For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past. Our training teaches us to respect the principles of the 19th-century founder of source-based history, Leopold von Ranke, who professionalized the discipline to focus as much as possible on the past as it was. History, he believed, should be written for its own sake, not treated as a ghost of itself in service of the present, nor strip-mined for jewels of supposed relevance to current objectives or concerns.
We do not always succeed in this, but at our best we try to avoid the facile and misleading uses of history that non-historians all too readily deploy in the service of some other goal than good scholarship. Case in point: Not long ago, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed that her bachelor’s degree in medieval history would help her “defeat ISIS”: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.”
Fiorina’s comments set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy. Not one medievalist, or any historian for that matter, supports her contention that the medieval past is particularly well described or defined by its level of violence. Most these days would argue that the concept of the “medieval past” is little more than an artificial punctuation to separate the period between the fall of Rome from the 15th century age of discovery and the subsequent rise of modern nation-states.
A similar negative reaction attended a March 2015 Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article similarly mooted a form of ISIS “medievalism.” That was enough to set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.
The main problem with these comparisons, as Stephen John Stedman recently noted, is the lack of any careful or precisely drawn context for making them. The result is the all too easy use of wildly inaccurate stereotypes about particular past periods. In this case, the stereotype is that “everything in the Medieval past, especially medieval Islam, was brutal and violent.” But far from being an age of brutality, the “medieval period” of Islamic history was defined by its relative tolerance. One of the greatest of cities in 10th-century Europe was Muslim Córdoba. Astonished Christian visitors such as the itinerant German nun Hrostsvita of Gandersheim recognized Córdoba as an “Ornament of the World.” Its shine came from the fact that Córdoba had street lamps that glowed at night, reflecting the running water of fountains and the light of knowledge and science from a library that rivaled ancient Alexandria. Although lower in status under Islamic law, minorities were not only protected in Islamic cities like Córdoba but often ascended to positions of great influence, such as the Jewish leader, scholar, poet, and physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served as de facto minister of foreign affairs for the blue-eyed Caliph of Córdoba, ‘Abd al Rahman III (the Umayyad Caliphs often intermarried with Gothic, Christian royal families in the north of Spain).
Similarly, in “medieval” Baghdad the Jewish Exilarch, the leader of the Jewish community under the great ‘Abbasid Caliphs, had his own palace and was paraded through the streets on his daily business wearing the finest robes. Proudly aware of the role of Jewish exiles in Babylon in the Bible, the most powerful of Exilarchs and Gaons, heads of the Jewish academy, styled themselves as the Daniels of their age. Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike visited a shrine to the prophet Ezra, who was said once to have wandered into Basra, the Iraqi city unfortunately more famous today for its extreme sectarian conflict.
Influenced by the translations of Greek philosophers by Nestorian Christians and others, including women scholars in the “House of Wisdom,” the great ‘Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun nearly started a reformation within Islam by supporting a group of rationalist scholars (the Mutazilites) who argued that the Qur’an was revealed within an earthly context, and that therefore the holy book could be interpreted, not simply followed to the letter. These instances of Islamic power at its height show that economic growth, power, and success, along with a benign balance between creativity and stability, always seemed to attract cosmopolitanism, toleration, and diversity, which in turn then attracted more economic growth, power, and success. Before the Mongol catastrophes of the 13th century, that was the rule rather than the exception in Islamic civilization.
Obviously Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS, although he speaks to this pre-Mongol “golden age,” ignores the tolerance and diversity of the society the early Muslim Caliphs ruled. In fact, ISIS itself does not have the best relationship with history, either medieval or modern; it seeks to destroy the very context, diversity, and complexity that, for the most part, define the past. Medieval history conceived in its broadest sense as Islamic “Middle Ages” history, or any history that intervenes between the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the present or shows the role of non-Muslims, is abhorrent to ISIS leaders and to other extremist preachers. They have no interest in the past and its complexities. They care not about the context in which the Prophet lived, or about his desire to create a more just society. They know nothing about his determination not to allow a return to patriarchal violence in Arabia and beyond. In this way, they disparage history itself, wishing to dissolve it into abstruse doctrine and the overwhelming desire for the apocalypse.
