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Kenneth Garden
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The Muwaḥḥidūn (known as “Almohads” in the West, from the Spanish rendition of al-muwaḥḥid, “one who testifies to God's unity”) were a North African dynasty whose empire stretched from al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in the north to southern Morocco in the south to western Libya in the east. The Muwaḥḥidūn began in 1117 as a movement of religious reform led by a Berber from southern Morocco named Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), whose thought and writings remained the official doctrine of the empire until 1229. The movement became an armed insurrection that grew in size, challenging the rule of the Almoravid Empire until they succeeded in overthrowing it in 1147. After many years of decline, the Empire of the Muwaḥḥidūn came to an end when Marrakech was conquered by the Marinid dynasty in 1269. The Hafsid state in Tunisia, which claimed to uphold the true Muwaḥ ḥadī doctrine, continued to rule there until the early sixteenth century.

Origins and Early History.

Ibn Tūmart was born sometime between 1078 and 1082 in the Village of Ijilliz in the Sūs region of present-day Morocco, a wide valley between the High Atlas Mountains to the north and the Anti-Atlas to the south. He belonged to the Masmuda grouping o f tribes, most of whose members lived in the High Atlas. In 1106, Ibn Tūmart went to al-Andalus to study and a short time later left for the more culturally central Middle East to pursue his religious studies. Little is known about his nearly ten years there, but he seems to have spent most of this time studying at the Niẓ āīyah madrasah in Baghdad.

On his return trip from the Middle East in 1117, Ibn Tūmart began preaching against, and sometimes violently attacking, what he saw as immoral behavior. This included drinking alcohol, playing musical instruments, and the public mixing of men and women. His sometimes violent interventions often angered local authorities, and more than once he had to flee to his next destination. Along the way, his preaching and actions attracted a small and loyal following, including his biographer, al-Baydhaq, and ʿAbd al-Muʿmin b. ʿAlī, who succeeded Ibn Tūmart, becoming the first Almohad Muwaḥ ḥadī Caliph.

By 1121 Ibn Tūmart had found his way to Marrakech, where he pulled the sister of the Almoravid sultan off her horse for riding it unveiled, and criticized the sultan, ʿAlī b. Yūsuf, for himself veiling, as was the custom of the Almoravids’ tribe, the Sanhaja. Ibn Tūmart publicly debated Almoravid religious scholars in ʿAlī's presence and, by the Muwaḥḥidūn's own account, defeated them. The sultan ignored the advice of one of the jurists that Ibn Tūmart be put to death and instead banished him from the capital.

Ibn Tūmart took refuge in the High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech and established himself in 1124 or 1125 in the village of Tinmal, and gained the loyalty of the Masmuda Berbers of the region. With their support, he began a military campaign against the Almoravids. In 1129 the Muwaḥḥidūn undertook a purge of followers suspected of insufficient loyalty, killing thousands. The following year they felt confident enough to attack Marrakech. The Almoravids defeated them soundly and later the same year, Ibn Tūmart died.

Ibn Tūmart's death was kept secret for three years until his chief lieutenant, ʿAbd al-Muʿmin, could consolidate his control of the movement and of the Masmuda tribesmen. He led the movement for the next thirty-three years and it was under him that the Muwaḥḥidūn succeeded in overthrowing the Almoravids. The Almoravid ruler, Tashfīn b. ʿAlī, was killed in 1145 and Marrakech fell in 1147. Before the end of the decade, the Muwaḥḥidūn had established control over much of al-Andalus as well, pushing back the encroachment of the Christian kingdoms to the north.

It has often been pointed out that there are important structural parallels between the Muwaḥḥidūn and the Almoravids they overthrew. Both states began as religious reform movements led or inspired by Berbers from the south of Morocco who went to the east and returned with reformist agendas. Both relied on Berber tribal militaries, the Almoravids composed of Sanhaja Berbers from the far south of Morocco and the Muwaḥḥidūn on Masmuda Berbers from the High Atlas Mountains. Both had Marrakech as their capital, ruled over roughly the same territory, and came to the aid of al-Andalus, stemming the advance of the Christian kingdoms of the north. There is an important difference between the two empires, however, and that is the Muwaḥḥadī doctrine.

The Muwah.h.adī Doctrine.

