Al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad Abū al-Fidā’ Ismā‘īl b. ‘Alī al-Ḥamawī (d. 1331) was a Kurdish historian, geographer and local prince in fourteenth-century Syria. His universal history of the Islamic world, entitled al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar, is one of the most interesting chronicles from the fourteenth century Islamic world. The work is concerned with historical events, key personalities, topography, intellectual developments, art, and architecture and—while not as elaborate as the histories of al-Tabari or Ibn Kathir—is truly universal in scope. Abū al-Fidā’s history is also characterized by an attempt to maintain partiality and historical accuracy, rather than an attempt to make strong judgments and identify clear heroes and villains in history. This can be seen in his treatment of the Norman invasion of Sicily, in which he praises the new Christian rulers for “treating the Muslims with dignity and respect and protecting them from any harm that should befall them” (al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar, p. 286). While other historians of the period would almost obsessively follow any reference to non-Muslim rulers with the epithet “may God curse them!” this sort of language is entirely absent from Abū al-Fidā’s chronicle.
The section translated below is particularly interesting—in my mind anyways—because it provides significant insight into how an early fourteenth-century historian from the central Islamic lands viewed the rise of Ibn Tumart (d. 1130) and the Almohad dynasty.
Muhammad b. Tumart (d. 1130) was an Alid from the descendants of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 680). He was from the Berber tribe of the Maṣmūda that resided in the Sūs region of the Maghrib. Ibn Tumart had journeyed to the central Islamic lands in pursuit of knowledge and mastered the sciences of legal theory, jurisprudence, Arabic, and hadith. He even met [Abū Ḥāmid] al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī [Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, d. 1110] in Iraq and Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī (d. 1126) in Alexandria. However, some people deny that he ever met al-Ghazālī. Ibn Tumart then performed the pilgrimage to Mecca before returning to his homeland, where he strictly enforced his religious vision upon the people, forcing them to perform the obligatory prayers and other legally-prescribed obligations. He also reformed the reprehensible practices which existed among the population. When he was in the town of Mallāla, located near Bejaya, he met ‘Abd al-Mu’min b. ‘Alī al-Kūmī (d. 1163). Seeing a greatness and nobility in ‘Abd al-Mu’min, Ibn Tumart traveled with him. Around this time, Ibn Tumart adopted the title of Mahdī and continued to enjoin the good and forbid the evil among the people. When he reached Marrakech, he intensified his campaign against reprehensible practices and his followers greatly increased and people thought well of him. When he became more renowned, he went into the presence of the Commander of the Muslims, ‘Alī b. Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn (d. 1143), and debated the jurists in his presence and put them to shame. One of the chief officials of ‘Alī b. Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn who was present advised that he should kill the Mahdi Ibn Tumart, warning him that the latter’s intentions were not merely to enjoin the good and forbid the evil but, rather, to conquer the entire country. However. ‘Alī refused to kill him. This official—whose name was Mālik b. Wuhayb, a Cordoban by origin—then suggested that Ibn Tumart should be imprisoned in the emir’s dungeons, but again ‘Alī refused to do this, but instead ordered that Ibn Tumart be expelled from Marrakech.
The Mahdi then continued to journey widely and traveled to Aghmāt and the mountainous regions, where he was joined by a large number of people. He informed them that he was the Savior (al-mahdī) whom the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) promised would emerge. After this, his followers only increased in number, as did his power and influence. One day, ‘Abd al-Mu’min came to him with ten individuals who proclaimed: “You are indeed the Savior!” And they pledged allegiance to him on that basis; others then followed suit. The Commander of the Muslims, ‘Alī [b. Yūsuf] sent an army against him but it was defeated by the Mahdi, and the victory only increased the confidence of his followers. [His victory] led the major chieftains of the tribes to come to him in droves to pledge allegiance, a fact which greatly magnified his power. He then moved his base to a mountain near Tinmal. When the Mahdi felt threatened by some of his followers, he proclaimed: “God has granted me the illuminating mystical insight by which I am able to distinguish those destined for Heaven from those destined for Hell.” He then gathered the people on the peak of the mountain he said: “This is a person destined for Hell” about each of those whom he felt posed a threat to himself before casting that individual from the peak of the mountain to their death. As for those whom he felt posed no threat to himself, he said: “This is a person destined for Heaven” and made them stand to his right. He did this until he had killed a large number of people and he felt secure. It is said that the number of those whom he had killed in this way numbered close to 70,000.
