Sa‘dī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Saՙdīs rose from relative obscurity during a period of turmoil to become the rulers of Morocco. Under this dynasty, the development of the Moroccan state advanced, and Morocco became a significant power in the western Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

The Saՙdīs were said to have been sharifs (that is, descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad). The family had originated in Yanbo, Arabia, perhaps in the twelfth century, and it settled in the Darՙa Valley. In Morocco, sharifs were held in esteem and considered specialists in religious knowledge. They also inherited the gift of baraka, a mystical, spiritual power, which could bring benefits to those in contact with the possessor. Not everyone accepted Saՙdīan claims to be sharifs, however. In fact, the very name Saՙdī was an attempt to cast aspersions on the dynasty and was not allowed to be used during the period when the dynasty was in power. The family preferred the name Hashimi from the Prophet’s clan, the Banu Hashim, whereas Saՙdī comes from the Banu Saՙd Hawayin, the tribe of Muḥammad’s wet nurse. Saՙdī Dynasty[Sadi Dynasty] Morocco Muḥammad al-Qāՙim Aḥmad al-Aՙraj Muḥammad I al-Shaykh Abdallah al-Ghālib Muḥammad al-Qāՙim Aḥmad al-Aՙraj Muḥammad I al-Shaykh Abdallah al-Ghālib Aḥmad al-Manṣūr Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil ՙAbd al-Malik (Saՙdī ruler)

For several centuries after arriving in Morocco, the Saՙdīs lived a quiet life, serving their local community in the traditional holy man role. Conditions, however, were changing in Morocco. During the fifteenth century, the Portuguese captured much of the Moroccan coastline. The central government in Fez under the Wattasid Dynasty Wattasid Dynasty was in decline, unable to dislodge the invaders and steadily losing power in the rural areas of southern Morocco. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, the Saՙdīan patriarch, Muḥammad al-Qāՙim, stepped into this power vacuum along with his two sons, Aḥmad al-Aՙraj and Muḥammad al-Shaykh.

Al-Qāՙim was invited to the neighboring Sus valley, which had slipped into a state of near anarchy, to bring order and organize the local war effort against the Portuguese. Colonization;Portugal of Africa There, he began laying the foundations for a small state. When Al-Qāՙim died in 1517, he was succeeded by Aḥmad al-Aՙraj, with Muḥammad al-Shaykh as second-in-command. Seven years later, the brothers took the city of Marrakech, either by storming its walls or by poisoning its emir during a peaceful visit (sources conflict). The emir had been a vassal of the Wattasid sultans, and the Saՙdīs subsequently refused to pay taxes to the government in Fez, which led to war in 1527. Taxation;Morocco The Saՙdīs and Wattasids fought each other on and off until 1554, when the last of the Wattasids was killed and the capital of Morocco officially moved to Marrakech.

In the meantime, Saՙdīan forces enjoyed one great victory against the Portuguese, taking the stronghold of Santa Cruz at Agadir in 1542, which forced the Portuguese to evacuate most of their other forts. In the wake of the victory, however, the brothers fell out, resulting in a civil war in which musketeers loyal to Muḥammad al-Shaykh defeated al-Aՙraj’s larger force of traditional cavalry. The new sultan, Muḥammad I al-Shaykh, firmly established Saՙdīan control over Morocco, which included the imposition of a tax system that led to many revolts.

Saՙdīan power became based on a reorganized army, the core of which was equipped with artillery and matchlock harquebuses and used tactics similar to those of contemporary European and Turkish armies. Most of the musketeers were Andalusians, refugee Spanish Muslims who had been forced into exile after the fall of Granada. The Andalusians were a productive people, bringing skills and new technology into Morocco. The Saՙdīan rulers came to depend on their support against Berber and Arab tribesmen, who often resented the centralizing policies that emanated from Marrakech.

During the later stages of the long war between the rival dynasties, the Wattasids appealed to the Ottoman Empire for support. The Turkish presence in North Africa dated from the early sixteenth century, when the Ottomans absorbed much of modern Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya into their empire. This brought the Turks into conflict with the Spanish. Sandwiched between these two superpowers was Morocco. By religion and sentiment, the Moroccans should have supported the Ottoman Empire against Spain, which was also an ally of Morocco’s enemy, Portugal. However, for the Ottomans, Morocco represented the last step in the conquest of North Africa and an opening on the Atlantic. Early in his career, Muḥammad al-Shaykh came to the conclusion that his real enemy was the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;Morocco .