This is often what happens to “history” among extremist premillenarian religious groups, and there is nothing particularly contemporary, Islamic, or Middle Eastern about it. Examples populate history from many centuries and many places. History is destroyed and a purified vision of the past is put in the service of revelation, much in the same way National Socialism used history to shore up its ideology of the master race. ISIS is not interested in returning to the medieval past; it is interested in fusing past, present, and future into an apocalyptic alchemy of end times. By ignoring or even, in the case of Palmyra and other monuments or examples of tolerance and respect for diversity, destroying the past, not only have ISIS bomb makers failed to find the mythical Red Mercury, they failed to have any chance of creating a sustainable doctrine or ideology before they even got started. Not for the first time, Clio (the muse of history) has been chained and sold to Melpomene (the muse of tragedy).
History can therefore be a victim of those who would strip-mine it and those who would immolate it. But comparing the past and present is not an entirely fruitless pursuit. Indeed, rejecting any comparisons is in a sense as absolutist and problematic as insisting on facile ones. Unfortunately, in search of ever diminishing returns from ever more sources, many historians have turned themselves into expert silos and echo chambers of obscurity, forgetting that context can also mean connecting one’s research to something of greater significance. Francis Fukuyama has shown in his most recent two books that it is not only possible but very useful to connect our current, political order with both the broadest and deepest understandings of the past. If we are sensitive to context, we can engage the past usefully; while history does not repeat itself, human nature (and especially human social nature) are stable enough to yield some discernable patterns through time.
Hence it is with hopes of following Fukuyama and not Fiorina that I deign to compare—and certainly, yes, contrast—the Almohad Empire with ISIS. Both exemplify revolutionary millenarian movements, but one is a 12th-century, mainly Berber, theologically pan-Islamic movement and the other is a 21st-century Arab Sunni movement that has emerged only in the past decade or so. One of the greatest questions with which historians grapple is the relationship between religious belief and political behavior as it plays out in society. In comparing the present-day Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with the Almohads (Al-Muwahhidun in Arabic, for followers of the absolute unity of God), this is the relationship of principal interest.
Rise, Routinization, and Fall of the Almohads
Often demonized as destructors of the “Ornament of the World” and the tolerance that characterized Córdoba, the rise of the Almohads and their wildly successful spread in the 12th century from a small enclave in the High Atlas Mountains to Muslim Spain and control of much of North Africa must be seen within a specific historical and social context. The Almohad Empire started as a movement that promised to conquer the entire Muslim world, bringing the Apocalypse and the Day of Reckoning, but its leader was not a typical Arab Muslim cleric. The Almohad Mahdi, the one who will announce the end of times, was named Ibn Tumart—a Berber name, not an Arab one.
The Berbers of the High Atlas Mountains had for centuries been ruled by a traditional system of lineage-based alliances. While women had high status in this society, they were not nearly as powerful as the women of the Saharan desert nomads, who often owned the tents and determined whom they should marry. Prominent men, in particular older patriarchs with knowledge of history and its tribal alliances, were mostly in charge of different mountain valleys. These were the Ugallids, a Berber word for “chiefs.” Ibn Tumart himself came from an Ugallid background even as he also professed descent from the Prophet Muhammad, making him a Sharif.
Ibn Tumart traveled to the East in search of knowledge and even claimed to have studied under the great Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), although historians dispute this. Seeing that Islam had been “corrupted” by laws and practices that did not reflect the “origins” or “roots” of religion as depicted in the Qur’an and verified Hadith, Ibn Tumart took it upon himself to return home to the Maghrib (the Arabic name for western North Africa or, more poetically, the “Land of the Setting Sun”) to “command right and forbid wrong” for those who did not follow his interpretation of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teachings. In one famous instance, he used his walking stick to break up a dancing party of “men dressed like ladies” in the streets of Bougie, a cosmopolitan port city in Algeria, and smashed his way through the market. Taken before the ruler of the city at the time, al-Nasir, the Almohad sources state triumphantly that Ibn Tumart embarrassed the decadent sultan, specifically criticizing him for purchasing an expensive, and probably elaborately decorated, ostrich egg instead of spending the money on his people.
Ibn Tumart continued his preaching and was almost lost to the sea when his shipmates on a voyage threw him overboard. Alas, no whale appeared, as was the case with his prophetic predecessor Jonah, but Almohad sources say that Ibn Tumart was nevertheless miraculously saved from drowning; the people on board, seeing this, hauled him back on the ship and were converted to his mission. When he finally made it back to Marrakech, the nearest major city in the mountains, he publically lambasted the ruler for having a special prayer mat “dyed with dun” in a prominent position in the mosque, a mosque that the Almohads claimed was wrongly oriented away from Mecca—symbolic of the mistaken orientation of society in general.
