Zaynab al-Nafzawiyya

Map of the Almoravid Empire during Zaynab’s lifetime. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Johanna Strong

The chronology of Zaynab Al-Nafzawiya’s life is rather uncertain, but she was born in Aghmat (modern-day Maghreb or Morocco) the chief commercial and cultural centre of the region, to Ishaq Al-Houari sometime in the early eleventh century.

She married Laggut, Aghmat’s last ruler, having previously been a concubine to the Aghmat leader Sheikh Yusuf ibn Ouatas. Zaynab was a politically minded woman, knowing with whom to ally and when. When it served her interests to do so, she married Abu Bakr ibn ‘Umar likely around 1068, to whom she served as a political advisor, though some historians argue she was the real source of power.

When her husband Yusuf was forced to leave the city to put down a rebellion in the desert they divorced, perhaps at Zaynab’s instigation. Yusuf had handed power to Yusuf ibn Tashfin, who soon became, in 1065, 1066, or 1071, Zaynab’s fourth husband. Together, they had at least two sons. Once again, Zaynab had married in such a way to maintain her power and influence, becoming essentially a queen regnant while her husband was on campaign and serving again as a political advisor. As a result of this marriage, she became Malika (or queen) of the Almoravid Empire, which was one of the largest empires in Moroccan history and stretched from the Ebro Valley in what is now Spain to modern-day Mauritania and all of North Africa to Algiers. She continued her role as Queen of Marrakech, newly designated as the capital, likely at Zaynab’s insistence.

Sources indicate that Zaynab was beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy, not to mention politically astute and ambitious. According to Moroccan tradition, she had no portraiture, no public processions, and no coronation, a demonstration of queens’ implicit authority. She died sometime after 1075, though likely in 1096.

Recommended Reading

Inês Lourinho, “Queen Zaynab Al-Nafzawiyya and the Building of a Mediterranean Empire in the Eleventh-Century Maghreb,” in A Companion to Global Queenship, ed., Elena Woodacre, 159-170 (Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2018)

“Zainab al-Nafzawiyya”, Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, 2021.

%d bloggers like this: