The Medieval Review 11.11.12

Rouighi, Ramzi. The Making of a Mediterranean Emirate: Ifriqiya and Its Andalusis, 1200-1400. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 238. $55. ISBN 978-0-8122-4310-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Brian A. Catlos
University of Colorado

Historiographically speaking, medieval northwest Africa has been the victim of a triple marginalization--a consequence of garden-variety Eurocentrism that has privileged the history of northern Europe and northern Italy, the legacy of its recent and racialized colonial past, and the prejudices of a native Arabo-centric historiographical tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages itself. Although the historical importance of the late-medieval Maghrib and Ifrīqiya has been slighted by no less a figure than Braudel, its history has not been ignored. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth century European Arabists, such as Brunschvig and Julien, sketched out--if somewhat uncritically--its political history, whereas more recent scholars, notably Roger Hady Idris, Maribel Fierro, Maya Shatzmiller and Michael Brett, have worked industriously to incorporate a new vision of the region into the mainstream of medieval European and Islamic history. Building on this, a fresh class of historians and literary and art specialists--evidenced, for example, by the recent launching of the "Spain-North Africa Project"--are determined to restructure the historical narrative of the western Mediterranean by tearing down the conceptual walls that have isolated the region for scholars. Ramzi Rouighi's The Making of a Mediterranean Emirate fits into this vanguard movement, and quite deliberately: by confronting head-on the presumptions and suppositions that have distorted our understanding of Ifrīqiya (corresponding roughly to modern Tunisia) in the Middle Ages.

Dismissing the state-oriented presuppositions that have colored established assessments of medieval North African political history, Rouighi--through the lens of the Ḥafṣid dynasty, and the provincial port city of Bijāya (colonial "Bougie")--aims to "illuminate the ideology behind the making of Ifrīqiyā" (12), and sets out to take on our most basic assumptions, including the very category of "the Maghrib," a term that "like modern North Africa...was a construct that served amalgamation and conflation, not elucidation and clarification." (3) Over all of this, the towering figure of Ibn Khaldūn, the medieval Maghrib's greatest and most influential intellectual persona--whether deconstructed or not--inevitably casts a long shadow.

The book is divided into two parts, each with three chapters: "The Limits of Regional Integration" and "Emirism and the Making of a Region." Chapter One, "The Politics of the Emirate," presents a fairly straightforward and conventional political narrative of the region with a focus on Bijāya. It begins with Almohad rule and continues through the emergence and establishment of the Ḥafṣid dynasty in the late thirteenth century, a mid-fourteenth century populist phase (related perhaps to the Black Death?), and on to the reestablishment of the dynasty in the 1370s. Next, "Taxation and Land Tenure" reviews the foundations of the region's economy, concentrating especially on agricultural production and strategies for the collection and redistribution of revenue. Here we see that the importance of the rural economy was offset by the Ḥafṣids' inability to impose their will beyond the green belts that surrounded their cities, driving the dynasty to engage increasingly in Mediterranean commerce and explore alternate institutions, such as the ribāṭ and zāwiya, as strategies for establishing economic and ideological domination over the hinterland. "Between Land and Sea" explores the commercial (and piratical) aspects of the Ḥafṣid economy and foreign policy, and how these fuelled the ascent of a prosperous mercantile set--the wealth of which the local princes became adept at siphoning off. Rouighi concludes that "Ifrīqiyā was...not an economically integrated region," but one held tenuously together only by the "organized extortion" of the Ḥafṣids. For him the notion that Bijāya was part of a larger coherent region of Ifrīqiya was a self-aggrandizing fiction propagated by the dynasty (93-94) for its own ends.

