The Almohad Empire was a Berber Muslim empire, founded in Northern Africa in the 12th century AD. At the peak of its power, it controlled most of North Africa (presently the Maghreb area) and the Iberian Peninsula (presently Spain and Portugal). The Almohad were a people that believed in the doctrine of Ibn Tumart. This doctrine was imparted by Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in Southern Morocco. The Almohads were a theocracy ruled by a Caliph and council of ten advisers, focused around the teachings of Ibn Tumart. They engaged in a series of wars with their other Morrocan neighbours, and succeeded in taking control of a large swath of North Africa, resulting in the Almohad Empire. This rapid expansion brought them in direct conflict with the Christian kingdoms. The Almohad and Christian kingdoms faced off in a series of wars, which ended with the decline and eventual death of the North African Caliphate.
Origins and Rise to power of the Almohad Empire
The Almohads were a religious order, born in the twelfth century under the self professed mahdī (a promised messianic figure) Ibn Tumart. Ibn Tumart was born in 1080 in Southern Morocco. Morocco, and large parts of the rest of North Africa and Spain, was under the rule of the Almoravid Dynasty. Tumart was a member of the Masmuda tribal confederation, based in the Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. Soon after, he went to Spain to pursue his early studies. He mainly studied the Islamic texts, history, and politics. To further his knowledge, he went ahead to Baghdad, to study at al-Ash’ari, a theological school specialising in teaching the tenets of Sunni Islam. There, he came in touch with the teacher al-Ghazali. Under his teaching, Tumart was convinced of the fact that the Almoravid Dynasty had led his home country morally astray. He soon developed his own creed, taking inspiration from the doctrines of other theologians before him. He focused on the principles of Tawhid (unitarianism, the idea that God is immutable, and singular), thereby rejecting polytheistic ideas. Believers in his doctrine would quickly become known as the al-Muwaḥḥidūn (“Almohads”), i.e those who affirm the unity of God.
As his followers grew rapidly in number, Ibn Tumart declared that the Almoravids had lost their moral vision, and therefore he and his disciples were seceding from their Caliphate, and forming their own state in Tinmel, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in the year 1120. Soon after, in 1121, the Almohads declared war against the Almoravids, with Ibn Tumart as their spiritual and military leader, revelling under the title of Mahdī.
Initially, this war saw the Almohads employ guerilla tactics among the high peaks of the Atlas mountains, blocking the Almoravids from accessing the crucial Trans-Saharan trade route safely. This went on for nearly eight years, during which time Ibn Tumart established a very hierarchical society in Tinmel. The structure that he made during those eight years formed the structure for the entire Caliphate later.
In 1130 the Almohads led their first direct attack on the Almoravids. They devastated their opponents, and swept aside their defenses and forts and laid siege to their capital city of Marrakesh. After a siege of 40 days, the Almoravid Army rallied from the city and thoroughly destroyed Ibn Tumart and his army. Tumart died soon after.
Ibn Tumart was followed by Abd al-Mu’min, his lieutenant. al-Mu’min was a far more capable military man than Tumart, and in 1132 he led a massive night time attack on the Tasghimout fortress. His army won soundly, and in an open act of brazen defiance, al-Mu’min dismantled the fortress completely, taking its majestic gates back to Tinmel. Until his death in 1146, al-Mu’min managed to completely wipe out the Almoravids. He even managed to extend his power further out, all the way to Northern Egypt, turning the dynasty into the Almohad Empire.
He was followed by his sons on the Caliphate seat. First by Abu Yaqub Yusuf who ruled from 1163 to 1184 and then by Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur who ruled from 1184 to 1199. They were both great rulers, ushering in the height of the Almohad Caliphate. They were less fanatical than their predecessors, even granting protection to the great philosopher Averroes.
Areas under rule and the administration of the Almohad Empire
Initially, the Caliphate only had one small city under its rule, their capital city of Tinmel. However, by the time of its fourth caliph, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, also known as Yaʻqūb I, the Almohad Caliphate stretched out over all of North Africa, into Northern Egypt to the south, and halfway up Spain to the North.
The Expansion of the Almohad Empire
The administration of the Almohad Empire was done mostly in accordance with the principles set forth by Ibn Tumart. Under this system, at the head was the Mahdi, or caliph. Surrounding him was the Ahl ad-dār (“House of the Mahdi”), composed of the caliphs’s family. The Ahl ad-dār’s power was absolute, and their decisions were implemented as if they were given by the caliph himself.
The house was advised by two councils, an inner council comprised of ten members, who were the caliph’s private advisors, and the council of fifty, composed of the leading sheikhs of the tribes within the Caliphate’s dominion.
However, after the reign of Yaʻqūb I, beginning with Yusuf II, the Almohad gave up direct control over their territories outside Morocco. These areas were controlled by lieutenants paying taxes to the Almohads, and were treated as provinces.
In the Almohad military, there was a very rigid structure of units. The highest ranked soldiers were from the Hargha tribe, the original tribe of Ibn Tumart. Following them were the men of Tinmel, who were followed by the men of all the other Masmuda Confederation tribes in order of importance.
Each of these units had a strict internal hierarchy as well. With religious army corps taking precedence over the main body of the army, and swordsmen taking precedence over archers.
