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24.01.13 Balbale, The Wolf King

24.01.13 Balbale, The Wolf King

With The Wolf King: Ibn Mardanīsh and the Construction of Power in Al-Andalus, Abigail Krasner Balbale places a figure who is traditionally presented as a footnote in the history of Islamic Spain at the center of a study that focuses on the nature and practice of royal sovereignty in a crucial period of Andalusi history--the late twelfth century. In the early 1000s, centrifugal forces had caused the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba to disintegrate into a constellation of competing “splinter” (taifa) kingdoms under the control of various indigenous “Arab,” North African, and slave factions. For over a half a century, the Christian powers were held at bay largely as a consequence of their own rivalries, until in the 1180s, Castile and León--reinforced by an irridentist Burgundian nobility and an imperial papacy--threaten to conquer the taifa kingdoms. Faced with political annihilation and a discontented religious elite, the taifa kings summoned the Almoravids--recently converted and staunchly Sunni North African warriors--to come to their aid. After dealing a sharp blow to Castile and León, in the 1090s the Almoravids deposed the (in their view) effete and impious taifa kings and imposed a rigorous Maliki regime. But by the 1140s the Almoravid imperium was collapsing, undermined in the Maghrib by the Almohads--a revolutionary messianic movement that had coalesced among the Masmuda tribes of the High Atlas and denied the legitimacy of Sunni Islam. As Almoravid power disintegrated, Christian rulers advanced, and what remained of al-Andalus spiraled into chaos. Local warlords and members of the surviving Almoravid elite carved out their own principalities, turning for protection and support to the same Christian rulers who they were in principle sworn to resist. One of these was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Mardanīsh, whom Christian sources would refer to as El Rey Lobo--“the Wolf-King.” In the late 1140s this former Almoravid commander and descendant of a Christian convert established his rule over Sharq al-Andalus (“Eastern al-Andalus,” including the areas around Valencia, Denia, and Murcia). His kingdom would survive for a quarter-century, as he fended off Muslim rivals, allied with Christian powers, and courted Italian merchants. It reached its apogee in the early 1160s when Ibn Mardanīsh briefly held Granada, nearly took Córdoba, and established Murcia as a center of political power and cultural élan. Beginning in 1165, the Almohads counter-attacked, until the increasingly isolated Wolf-King died in 1172 as his kingdom crumbled around him. With this, his son and heir, Hilal, submitted to the Almohads, converted to their creed, and was rewarded with the governorship of his father’s former capital, although by 1228 the Almohads too would be swept from power in al-Andalus.

Balbale’s The Wolf King is the first book-length study in English of Ibn Mardanīsh and his reign. Rather than constructing a narrative history, she sets out to study, through textual, architectural, and material cultural evidence, the articulation of power by this Muslim warrior-king, caught between rival imperial powers characterized by two hostile religious cultures: Almohadism and Latin Christianity. In her preface, “Ibn Mardanīsh as Historical Figure and Historiographic Subject,” Balbale lays out her intention to “focus on the construction of power...[but] not simply the Weberian imposition of control over bodies and territories but also the assertion of a connection to the divine” (10) and to “[excavate] the memory” (13) of Ibn Mardanīsh and trace how his complex story “has been flattened to serve more modern ideologies” (2). The first chapter, “Caliph andMahdī: The Battle over Power in the Islamic Middle Period,” surveys the rise of the Almohads, whose messianic and millenarian focus served as counterpoint to the secular concept of sultan, which had emerged as the dominant political mode in the Islamic world as the three caliphates (Umayyad, Fatimid, and Abbasid) collapsed. Next, in “Rebel against the Truth: Almohad Visions of Ibn Mardanīsh” Balbale shows how the Almohads constructed an image of Ibn Mardanīsh and other peninsular Muslim rulers as a moral antithesis to the Almohad project. She mines Almohad accounts of the Wolf-King’s life and surveys their use of architecture, objects, and poetry to broadcast their millenarian program. For the Almohads, Ibn Mardanīsh’s successes seemed to put the lie to their divinely ordained triumph. He was to be crushed if necessary, but reconciled, if possible.

