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Yusuf ibn Tashfin (also, Tashafin, or Teshufin; Berber: Yusf n Tacfin, Arabic: يوسف بن تاشفين‎; reigned c. 1061 - 1106) was a king of the Berber Almoravid empire in North Africa and Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia).


Succession to power

Yusuf ibn Tashfin emerged from a line of military rulers. Abu Bakr ibn Umar, one of the original disciples of ibn Yasin, a natural leader of Sanajha extraction who served as a spiritual liaison for followers of the Maliki school of thought, was appointed general after the death of his brother Yahya ibn Ibrahim. His brother oversaw the military for ibn Yasin but was killed in a Saharan revolt in 1056. Ibn Yasin, too, would die in battle with the Barghawata three years later. Abu-Bakr was an able general, taking the fertile Sūs and its capital Aghmāt a year after his brother's death, and would go on to suppress numerous revolts in the Sahara himself, on one such occasion delegating permanent governorship of Sūs and thus the whole of his northern provinces to his pious cousin Yusuf, who had received such authority in the interim; even going so far as to giving him his wife, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyat,[1] purportedly the richest woman of Aghmāt. This sort of trust and favor on part of a seasoned veteran and savvy politician reflected the general esteem in which Yusuf was held, not to mention the power he attained as a military figure in his absence. Daunted by Yusuf's newfound power, Abu Bakr saw any attempts at recapturing his post politically unfeasible and returned to the fringes of the Sahara to settle the unrest of the southern frontier.

Taifa appeal

In the year 1091 the last sovereign king of al-Andalusia, al-Mu'tamid, saw his Abbadid-inherited taifa of Seville, controlled since 1069, in jeopardy of being taken by the increasingly stronger king of Castile-León, Alfonso VI. The Taifa period followed the demise of the Umayyad Caliphate. Previously, the emir launched a series of aggressive attacks on neighboring kingdoms, as to garner more territory for himself, but his military aspirations and capabilities paled in comparison to the Castilian king, who was on a tear in the name of Christendom, in 1085, capturing a culturally refined Toledo and inducing parias, or tribute, from proud Muslim princes in places like Granada; al-Mu'tamid of Seville being no exception. The tribute of the emirs bolstered the economy of the Christian kingdom. These are the circumstances that led to the Almoravid conquest and the famous quote, rebuffing his son, Rashid, who advised him not to call on Yusuf ibn Tashfin, where al-Mu'tamid said

I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.[2]

Military exploits

Yusuf was an effective general and administrator, evidenced by his ability to organize and maintain the loyalty of the hardened desert warriors and the territory of Abu Bakr, as well as his ability to expand the empire, cross the Atlas Mountains onto the plains of Morocco, reaching the Mediterranean and capturing Fez in 1075, Tangier in 1079, Tlemcen in 1080, Ceuta in 1083, as well as Algiers, Ténès and Oran in 1082-83. He is regarded as the co-founder of the famous Moroccan city Marrakech (in Berber Murakush, corrupted to Morocco in English). The site had been chosen and work started by Abu Bakr in 1070. The work was completed by Yusuf, who then made it the capital of his empire, in place of the former capital Aghmāt. By the time Abu Bakr died in 1087, after a skirmish in the Sahara as result of a poison arrow, Yusuf had crossed over into al-Andalus and also achieved victory at the Battle of az-Zallaqah, also known as the Battle of Sagrajas in the west. He came to al-Andalus with a force of 15,000 men, armed with javelins, daggers, Indian swords and shields covered in animal hide, as well as drummers for psychological combat. Yusuf's cavalry was said to have included 6,000 shock troops from Senegal mounted on white Arabian horses. Camels were also put to use. On October 23, 1086, the Almoravid forces, accompanied by 10,000 Andalusian fighters from local Muslim provinces, decisively checked the Reconquista, defeating the largest Christian army ever assembled up to that point, significantly outnumbered. The death of Yusuf's heir, however, prompted his speedy return to Africa.

