Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Alaouites and the Origins of the Modern Monarchy

Alaouites and Modern Monarchy
Alaoui empire at the beginning of the 18th century. Source: C.R. Pennell


Since independence in 1956, each of Morocco’s constitutions has made monarchy a principal basis of the state. It is embodied in an ancient dynasty, the Alaouites, dating back to the mid-17th century, the oldest surviving ruling family in the Arab world.

Although the modern constitution derived from modern nationalism and the struggle for independence, the monarchy is legitimised by its long history and its religious function: the head of state is the King, who is ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (amir al-mu’minin). Constitutionally he is the political head of a community defined by belief.

His authority, baraka, is an inherited quality passed by descent from the founder of the Alaouite dynasty Moulay al-Cherif and his son Moulay al-Rashid (1666-1672), who seized power when the Saadi dynasty disintegrated. Both Alaouites and Saadis claimed their legitimacy through descent from the Prophet Muhammad, but so did many other lineages. They reinforced prophetic descent by the ability to command force and exercise power.

The Alaouites

The Alaouites came from the desert fringes near Sijilmasa. During the fragmentation caused by the seventeenth-century civil war Muhammad al-Alaoui took control of the Tafilalt region. His son Muhammad II proclaimed himself sultan in 1640 or 1641, but the real creators of the dynasty were his brothers Rashid, who took Fez in 1666 and Marrakesh in 1669 and Ismail who took over in 1672 when Rashid died.

Mouley Ismail

Alaouites and modern monarchy
Central courtyard of the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes. Manuel Cohen via AFP

Ismail, who ruled until 1727, acted with such vigour that he became proverbial as a tough ruler. Taxation was very heavy and his famous cruelty led some Muslim legal scholars to justify rebellion against him, saying that he exceeded legal limits.

Ruling by force, Ismail used his army of black slave soldiers, the Abid al-Bukhari. He wiped out the local warlords, and fortified the eastern borders against the Turks. He won over the main sharifian families in Fez and courted tribal leaders. His capital, Meknès, was inland, surrounded by rich farmlands and enclosed by 25 kilometres of wall. On the coast, Rabat was fortified by the qasba of Oudaya.

Ismail chased the Spanish out of their remaining Atlantic outposts, but not the Mediterranean forts. He retook Tangier from the English. At sea, he made the corsairs instruments of his state and gained a large income from ransoming their captives, and diplomatic leverage with some of the European powers.

Ismail also appointed governors and officials deep in the Sahara and his army retook control of the trans-Saharan trade routes. Trade was as important as warfare, the lifeblood of his state. He depended on Jews as his principal agents for foreign trade. Morocco exported wax, wool, copper, tin, lead, dates, almonds, ostrich feathers and hides, and imported silk, cotton, and spices, arms and gunpowder.

The importance of trade

After Ismail died, there were waves of rebellion until his grandson Muhammad III (1757-1792) restored order winning the support of the ulama, the legal scholars. He concentrated on trade to win revenue, reaching commercial treaties with European powers, enabling him to effectively abandon corsairing. In 1765 he began building a new port, Essaouira (Mogador), and gave it a monopoly within all the trade of the south.

Alaouites and Modern Monarchy
Essaouira is an exceptional example of a late-18th-century fortified town, built according to the principles of contemporary European military architecture in a North African context. Since its foundation, it has been a major international trading seaport, linking Morocco and its Saharan hinterland with Europe and the rest of the world. Source: UNESCO

Once again, much of the business was done by Jewish agents. Muhammad III relied on traders, often of Andalusian origin, to run the financial system, and the word for ‘treasury’ (makhzan) came to be applied to the government as a whole. In 1786, Muhammad signed a treaty with the United States, becoming the first sovereign to recognise the newly independent union. In 1821 his son Sulaiman, gave the American government a building to use as its consulate in Tangier, which was the first piece of property acquired abroad by the US government. It now operates it as a museum.

The reign of Muhammad III, a strong ruler, was followed by years of tumult. Eventually his son Sulaiman restored order and rebuilt international trade. He also secured the succession for his son Abderrahman (1822-1859) by winning the obedience of the scholars. The ulama now had a pivotal role in determining new sultans. But the European powers were more menacing than before – particularly after the French invasion of Algeria in 1830.

Further Reading