By Jide Uwechia
“Zenaga/Sanhaja tribe: Berber tribe of southern Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal who gave their name to modern Senegal, their original homeland. They formed one of the sub-saharan tribes of Berbers which, uniting under the leadership of Yusef bin Tashfin, crossed the Sahara and gave a dynasty to Morocco and Spain, namely, that of the Almoravides. The Zeirid dynasty which supplanted the Fatimites in the Maghrib built the city of Algiers was also of Zenaga origin .
Zenaga: dialect of Berber spoken in southern Morocco and on the banks of the lower Senegal, largely by the negro population.” http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/YAK_ZYM/ZENAGA_SANHAJA_SENAJER_.html
African Moors: The Sanhajalese Empire – by Jide Uwechia
Sanhaja is the name of a group of Africans who live on the Saharan fringes of the present day Senegal. They are one of the so-called black people or the subsaharans or the tropical Africans. Historically, they are one of the Berber tribes who constituted the main thrust of the Moorish conquest and civilization of Europe.
Reference is made to their phenotype so that it is immediately obvious that we are re-visiting the great history of an unambiguously so-black nation in West Africa. It will be shown here that the place known as West Africa today, is indeed the old heartland of the Moorish Empire which spread on from there to Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Egypt to Spain, Italy, Palestine, even as far east as India and Indonesia where Moorish descendants still identify themselves by the Moorish designation.
The Sanhaja group has many branches which are spread out between the Senegal and the Niger rivers in West Africa, and north up to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in south and central regions. Yet without doubt, the Sanhajas were concentrated in the areas where the pseudo-intellectuals of the western media and academia describe as “sub-Saharan region” of Africa.
The Zenega branch of the Sanhajas are among the earliest settlers of Mauritania. In the past the Zenegas used to occupy the entire country of Mauritania as their dialect was the language spoken throughout the country. Historical events, lost wars, and hegemonic practices of usurpers have contrived to push the Zenegas out of a good part of their major haunts. Today, they still live in the Sahara deserts but more southerly positioned. They presently occupy the areas between Senegal and south Mauritania.
History records that in the 9th century AD the kingdom of Masufa and the kingdom of Lamtuna formed an alliance that created Mauritania. Those founder kingdoms of Mauritania were Sanhaja-related groups.
Tilani was the prime mover of this Sanhaja alliance which created Mauritania. Sanhajalese-Mauritania struggled in its early days as it competed against the other existing kingdoms of the West African region of the Moorish Empire sometimes called Bilad-al-Sudan, or Moorish Sudan. Bilad-al-Sudan meant to the Arabic-writing historians who used that term, the various Kingdoms of Sudan which had a ruling political network of the Moorish dynasties. This area covered North and West Africa.
The then Sanhajalese-Mauritania flourished for a brief 100 years before it fell apart in the 11th century. Yet from the remnant of the part of the defunct empire, another group of Sanhajas began organizing what was to become one of the most fascinating Empires that came out of West Africa which history is never told anymore.
The Zenega language is named after the Mauritanian branch of the Sanhajas. It is a Berber language spoken by more than 200 groups between Senegal and Mauritania. It is said to represent the most divergent branch of the Berber language.
Some argue that the present day name of Senegal derived from the name “Zenega” which itself is a derivative of the word Sanhaja, hence the title of this write-up “the Sanhajalese Empire”. The ancestors of the modern day “Senegalese” are the old “Zenegalese” or the Moorish “Sanhajalese” of famed history.
Zenega language came under its first pressure when the Fatmids dynasty, another Sanhaja group which had set up a caliphate covering Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, had wreaked a revenge on their other Sanhaja brethrens (the Zirid Dynasty who ruled as surrogates in the areas arouund modern Tunisia and Algeria) in the Maghreb.
The Zirids had converted to a different Islamic sect and consequently sought to dissociate from the Fatmid Caliphate. The Fatmid Dynasty ruler of the Caliphate sent in a major wave of Arabic speaking Bedouin refugee-settlers from Arabia and Yemen to disrupt and change the demographic ratio of that region in order to cripple it politically. These newer settlers were from the Beni Hilal Arab tribes of Yemen. They were Muslims as well but they had nothing to do with the conquest of Europe.
In spite of the demographic shift, the original Berber language was so rooted that Zenega was still spoken all over Mauritania and Northern Senegal until after the Zenegas lost a war to the Arabic-Hassaniya dialect speaking Maqil Arab in the 17th century. After the defeat Zenega language was actively discouraged whereas Hassaniya was promoted.
