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Dictionary of African Biography


Edited by Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Print Publication Date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780195382075

Published online: 2011

Current Online Version: 2011

eISBN: 9780199857258

(c. 1440c. 1505),


Algerian Islamic religious figure, was born in Tlemcen, western Algeria, around 1440 to Berber parents from the Maghila tribe.
His full name is Muhammad or Mahammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Maghili.
Al-Maghili is famous on two counts: first, for his role in anti-Jewish activities in the oasis of Tuat (southern Algeria) and,
second, for his missionary activities in the Bilad al-Sudan, which are generally seen as pivotal to the spread of Islam in the
kingdoms along the bend of the Niger River. While there is some question as to his actual influence and success during his
lifetime, his writings continued to be referred to in West Africa until at least the nineteenth century and it became a mark of
prestige to incorporate him into spiritual and scholarly genealogies. It is in this context that he is cited in Qadiri Kuntas chains
of spiritual authority and, probably falsely, celebrated as a sharif (a descendant of the Prophet).
The fifteenth century was a turbulent time for Muslims in the Mediterranean. In 1415 Portugal captured Ceuta and then
proceeded to establish its control over northwest Morocco as well as trading posts down the Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, waves
of Jews and Muslims began to leave Spain, which initiated its decade-long final offensive against Muslim Granada in 1482.
Neither the Wattasid rulers in Fez nor the Zayyanids in Tlemcen proved able to respond effectively to Christian encroachment,
leaving resistance in the hands of local tribal shaykhs, warrior mystics, and the shurafa, a situation characterized as the
Maraboutic crisis in Moroccan historiography.
Little is known of al-Maghilis childhood or adolescence, but he was certainly well educated in the religious sciences, studying
with Abd al-Rahman al-Thalabi of Tunis and Yahya ibn Yadir of Tuat, although where exactly he studied with them is not
known. At some point, possibly 1477/78, al-Maghili took the trans-Saharan trade route, which linked Tlemcen to Timbuktu,
and traveled south to the oasis of Tuat. He also seems to have visited other trading centers on the northern edge of the Sahara:
Gurara, Tafilalt, and Dara. In Tuat, he settled in Tamantit, one of the fortified villages around the oasis that was inhabited by
Muslims and Jews, where he established a zawiya, a religious retreat, which he used as a base to preach a reformist message

