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date: 23 April 2019

Historiography in the Maghrib in the 19th and Early 20th Century

Summary and Keywords

The Maghrebi tradition of historical literary production extends back to the early centuries of Islamic expansion and conquest in North Africa and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal), and, since the 20th century, positivist national histories as well. While this tradition had evolved since its inception, 19th- and 20th-century Maghrebi historical production both influenced and was influenced by the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the Maghreb. Grappling with the legacies of colonialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism, among others, Maghrebi historians continue to sow the rich terrain of historical literary production in the postcolonial period by absorbing, reacting to, and building upon new trends in the historical profession.

Keywords: Maghreb, historiography, Islamic historiography, colonialism, nationalism, modernization

Literary Forms and Historical Consciousness in the Maghreb

Before European Ascendance in the Maghreb

Historical literary production in the Maghreb extends back to the 12th century ce (7th century ah) and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal). Before the rise of a positivist historical tradition in the 20th century, Maghrebi historiography was modeled upon a narrative form associated with the Islamic historiographic tradition. The authority of a historiographic text (its “truth”) in this tradition is based on an author’s claim to have carefully examined the works of the “ancients” from within the Islamic discursive corpus and to have ascertained, to the best of his ability, the validity of chains of transmission (isnad) of individual biographies he includes, of events he narrates, or of exemplary deeds performed by those he extols. According to this method, the criterion for evaluation of historiographical work was not authorial individuality or creativity, but rather the authoritative rigor of the collection process and the verification of a proper chain of transmission of such information.1

Like their eastern Muslim counterparts, premodern Maghrebi historians “wrote according to conventions organized principally for the purpose of illustration rather than explanation” and were largely focused on “the ethical and didactic function of history writing” rather than the analytical dimensions associated with modern historiography.2 Other characteristics of this tradition include the belief that it was “intervention in the temporal sphere that God attributes to events a meaning.” Before the advent of a positivist historical tradition in the Maghreb, history was, “above all, the representation of Providential time” such that “history could only be deciphered through those signs (ayat) through which the Supreme Being chose to manifest His Sublime and Immutable Will.”3 Furthermore, the classical historiographical tradition was based on an Ur-text, namely, the Sirat al-Rasul (Biography of the Prophet). In order to accurately reconstruct the life of the Prophet Muhammad, early historians focused on determining which facts were trustworthy and which were not. The result was the production of an “historical archetype” in which, surrounding a specific fact relating to the life of the Prophet, “all the credible versions were gathered haphazardly” as exhibited in the iconic works of classical historians al-Masudi and al-Tabari.4 Therefore, chronicles in the Maghrebi Islamic historical tradition have a largely annalistic quality, which resembles chronicles in the western European medieval tradition. As such, they are unlike Hegelian positivist history defined by its linear conception of time, its focus on causality as its primary explanatory mode, and its view of evolution toward modernity as its telos.5

An important exception to this general outline is Ibn Khaldun’s monumental Muqqadima (written between 1375 and 1379 ce), which sought to provide a scientific and sociological methodology for the study of history whose focus was human civilization (‘umran). A main focus of Ibn Khaldun’s research was “the study of the aetiology of decline, that is to say the symptoms and the nature of the ills from which civilizations die.”6 Although the work of premodern North African historians who came after Ibn Khaldun did not attempt to implement such a sweeping theory and science of historical investigation, nevertheless, cyclical elements associated with the “rise and decline” paradigm introduced by Ibn Khaldun can be found. For example, Algerian historian Ahmad al-Sharif al-Zahhar (1781–1872), who was witness to the drastic changes in his society as a result of the French conquest, wrote in this idiom. For al-Zahhar, the fall of the Ottoman-Algerian governing apparatus represents “the cyclical rise and fall of ‘umran (settled society)” rather than its failure to defend the realm against European incursion.7 Dynastic histories such as Moroccan historian Ahmad bin Khalid al-Nasiri’s al-Istiqsa (1834–1897) also exhibit this quality.

Chronicles (tarikh) are the most easily identifiable form of historical writing in the Maghrebi Islamic tradition. They range in terms of focus taking as their subject the events associated with one particular ruler or dynasty or several dynasties. Hagiography (manaqib/rijjal) and biography (tarjama)—less identifiable as “historical” from the perspective of modern historiography—record the lives of religiopolitical elites (al-khass) as “model persons” whose exemplary status and authority are grounded in their connection to the Prophet Muhammad (nasab), to their status as “people of knowledge” (thu al-’ilm/thu al-ma’rifa) or to some combination of these qualities. Each individual biography (khabar) may contain information ranging from dates of birth and death, intellectual genealogies, and important works of scholarship, on one hand, and miracles attributed to the individual being eulogized, dreams they experienced (or others experienced about them) signaling their spiritual acumen, and conversion stories, on the other.8