Part II, "Emirism and the Making of a Region" presents the history of this fiction--a process in which the Ḥafṣids were obliged to articulate a foundation of legitimacy of their territorial control in a manner that distinguished the territory under their rule from the Almohad Maghrib, to the west. It also characterizes the fragmenting of the dynasty's power not as a sign of debility, but as a factor that contributed to the entrenchment of Ḥafṣid princes. In "The Age of the Emir," Rouighi contends that awareness of the limits of their authority led these rulers to abandon grandiose pan-Islamic titles, such as "Commander of the Faithful," for the less ambitious and less contentious hājib ("chamberlain") or emir ("prince"). This program was driven largely by an Andalusi elite--refugees from the lands lost to Christendom in the Iberian peninsula--who came to dominate the administrative/literary culture in urban Ifrīqiya, and whose antipathy to indigenous "Berbers" became a key element of "Emirism"--the term Rouighi coins (but does not rigidly define) for the articulation of Ḥafṣid legitimacy. Chapter Five, "Learning in the Emirate," presents an overall view of Islamic education and legal culture in contemporary Ifrīqiya and the Maghrib, before arguing that Ḥafṣid policies, including the sponsorship of muftis and the cultivation of "elite sufis" in the regions that they controlled, helped the dynasty to establish a religio-legal apparatus that acted to legitimize its rule. Finally, "Emirism and the Writing of History" aims to show how this literary culture developed under the Ḥafṣids. This was not the result of a "coherent cultural policy," but rather the consequence of the "encadrement of intellectuals" who shared a common outlook in spite of the continuing and visceral competition among the various Ḥafṣid petty princes (149). Chief, and most ambitious, among these intellectuals was Ibn Khaldūn, who elaborated a historical vision of "emirism" while working to integrate the Andalusi elite into the Ifrīqiyan socio-cultural landscape. In the early fifteenth century, the establishment of a united Ifrīqiya under Abū Fāris provided a historical vindication for earlier assertions of the unity and coherence of a Ḥafṣid territory centered on Tunis--an image which was subsequently and anachronistically imposed on the earlier era. It is this image that seduced modern European historians thanks to its resonance with their own nation-state paradigm. This is the substance of "Departures," the book's short conclusion, which sketches out how later European historians were duped by the propaganda of the late Ḥafṣid era--not only by accepting its assertions uncritically, but by relying on translations into European languages of primary sources that themselves perpetuated and entrenched mistaken readings of the nature of political power in the medieval Maghrib. In the concluding paragraph, as a review of his own work, Rouighi concedes that while he has not "analysed the processes through which these concepts came to shape the modern historiographical imagination" (177), he has "offered the analysis and recasting of medieval ideology and of its adaptation to modern forms of knowing in the hopes that this line of questioning will open up new interpretive possibilities" (178).

The Making of a Mediterranean Emirate is an engaging and fresh look at the creation of the history of medieval Ifrīqiya and the nature of political power and intellectual culture in the pre-Modern Maghrib--a must-read for students and scholars of the region. Rouighi argues convincingly against the grain of the nation-centered historical paradigm, highlighting the challenges that faced Ḥafṣid rule, and teasing out the subtleties of the intellectual tradition that emerged as the dynasty's standard-bearer. That said, one wonders if it is over-reaching to qualify "emirism" as an "ideology," or even an "-ism" at all. The phenomenon--as Rouighi sketches it out--seems perhaps too accidental, unconscious, and geo-historically particular to be described in these terms. This may be a consequence of the book's rather fine focus--the author's gaze is squarely set on Bijāya and Ifrīqiya. One suspects that fruitful and illuminating parallels (or counter-examples) could be drawn by examining analogous processes in, say, Fāṭimid Egypt, or Saljuq Anatolia and Syria. Nor can the history of Ifrīqiya be so easily separated from that of Christian Europe, and not merely because of the tributary and economic relationships that bound the two shores. It is no coincidence that Pedro the Cruel of Castile tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit Ibn Khaldūn as his own courtier. Indeed, reading Rouighi's provocative study, one is led to consider the developments on the Christian-dominated northern littoral, where indications of parallel processes to the invention of Ifrīqiya can be discerned--not the least in the emergence of a perhaps equally artificial notion of "Spain." Indeed, this line of inquiry might go so far as to show that that the European colonial-national paradigm that has so distorted the history of Islamic North Africa has exercised a similar influence on our understanding of the medieval Mediterranean as a whole. Hence, The Making of a Mediterranean Emirate represents an important piece in the current revision of Mediterranean and Islamic history, one which calls into question the fundamental assumptions that have shaped the established narrative of the emergence of "the West."