Libya Table of Contents

The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the rise in Morocco of two rival Berber tribal dynasties--the Almoravids and the Almohads, both founded by religious reformers--that dominated the Maghrib and Muslim Spain for more than two hundred years. The founder of the Almohad (literally, "one who proclaims" the oneness of God) movement was a member of the Sunni ulama, Ibn Tumart (d. 1130), who preached a doctrine of moral regeneration through reaffirmation of monotheism. As judge and political leader as well as spiritual director, Ibn Tumart gave the Almohads a hierarchical and theocratic centralized government, respecting but transcending the old tribal structure. His successor, the sultan Abdal Mumin (reigned 1130-63), subdued Morocco, extended the Muslim frontier in Spain, and by 1160 had swept eastward across the Maghrib and forced the withdrawal of the Normans from their strongholds in Ifriqiya and Tripolitania, which were added to the Almohad empire.

Mumin proclaimed an Almohad caliphate at Cordova, giving the sultan supreme religious as well as political authority within his domains, but theology gradually gave way to dynastic politics as the motivating force behind the movement. The Almohads had succeeded in unifying the Maghrib but, as its empire grew and the Almohad power base shifted to Spain, the dynasty became more remote from the Berber tribes that had launched it. By 1270 the Almohads in Morocco had succumbed to tribal warfare and in Spain to the steady advance of the Kingdom of Castile.

At the eastern end of the Almohad empire, the sultan left an autonomous viceroy whose office became hereditary in the line of Muhammad bin Abu Hafs (reigned 1207-21), a descendant of one of Ibn Tumart's companions. With the demise of the Almohad dynasty in Morocco, the Hafsids adopted the titles of caliph and sultan and considered themselves the Almohads' legitimate successors, keeping alive the memory of Ibn Tumart and the ideal of Maghribi unity from their capital in Tunis.

The Hafsids' political support and their realm's economy were rooted in coastal towns like Tripoli, while the hinterland was given up to the tribes that had made their nominal submission to the sultan. The Hafsids encouraged trade with Europe and forged close links with Aragon and the Italian maritime states. Despite these commercial ties, Hafsid relations with the European powers eventually deteriorated when the latter intrigued in the dynasty's increasingly troubled and complex internal politics. Theocratic republics, tribal states, and coastal enclaves seized by pirate captains defied the sultan's authority, and in 1460 Tripoli was declared an independent city-state by its merchant oligarchy.

During the Hafsid era, spanning more than 300 years, however, the Maghrib and Muslim Spain had shared a common higher culture-- called Moorish--that transcended the rise and fall of dynasties in creating new and unique forms of art, literature, and architecture. Its influence spread from Spain as far as Tripolitania, where Hafsid patronage had encouraged a flowering Arab creativity and scholarship.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress