The achievements of the Almohad Empire profoundly marked the history and the art of the Western Muslim world. From their origins in the mountainous zones of the Anti-Atlas and the High Atlas, the Almohads managed to found the greatest empire the western part of Dâr al-Islam had ever known, stretching from Tripolitania to the Atlantic and including al-Andalus.
The story of the Almohads began with the preachings of the Berber jurist Ibn Tumart, who originated from the Hargha tribe. He protested against the Almoravids and particularly against the power exercised over the sovereign Ali b. Yusuf, by the Malikite jurists (fuqaha’). Ibn Tumart demanded reform and put forward a new doctrine, the tawid (Unitarianism). This doctrine proposed a synthesis of different Muslim movements, particularly Ash’arism and Shia Islam and demanded a return to the fundamentals of Islamic law (Koran and Sunnah) in order to avoid continual reference to jurisprudence, a practice typical of the Malikite jurists. Ibn Tumart then proclaimed himself as Mahdi (Well guided), a notion borrowed from Shia Islam, which lent his movement a messianic character and legitimised his efforts by giving them an air of unimpeachablity (‘isma).
Thanks to the support of certain of the more powerful Masmuda Berber tribes, Ibn Tumart managed to bring together a group of followers, who settled in Tinmel in 1124. This group developed a hierarchy based on Berber community traditions and began their long battle against their Almoravid rulers. When he died, Ibn Tumart passed on the leadership of the movement to ‘Abd al-Mu’min, a true strategist and warlord, who was to be the architect of the Almohad victory over the Almorivids. The end of the Almoravid dynasty came with the fall of Marrakech in 1147 but this did not quench the Almohad thirst for conquest. They continued to battle against numerous insurrections and to expand the empire towards Ifriqiya and al-Andalus. Like their predecessors, the Almohads continued the fight against the advances of the Norman Christians in Ifriqiya and the Portuguese and Spanish in al-Andalus. Their success in battle finally put an end to the Norman attempts to conquer Ifriqiya and their victory at Alarcos in 1195 put back for a long period the Iberian Christians’ re-conquest of al-Andalus.
The grandeur of the Almohad Empire was not just the result of its geographic size. Strengthened by the legitimacy lent to them by “Almohadism”, the Almohad rulers, starting with ‘Abd al-Mu’min proclaimed themselves as caliphs and thus broke with the nominal recognition of Abbasid authority, which had been respected by the Almoravids. The power of the caliphs was based on a hierarchical system, in which the Sayyid, members of the Mu’minid clan and the Ashyakh, dignitaries of the different Almohad tribes occupied the most favoured positions. The Almohad doctrine was spread through a group of doctors, talaba or huffaz, who task it was to spread the word amongst the population in the Berber language.
The Almohad coins, with their double dinars and square dirham, clearly underlines their will to break with past standards.
With their large fleet of warships, the Almohads developed a number of ports in Tunis, Béjaïa and Ceuta as well as on the Atlantic coast. Despite the conflicts in al-Andalus, trade continued to expand with the European Christians and diplomatic contact was maintained with Pisa and Genoa.
The strength of their political will and their administrative organisation allowed the Almohads to carry out many urbanisation projects. In the capital Marrakech, a new palatial complex, the Qasba, was completed. Their capital in al-Andalus, Seville, also underwent transformations with the building of the qasr (Alcazar) as well as a new Great Mosque. Ribat al-Fath (now Rabat) was founded by ‘Abd al-Mu’min and continued by his successors. Rabat was a gathering point for the Almohad armies en route for al-Andalus and the construction of the Hassan mosque, which was never completed under the Almohads but which was the largest mosque of the medieval Muslim west, was started. Many other towns in the Maghreb and al-Andalus, such as Taza, Fez, Silves, Mertola, Siyasa and Saltes bear traces of a prosperous urban life. Two notable aspects of Almohad urbanization were the importance of urban fortification and the development of gardens on the edges of the towns: bahira (gardens with water basins) such as at Marrakech, Fez and Seville.
The Almohads also used artistic expression to spread their ideology. Their religious architecture was particularly sumptuous and several of the Almohad Great Mosques in the Maghreb and al-Andalus are considered as masterpieces: in Marrakech the two Kutbiyya (1147 and 1158) and the Qasaba mosque (around 1197), the Great Mosque of Seville (1172)… The two cities founded by the Almohads, Taza and Rabat also saw the construction of great mosques in 1135 and 1196 – 1197. The town of Tinmel, where the Almohads first gathered was not forgotten and a great mosque was constructed to the memory of Mahdi Ibn Tumart. These constructions were all part of a coherent architectural programme: the prayer rooms are all in the form of a T, following the classic example of Medina, Cordoba or Kairouan. The naves are perpendicular to the qibla wall, with a wide transversal nave and a principal axial nave, which is more pronounced than the others. The axial and transversal naves are set of by a series of cupolas embellished with muquarnas. Cupolas also mark the intersections between the transversal and longitudinal naves. The central courtyard (sahn) is delimited by the continuation of the lateral naves, which integrate it into the construction as a whole and complete the balance of the structure. Probably the most distinctive aspects of the Almohad mosques are the minarets. They are decorated with a series of arched windows in different styles, adorned with a network of patterns consisting of curves and rectangles and the top of the tower is often embellished with a band of decorative ceramic tiles. An excellent example is that of the Qasba mosque in Marrakech.
The monumental city gates are another example of typical Almohad architecture. They are square in shape, generally stand out from the buttressed walls themselves and are often flanked by two towers. In order to pass through the gates, travellers would be obliged to cross a series of halls and open spaces generally organised in the form of a bottleneck. Some of these gates (Bâb al-Rwâh and the Udâya gate in Rabat; Bâb Agnâw in Marrakech) are elaborately decorated, which breaks with the usual sober tradition. In fact Almohad aesthetics used ornamentation in a particular way. The decoration is often sober, airy and well balanced. The austerity shown by the Almohads seems to have been in reaction to the exuberance of Almoravid decoration.
Decorative art and furnishings also developed considerably under the Almohads. The tiraz, of which many examples are conserved in Spain, follow in the footsteps of Andalusian textile production and in no way reflect the austerity of Almohad architecture. The most characteristic of the ceramics was probably the esgrafiado (Sgraffito). The most beautiful specimens have been found in the eastern parts of al-Andalus.
The Almohad regime eventually fell victim to internal conflicts and after the disaster of Las Navas de Tolosa (al-‘Uqab 1212) the empire gradually fell into ruin. The Christian conquest of al-Andalus accelerated and the Muslim cities fell one after the other: Cordoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Murcia (1243) and Seville (1248). Only one Muslim enclave survived in the kingdom of Granada under the new Nasrid dynasty. In the Maghreb, Almohad power was weakened by the abrogation of the dogma of infallibility of the Mahdi by the caliph al-Ma’mun in 1232. The Almohads were confronted with the dismantling of their empire, which was divided up between their three successors, the Hafsids, the Abd al Wadids and the Marinids.