The Almohad period is considered one of the most influential stages of late Maghreb region’s African architecture, creating many of the motifs and elements that were then adapted and built upon in the following centuries. The early Almohad architecture focused its attention on overall architectural asthetique rather than on detailed surface decoration. This is in contrast to earlier Almoravid architecture.
The oldest surviving Almohad mosque, The Great Mosque of Taza, began construction in 1142, by, then caliph, Abd al-Mu’min. The minarets of this grand mosque also established the most commonly found style of later minarets in the region.
The Great Mosque of Taza
The most famed minarets from this time, however, are minarets at Kutubiyya Mosque and at Giralda of Seville, built in 1147 and 1171 respectively.
Minaret at Kutubiyya Mosque
Another aspect of the Almohads was their proclivity to build fortifications and forts across their dominion. They rebuilt the city walls of Cordoba, Seville, Fes, and Taza, after invading and taking them over. Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur embarked on the establishment of a great new capital on the south side of the Spanish peninsula called Ribat al-Fath. This city would have had its own resplendent citadel, but it was never completed. However, the current main walls of the renowned center of Rabat, along with multiple ornate gates were completed.
The Almohads were successively led by a number of great military leaders. Ibn Tumart’s brilliance led to the small force at Tinmel nearly depriving the entire Almoravids Kingdom of trade. Unable to send a large enough force up to the mountain stronghold of the Almohads, the Almoravids were forced to rely on containing them in the Atlas Mountains, and having to find alternate routes of trade, all of which were worse than the Trans-Saharan route. Following this, Tumart managed to defeat major forts and heavily armed districts of the Caliphates with a relatively smaller force.
Later, his successor, Abd al-Mu’min, successfully managed to overthrow an entire dynasty, leading to the Almohads reaching new heights. He was a military genius, relying on unorthodox strategies to catch his enemies at a disadvantage. One of his major victories came at Tasghimout fortress. The fortress was built specifically to withstand a large force sieging it for a long time. To get around this, al-Mu’min decided to stage a stealth operation at night. He managed to sneak up to the wall of the fortress with a small force, and a ladder. They quickly scaled one of the smaller walls of the fortress, and managed to gain control of the gate, allowing their army inside. They attained a thorough victory after that point. As a trophy, al-Mu’min had the fortress’s grand gates installed in Tinmel, and dismantled the rest of the fortress.
The subsequent caliphs did not focus on military conquest, instead leaving the governance of the outside territories to governors.
Art and Metal Work
The early Almohads, under the first two caliphs, were very austere, and shunned almost all literature and art that was not the direct or indirect work of their mahdi, Ibn Tumart. However, later caliphs did not adhere to their strict religious policies, and allowed art to flourish under their rule. In fact, the penultimate Almohad caliph, Abu Hafs al-Murtada(1248-1266), was also a remarkable calligrapher, famed for composing poems and copying Qur’ans. One of the largest Qur’ans that he copied is in a museum in Marrakesh and is the oldest surviving example of a Qur’an personally produced by a sovereign ruler in the western Islamic world. The large tome is bound with leather, and is written on paper. The verses are written in Maghribi script and the end of each verse is marked with a circle inlaid with gold.
Their society also put a lot of emphasis on metal working, with the French historian Henri Terrasse describing University of al-Qarawiyyin’s bronze grand chandelier, commissioned by the caliph Muhammad al-Nasir, as the most beautiful chandelier in the modern world.
The Chandelier of University of al-Qarawiyyin
The decline of the Almohad Caliphate, like so many others before and after them, was mainly attributed to internal strife. While the early and even some of the later Almohads were very loyal to and adherent of a direct descent system of rulers. In the absence of an heir, the caliph himself chose a successor. However, in 1212, the Almohad Caliph Muhammad ‘al-Nasir’ (1199–1214), after a defeat at the hands of the Christian kingdoms of Aragón, Castile, Portugal, and Navarre at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morena range of Spain, named his 10 year old son, Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf al-Mustanṣir as caliph. al-Nasir died soon after.
The Caliphate was ruled by a number of regents vying for power, which gave rise to a lot of power struggles within the caliphate. In 1224, the young caliph died without naming an heir. The ensuing power struggle saw Abdallah al-Adil, of An-Andalus, declare himself Caliph. His chief advisor, Abu Zayd ibn Yujjan arranged the assassination of Abd al-Wahid I, the Grand – Uncle, and successor of al-Mustansir.
This act of violence split the Caliphate into two, with al-Adil’s cousin leading a large army of rebels and seizing and pillaging the Caliphates’ outlying towns, making the land of Al-Andalus their stronghold. Eventually after the sudden assassination of Caliph al-Adil, the internal conflict gave the Christian kingdoms a great opportunity to attack the split up army. In a brutal campaign, the Christian army ruthlessly took out the Al-Andalusian army. This sudden loss of Al-Andalus made the remaining Almohads very compliant with Christians, allowing them to settle on North African soil. Soon after, the Christian presence saw an enemy dynasty, the Banu Marin, ascending to the throne in Marrakesh.
The Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 6, 1954
Barton, Simon: A History of Spain, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Pascal Buresi and Hicham El Aallaoui, Governing the Empire: Provincial Administration in the Almohad Caliphate 1224–1269, Brill Publishers, 2012.