The European background

Europe maintained almost uninterrupted contact with the north of Africa from the beginning of the Muslim period.  Apart from occasional raiders, there were merchants, hired soldiers, and captives taken by the Arabs on the high seas or on the shores of Europe.  In the 13th century two other classes of European Christians came into contact with Africa.  These were the Crusaders and members of the new religious orders. The Crusading movement began in an alarmed Europe at the end of the 11th century and was aimed at the recovery of the Holy Land.  Only in the 13th century was Egypt, and later Tunisia, attacked.

In the 12th and 13th centuries the Crusades were helped by military religious orders such as the Templars and the Teutonic Knights.  But of more permanent significance were the evangelical orders of the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor), founded in 1209, and the Dominicans (Order of Preachers), founded in 1216, both of which tried to combine a contemplative monastic life with mobility and active preaching of the faith.  The Franciscans principally were non-ordained brothers whose aim was to radiate the Spirit of Jesus through the witness of the material poverty and joy of their personal lives. Theirs was “moral preaching”, to used the terminology of the age.  Dominicans were organized for “doctrinal preaching”; they were principally ordained brothers whose aim was to preach the Word of God with the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit gained by prayer together with knowledge and understanding provided by systematic study and scientific research.

As a boy, Dominic could climb the hill behind his parents house, which was a fortified tower in Calaruega, Spain, and look out onto “enemy” Muslim ruled territory.   Yet surprisingly, his lifelong ambition was to preach to the then pagan Baltic people and the Mongolian Tartars of the Far East.  Francis, on the other hand, who was born and raised in the centre of Christian Italy, always yearned to preach to the “Saracens”, as Muslim were then called in Europe (from the Arabic sharqī = Easterner).  Yet both orders played a part in North Africa.


      Political developments

Fātimid rule in Egypt, which began in 969, declined after the failure of its bid for power over the rest of the Muslim world. Its rule over Syria ended with the coming of the Seljuk Turks from Asia in 1076.  The Fātimids still held the coast of Palestine and Jerusalem, but lost it to the Crusaders in 1099.  From 1128 Zangī, a Turkish officer in Seljuk service, began building his forces east of the Crusader states.  After his death in 1146 his son Nūraddīn continued his father’s ambitions and in 1161 found an opportunity to intervene in Egyptian politics.  He first sent his general the Kurd Shīrkūh to assist one Shāwar overcome a rival and become wazīr of the Fātimid caliph. When Shāwar succeeded in becoming wazīr he quarrelled with Shīrkūh and called on Amalric, the Latin king of Jerusalem, for help.   In the ensuing battle Shīrkūh was victorious and became wazīr in 1168, but died two months later.  His nephew alāaddīn (the famous Saladin) succeeded.

In 1171, as the last Fātimid caliph lay dying, Salāhaddīn declared the end of the Fātimid rule and professed allegiance to the cAbbāsid caliph of Baghdad, even though he no longer had any real power.  After Nūraddīn died in 1174, alāaddīn gained control of Muslim Syria, and in 1187 began warring against the Crusader states, taking Jerusalem in 1192.  Salāhaddīn was the founder of the Ayyūbid dynasty in Egypt, named after an ancestor of his.

Under the Ayyūbids Egypt, particularly al-Azhar mosque, became the centre of Islamic orthodoxy.  Culturally and economically also the country prospered until, as a result of the crusades of 1218-21 and 1249-50, the Turkish Mamlūks, or slave troops, became the mainstay of the regime and then took over themselves in 1250.  After the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 the caliphate was vacant until the Mamlūks installed an cAbbāsid prince as caliph in Cairo.  Cairo was the residence of the cAbbāsid figure-head caliphs with the Mamlūk rulers holding real power until 1517, when the Ottoman Turks took over.

      The Fifth Crusade and St. Francis (1218-21)

The Crusaders under King Amalric fought in Egypt in 1162 and 1167-8, but in the capacity of mercenaries.  Salāhaddīn, the victor in that episode, at the head of united Egyptian and Syrian forces then took Jerusalem in 1192 and reduced the Latin states to a narrow coastal strip with a few castles.  The centre of Muslim power was now Egypt and nothing could be achieved in the Holy Land without confronting Egyptian power.  In 1215 therefore Pope Innocent III announced a Crusade which was to attack Egypt.  In May 1218 the Crusaders landed and camped near Damietta.  Floods, epidemics and the difficult system of the delta waterways prevented the Crusaders from sweeping over Egypt, but their foothold was secure.

One of those who followed the Crusaders into Egypt was Francis of Assisi, as early Franciscan sources tell the story.  As early as 1212, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, he had set off for Syria, but the ship had to turn back.  In 1213 he left by land for Morocco, but got only as far as Spain where he was detained by affairs of his Order.  The Franciscan General Chapter in 1219 sent him to Egypt, where he arrived on 29 August.  Francis found the Christian troops ready to begin a battle that very day, but he preached against their fighting at that time and predicted their defeat.  The battle took place and the Christians lost, after which a truce was made.  During the truce Francis and a companion crossed the lines to see the Sultan. Although arrested and beaten on the way, he was eventually admitted into the presence of the Ayyūbid Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil I Nāsiraddīn (1218-38).  Francis impressed the Sultan by his refusal of gifts and his conviction while explaining the Christian faith, even going so far as to propose an ordeal by fire.  Francis would enter the fire and God would show that his preaching was true by protecting him from being burned (thus recalling Muhammad’s challenge to the Christians of Najrān to a mutual invocation of a curse - mubāhala1).  The Sultan turned down this proposal, but gave Francis and his companions full liberty and protection to preach anywhere in his territory.  They did so for a short while, but “unable to gather the fruit which he desired in that country”, Francis left Egypt before al-Kāmil broke the truce on 26 September, and went to Jerusalem and Syria and afterwards Italy.  It is not likely, however, as the Fioretti asserts, that the Sultan became a secret Christian.

Because of the Muslims’ desperate situation and maybe also because of Francis’ visit, al-Kāmil offered peace terms.  If the Crusaders left Egypt he would give back most of alāaddīn’s conquests in the Holy Land together with the relic of the True Cross and he would release the prisoners.  After much argument among themselves the Crusaders turned down the offer.  The Crusaders took Damietta and in 1221 advanced inland.  But then the Nile flood cut them off and the Egyptian army surrounded them.  This time they had to ask for peace terms and the best they could get was a free withdrawal and the return of the True Cross in exchange for the surrender of Damietta.

The Fifth Crusade failed.  The thousands of European merchants who were in Egypt before the Crusade remained but were under suspicion.  The Egyptian Christians suffered the most through the imposition of heavy taxes and the closing or pillaging of their churches.

One victim of this repression was the indigenous Christian community in Barqa in Cyrenaica.  This Church was dependent on the patriarchate of Alexandria, which was vacant between 1216 and 1236.  The Church of Barqa died out apparently because of lack of care from Alexandria.

      The Sixth Crusade and King St. Louis IX of France (1249-50)

In response to the grave danger facing the surviving remnant of the Latin kingdoms in the Holy Land, another Crusade was launched against the centre of Muslim power.  Led by King Louis IX, the Crusaders landed at Damietta and captured it.  Louis rejected the offer of the Sultan al-Malik as-Sālih Najmaddīn Ayyūb (1240-9) to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem, and advanced inland to Manūra.  The Sultan then died, but his death was kept hidden until his son al-Malik al-Mucazzam Tūrānshāh (1249-50) came and led the defence.  Once again the Egyptians cut off the Crusaders’ retreat and left them to weaken by hunger and disease. After capturing the entire Crusader army, The Egyptians executed the sick and wounded and held the rest for ransom. In the meantime the Mamlūk soldiers killed Tūrānshāh and took over the government.  They were the ones who accepted the surrender of Damietta and collected the huge ransom.   King Louis and the remaining Crusaders were then allowed to depart.

Egypt was the victim of only one more crusading adventure, the sack of Alexandria in 1365, which lasted only a few days but was thoroughly devastating. Egyptian Christians and Muslims as well as European merchants were robbed; mosques and churches alike were pillaged.  The Egyptian Christians and foreign and local merchants suffered the reprisals for this ill-conceived Crusade.  After this event the Mamlūk rule in Egypt continued under corrupt and undistinguished leaders except for Barsbay who conquered Cyprus in 1424-6.

The Maghrib under the Muwahhids

Christian resistance in Spain turned the tide against the Muwahhids at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.  Christian forces quickly retook all the Iberian peninsula except Granada.  In the meantime the Banū-Marīn, a nomadic sub-group of the Zanāta, began to harass Muwaid authority in northeastern Morocco, foreboding the end of Muwahhid power in Morocco.

      Franciscan preaching

The same Franciscan Chapter of 1219 which decided that Francis should go to Egypt also sent groups of brothers to Tunis and Morocco.  The group that went to Tunis, led by Brother Giles, began immediately to preach in the streets about Christianity and against Islam. No one accepted them, and shortly and imām roused the people to kill them. The group of Franciscans heading for Morocco first passed through Spain, where they crossed into Granada territory and came to Seville.  After attempting to preach in the mosque at the time of prayers, they were banished from the town, and went on to Marrākish.  There they began preaching in the streets, and the caliph Abū-Yacqūb Yūsuf II al-Mustanir (1214-24) banished them, putting them aboard a ship, but they escaped and returned.  They were then imprisoned, but after twenty days the people clamoured for their release, attributing a drought and a plague which came on them to God’s punishment for imprisoning the Brothers.  The caliph released them and let them minister to the Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries in his service, led by Pedro, the Infante of Portugal. Accompanying the troops on an expedition against the Banū-Marīn, the Franciscans reportedly provided water in the desert for the parched troops by striking a rock.  Their renewed public preaching and growing reputation among the Muslims as men of God once again landed them in prison.  This time they were tortured in an attempt to make them give up their faith and were finally beheaded in 1220.

The missionary movement in Europe now reached a high pitch.  The famous Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua went somewhere in North Africa in 1220, but got sick and had to return to Italy. In 1221 Pope Honorius III wrote to the bishops of Europe to send learned and commendable men to preach among the Muslims, and in the years 1224, 1225 and 1226 he sent bands of Franciscans and Dominicans to North Africa, giving them all the privileges they needed to adapt their dress and monastic diet to Muslim surroundings.

In Marrākish five years of drought and plague led the people to pray to their Christian martyrs for relief, since strange signs were reported appearing at the place of their martyrdom.  The caliph Abū-Muammad cAbdallāh al-cĀdil (1224-7) invited Christian missionaries to return, and in 1226 to bring a bishop.  Already in 1225 Brother Domingo, a Dominican, was ordained bishop for Baeza in Spain and the Muslim territories of Spain and Morocco.  When the Spanish Christians conquered Baeza in 1228 Bishop Domingo’s diocese was restricted to Baeza itself.  But before then, in 1226, Brother Agnello, a Franciscan, was ordained bishop for Marrākish and took up residence in 1227.

In 1227 Franciscan preachers adopted shock tactics in an attempt bring the Christian faith to Ceuta, whose governor was independent of Marrākish. Brother Daniel and six companions were looking for martyrdom when they arrived in the foreign commercial quarter of the town.  On a Saturday they prayed together, confessed their sins, washed each other’s feet as at the Last Supper, and the next morning went through the streets of the Muslim town preaching in favour of Christianity and against the Prophet of Islam.  They were promptly put in prison and urged to give up their faith.  From prison they wrote a letter to a Dominican and a Franciscan staying in the European quarter of Ceuta expressing their hope for martyrdom.  Their hope was realized on 10 October 1227.