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based on the Islamic injunction to command the good and prohibit wrongdoing.
Al-Maghilis hardline reformism reflected the perception that Islam was in crisis and in need of renewal. Al-Maghili believed
that Muslims had become lax and allowed non-Muslims too much power, not only Christians, whose military superiority was
evident, but also Jews within Islamic lands who enjoyed positions of power and wealth granted them by Muslim rulers. This
was the case not only on the Mediterranean littoral but even in the Saharan oases, where the Jewish trading community may
well have been swelled by wealthy migrants from Iberia, creating tensions with some Muslim merchants and the mass of the
Muslim population, who were generally poor.
According to the dhimma, or pact, between Muslims and their non-Muslim subjects, the latter were obliged to pay a poll tax
(jizya), worship discreetly, and not bear arms or hold positions of power over Muslims. In a famous tract called Ahkam ahl
al-dhimma (Rulings Pertaining to the People of the Covenant), al-Maghili criticized the Jews of Tuat for not paying the jizya or
adhering to the rules supposed to abase them and chastised the Muslim rulers of the region for allowing Jewish merchants to
flout these rules to the detriment of the Muslim community as a whole.
Al-Maghilis hardline position was not supported by the local qadi, Abd Allah al-Asnuni, or by most Maghrebi jurists; but it
received the backing of some scholars from Tlemcen, a city where Jewish prosperity had already created resentment and fueled
communal violence. Al-Maghilis position crystallized on the issue of the legality of the synagogue: he asserted that its
construction had been contrary to Islamic law and that it should be destroyed. He incited a mob attack on the synagogue of
Tuat around 1490 and promised seven mithqals of gold for every Jew killed, causing many to flee for their lives, although
Hunwick (1985, Al-Mahili) notes that the need for a financial incentive shows some reluctance among the Muslim Tuatis to
follow his lead.
Al-Maghili left Tuat shortly after this. He may have gone to Wattasid Fez to seek patronage or to preach reform. In either case,
his mission failed; and he continued to West Africa, where he preached in several places including Tagedda, Katsina, and
Kano. While in Kano, al-Maghili wrote an advice treatise for the ruler, Muhammad Runfa. In the late 1490s he moved to Gao,
where Askiya Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, recently returned from pilgrimage, turned to him as a source of legitimation. The legal
replies he gave to questions from Askiya Muhammad, which have been edited and translated by John Hunwick (1985, Sharia),
reflect on the two issues which exercised al-Maghili throughout his life: the demarcation of boundaries between Muslims and
non-Muslims and the identification of bad and good Muslims. It appears that having moved away from the syncretic Islam
of his Gao courtiers, Askiya Muhammad experimented with al-Maghilis militant Islam as a prop for his regime.
Around 1500, al-Maghili received news that some Jews in Tuat had killed one of his sons, perhaps Abd al-Jabbar, who was
involved in the destruction of the synagogue, and insisted that Askiya Muhammad arrest all Tuatis in his domains. The qadi of
Timbuktu (also Tombouctou), Mahmud Aqit, objected to the imprisonment of innocent people; and they were released, an
event which seems to signal the end of al-Maghilis influence with Askiya Muhammad and the latters decision to turn to the
clerics of Timbuktu for legitimation. Al-Maghili left for Tuat but did not succeed in avenging his sons death. He retired at the
oasis, where he died shortly afterward in 1503/04 or 1504/05.
Al-Maghili can be seen as the product of a particular radical, reformist strand of Maghrebi Islam, represented also by the
Almohad reformer Ibn Tumart three centuries earlier. His desire to establish boundaries and denounce Muslims who fraternized
with non-Muslims as unbelievers also calls to mind the later Arabian reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
Characterized as a fanatic, a firebrand, and a reformer, al-Maghili was too radical and uncompromising for most of his
contemporaries; but his writings, especially his correspondence with Askiya Muhammad, had considerable impact over the
centuries. They had particular resonance for Uthman dan Fodio and other jihad leaders in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, keen to make distinctions between Muslims, lax Muslims, and non-Muslims. It was thus primarily after his death that

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al-Maghili achieved fame and reputation as a key figure in the slow spread of Islam in West Africa.
[See also ABD AL-WAHHAB, MUHAMMAD; and UTHMAN DAN FODIO.]

bibliography

Alfonso, Esperanza. Abd al-Karim al-Maghili. Un paralelo magreb a los acontecimientos de 1066 en Granada. In Jewish Studies at
the Turn of the Twentieth Century, edited by J. Targarona Borrs and A. Senz-Badillos, Vol. 1, pp. 370378. Leiden, The Netherlands:
E.J. Brill, 1999.
Find this resource:
Batran, Abd al-Aziz. A Contribution to the Biography of Shaikh Muhammad b. Abd al-Karim b. Muhammad (Umar-Amar) al-Maghili
al-Tilimsani. Journal of African History 14 (1973): 381394.
Find this resource:
Blum, Charlotte and Humphrey Fisher. Love for Three Oranges, or, the Askiyas Dilemma: The Askiya, al-Maghili and Timbuktu, c. 1500
AD. Journal of African History 34, no. 1 (1993): 6591.
Find this resource:
Hiskett, M. An Islamic Tradition of Reform in the Western Sudan from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Bulletin of the School of
Oriental and African Studies 25, no. 3 (1962): 577596.
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Hunwick, J. O. Al-Mahili (sic) and the Jews of Tuwat: The Demise of a Community. Studia Islamica 61 (1985): 155183.
Find this resource:
Hunwick, J. O. Sharia in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghili to the Questions of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad. British Academy, Fontes
Historiae Africanae. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Find this resource:
Vajda, G. Un trait maghrbin adversos Judaeos: Ahkam ahl al-dimma du Shaykh Muhammad b. Abd al-Karim al-Maghili. In
Etudes dOrientalisme ddies la memoire de Lvi-Provenal, Vol. 2. Paris: Maisonneuve, 1962.
Find this resource:

A. K. BENNISON

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