The Wisdom Of Ibn Tumart: Until You Can Change Things, You Must Endure Them

The founder of the Almohad movement–a puritanical reformist school originating in North Africa–was a man named Ibn Tumart (أبو عبد الله محمد ابن تومرت).  The historians tell us that he was a Berber from the Atlas Mountains in what is now southern Morocco, and that he lived from 1080 to about 1130.  The biographer Ibn Khallikan relates numerous anecdotes about him that center on his strictness and piety.  As is often the case with such anecdotes, however, we may sift through them and find something useful for our own lives.

Religious reformers are not meant to be jolly or genial; and it is decidedly more pleasant to admire them from a safe distance than to be forced to live according to their prescriptions.  Yet they too have a purpose and place in history.  They can set in motion regenerative forces that sweep away the collective rot of generations, and so help to re-balance societies that may have become too corrupted with luxury.

Ibn Khallikan describes the austere reformer in this way:

Pious and devout, he lived in squalid poverty, subsisting on the coarsest fare and attired in rags; he generally went with downcast eyes; smiling whenever he looked a person in the face, and ever manifesting his propensity for the practices of devotion. He carried with him no other worldly goods than a staff and a skin for holding water.

His courage was great; he spoke correctly the Arabic and the Maghrib [Berber] languages; he blamed with extreme severity the conduct of those who transgressed the divine law, and not content with obeying God’s commandments, he labored to enforce their strict observance; an occupation in which he took such pleasure that he seemed to have been naturally formed for it, and he suffered with patience the vexations to which it exposed him.  [Biog. Dict. III.206.  All quotes herein translated by McGucken de Slane, with minor modifications]

Naturally such men make rulers nervous.  Ibn Tumart gradually made a name for himself as a strident believer in the reform of rulers and society.  And if he could not reform them, he was determined to replace them.

He soon acquired a reputation in Morocco for fearlessly speaking out against practices that he believed violated divine law.  A local ruler, hearing of his zeal, took the advice of one of his advisors and summoned Ibn Tumart before him to provide an explanation for his conduct.  When Ibn Tumart arrived at court, the king politely but firmly asked him to account for his words and actions.  Ibn Tumart freely admitted his preachings, and went on to demand an explanation from the ruler himself as to why he tolerated such abuses.  The preacher spoke with such emotion and intensity that the king was moved to tears.

Yet the king’s advisor (a man named Ibn Wuhaib) detected a will to power behind the mendicant’s pious facade.  He also knew that it was wise not to take too hard a line with such men; they seemed to thrive on repression, which only made them grow stronger.  So he told the king:

I am afraid that this man [Ibn Tumart] will do you harm, and my advice is that you imprison him and his companions, and assign to them for their support the daily sum of one dinar. This will secure you from his evil intentions; and, if you refuse doing so, he will cost you all the money in your treasury, and your indulgence will have profited you nothing.

The king agreed, but Ibn Wuhaid also told him this:

It would be shameful for you, after having wept at the exhortations of this man, to treat him ill in the same sitting, and disgraceful for you who possess so great a kingdom to show your fear of a man who does not even possess wherewithal to appease his hunger.

So the king, not wanting to give Ibn Tumart the upper hand, wished him well and dismissed him.  But as he left the king’s presence, Ibn Tumart kept his face directed towards the king.  Afterwards, some people asked him why he had never turned his back on the king.  His response was this:

My intention was to watch vanity as long as I could, until the time comes that I may change it.

This story, according to Ibn Khallikan, was taken from a work entitled كتاب المغرب في اخبار اهل المغرب (Kitab al-mughrib fii akhbar ahl al-Magrib), which may be loosely translated as Unusual Book on the History of the People of the Magrib [i.e., Morocco].

This is a wise observation.  Ibn Tumart reminds us that if we do not have the power to change what is bad, it is more prudent to keep a trained eye on the subject, until the time arises when one may take corrective action.  Sometimes conditions are just too difficult, and the times are just not right.  In these situations, one must bide one’s time.  But patience has never been a common virtue; and it has become even less common in our own era of instant gratification.  Everyone wants everything now.

Ibn Khallikan relates some of Ibn Tumart’s wise sayings.  Here he counsels a cleansing austerity:

Strip yourself of the world and its passions; for naked you came into the world.

The following quote I like very much, and was favored by Ibn Tumart.  It is actually a verse from the classic poet al-Mutanabbi:

When you strive after much-desired glory, cease not to aspire until you reach the stars.

For in both a mean and in a noble undertaking, the taste of death is quite the same.

The meaning is obvious:  death in a wretched enterprise is the same as death in a glorious one, so we might as well aim high.  The following quote of his (also from al-Mutanabbi) gives an idea of his aggressive spirit:

He who knows the times and mankind as well as I do, should quench without remorse his lance’s thirst for blood.

He would meet no mercy from them if they got him into their power; to hurl destruction on them is not then a crime.

And with regard to his independent spirit, Ibn Tumart used to say the following:

I become not one of them by living among them; sandy earth is the gangue in which gold is found.

This last beautiful quote requires some explanation.  The word gangue means the worthless material in which a valuable mineral ore is hidden.

Ibn Tumart was a severe man.  But dynasties are not founded by weak-minded men.  He would eventually engage in open revolt against the Almoravid rulers of the Magrib.  The Almohad dynasty he spiritually founded would eventually extend over all of North Africa, as well as Andalusian Spain, and would last until 1212.  He reminds us that when we lack sufficient resources to bring about the changes we want in our lives, it is wise to keep our eyes on the problem until such time that action may become effective.


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