The religious thought of Ibn Tūmart has often been dismissed as a hodgepodge of Shīʿī, Muʿtazilite, and Kharijite thought, and seen as mere window-dressing needed by the Muwaḥḥidūn to distinguish themselves from the Almoravids and justify their overthrow. Recent scholarship, however, has shown Ibn Tūmart's doctrine to be an original and systematic engagement with major currents of Islamic thought of his day that had a lasting impact on the tradition. Tilman Nagel (2002) has examined his writings, especially his work Aʿazz mā yuʿṭlab (The Most Precious that Can Be Sought), and clarified his legal, theological, and political doctrines.

Ibn Tūmart radically reformulated Islamic legal theory by redefining the technical term tawātur. Tawātur is a category of ḥadīth (accounts of the words and deeds of Muhammad) that have been passed down to posterity from many different sources rather than a single source. This multiple corroboration of the ḥadīth guarantees its authenticity. Laws that are based on tawātur are absolutely authoritative. The problem is that most ḥadīth are not passed on from multiple sources and so their authenticity is uncertain. That the law is thus based on uncertain sources was intolerable to the jurist Ibn Tūmart, who turned to his own definition of tawātur, one based not on evaluation of the authenticity of the texts of ḥadīth, but rather on the living practice of the Muslim community established by Muḥammad. How can we know that the call to prayer in the Muslim world is in accordance with the practice of the prophet Muḥammad? Not by looking at a fallible account in a book, says Ibn Tūmart, but by looking at the living practice of the entire Muslim world that traces its origins to the original community founded by Muḥammad in Medina in year one of the Muslim calendar. This, for Ibn Tūmart, was the true definition of tawātur, and in this respect his position could be seen as an extreme form of the Mālikī legal school, which privileges the practice of Medina as a legal source.

Nagel writes that Ibn Tūmart's theological positions also stem from his being first and foremost a jurist. The prevailing school of theology in this day was the Ashʿarite school, whose thinking stressed God's omnipotence. The Ashʿarites hold that God controls all matters in the heavens and the earth, and that the appearance of cause and effect is an illusion. If events seem to follow predictable sequences, this is because of God's custom, not because of natural laws that function independently of God. This negation of causality entails denying the freedom of the human will as well. Human beings do not choose their actions. Rather, they are a locus for God's choice and “acquire” the actions He creates for them. This “occasionalist” position has further implications for understanding the world. If all events in the world are the manifestation of God's inscrutable will rather than discernable laws, then the world itself is inscrutable.

For the jurist Ibn Tūmart, this position was intolerable because it meant that human beings are held accountable in this world and the next for actions over which they have no control. God, he claimed, does know the course the world will take and has known this for all of eternity—since before God created the world. But the world does follow laws determined by God, and so is intelligible. Human beings do have control over their actions and so can be held legally accountable for them. Nagel claims that Ibn Tūmart's theology had far-ranging implications for the subsequent development of Islamic thought.

It is also from Ibn Tūmart's theology that the name al-muwaḥḥidūn (Almohad), “the testifiers to God's unity” is derived. Ibn Tūmart insisted on the absolute difference of God from his creation. All things in creation posses a conditional existence: they exist in a certain time and in a certain place. God's existence, on the other hand is absolutely unconditioned. His existence cannot be qualified by time or place and as such God is entirely and essentially different from creation, utterly unique and singular. All Muslims consider themselves muwaḥḥidūn, but in the Muwaḥḥadī view, only those who hold this view of God as absolutely incomparable truly qualify as muwaḥḥidūn.

In the realm of politics, Ibn Tūmart claimed authority as an infallible mahdī. The mahdī is a figure whose return is promised at the time of the apocalypse, and the Muwaḥḥadī movement does seem to have been an apocalyptic movement. The correct practice and understanding of Islam, he claimed, had been corrupted and, in this fallen age, only a divinely guided mahdī could guarantee its restoration. This being the case, Ibn Tūmart's followers had to follow his orders without question.

Pinnacle and Decline of the Muwah.h.adī Empire.

The Almoravids had governed as representatives of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, recognizing his symbolic authority as the deputy (khalīfa) of God's messenger, Muḥammad. The Muwaḥḥadī rulers who followed Ibn Tūmart, however, governed as caliphs themselves, as they were the successors of the mahdī. To indicate a rupture with the past, Almoravid buildings were destroyed and mosques were ritually purified. Coins, an important way of circulating ideology, were minted in a square form and bearing the imprint: “God is our Lord. Muḥammad is our Prophet. The mahdī is our leader (īmām).” The Muwadḥḥidūn further made an effort to preserve and spread the teachings of Ibn Tūmart by training cadres of propagandists known as the ṭalaba and the ḥuffāz.

