Yusuf ibn Tashfin

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Map of Andalusia at the time of Yusuf's first campaign in 1085.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin or Tashafin (reigned c. 1061 - 1106) (Arabic: يوسف بن تاشفين or يوسف بن تشفين) was an ethnic Berber and Almoravid ruler in North Africa and Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia). After succeeding to the leadership of the reformist movement in 1060, he continued to expand his territorial base across the Maghreb, building Marrakech as his capital. In 1085, he was invited by the beleaguered Muslim emirs in Spain to assist them against the Christian Reconquista and inflicted a crushing defeat on the armies of Alfonso VI of Castile. The emirs thought he would go home after this, having completed what they had asked of him. He did go home but while there obtained opinions from Muslim jurists supporting the emirs' overthrow as lax and corrupt. In 1090 he crossed back over to Ibera, defeated and deposed the rulers, reuniting splintered Muslim territory into a single state. Although he did not add significantly to this territory, he succeeded in pushing back the Reconquista. He did annex Valencia, which resisted his armies until 1100. He died at the age of 101 six years later. The dynasty lasted until defeated by the even stricter Almohads in 1147.

When Yusuf deposed and exiled the emirs, he promised that life would be better for his new subjects, that he would tax them more fairly and only levy bone fide Islamic taxes. Unfortunately, his heirs were soon fighting on two fronts, against the Reconquista in Spain and the Almoahds in Africa. In order to pay their armies, they went back on Yusuf's word and raised additional, non-Islamic taxes. They also failed to attract local support, governing Andalusia more or less as a colonial possession. Yusuf's pious but less skilled heirs did not survive the century before the dynasty collapsed. Yusuf was a highly competent and successful soldier, whose military achievements match or better those of any contemporary. The lesson that can be learned from his legacy is that when leaders fail to keep promises, others will question their moral right to rule and engineer their downfall. Ironically, this was the argument that Yusuf had used to justify overthrowing his predecessors. On the other hand, he can not properly be blamed for his heirs' errors. Their real failing was less their change of policy than failing to attract popular support. The people may have understood the need for modification in the face of the military crises. When rulers promise to improve life for the many, then fail to deliver, people have a legitimate cause for complaint.

The Almoravids

The Almoravids became a dynasty ruling in the Maghrib and parts of Andalusia but began as a religious reformist movement inspired by Yahya ibn Ibrahim who after performing the hajj in 1240 returned to North Africa determined to reform what he saw as the ignorant and corrupt Islam of his fellow Berbers. He then attended the famous university at Kairouan where he gained the support of an established teacher, ibn Yasin, a Maliki jurist. Ibn Yasin became the movement's spiritual teacher; Yahya assumed military leadership. From 1053, having attracted enough followers to the reformist cause, the Almoravids (which probably means "those who band together for the defense of the faith"[1] were ready to spread orthodoxy by conquest as well as preaching. By 1054, they ruled a small state in what is today Senegal. Yahya was killed fighting in 1056. Yasin named Abu Bakr ibn Umar as his successor. Under his military leadership, the movement spread out into the Atlas Mountains where they conquered, among others, the Berghouata of Aghamat. Abu Bakr married their Queen, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyat, reputedly a rich and beautiful woman. In 1059, Abu Bakr left his gifted cousin, Yusuf ibn Tashfin in charge of the territory over which the Almoravids now ruled whole he went off the crush a rebellion in the Sahara. Divorcing Zaynab, he gave her in marriage to Yusuf.[2] Yusuf proved to be a very successful deputy; he subdued Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauretania in 1062 founded the city of Marrakech as his capital. In 1080, he conquered the kingdom of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) and founded the present city of Algiers, extending his rule as far east as Oran. Abu Bakr had returned to resume the leadership in 1060 but seeing his cousin well established and secure in his position, he decided to continue campaigning in the Sahara. He may have reached Ghana in 1076. He is said to have died from a poisoned arrow in 1087. Yusuf later adopted the title, "Amir of the Muslims" (Amir al Muslimin (Commander of the Muslims).) and became the undisputed leader of the movement.[1] However, he corresponded with and formally acknowledged the Abbasid caliph, whose own traditional titles included Amir al Mu'minin (Commander of the Muslims). Effectively, though, Yusuf was caliph of the West.

