Muhammad ibn Tumart (ca. 1080-1130) was a North African religious revolutionary leader who founded the Almohad movement in North Africa. His organization of Berber tribesmen led to the end of Almoravid rule in North Africa.
A Masmuda Berber born in a mountain village in southern Morocco, Ibn Tumart showed remarkable piety as a youth; in pursuit of religious learning he left home in 1105 to visit the principal cities of Islamic civilization, studying Islamic theology and jurisprudence in Marrakesh, Cordova, Baghdad, Damascus, and Alexandria. About 1118 he returned to North Africa, where he preached in towns and villages against the immoral behavior of the inhabitants, calling upon them to act in accordance with the strictures of Islamic law. More specifically, he denounced such impious actions as drinking wine, the playing of musical instruments, and the appearance of women in public places without the veil. Public criticism of the Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf and of prominent theologians led to Ibn Tumart's banishment from Marrakesh, the Almoravid capital, and his withdrawal to his birthplace in the Atlas Mountains, where he set about recruiting disciples among his fellow Masmuda tribesmen.
In 1121 Ibn Tumart began the more militant phase of his career when he proclaimed himself to be the long-awaited Mahdi—the infallible, divinely inspired guide who would lead erring mankind to righteousness and restore justice on earth. Righteousness was to be attained by belief in Ibn Tumart's doctrine of the absolute unity (Arabic, tawhid; from this doctrine the groups called the Muwahhidun, or Unifiers, and the Spanish Almohads developed) of God and adoption of the Koran and prophetic tradition (hadith) as the sole sources of Islamic law; justice was to be restored by fighting in Ibn Tumart's armies to overthrow the heretical Almoravid government.
An attempt by the Almoravid rulers to smash the nascent movement led Ibn Tumart to emigrate in 1125 from his birthplace to an even more inaccessible mountain village, Tinmel. For the next 5 years he recruited the bulk of his warrior disciples. But because the Masmuda Berbers were unacquainted with anything but the most rudimentary Islam, Ibn Tumart's mission was partly education and included even the rote teaching of the Koran in Arabic. Furthermore, in order to give some basis of solidarity to his followers, he transformed the loose tribal ties of the Berbers into a highly stratified, almost hierarchical form of political and social organization which was undoubtedly designed to reinforce the religious loyalty due to him as Mahdi.
Once Ibn Tumart had won a sufficient number of disciples and had organized them into an obedient and disciplined fighting force, he launched a military campaign against Marrakesh in 1130. Unaccustomed both to siege warfare and to fighting in the plains, Ibn Tumart's Berbers were defeated and retreated into their mountain fortress. Shortly thereafter, Ibn Tumart fell ill and died in the same year.
The fact that Ibn Tumart's lieutenants kept his death a secret for a period estimated by some historians as 3 years before venturing to install Abd al-Mumin as his successor is an indication of the strong force of his personal leadership on his followers. Although Ibn Tumart died before the spectacular victories in North Africa and Spain were achieved by his followers, there is no doubt that these conquests would have been impossible without the religious inspiration and sociopolitical organization which he gave the movement.
Further Reading on Muhammad ibn Tumart
Ibn Tumart is discussed at length in De Lacy O'Leary, Arabic Thought and Its Place in History (1922; rev. ed. 1939). See also Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907), and Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present (1937; 10th ed. 1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Bourouiba, Rachid, Ibn Tumart, Alger: SNED, 1974.