When Yusuf returned to al-Andalus in 1090, he saw the lax behavior of the taifa kings, both spiritually and militarily, as a breach of Islamic law and principles, and left Africa with the express purpose of usurping the power of all the Muslim principalities, under the auspices of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, who he had shared correspondence with and under the shibboleth "The spreading of righteousness, the correction of injustice and the abolition of unlawful taxes."[3] The emirs in such cities as Seville, Badajoz, Almeria and Granada had grown accustomed to the extravagant ways of the east. On top of doling out tribute to the Christians and giving Andalusian Jews unprecedented freedoms and authority, they had levied burdensome taxes on the populace to maintain this lifestyle. After a series of fatwas and careful deliberation, Yusuf saw the implementation of orthodoxy as long overdue. That year he exiled the emirs 'Abd Allah and his brother Tamim from Granada and Málaga, respectively, to Aghmāt, and a year later al-Mutamid of Seville would suffer the same fate. When all was said and done, Yusuf united all of the Muslim dominions of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of Zaragoza, to the Kingdom of Morocco, and situated his royal court at Marrakech. He took the title of amir al-muslimin (Prince of the Muslims), seeing himself as humbly serving the caliph of Baghdad, but for all intents and purposes he was considered the caliph of the western Islamic empire. The military might of the Almoravids was at its peak.

The Sanhaja confederation, which consisted of a hierarchy of Lamtuna, Musaffa and Djudalla Berbers, represented the military's top brass. Amongst them were Andalusian Christians and heretic Africans, taking up duties as diwan al-gund, Yusuf's own personal bodyguard; including 2,000 black horsemen, whose tasks also included registering soldiers and making sure they were compensated financially. The occupying forces of the Almoravids were made up largely horsemen, totaling no less than 20,000. Into the major cities of al-Andalus, Seville (7,000), Granada (1,000), Cordoba (1,000), 5,000 bordering Castile and 4,000 in western Andalusia, succeeding waves of horsemen in conjunction with the garrisons that had been left there after the Battle of Sagrajas, made responding, for the Taifa emirs, difficult. Soldiers on foot used bows & arrows, sabres, pikes and Indian javelins, each protected by a cuirass of Moroccan leather and bearing shields made of antelope hide. During the siege of the fort-town Aledo, in Murcia, captured by the Spaniard Garcia Giménez previously, Almoravid and Andalusian hosts are said to have used catapults, in addition to their customary drum beat. Yusuf also established naval bases in Cadiz, Almeria and neighboring ports along the Mediterranean. Ibn-Maymun, the governor of Almeria, had a fleet at his disposal. Another such example is the Banu-Ganiya fleet based off the Balearic Islands that dominated the affairs of the western Mediterranean for much of the 12th century. [4]

The siege of Valencia

Although the Almoravids had not gained much in the way of territory from the Christians, rather they merely offset the Reconquista, Yusuf did succeed in capturing Valencia. A city divided between Muslims and Christians, under the waffling rule of a petty emir paying tribute to the Christians, including the famous El Cid, Valencia proved to be an obstacle for the Almoravid military, despite their untouchable reputation. Abu Bakr ibn Ibrahim ibn Tashfin and Yusuf's nephew Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad both failed in defeating the El Cid. Yusuf then sent Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali al-Hajj but he was not successful either. In 1097, upon his fourth trip to al-Andalus, Yusuf sought to personally dig down and fight the armies of Alfonso VI, making way toward the all but abandoned, yet historically important, Toledo. Such a concerted effort was meant to draw the Christian forces, including those laying siege to Valencia, into the center of Iberia. On August 15, 1097, the Almoravids delivered yet another blow to Alfonso's forces, a battle in which the El Cid's son was killed.

Muhammad ibn 'A'isha, Yusuf's son, who he had appointed governor of Murcia, succeeded in delivering an effective pounding to the El Cid's personnel at Alcira, still not capturing the city, but satisfied with the results of his campaigns, Yusuf left for his court at Marrakesh only to return two years later on a new effort to take the provinces of eastern Andalusia. El Cid had died in the same year, 1099, and his wife, Jimena, had been ruling until the coming of another Almoravid campaign at the tail end of 1100, led by Yusuf's trusted lieutenant Mazdali ibn Banlunka. After a seven month siege, Alfonso and Jimena, hopeless to the prospects of staving off the Almoravids, set fire to the great mosque in anger and abandoned the city. Yusuf had finally conquered Valencia and exerted complete dominance over the east of al-Andalus, now unquestionably the most powerful ruler in western Europe.[5] He receives mention in the Spanish epic Poema del Cid, also known as El Cantar del Mio Cid, the oldest of its kind.

