Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sunni Islam expanded in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries through the military and spiritual dominance of the revivalist Almoravid and Almohad Empires.

Summary of Event

From the eleventh to thirteenth century, the western Islamic empire was dominated by two states: the Almoravids Almoravids and Almohads Almohads . Both states began as Sunni revivalist movements among rival North African Berber tribes, split politically after the collapse of Fāṭimid domination and the invasion by Banū Hilāl Arabs, Bedouin tribes expelled from Egypt, in the twelfth century. Across the Mediterranean, Muslim Iberia (now Spain and Portugal) was divided into numerous small feuding kingdoms. North Africa remained a region of great religious diversity, despite the influence of Islam, and while Sunni Islam was strong in certain areas, Khāijism, the rejection of a caliphate based on descent from the Prophet Muḥammad, remained widespread. However, in remote mountainous regions of the Maghreb, Islam was not a dominant presence. [kw]Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia (11th century) [kw]Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia, Expansion of (11th century) [kw]Islam in North Africa and Iberia, Expansion of Sunni (11th century) [kw]North Africa and Iberia, Expansion of Sunni Islam in (11th century) [kw]Africa and Iberia, Expansion of Sunni Islam in North (11th century) [kw]Iberia, Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and (11th century) Sunni Islam Africa;Islam and Iberia, Islam and Islam;Iberia Islam;Africa Africa;11th cent.: Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia[1400] Expansion and land acquisition;11th cent.: Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia[1400] Religion;11th cent.: Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia[1400] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;11th cent.: Expansion of Sunni Islam in North Africa and Iberia[1400] Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn Ibn Tūmart ՙAbd al-Mu՚min

The Almoravids, also known as the al-Murābitūn, were Sunni reformers made up of lowland Saharan Berbers Berbers . The Almoravid movement was initiated by a Sunni scholar named Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn , who, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, became filled with religious zeal. He returned to Saharan Africa with the goal of reforming Islam as practiced in the region; he wanted to found a “pure” state of Islam near the Senegal River. Mecca;Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn[Yusuf ibn Tashufin]

By forming an alliance with Berber chiefs, the Almoravid movement developed a military capability they used to spread their brand of Sunnism northward with the aim of establishing proper Islamic practice among tribes and cultures they encountered, by force if necessary. Under the leadership of Tāshufīn, the Almoravids subjugated non-Islamic and non-Sunni Islamic Berbers, whom they viewed as heretical. The Almoravids also used the expansion of their forced religious philosophy as a way to place rival political groups under their domination. Conquered groups were given three choices: tribute, Almoravid Sunnism, or the sword.

Tāshufīn conquered most of what is now Morocco and western Algeria and converted the citizenry to Almoravid Sunnism. When Islamic kingdoms and city-states in the Iberian Peninsula were threatened by resurgent Christian kingdoms from the north, Tāshufīn entered Iberia to battle the invading Christians. His defeat of the Christian army at the Battle of Al-Zallāqah Al-Zallāqah, Battle of (1086)[Al Zallāqah, Battle of (1086)] in 1086 kept southern Iberia from Christian invasion. While in the peninsula, Tāshufīn also deposed and incorporated many of the Muslim kings and incorporated their lands into his growing Almoravid Empire.

Though Tāshufīn’s military strength kept Christian armies at bay, many Iberian Muslims resented Almoravid influence over their lives and traditions. Much of this was linked to a cultural distaste for Berber history in the region and a sense of elitism: Iberian Muslims considered their North African neighbors to be culturally unsophisticated. Another aspect of Almoravid culture that Iberians Muslims found to their dislike was the strict enforcement of Sunni Islam, including the persecution of non-Muslims and members of minor Islamic sects such as the Sufis. This persecution often included the burning of books deemed heretical by local Islamic leaders. Eventually, a revolt against the Almoravids beginning in the 1140’s saw the end to Almoravid power and influence in the Iberian Peninsula. Spain;Islam and

While the Almoravids expanded their influence northward, another Sunni revivalist movement, the Almohads Almohads , began to challenge them in North Africa. The founder or the Almohads was Ibn Tūmart Ibn Tūmart . Ibn Tūmart was a highland Berber who, after studying in Cordoba and the Islamic east, returned to the Berber highlands to preach a message of strict Islamic piety. In 1125, Ibn Tūmart declared himself ruler, claiming the Almoravids were impious and corrupt Muslims. Establishing a military base of operations in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Ibn Tūmart built an army of highland Berber converts and began a military campaign to conquer surrounding areas. Ibn Tūmart’s rapid rise to power and support may have resulted from his actions conforming to traditional Berber beliefs regarding the power of charismatic holy leaders. Also, by leading attacks against the lowland Almoravid Berbers, he played to the highland Berbers’s prejudices against their lowland neighbors.





