Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: The Almohads (1121 – 1269)

Morocco: The Almohads
Koutoubia mosque and grounds, Marrakech, Morocco. The mosque was completed in the reign of the Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur, 1184-1199. The minaret stands 77m tall and is built of sandstone bricks, topped with copper orbs. It is the largest mosque in Marrakech. Manuel Cohen via AFP


Both Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Tumart, the ‘Prophet’, and his general, Abd al-Mumin ibn Ali al-Goumi, were Berbers, but from the mountains, not the desert. Ibn Tumart was born on the northern side of the Anti-Atlas, a land of sedentary Amazigh farmers. Abd al-Mu’min was a mystic from near Tlemcen. The two met in Bejaia where Ibn Tumart briefly settled in about 1117, returning from a pilgrimage he never completed. Ibn Tumart had studied in Baghdad or Damascus. Fired by the idea of reforming the religion and the morals of the Maghreb, he preached against corrupted morals, music and luxury, promising a mahdi who would come to bring reform. In 1121 the two men arrived in Marrakesh, where the Almoravid rulers disliked their social criticism and the court scholars rejected their theology. So they fled to Tinmal, an isolated retreat in the High Atlas, where they built a following.

The rise of the Almohads

Ibn Tumart’s teaching was more spiritual than the one founded by the Almoravids. God was pure spirit, absolute, and unitary. His followers called themselves al-Muwahhidun – unitarians, or believers in the oneness of God, anglicised as ‘Almohads’. He called the Almoravids polytheists because they believed in God’s corporeal nature, but like them, he proposed an austere and moralistic Islam, with complete separation of the sexes, no music and no luxury.

Drawing on Shiite ideas of the hidden imam, Ibn Tumart announced himself to be the Mahdi, who would return before the Day of Judgment. Surrounded by tribal leaders and a phalanx of propagandists, Ibn Tumart extended his authority from Tinmal but could not take Marrakesh before he died in 1130. Abd al-Mu’min took over the conquest of Morocco and eastern Algeria, but only in 1147 did he capture Marrakesh, after a long siege. A massacre of the Almoravids followed. Their palaces were torn down and mosques replaced, after Abd al-Mumin declared they were incorrectly aligned with Mecca.

The spread of the empire

Even before taking Marrakesh, the Almohads were sucked into fighting off Christian advances in al-Andalus. Abd al-Mu’min sent an army that relieved Córdoba in 1146, and slowly took control of most of Islamic Iberia, through a mixture of menace and alliance. From their capital in Marrakesh, the Almohads moved into Algeria and Tunisia. Abd Al-Mu’min died in 1163, while preparing to embark another army for Iberia. Abu Yaqub Yusuf, his son, spent much of his reign (1163-84) fighting rebels in North Africa and in a ceaseless war in Iberia. Abu Yaqub was enormously cultured, but not a very capable military leader. It was Abu Yusuf Yaqub, his son (and Abd al-Mu’min’s grandson) who, in a counter-offensive, won a great victory over the Castilians at Alarcos, in 1195, that stopped the Reconquista (the Christian retaking of al-Andalus) short.

The culture of the Almohads

Almohad gold dinar. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Almohad rule was at its peak during Abu Yusuf Yaqub’s reign. The dynasty was rich, and an efficient administration collected taxes. The trans-Saharan trade and manufacturing in the cities both flourished. Almohad gold coinage was used on both sides of the Mediterranean. There was money to spend on irrigation, on defensive buildings like the Kasba of the Udayas at Rabat, and on great mosques, whose massive square minarets became a model across North Africa.

Examples are the Koutoubia in Marrakesh and the Giralda in Seville. Abu Yusuf designed the Tour Hassan in Rabat to commemorate the victory at Alarcos, but he died and the second biggest mosque in the world was never completed. Marrakesh attracted international scholars including Muhammad Ibn Rushd (known in Europe as Averroes). Morocco also became a centre of Sufism, where the disciples of early teachers formed religious brotherhoods (tariqas) that achieved great political and religious influence. But there were limits to religious toleration. Eventually, the regime burned Ibn Rushd’s books, and persecuted Jews.

The collapse of the Almohads

However, the economy was more fragile than it appeared. In the early thirteenth century Muhammad al-Nasir (r.1199-1213) faced war on two fronts: with remnants of the Almoravids and in Iberia, where the united Christian kings broke al-Nasir’s army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Córdoba fell in 1236 CE and other cities followed. By 1266 the peninsula, except Granada, was in Christian hands. The dynasty’s dominion began to break down, its army was dismembered, so taxes could no longer be collected. The ruling family began to squabble amongst itself, the religious arm of the movement resented its autocracy, and tribal confederations such as the Banu Marin challenged its authority, although it struggled on in Marrakesh until 1269.

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