The Emergence of Positivism

The transition to positivist history in North Africa is associated with the advent of European colonialism and the concomitant development of local nationalisms in the region. The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed important transformations across the states and societies of the Maghreb as a result of the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the region, on the one hand. Maghrebi societies transformed due to the efforts of indigenous political elites to challenge these incursions through programs of reform and modernization meant to shore up their power vis-à-vis Europe, on the other. Although Europeans and Maghrebis had had a long history of interaction within the Mediterranean space before the 19th century, the new conditions of western European military and economic supremacy in the period fundamentally altered relations between those societies.9 With the drawing of territorial boundaries and borders between the different regions of North Africa by Europeans, longstanding migratory patterns and movements of people, goods, and ideas (such as between eastern Algeria and western Tunisia or the Maghrib and sub-Saharan Africa) were disrupted or came to a complete halt. Indeed, while today scholars speak in terms of national boundaries—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—they acknowledge that, “for the inhabitants and rulers of these areas, the national concept implicit in these turns of phrase would have been unknown or unintelligible.”10 Nevertheless, new conceptions of bounded national territories began to emerge, thereby forming the spatial and geographical basis for the development of regional territorial nationalisms. European conquest (or the threat thereof) and the development of nationalist movements across the Maghreb in the 20th century impacted Maghrebi historical writing in important ways. Older forms of Maghrebi historiography embedded in a broader Arabo-Islamic tradition began to evolve to reflect new positivist paradigms. While specific conditions of colonization in each region of the Maghreb helped shape national historical traditions in different ways, modern Maghrebi “history” came to be defined largely in evolutionary terms by offering stories “of restoration, of recovery … of the community lost, at a moment of interruption in ‘natural’ historical time, by the unnatural irruption of foreign domination into the space of national evolution.”11 Drawing from different literary registers including classical Islamic genres and Hegelian/Marxist historiography, Maghreb historians began to grapple with how to write the history of their states/societies in the context of colonialism, nationalism, modernity/modernization, and postcoloniality.

Historians in Context

In 1830, while still reeling from the devastating consequences of the Napoleonic invasions, counter-revolution, and the infamous “fly-swatter” incident of 1827, the French Army launched its conquest of Algiers. Since the mid-16th century, Algiers had been a mostly autonomous province of the vast multi-ethnic and multireligious Ottoman Empire with its capital in Constantinople. In the early 19th century, an Ottoman-appointed governor known as the Dey ruled through reliance on an army of Turkish slave-soldiers who, over the course of 250 years of Ottoman control, intermarried with the local population to form an urban-based political and military elite. While Algerians recognized the authority of the Ottoman sultans as the protectors of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina and as warriors in the struggle with Christendom, their primary allegiances lay with local social and political elites including families who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad (shurafa), tribal shaykhs, and charismatic saintly figures such as leaders of sufi brotherhoods. Between 1830 and 1871 as French conquest spread, Algerian-Ottoman governing structures quickly buckled, and indigenous society began to face the challenges of the arrival of a new non-Muslim ruling elite, of large-scale appropriation of the most fertile territories for European settlement, and of a vastly altered political, economic, and social order associated with the advent of settler colonialism.12 Responses to French presence varied from outright resistance couched in the language of “jihad” to “hedge betting” and other forms of accommodation and resistance to the new and evolving social and political order.13 With the defeat of the Mokrani rebellion in the Kabilya region in 1871 and the increasing entrenchment of settler interests from the late 19th century onward, Algeria was fully integrated into France as a department. Unlike the European settler community, Algerian Muslims were deemed “subjects” rather than “citizens” and faced discriminatory provisions codified under the Native Code in 1881.14 Following the implementation of a two-tiered system of rights and obligations put in place through the enactment of the Native Code, Algerian Muslims debated whether they should seek assimilation into the system and work toward gaining full rights of citizenship or strive for total independence from France. These debates not only shaped emerging nationalist discourse, but also affected the ways in which Algerians wrote their history before independence. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it was in the midst of these often heated discussions articulated in the press and in individual books and pamphlets during the 1920s and 1930s that the idea of the Algerian “nation” was born.

North African calls for independence were heard as early as World War I, but historians have tended to locate the rise of Algerian nationalist sentiment during the 1920s and 1930s, linking its emergence with the activism of Algerian workers in the metropole as well as of the thousands of North Africans conscripted by France during World War I.15 The writings and teachings of members of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama founded in 1931 also helped crystalize nationalist sentiment through their promotion of reformist Islam (Salafiyya). Largely influenced by anti-imperialist, salafi, and nationalist trends emanating from the Mashriq (Arab East) Mehdi ben Badis, the most well known and celebrated of this group coined the slogan “Islam is our religion, Algeria is our country, and Arabic is our language.” The FLN launched what became a protracted and violent struggle for Algerian independence in 1954, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Algerians. Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 with the signing of the Evian Accords, resulting in, among other things, the mass migration of pied noirs (colonial settler Algerians of European descent) from Algeria to France.