      Diplomatic manoeuvres

In Marrākish the Franciscans continued to enjoy freedom to evangelize, but plolitical events complicated their work.  In 1227 the caliph cAbdallāh al-Ādil died, and in Granada his brother Abū-l-Aclā Idrīs al-Ma’mūn was proclaimed his successor.  But the Muwaid shaykhs of Marrākish did not agree, and installed his nephew Yahyā ibn-an-Nāsir al-Muctasim (1227-9). Al-Ma’mūn asked the help of King Ferdinand III of Castille, who gave him 12,000 troops who enabled him to take Marrākish in 1230.  King Ferdinand demanded certain rights for his troops, such as to build a church in  Marrākish and to ring a bell for services.  Al-Ma’mūn went beyond what Ferdinand asked, repudiating Ibn-Tūmart and the Muwaid movement, forbidding the Christian mercenaries to become Muslims and giving the Moroccans freedom to become Christians.  As a result the alienated shaykhs organized with their candidate Yayā ibn-an-Nasir, and while al-Ma’mūn was away trying to capture Ceuta they occupied Marrākish and turned on the Christians there.  The church full of people, including five Franciscans, was surrounded, all were massacred and the building pulled down on 16 September 1232. Al-Ma’mūn turned back to restore order, but died on the way.

Al-Ma’mūn’s son Abū-Muhammad cAbdalwāid II ar-Rashīd (1232-42) gained control of the situation and protected Bishop Agnello and the few surviving Brothers, and their work continued.  At this time tension arose between Marrākish and Fez, which had fallen to the Marīnids, and the King of Marrākish was about to go to war. Bishop Agnello proposed that some Brothers go to negotiate a peace.  The caliph agreed and the Brothers succeeded.  In 1233, when Pope Gregory IX extended Bishop Agnello’s diocese to include Fez, he wrote to the caliph at Marrākish thanking him for his kindness to the missionaries and inviting him to become a Christian - which the caliph did not do.

The new Maghrib dynasties of the 13th century

      The Hafsids in Tunisia

Tunisia was the first to break from Muwahhid rule.  The governor Muammad ibn-abī-Hafs (1207-21) ruled practically independently of Marrākish.  After his death two governors from another family were appointed, whose incompetent rule made the people demand another Hafsid.  Abū-Muhammad cAbdallāh was appointed in 1226 and the next year refused to recognize the take-over of al-Ma’mūn in Marrākish.  Al-Ma’mūn therefore deposed Abū-Muhammad and appointed his brother Abū-Zakariyyā’ (1228-49) in his stead.  When al-Ma’mūn repudiated the memory of Ibn-Tūmart in 1229 Abū-Zakariyyā’ used the occasion to declare his independence.  He inaugurated a prosperous and stable state extending from Tripolitania to eastern Algeria.

      The cAbdalwād or Zayyānid dynasty in Tilimsān

The next area to break away from the Muwahhids was the central Maghrib. Yaghmurasan ibn-Zayyān of the Berber tribe of cAbdalwād took control of Tilimsān when his brother, the Muwaid governor, was killed in 1236.  The boundaries of this state frequently changed according to the fortunes of war, but in 1290 the Zayyānid dynasty controlled most of the central Maghrib, from the Mulawiyya river to the Summam (just west of Bujāya).  This state survived, through diverse alliances with the Marīnids or afsids or the Christians kings of Aragon, until the Ottoman conquest in 1554.  It remained throughout this time a serious competitor with Morocco for the trans-Saharan trade, at first through Sijilmāsa and later, when that was taken by the Marīnids, by way of eastern routes passing through Wargla.  Most of the gold brought from West Africa was reexported to Italy.

      The Marīnids in Morocco

Beginning as a rebel force in northeastern Morocco, the Marīnids began to threaten the Muwahhid government.  In 1244 cAlī as-Sacīd al-Muctadid (1242-8) defeated them near Fez, killing their leader cAbdalaqq and sending them back to their desert pastures.

In 1245 the Marīnids returned under the leadership of cAbdalaqq’s son Abū-Yahyā, this time with the aim of taking over the whole of Morocco.  Abū-Yayā first took Meknes, and in 1248 Fez, Salā, Ribā and Taza.  In each place he had the Friday prayers said in the name of the Hafsid leader in Tunis under the pretense that the Hafsids were the true heirs of Ibn-Tūmart and Muwahhid authority.  The Marīnids’ position was strengthened by the death of the Muwahhid al-Muctadid while he was fighting the Zayyānids of Tilimsān in 1248. Many of the Christian mercenaries serving the Muwahhids then joined the Marīnids.

When Abū-Yahyā died in 1260 his brother Abū-Yūsuf took over.  His first action was to repel the Spanish Castillians who landed at Salā.  This was a minor achievement, but one which gained him much popularity and the moral authority to tell his troublesome relatives to go off and fight in Spain. In 1269 he achieved his final success by taking Marrākish and thus ending Muwahhid rule.  But Fez, not Marrākish, remained the capital of Morocco under the Marīnids.

The Sūfī movement, which took root among the nomadic tribes under the Muwaids, grew in strength under the Marīnids, and the authority of Sūfī shaykhs was undiminished by the Marīnid attempt to reinforce the authority of the culamā’/ fuqahā’ through the madrasas of the cities.2

For military might the Marīnids continued the Muwahhid practice of relying on mercenaries, some of them Turks, but mainly Christians or renegades.

The three new dynasties in the Maghrib did not have the same religious fervour as the Muwahhids, except in Tunisia where some Muwahhid influence prevailed for a long time.  Material interest and ambition characterized most of the rulers, and constant warfare between rival contestants for power and rival states prevailed during the 13th to the 15th centuries.

