The Almohads were the largest Berber empire to ever exist on the African continent. Their territory spread from the Iberian Peninsula to modern-day Libya at their peak of power, until the empire fractured due to internal unrest.
In this article, we will explore both their ascension to power in the region and their eventual decline.
Who Were the Almohads?
The name Almohad translates to “unitarian,” based on the monotheistic belief that there is only one true God in Islam. The Almohads came to power in Northwest Africa in 1147, overthrowing the Almoravid Dynasty, which they viewed as heretical to Islam.
While the region previously enjoyed relative religious freedom before 1147, the Almohads strictly adhered to puritan Islam throughout their territory in the Maghreb, often with brutal violence and persecution.
Marakesh, Barat, and Seville all experienced a Muslim renaissance during the late 12th century, as literature, architecture, and art flourished throughout the Moroccan heartland of the empire.
Under the reign of the Almoravid Dynasty (1062-1147), a Berber Masumuda tribesman named Ibn Tumart began to preach ultraconservative Islam throughout the Arab world.
Tumart’s preaching revolved around strict adherence to the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed. He condemned the drinking of alcohol and women showing their faces in public together with Muslims that did not adhere to strict daily prayer.
After being expelled from the Arabian city of Mecca for his abrasive preaching style, Tumart returned to his homeland in modern-day Morocco to openly criticize the Almoravid government.
Tumart believed that the Almoravids were heretical to Islam and had a much too relaxed approach to upholding the religion throughout their territory. Tumart gradually began to build a following and traveled to the Almoravid capital of Marrakech, where he had a theological debate with the Almoravid Emir himself.
After being banished from Marrakesh, Tumart brought his followers to the Atlas Mountains, where Tumart began to unite the various Berber tribes of the region under his rule. He named the movement the Almohads, or “unitarians,” which reflected Tumart’s belief in strict adherence to the one and only God. Tumart declared to his followers that he was the Mahdi, a divine prophet of Islam who was prophesized to one day return to Earth.
By 1122, Tumart had brought many of the Berber tribes of the region into his control and created his headquarters in the High Atlas Mountains.
Tumart and his followers prepared for a guerilla war against the Almoravids, with the ultimate goal of taking their capital of Marrakesh. Tumart and his guerilla fighters increasingly conducted raids and skirmishes south of the city until 1130, when they launched a large assault to take the city itself.
The city was wholly unprepared for the assault, and the Almohads began a siege on the entirety of Marrakesh. However, Almoravid reinforcements eventually arrived and destroyed much of Tumart’s forces, including much of the Almohad military leadership. Following the disastrous defeat, the surviving Almohad forces were forced to retreat to the Atlas Mountains.
Following the defeat at Marrakesh, Ibn Tumart died after falling ill in August 1130.
– The Almohad Rise to Power
The Almohads finally ousted the Almoravids from power in 1147 with a successful attack on Marrakesh, which soon became the capital of the Almohad Empire. From 1130 to 1160, Mu’min expanded Almohad territory significantly, eventually controlling most of the North African coast up to modern-day Libya and Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula.
The conquest of Morocco was ruthless, as the Almohads murdered thousands in the region due to many rebellions that occurred. Many of the tribes of the Maghreb prospered greatly under Almoravid rule. They detested the puritanical rule of the mountainous Berbers, who they considered primitive and outsiders of northwest African society.
The largest rebellions took place in the southern Sus region and on the coast southwest of Marrakesh. Though the rebellion leaders were able to raise armies of thousands of men from the various tribes of the region, they were quickly put down due to a lack of cohesive planning between the two rebel groups. Between 1149 and 1150, an estimated 32,000 tribespeople were killed by the Almohads under the pretense that they were loyal to the Almoravids.
After putting down these rebellions, Mu’min turned to Iberia, where Christian armies had increasingly taken Almoravid Muslim territory for many years. Despite the Almohads entering Iberia as protectors of Islam, much of Iberia’s Muslim population met the approaching Berber armies with great hostility.
Though many also detested Almoravid’s rule of Muslim Iberia, they were even more threatened by the strict puritanical rule of the Almohads. By 1170, nearly all of Muslim Iberia was under Almohad control, but the regions of Valencia and Granada stayed relatively autonomous due to stiffened resistance.
