Expansion of the Alawis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Alawis rose to power in Morocco out of the chaos following the fall of the Saՙdi Dynasty in 1659. Morocco was reunified not under the guise of religion, which had been used by the previous dynasties that had risen to prominence as the champions of Islam against Christian aggression. Instead, the Alawis had a political agenda: regional dominance.

Summary of Event

The Alawis, shurafa from Morocco’s Morocco desert fringe, were originally from the oasis of Tafilalt, in southeast Morocco. A sharif (singular form of shurufa) was a person who claimed descent from the Prophet Muḥammad. By tradition, the founder of the Alawis (the term comes from the name Ali, Muḥammad’s son-in-law) was said to have migrated from the town of Yanbo in Arabia in the early thirteenth century. For four centuries the Alawis lived in relative obscurity, enjoying prestige for their scholarship and piety among the people of the Tafilalt, but with no pretensions of playing a national or even regional political role. [kw]Expansion of the Alawis (1659) [kw]Alawis, Expansion of the (1659) Government and politics;1659: Expansion of the Alawis[1960] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1659: Expansion of the Alawis[1960] Africa;1659: Expansion of the Alawis[1960] Morocco;1659: Expansion of the Alawis[1960] Alawis

The decline and fall of the Saՙdi Dynasty Saՙdi Dynasty[Sadi Dynasty] and the resulting civil wars brought chaos to Morocco by the mid-seventeenth century. The Tafilalt became an unowned land over which rival armies contended. The Alawis attempted to organize resistance but did so with little success until family leadership passed to Mawlay (my Lord) Muḥammad. In 1641, Mawlay Muḥammad Muḥammad (sultan of Morocco) liberated the Tafilalt, then sent his army to invade areas to the west and north. These ventures were mostly unsuccessful

In 1659, the last sultan to rule under the Saՙdi Dynasty was assassinated, leaving Morocco without an official royal house. In the same year, Mawlay Muḥammad’s brother, al-Rashīd, Rashīd, al- revolted and fled north. Al-Rashīd ended up in the mountains east of Fés, where, according to reports, he killed and plundered a wealthy Jewish merchant (sometimes identified as the ruler of a small state). Al-Rashīd used this money to build an army and was proclaimed by several tribes as sultan. When word of al-Rashīd’s good fortune reached Mawlay Muḥammad, he decided it was time to put an end to the exploits of his rebellious brother

On August 2, 1664, the armies of the opposing brothers met on the plain of Angad. One of the first shots fired struck Mawlay Muḥammad in the throat and killed him. His troops then joined al-Rashīd, which gave him a sizeable force, which swept across northern Morocco between 1666 and 1668, conquering various foes, including tribal groups, maraboutic states (those controlled by Muslim religious leaders), a state established by a pirate chief, and the city of Fés. He then turned south, massacring the tribal group that had assumed control over Marrakech and destroying still other maraboutic states

Morocco was reunified by a holy family, although the Alawis did not use religion to justify their expansion, as had previous dynasties—the Almoravids, Almohads, and Saՙdis, who had risen to prominence as the champions of Islam against Christian aggression. The goal of the Alawis was unabashedly political: regional dominance leading to national unity under their dynasty. The victories of Mawlay Muḥammad and Mawlay al-Rashīd reestablished the shurafa principle: Only a descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad had sufficient baraka (blessedness) to govern the faithful of Morocco; only a sharif could qualify to be sultan

Mawlay al-Rashīd died in a freak accident during a visit to Marrakech in 1672, when his horse ran into a tree. He was succeeded by his twenty-six-year-old half brother, Mawlay Ismāl Ismāl (sultan of Morocco) , who kept the throne for fifty-five years. Ismāl has been seen by his detractors as cruel and bloody, a king who kept his own people in line through a policy of terror and despoliation. However, to his admirers, he was a quite different person—noble, just, intelligent, and hardworking—the person who laid the basis for the modern Moroccan nation and considered the father of his country

