The Mahdi

IBN TUMART, the Mahdi [q.v.] of the Almohads and founder of the Almohad movement [see muwahiddun]. The biographies of so celebrated a figure Inevitably contain much legendary matter besides evident contradictions. He was born between 471/1078 and 474/1081 In the Anti-Atlas of Morocco. His father belonged to the Hargha and His mother to the Masakkala, both of which are divisions of the Masmuda tribal group and there can be no doubt that He was a pure Berber despite the various Sharifian genealogies attributed to Him. Of His first 30 or so years we Have no real knowledge. In 500/1106 He left His native mountains and went first to Cordoba, where He spent a year. Only Ibn Kunfudh gives any Information as to what He did there, saying merely that He studied with the kadi Ibn Hamdin. Ibn Tumart next embarked at Almeria for the East. At Alexandria He met Abu Bakr al-Turtushi and then went via Mecca to Baghdad, where He met Abu Bakr al-Shashi and Mubarak b. `Abd al-Djabbar. All the sources recount, some with reserve, Ibn Tumart's supposed meeting with al-Ghazali In Baghdad. The story (given most fully by Ibn al-Kattan, pp. 14-8) goes that al-Ghazali, learning that His new student was recently In Cordoba, enquired as to the doings of the fukaha" there. When told that at the Instigation of Ibn Hamdin, kadi of Cordoba, the Ihya" Had been officially burnt throughout the Almoravid dominions He called upon God to destroy the Almoravids. Thereupon Ibn Tumart exclaimed: "Imam, pray to God to do that by my Hand!" The Imam Ignored Him at first but on a second occasion acceded. His prayer of course was granted. The story Is, However, apocryphal: by the time Ibn Tumart reached Baghdad al-Ghazali Had already left the city for good and Had been for over ten years In öhurasan, where It Is never Hinted that Ibn Tumart ever went.

The return towards the Maghrib began In 510/1116 or 511/1117. It was a turbulent journey. Ibn Tumart caused public disturbances and put Himself In danger of His life by His uncompromising Insistence on the punctilious observance of religious obligations. At the same time His learning and piety made an Impression, and during the many long Halts In His journey He found ready audiences. En route, probably at Tunis, He was joined by Abu Bakr b. `Ali al-Sanhadji, surnamed al-Baydhak, who became His devoted follower and whose Memoires are a prime source of Information for the remainder of Ibn Tumart's career and that of His successor `Abd al-Mu'min. At Mallala, near Bougie (Bidjaya), the momentous meeting between Ibn Tumart and `Abd al-Mu'min took place. Love of the supernatural Has embellished the circumstances of this meeting with a wealth of picturesque detail but subsequent events confirmed the power of this combination of Ibn Tumart's personal magnetism and `Abd al-Mu'min's administrative and military genius. This peculiar force of personality must be Invoked to explain why Ibn Tumart, despite the continual riots which He provoked, ran the gauntlet of lesser authorities unscathed and finally confronted the Al-moravid sultan Himself at Marrakush. This was In 514/1120. `Ali b. Yusuf b. Tashfin arranged a debate between Ibn Tumart and a group of fukaha", who were as nonplussed as `Ali Himself. One party, represented by the vizier Malik b. Wuhayb, saw In Ibn Tumart's preaching a serious threat to the regime and so advocated His destruction. Others, among whom Yintan b. `umar Is mentioned, could not stomach the punishment of one who could not be convicted of any crime against the Shari`a. While the pacific `Ali vacillated, Yintan took Ibn Tumart under His protection. But Yintan succeeded In convincing the stubborn and now perhaps over-confident Ibn Tumart of His mortal danger, so He prudently withdrew to Aghmat. There the usual disturbances took place and a new stage In His career began.

until now Ibn Tumart Had apparently not viewed Himself as the actual or potential leader of a movement or as a rebel against established authority; He was merely an Individual fulfilling His religious obligations as He conceived them. But now the situation Had changed. `Ali b. Yusuf Had finally overcome His scruples at the news of the latest troubles In Aghmat and despatched a messenger to order the return of the trouble-maker to Marrakush. Ibn Tumart refused to go and so was now In open rebellion. At the same time He Had now won a powerful supporter In the person of Isma`il Igig, chief of the Hazardja, who was soon after joined by `umar Inti and Yusuf b. Wanudin of the Hintata. He found Himself apparently by accident the spiritual leader of substantial forces united, no doubt, more by tribal anti-Almoravid sentiments than by concern for the purity of the faith. The Idea of proclaiming Himself Mahdi began to grow In His mind and from the time He finally reached His birthplace at Igilliz In 515/1121 and Installed Himself In a cave (al-ghar al-mukaddas-not now Identifiable with certainty) He devoted Himself to spreading the belief that the appearance of the Mahdi In the Maghrib was Imminent. At the end of one Harangue In which He listed the attributes of the Mahdi He was finally acclaimed. "When the Imam al-Mahdi finished His speech", says `Abd al-Mu'min, "ten men, of whom I was one, rushed up to Him and I said: 'These signs are found only In you! You are the Mahdi!' And so we swore fealty to Him as the Mahdi."