Taifa appeal

The Almoravids were already contemplating taking their movement across the Straits into Spain; they were "shocked by the goings-on" there where Muslims "were being forced to pay tribute to non-Muslims and were raising taxes unmentioned in the Koran in order to do so."[1] When the last sovereign king of al-Andalusia, al-Mutamid, fearing that Seville would fall to the increasingly stronger king of Castile-León, Alfonso VI of Castile invited Yusuf to Spain to aid him in the defense of the Muslim taifa, he readily responded. The Taifa were the many small city-states that succeeded the unified period of Umayyad Andalusia, which ended in 1031. Previously, al-Mutamid had launched a series of aggressive attacks on neighboring kingdoms to gain more territory for himself, but his military aspirations and capabilities paled in comparison to those of the Castilian king, who in 1085 captured the culturally refined Toledo and demanded parias, or tribute, from the proud Muslim princes. The tribute of the emirs bolstered the economy of the Christian kingdom. al-Mutamid's son, Rashid, advised him not to call on Yusuf ibn Tashfin, to which al-Mutamid replied:

"I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile."[3]

Rashid may have realized that Yusuf would not stop at helping the emirs defend their territories but would export his reformist ideology into Andalusia and take political power for himself.

Military exploits

Muslim taifa after 1031.

Yusuf crossed to al-Andalus with a force of 15,000 men, armed with javelins, daggers, Indian swords and shields covered in animal hide, as well as drummers for psychological combat. Yusuf's cavalry was said to have included 6,000 shock troops from Senegal mounted on white Arabian horses. Camels were also put to use. On October 23, 1086 at the Battle of Sagrajas, the Almoravid forces, accompanied by 10,000 Andalusian fighters from local Muslim provinces, decisively checked the Reconquista, defeating the largest Christian army ever assembled up to that point, although being significantly outnumbered. When Yusuf returned home the emirs thought he had accomplished what they wanted from him had left Iberia for good. This proved to be wishful thinking. In 1090, he crossed back to al-Andalus and set about annexing the Taifa states.

The emirs in such cities as Seville, Badajoz, Almeria, and Granada had grown accustomed to extravagant lifestyles; in contrast, the Almoravids were puritanical. As well as paying tribute to the Christians and giving Andalusian Jews unprecedented freedoms and authority at least as far as the reformists were concerned, they levied burdensome taxes on the populace to maintain this lifestyle. After a series of fatwas declaring that it was morally and religiously permissible for him to depose the corrupt Taifa rulers, Yusuf launched his campaign. He even obtained a favorable ruling from the eminent scholar, Al-Ghazali, who had taught Abu Bakr ibn Umar and a letter from the caliph.[4] That year he exiled the emirs 'Abd Allah and his brother Tamim from Granada and Málaga, respectively, to Aghmāt, and a year later al-Mutamid of Seville suffered the same fate. Yusuf succeeded in re-uniting all the Muslim dominions of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of Zaragoza, to his own Kingdom of Morocco. He continued to govern from his royal court at Marrakech.

The Almoravid confederation, which consisted of a hierarchy of Lamtuna, Musaffa and Djudalla Berbers, represented the military's elite. Amongst them were Andalusian Christians and Africans, taking up duties as diwan al-gund, Yusuf's own personal bodyguard; including 2,000 black horsemen, whose tasks also included registering soldiers and making sure they were compensated financially. The occupying forces of the Almoravids were made up largely horsemen, totaling no less than 20,000. Into the major cities of al-Andalus, Seville (7,000), Granada (1,000), Cordoba (1,000), 5,000 bordering Castile and 4,000 in western Andalusia, succeeding waves of horsemen in conjunction with the garrisons that had been left there after the Battle of Sagrajas, made responding, for the Taifa emirs, difficult. Soldiers on foot used bows & arrows, sabers, pikes and Indian javelins, each protected by a cuirass of Moroccan leather and bearing shields made of antelope hide. During the siege of the fort-town Aledo, in Murcia, captured by the Spaniard Garcia Giménez previously, Almoravid and Andalusian hosts are said to have used catapults, in addition to their customary drum beat. Yusuf also established naval bases in Cadiz, Almeria and neighboring ports along the Mediterranean. Ibn-Maymun, the governor of Almeria, had a fleet at his disposal.

The siege of Valencia

The location of Valencia, Spain (indicated by the red dot.)

