and his audiences.

In textually-mediated collective memory studies in particular, narrative theory can be useful because it presumes that narrative plays a central role in human consciousness and that it is a cultural tool developed in historical and institutional settings that will invariably be reflected through the text.[5] Moving effortlessly through the chronicles of Yulyan in Ibn ‘Abd alHakam and ‘Abd alMalk ibn Habib, and Iulianus’ presence (or absence) in Hispano-Latin sources like Duclidius or Historia Silence, Filios shows how Julian comes to stand as a metaphor for the Strait of Gibraltar – either making it passable and losing relevance quickly after Conquest or as a reflection of Christian views of Muslims through time. In the latter formulation, the Strait often comes to represent a border through his figure. As such, through these juxtapositions, it quickly becomes clear that Julian has no essential characteristics and, in fact, cannot even be said to have existed! Since the latter is not Filios’ research question, that is of little consequence. The point is that even seemingly important narrative details about him vary widely, depending on their author and their historical situation which tell us more about them than Julian himself.

This relatively short article is valuable to readers who are unsure of how to deal with primary source materials, particularly narratives. While not being explicit about her connection with narrative theory or critical memory studies (other than a reference to Hayden White), Filios has provided such readers with an excellent, well-researched example of what is possible through memory studies, regardless of their individual research areas.

[1] Filios, Denise, “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography,” Medieval Encounters, Vol 15, 2009, p 377.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wertsch, James. “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning” in Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge University Press. 2002, p 31.

[4] Ibid. p.32

[5] Ibid. p.56-7

lizThis article was written by Liz Hill – writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

The first commonly stated reason it is important to understand history is, of course, the colloquial: “Learning from the Past.”


This is a trite notion that supposedly sums up the importance of studying and teaching history: if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past we are doomed to repeat them. Well, even assuming the course of history is made by momentous individual decisions ( which it’s not), I still find this notion irritatingly simplistic. Present conditions never so closely mirror moments in the past that we could make some sort of prognostic art out of the study of history. Furthermore, how are we to determine what the “mistakes” of history even are and by whose standards? These are entertaining questions for time-travel fiction maybe, but not something to write a historiography paper on. As facile as the phrase is, however, I do see an element of truth in it. Knowledge and understanding of history can help us (individuals, cultures, societies) act better – more critically and thoughtfully – in the present for the sake of the future.


Western culture has an unfortunate habit of isolating itself from its own past. Where we are now represents transcendent progress over the past. We pick and choose the good people and moments to memorialize based on perceptions of how they got us here, and reject the rest as superstitious, backwards, and undeveloped. Our isolation from the past is even embedded in the basic structures we use to talk about it – chronological periodization (while admittedly practically useful) chops the flow of time up into supposedly distinct chunks, obscuring the blurring and continuity that occurs in between and throughout. “Medievalism” – the process of placing what is no longer acceptable in modern society and culture into the past – is the little cousin of Orientalism. Both are processes of Othering by which cultures constitute identity and absolve themselves by projecting what is unacceptable within onto an external and radically different other. Medievalism is not just directed at the historical past, but at so-called “traditional cultures” which are very much alive and present.


There is of course a flip side of the progressive view of history, which is reactionary traditionalism and the desire to make Golden Ages out of the past while viewing recent history as degeneration. This perspective has its own whole set of polemic uses and abuses, but to me it seems to represent a similar inability to meet change and difference as morally neutral, neither good nor bad in and of itself.

It still stands however, that to act wisely for the future one must understand the present state of the conditions in which one acts. And to understand the present state of anything – a person, a society, an idea – one must understand where it or they came from. History allows us to reconstruct the accumulation of existence that lies behind any present state of being. Good history is capable of uncovering the inner workings of social and cultural systems by understanding where they came from, revealing their implications and potentials. With clearer knowledge about the present we can better act in the present, and from that, we can hope for a positive future.