The Church and the new dynasties in the Maghrib

      The Franciscans

In Tunisia the Hafsid Abū-Zakariyyā’ cultivated friendly relations with European powers.  He had commercial ties with Venice, Pisa and Aragon and welcomed the establishment of Franciscan communities.   In 1233 Pope Gregory IX wrote a letter of exhortation to the Franciscans on their work in Muslim lands, and to Abū-Zakariyyā’ in answer to his ambassadors, recommending Brother John, the Franciscan Provincial of Barbary Coast (the Maghrib) to discuss religious affairs with him.  Another letter of Gregory to Abū-Zakariyyā’ in 1236 refers to the presence of Franciscans in Tunis.

In Morocco Pope Innocent IV in 1246 appointed the Spanish Franciscan Lope Fernando to succeed Bishop Agnello in Marrākish who had died, and extended his diocese to include all of the Maghrib from Marrākish to Tunis. Innocent wrote letters to the kings of Marrākish, Ceuta, Bujāya and Tunis commending the new bishop, and wrote again to cAlī as-Sacīd al-Muctadid, the Muwahhid successor of ar-Rashīd in Marrākish, expressing his concern for the safety of Christians who were being attacked and massacred in his territory.  Their lack of safety, however, is not surprising, since the Muwahhids of Marrākish were fighting for their survival against the Marīnids and the Zayyānids of Tilimsān.  Pope Innocent also sent letters to the bishops and faithful of Africa and the Spanish and French coasts encouraging the work of preaching.  It is noteworthy that at this time the Pope had no direct contact with the Marīnids, who controlled most of Morocco.

The new bishop Lope arrived in Marrākish around 1248, and in June 1250 went to Rome with a personal letter for Pope Innocent IV from Abū-l-af cUmar al-Murtadā (1248-66), the new Muwahhid ruler of Marrākish, in which al-Murtadā pointed out the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity but nevertheless expressed his respect for Bishop Lope and the Pope and his wish for good relations.  Innocent answered in a letter of 17 March 1251 in which his main concern was the safety of the families of the Christian soldiers still serving in Marrākish.

Bishop Lope found taking care of his large diocese too difficult; so he retired to Spain in 1257, where he died in 1266.  Three more Franciscans succeeded him; Blanco, Lorenzo of Portugal and Rodrigo of Gudal.  The latter, appointed in 1289, had the title of Archbishop, presumably with Ceuta, Fez and Tunis as suffragan dioceses.  Ceuta had its own bishop in 1267.  Pope Nicholas IV’s letter appointing Rodrigo mentions the hard time the Church was going through in Morocco.  The Marīnids were in full control since 1269 and were constantly engaged in military adventures consolidating their power in Morocco and fighting in Spain and against Tilimsān.  The Franciscans by this time seem to have lost their original audacity in preaching to the Muslims and confined themselves to being chaplains to the European Christians resident in Morocco.

      The Dominicans

Through the good offices of James the Conqueror of Aragon, who was a friend of the influential Dominican St. Ramon de Peńafort, Abū-Zakariyyā’ invited the Dominicans to come to Tunis in 1230, and some time between 1242 and 1245 permitted them to establish an institute of Arabic studies for the pastoral preparation of Dominicans who were to work among Muslims.  This institute tried to answer the necessity, understood by the Christians and Muslims of Damascus and Baghdad centuries before, of an intellectual encounter between Christianity and Islam.  The Franciscans and Dominicans were already free to preach to Muslims in Tunisia and did so with some small success. They may have been over sanguine in expecting that by even a thorough knowledge of Arabic and the teachings of Islam they would easily win Muslims to Christianity, but they rightly realized that no valid step could even be taken towards this aim without really knowing Islam, honestly recognizing the heritage both religions have in common and accurately noting the fundamental points of divergence.

This ideal was preserved in the sober (although apologetic) writings of Ramon Martķ, who was at the institute of Arabic studies from 1250 to sometime before 1265, when he was working in Barcelona, and in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, his fellow student under St. Albert the Great.  Thomas Aquinas, at the request of Ramon de Peńafort, wrote his Summa contra gentiles between 1259 and 1261 as a compendium of Christian theology for preachers addressing a Muslim audience familiar with Arab Aristotelianism.   In the beginning of this work he plainly admits that he knew very little about Islam and would therefore restrict himself to explaining the Christian faith. Yet in this work he stands out among medieval Christian writers as “the great but lonely exception”3 who recognized that Muslims do not accept any part of the Christians Scriptures and these cannot be quoted in disputing with them.  He therefore divides his material into “what faith affirms and reason investigates” (in the first three books) and “what faith affirms and reason cannot investigate (in the fourth book), a distinction corresponding to that made by Muslim writers on Kalām between aqliyyāt and sam`iyyāt.

Late in 1258 or early in 1259 the institute of Arabic studies was closed, even though the Dominicans remained and Ramon Martķ paid a return visit in 1268 or 9.  The precise occasion for the closure of the school is not known, but the number of alleged conversions and political tensions must have been part of the story.

Afterwards there were institutes of Arabic and Hebrew studies in Spain, first in Murcia from 1265 to 1275, then in Valencia and in Barcelona from about 1280, and in Jativa from 1291 for the new Dominican province of Aragon. It was unfortunate for medieval Christian understanding of Islam that the Arabic institute in Tunis was closed, because the easy access to Islamic literature and direct contact with Muslims on Muslim terrain prevented those who studied there from inventing or perpetuating false stories about Islam, even if their impatience to draw Muslims to Christianity led them to lose perspective and focus on facts that might be embarrassing to Islam.  On the other hand, in Spain or the Holy Land, where there were many Muslims but where a Christian climate and rule prevailed, Dominicans and other students of Islam were much more prone to construe absurd and fanciful pictures about Islam.4

      The Eighth Crusade (1270)

In spite of King Louis’ previous disappointments, his religious determination never let him forget the Holy Land.  Every year he sent money to support the small company of soldiers he had left behind, and he yearned for the day he would be free to go once more on a Crusade.  In 1270 he was ready to go to the Holy Land.  The Crusade, however, was diverted to Tunisia as a stepping stone to the Holy Land for a variety of possible reasons.  First, his ambassadors and Ramon Martķ supposedly told him that the Tunisian ruler Abū-cAbdallāh Muhammad al-Mustansir (1249-77) was just waiting for an occasion to become Christian and that the coming of the Crusade would enable him to do so without putting his life and throne in danger. Secondly, the finance minister of Tunisia had borrowed large sums from French merchants living in Tunisia; when this minister was executed for corruption al-Mustanir refused to repay the merchants.   Ibn-Khaldūn thinks this was the main reason for the Crusade.  A third and stronger reason may have been the influence on Louis of his ambitious and worldly brother Charles of Anjou who was king of Sicily since 1266.  Al-Mustansir refused to pay Charles the tribute he formerly paid to the Hohenstaufen rulers of Sicily and harboured Charles’ political opponents.  Louis apparently hoped to gain the conversion and support of al-Mustanir together with the loan repayments and tribute arrears to reinforce the Crusade when it would move on to the Holy Land.

When the Crusaders landed at Carthage on 18 July 1270 al-Mustansir was ready.  He withstood their attacks for a month while the hot summer helped spread disease among the French troops.  King Louis died on 25 August, a few hours before his brother Charles arrived. Charles withdrew the Crusaders after obtaining a very favourable treaty which gave him a war indemnity, an annual tribute double what had been paid to the Hohenstaufens, the extradition of the Sicilian political refugees and favourable conditions for French and Sicilian merchants in Tunisia.  In addition complete freedom of religion was assured.  In 1271 Aragon, which had constantly opposed the Crusade against Tunisia, signed another favourable treaty with al-Mustansir.  The Crusading spirit in Europe was thereafter all but dead, and later imperialist adventures in North Africa did not have the same religious impulse.

      The thinking behind the Crusades

Medieval Christian theology held that force may be employed to compel heretics to return to the faith they once freely embraced and promised to uphold, but not against those who never accepted the faith.5  Muslims fall under the latter category, according to Thomas Aquinas, who explicitly lists them as gentiles,6 although most popular medieval writers considered Islam a heresy.7   Yet even if Islam were a heresy, for Thomas Aquinas minor children of Jews or anyone not of the faith may not be baptized against their parents’ wishes, and when they come of age they may not be brought to the faith by force but only by persuasion.  Christian theologians would not countenance people of other faiths taking over the government of Christians, but could tolerate a previously existing non-Christian government where the people newly became Christian.  Under Christian rule non-Christians could not make propaganda among the Christian people, and the Jews were the only non-Christians accorded a formal right to public worship.  Others, such as Muslims, although not explicitly mentioned, could be allowed to follow their religious practices only for pragmatic reasons, such as to keep the peace.8

Most of the promoters of the Crusades justified the enterprise by appeal to a “just cause” such as recovery of the Holy Land and other lands which once had been Christian and are still rightfully theirs.  Force, these theorists would have to admit, could not be used to convert Muslims, but it could be used to overthrow Muslim rule and open the way for preaching to Muslims.  To the objection that Jesus and his apostles did not take up arms, Humbert of the Romans replied that conditions had changed; the Christian people were now powerful and were expected to rely on arms since the age of miracles was past.9  Although some churchmen declared the Crusades “God’s will”, we must note that they did not make those who died in battle into martyrs.10

In point of fact soldiers flush with victory over the enemy often did not stop to think of “just causes” or “right intention”.  The Franciscan writer Roger Bacon (d.c. 1291) commented: “It is a sad thing to attempt to subjugate these peoples by force of arms and war in order to convert them to the faith, leaving aside the way of persuasion which is the only way to convince them.  For if the non-Christians win, then the latter state is worse than the first, as we observed in the recent disaster of the king of France. If they lose they are more stubborn than ever, as is observable where Muslims have been conquered.  The Christian faith did not spread through the world by arms but conquered paganism by simple preaching.”11

Deeper meditation on the Gospel and experience has brought the Church to a more emphatic position on the religious liberty of all, crystalized in the official teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Declaration on Religious Liberty.  Individuals and communities have the right to public worship, publicly to teach and bear witness to their beliefs without exploitative proselytism, and public authority may not induce its citizens to profess or repudiate any religion or prevent anyone from joining or leaving a religious body.  The whole Council declaration on religious liberty deserves close study.

Maghriban Christianity following the Eighth Crusade

Until al-Mustansir’s death in 1277 Tunisia enjoyed prosperity. As an indication, moreover, of the tolerance of his regime, the Franciscan Blessed Conrad of Ascoli preached in the province of Tripolitania from 1274 to 1277 and is said to have baptized 6,468 persons.  His method was a wholehearted living of Franciscan simplicity and poverty together with prolonged prayer and preaching as the apostles of Jesus did, “healing the sick, raising the dead, making the lepers clean, driving out demons” (Mt 10:8). In 1277 he was sent by the Pope as nuncio to France and died in 1289.  The Christians he had baptized were abandoned to their surroundings.

After al-Mustansir’s death the disputes of rival claimants to power, abetted by the political and small scale military manoeuvring of Aragon, split the afid state into two parts, one ruled from Tunis and the other from Bujāya.  Into this background Ramon Lull made his appearance.  Born in 1235 in Majorca, he was converted to a religious way of life at the age of thirty by some visions of Jesus on the cross.  Joining the Franciscan Third Order, he became interested in the conversion of Muslims, learned Arabic and travelled widely. While supporting war to overcome opposition of Muslim rulers to preaching, he emphasized approaching Muslims with rational arguments which he developed in his many writings.  In 1292 he visited Tunis and preached to secret gatherings of Muslim learned men and prepared them for baptism.  Before long he was denounced and expelled.  Years later he visited Bujāya, where he publicly disputed with Muslim learned men and gained the favour of the ordinary people who listened.  He was then imprisoned for six months and expelled.  Undaunted, he promoted the establishment of language schools to prepare men for work among Muslims, like the short lived school he had once founded at Miramar in Majorca.  His suggestions regarding such schools were accepted by the General Council of Vienna in 1311.