The Almoravids re-united the Muslim states but gained little additional territory from the Christians. They halted but did not reverse the Reconquista. Yusuf did succeed in capturing Valencia, a city that was divided between Muslims and Christians under the rule of a petty emir who paid tribute to the Christians. The famous El Cid, who happily fought for Muslims as well as for Christians during his career, was the Christian ruler. Valencia proved to be an obstacle for the Almoravid military, despite their untouchable reputation. Abu Bakr ibn Ibrahim ibn Tashfin and Yusuf's nephew Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad both failed to defeat El Cid. Yusuf then sent Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali al-Hajj but he was not successful either. In 1097, on his fourth trip to al-Andalus, Yusuf tried to personally push back the army of Alfonso VI, making his way towards the all but abandoned but historically important city of Toledo. Such a concerted effort was meant to draw the Christian forces, including those laying siege to Valencia, into the center of Iberia. On August 15, 1097, the Almoravids delivered yet another blow to Alphonso VI's forces. El Cid's son was killed in this confrontation.

Muhammad ibn 'A'isha, Yusuf's son, whom he had appointed governor of Murcia, succeeded in delivering an effective pounding to El Cid's forces. While the city still remained undefeated, satisfied with the results of his campaigns, Yusuf left for his court at Marrakesh. Two years later, he again crossed the Straits on a new campaign to take the provinces of eastern Andalusia. El Cid had died the same year, 1099, and his wife, Chimena, was ruling in his place. Towards the end of 1100, an other Almoravid offensive led by Yusuf's trusted lieutenant Mazdali ibn Banlunka laid siege of Valencia for seven months. Alphonso and Chimena, seeing the impossibility of staving off the Almoravids, set fire to the great mosque in anger and abandoned the city. Finally, Yusuf had conquered Valencia and had complete dominance over the east of al-Andalus. He was now unquestionably the most powerful ruler in western Europe.

Description and character

"A wise and shrewd man, neither too prompt in his determinations, nor too slow in carrying them into effect," Yusuf was very much adapted to the rugged terrain of the Sahara and had no interests in the pomp of the Andalusian courts.[5] The following description of Yusuf's appearance is from a fourteenth century work; Yusuf was of "teint brun, taille moyenne, maigre, peu de barbe, voix douce, yeux noirs, nez aquilin, meche de Mohammed retombant sur le bout de l'oreille, sourcils joints l'un a l'autre, cheveux crepus"; meaning - "Brown color, middle height, thin, little beard, soft voice, black eyes, straight nose, lock of Muhammad falling on the top of his ear, eye brow joined, wooly hair"[6]

Death and succession

He went on to reach the age of 101 and, unlike his predecessors, he not die in battle. He was succeeded as Emir by his son, Ali ibn Yusuf (1106–42).

Already, the even stricter and more radical Almohads were campaigning against the Almoravids, who having swept into power as reformers ended up copying some of the practices they had condemned. For example, to pay for war on two fronts, against the Christians in Spain and the Almohads in North Africa, they too levied non-Qur'anic taxes and even employed "Christian mercenaries to collect" this revenue.[7]. Yusuf had kept his own word and only raised taxes "stipulated in the Shariah" but his heirs were unable to maintain this practice.[8] Clancy-Smith points out that by doing so they broke the promises that Yusuf had made to his subjects; when they assumed power, they had promised a "better life, security and low taxes." Their subjects felt that they had become a colony, since the Almoravids ruled from Marrakech. They also failed to integrate local elites into their administration and employed jurists whose interpretation of Maliki jurisprudence was even stricter than their own. Another inconsistency concerns Al-Ghazali, who had lent his support to their Iberian campaign. Menocal refers to civil unrest as early as 1109 following an incident when a book by Al-Ghazali was burned in public and "anti-Almoravid riots broke out in Cordoba." Ghazali's "humane approach to Islam, despite its orthodoxy, was too liberal for the fanatical Almoravids," she says.[9] This seems ironic, since he had supported their Iberian project. However, he later criticized what he saw as their over zealousness and anti-Sufi stance. Al-Ghazali balanced internal piety with external obedience; the Almoravids placed more value on the latter, on Islam's legal aspects. Ali ibn Yusuf, the third Emir, ordered the burning of al-Ghazali's writing and made death mandatory for anyone found possessing them.[10] In what amounted to a type of inquisition, the Almoravids clamped down on falsafa (Islamic philosophy and Sufiism, regarding these as dangerous speculation; all Muslims needed to do was to observe Shariah.[11] They banned allegorical interpretation of the Qur'an.

Legacy of the Almoravids

The Almoravid empire at its greatest extent.