In 1152, Mu’min led a campaign that captured northeastern Algeria, bringing an end to the Hammadid Berber Dynasty that controlled the region since 1008. Though they took this region without much resistance, the Arab armies protecting Constantine to the east formed a great defensive force that greatly hindered the Almohad advance eastward. Though these tribes put up stiff resistance, they were ultimately defeated by the Almohad army at Setif.
Seven years later, these tribes of Ifriqiya (which comprises the Mediterranean coast of modern-day eastern Algeria, Tunisia, and western Libya) called for help from the Almohads, as Sicilian Normans increasingly began expanding their territory in the region. Mu’min obliged and sent a large army to capture Tunis, bringing an end to the century-long rule of the Khurasanid Dynasty.
The Almohad army then captured the port city of Mahdiya, which was the largest Christian stronghold of the region. The capture of the city not only expelled all of the Normans from North Africa but also consolidated Almohad control of modern-day Tunisia.
Following the conquering of Ifriqiya, the Almohad government began to run into its first political obstacles. Arab Bedouin tribespeople had increasingly populated the Almohad heartland of Morocco, as Mu’min invited them to fight in the Almohad army to conquer Iberia.
This caused discontent towards Mu’min’s rule from both the Berber population and the Almohad government, as they worried that a growing Arab population could decrease Berber influence in the region.
When several Arab leaders requested that Mu’min make one of his children a crown prince, the two sons of Ibn Tumart openly rebelled and were put to death by Mu’min. The descendants of Tumart believed that they were the rightful heirs to the dynasty after Mu’min’s death. Still, this move displayed to the elite of Marrakesh that Almohad rulers would be the descendants of the Mu’min, not Tumart.
This caused growing discontent among the Masmuda tribesmen of Morocco, who believed that Mu’min had disgraced the original religious Masmuda Berber roots of the movement for his own family’s power. Feeling threatened by the Masmuda, Mu’min invited the Kumiya Berber tribe to Marrakesh and made them a part of the Almohad hierarchy.
This further deteriorated the relationship between Mu’min and the Masmuda elite, as Arabs and alien Berber tribes increasingly made a presence in the Almohad political system.
– The Peak of the Almohad Dynasty
At its height, the Almohad Caliphate controlled modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and al-Andalus, making it the largest Berber empire that has ever existed.
Both the Almohad army and navy made the empire one of the dominating powers of the Western Mediterranean. The Almohads were a massive part of Mediterranean trade networks and traded continuously with Italy, which passed on many Muslim Berber traditions to Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
The empire’s bureaucracy largely consisted of Berber tribal leaders, with the Sayyids, who were direct descendants of Mu’min, having by far the most power in the Almohad government.
The city of Rabat served as one of the prominent central culture centers of the Almohads and became known mainly for its colorful polychrome pottery. The Almohads built massive, lavish monuments and mosques throughout their territory.
During the initial years of the dynasty under the rule of Mu’min, Almohad architecture came to prominence, created by Andalusian architects and builders. These buildings were designed with a combination of Berber, Iberian, and Arab influences.
Under the Almohads, the relatively peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews was completely dismantled. Andalusian communities throughout southern Iberia had massive Jewish populations, and Christians and Jews lived in many cities throughout the Maghreb.
However, Caliph Mu’min quickly brought the religious tolerance of the region to an end during the initial years of the empire. He ordered the conversion of all non-Muslims in the region, and those that refused were often executed.
Many Christian communities in the Maghreb were either exiled or killed, though Christian mercenaries were often hired for campaigns in the later years of the caliphate.
There was a mass exodus of Jews eastward out of Almohad territory throughout the 12th century. Before the Almohads took power, the Jews lived peacefully under Muslim rule but were subject to harsh treatment and persecution under the new regime. The Maliki school of Sunni Islam was also heavily persecuted.
– Fall of the Almohads
In 1170, the capital of Muslim Iberia was changed to Seville, where the Great Mosque and Al-Muwarak Palace were built to celebrate the dominance of Muslims in Iberia. However, this Muslim dominance was deeply shaken in 1212, when a combined force of several Spanish Christian kingdoms led by the Castilinians met Muslim forces at Las Navas de Tolosa. The Muslims were defeated, which began a steady retreat of Almohad power out of Iberia.
The defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa showed significant weaknesses in the Almohad Dynasty. The empire was now overstretched, and its military was made up of mercenaries of many different backgrounds that were not rallied behind the Almohad cause.
By the 13th century, the Almohad elite in Marrakesh had become exceedingly wealthy and hoped to enjoy their wealth in peace instead of making resolute changes and reforms throughout the empire.
The Almohad Dynasty began to explicitly decline during the 1220s due to Christian victories in Iberia and internal unrest throughout its territory. In Al-Andalus, Muslim populations increasingly replaced local Almohad leaders with their own tribal leaders. They felt the Almohad military was incapable of protecting them from the encroaching Christian armies of the Reconquista.
In 1229, Idris al-Ma’mun came to power as a caliph and rejected many of the foundational beliefs of the Almohads, including the teachings of Ibn Tumart and conservative Islam. He also reversed the Almohad persecution of non-Muslims by allowing both Jews and Christians to practice their religions openly.
This decision to abandon the teachings of Tumart helped speed up the fracturing of the Almohads, as many different regions began to break off from the empire, and a power struggle ensued for control of the caliph in Marrakesh. In 1236 the governor of Tunis declared his independence from the caliphate, and by 1238 both Cordova and Valencia in Iberia had been taken by Muslim rulers.
The ensuing years of the civil war brought havoc to the empire, as mercenaries no longer showed strict allegiance to a single Almohad entity and frequently switched sides of the different factions and territories. By 1248 the Almohad Empire only consisted of the city of Marrakesh and its surrounding area. The Almohad Dynasty was finally dismantled when the Zanata Berber Marinids conquered Marrakesh in 1269.
Why Did the Empire Fall?
The fall of the Almohad Empire was largely caused by its inability to unify its conquered peoples under a centralized identity. As Europeans, Arab, and outsider Berber mercenaries were increasingly used by Almohad leaders during the later years of the caliphate, the military became increasingly fractured. This fueled continued unrest, rebellion, and civil war within the empire.
The decision of Caliph Ma’mun to condemn the teachings of Tumart was perhaps the most significant factor leading to the widespread fracturing throughout the empire. After Ma’mun’s declaration, the empire no longer had a central movement to rally around and thus began to crumble.
While the movement may have started in the Atlas Mountains as a religious movement that sought to instill pure Islam in the population of North Africa and Iberia, it quickly lost its religious zeal and became the dominating political power in the region whose government was not inclusive to the people it conquered.
The Masmuda leaders of Marrakesh enjoyed their wealth and power during the golden years of the dynasty and had no desire to bring in outsiders from conquered populations into the Almohad elite and governing class. While the Almohad dynasty enjoyed an enormous cultural renaissance during the mid-to-late 12th century, these unifying cultural influences stayed within the Masmuda heartland of central Morocco.
By the 13th century, many Berber leaders felt that the Almohad government had strayed too far from its religious roots and had become too relaxed as Islamic rulers. Many also felt that the Almohad military could not be trusted to protect them from invaders.
Others hoped to rally behind their own tribal and regional identities. After years of decay and civil war, the territory of the Almohads was eventually divided up by the Hafisds, the Abd-al Wadids, and the Marinids after the fall of Marrakesh.
We have covered many parts of the history of the Almohad Dynasty.
Let’s go over the main ideas:
- The Almohad movement was started by Ibn Tumart, who criticized the Almoravid Dynasty as being heretical to Islam.
- The Almohads began a guerilla military campaign in the Atlas Mountains and eventually toppled the Almoravid government by taking Marrakech in 1147.
- The Almohads controlled modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and al-Andalus at their peak of power in the Maghreb.
- Non-Muslims, namely Jews and Christians, fell under heavy persecution under Almohad rule.
- The Almohad Dynasty slowly decayed due to gradual loss of territory and internal fracturing throughout the empire.
Ibn Tumart never lived to see his vision of instilling conservative puritan Islam throughout Northwest Africa, but his successors accomplished many of his goals during the initial years of Almohad regional dominance.
However, the Almohads followed the path of many fallen religious dynasties before them by gradually relaxing their religious rule in the region. Like the Almoravids they deposed, the Almohad dynasty crumbled away due to internal corruption, fracturing, and decay.