Conflict between Morocco and the Ottoman Empire began in 1550 as another sporadic struggle that lasted several decades. The issues were ideological as well as political and territorial, with Muḥammad I al-Shaykh proclaiming himself caliph, that is, the head of all Muslims, and mahdi, the redeemer sent to prepare the faithful for the end of the world. By contrast, as the Saՙdīs were quick to point out, the Ottomans were not even Arabs. To the Ottomans, who controlled the greatest Muslim state in the world, Saՙdīan claims were presumptuous and offered North African Muslims a dangerous alternative to their own rule.

Mutual antagonism against the Turks drew the Moroccans and Spanish into an unofficial alliance from time to time. To balance the Spanish influence in the region, the Saՙdīs cultivated close commercial and political contacts with the English and French. Ottoman frustration with these policies finally led to the assassination of Muḥammad al-Shaykh by Turkish agents in 1557.

Muḥammad al-Shaykh was succeeded by his son, Abdallah al-Ghālib. Al-Ghālib’s reign, which lasted until 1574, is seen as the great period of consolidation for the Saՙdī Dynasty. He is remembered as one of Morocco’s great building sultans and in particular for his various projects in Marrakech. In foreign relations, he maintained an uneasy, informal tie with Spain, but this was a relatively peaceful period, at least compared to the reign of Muḥammad al-Shaykh. Morocco became prosperous with a booming sugar industry and a revived trans-Saharan trade, principally in gold. Between al-Ghālib and the most famous scion of the dynasty, Aḥmad al-Manṣūr, two brief reigns occurred, those of al-Ghālib’s son, Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil (r. 1574-1576), and his brother, ՙAbd al-Malik (r. 1576-1578), accompanied by dynastic contention. When al-Manṣūr came to power in 1578, he reestablished peace and brought a long period (to 1603) of stability and prosperity to the country.


Muḥammad I al-Shaykh, along with his father, brother, and sons, brought Morocco out of a period of decline and established the country as an important force on the international scene. Their military and diplomatic activities resulted in the expulsion of the Portuguese from most of the coast, while, at the same time, they kept the Ottoman Empire from absorbing Morocco. The early Saՙdīs laid the foundation for Aḥmad al-Manṣūr’s reign, often considered the most brilliant period in post-medieval Moroccan history. Saՙdīan expeditions dispatched into the African interior had a profound, if not generally positive, impact on the peoples of the Sahara and later the western Sudan. European rulers, including Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain, generally treated their Saՙdīan counterparts as equals. Although the Saՙdīan Dynasty did not survive past the mid-seventeenth century, it left Moroccans with the belief that political legitimacy could be vested only in an heir of the Prophet’s house, as it is today in the ՙAlawite Dynasty.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Standard version of the rise of the Saՙdīs and their place in the larger context of North African history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennison, Amira K. “Liminal States: Morocco and the Iberian Frontier, Between the Twelfth and Nineteenth Centuries.” In North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean World: From the Almoravids to the Algerian War, edited by Julia Clancy-Smith. London: Frank Cass, 2001. Historically Muslim Morocco and Christian Spain were enemies; this article examines the problems inherent in the rapprochement between them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Westin F. The Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. Thorough account of the Portuguese-Moroccan wars and the development of the Moroccan state under the Wattasids and Saՙdīs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hess, Andrew C. The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. The intricacies of diplomacy and war and Morocco’s unique and dangerous position in the geopolitical world of the western Mediterranean are examined.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yahia, Dahiru. “The Ideological Framework of Saՙdī Foreign Policy.” In Le Maroc et l’Afrique Subsaharienne aux débuts de temps modernes: Les Saՙdiens et l’Empire Songhay. Rabat, Morocco: Institut des Études Africaines, Université Mohammed V, 1995. The Saՙdīs often had difficulties reconciling their official ideology (millennialist and jihadist) with the realities of state building.

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars

1493-1528: Reign of Mohammed I Askia

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire

Categories: History