Ibn Tumart, the First Almohad

A Tashelhit speaker from the hills in the Souss Valley, Ibn Tumart (died 1128) traveled north to the great Kairaouine University in Fez and then east, to Baghdad. Studying with various scholars along the way, Ibn Tumart developed a particularly strict interpretation of the Koran, one that emphasized each believer's personal responsibility for the faith of his community. As he moved back west to Morocco, he collected followers and proclaimed himself "Mahdi"—the "rightly guided one," chosen to purify the community of the faithful before the end of the world. This millennial vision was tolerated uneasily by the Almoravid authorities, who had themselves ridden to power on a wave of religious fervor a couple of centuries earlier. In Marrakesh the tension finally came to a head when the Mahdi threw the sultan's own sister from her horse for appearing in public without a veil. Ibn Tumart was forced to flee to the mountains, where he sought protection from the sultan's cavalry. Eventually he landed among the tribes settled around Tin Mal, and here he set about converting the locals to his version of Islam.

History books and local lore agree that Ibn Tumart's conversion methods were ingenious, if sometimes brutal. One story has it that he would teach the Koran to the mountain Ishelhin (Berbers) word by word. Men were lined up, taught their word, and then made to recite in turn. Working together in this way these Tashelhit speakers could reproduce the resonant Arabic poetry of the Koran and embody the holy text. Another (less quaint) story has it that the Mahdi had thousands of men killed in a four-day purge, with family members directed to put one another to the sword. True or not, these stories suggest the ability of Ibn Tumart to reorganize the fractious mountain tribes into a new social, religious, and military order.

Although their first assault on Marrakesh was brutally thwarted, Abd al-Mumin, the Mahdi's successor, eventually conquered all of the Moroccan mountains, followed by Fez and Marrakesh. The leaders of the empire that resulted became known as the Almohads, or Unifiers, and they rose to replace the Almoravids as rulers of the western Mediterranean.

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