Dominique Valerian

title.none: Garcia-Arenal, Messianism (Dominique Valerian)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.005 07.04.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dominique Valerian, Université Paris 1,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Garcia-Arenal, Mercedes. Messianism and Puritanical Reform, translated by Martin Beagles. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, vol. 29. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. Pp. xi, 392. $174.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 90-04-15051-X ISBN-13: 978-90-04-15051-5 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.05

Garcia-Arenal, Mercedes. Messianism and Puritanical Reform, translated by Martin Beagles. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, vol. 29. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. Pp. xi, 392. $174.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 90-04-15051-X ISBN-13: 978-90-04-15051-5 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dominique Valerian
Université Paris 1

This book of Mercedes Garcia-Arenal is the result and the synthesis of research undertaken over the past several years on mahdist and millenarian movements in the medieval and modern Maghreb.[1] The author starts from the observation of recurring emergence, in the history of the Maghreb, of politico-religious movements lead by persons presenting themselves or perceived as prophets, saints, or mahdis. Some, very few, led to political constructions of great extent, such as the Fatimides or Almohades, whereas others were short-lived. The merit of the study of Garcia-Arenal is to put all these movements in perspective, following their evolution from the arrival of Islam until the 17th century. In this sense, she shows that they are a key to comprehending the political and religious history of the medieval Maghreb, often confused and obscure.

The task is indeed not easy, because the available texts are far from being clear, whether they are chronicles, hagiographies, or more theoretical writings. On the one hand the vocabulary used could have evolved with the course the centuries--and the author delivers to us in this respect a careful and often enlightening reflection on the evolution of the lexicon. On the other hand the great majority of our sources emanates from the orthodox erudite milieu, which presents these phenomena in a polemical and depreciatory way, often making their comprehension difficult. Finally when these marginal movements produced and left writings, they were often intended to be read and understood only by the initiates and are thus particularly delicate to interpret.

The approach firstly allows a new reading of the process of islamization of the Maghreb, a question often neglected because of the limits of the sources available, but above all because of the commonly-accepted idea that this process was fast and linear. Studies had heretofore posited a rapid disappearance of Christianity and the spread of a homogeneous Islam, which would be characterized by orthodox Sunnism and the triumph of the Malikite legal school (mahdab). On the contrary, what the work of Garcia- Arenal shows is a complex and conflicted process during the whole Middle Ages. The author studies the multiplicity of influences and religious movements at work in the medieval Maghreb. She underlines the permanence of the pre-Islamic influences, whether during the formative period of Islam in the East or in the North African context. The importance of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions is stressed, as well as the permanence of millenarianist ideas in the medieval Islamic West. But she also shows that the Maghreb was largely implicated in the debates and the theological and doctrinal conflicts which divided Islam in the East, and by the messianic and apocalyptic ideas developed there. The many journeys accomplished by Maghrebian scholars in the East, but also the exile into the Maghreb of people driven out by the political and religious disturbances in the central areas of the caliphate, contributed to this circulation of ideas. The author speculates about the mode of reception of these ideas in the Maghrebian context, and on the reasons of the hospitality given to these refugees, who head some movements of rebellion in North Africa, at least up to the 10th century, leading sometimes to durable political constructions, as in the case of Rustumids or Fatimids. She thus shows the circulation of these ideas, beyond the traditional borders between the three large currents of Islam (sunnism, shi'ism and kharijism).

The study is focused on Morocco and Moslem Spain (Al-Andalus), where these phenomena are pronounced and where they had the greatest influence on religious and political level. She points out several stages, following a chronological plan: the "time of the prophets," marked by the beginnings of the Islamization of the country, the first kharijite revolts carried out in the name of Islam and the emergence of Berber prophets; the mahdist revolution of the Fatimids; the Almohad construction, around the central figure of Ibn Tumart; finally the Marinid period, which sees a synthesis of various and sometimes contradictory tendencies developed during previous centuries. She ends with the analysis of the evolutions of these phenomena at the beginning of modern times, and in particular under the Sa'did dynasty.