Ismāl began his reign by fighting a new round of civil wars, this time against his relatives, a nephew and a brother. His nephew was killed, but not until October of 1685, and the rebellions were finally crushed in March of 1687, when the ancient city of Taroudannt in the Anti-Atlas Mountains fell and its entire population put to the sword. During these wars Ismāl had to besiege Marrakech twice and Fés once, which did not endear him to either of the traditional capitals, so he anointed a new capital, the city of Meknès, 40 miles west of Fés at the gateway to the Middle Atlas Mountains. Under Ismāl, the centuries-old city became a splendid place with an imperial quarter surrounded by a 60-mile wall. Built with slave labor, the palace, which was actually a series of palaces, was often compared in size and elegance to the Versailles Palace, the home of the French monarchs near Paris, which had been built around the same time

To enforce his power, Ismāl built a black slave army, the abid. He imported as many slaves as he could, and the trans-Saharan slave trade boomed as never before. Slavery;Morocco He also sent his own large-scale raiding parties into the western Sahara and lower Senegal Valley to search for black captives. However, the largest source proved to be blacks already living in Morocco. Ismāl created a massive operation designed to appropriate and confiscate black slaves from all over the country. When this proved insufficient, he reduced all black men into bondage, including many who had been manumitted (freed) or who were otherwise free. Nor was his interest confined to men; black women were also taken to serve as soldiers’ wives. Couples were expected to produce children to perpetuate the abid. The slave soldiers constituted a privileged estate divorced from the local population with no ties except to themselves and their masters. Being totally dependent on the sultan, they were completely loyal to him. They were his “special people,” whom he bound to himself by a sacred oath sworn on a holy book.

Using the abid, Ismāl renewed Moroccan attempts to expel Europeans from enclaves they had carved out along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1681, his forces took Mamura from the Spanish and three years later a siege of Tangiers forced the English to evacuate. The most important victory came in 1689, when the Moroccans took the seaport Al-Araish (Larache), meaning “desperate fighting” in Spanish. This port had been a source of contention since 1489. The Moroccan reconquista closed out in 1691 with the capture of nearby Arzila.


Mawlay Ismāl, who died in 1727, was said to have left a dazzling legacy, a most important criterion set by his contemporaries for measuring the success of a reign in Morocco—the amount of wealth amassed. His kitchen utensils as well as the bolts on his palace doors were reportedly made of pure gold. If Ismāl had a great reign, however, his successors did their best to rip the country apart on behalf of their own interests.

Ismāl’s legion of sons kept Morocco in chaos during the ensuing three decades in a series of civil wars and palace coups. As the best-organized force in Morocco, the abid became the real power, elevating and deposing sultans according to which candidate offered them the most favors. The country was finally reunited in 1757 under a capable and judicious sultan known as Muḥammad III.

Somehow, the people of Morocco were not as disgusted with the Alawis as they had been with their predecessors, the Saՙdis. Throughout the chaos, the Alawi Dynasty was recognized as the legitimate ruling house of Morocco. Under Muḥammad III, the abid eventually took up peaceful occupations and blended into the ranks of Moroccan society. By the end of Muḥammad’s reign in 1790, Morocco was set on a course that would guide it until the coming of the French.

The idea that only a sharif, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad, was pure enough to rule over Morocco has persisted into the twenty-first century, and the Alawis still sit on that nation’s throne. Alawis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourqia, Rahma, and Susan Gilson Miller, eds. In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A collection that examines the relationship between power, legitimacy, and religion in the Moroccan monarchy, with insightful comments on the early Alawis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">El Fasi, M. “Morocco.” In General History of Africa, edited by B. A. Ogot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An excellent synopsis of the events that led to the rise of the Alawis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyers, Allan R. “Slave Soldiers and State Politics in Early Alawi Morocco, 1668-1727.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 16 (1983): 39-48. This articles explores the rise of the abid, its structure, and its effectiveness under Ismāl.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munson, Henry, Jr. Religion and Power in Morocco. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Munson focuses on a controversy involving Ismāl and a marabout named al-Yusi. Also examines larger issues dealing with early Alawi power and sharifian rule in Morocco.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valensi, Lucette. On the Eve of Colonialism: North Africa Before the French Conquest. Translated by Kenneth Perkins. New York: Africana, 1977. Valensi provides a strong narrative history of the early Alawi Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, James L. A., Jr. Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change Along the Western Sahel, 1600-1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Webb explores Moroccan policy toward its southern neighbors under the early Alawis.

Categories: History