Today in North African history: the Battle of Fakhkh (786)

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The term “Alid” is one that I don’t think has broken out of academic circles, so with apologies to folks who already know what it means, I think we need to define it before we get into today’s anniversary. Luckily it’s not complicated—in Middle Eastern studies, “Alid” refers to descendants of Ali, the son in-law/cousin of Muhammad and the central figure for Shiʿa. In that sense, it is related to Shiʿism (which comes from shiʿat ʿAli, or “the partisans of Ali”) though it is not synonymous with that term in that the term “Shiʿism” implies political and/or religious claims where as “Alid” just refers to ancestry. Where the two terms can overlap and become confusing is in discussing early movements in support of Ali’s family.

Because Shiʿism, like any other religious movement, took a while to coalesce around a set (or sets, given its multiple branches) of principles, dating its “origin” is imprecise. What we know as Shiʿism today began as a purely political argument about who should properly succeed Muhammad, while the religious differences that separate Sunni and Shiʿa developed over time. In a way that manages to make things both more precise and more confusing, many historians refer to early political pro-Ali movements as Alid, rather than Shiʿa, I suppose because that helps convey the notion that the issue was more political than religious. To refer to them as Shiʿa could anachronistically heap upon them a bunch of modern theological baggage and implies religious motives that the rebels at the time probably didn’t have.

There were so many Alid rebellions against the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates that it would drive you all crazy if I tried to catalogue each one of them. All were regarded by caliphal authorities as threats, because Alid rebels tended to appeal to the large and always growing non-Arab denizens of the caliphate and because ideologically the Alids challenged the entire underpinning of caliphal legitimacy. That said, most of these rebellions never rose beyond the level of minor inconvenience, and the vast majority were suppressed with a single, often not even particularly large, battle.

The uprising that was quickly dispatched at the Battle of Fakhkh (a valley near Mecca) on (give or take) June 11, 786, was in immediate effect no different from most of the others. In fact it was among the shortest of these sorts of uprisings, thoroughly quashed after only one lopsided battle after which its leader, a great grandson (I think, genealogies can get a little obscure in these sorts of cases) of Ali’s eldest son Hasan, was executed for his trouble. It’s a thoroughly unremarkable Alid rebellion except in one respect: one of the rebel leaders, another great grandson of Ali named Idris b. Abdullah (d. 791), survived the battle and fled west—as far west as he could go, in fact.

I can practically hear you all saying “so what” at this point, but here’s what: after Idris got all the way to the westernmost part of North Africa and his only other option would have been to start swimming across the Atlantic Ocean, which was around 788, he founded (we’re told) the city of Fez. Around the same time, he was taken in by the Awraba Berbers, one of the few Berber tribes in the area that had already adopted Islam, who regarded him as their religious leader. Idris’s stature as a real deal descendant of Muhammad gave him an inherent authority that nobody in that far off corner of the early Islamic world could match.


Idrisid Dynasty at its largest extent (Omar-Toons via Wikimedia Commons)

Between his fancy new city and the support of his Berber followers and his bloodline Idris became the founder and namesake of a brand new dynasty, the Idrisids, which eventually conquered and converted much of western North Africa. Idris himself extended Awraba control as far east as Tlemcen, though his assassination by Abbasid agents in 791 left it to his son, Idris II (d. 828) to really begin the process of building up the new kingdom. They were a Shiʿa dynasty—Zaydi Shiʿa to be precise although, again, what “Shiʿa” means at this point in history is hazy and what “Zaydi” means even more so. The Idrisids survived until, pinched between the Fatimid Caliphate to the east and the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba to the north, they finally gave way to the latter in the second half of the tenth century. Morocco came under the Almoravid Dynasty a few decades later, as the Umayyad caliphate crumbled.

The Idrisids weren’t a terribly powerful dynasty, but through their military conquests and their success in spreading Islam throughout the surrounding region they, and therefore Idris I, are considered the founders of the modern kingdom of Morocco. Which seems like a pretty important legacy for one relatively insignificant battle.