When ʿAbd al-Muʿmin died in 1163, his son and designated successor Muḥammad was deposed after only forty-five days by the Muwaḥḥadī chiefs, who agreed that he was not suited to lead. He was replaced by another son of ʿAbd al-Muʿmin, Abū Yaʿqub Yūsuf, who had been governor of Seville in al-Andalus. He had been well educated in al-Andalus and was a lover of books and culture. In his court, he patronized a group of scholars that included the famous philosophers Ibn Ṭufayl and Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes. The Muwaḥḥadī state flourished during his reign, but this period was also marked by a number of major but ineffective campaigns against the Christians in the Iberian Peninsula. Abū Yaʿqub was killed during one such campaign, in a failed siege of the city of Santaram in 1184.

Abū Yaʿqub was succeeded by his son Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqub, who took the reign name al-Mansur, the Victorious. Concerned that the Muwaḥadī ideology was losing its vigor, he outlawed the Mālikī legal school. Simultaneously, he denied that Ibn Tūmart had been the mahdī or infallible. He was succeeded after his death in 1199 by the seventeen-year-old al-Nāsir, under whom the Muwaḥadī empire was reduced to a shadow of its former self. During his reign the Hafsids established themselves as the independent rulers of Tunisia, though continuing nominally to recognize Muwaḥadī authority. In 1212 he led the Muwaḥadī army to defeat against Aragon in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, which led to the Christian conquest of most of al-Andalus, except for the area around Granada. In 1213 al-Nāṣir was assassinated in Marrakech, some say by his own courtiers.

Between 1214 and 1217 the Marinids occupied northern Morocco and began an ultimately successful campaign to conquer the Muwaḥadī state. In 1227 the Muwaḥadī caliph al-Maʿmūn overthrew his brother in Marrakech with the help of soldiers from the Christian kingdom of Castile. In 1229, he officially renounced the Muwaḥadī doctrine. With this the Hafsids declared themselves the true heirs of Ibn Tūmart and the ideology of the Muwaḥḥidūn and openly declared their independence. With the Marinid conquest of Marrakech in 1269, the Muwaḥadī state came to an end.


  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M.A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Provides a concise political history of the Muwaḥḥadī and Hafsid states. Find it in your Library
  • Fierro, Maribel. “Revolución y tradición: Algunos aspectos del mundo del saber an al-Andalus durante las épocas almorávide y almohade.”Estudios Onomásticos-biográficos de al-Andalus, vol. 10, pp. 131–165. Important discussion of the impact of Muwaḥḥadī doctrine on religious scholars in al-Andalus. Find it in your Library
  • Fricaud, Émile. “La place des ṭalaba dans la société almohade muʿminide.” In Los Almohades: problemas y perspectivas, Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2005, vol. 2, pp. 525–545. Study of the Muwaḥḥadī ideologues in al-Andalus. Find it in your Library
  • Griffel, Frank. “Ibn Tumart's rational proof for God's existence and his unity, and its connection to the Niẓāmiyya madrasa in Bagdad.” In Los Almohades: problemas y perspectivas, Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2005, vol. II, pp.753–813. Demonstrates links between Ibn Tūmart's thought and intellectual trends in Baghdad and provides some summary in English of Tilman Nagel's scholarship. Find it in your Library
  • Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. London and New York: Longman, 1997. Political history that emphasizes Muwaḥḥadī rule of al-Andalus, but also deals wiThevents in North Africa. Find it in your Library
  • MenéndezPidal, Ramón, ed.Historia de España, vol. 8**: El retroceso territorial de al-Andalus, Almorávides y Almohades, siglos XI al XIII, Madrid: Espasa Calpe, S. A., 1997. Focuses on events in al-Andalus. Extensive coverage of Muwaḥḥadī politics, culture, society, and religion. Find it in your Library
  • Nagel, Tilman. Im Offenkundigen das Verborgene: Die Heilszusage des sunnitischen Islams. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2002. Most comprehensive and best informed discussion to date of the thought of Ibn Tūmart and its place in the history of Islamic thought. Find it in your Library
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