Miraculously escaping the wrath of the ruler in Marrakech after hiding in a cemetery and then heading for the relative protection of his own tribe in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Ibn Tumart began his preaching among the Berber tribes. He taught in both Berber and Arabic and encouraged memorization of the Qur’an and the use of Arabic. He also created a “new brotherhood” based primarily on adherence to religious doctrine, not on blood. In this he followed the example of Mohammed himself. But Ibn Tumart’s methods also involved executing most of the older patriarchs of Berber society who resisted him. Tribal affiliation and identity were not completely lost. Ibn Tumart organized the tribes into a hierarchy or proto-government that was also populated by scribes and memorizers of the Qur’an, who would act as bureaucrats over a future empire. One of the most prominent of the Berber tribes, the Banu Hafs, went on to found their own great and long-lived dynasty of governors over what is now Tunisia.
Although ostensibly a fundamentalist in many of his views of the Qur’an and the Hadith, Ibn Tumart did not resemble most of today’s fundamentalists. He claimed access to secret books of prophecy, especially the so-called Book of Jafr, a book that, like the Qur’an, was said to have been revealed exclusively to the Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel, but that was meant only for the chosen leader of the Muslims at any period of time to see. The book allegedly contained the whole future story of the universe in its pages. Ibn Tumart seemed especially aware of the fact that 500 lunar years had passed since the beginning of the Muslim calendar in 622 with the hijra. In Muslim theology, as in many theological interpretations of Christian apocalypse, the fact that the end of days did not ultimately come was not a failure but merely indicative of the fact that God understands time differently from man, or is testing man’s faith. Five hundred years could be the same as one year, or a day, in the mind of God.
Ibn Tumart died before his movement could really take off. According to some chroniclers, his successors decided to keep his death secret. That is why there are different interpretations for his date of death (1128–30 CE). His body was left within his family’s house and messages from the Mahdi were sent or “heard” through the walls, usually in support of the destined conquest. While the decadent city of Marrakech, known to this day for its great, diverse, and vibrant way of life, was the first object of Ibn Tumart’s wrath while he was alive, the conquest had to wait until Ibn Tumart’s successor, ‘Abd al Mu’min, consolidated conquests elsewhere. Eventually, ‘Abd al Mu’min conquered Marrakech in 1147. The chronicles tell of one contingent of Marrakech’s soldiers being led by a woman, a princess who fought desperately to keep the Almohads at bay, ultimately to no avail.
‘Abd al-Mu’min called for the purification of the city. Most of the previous dynasty’s buildings were destroyed and replaced. Jews and Christians, although debated with a long series of arguments, were ultimately required to convert. The justification for this, even though the Qur’an rejects compulsion in religion, was probably the idea that the Almohads were creating a new, pure, and holy land in the West, similar to the sacred ground in Mecca and Medina where non-believers are forbidden to enter.
The Almohad movement spread across the crucial backbone of the Atlas Mountains, controlling valleys and mountains so daunting that even the Romans never tried to rule them. They held sway over a great, natural fortress and could control the rich, “decadent” cities they conquered. The Almohads also had almost complete control over the seas, and their Admiral Ahmad al Siqilli, originally from Sicily, was much feared by Christians. Acknowledging their superior power, especially on the waves, Saladin asked the Almohads for help against the Crusaders. Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, fell to the Almohads, and fear rose in Egypt that the empire would spread even to the central lands of Islam. Moses Maimonides—the Rambam—the great Jewish philosopher from Córdoba about whom Jewish scholars still say “from Moses and Moses there was no one like Moses,” lived for some time under Almohad rule, obscuring his faith until making his way to the court of the great Saladin in Egypt where he served as court physician. Interestingly, however, there were exceptions to the Almohad ban on non-believers even in this early period. ‘Abd al Mu’min even used Christian mercenaries at times.
Almost as quickly as the Almohads conquered, however, their original fighting ideology ran out of steam. The promised end of days did not arrive and politics began to turn the charisma of the Mahdi into the routine activities of everyday governing. Corrupt Almohad governors drank wine and entertained with dancing girls in cities such as Granada, where such practices were common among the Almoravids before the Almohads came. Soon, the restrictions on Jews and Christians were lifted and Marrakech and other cities returned to their “natural” state as vibrant, cosmopolitan communities. Averroes (Ibn Rushd) flourished and his philosophy, even of the most rationalist kind, basically started the scholastic movement in Christian Europe.