Three Algerian historians are noteworthy in terms of reflecting these evolving trends: Ahmad al-Sharif al-Zahhar (1781–1872), Abu al-Qasim al-Hafnawi (1852–1942), and Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani (1899–1983). Of the three, al-Zahhar’s and al-Hafnawi’s histories most clearly reflect older forms of Arabo-Islamic tradition. Al-Zahhar’s untitled chronicle, which only partially survives, was produced late in his life and traced the crisis and demise of Algerian-Ottoman governing structures in the early 19th century. The chronicle provides accounts of the accomplishments of successive local Algerian-Ottoman rulers.16 As noted above, al-Zahhar explains the demise of the state and its rulers by referring to the Khaldunian model of cyclical history in which dynasties emerge and then collapse only to be followed by others. Al-Hafnawi’s Kitab ta’rif al-khalaf bi rijjal al-salaf is organized along classical lines as a compendium of the biographies of notable men of the period in which he wrote. Yet unlike al-Zahhar’s chronicle, which clearly reflects classical historiography, Hafnawi’s text exhibits signs of an emergent new historical register, which asserts, “in the face of the ideologues of colonial conquest, the authentic historicity of the conquered land, even though its star may have paled considerably.” Indeed, the publication of the first volume of al-Hafnawi’s work in 1907 marked the first time that an Algerian Muslim had had his manuscript printed. Of perhaps greater importance than its publication is the fact that the event nourished a developing interest among Algerian Muslim intellectuals in writing a new anticolonial history of their country.17 For example, the abovementioned historian, Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani, was responsible for editing al-Zahhar’s partially surviving chronicle (given to him in the 1930s) as a “project of national ‘recovery.’”18

Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani, who in the 1970s following Algerian independence directed the National Center for Historical Study in Algiers, was the most prolific among a small group of intellectuals writing in Arabic from the 1920s.19 Al-Madani’s 1932 publication, Kitab al-Jaza’ir (Book of Algeria), reaffirms nascent nationalist principles also advocated by the influential Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama by arguing that the Algerian nation would only “rise again by remaining faithful to its faith, its traditions, its language, its culture.”20 For al-Madani, for whom knowledge of history was critical for the invention of the Algerian nation, Algerians were sorely lacking in their understanding of their country, thus contributing to the sense of deracination and disruption caused by the violence of French colonization. “The Arab sons of Algeria,” wrote al-Madani,

are totally ignorant of everything regarding the Algerian nation. They are ignorant of its history, its national character, its organization and laws, the races of its inhabitants, the state of its culture and the power of its economy. It is as if they lived in houses not their own, on land that did not give birth to their fathers and grandfathers; as if they were created on land severed from its roots and ignorant of ancestry … But they do not live, who live ignorant of their nation.21

As conquest and aggressive colonization were underway in Algeria during the 19th century, Tunisia and Morocco had yet to experience the violence and deracination associated with European settler colonialism. The regency of Tunis—a largely autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire with its own governing elite—and the sultanate of Morocco (never conquered by the Ottomans) remained free from European colonial rule until 1881 and 1912, respectively. The Moroccan and Tunisian governments set out to implement a series of modernizing reforms (islah)—limited though they were—to address the challenges of European ascendance on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. In Morocco, this meant the centralization of power in the hands of the ruling Alawi dynastic state through the creation of new forms of taxation and the establishment of a modern-style standing army. Although ultimately unsuccessful in terms of their ability to prevent French and Spanish conquest in 1912, the reforms produced a vibrant debate among Moroccans regarding the relationship between state and society, the nature of political power and authority, and the role of non-state actors in processes of modernization and reform. Between 1900 and 1912, these debates became especially heated as traditional social and political elites—especially descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (shurafa) and Islamic legal authorities (ulama)—began to lose ground to an emerging urban-based class of bureaucrats and merchants and rural leaders (qa’id-s) who benefitted from the state’s reforms. As the old power-sharing system between the shurafa and the Alawite-controlled government (known as the makhzan) that defined Moroccan politics since the mid-17th century broke down,22 some members of the Moroccan learned classes began to produce new forms of history that departed from previous genres and styles in important ways.

From 1904, when France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale carving out spheres of influence in northern Africa, until the establishment of the French/Spanish protectorates, proto-nationalist discourses emerged in Morocco. Yet these sentiments did not crystallize into large-scale political action against European colonialism until the interwar period following complete French conquest of the sultanate and the coming of age of a largely urban-based and (in some cases, French-educated) generation of Moroccan reformers, whose politicization had been developed in the crucible of foreign rule and the emergence of discourses of self-determination promoted by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.23 The Istiqlal Party, which emerged during World War II and dominated nationalist politics in the lead-up to independence, created an alliance with the Moroccan sultanate and secured independence from France in 1956. Although they competed with the Alawite sultan—now king—in the post-independence period, the Istiqlal, like the FLN in Algeria, came to dominate nationalist politics in the post-independence period and claimed exclusive rights to achieving Moroccan independence.