Just as the Ten mentioned by `Abd al-Mu'min and often encountered subsequently Have analogies with al-`Ashara al-mubashshara [q.v.], so other features of Ibn Tumart's career Indicate a conscious attempt by Himself or His followers to liken Him to the Prophet. His expeditions are referred to as maghazi; the acclamation just mentioned took place under a tree, like the Prophet's Bay`at al-ridwan; the move to Tinmallal (see below) Is called a Hidjra; the Ahl Tinmallal Have analogies with the Companions; etc.

Within two years, marked by numerous skirmishes between Almohads and Almoravids, most of the Anti-Atlas and Sus were actively backing Ibn Tumart and all the Masmuda tribes were ready to support Him. The Almoravid government, now seriously alarmed, Increased Its efforts. Ibn Tumart, judging It prudent to move to a more easily defended position, "emigrated" In 517/1123 to Tinmallal (var. Tinmal) In the upper Nfis valley, about 75 kms. south-south-west of Marrakush. The manner In which He and His followers took possession of Tinmallal and Its territory Is not entirely clear, but It led to a protest by one of the Ten which cost Him His life. The Ahl Tinmallal of the AlmohadKhierarchy are significantly a Heterogeneous group. This fact and other evidence Indicates that the original Inhabitants of Tinmallal were liquidated and replaced by a mixed group of the Mahdi's close followers.

The next few years were passed In the consolidation and steady extension of Almohad power. This was made easier by the preoccupation of the Almoravids with troubles In Spain but also made more difficult by discord among the Almohads themselves. Though the Almohad movement was certainly Helped by the antipathy for the Almoravids shared by all the mountain tribes, It was at the same time Hindered by the fragmentation of the Masmuda Into very small and jealously Independent groups who resisted Incorporation Into any larger federation. Perhaps Impatience with the speed of the movement's development was the main motive behind the next Important event In the Mahdi's career, the tamyiz.

The scanty texts on the tamyiz are difficult to Interpret, but It seems that under the supervision of one Bashir al-Wansharisi there was a methodical and stringent elimination of real or suspected dissidents. This took place In 523 or 524/1128-9. Dating from this period, and obscurely connected with the tamyiz, Is the peculiar organization of the Almohads Into a Hierarchy Headed by the Ten. The origin and significance of this apparently quite artificial creation remain a mystery.

Whether the tamyiz so consolidated the movement's strength that Ibn Tumart felt strong enough to embark on the taking of Marrakush or whether It aroused such resentment that such a diversion of Interest became necessary Is an open question, but the campaign began at once. The leader was the same al-Bashir. The expedition was unsuccessful, for though the Almohads besieged Marrakush for six weeks they were defeated, five of the Ten being killed, nearby at al-Buhayra In mid-524/1130. This defeat was doubtless a severe psychological setback for the Almohads, but subsequent events show that It did not In fact much Hinder the progress of the movement; and It was an empty victory for the Almoravids, who proved Impotent to press Home their advantage.

The Mahdi died a few months after the battle of al-Buhayra, In Ramadan 524/August 1130. His close companions concealed His death, presumably because they feared the effect on the morale of the Almohads of His death at this Inauspicious moment without moreover His Having justified any of His Mahdi-pretensions. His "retreat" lasted for three years until the proclamation of `Abd al-Mu'min In 527/1132. He was buried at Tinmallal. His tomb was still venerated, according to Leo Africanus, some five centuries later, but He and His movement no longer survive In local tradition.

ibn Tumart regarded Himself primarily as a religious reformer. It Is not certain that even when In later life He Had adopted the mantle of the Mahdi and become the Head of an embryonic state In declared rebellion against the Almoravids He Had developed any secular ambitions beyond those necessary to back His religious ones. As a Muslim He naturally did not draw a sharp distinction between the religious and the secular. He was a fundamentalist who wished to re-establish what He conceived to be the original purity of the faith by reference to the Kur'an and the Sunna and so rejected the taklid which In His day dominated theology In the West. He placed especial stress on the doctrine of tawhid, which to Him meant a complete abstraction or spiritualization of the concept of God, as opposed to tadjsim, the literal acceptance of the anthropomorphic phrases of the Kur'an of which He so often accused the Almoravids. But there Is nothing original In His religious Ideas. He adopted those which suited Him wherever He found them, Including the Shi`i notion of the Impeccable (ma`sum) Imam, who He claimed to be. His theology Is not Important. His career followed a pattern, familiar In the Maghrib, of a charismatic personality being able briefly to unite groups who live normally In anarchical fragmentation. It Is a question primarily of personalities, that of the Berber race and that of the leader, and doctrine Is of minor Importance. The role of `Abd al-Mu'min In founding the Almohad state was as Important as that of the Mahdi, though probably neither would Have achieved anything without the other.

The writings attributed to the Mahdi consist of a collection of short pieces without organic unity or title gathered In a unique manuscript, and one or two letters of doubtful authenticity.
(J.F.P. Hopkins)

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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam --© 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands