The Almoravid and Almohad Empires. By AMIRA K. BENNISON. The Edinburgh History of the Islamic Empires. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. xiv + 382. $150, [pounds sterling]90 (cloth); $49.95, [pounds sterling]29.99 (paper).
Amira K. Bennison's book under review provides a great service to the fields of North African, medieval Mediterranean, and Islamic history. As an introduction to western Islamic history between the mid-eleventh and mid-thirteenth centuries, it draws together primary sources and selected scholarship to provide an intelligent narrative history of the Almoravid and Almohad regimes, followed by more focused chapters on social organization, economy, religious practice and knowledge, and material culture. In this way, it develops multiple points of orientation and comparison over time.
Bennison adeptly makes the case for the larger relevance of her work in the first chapter: most broadly, it brings into focus Berber peoples as significant actors in Islamic history and the making of Islamic civilization. The history of the Almoravids and Almohads in the Islamic West, she argues, is as significant as that of the Seljuk Turks in the East. In regional terms, Bennison situates the Almoravids and the Almohads in the context of their origins in the western Sahara and High Atlas and explains their place in the history of state-building in the Maghrib and the Islamization of North Africa. In doing so, she provides an antidote to persistent characterizations of the regimes from the perspective of the Iberian Peninsula, a perspective that has found expression in an Iberia versus Africa opposition and stereotypes of Berber "barbarism" and "fanaticism," and perhaps overemphasizes the importance of jihad ideology.
Chapters two and three, narrating Almoravid and Almohad political history, navigate significant challenges. For example, any chronological history of the Almoravids depends on narrative sources that largely postdate Almoravid rule, with the exception of the Andalusi geographer al-Bakri's description of the early movement, dated perhaps to 1068 (before the foundation of Marrakesh). While drawing on named and unnamed oral and written sources, they are colored by hindsight, employ tropes, and express partisan interests and cultural biases. Almohad charges against the Almoravids and criticisms of their support for Maliki jurists have too often been taken at face value, and Bennison tries to manage distortions of perspective in texts that present Almoravid and Almohad history as fatefully linked. As another example, she uses al-Baydhaq's...