By the eleventh century, Islam had spread throughout the west Sahara under the influence of Berber and Arab traders and occasional Arab migrants. Nevertheless, traditional religious practices thrived. The conquest of the entire west Saharan region by the Almoravids in the eleventh century made possible a more orthodox Islamization of all the peoples of Mauritania.
The breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation in the early eleventh century led to a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berber groups of Mauritania. In about 1039, a chief of the Djodala, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca bringing with him a Sanhadja theologian, Abdallah ibn Yassin, to teach a more orthodox Islam. Rejected by the Djodala two years later, after the death of Ibn Ibrahim, Ibn Yassin and some of his Sanhadja followers retired to a secluded place where they built a fortified religious center, a ribat, which attracted many Sanhadja. In 1042 the al murabitun (men of the ribat), as Ibn Yassin's followers came to be called, launched a jihad, or holy war, against the nonbelievers and the heretics among the Sanhadja, beginning what later become known as the Almoravid movement. The initial aim of the Almoravids was to establish a political community in which the ethical and juridical principles of Islam would be strictly applied.
First, the Almoravids attacked and subdued the Djodala, forcing them to acknowledge Islam. Then, rallying the other Berber groups of the west Sahara, the Almoravids succeeded in recreating the political unity of the Sanhadja Confederation and adding to it a religious unity and purpose. By 1054 the Almoravids had captured Sijilmasa in the Maghrib and had retaken Aoudaghast from Ghana.
With the death of Ibn Yassin in 1059, leadership of the movement in the south passed to Abu Bakr ibn Unas, amir of Adrar, and to Yusuf ibn Tashfin in the north. Under Ibn Tashfin, the Berbers captured Morocco and founded Marrakech as their capital in 1062. By 1082 all of the western Maghrib (to at least present-day Algiers) was under Almoravid domination. In 1086 the Andalusian amirates, under attack from the Spanish Christian king Alfonso and the Christian reconquest of Spain, called on Ibn Tashfin and his Berber warriors to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and come to their rescue. The Almoravids defeated the Spanish Christians and, by 1090, imposed Almoravid rule and the Maliki school of Islamic law in Muslim Spain.
In Mauritania, Abu Bakr led the Almoravids in a war against Ghana (1062-76), culminating in the capture in 1076 of Koumbi Saleh. This event marked the end of the dominance of the Ghana Empire. But after the death of Abu Bakr in 1087 and Ibn Tashfin in 1106, traditional rivalries among the Sanhadja and a new Muslim reformist conquest led by the Zenata Almohads (1133-63) destroyed the Almoravid Empire.
For a short time, the Mauritanian Sanhadja dynasty of the Almoravid Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from Spain to Senegal. The unity established between Morocco and Mauritania during the Almoravid period continued to have some political importance in the 1980s, as it formed part of the basis for Morocco's claims to Mauritania. But the greatest contribution of the Sanhadja and the Almoravids was the Islamization of the western Maghrib. This process would remain a dominant factor in the history of the area for the next several centuries.
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