The Ideological Power of Some Almohad Illuminated Manuscripts
Paper given by Umberto Bongianino
Delivered at Bard College, New York, on 14 October 2016
From the mid-12th century, the production of lavishly illuminated copies of certain texts acquired a special ideological meaning in the Maghrib, due to the rise of the Almohads. The Almohad caliphs continued to encourage the migration of Andalusī calligraphers and bookbinders to Marrakesh, following the example of their Almoravid predecessors. Here, these artists were commissioned to pen and decorate royal manuscripts that flaunted the dynasty’s full assimilation of Andalusī culture and scribal practices.
However, the classic religious texts such as Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ and Saḥnūn’s Mudawwana were replaced with luxury copies of the works of Ibn Tūmart – the founder and spiritual leader of the Almohad movement – to be sent to the main mosques and teaching institutions of the Empire as powerful ideological instruments. In these beautiful, yet scarcely known manuscripts of Ibn Tūmart’s Aʿazz mā Yuṭlab and Muḥādhī al-Muwaṭṭāʾ, stylistic devices of Andalusī origin were employed as a legitimizing vehicle for the doctrine of the new Berber caliphs. A new script – Maghribī thuluth – was devised and used not only in these manuscripts, but also on coinage, in architectural decoration, and in the decrees issued by the royal chancery, thus creating a form of aesthetic unity across all media that proclaimed the ideology of the Almohad State.
At the same time, the Almohad rulers endowed precious copies of the Qurʾān to the mosque of their dynastic cemetery at Tīnmal, where Ibn Tūmart and the first three caliphs were buried, to show respect and veneration for their predecessors, thus strengthening their own legitimacy. These and other intriguing aspects concerning Almohad manuscripts are only now beginning to emerge thanks to new important discoveries in several Moroccan libraries.
Dr Umberto Bongianino is a departmental lecturer in Islamic Art & Architecture in the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East at the University of Oxford.