Ibn Tūmart’s Almohad successor was ՙAbd al-Mu՚min ՙAbd al-Mu՚min . Al-Mu՚min would lead a military campaign against the Almoravids that resulted in eventual Almohad control of most of northern Morocco and western Algeria by 1147. The fall of the Almoravids developed into a political schism in Muslim Iberia. Sensing a weakening of Muslim military strength, Christian forces invaded the region. The Christian invasion was eventually repelled by Almohad forces led by al-Mu՚min. Al-Mu՚min also mounted several military expeditions that unified North Africa and stretched the Almohad Empire from Tunisia to the Atlantic Ocean, including all Islamic regions of the Iberian Peninsula.

During the late twelfth century, the Almohads were in constant military struggle with Almoravid holdouts and Iberian Christians. In 1212, the Almohads suffered a crushing defeat by a combined Christian force at Las Navas de Tolosa Las Navas de Tolosa, Battle of (1212) , resulting in their eventual loss of control over the entire Iberian Peninsula, except for the small kingdom of Granada. During this same period, the Almohad Empire in North Africa began to dissolve into a group of small independent states. In time, the Almohads were challenged and displaced by powerful regional emirs, viceroys, and nomadic invaders.


The Almoravid and Almohad Empires demonstrated that power could be built by combining tribal military units and Islamic religious ideologies to structure a formidable political entity. The key leaders of both groups won support from the superstitious Berbers by presenting themselves as miracle-working holy men touched by the hand of Islam. In the case of the Almoravids, their conquest of lands along the important Saharan trade routes allowed them to control valuable sources of gold and commerce throughout western Africa. This ability to control regional trade allowed them to project their accumulated power.

The transitory and short-lived Almoravid and Almohad Empires helped create the first unified western North Africa political unit as well as a distinct non-Arabic Islamic culture. Despite the idiosyncratic nature of their Islamic beliefs, the Almoravids and Almohads were staunchly Sunni. Their piety and religious intolerance repressed the Khāijite, Shīՙite, and heterodox forms of Islam, which, until their empire building, had dominated the region.

The rule of the Almoravids and Almohads advanced the Saharan region out of its culturally primitive standing, placing it in step with other Islamic cultures. During their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, with its own rich Islamic traditions, the Almoravids imported many scholars and theologians from Iberia to their North African cities, especially Marrakesh, a city that had become a new center for Islamic culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual. 1967. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. A historical and genealogical accounting of the Islamic dynasties, including those in Spain and Africa. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Michael. “The Islamisization of Morocco from the Arabs to the Almoravids.” Journal of the Society for Moroccan Studies 2 (1992): 57-71. A study of North Africa’s development into a region with a distinct Islamic character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. This study focuses on the history of the Berber-speaking peoples. The authors establish the identity of the Berbers and analyze their traditions, while tracing their political and social history. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleveland, W. L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Oxford, England: Westview Press, 1994. A concise history from pre-Islamic Arabia to the modern independent nations of the Middle East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esposito, John L., ed. The Oxford History of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An easily readable and accessible history of Islam. The book follows a time line that makes the complex history of Islam understandable. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the Seventh to the Twenty-first Centuries. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. A survey of Muslim conquests and military campaigns, including the battle at Las Navas de Tolosa and others throughout Iberia. Map, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Tourneau, Roger. The Almohad Movement in North Africa in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Excellent in integrating ՙAbd al-Mu՚min into the Almohad movement and showing his strengths and weaknesses. Brief but good treatment of contemporary accounts and historical studies. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reilly, Bernard F. The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain, 1031-1157. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. This work is a more complete coverage of the rise of Christian Iberia and deals extensively with military struggles and dynastic history. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schatzmiller, Maya. The Berbers and the Islamic State: The Marinid Experience in Pre-protectorate Morocco. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2000. A detailed study of the history of the Berbers in North Africa and Morocco. Includes discussion of acculturation and its legacy, developing an Islamic state and institutions, Jews in the region, and more. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History