Murcian Moors: The Wolf King & The Philosopher

The rich North African and Arabic heritage of Murcia has long been a subject of great interest to European historians. The term ‘Moors’ was first used by Christian Europeans to describe the Muslim inhabitants of what was called the ‘Maghreb’ which included areas of North-Western Africa such as Morocco, Tunisia, Mauretania, Libya, Algeria and parts of the Sahara. In 711 CE, Moorish troops from Northern Africa crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and landed in the Iberian Peninsula. During the following eight years, these invaders fought a successful military campaign in which most of Spain and Portugal was brought under Islamic Moorish control. For the next 700 years, the Moors dominated the culture and politics of Spain, and left behind them a remarkable artistic, architectural and military legacy which can still be identified to this day.

The Wolf King

In 713 CE forces under emir Abd al Aziz occupied the Province of Murcia, but it wasn’t until the years between 825 and 831 CE that the Arab ruler of Moorish Spain, Abd al-Rahman II, founded the city of Murcia on the site of an old Roman settlement. The Moorish rulers of the new city created complex irrigation channels, using the river Segura, which helped ensure the prosperity of those that lived in the area.

Mihrab of a Mardanish mosque in Murcia (Gregorico)
Mihrab of a Mardanish mosque in Murcia (Gregorico)

By 1142, the Moorish city of Murcia was at the heart of a new kingdom (or taifa) of Murcia which also encompassed additional lands within the Regions of Almeria and Valencia. Between 1147 and 1172, the ruler of the kingdom of Murcia was the ruthless so-called Wolf King, Ibn Mardanish. Mardanish faced military threats and rivals throughout his reign. In his very first year as King, a relative named Yusuf Ibn Hilal raised an army to topple Mardanish. The forces of Hilal and Mardanish clashed in a vicious battle outside the town walls of Moratalla. On this occasion, Mardanish was defeated, but the Wolf King was resourceful and determined and gathered new forces in Murcia which ultimately destroyed the armies of Ibn Hilal. Mardanish eventually captured Ibn Hilal, and had his relative blinded and then imprisoned for life. 

In Autumn 1165 Mardanish and Murcia faced a new threat from a massive Almohed (north African Berber) army which was advancing on Lorca. 

Mardanish quickly gathered his forces, and raced to the defence of Lorca. The two armies met in a huge battle roughly ten miles south of Murcia City, near Alhama (not too far from the modern golf course). Islamic sources refer to the engagement as the battle of Fahs al-Julab, which was an emphatic victory for the Almohads. Mardanish’s army was routed, and the Wolf King was forced to seek refuge behind Lorca’s town walls. He continued as King until his death in 1172, but real power was slipping away, and the Almohads went on to control most of Spain and north Africa.

The Philosopher

Image of Mohidin Abenarabi (Unknown Author)
Image of Mohidin Abenarabi (Unknown Author)

Mohidin Abenarabi was born in Murcia on 28 July 1165. His father was a Murcian who served in the armies of the Wolf King, and his mother was a Berber. When Mardanish died in 1172, Abenarabi’s father changed his allegiance to the Almohad Sultan, and moved his family to live in Seville. Young Abenarabi grew up in the Sultan’s court, where he received a military training, and became secretary to the governor of Seville. However, as an adult it soon became clear that Mohidin’s real interests lay in poetry, philosophy, religion and travel, rather than with military and administrative matters. He travelled throughout the Islamic world, to North Africa, Jerusalem, Mecca, Baghdad, Turkey and Damascus. He became a renowned teacher and writer, with over 800 books and manuscripts ascribed to his name – a hundred of which survive to this day. Abenarabi’s largest work, by far, was the Meccan Illuminations, which ran to a mind boggling 37 volumes, and totalled over 15,000 pages. The Murcian born man’s philosophical and religious ideas were known throughout the Islamic world, where he was dubbed the ‘Reviver of Religion’. In addition, Abenarabi was also known in medieval Christian Europe as Dr Maximus.

Abenarabi's tomb in Damascus (Nuruddin)
Abenarabi’s tomb in Damascus (Nuruddin)

Abenarabi (aka Dr Maximus) may well have been a source of inspiration to the Italian Dante Alighieri, who wrote the famous epic poem The Divine Comedy in 1301. The Divine Comedy charts a soul’s journey through hell and purgatory to heaven, and it contains some of the classic Christian depictions of the torments and punishments endured in the burning pits of hell. Many of Dante’s torments were very similar to those written about earlier on by Abenarabi. 

Portrait_od Dante c. 1495 (Sandro Bottecielli)
Portrait_od Dante c. 1495 (Sandro Bottecielli)

These similarities have been picked up and analysed by British and Spanish historians and journals for well over a century. It is ironic to think that many of the most iconic and traditional images of a Christian hell may well have been inspired by the ideas of an Islamic philosopher from Murcia in Spain.

(Adrian & Dawn Leyland Bridge, March 2022).