Description and character

"A wise and shrewd man, neither too prompt in his determinations, nor too slow in carrying them into effect", Yusuf was very much adapted to the rugged terrain of the Sahara and had no interests in the pomp of the Andalusian courts.[6] According to Abd Allah's "Roudh el-Kartas" (History of the Rulers of Morocco) and A.Beaumier's French translation of the 14th century work, Yusuf was of "teint brun, taille moyenne, maigre, peu de barbe, voix douce, yeux noirs, nez aquilin, meche de Mohammed retombant sur le bout de l'oreille, sourcils joints l'un a l'autre, cheveux crepus"; meaning - "Brown color, middle height, thin, little beard, soft voice, black eyes, straight nose, lock of Muhammad falling on the top of his ear, eye brow joined, wooly hair"[1] He went on to reach the 100 years old mark and, unlike his predecessors, not die in battle.

Legacy of the Almoravids

Since Yusuf's reign represented the apogee of the Almoravid dynasty, something has to be said for its certain demise after his death. His son and successor, Ali ibn Yusuf, was viewed just as devout a Muslim but he neither commanded the same respect nor retained the clientela of his father. As he prayed and fasted the empire crumbled about him. Córdoba, in about 1119, served as the launch pad for Andalusian insurrection. Christians on the northern frontier gained momentum shortly after his father's death, and the Almohads, beginning about 1120, were to engulf the southern frontier; both respective hosts seeing to the ultimate disintegration of Yusuf's hard-fought territories by the time of Ibrahim ibn Tashfin (1146) and Ishaq ibn Ali (1146-1147), the last of the Almoravid dynasty.

Much of the disparaging things written about the Almoravids, whether it be from Almohads or Christian sources, was propaganda. While Yusuf was the most honorable of Muslim rulers, he spoke Arabic poorly. Ali ibn Yusuf in 1135 exercised good stewardship by attending to the University of Al-Karaouine and ordering the extension of the mosque from 18 to 21 aisles, expanding the structure to more than 3,000 square meters. Some accounts suggest that Ali Ibn Yusuf hired two Andalusian architects to carry out this work who also built the central aisle of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, Algeria, in 1136.

To further quote Richard Fletcher's classic Moorish Spain:

The Almoravids had never been liked in al-Andalus outside the limited circles of the rigorist critics of the taifa rulers. They had come as deliverers but they behaved like conquerors. The leadership may have been sincerely devout but the rank and file were not. Almoravid rule has been described by a modern authority as "an extended looting expedition" ... To the end of the Almoravid regime there was not a single traceable Berber among its civil servants: instead, Andalusi clerks were shipped over to Morocco. The Almoravids indulged in all the luxuries and delights of al-Andalus but failed to do the job they had been called into do: the lost territories in the Tagus and Ebro valleys remained in Christian hands.

In popular culture

  • Ben Yussuf is the name of Yusuf ibn Tashfin in El Cid



  • Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain, (University of California Press, 1992)
  • Ibn Idhari, Al-bayan al-mughrib Part III, annotated Spanish translation by A. Huici Miranda, Valencia, 1963.
  • N. Levtzion & J.F.P. Hopkins, Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history, Cambridge University Press, 1981, ISBN 0521224225 (reprint: Markus Wiener, Princeton, 2000, ISBN 1-55876-241-8). Contains English translations of extracts from medieval works dealing with the Almoravids; the selections cover some (but not all) of the information above.
  • E. A. Freeman, History and Conquests of the Saracens, (Oxford, 1856)
  • Codera, Decadencia y desaparicion de los Almoravides en España (1889)
  • H. R. Idris, Regierung und Verwaltung des vorderen Orients in islamischer Zeit, (Brill Academic Publishers, 1997)
Preceded by
Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar
Succeeded by
Ali ibn Yusuf

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