Mohammed bin Abu Amer, an 11th century Andalusian of Yemeni descent, was one of the greatest Arab leaders in history. Today, his life and career have a new relevance after the popular revolts and amid the changing dynamics in the Middle East.
His great-grandfather fought along with the Berber conqueror of Spain, Tariq ibn Ziyad, and then chose to settle in Torrox, a small town in the far south some distance from Cordoba. Abu Amer’s father resigned from his post as a judge in Cordoba, preferring to lead a humble life in Torrox.
The young Andalusian chose a different path, however. He moved to Cordoba to continue his studies and pursue his political ambitions.
Andalusia was then ruled by the Umayyad Caliphs, but effectively run by a class of European slaves known as the Saqaliba (probably a corruption of the Greek word sklavinoi, meaning slaves). Although the Saqaliba were oppressive and corrupt, the caliphs tolerated them because of their expertise in running palace affairs.
Historical documents report that Abu Amer told his friends that he would one day rule Andalusia and put an end to the Saqaliba. And he did, later becoming known in medieval Europe as Almanzor, ruling Andalusia for nearly 30 years and expanding his kingdom far beyond the reach of his predecessors.
His life in Cordoba before he became a king is actually more interesting. He gained popularity in the capital for his intelligence, ambition and audacious rows with the Saqaliba, and he was known for preaching justice and consultative governance.
He was recommended by one of the caliph’s ministers to become the manager of estates for the caliph’s newborn son. His skills and education caught the attention of the ruler, who later appointed him to become the hajib, more or less the equivalent of a prime minister.
During his tenure as hajib, the Iberian peninsula became more prosperous and stable. When the caliph died, Abu Amer gradually became the de facto ruler after defeating a succession bid of one of the caliph’s brothers backed by the Saqaliba.
After consolidating power, he began to contradict himself and drift towards authoritarianism and delusion. He saw any dissatisfaction as an expression of the public’s ignorance of its own interests, and protest as limited to a small group of misguided conspirators, while the real enemy was lurking on the peninsula’s borders.
He became a tyrant, dismissing his ministers’ opposing views as lacking in vision. He turned against the people who had helped him to become ruler and killed several of those who were close to him - including his own son for conspiring against him.
Today, Almanzor represents an idealised post-Caliphate Muslim ruler: a pious and just ruler, who - to indicate sincerity - carried his own coffin with him into the battles he led. In Islamic scholastic tradition, a ruler is often assessed on such merits, and the decline of Islamic states is typically blamed on the last ruler, who is often portrayed as weak and unable to conquer his opponents. Islamic scholars seldom look into the long-term factors that led to the decline.
Tyranny was a major factor in the demise of many of those states. Yet, to this day, we find scholars arguing that a “just tyrant” is the ideal ruler in Muslim countries that cannot be governed except by a strong hand.
We still hear phrases like “equality in injustice is justice” - which fails to recognise the basis of the rule of law, and the protection of individual rights that is inherent in a just state. Such a system does not give a free pass to leaders just because they have made contributions to the state.
Look at the examples of the nationalist regimes of the two Assads in Syria, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt. All behaved as if the state owed them something, and not the other way around.
From Syria to Tunisia to Yemen, the question is asked: what is the alternative to the old authoritarian regimes? Supporters of those regimes often claim the opposition is not a viable option. But what is really needed is a just system of governance, not any particular individual. Such a system will ensure, regardless of who leads, good governance.
In today’s Middle East, a new challenge emerges as people seek to ensure individual rights in new democracies. How can rights be strengthened as political groups consolidate power through the democratic process? That challenge is as true for Turkey as it is for Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and soon Syria. That is a separate phase of a revolution entirely.
The success of Islamists in Turkey, for example, is widely seen as proof that Islamists can work within a democratic framework. But what it really means is that Turkish secularism and civil institutions can accommodate the Islamists, not the other way around.
What happened to Al Andalus after Almanzor died? The kingdom began to fracture, civil wars erupted and years later it split into mini-kingdoms ruled by tribal and ethnic leaders. Four centuries later, the infighting led to definitive defeat at the hands of the Christian armies.