Zīrids Break from Fātimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam

The Berber Zērids broke from the Fāṭimid Dynasty and its Shīՙite Islam, took control of the province it was entrusted to maintain, and started a revival of Sunni Islam in the Maghreb. The Zērid’s control marked the first time in the history of Islamic Africa that the leadership of an Islamic dynasty did not originate out of the east and the first time Berbers headed a dynasty.

Summary of Event

In 1048, the Sanhaja Berber Berbers lieutenants of the Fāṭimid Empire relinquished their allegiance to the state, claimed allegiance to the ՙAbbāsids in faraway Baghdad, and eventually formed the Zīrid Dynasty. Before 1048, the Zīrids maintained nominal loyalty, paying tribute to the Fāṭimids, but they constantly pushed the boundaries toward independence without openly renouncing Fāṭimid authority. The Zīrids, it seems, were able to do this because of their past fidelity to the Fāṭimid state. [kw]Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam (1048)
[kw]Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam, Zīrids Break from (1048)
[kw]Sunni Islam, Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive (1048)
[kw]Islam, Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni (1048)
Africa;1048: Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam[1590]
Expansion and land acquisition;1048: Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam[1590]
Government and politics;1048: Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam[1590]
Religion;1048: Zīrids Break from Fāṭimid Dynasty and Revive Sunni Islam[1590]
al-Mu՚izz ibn Bādīs
Zīrī ibn Manad
Yūsuf Buluggīn I ibn Zīrī

Three Zīrid rulers followed Zīrī ibn Manad Zīrī ibn Manad : his son Yūsuf Buluggīn I ibn Zīrī Yūsuf Buluggīn I ibn Zīrī ; al-Manṣūr Manṣūr, al- (Zīrid ruler) , who reigned from 984 to 995; and Bādīs ibn al-Mansūr Bādīs ibn al-Mansūr , who reigned from 995 to 1016. Al-Manṣūr openly overthrew a Fāṭimid governor in Ifriqiya and tried to impose his control over the lost western Maghreb, focusing on Fès and Sijilmasa in 985, two important trans-Saharan trade centers. The Fāṭimids intervened militarily to rectify the situation, but the Zīrids were able to defeat this effort, although they did not maintain control of the west.

The political affairs in the eastern half of the Fāṭimid Empire kept the leadership occupied to such an extent that the Zīrids were left to make many of their own decisions. In 1048, the Zīrids officially broke away under the leadership of al-Mu՚izz ibn Bādīs Mu՚izz ibn Bādīs, al- . The split was on both sociopolitical and religious grounds: political differences and a desire for autonomy, along with the social problems caused by economic stress; and religious differences. The Fāṭimids were Ismālī Shīՙites, which did not sit well with the primarily Khāijite Khāijites[Khaijites] and Sunni Sunni Islam population of Zīrids.

For the lieutenants who came to be the leaders of a new empire known as the Zīrids, the economic collapse of their own territory in Ifriqiya, while Egyptian power and wealth increased, was cause for Zīrid discontent, recalcitrance, and noncooperation with the Fāṭimids. (By the 1060’s even the Fāṭimid state was in serious economic difficulty.)

Ifriqiya’s troubles were caused by multiple factors. Byzantine presence in the Mediterranean as well as the invasions of the Banū Hilāl Bedouins on behalf of the Egyptian state only exacerbated the problems caused by the increasing aridity of Ifriqiya. Competition from more powerful states diverted trade away from important trade centers in Ifriqiya, rerouting merchants to Morocco and Egypt and depriving the merchants and Ifriqiyan state of an income. Beginning in the early eleventh century, a series of food crises occurred, devastating the economy and social life of Ifriqiya, particularly the capital Kayrawan (Kairwan). For the nonmerchant classes, primarily the pastoralists and agriculturalists, these struggles were addressed by retreating into the western Sahara and the mountain regions. For those in the urban centers—the merchant classes—this was a period of economic hardship.

The Zīrids came to control the entire Maghreb Maghreb and continued to control Ifriqiya, but lost control of the west to the Almoravids and the central Maghreb between Ifriqiya and the west to the Ḥammādids. In the end, the Zīrid Dynasty stretched from just west of present-day Tunis to just east of present-day Tripoli.

Under the reign of the Zīrids and Almoravids, the Maghreb population came to represent definitively the Sunni Muslim ideology that adhered to the Malikite Malikites school of Islamic law (sharia). The Maghreb had a strong segment of Khāijite Muslims. Under the Zīrids, this element was forced to accept Sunni Islam in the eleventh century. While the Sunni’s believed that Abū Bakr was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muḥammad, the Khāijites, like the Shia, believed that ՙAlī was the rightful successor to the Prophet. With the defeat of Abū Yazīd Abū Yazīd (d. 947), the primary leader of Khāijites, the Muslims of that branch either converted or withdrew to secluded rural areas. As the Sunnis began to exert violence and massacre many of the Shīՙite of eastern Algeria and Tunisia in 1062, the practice of Shīՙite Islam, which had been advanced by the Fāṭimids, began to recede.

By 1065, the Banū Hilāl Banu Hilal Bedouins
Bedouins;Banū Hilāl sieges on the Zīrid were relentless and shrinking the state. By the early twelfth century the Almohads seized control from the Banū Hilāl and other Arab tribes, but this was the end of Zīrid independence. The Ifriqiyan state was reduced to a small coastal strip, but piracy was so prevalent at that point that the state was in ruins.


The Zīrid’s political break from the Fāṭimid’s was an important signal that the Fāṭimid Empire was losing control of its provinces politically and economically and that the empire was in a state of decline. Thus, with the short-lived rise to power of the Zīrids, a significant and renowned Islamic empire was waning.

Following the Zīrid rise to power, there were a number of Berber dynasties that came into the fore, including the Almoravids, Almohads, Zayyanids, Marinids, and Hafsids. Even in the eastern half of the Fāṭimid Empire, between Libya and Egypt, the Sanhaja Berbers rose to powerful positions for the first time following Zīrid rule.

In the eleventh century, the attempts of the Zīrids to centralize the Maghreb under their rule failed. The Zīrids still had to contend with hostilities from the Zanātah Berbers, even after throwing off their Fāṭimid overlords. As a consequence of the ethnic, religious, and political conflicts of the Zīrids, Zanātahs, and Ḥammādids Ḥammādids[Hammadids] , the central and western Maghreb became two separate entities. The Zīrids ruled the central region and the Ḥammādids governed the western Maghreb.

As a result of the religious tensions between Ismālī Shīՙite and Khāijites, Sunni Islam was able to achieve prominence in North Africa. The political struggles of the eleventh century had tremendous religious outcomes for North Africa, particularly in the Maghreb.

Further Reading

  • 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 Africa. Bibliography, index.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Clancy-Smith, Julia, ed. North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean World: From the Almoravids to the Algerian War. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Explores Islamic influence in North Africa in the century following the beginning of the Zīrid Dynasty. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Handler, Andrew. The Zīrids of Granada. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1974. Examines the north African Zīrid administrative system and its influence on Spain. Illustrations, bibliography.
  • Hrbek, I. “The Emergence of the Fāṭimids.” In Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century, edited by M. Elfasi and I. Hrbek. Vol. 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Chapter 12 elucidates the history of the Fāṭimids as well as the emergence of the Zīrid Dynasty. Maps, plans, bibliography, index.
  • Oliver, Roland, and J. D. Fage, eds. The Cambridge History of Africa. Vols. 2-3. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975-1986. A historical account of African civilizations before and during the time of the Zīrids. Focuses mostly on dynasties other than the Zīrid. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • 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, and more. Bibliography, index.