At the start of the revolution, the Almohads were radical monotheists, insisting on the creed of “absolute unity” or tawhid. But before long tawhid was soon again seen more in allegorical and spiritual light than in a political one. The Almohad Revolution, as one prominent scholar of the movement, Maribel Fierro has called it, created an opening for some of the greatest teachers of Sufism to create a form of Islam that is in many ways the mirror opposite Ibn Tumart’s method and preaching. Ibn ‘Arabi and Al-Shadhili, the great Sufi scholars whose followers would, over the centuries, spread with migrations and merchant caravans throughout the world as far as Java and even the United States, saw that the Almohad project was doomed to political quagmire. So they instead envisioned unity as something to be achieved in a spiritual realm. They even saw different religions as simply different paths to the same all-encompassing godhead. These Sufi thinkers have a far greater influence on Muslims today than does Ibn Tumart, whose apocalyptic promise is now largely forgotten, including by the leaders of ISIS.
Over time, the Almohad Empire broke up as various governors sued for control of smaller and more manageable regions and territories. At one point the Caliph of the Almohads in Marrkech, heavily dependent on a large corps of Castilian mercenaries in armor sent to him by King Ferdinand, publically declared that only “Jesus was the Mahdi” and not Ibn Tumart. This was not a particularly radical idea, as many Sunni Muslims continue to believe that Jesus, as a prophet of Islam, was indeed meant to be the Mahdi, but that his followers deviated from the true path. A Bishop of Marrakech, a personal legate or representative of the Pope himself, was set up and a church filled with merchants and mercenaries rivaled the minarets.
Thus, over time the vision of Ibn Tumart went through what Max Weber called “routinization,” or what Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), the great Muslim historian, called the cycle of history. Dynasties and empires can start with great charismatic figures such as Ibn Tumart. Over time, however, as generations become “corrupt” and distant from that original vision, the dynasty slowly dissolves until it ultimately dies. Most dynasties, in the view of Ibn Khaldun, have about the same maximum age as the human body—about four generations or eighty years. The Almohads maintained control of al-Andalus for only about half that many years. Indeed, as the Almohad Empire stopped expanding, as the end of times did not arrive, and as they had to actually start governing, the straightjacket of revolutionary theology and charismatic revelation no longer worked as a practical means of running an empire. Slowly but surely cosmopolitanism and tolerance returned and unitarian theology devolved into the beautiful dreams of the Sufis, contained in a message of patience, internal spiritual struggle, and peace.
At the same time, returning to the success and worldly vision of the Almohads remained a tempting object for various successor kings and rulers who attempted to revive or reunite the Caliphate. All these attempts ultimately failed. Even as the remnants of the Almohad Empire fought one another, the Christian kingdoms of Iberia took advantage of the disarray and became ever more unified through dynastic alliance and intermarriage. At the 1212 battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Christians defeated the Almohads because of an unusual unity between their normally jealous and bickering forces.
Even as Christian rulers succeeded, Christian society prepared for a holy war of its own. The conflict with the Almohad remnants militarized Spanish Christianity, and early Almohad intolerance migrated into Christian Spain. As the Inquisition began, Christianity in Spain became ever more intolerant of people of other faiths, especially Jews. Conquering Muslim Granada in 1492, a holdout of Islamic rule on the peninsula, Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile then expelled the Jews and also famously patronized Christopher Columbus, setting the stage for the beginning of the modern world and a traditional, if not entirely arbitrary, “bookend” between medieval and modern history.
Rise, Routinization, and Fall (?) of ISIS
There are many crucial differences between the rise of ISIS and the rise of the Almohads. First, the Almohads emerged from Berber society, while ISIS is largely supported by disaffected Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria, an outgrowth of a larger sectarian battle between Shi‘a and Sunni. Ibn Tumart, in contrast, combined both Shi‘a and Sunni theology to create something new from the mixture. ISIS is strictly Sunni and is not theologically innovative.
Like the rise of the Almohads, however, it is important not to forget the social, economic, and lineage context of those who form the core of support for the Islamic State. Also, ISIS, although not nearly as revolutionary as the unique Almohad vision, does profess a largely apocalyptic and highly urgent view of time. Calls for an encounter with Crusader troops at “Dabiq,” a great battle that will usher in the apocalypse, resonates with Ibn Tumart’s access to a book of secrets and the notion of God intervening into time for the benefit of the movement.
While al-Baghdadi may not ultimately be the main charismatic figure of ISIS, and while Sunnis, unlike the Shi‘a, reject the notion that the leader of the community must be a direct blood-descendant of the Prophet, he does seem to brandish his credentials as a member of the Quraysh, the family and tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. He appears to want to “check all the boxes” required for the legitimate rule of a Caliph as defined by scholars such as Abu al Hassan al Mawardi (d. 1058), who worked for the ‘Abbasid Caliphs. Of course, as stated earlier, there is a great gulf between the ‘Abbasid Caliphs and Al-Baghdadi. The four Rashidun (the four Caliphs that came after the Prophet who are considered the most respected) acted in way far different from Al-Baghdadi. ‘Umar refused to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem after conquest, fearing that later Muslims would try to turn the church into a mosque. Interestingly, many of the earliest Caliphs were determined to discourage too much conversion to Islam, since doing so would reduce tax revenue from the jizya tax for non-Muslims.
Even if al-Baghdadi and ISIS claims to return to the time of the Prophet himself there are immediate problems, mostly with the moral and revolutionary intentions of the Prophet. The Prophet never preached “going back” in time, nor did he see his own time or social context as particularly commendable. If anything, his intention, as revealed in his last sermon and on many specific matters of legislation, was to transform society into a more just and equal one. All Muslims were equal according to Muhammad, not just one type of Muslim or Muslims from a particular background. Unlike ISIS, the Almohad vision and doctrine was based on a claim that it was restoring authoritative Islamic practice, and the Almohads claimed to support the teachings of Al-Ghazali. ISIS does not seem to be supported by any scholars, nor does it claim support from scholars with any wide recognition in the Islamic world.
Perhaps the most interesting possible comparison between the Almohads and ISIS, however, is that the process of routinization—that is, the process of ideological compromise and moderation needed to practically govern as state—will probably begin soon. There is no reason to believe ISIS will not follow the path of so many religious and millenarian movements before it. In this case, the best long-term strategy for ISIS’s would-be targets and victims may be to wait for ISIS to destroy itself.
At the same time, some may argue that a ground invasion would stop ISIS in its tracks and reveal the falseness of its apocalyptic teachings for all to see, deflating its recruiting. Even if a war is what ISIS wants, they surely do not expect or want defeat. I would not presume to assert what option, if any, would be the most effective. As a historian, however, I think it is important to note that extremism, over time, often, but not always, seems to pass into later, more mature stages. The question is whether one can tolerate those intermediate stages and the mayhem that may be created in cosmopolitan, constitutional societies based on secular law that are a target, but not the main target, of ISIS wrath.
Some may argue that a strategy of waiting for ISIS’s appeal to crumble (this seems to be the hope behind much of President Obama’s pronouncements and explanations to hold off on sending U.S. ground forces) neglects the impact that ISIS is already having on societies far from its immediate area of control. If parties and politics in the West become increasingly intolerant and nativist in their reaction to ISIS, the West may indeed inflict more harm on itself than anything the charismatically apocalyptic minds behind ISIS could imagine.
Comparing medieval Almohads with modern ISIS is problematic on many levels. This is especially true if one is making specific comparisons of events that were and are unique and particular. They are movements from very different times, and very different contexts. Besides, even comparisons that seem to “fit”—like the two-step leadership process from Ibn Tumart to ‘Abd al Mu’min matching that from Osama bin-Laden to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first in both cases providing the spiritual core and the latter being the proto-state builder—are not particularly helpful.
However, over a longer span of time, over the so-called “moyen durée” or “longue durée” (medium or long-term view of history) advocated by scholars such as Fernand Braudel, we can see perhaps more insightful points of comparison, and perhaps some clue, hopefully, to the ultimate fate of ISIS: a routinized and reduced shadow of radicalism that, over time, will see the benefits, both material and perhaps even spiritual, of not rejecting normal time or all the complexities and compromises typical of society and normal politics. Perhaps the members of ISIS will become, as most Muslims already are, those interested in joining the larger community of humanity, maintaining an identity in relation to others. As the British historian David Cannadine convincingly argues in his recent book, The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, interactions between people of different identities are far more common historically and ultimately far more successful over the long term. In this respect, history as a chronicle of the human drama can be seen as much as an example of hope as a litany of despair and absolutism.