To his followers he gave the title al-Muwahiddūn [“Those Proclaiming the Oneness of God”]. Ibn Tumart’s fortunes continued to improve until 524 A.H. [1129 A.D.], when he sent an army led by [‘Abd Allāh b. Muhsin] al-Wansharīsī (d. 1130) and ‘Abd al-Mu’min against Marrakech, which they besieged for twenty days before the Almoravid governor of Sijilmasa marched against them with an army to break the siege. The people of Marrakech—led by the Commander of the Muslims—then marched forth from the city to fight the Almohads and al-Wansharīsī was killed in the fighting. ‘Abd al-Mu’min assumed command of the army and the fighting intensified and continued until the evening, but the Almohads were defeated and ‘Abd al-Mu’min retreated with his army to the mountains. When Ibn Tumart—who was ill at the time—was informed of the disastrous defeat of his army, he was severely pained. He asked about ‘Abd al-Mu’min and was told that he had survived. Hearing this, the Mahdi said: “Then, no one [of importance] has died” and he commanded his companions to follow the leadership of ‘Abd al-Mu’min. He informed them that it was the latter who would lead the great conquests and he bestowed upon him the title of Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-mu’minīn). The Mahdi died shortly thereafter. He was 51 years old and he ruled for about 10 years.
‘Abd al-Mu’min then returned to Tinmal and stayed there, strengthening people’s resolve and encouraging them to remain unified, until 528 A.H. [1134 A.D.], when he set out on campaign and imposed his authority in the mountainous regions. The Commander of the Muslims ‘Alī b. Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn sent his son, Tāshufīn b. ‘Alī (d. 1145), with a large force to counter the offensive of ‘Abd al-Mu’min. In the year 539 A.H. [1144 A.D.], ‘Abd al-Mu’min’s army marched towards Oran and Tāshufīn marched against them so that the two armies were encamped close to one another. On the 29th of Ramadan [March 24th 1145 A.D.], which is a particularly sacred day for Muslims in the Maghrib, Tāshufīn traveled, in a small group, to visit a sacred place on the coast that was frequented by the righteous and pious worshipers with the intention of seeking blessings. When the vanguard of ‘Abd al-Mu’min’s army, commanded by an individual called ‘Umar b. Yahya al-Hintātī, learned about this, they attacked and surrounded Tāshufīn b. ‘Alī. The latter swiftly mounted his horse and attempted to flee, but rode off a cliff and fell to his death. The small company that was with Tāshufīn were killed and his army dispersed.
‘Abd al-Mu’min then marched against Oran and conquered it by the sword, slaughtering an innumerable amount of the city’s inhabitants. He then proceeded to Tlemcen, which is in fact two cities separated by a short distance. The first city is known as Qarart and is inhabited by the royal court; the second city is called Agādīr. ‘Abd al-Mu’min took possession of Qarart first, in order to put its affairs in order, before sending an army to besiege Agādīr. He then marched on Fez, which surrendered to him peacefully in 540 A.H. [1146 A.D.]. ‘Abd al-Mu’min put its affairs in order before conquering Sallā in 541 A.H. [1147 A.D.]. In the same year, after besieging it for an entire year, his army conquered Agādīr and slaughtered its population.
‘Abd al-Mu’min then marched on Marrakech itself. By this time ‘Alī b. Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn had died, as had his son and successor, Tāshufīn b. ‘Alī. Governance of the city was in the hands of the latter’s brother, Ishāq b. ‘Alī b. Yūsuf, who was a young child at the time.’Abd al-Mu’min besieged the city for eleven months and conquered it with the sword and captured the emir Ishāq and many senior Almoravid officials. Ishāq was terrified, began to cry and begged for mercy from ‘Abd al-Mu’min. One of the senior Almoravid officials, known as Sīr, said to Ishāq: “You cry over the fate of your mother and father! Be patient like a man!” before spitting in the face of Ishāq. ‘Abd al-Mu’min said: “Verily, this is a man who does follow any divinely-revealed religion” and the Almohads rose up and beat this same Sīr to death with wooden clubs. Despite his young age, Ishāq was also put to death in 542 A.H. [1147 A.D.] and he was the last king of the Almoravids. His death put an end to the existence of their dynasty and kingdom, which had existed for nearly 80 years with Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn’s reign beginning in 462 A.H. [1069 A.D.] and the destruction of the dynasty occurring in 542 A.H. [1147 A.D.]. This dynasty had four rulers: Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn (r. 1061–1106), his son ‘Alī b. Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn (r. 1106–1143), Tāshufīn b. ‘Alī (r. 1143–1145) and Ishāq b. ‘Alī (r. 1147). Following the conquest of Marrakech, ‘Abd al-Mu’min made the city his capital and in the vicinity of the royal residence he constructed a magnificently ornamented mosque, and he had the old mosque that had been built by Yūsuf b. Tāshufīn destroyed.
[Abū al-Fidā’, al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1998), Vol. 2, pp. 327–329]