In 1315, after the Tunisian ruler Abū-Yahyā Zakariyyā’ al-Liyānī hypocritically manifested a desire to become Christian, Ramon Lull returned to Tunis for a brief visit and about the next year went to Bujāya.  After meeting secretly with Muslims he had instructed before, he decided to end his eighty-one years by soliciting martyrdom.  In the market he offered his hearers the choice of proofs of reason or the testimony of his own death to show that Christianity is right and Islam is wrong. He was stoned and left for dead; some Genoese sailors found him alive and tried to restore him, but he died the next day.

In spite of the grandiose schemes of Ramon Lull and people like him, throughout the 13th century Muslims in their own counties were rarely the objects of apostolic activity.  With the fall of the Crusader states interest in missions to the Muslims waned. Distorted notions of Islam were the only legacy of the 13th century thrust towards Islam to survive in Europe’s religious isolationism of the following few centuries.  Other contacts remained, such as the European merchants, hired soldiers, captives and chaplains to all these groups in each of the major cities of the Maghrib.  Marrākish continued to be the seat of a bishop.  After the first Franciscans, from 1307 to 1382 there were nine Dominican bishops, from 1382 to 1487 ten Franciscans, and from 1487 to 1631 seven bishops from various orders and dioceses.  But after 1532 these were not resident in Morocco.

The story of the Dominican Blessed Anthony Neyrot shows a typical scene of European-Maghriban relations in the 15th century.  Sailing to Naples, Anthony was captured by pirates and brought to Tunis.   After some time he was released from prison, but detained until his full ransom was paid, which the European merchant colony and consuls were to arrange.  In the meantime Anthony’s thoughts went in a different direction and he publicly adopted Islam, took a wife and began studying the Qur’ān.  Then, hearing of the death of his one time novice master St. Antoninus of Florence, who had warned him about his vanity and inconstancy, he repented and on Palm Sunday 1460 publicly abjured Islam.  He was imprisoned and, since he would not change his mind, executed. Anthony Neyrot’s return to Christianity is the exception among the many captives who adopted Islam.  Yet the Muslims’ easy acceptance of Christian merchants (even while engaging in piracy), their fostering but not forcing conversion, and their insistence that converts live up to what they have professed were the reciprocal ground rules for Muslim-Christian relations at the time.

The Reconquista in the Maghrib

The Spanish Christians, united in one kingdom, took Granada in 1492, completing the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula.  The Spanish and Portuguese Christians had no idea of stopping there, and extended their military conquests to North Africa.

Portugal had already taken Ceuta in 1415.  This roused the Moroccans’ religious sentiment and desire for a jihād against the infidels.  As a result, in 1428 Abū-Zakariyyā’ Yahyā al-Wattāsī became wazīr for the Marīnid sultan and took over real power for himself and his descendants. In 1437 the Portuguese attempted to take Tangier but failed.  Abū-Zakariyyā’ captured the Portuguese army which was forced to hand over as a hostage the Infante Ferdinand until Ceuta was surrendered.  The Portuguese preferred to keep Ceuta; so Ferdinand stayed in a Fez prison until his death in 1443.

Meanwhile the Turks Took Constantinople in 1453, and the Pope called for a Crusade to repulse them.   The Portuguese responded by taking on a nearer enemy where their national interest had more at stake.   They took Qasr as-Saghīr just west of Ceuta in 1458, then Anfa (Casablanca) in 1469, Tangier and Asīla in 1471, al-cArā’ish in 1473, Massa in 1488, Agādīr in 1505, Āsfī (Safi) in 1508), Azamūr in 1513, and Mazagan (al-Jadīda) in 1514). Although the Portuguese occasionally raided the interior, as when they attacked Marrākish in 1515, they preferred to stay in their coastal fortresses and carry on commerce with the interior.

A revolt of Muslim mountaineers in Granada in 1501 and Muslim raids on the Spanish coast in 1505 spurred the Spanish into action in the Maghrib.  The Spanish in then took Melilla in 1497, Mars al-Kabīr in 1505, Badis (Peńon de Velez) in 1508, Oran in 1509, Bujāya and Tripoli in 1510, in fact all the important towns of the Algerian coast.  The sea battle of Lepanto in 1571 reversed Ottoman ascendancy and in 1573 Spain occupied Tunis.  These conquests were not planned in view of ever occupying or effectively governing the interior. They were precariously held outposts which soon fell to Muslim forces.

Two religious men in Morocco at this period

1) Muhammad al-Jazūlī, from a Berber tribe in southern Morocco, studied at Fez and spent 40 years in the Middle East.  Coming back to Fez, he moved soon to Āsfī where he established a centre of the Shādhiliyya Sūfic order of which he was a member.  Said to have had the gift of miracles (karāma), he travelled around the countryside and attracted as many as 13,000 disciples to his movement, for whom he founded zāwiyas all over Morocco.  The governor of Āsfī expelled him from the town because his movement was a threat to the Marīnids; he is said to have died from poison in 1465. Al-Jazūlī is the author of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, one of the most popular Muslim prayer books in Africa to this day.

The political repercussions of his death were that the people of Fez blamed the last Marīnid ruler cAbdalaqq II, who was under the tutelage of the new Wattāsid rulers, for al-Jazūlī’s death and executed him.  Al-Jazūlī’s disciple as-Sayyāf then took al-Jazūlī’s remains and carried them about on his raids in the south against the government until he himself died in 1485.  By this time the Jazūliyya movement became very powerful, and the Sacdīs found it a useful ally in overthrowing the Wattāsids and opposing the Portuguese.

