A few years after his departure to visit Andalusia and the Islamic Orient, Ibn Tumart found his way back home. The simple young man, who set forth with the intent of acquiring knowledge, returned once again to the barren deserts of Sousse.
Leaning on his wooden staff, the traveling faqīh (jurist) finally laid down his burdens near the beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, having arrived in his travels to the edges of the Persian Gulf. With his return, the Maghreb was on the brink of one of its golden ages; a remarkable era that witnessed the formation of a great empire, founded by this young man whose ambitions had no limits.
From Córdoba to Baghdad
From the lands of Morocco, Ibn Tumart launched his journey, setting out to Andalusia, the cities and towns of which served as important centers of learning for students of science and religion, welcoming them to study in its major schools and institutes.
There, he headed to Córdoba , hailed as a mecca of science and knowledge and the ancient capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. For some time, he studied under the tutelage of a number of renowned scholars, such as Judge Ibn Hamdine, one of the greatest scholars of Andalusia at the time.
While in Córdoba , Ibn Tumart was greatly influenced by the revolt of the clergy against the renowned Persian theologian Imam al-Ghazali's book The Revival of Religious Sciences. The scholars, led by Ibn Hamdine, succeeded in obtaining an order from Prince Ali bin Yusuf to burn this book in the streets of Córdoba.
Many postulate that Ibn Tumart's intellectual progression changed course completely after this incident. He refused to complete his studies with the Andalusian scholars, and decided to turn to the Islamic Orient to seek knowledge from its famed scholars.
Egypt was the first stop in his journey, where he settled in Alexandria and attended the lessons of Imam Abu Bakr at-Turtushi, studying his book Kitāb Sirāj al-Mulūk (The Lamp of Kings), with its extensive discussions of power, governance and the inevitability of founding an Islamic state based on justice and equality.
In Baghdad, he met with a number of senior Islamic scholars, and it was said that one of them was Hujjat al-Islam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Various historical sources affirm al-Ghazali’s powerful influence over Ibn Tumart.
The historian Ibn Abī Zar' al-Fāsī noted in his book, Rawd al-Qirtas, that al-Ghazali had one day questioned his student on the status of his book The Revival of Religious Sciences in the Islamic West, to which Ibn Tumart replied that it had been burned in front of everyone in Córdoba.
Ibn Abī Zar adds that al-Ghazali was angered this, calling upon God to put an end to the Almoravid dynasty. Ibn Tumart asked him to pray that he would be the one to fulfill his prayer, and al-Ghazali agreed.
Here, the journey of Ibn Tumart ends. He began to prepare himself to return to his homeland. However, the man who was due to return to the distant city of Sousse was not the same simple young man who left its deserts a few years ago.
Return to the Maghreb
Mohammed Ibn Tumart, who was born around 473 AH into the tribe of Al-Masmuda, which settled in Sousse, in the far south of what is now Morocco. He had a simple, modest upbringing.
However, as luck would have it, a few years later, he would set into motion one of the greatest revolutions in Islamic history and become the founder of a vast empire.
Ibn Tumart returned from the east consumed by three ideas, the first was revolution, the second was al-Ghazali's prayer and prophecy for him, and the third was a tenacious religious spiritualism that had taken root in his heart and mind.
The story of the Mahdi ibn Tumart, whose life is an epic about man's ability to change the world.
The role of Ibn Tumart as a scholar and a jurist, as well as the founder of the Almohad state, invites consideration of the role of knowledge in political institutions.
The combination of the three factors had a major spiritual impact on Ibn Tumart, and led to his adoption of a reformist approach based on education, explanation, and guidance, which later developed into the condonement and use of violent means to enjoin good and forbid evil.
The goal sought by Ibn Tumart, which crystallized later in his career, was the establishment of a large-scale Islamic caliphate that covered all countries and territories across the world, from the far east to the distant west.
During his journey back to the far-off Sousse, Ibn Tumart began to campaign for his reformist approach in all the cities and villages he passed through. His ideas sent major shockwaves to throughout society, ultimately causing violent tensions to take form.
