Political Legitimacy in the Islamic West

A research project at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies

Sponsored by Leverhulme Trust

The Principal Investigator for this project is Dr. Amira Bennison, University Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, assisted by Dr. James Brown as Research Associate.

This 2-year project is investigating the strategies of legitimation used by Muslim rulers in Islamic Spain and the western Maghrib during the medieval and early modern periods to analyse how they justified and presented their rule to their subjects and to visitors from the Islamic east and Christian Europe. It aims to explore issues of religio-political identity and regional unities and divisions of both historical and contemporary relevance to shed light on an understudied period of this crucial Mediterranean regions' history.

The dense interrelationships across the Strait of Gibraltar that existed until the end of the Almohad period are well known; yet their continuation and consequences are much less clearly established, with the study of Nasrid Granada and later Maghribi dynasties suffering from their mutual isolation. Nonetheless, the vision of dynastic, cultural and religious unity that informed the Andalusi Umayyads, Almoravids and Almohads continued to resonate under the Marinids, the Zayyanids, the Sa‘dis and finally the existing ‘Alawi dynasty. Nasrid Granada similarly shared this heritage and when it fell in 1492, it was Morocco which became the chief repository of the Granadan Andalusi heritage and this remains a significant strand in Moroccan national identity today. Simultaneously, the constantly shifting frontier between Christian and Muslim powers in the region encouraged intimate relationships between ruling elites of different religions as well as rivalry, fostering similarities across the confessional divide.

Dynastic legitimation is a useful prism through which to view these issues since rulers needed to present an image that appealed to their often restive subjects but also to fellow monarchs and ruling elites. It needed to be 'conservative' in the sense of drawing on established notions of kingship, yet also unique to differentiate the dynasty from others.

In this project we are concentrating especially on the Marinids and Nasrids while also making reference to contemporary Christian and later Muslim powers in the western Mediterranean. The areas which we have so far highlighted for detailed research are:

  • rhetorical descriptions of the monarch in historical chronicles and poetry;
  • myths of dynastic origins and lineage;
  • manipulation of the urban environment through the construction of public amenities and royal enclaves;
  • promotion of celebrations and rituals sponsored by the ruler.

A workshop to present and discuss research related to the project's themes was held on 13-14 September 2011 at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, more information about which is available here.