Hosting Dynasties and Faiths: Chronicling the Religious History Of a Medieval Moroccan Oasis City
By Robert Caverly
MA Thesis, Villanova University, 2008
Introduction: Writing a history of an ancient society is a process that calls on both the specificity of individuated events and the broad, sweeping currents of greater change. Similarly, a religious history is an attempt to bridge that gap, and in the case of Medieval Moroccan Islam and religious life in the city of Sijilmassa, one cannot be divorced from the other. Sijilmassa (also spelled, Sijilmasa, Sigilmasa, Sigilmasiyah, etc.) was a remote city in Morocco’s largest oasis, the Tafilalt, which lies at the very edge of the Sahara. Its ruins extend along the river Ziz, adjacent to the modern town of Rissani.
The remains of the city are a subject of archaeological research and popular myth and legend: Sijilmassa’s success revolved around its status as a trade center. Because it stood at the edge of what was essentially treated as an ocean, it was a port for those entering Morocco from the Sudan and those leaving Morocco bound for the “land of the blacks” beyond the Sahara. Belonging to a network of Saharan trade depots, Sijilmassa was an important destination for merchants and their wares. In between Sijilmassa and these other cities were the expansive desert wastes and the tribes of nomadic Berbers that inhabited that space. These Berbers were necessary guides, sustaining their nomadic lifestyle by facilitating this trade network. Over the course of its history, which spanned from the mid 8th century until the end of the 14th century, Sijilmassa alternated between being an isolated oasis city on the edge of the desert and being the target of religious revolution. As a crossroads for both dynastic warfare and commerce, Sijilmassa possessed an intriguing mix of ethnicities and religious beliefs. The history of this city is a history of racial diversity and ethnic conflict, prosperity and oppression, periphery and center, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, religious cooperation and clashes of faith. It was simultaneously a remote oasis frontier city, yet proving to be central to the history of the political-religious movements that defined the Islamic practice of Morocco and, consequently, the entire Maghrib.
However, this is not necessarily a history of inherited Arab Islam, as that would be a mischaracterization of Morocco’s encounter with Islam as well as the spirit in which this essay was written. Instead, this is a history of the unique praxis of the inhabitants of Morocco; it is a facet of a greater story of Berber Islam and the indigenous population’s attempts to come to terms with its own religiosity. The unique locality of Sijilmassa can be contrasted with the religiosity of greater Morocco, the latter of which is the basis for four phases of Sijilmassa’s history. A Kharijite kingdom and three Berber religious movements become dynasties, the Almoravid (1073-1147), the Almohad (1130-1276) and the Marinid (1258-1420), and each phase in turn influenced Sijilmassa politically and culturally. However, each movement was, in turn, changed by Sijilmassa’s unique religious identity; the city, despite its occasional loss of autonomy, possessed a religious character all its own, now preserved in the extant sources. Clifford Geertz defined the tracing of religious patterns as writing the social history of the imagination; this essay is an attempt to capture both the essence of Sijilmassa’s religious life during the medieval period as well as place it in relation to the greater social history taking place in Morocco. The question asked is, “What religious beliefs, practices, and theological understandings existed in medieval Sijilmassa, and what part did it play in Morocco’s religious development?”