Like Algiers, the Regency of Tunis had been an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire since the mid-16th century and was ruled by the “bey” and a Turkish military caste. In the early 18th century, the Husaynid dynasty (r. 1705–1957) gained control of the governing apparatus and, despite making separate treaties with various European powers, continued to recognize the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan. In the early 19th century, the Husaynids attempted to implement reforms by establishing a native recruit army to replace the Turkish military caste known as the Janissaries. Although unsuccessful, these efforts paved the way for more substantial and effective modernization under the reign of the Husaynid, Ahmad Bey (r. 1837–1855).24 Inspired by Napoleon and the reform-minded Ottoman governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, Ahamd Bey launched military reforms guided by the most up-to-date military science from France including the building of a new-style army and an Ecole Polythechnique (al-Maktab al-Harbi)—a military school located at Bardo with a largely French and Italian teaching staff in addition to members of the local Islamic scholarly class (ulama).25 This new-style army, as with earlier efforts, drew its recruits from among the Tunisian peasantry, thereby replacing the traditional Turkish military caste. The process of indigenization of the military and bureaucracy was an important step in the creation of a modern Tunisian national identity by integrating local Tunisians into governing structures.26 Riding the wave of Ahmad Bey’s reformist enthusiasm, Tunisian-Ottoman intellectuals like Khayr al-Din al-Tunsi (d. 1890) and Ibn Abi Diyaf (1804–1874) argued for the establishment of a constitution as the best way to modernize politically. In 1861, Tunisia became the first country in the Muslim world to do so.27 Although reforms continued until 1881, when France declared Tunisia a protectorate, by 1869, the regency had fallen into debt, and a foreign-debt commission was imposed. While financial concerns arising from the debt crisis motivated French intervention, geopolitical concerns meant they were also worried that Tunisian reformists were “too committed to the kinds of transformation that might give birth to a modern and independent state.”28 In 1881, France declared its protectorate over Tunisia. While the regency remained in place in Tunisia, the levers of power now resided with the French governor general and colonial administrators. French control eventually gave rise to the Dustur Party and, in 1934, the offshoot Neo-Dustur, which led the charge for independence from France in 1956.

19th-century Islamic scholars such as the Moroccans Ahmad bin Khalid al-Nasiri (1835–1897) and Muhammad bin Ja’far al-Kattani (c. 1858–1927), and the Tunisian bureaucrat Ahmad Ibn Abi Diaf (c. 1804–1874) exemplify authors whose monumental histories—all produced in the second half of the 19th century—are deeply reflective of and in conversation with the impending reality of “colonial modernity”29 and the attempts at reform undertaken by the respective modernizing states of which they were subjects. As part of what the eminent and prolific French Orientalist Evariste Levi-Provencal deemed “a sort of renaissance of Muslim letters”30 during the 19th century, these authors took advantage of new the circumstances in order to revitalize historical literary production in their societies. The proliferation of printing in North Africa, new opportunities for increased contact between the Mashriq (Middle East) and North Africa due to the advent of steamship transportation throughout the Mediterranean and the boom in newspaper publication, and wider contact with Europeans settling, exploring, and politicking in North Africa helped spawn the production of new hybrid literary forms.31 Indeed, according to Yoav Di-Capua, hybridity and instability of genres characterize late 19th-century Arabic historiographical production.32

In the 1880s, the Moroccan Muslim jurist Ahmad bin Khalid al-Nasiri penned the opening of his magisterial history of the western Maghreb, Kitab al-Istiqsa (The Book of Investigation about the Western Maghrib), with a bold and unequivocal declaration reflecting an older historical literary tradition: “The science of history is among the most … lofty … of sciences.”33 If there was any doubt in a reader’s mind about the worthiness of history as an intellectual pursuit, al-Nasiri offered ample further proof in his introduction by referring to a long-established literary and Islamic epistemological practice (explained above), namely, the authentication of a premise or call to action on the basis of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, of the sayings and deeds of his companions, and of notable and celebrated early Muslim jurists. Yet while the opening of the al-Istiqsa is embedded in a discursive tradition and reflective of older forms of Arabo-Islamic history, scholars argue that al-Nasiri in fact inaugurated a new genre of historical writing; it was distinguished by the fact that his audience included both Moroccans and foreigners (Muslim and non-Muslim); that the scope of his chronicle—a general history of Morocco from the advent of Islam until the 19th century—surpassed previous works, which focused on the history of a specific dynasty, a city, or the reign of an individual sultan; and that he was the first to draw on European texts as sources for the history of Morocco. “Thus,” explains historian and literary scholar, Eric Calderwood, al-Nasiri was “Morocco’s first international historian.”34

Among al-Istiqsa’s most novel elements is the author’s extensive discussion of the Moroccan sultans’ 19th-century program of reforms (known as islah) including his recommendations for how to protect the realm from foreign intervention. In a chapter relating events of the 1859–1860 Spanish-Moroccan War, for example, al-Nasiri analyzes the reasons for the decisive Moroccan defeat by Spain, attributing the loss to superior organization, strategy, and discipline of the Spanish forces. He continues to discuss military reforms, drawing his inspiration from a discussion of Ottoman military reforms of the 19th century penned by a Levantine medical doctor familiar with them. Thus, his source base, inspiration for, and focus of topic reflect broader conversations throughout the Muslim Mediterranean regarding the modernization of those societies in the wake of European intervention.35

Al-Nasiri’s contemporary Muhammad bin Ja’far al-Kattani also wrote in the historical literary vein. Yet unlike al-Nasiri’s chronicle, al-Kattani’s Salwat al-Anfas is a hagiography that contains over one thousand individual saints’ biographies, and stories related to and miracles performed by them. Also, unlike a chronicle, Salwat al-Anfas reads like a list of famous figures and their deeds rather than as a narrative of events associated with the Moroccan ruling dynasty. Al-Kattani opens Salwa with an exhortation to his readers to recognize the value of history. Fez, the city of al-Kattani’s birth and the focus of his hagiography, had innumerable saintly figures, however, “due to limited interest among Moroccans in history, most of them have been lost [to memory].”36 His goal was to revive this memory. The significance of Salwat al-Anfas for the study of 19th-century Maghrebi histories lies in the fact that it was written during a time when families like al-Kattani’s—descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (shurafa) through the line of Idriss and members of the traditional Moroccan religious and political elite—were in decline as a result of broader social and economic changes associated with reforms implemented by the Moroccan state. It therefore seeks to assert concepts of power and authority associated with this elite in decline by reviving the discursive tradition—hagiography—that was generally associated with them.37

Ibn Abi Diaf’s Ithaf ahl al-zaman fi akhbar muluk tunis (1862–1872) was completed during the beginning of the Tunisian political crisis that ultimately led to the establishment of the French protectorate in 1881. Therefore, like the Algerian al-Zahhar’s work, it serves as a testimony “to a vanished or threatened ancient regime from a generation passing away.”38 Yet more than simply a chronicle tracing the history of Tunis, Abi Diaf’s Ithaf serves as a political treatise in which he advances arguments for continued reform on the part of the Tunisian Husaynid dynasty in order to prevent the demise of the state in the face of the threat from European encroachment. In this regard, it also shares new elements exhibited in the Moroccan al-Nasiri’s al-Istiqsa. But unlike al-Nasiri, who was an Islamic legal scholar without direct access to the levers of state power, bin Diaf was deeply enmeshed in elite politics. Having entered Tunisian government service in 1827 and serving until 1870, Bin Diaf was long affiliated with other Tunisian reformist politicians and ulama who eventually formed a committee responsible for preparing a constitution for Tunisia.39 Indeed, a distinguishing feature of Ithaf is the seventy-seven-page introduction or “muqaddima,” which accompanies the work and offers a “programmatic statement intended to advance the cause of constitutional government.”40 The opening chapters of Ibn Abi Diaf’s Ithaf reflects his commitment to reform. For him, history and politics are inextricably related.

The science of history, while numbered among the literary arts, is also one of the means to the sciences of the Religious Law. It helps one gain the proof of experience, and it sharpens the thought of the learned and skillful, so that he can compare the cases of complaint and satisfaction to what happened in the past and see the causes and consequences as well as the events and what grows out of them.41

Nationalism, Independence, and History

The development of indigenous Maghrebi historiography in the postcolonial period is a vast and complex topic that cannot be adequately addressed in the scope of this article. Nevertheless, several general points may be elucidated. First, it is impossible to consider the production of historical writing in the Maghreb without recognizing the legacies of colonialism and emergent nationalisms in the region. From the desire to “decolonize” history, on the one hand, to the role of nationalist elites in the independence struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, on the other, Maghreb history since independence has been deeply imbricated with themes of independence, development, and national identity. Second, while some Maghrebis had been involved in the writing of history during the early development of nationalism across North Africa, it was Europeans—mostly French and Maghrebi-born French authors who dominated the field in terms of positivist historical research about North Africa in the interwar period and until independence. Moreover, many of these scholars—especially in Morocco—were directly associated with colonial administration and were committed to French rule in the Maghreb.42 Third, in the past thirty years, Maghrebi historiography has been marked by a move away from “official” history, which largely focused on the rise of nationalist movements (FLN, Istiqlal, Neo-Dustur). Maghrebi historians are turning to new topics inspired by social, minority, precolonial, and ancient history. In Morocco, recent revelations concerning the state’s suppression of dissidents during the “Years of Lead” have led to questions about the very nature of historical evidence and what constitutes national history, thereby opening a whole new terrain of historical investigation.43

In 1965, author Mohamed Cherif Sahli first wrote of the need for a “Copernican revolution” in the writing of history through which North African voices would finally be heard. Moroccan nationalist Mehdi Ben Barka echoed these sentiments, arguing, “when a nation begins to speak about itself and about its past, it has reached maturity. In recent years it has been the Europeans who have written and expounded about us … Today, we are beginning to speak about the West and to judge its actions. In this way, equality is reestablished.”44 The emergence of a new generation of Maghrebi and largely Anglophone non-Maghrebi historians in the 1970s paved the way for a “major historiographical reorientation.” Among the most salient themes, which Maghrebi historians began to address in responding to the call for a revolutionary and indigenous history, was resistance to colonialism, especially the rise and evolution of nationalist movements including the FLN in Algeria, the Neo-Dustur in Tunisia, and the Istiqlal in Morocco. The focus on these political-resistance movements lent a certain legitimacy to them and to the newly independent governments they helped create. As a result, this first wave of decolonized history became “official,” tending toward exclusive attribution of nationalism and liberation from colonialism to these nationalist parties.45

While the rise of official and politicized historiography in conjunction with the dominance of nationalist political movements after independence marked a new stage in the “indigenization” of North African history, it also resulted in the sidelining of other histories—the silencing, so to speak—of alternative voices, epistemologies, and analytical categories. A case in point is Muhammad bin Ja’far al-Kattani’s three-volume hagiography, Salwat al-Anfas. Produced on the lithographic print in Fez in the late 19th century, Salwa contains over a thousand biographical entries and thus constitutes the most extensive rendering of the Moroccan hagiographical genre to date. However, while Ahmad bin Khalid al-Nasiri’s Istiqsa “forms the base of our national memory and the defining characteristics of our culture”46 according to erstwhile Moroccan minister of culture al-Ashari, Salwat al-Anfas has until very recently remained largely ignored. Salwat al-Anfas’s marginalization is partially related to the fact that the Kattani family (to which the author of Salwat al-Anfas belonged) clashed politically with the Alawite sultanate in the late 19th century and later during the protectorate period. Standing on the wrong side of nationalist history after falling out of favor with the dynasty and its Istiqlal supporters, the voluminous scholarly production by members of this family received short shrift in official historiography. However, perhaps more significant in explaining limited interest in Salwat al-Anfas among Moroccan scholars of the post-independence period, relates to the fact that it does not immediately resemble “history” as we understand it today. Historian Prasanjit Duara’s work on Chinese nationalism and modernization, and the rise of positivist Chinese historical consciousness, offers a useful framework for considering the silence surrounding Salwa and the implications of its revival as a source for the history of Morocco. Duara argues that modernization and the rise of nationalism in China in the early 20th century necessitated the development and adoption of a new form of historical consciousness. Duara designates the new historical “mode of being” as “History” with a capital “H,” suggesting its totalizing and hegemonic power vis-à-vis alternative “social and epistemic forms,” which he terms simply “history” with lower case “h.” The Hegelian unfolding of Spirit is expressed in modern history in terms of Marxism, Weber’s sociology of religion, and nationalism, all of which are Hegelian “inheritances.”47 As an example of “history,” al-Kattani’s hagiography was largely relegated to the margins of scholarly discourse and discussion until relatively recently. A printed and edited version of the text did not appear until 2004.

Primary Sources

Due to the richness of the North African historiographical tradition, primary sources are numerous, despite the fact that much scholarly attention is needed to analyze them and that many Maghrebi histories remain in manuscript form. Among the prominent examples of the Maghrebi historiographical tradition that have been edited and published as scholarly printed editions are al-Nasiri’s al-Istiqsa, al-Kattani’s Salwat al-anfas, and Ibn Abi Diaf’s Ithaf ahl al-zaman.48 More recently, the Moroccan Abu al-Qasim ibn Ahmad al-Zayani’s al-Khabar ‘an awwal dawlah min duwal al-ashraf al-‘Alawiyyin min awlad al-sharif Ibn ‘Ali has been published as have other of al-Zayani’s works.49 Abu al-Qasim al-Hafnawi’s Ta’rif al-khalaf bi rijjal al-salaf is also available as a print edition.50 Researchers should consult the work of Everiste Lévi-Provençal, who has produced several critical reference works related to historiography in the Maghreb, including Extraits des historiens arabes du Maroc and Les historiens des chorfas.51 For information about manuscripts housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc, researchers should also consult the online catalogue as well as that of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Regarding research about Algeria, researchers may consult the three-volume Guide des sources de l’histoire de l’Afrique du Nord et du Proche-Orient dans les archives françaises or find the status of collections and online inventories.