“Filiative Networks: Lineage and Legitimacy in Sharq al-Andalus” turns to Ibn Mardanīsh’s efforts to establish dynastic legitimacy on the one hand, by fabricating genealogies that connected his family to prestigious lineages of early Arabia and Islam, and on the other, by presenting himself as a champion of Sunni orthodoxy. No less than the other contemporary and later Muslim warriors of the peninsula, this religious mission obliged him out of practical necessity to cultivate Christian powers as patrons and protectors. Next, in “Material Genealogies and the Construction of Power,” Balbale studies what remains of the Wolf-King’s palaces, seeing in them a concrete reflection of the same program of legitimization. For her, his decorative and cultural programs, which resonated with contemporary Norman and Fatimid styles, “reflect an Islamic (and ultimately ancient Mediterranean) tradition of images of feasts and music as a counterargument in favor of the continuity of a ruling culture under threat” (168), while, taken as whole, the material culture of the Wolf-King’s court “could lay claim to multiple, overlapping, and even contradictory inheritances” (185). Such ambiguities become clear in the fifth chapter, “Vassals, Traders, and Kings: Economic and Political Networks in the Western Mediterranean,” where Balbale explores the ties that bound Ibn Mardanīsh to his Christian counterparts, including his payment of tribute, the appreciation of and demand for luxurious Andalusi silks, and the opportunities offered to exiles, renegades and mercenaries, who might take refuge and residence in his glittering court.

In the final two chapters, “Resistance and Assimilation after the Almohad Conquest,” and “The Reconquista, a Lost Paradise, and Other Teleologies,” the author shows that while the Almohads eventually absorbed Ibn Mardanīsh’s lands and his lineage, they grappled with the legacy of his opposition. His defeat prompted the construction of triumphal monuments, the desecration of his palaces, the integration of his family into the royal line, and the elaboration of a historical image that squared his manifest valor with his impious politics and his immoral decadence. These were the opening salvos in a centuries-long struggle to rehabilitate or condemn his historical personality as that of heretical turncoat, or a protonational “Spanish” hero, and just about everything in between. Balbale’s afterword, “Postscript: Medieval Stories, Modern Anxieties,” shows how these debates have continued, and how the figure of Ibn Mardanīsh serves as a mirror for a whole gamut of historiographical, political, and cultural agendas right up to today.

Altogether, this is a remarkably complex yet clearly argued and accessibly written study, and an impressively erudite work of scholarship. Balbale draws deeply on a range of primary textual sources from the Christian and Islamic worlds, while making evidence from art and material culture--whether buildings, coins, poetry, painting, or decoration, often analyzed with impressive detail and technical sophistication--central to her exploration. In this sense, it presents a model of interdisciplinary scholarship, and her observations regarding the historiographic use and misuses of Ibn Mardanīsh as a figure are convincing. Even in a review of this length it is difficult to give justice to the richness of the treatment. And yet, in the end, in some ways the significance of his brief yet remarkable career remains no less elusive than his historical persona. It is difficult to escape the Christian-Muslim binaries that the interpretations discussed by Balbale have hinged on; although by stepping outside of the established confessional-civilizational frame and engaging explicitly with a Mediterranean framework one might see Ibn Mardanīsh and so many of his contemporaries (including his Almohad nemeses and his Christian patrons and allies) as actors in a Mediterranean world that elicited understandings and provoked dynamics that simply do not correspond to neatly to an opposition between Christendom and dar al-Islam. As it stands, Balbale has produced a comprehensive study of this emblematic yet little-known episode, and provided an excellent example of the integration of art and textual historiographical approaches. Scholars and graduate students of medieval history and art, whether their focus is on Christendom or the Islamicate world, will find much of value here.