2) The Franciscan Blessed Andrea da Spoleto, an Italian, went to Fez in 1532 where there were many Portuguese prisoners to be cared for. He also engaged in preaching to Muslims and for this was arrested and tried.  For his defence he offered a choice of miracles including going through fire. The Waāsid king Amad (1524-45, 1547-49) answered that his treaty with the Portuguese forbade torturing a Christian.   Looking for a face-saving solution, the King proposed that Andrea should try confronting a lion instead.   Andrea disappointed the King by agreeing, and the proposal was dropped.  Andrea was then brought before some Jewish rabbis to try to convince them of his faith, and the rabbis were unmoved by what he said.  After this diversion the King agreed to Andrea’s insistence on an ordeal by fire if the Christians in Fez would write to the Portuguese telling them that the King did not force this on Andrea.  After a delay of three days Andrea was put in the fire, while he protested that if he was burned it was because of his sins but if not then his faith was the true faith.  According to the Acts of his martyrdom he stayed in the fire a long time without being burned, during which time he preached to the onlookers.  The crowd was angered at his remarks about Muhammad, and when he came out of the fire they stoned him to death.

Moroccan Sūfī reaction to the Reconquista

This episode had no repercussions in the Maghrib because both this last Waāsid king and most of the Portuguese bases were swept away by the new Sacdī dynasty.  The Portuguese occupation of the Atlantic ports was an affront to the national and religious feelings of the Moroccans.  Since the Wattāsid dynasty which ruled Fez was content to make treaties with the Portuguese and enjoy the commercial advantages they offered, opposition formed around the powerful Sūfī orders in the south.  In 1511 Abū-cAbdallāh Muhammad ibn-cAbdarrahmān, the founder of the Sacdī dynasty, led the opposition by claiming to be a sharīf (a descendant of Muhammad) and appealing to religious sentiment instead of tribal loyalty which was the mainstay and weakness of the former regimes in Morocco.  In 1525 he took Marrākish from the Wattāsids and in 1541 Agādīr from the Portuguese, who at the same time had to abandon all their other Atlantic ports except Mazagan. In 1549 he took Fez, putting an end to the Wattāsid dynasty, and the next year Qasr as-Saghīr, leaving the Portuguese in control only of Ceuta, Tangier and Mazagan, which they held until 1769.

Ottoman resistance to the Reconquista

The Turks entered Anatolia, or modern Turkey, in the 11th century.  At the beginning of the 14th century cOsmān Ghāzī founded a principality among the Turks of western Anatolia which soon gained mastery over all the Turks.  The name Ottoman comes from the founder cOsmān, which is the Turkish form of the Arabic cUthmān.  Under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 and spread over eastern Europe.  Constantinople became the new Turkish capital of Istanbul.

Intervention in Africa began when the Mamlūk sultan Qānsawh al-Ghawrī of Egypt asked the Ottomans for help against the threat of the Persian Shāh Ismācīl and the Portuguese who had moved into the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean and destroyed Egyptian shipping.  The Ottomans sent arms and technical advisers in 1511 and 1512. But relations with the Mamlūks changed when the Ottomans defeated Shāh Ismācīl, annexed Syria, Irāq and part of Persia, and proclaimed themselves the protectors of Mecca and Medina. Al-Ghawrī went out to oppose the Ottomans at Aleppo, but was defeated and the puppet cAbbāsid caliph al-Mutawakkil was captured.  The Ottomans, ever victorious with their firearms, then entered Egypt in 1517 and annexed it, ending Mamlūk rule and the cAbbāsid caliphate.  The Ottoman sultans of Istanbul were now the heirs of the caliphate.

The next Ottoman base in Africa was Algiers, which they took in 1525.  The Barbarossa brothers cArūj and Khayraddīn started operating as pirates from 1504 out of Tunis and from 1510 also out of Jerba; they were a power to themselves whom the afid rulers could not interfere with.  In 1514 cArūj established a piratical principality at Jījallī (east of Bujāya) and in 1516 moved his base to Algiers.  The people of Algiers readily supported him in ousting the local ruler because the latter did nothing to combat the Spaniards.  In the same year cArūj took Mustaghānim and the next year accepted the submission of Tenes.  In 1517 he took Tilimsān, but in 1518 the Spanish from Oran and some local forces defeated and killed him.  His brother Khayraddīn took over as ruler of Algiers.  Forced to evacuate Algiers to the Hafsids in 1519, he moved back to Jījallī and took cAnnāba and Constantine.  Getting recognition from Istanbul and the help of a 2,000 man artillery corps and 4,000 Janissary troops, he retook Algiers in 1525 and ousted the Spanish from their harbour island of Peńon de Velez in 1529.  His pirate fleet, which relied mainly on European renegade seamen, became the terror of the western Mediterranean and provided his government with all the revenues it needed.

Khayraddīn was brought to Istanbul in 1533 to take over the supreme command of the Ottoman fleet, and the next year he sent an armada to take Tunis. The following year, at the request of the deposed Hafsid ruler al-Hasan, Charles V of Spain (1519-58) took Tunis from the Turks, liberating 20,000 Christian captives but causing great suffering to the Tunisians at the same time.  Charles reinstated al-Hasan as ruler under the supervision of a Spanish garrison.  Al-Hasan’s son Ahmad in 1543 overthrew his unpopular father but could not get rid of the Spanish, who had a fort in the Tunis harbour and several towns along the Tunisian coast. The Turks from Algiers retook Tunis in 1569, but Don Juan, the illegitimate son of Charles V who achieved the decisive naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, retook Tunis in 1573.  The next year, however, Sinān Pasha took Tunis from the Spanish for good and deported the last Hafsid puppet ruler to Istanbul.