Researchers are also advised to look at the following ORE links: Colonial Conquest and Rule, Intellectual History, North Africa and the Gulf, and Historiography and Methods.

Further Reading

Bazzaz, Sahar. “Reform Beyond the State: Salwat al-Anfas, Islamic Revival, and Moroccan National History.” Journal of North African Studies 13.1 (2008): 1–13.Find this resource:

Bazzaz, Sahar. Forgotten Saints: History, Power and Politics in the Making of Modern Morocco. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Burke, Edmund. The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Calderwood, Eric. “The Beginning (or End) of Moroccan History: Historiography, Translation, and Modernity in Ahmad B. Khalid al-Nasiri and Clemente Cerdeira.” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2012): 399–420.Find this resource:

Carlier, Omar. “Scholars and Politicians: An Examination of the Algerian View of Algerian Nationalism.” In The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography. Edited by Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins, 136–161. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Choueiri, Youssef M. Modern Arab Historiography: Historical Discourses and the Nation-State. Revised ed. London: Routledge/Curzon, 2003.Find this resource:

Ibn Abi Diyaf Ahmad. Consult Them in the Matter: A Nineteenth-Century Islamic Argument for Constitutional Government: The Muqaddima to Ithaf ahl al-zaman bi akhbar mulu Tunis wa ahd al-aman. Translated by L. Carl Brown. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Kattani, Muhammad bin Ja’far. Salwat al-anfas wa muhadithat al-Akyas bi man uqbira min al-ulama wa al-sulaha bi Fas, vol. 1. Edited by by Abdallah al-Kamil al-Kattani and Muhammad Hamza bin Ali al-Kattani. Casablanca: Dar al-Thaqafa, 2004.Find this resource:

Lévi-Provençal, Evariste. Les Historiens des Chrofas. Paris: Larose, 1922.Find this resource:

McDougall, James. “Crisis and Recovery Narratives in Maghreb Histories of the Ottoman Period (ca. 1870–1970).” Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 31.1 (2011): 137–146.Find this resource:

McDougall, James. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Nasiri, Ahmad bin Khalid. Kitab al-Istiqsa li akhbar duwal al-Maghrib al-Aqsa. Edited by Ja’far al-Nasiri and Muhammad al-Nasiri. Casablanca: Dar al-Kitab, 1997.Find this resource:

Perkins, Kenneth. “Recent Historiography of the Colonial Period in North Africa: The ‘Copernican Revolution’ and Beyond.” In The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography. Edited by Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Robinson, Chase. Islamic Historiography. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Touati, Houari, “Algerian Historiography in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: From Chronicle to History.” In The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography. Edited by Le Gall and Perkins, 84–94. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Tunsi, Khayr al-Din. The Surest Path: The Political Treatise of a Nineteenth-Century Muslim Statesman Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.Find this resource:


(1.) Chase Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 16 and 173.

(2.) Robinson, Islamic Historiography, 149.

(3.) Houari Touati, “Algerian Historiography in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: From Chronicle to History,” in The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography, eds. Le Gall and Perkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 84–94, here 84.

(4.) Touati, “Algerian Historiography,” 86–87.

(5.) Sahar Bazzaz, “Reform Beyond the State: Salwat al-Anfas, Islamic Revival, and Moroccan. National History,” Journal of North African Studies 13.1 (2008): 1–13. On pre-positivist historiography in Algeria, see Touati, “Algerian Historiography,” 84–94.

(6.) M. Talbi, “Ibn K̲h̲aldūn,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, eds. P. Bearman, T. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs (2012). Available at

(7.) James McDougall, “Crisis and Recovery Narratives in Maghrebi Histories of the Ottoman Period (ca. 1870–1970),” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 31 (2011): 138 and 141.

(8.) This paragraph is largely taken verbatim from Sahar Bazzaz, “Reform Beyond the State,” Journal of North African Studies 13.1 (2008): 3.

(9.) Some prominent Anglophone works on this topic include Edmund Burke, Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Julia Clancy-Smith, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters: Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Clancy-Smith, Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in the Age of Migration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and Mary Lewis, Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881–1938 (Berkeley: University of California, 2014).

(10.) Michel Le Gall, “Forging the Nation-State: Some Issues in the Historiography of Modern Libya,” in The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography, eds. Le Gall and Perkins (Austin: University Texas Press, 1997), 95–108, here 95.

(11.) McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 28.

(12.) “From the fall of the dey in Algiers in 1830 until 1871 the French colonial army conducted a policy to eliminate traditional economic and political ties.” The use of extreme force in the military conquest of Algeria from 1830 until midcentury led one member of a French investigating committee to opine that France had “surpassed in barbarism the barbarians we came to civilize.” Quoted in Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830–2000: A Short History, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 5–6.

