Rulers of Morocco since the sixteenth century, when the modern principle was first established that they be sharifs—descendants of the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam.
The cult of the Sharif was introduced in Morocco under Idris II in the early ninth century but went into abeyance. Sharifism became established in Morocco as a response to the crises of the sixteenth century—occasioned by Christian efforts to extend the reconquista (reconquest) of the Iberian Peninsula into Morocco; large-scale tribal migrations in North Africa; the fragmentation of the Moroccan polity following the decline of the Merinid dynasty; the rise of regional Sufi powers; and the conquest of Algeria in 1517 by the Ottoman Empire.
Both the Saʿdians (1548–1641) and the Alawi (1668–present) were Alids, and traced their descent to Muhammad through his son-in-law Ali, but they were Sunni rather than followers of Shiʿism. Both assembled powerful political coalitions that combined tribal solidarities, rural Sufism, and Shari-fism. Both rose to power after first securing control over southern Morocco and then conquered the cities and Atlantic plains. Both were responses to the long-term crisis of legitimization caused by the fragmentation of Islam's power in the Maghrib (North Africa) and al-Andalus (Iberian province) and especially to the threat posed by the Spanish and Portuguese, who had driven the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula and unified their countries under Catholic monarchs.
The Saʿdians emerged in the period 1514–1548 as opponents of the Portuguese in southern Morocco and revivers of Islam. Under Muhammad al-Shaykh, they defeated the reigning Wattasids, conquered Fez and Marrakech, and stabilized Morocco's frontiers at roughly their present borders. Under Ahmad al-Mansur (1578–1603), the state was reorganized along Ottoman principles, including notably a force of musketeers, financed by the production of sugar for export on royal estates. The conquest of Timbuktu in 1591 briefly gave Morocco direct access to the salt and gold of the sub-Saharan zone. With the help of an alliance with Elizabethan merchant adventurers, the Saʿdians were able to defeat the Iberians and confine them to a few coastal enclaves. Following the death of Ahmad in 1603, the Saʿdians went into a long decline, as the result of dynastic conflict, a resurgence of Iberian threat, and the reemergence of regional power centers of which the zawiya (community) of Dila in the Middle Atlas mountains and the Andalusian corsair republic of Sala were the most important.
The rise of the Alawis, cousins of the Saʿdians, took place under Muhammad al-Sharif and Rashid, who were able to defeat the Dila Marabouts and assert their control over Morocco by 1668. The consolidator of the dynasty was Ismaʿil (1672–1727), a remarkable ruler who by incessant warfare and systematic organization was able to bring the disparate regions of the state under control. Ismaʿil restructured the army around a contingent of musket-wielding black slaves, defeated the Sufi brotherhoods, and imposed a system of heavy taxation. He expelled foreign occupiers, notably the Spanish from Larache and the British from Tangier. Henceforth, Moroccan sultans styled themselves as "Commander of the Faithful," an implicit claim to the caliphate otherwise also claimed by the Ottomans. Following Ismaʿil's death, however, the army revolted, and power once again fragmented.
After the turbulent reign of Abdullah, who was deposed five times between 1727 and 1757, the state was reorganized under Muhammad III (1757–1790), the architect of "modern," that is, precolonial, Morocco. By de-emphasizing the tax on agricultural produce and increasing trade (and thus customs revenues), Muhammad III provided an alternate basis for the state finances without disturbing the potentially volatile rural populations. The port of Essaouira was founded in 1767 to place the foreign trade of the Atlantic coast of Morocco under government control.
By emphasizing the religious aspects of his leadership as sultan, caliph, and sharif, Muhammad III sought to counter the reassertion of the maraboutic forces in the countryside. By constant diplomatic negotiation with foreign powers and constant bargaining with local authorities, he devised a precarious balance for the Moroccan state. Its dependence upon foreign commerce made it vulnerable to foreign intervention, however, while the absence of a strong army deprived it of any means to reassert its control over the population.
Under Sulayman (1792–1822) and Abd alRahman ibn Hisham (1822–1859), Morocco entered into a precolonial phase, increasingly dependent upon foreign trade and increasingly vulnerable to European pressure, notably signing after 1856 a series of treaties granting most-favored nation status to leading European powers. In retaliation for Moroccan support of the Algerian resistance leader Abd al-Qadir, Moroccan ports were shelled by the French navy, and a Moroccan army was defeated at Isly in 1844. A war with Spain in 1859–1860 over the city of Tetuan was settled only after Morocco agreed to pay a sizable indemnity and make other concessions.
Hassan I (1873–1894) sought to reverse the decline, with mixed results. His military and administrative reforms failed to survive his death, although his adroit diplomacy managed to buy time for Morocco in the face of rising European imperialist ambitions. His successors Abd al-Aziz and Abd alHafid also sought to introduce needed reforms and to play off the European powers, but with less success. The Moroccan Question (1900–1912) marks a period of increase in European rivalries over Morocco. In 1912 the Treaty of Fes with France and the Spanish–Moroccan accords marked the formal end of Moroccan independence.
The protectorates of France and Spain lasted from 1912 to 1956. During this period, Moroccan sultans Mulay Youssef (1912–1927) and Muhammad V (1927–1961) were formally incorporated into the French colonial administration, their titles confirmed, but their powers largely alienated to the European occupiers and their local Moroccan agents through a factional delegation. With the rise of nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Muhammad V began increasingly to show his sympathy for the nationalists. In 1946 he publicly broke with the French and assumed leadership of the nationalist movement.
Since 1956, independent Morocco has continued to be governed by the Alawite dynasty. The present sultan, Hassan II, assumed power in 1961 upon the death of his father.
see also abd al-aziz ibn al-hassan; abd alhafid ibn al-hassan; abd al-qadir; abd al-rahman ibn hisham; alawi; alawite dynasty; fes, treaty of (1912); hassan i; hassan ii; moroccan question; muhammad; muhammad v; sufism and the sufi orders; suleiman, mulay; youssef, mulay.
Julien, Charles André. History of North Africa, translated by John Petrie. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Laroui, Abdullah. The History of the Maghrib, translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Pennell, C. R. Morocco since 1830: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
edmund burke iii