He was said to have smashed liquor stores with his staff wherever he went, and delivered speeches and held debates with the jurists of the cities he visited, the last of which was in Marrakech with Ali ibn Yusuf, the emir of the Almoravid dynasty. He was known for decisively defeating those who argued against him.
Throughout his journey from Marrakech to his hometown of Sousse, Ibn Tumart was able to gather many supporters and followers of his ideas, who quickly took active roles in his movement.
As he prepared to declare his revolution, and since he was a scholar and faqīh, he believed that claiming to be the true Mahdi (in Islam, the Mahdi is prophesized to be the awaited redeemer of all mankind) could be the best way to fulfill his desired goals.
To pave the way for himself, he began spreading the Prophet's hadiths about the awaited Mahdi, and claimed to be of Alawite descent, and that he was descended from the sons of Al-Hassan bin Abi Talib.
Then, in Ramadan 515 AH, he took the critical step of proclaiming himself "the prophesized infallible Mahdi" heralded by the Prophet's hadiths, among companions and followers.
In his book Nazm al-Juman, Moroccan scholar Ibn al-Qattan wrote that, during his speech on that day, Ibn Tumart decalred:
"Thanks to Allah who does what He wants and who judges what He wishes. There is no objection to His command. There is no commentator on His judgment. God praise our master Muhammad who brought good news about the Mahdi who will fill the Earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and injustice. God will send him when the truth is abrogated by falsehood and justice is removed by injustice."
According to Ibn Qattan, the speech continues: "His place is the Far Maghrib, and his time is the last time, and his name is the name of the prophet, who is praised by God and his gracious, intimate angels. The rulers' injustice has appeared and the Earth has been filled with corruption. This is the last time, the name is the name, the lineage is the lineage, and the work is the work."*
One can consider the day when Ibn Tumart announced that he was the awaited Mahdi the most decisive day in the history of his movement in particular, and in the history of the Maghreb and the Islamic world in general. From that day, Ibn Tumart was said to have put on the "spiritual dress that he has claimed for his own to support the legitimacy of and holiness his Imamate".
It was not enough for Ibn Tumart to receive an oath of allegiance from the tribes loyal to him; he began to move quickly to prepare his supporters for the expected military confrontation against the Almoravid authority. He then moved to Tinmel, one of the fortified mountain cities, so that he could equip his forces without fearing an attack by the Almoravids.
Meanwhile, he imposed on his followers, who were dubbed the Almohads, a meticulous system of education, which required attending lessons. He also wrote books for the instruction of his men, most prominent among which were Al-Murshada and A'azz Ma Yutlab.
He recruited a number of spies among his preachers, and thus became familiar with all the goings-on among his supporters.
Ibn Tumart also fought the tribes of the Berber Masmuda, who opposed his call until they joined him. However, throughout his legacy, he remained suspicious of his disciples and followers, which culminated in a massive-scale purging of his movement, known as "tamyiz", during which thousands of his supporters whose absolute loyalty was doubted were executed.
Was Al-Ghazali's Prophecy Fulfilled?
Following all these preparations, Ibn Tumart clashed with the Almoravid state in numerous successive battles, and his armies were able to achieve many impressive victories. Indeed, he almost fulfilled al-Ghazali's prophecy.
But in 524 AH, before the walls of Marrakech, the capital of the Almoravid dynasty, the Almohad forces were dealt a harsh defeat by the desperate Almoravid fighters, who were defending their lives, in the battle known as the Battle of al-Buhayra.
Shortly after that defeat, Mahdi Ibn Tumart died in Tinmel at the age of 50, to be succeeded by his loyal disciple, Abdul-Mu'min ben `Alī al-Kūmī, who transformed the movement into a great empire that included the Maghreb and Andalusia, becoming the first dynasty of what would be known in history as the Almohad Caliphate.
*Translation quoted from The Dearest Quest: A Biography of Ibn Tumart by Wilyam Sharif, 2010, pg 91-92