In the meantime, in 1546 the Turkish pirate Dragut made his headquarters on the island of Jerba, which was outside Hafsid control.  Repelled from Mahdiyya in 1551 by the Spanish, he went to Istanbul to get recognition and help.  In the same year with the fleet placed under his command he took Tripoli and made it a base for raids on Italy.  On one raid in 1558 he sacked Reggio de Calabria and took away most of its people as slaves to Tripoli.

In Algeria the Turks extended their rule to Tilimsān in 1545, and in 1555 took Bujāya from the Spanish.  In 1558 the Spanish made a poorly planned attempt to retake Mustaghānim. Half of their 11,000 men were killed and the rest sent as captives to Algiers.  The only Algerian base the Spanish still held was Oran, which they handed over to the Turks in 1791.

The Maghrib in the 17th and 18th centuries

      Turkish ruled territory

The Turks never conquered Morocco, but the rest of North Africa was in their hands.  This area consisted of four separate regencies, each of which was ruled by Turkish contingents practically independent of Istanbul.  The first of these was Egypt, which included Cyrenaica, although Cyrenaica was effectively left to the Berber tribal rule.  The others were Tripolitania, Tunisia, and Algeria.  Each of these was ruled by a representative of Istanbul with the title of Pasha who was assisted by an officer called a Bey.   But effective power was held by two groups of non-Turks:  The first was the Janissaries, who were captured as young boys from the Christians and raised as Muslims to make up the backbone of the Ottoman army.  The other group was the renegades, who were captives or deserters of Christian background who became Muslim and were specially employed in the pirate fleets.  The divided Berber and Arab tribes could not be relied on to play more than a subsidiary role in governing the country.  In fact the countryside was largely neglected by the Turkish administration, and the Sūfī orders provided its leadership.  Piracy was the economic mainstay of the Turkish regime and their cities, providing not only cargo, but above all captives who were held for ransom paid in the gold currency of Spain.  This business reached its peak in the 17th century. At the same time the Turks carried on trade with Europe, taking advantage of inter-European rivalries and shifting alliances to favour now one country, now another.


By the middle of the 16th century the Sacsharīfs made their capital in Marrākish.  Ahmad al-Mansūr (1578-1603) was famed for surrounding himself with splendour and ceremonial and for his efficient administration.  He expanded his rule over the Sahara and sent an expedition to take Songhay in 1591.  The alliance of his regime with the Sūfīs led to a transfer to the political sphere of the Sūfīs’ blind obedience to a shaykh, so that the sultan could not be questioned or challenged by reference to Islamic law.  When a sultan died there was no legal organization empowered to supervise an orderly succession, and every succeeding sultan had to fight his way to power.

As a result, after al-Mansūr’s death Morocco was divided, with one ruler in Fez and another in Marrākish.  Three other strong principalities emerged in the country besides.  Outside powers could exploit these divisions, and in 1610 the ruler of Fez gave al-Arācish to Spain (which at that time ruled Portugal). Large numbers of Muslims were expelled from Spain between 1609 and 1614.  Many of these went to Tunis, while others went to Salā and Ribā where they set up a pirate principality which operated on the Atlantic shipping routes.  In 1614 the Spanish built a fortress which they named after St. Michael, at Macmūra, just north of Salā, in order to threaten this pirate base.  Spain had no direct interest in Moroccan territory, since the world of the Americas attracted all its attention, but it intervened to protect its shipping.

The anarchy which prevailed in Morocco ended with the rise of the cAlawī sharīfs.   They ruled the oasis of Tafilalt from 1631.  Beginning in 1664 ar-Rashīd, who had the title Mawlay (my master), began establishing his authority over northwest Morocco.  By 1668 he completed the conquest of the whole country.  His brother Mawlay Ismācīl, who succeeded in 1673, solved the problem of a power base by creating an army of descendants of Black slaves numbering up to 150,000 men.  With his capital at Meknes he consolidated his power and tried to conquer the foreign bases.  In 1681 he took Macmūra from the Spanish.  Tangier, which the Portuguese reclaimed when they became independent of Spain in 1640, fell to the British in 1661 and was besieged by Morocco from 1678. The British evacuated it in 1684 after blowing up the main buildings.  The Moroccans took al-Arācish from the Spanish in 1689.  After this Spain still held Ceuta, Malīla, Badis (Peńon de Veles) and Alhucema (al-Hoceima, built by the French in 1670 and taken by the Spanish in 1673), and Portugal held Mazagan.

During the 17th and 18th centuries there were European residents in the Maghrib: traders, captives and consuls who were the go-betweens for ransoming captives.  In addition there was the constant presence of priests ministering to these Christians. The fate of all these groups revolved upon constantly changing political circumstances.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Maghrib states came under heavy attack from Europe and America and were forced to abandon their piracy.  In 1830 France occupied Algiers, beginning the era of colonialism.  This suspended piratical activity until its resumption after independence in the in the form of highjacking and hostage taking.

«— Chapter 4

The Spread of Islam
Through North to West Africa

Chapter 6 —»

1Qur’ān 3:61.  Ibn-Hishām, as-Sīra an-nabawiyya, v.1, p.573ff.; cf. Guillaume, p. 277.

2On the tension between these two forces and their interplay see E. Gellner, “A pendulum swing theory of Islam”, ch. 7 in Roland Robertson (ed.), Sociology of religion (Penguin, 1969).

3Norman Daniel, Islam and the West, the making of an image (Edinburgh, 1960), p. 55.

4Ibid., p. 229.

5Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q.10, a.8.

6Contra gentiles, I, ch.2.

7N. Daniel, op. cit., pp. 184-188.

8Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q.10, a.7-12.

9N. Daniel, loc. cit.

10Ibid., pp.316-317, in reply to S. Runciman, A history of the Crusades (Penguin, 1951), I, pp.83ff.

11M. Voerzio, Fr. Guliemo da Tripoli (Florence, 1955), p. 53.