The Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez (erected 1351-6)
Alexander Elinson
(Hunter College, CUNY)


The history of Fes in the period 1348-1418 falls neatly within a history of the Marinid dynasty that ruled the western Maghreb from the early 1200s to 1465, and in many ways reflects the challenges they faced, and successes they ushered in. As they threatened Almohad sovereignty, eventually defeating them in 1258, the main issue the Marinids faced was that of legitimacy. Unlike the Almohads, who adhered to and utilized a religious ideology that legitimized their rule, the Marinids were pastoral Zanata Berbers who were likely first drawn into the area that brought them into contact with the Almohads by pasturage and booty. Thus, the Marinids used religion as a political tool rather than as a reformist ideology aimed toward societal change. When they assumed control of Fez, and adopted it as their capitol, they faced opposition, or at least suspicion, from the established ‘ulama (religious scholars) who saw the Marinids as uneducated, uncultured, and not particularly pious. In response to this, the Marinids embarked upon an ambitious program of building madrasas (residential religious schools) that were the first of their kind in the Maghreb (they were based on an eastern model). Providing students with modest stipends and housing while they received religious training, the state-supported madrasa drew students from the countryside into Fez and provided them with a religious training that they would then bring back to their towns. In this way, the ‘ulama of Fez were brought into the employ of the state, and their trainees were beholden to the state; in this way, the influence of the rulers was extended and solidified at the same time. 

Besides using the religious establishment as a legitimizing strategy, it is also possible that the Marinids were aiming to defuse popular Sufism, which was gaining sway in the Maghreb during this period, particularly away from the cities where formal scholasticism held sway. It will be important, then, to treat the life and philosophy of one of the leading Sufis of the period, Ibn ‘Abbad al-Rundi (1333-1390), who came from the Andalusian city of Ronda, but who emigrated to North Africa where he studied with the Sufi master Ibn ‘Ashir (ca. 1300-1362) in Salé, and lived the last years of his life in Fes, among others.

As the capitol city of the Merinids, Fes was an important crossroads for scholars and intellectuals. One of the more famous Andalusians who spent time in Fes and other parts of Morocco was the Granadan vizier Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib (1313-1374) who spent three years in comfortable exile with his patron, the deposed Nasrid ruler of Granada, Muhammad V (r. 1354-1359, 1362-1391) where he studied Sufism in Salé, and wrote a number of important travelogues describing his peregrinations in North Africa. Other important thinkers who spent time at the court in Fes are the famous traveler Ibn Battuta and the sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldoun, whose theories of history and the rise and fall of civilizations may very well have been influenced by the fortunes of the Berber Almoravid, Almohad, and Merinid dynasties that he was able to observe quite closely. In his Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldoun describes Fes as the most important city in Africa during his lifetime.

As they did during other periods and in other places, Jews constituted an important part of economic, political, and intellectual life in Fes, as they were a protected minority under the Merinids. They served as high government officials and engaged in commerce around the Mediterranean. This period was also important in terms of Jewish religious and philosophical thought.

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