The new ruling elites also forbade the bearing of arms among the Zenegas. Their status was reduced from the original lords of the land to a servant class. They were encouraged to seek careers as Islamic scholars or locked into a never-ending cycle of dependency and servitude.
Presently the Zenega language is gone past its days of glory. The few speakers are either bilingual, with Hassaniya-Arabic being the main language of communication.
Yet there a few who still cling to the Zenega language as a symbol of cultural independence and identity. A Hassaniya proverb goes that “a Moor who speaks Zenega is not a Zenagui (a member of the servant class).”
So true because the Zenegas were not anybody’s whipping boy. They remain one of the most important past prime movers of the history of the modern world.
The present day Zenega-derived Sanhajas are the descendants of great legacy. Their ancestors were among the most important players in the list of founders of the so-called western civilization. In the next section we shall see just why this is so true.
The Almoravids – Holy Warriors of the Moorish Sanhajalese Empire
The word Almoravids is a poor European transliteration of the African word Al-Murabitum. It describes a learned and righteous Moorish warrior.
After the decay of the Sanhajalese empire of Mauritania in the West Africa, a vacuum occurred which had to be filled. The empire had splintered to its various component parts. Tribal groupings again roamed the desert and the most powerful was the Sanhaja-related Lamtuna tribe who were the main force behind the late Sanhajalese-Mauritania Empire.
The Lamtuna tribal grouping founded Ouadagoust, one of the trade terminals of the trans-Saharan trade route and one of the most celebrated cities of the Bilad-al-Sudan, or Moorish Sudan. They converted to Islam in the 9th century.
About the year 1040 A.D it is said that a certain Sanhajalese Lamtuna named Yahaya ibn Ibrahim went on pilgrimage and visited many holies cities of the Moorish-Islamic world, including Mecca, Kairoun – Tunisia, Cairo and Damascus. On this trip, especially the part in Kairoun, he encountered a mystical revelation that he was destined to be used to re-construct the Moorish Empire. He was schooled for this new role by the many mystics and visionaries of the many famous spiritual centers and Universities at Kairoun.
He was then asked to return to West Africa to train and raise a revived body of conscious Moorish religious teacher/warriors who would constitute the striking arm of the revolution which it was prophesied that he would lead. He returned home with a new vision and a new network of socio-religious activists. One of them was called Abdallah ibn Yasin.
Abdallah ibn Yasin was infused full with revolutionary zeal and a historical sense of purpose and place. He was a mystic and socio-religious visionary who formally belonged to the Maliki school of the Sunni branch of Islam. He was known to be an ascetic, strict and structured in his daily habits.
Their somewhat demanding view of life and interpretation of Islam was rejected widely by the Lamtunas who did not hesitate to send the duo of Yahaya ibn Ibrahim and Abdallah ibn Yasin packing to some other area out in the desert with their Maliki-School Koranic interpretations.
Shortly after their expulsion by the Lamtunas, the revolutionary duo of Yasin and Yahaya moved to an Island on the upper section of the River Niger and built a training school or “Rabit” as expressed in Arabic. Yahaya ibn Ibrahim and Abdallah ibn Yasin, carried on their difficult task of reviving the awareness of the Moors of his immediate vicinity, to a recognition of a sense of their origin and potentiality.
They preached a strict view of life, and promoted the knowledge of history, astrology, the sciences, medicine, mysticism, as well as military and martial arts. The graduates of their school were to be known as Murabitum, a nuanced name which possibly meant the learned Moors, or learned and holy Muslim warriors.
All over Western Sudan one comes across different cities or districts named Nasr or Nasara, i.e. Nasareth the country of Nasarenes. Usually those districts had been at some point in history a settlement of a group of Africans who collectively practiced what has come to be knkown as the Nasarene culture. There is a Nasreth in Ethiopia, and there is a district of Nasr in the Nassarawa (Nasarene) State of modern Nigeria. Similarly there were various Nasar settlements in modern day Mali, Mauretania, Senegal, and Niger. It is only in Africa that one finds towns and districts named Nasr time and again.
The Nasarene culture is thus an age old Saharan African order which precepts premeated some cultures of the North East Africa including ancient Israel and Arabia. This group and its rites are well known in the books of the Bible and Koran from such famous tales as the life and death of Samson.
The Nasarenes were persons dedicated either from birth or by personal commitment to the pursuit of universal principles of truths and justice. They usually end up as wise men, master of natural and scientific laws, and very knowledgeable scholars of history and spirituality. They were often the last line of defence for the principles of balance and righteousness. Often many Nasarenes wore the dreadlocks natural hair coiffure, as it was a symbol that fit their emphasis on natural spirituality as opposed to some human contrivance.