The leading strand of this work is the evolution of millenarianist and messianic ideas, which are personified by the figure of certain major or more modest personalities, whose ideas the author analyzes and whose itinerary she follows. She thus shows the pregnancy of a sacred history and the belief in the imminence of the end of the world. This belief gives all its importance to the figure of the mahdi, who will rise to transform the society and restore his purity, before the end of time, and it explains the success met by these people. Garcia-Arenal thus follows the evolution of these ideas and expectations, not only on the intellectual and theological level, but also in relation to the context and the difficulties of the time--in particular the Christian attacks, from the 11th century onwards. She thus underlines the bond between mahdism, reform and Djihad as answers to concerns of believers.

This periodic emergence of men presented as saints, prophets or mahdis raises the problem, central in Islam, of the place of the Prophet Muhammad in this sacred history, and of the finality of the prophethood after his death. The author shows how this problem is solved in various ways, either by the claim of a prophetic lineage (Idrisids, Fatimids, then with the charifism), or by that of a direct divine inspiration, which would prolong the Muhammedan prophecy (holiness and Sufism). These two tendencies meet, under the Marinids, by the merger of Sufism and charifism.

The success met by these men in the view of the populations also shows the tension between an Islam of the "ulama," for which knowledge derives from the written word of the Koran and the had?ths, transmitted and taught by specialists who control this transmission, and an Islam which would pass through a direct and intimate contact with God. In other words it raises the problem of the mediation between God and men, and thus of the religious leadership of the society. The author thus reconsiders the causes and the modalities of the success of the Sufi movements, especially from the 12th century onward, and the bonds between Sufism, puritanical reform and mahdism. Finally, she shows their progressive institutionalization, mainly in the Marinid period which sees Sufis and "ulama" drawing closer together.

These religious aspirations are closely related to a political reflection on legitimate power, and thus on the possibility of contesting and revolting against a power which would not be in conformity with Islam. This problem, at the base of the great scissions within Islam from its earliest times, has a particular importance in the Maghreb, especially with the emergence of autochthonous Berber powers, from the 11th century onward. The question of the legitimacy of power arises very early, in particular through the kharijite revolts of 8th century, then with the Fatimid caliphate and the Almoravid movement. But it is more especially with Almohads, in the 12 and 13th centuries, that the close link between political power and prophethood appears with the most clarity, through the central figure of the mahdi Ibn Tumart, analyzed at length. The reformers and mahdis contest the existing powers, either by their individual action, or by taking control of revolts. But they aspire consequently in their turn to power, on the one hand as privileged intermediaries between God and men, and on the other hand as models of sainthood and piety. The practice of the hisba (commanding right and forbidding wrong) is thus analyzed lengthily as an essential element of their political practice.

One of the major problems for the Berber dynasties is the absence of prophetic lineage. If Idrisids and Fatimids can base their legitimacy on their belonging to the family of Muhammad, the dynasties which follow cannot claim such an ancestry. The prophetic reference is however omnipresent for Almohads, insofar as Ibn Tumart reproduces the prophetic gesta, making the Berber tribe of Masmuda the new elected people of God. The mahdi appears then as the one who prolongs--and completes--the Muhammedan prophecy, before the end of time. In a less apocalyptic approach, Marinids lean on the shurafa', descendants of Muhammad, by matrimonial alliances, but also by conferring them a place of honour in the society and by developing the worship of the prophet through the celebration of the festival of mawlid commemorating his birth. It would have been interesting to wonder why in other areas of the Maghreb, in particular in Hafsid Ifrîqiya, this reference is less present in political and religious speech.

Mercedes Garcia-Arenal thus proposes with this book a new and enlightening interpretation of the history of the Western Maghreb and Al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. Taking voluntarily the point of view of the margins of the better known Islam of the "ulama," she brings an important contribution to the recent renewals of the reflection on the relationship between religion and politics in Islam.

1. M. Garcia-Arenal, ed., Mahdisme et millenarisme en Islam, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Mediterranee, 91-94, 2000; Ead., ed., Conversions islamiques. Identites religieuses en Islam mediterraneen, Paris, 2001. See also A. Kaddouri, ed., Mahdisme, crise et changement dans l'histoire du Maroc, Rabat, 1994.