Yusuf's reign represented the apogee of the Almoravid dynasty. His son and successor, Ali ibn Yusuf, was viewed as a devout Muslim but he neither commanded the respect his father had, nor retained the complete loyalty of the alliance on which the dynasty depended. Fage says that he was even more pious than Yusuf but lacked his "vigor" and "statesmanship." He was completely "dominated by the fuqaha" or jurists. The Christians "exploited" his "weakness" and renewed their offensive.[8] As he prayed and fasted the empire crumbled about him. Córdoba, in about 1119, served as the launch pad for Andalusian insurrection. Christians on the northern frontier gained momentum shortly after his father's death, and the Almohads, beginning about 1120, stared to engulf the southern frontier. Yusuf's hard won empire was very soon reduced to Marrakech, until that fell to the Almohads in 1147.

Much of what has been written about the Almoravids, whether from Almohad or Christian sources, was propaganda. While Yusuf was the most honorable of Muslim rulers, he spoke Arabic poorly. To the credit of some of Yusuf's successors, namely Ali ibn Yusuf, in 1135 he exercised good stewardship by attending to the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez and ordering the extension of the mosque from 18 to 21 aisles, expanding the structure to more than 3,000 square meters. Some accounts suggest that Ali Ibn Yusuf hired two Andalusian architects to carry out this work, who also built the central aisle of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, Algeria, in 1136.

Richard Fletcher comments:

The Almoravids had never been liked in al-Andalus outside the limited circles of the rigorist critics of the taifa rulers. They had come as deliverers but they behaved like conquerors. The leadership may have been sincerely devout but the rank and file were not. Almoravid rule has been described by a modern authority as 'an extended looting expedition' ... To the end of the Almoravid regime there was not a single traceable Berber among its civil servants: instead, Andalusi clerks were shipped over to Morocco. The Almoravids indulged in all the luxuries and delights of al-Andalus but failed to do the job they had been called into do: the lost territories in the Tagus and Ebro valleys remained in Christian hands.[12]

Certainly, the Almoravids changed the social atmosphere and ethos, more or less bringing an end to the convivencia, or harmonious co-existence of Jews, Christians and Muslims that had characterized life for much of the time, despite periods of conflict. Peters says that they replaced this with "persecution" of non-Muslims as well as of Muslims who "did not measure up to" their "severe standards."[13] The Almoravids began as religious reformers but were unable to keep the promises they made when circumstances changed. Although the dynasty did not emulate the corrupt life-styles of the Muslim princes whom they deposed, despite Fletcher's description above, they did copy their taxation policies. Having promised the people that they would not do this, they failed to gain their support. Initially, they had been welcomed by the populace but this enthusiasm quickly faded. They also failed to build an administration that included local elites, instead ruling Andalusia as a colonial possession. They were therefore always looked upon as foreign. Towards the end of their rule, they employed Christian guards in Andalusia as well as Christian soldiers elsewhere in their territory, despite having based their case against their predecessors mainly on their tolerance of Christians, whose habits, they said, they had adopted. Unfortunately, this use of Christians did not restore the lost convivencia, which had been based on mutual respect and on finding ways for all to flourish, not for some to flourish at the cost of others. No doubt, non-Muslims had always accepted certain restrictions while Muslims enjoyed some privileges but all benefitted sufficiently to maintain social stability.

It is also true that Yusud's heirs lacked his charisma and battle-honed skills. Yusuf and his own predecessors had become leaders more or less on the field of battle; they were accomplished soldiers and gifted commanders. However, their successors were born to rule. Though perhaps equally if not more pious, they lacked the skill needed to stem the tide of revolt. What began as a type of charismatic leadership was routinized into a hereditary dynasty that lost its vitality.

Clancy-Smith says that they were too tied to the life of the Sahara and failed to "adjust to any other environment"[14] Their rise to power follows the pattern described by Ibn Khladun; as city-life becomes lax, reformers sweep in from the desert. Unfortunately, the Almoravids themselves fell victim to another reform movement that swept in from the desert, or more specifically from the Atlas Mountains. Ibn Khaldun famously characterized Islamic history as cyclical, in which zealous religious reformists such as the Almohads sweep into towns from the desert, where a puritan life-style and strong group feeling are natural, establish rule then themselves become lax and in this case break their promises as the "toughness of desert life" is lost. Group feeling is weakened to such a degree that the dynasty can "no longer... protect itself." Before long it is "swallowed up by other nations."[15]. Of course, the Almoravids are not the only administration or government that has fallen as a result of breaking promises, even though they were compelled to do so in defense of the realm. If Yusuf's successors had found ways to keep his promises, would the dynasty have lasted longer or was it inevitable that another reforming movement would sweep it away? Their successors also fell to a dynasty that claimed religious is not reformist credentials, the Marinids; "the Muslim successor states of the Almohads, the Nasrids of Granada and the Banu Marin of Morocco, both stressed their performance in the holy war or jihad against Iberian Christian powers to rally supporters to their cause and bolster their legitimacy."[16] Perhaps the real failing of Yusuf's heirs was not so much their change of policy, which they may have persuaded the people to accept as a pragmatic and temporary necessity, than their failure to earn the people's support in the first place.