These special breed of holy people were widespread in traditional Africa before the spread of Islam. Some have claimed it is an order as old as life itself with Melchizadek the famous ever-living Priest of the book of Genesis as its founder.
Nasarene culture as such is a relic of ancient Africa which due to the vibrancy and strenght of its philosophical principles has been adopted by all shades and colors of religion and nationalities. It is an order of spiritual masters not particularly affiliated with any religion or organization.
Nasarenes are a rough equivalent of a Levite-like priestly order dedicated to guarding and promoting truth and righteousness and keeping the balance of justice. In today’s world, the Nasarenes would be similar to many aspects of the Rastasfari philosophy and reasoning framework.
Nasarene culture was a part of the Lamtuna culture of Western Sudan. It was not surprising that many practising Nazarenes were counted as stauch supporters of Ibrahim and Yasin.
Among the prominent corps and ranks of the students, teachers and martial artists who rallied round and accompanied Ibrahim and Yasin on their world changing mission, one found Murabitums or the Marabouts, and the Nasarenes. Yasin was the ideologue of the group whereas Yahaya ibn Ibrahim became the military organizer.
From the year 1053, the Almoravid movement of the Sanhajas began to expand from its territory in the border areas between present day Mauritania and Senegal. Their first base was the Northern Senegalese town of Tekrur.
The movement mainly used teachers and healers to spread their socio-political philosophy. However whenever their brethrens were threatened by local authorities, the marabouts or the Almoravids were more than willing to confront and often more than a match for the local authorities who had been weakened throughout the Moorish Empire by venality and corruption.
The Sanhajalese Trinity – Yahaya ibn Ibrahim, Abdallah ibn Yasin and Abubakar ibn Umar:
In 1054 the Almoravid movement had taken Sijilmasa at the northern terminus of the Trans-Saharan trade route, and in 1055 they took Aoudaghost at the southern end.
Yahaya ibn Ibrahim was killed in a battle in 1056 and Abdallah ibn Yasin appointed his brother Abubakar ibn Umar as the successor. Abubakar continued the aggrandisement of the medieval empire of the Sanhajas of Senegal spear-headed by the Almoravid movement.
Under Abubakar the Almoravids of Sanhaja swept through the Atlas Mountain regions of Morocco, and soon came into contact with the Berghouata branch of the Zenatas of central Morocco.
After a fierce fight with the local authorities, the Berghouatas ruling class was subjugated but not before they had succeeded in killing Abdallah ibn Yasin the major ideological force of the rapidly expanding West African based Sanhaja Empire of the so called Black-a- Moors.
Following the death of Yasin, Abubakar ibn Umar became both the ideological as well as the military leader of the Sanhaja Empire, destined to become one of the greatest African Empires ever established and often dubiously described as just “the Almoravid dynasty” by contemporary historians. The Sanhaja movement of the Almoravids built up a new political network where the previous ones had decayed, they built up a new society, a new polity, and a new state. They created a great empire, surely one of the largest geographical political hegemony established by a so-called “sub-Saharan” African based state.
As the Sanhajas expanded their reach, the capital of the empire remained in Tekrur, a city which served as the spiritual-cultural focal point of all true Sanhajas. In 1061, Abubakar, a natural mystic and intellectual decided to return to the Tekrur and focussed the rest of his life on a study of nature and mystics. Formally, he continued to rule and direct the movement and the emerging empire from inside Moorish Sudan or today’s so-called West Africa but most of his active powers he transferred to others.
Abubakar ibn Tashfin
Further spread of the philosophy of the Marabout movement and resulting military expeditions of were left in the hands of Abubakar’s cousin, one of the leading lights of the Almoravid named Yusuf ibn Tashfin.
Tashfin, who was then based in Morocco then assumed the role of Vice-Roy, became the de-facto leader of the movement. He continued to pay a royal tribute of allegiance to his cousin Abubakar until the death of the latter.
Yusuf ibn Tashfin was described by Ali ibn Abd allah in Roudh el-Kartas as “Brown in color, middle height, thin, little beard, soft voice, black eyes, straight nose, lock of Muhammad falling on top of his ear, eye brow joined, wooly hair”
In 1062, Yusuf ibn Tashfin founded the city of Marrakeshi (meaning the city of Keshi/Kushi, in honour of the black Moorish African builders and owners of the city). Due to the growing sway of his military prowess and material wealth, he acted with increasing independence from the empire capital in Tekrur. Although he still pledged nominal allegiance to his home capital, he quickly consolidated the base of this increasing power in his newly built capital city of Marrakeshi.
To Be Continued in Part II