Preceded by:
Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar
Succeeded by:
Ali ibn Yusuf


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 R.A. Fletcher, Moorish Spain (New York, NY: H. Holt, 1992, ISBN 978-0805023954), 74.
  2. Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa"" (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996, ISBN 978-0631168522), 104-105.
  3. Muʻtamid, and Dulcie Lawrence Smith, The poems of Mu'tamid, king of Seville (London, UK: J. Murray, 1915), 30.
  4. Fage says that al-Ghazali supported Yusuf "in 1090, when he turned against the Muslim emirs of Spain." J.D. Fage and Roland Anthony Oliver, The Cambridge history of Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975, ISBN 978-0521209816), 338.
  5. F.L. Shaw, A tropical dependency: An outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0933121928), 56.
  6. van Sertima. 1992. page 373 citing from Beaumier's French translation of Abd Allah's "Roudh el-Kartas" (History of the Rulers of Morocco) and Beaumier's French translation.
  7. Julia Ann Clancy-Smith, North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean world: from the Almoravids to the Algerian War (London, UK: Frank Cass, 2001, ISBN 978-0714651705), 74.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Fage, and Oliver, 1975, 338-339.
  9. Maria Rosa Menocal, The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2002, ISBN 978-0316566889), 44.
  10. Nagendra Kr. Singh, International encyclopaedia of Islamic dynasties (New Delhi, IN: Anmol Publications, 2000, ISBN 978-8126104031), 331.
  11. Antony Black, The history of Islamic political thought: from the Prophet to the present (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001, ISBN 978-0415932424), 115.
  12. Fletcher, 1992, 118.
  13. F. E. Peters, The monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in conflict and competition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0691114606), 141.
  14. Clancy-Smith, 2001, 75.
  15. Ibn Khaldūn, Franz Rosenthal, N.J. Dawood, and Bruce B. Lawrence, The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0691120546), 109.
  16. Clancy-Smith, 2001, 15.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Black, Antony. The history of Islamic political thought: from the Prophet to the present. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0415932424.
  • Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. The Peoples of Africa. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996. ISBN 978-0631168522.
  • Clancy-Smith, Julia Ann. North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean world: from the Almoravids to the Algerian War. Cass series—history and society in the Islamic world. London, UK: Frank Cass, 2001. ISBN 978-0714651705.
  • Fage, J.D., and Roland Anthony Oliver. The Cambridge history of Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975. ISBN 978-0521209816.
  • Fletcher, R.A. Moorish Spain. New York, NY: H. Holt, 1992. ISBN 978-0805023954.
  • Freeman, Edward Augustus. The history and conquests of the Saracens: six lectures delivered before the Edinburgh philosophical Institution. Kessinger Publishing's rare reprints. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub., 2008. ISBN 978-1417948291.
  • Hopkins, J.F.P., and Nehemia Levtzion. Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history. Fontes historiae Africanae, 4. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0521224222.
  • Khaldūn, Ibn, Franz Rosenthal, N.J. Dawood, and Bruce B. Lawrence. The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0691120546.
  • Menocal, Maria Rosa. The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2002. ISBN 978-0316566889.
  • Peters, F. E. The monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in conflict and competition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0691114606.
  • Rodriguez-Manas, Francisco. "Yusuf ibn Tashfin: Almoravid empire: Maghrib, 1070-1147." 1686-1688. in Kevin Shillington, Encyclopedia of African History. New York, NY: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005. ISBN 978-1579584559.
  • Shaw, F.L. A tropical dependency: An outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0933121928.
  • Singh, Nagendra Kr. International encyclopaedia of Islamic dynasties. New Delhi, IN: Anmol Publications, 2000. ISBN 978-8126104031.
  • Van Sertima, Ivan. Golden age of the Moor. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992. ISBN 978-1560005810.


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