(13.) See Julia Clancy-Smith on the strategy of “hedge-betting” during the early French conquests in Algeria: Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters: Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

(14.) Stora, Algeria, 1830–2000, 6.

(15.) James McDougall offers a critical intervention to extant narratives of the history of Algerian nationalism, which take for granted the existence of the Algerian nation, on one hand, and the importance of metropolitan–Algerian interactions, on the other. Often framed in extant scholarship in terms of who the first Algerian nationalist actually was, McDougall forcefully and eloquently demonstrates that the “more productive question to ask” is “how and where, different nationalist enunciations were produced.” In doing so, McDougall argues that Algerian emigres who landed in neighboring Tunisia and other regions of the Ottoman Empire, were critical in forming Algerian nationalism. He emphasizes “the un-predetermined plurality of attempts to recreate representative authority in a world torn apart.” McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, 45.

(16.) McDougall, “Crisis and Recovery Narratives,” 138–140.

(17.) Houari Touati, “Algerian Historiography,” 87–88.

(18.) McDougall, “Crisis and Recovery Narratives,” 142.

(19.) McDougall, James, “Crisis and Recovery Narratives,” 142.

(20.) Cited in Touati, “Algerian Historiography,” 92. For a detailed discussion of the life, times, and ideas of Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani, see McDougall, James, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria.

(21.) Al-Madani, Kitab al-Jaza’ir. Cited in McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, 96.

(22.) See Edmund Burke and Sahar Bazzaz on the pre-protectorate period of Moroccan history. E. Burke, Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); and S. Bazzaz, Forgotten Saints: History, Power and Politics in the Making of Modern Morocco (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

(23.) On the rise of Moroccan nationalism in the interwar period, see ch. 5 in Susan G. Miller, A History of Modern Morocco (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013). The early nationalist, who coalesced in various secret societies and organizations in Morocco and in France did not advocate separation from France. Instead they “demanded greater Moroccan participation in government, a more cooperative relationship with the Residency, and a more faithful execution of the provisions of the 1912 Treaty of Fez.” In other words, they did not call for separatist action. Miller, 134.

(24.) Tunsi, Khayr al-Din, The Surest Path: The Political Treatise of a Nineteenth-Century Muslim Statesman Translation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 21.

(25.) Tunsi, The Surest Path, 24; and Julia Clancy-Smith, “Aḥmad Bey,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3, eds. Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson (2007).

(26.) Clancy-Smith, “Aḥmad Bey.”

(27.) Tunsi, The Surest Path, 28.

(28.) Clancy-Smith, “Aḥmad Bey.”

(29.) See Frederick Cooperson on use of the term “colonial modernity”: Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

(30.) Evariste Lévi-Provençal, Les Historiens des Chrofas (Paris: Larose, 1922), 349.

(31.) See Sahar Bazzaz on hybridity in 19th-century Moroccan literary forms. Bazzaz, “Printing and the Ṭarīqa Kattaniyya: Abd al-Hayy al-Kattani’s Mufākahat Dhū al-Nubl wa al-Ijāda Ḥaḍrata Mudīr Jarīdat al-Sa’āda,” in Sufism and Literary Production in the Nineteenth-Century, eds. Rachida Chih, C. Mayeur-Jaouen, and R. Seeseman (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2014): 437–452.

(32.) Calderwood discusses Yoav Di-Capua’s Gatekeepers of the Arab Past in “The Beginning (or End) of Moroccan History: Historiography, Translation, and Modernity in Ahmad B. Khalid al-Nasiri and Clemente Cerdeira,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2012): 402.

(33.) Khalid bin Ahmad al-Nasiri, Kitab al-Istiqsa li akhbar duwal al-Maghrib al-Aqsa, vol. 1, eds. Ja’far al-Nasiri and Muhammad al-Nasiri (Casablanca: Dar al-Kitab, 1997), 57.

(34.) Calderwood, “The Beginning (or End) of Moroccan History,” 400–401. Calderwood points not only to al-Nasiri’s European readership but also to his interest in foreign affairs, European languages, and science, and his contributions to foreign newspapers such as Thamarat al-Funun in Damascus and al-Jawaib in Istanbul.

(35.) Calderwood, “The Beginning (or End) of Moroccan History,” 400.

(36.) Muhammad bin Ja’far al-Kattani, Salwat al-anfas wa muhadithat al-Akyas bi man uqbira min al-ulama wa al-sulaha bi Fas, vol. 1, eds. Abdallah al-Kamil al-Kattani and Muhammad Hamza bin Ali al-Kattani (Casablanca: Dar al-Thaqafa, 2004), 4.

(37.) On Salwat al-Anfas and concepts of power and authority associated with the Idrissi shurafa, see Bazzaz, “Reform Beyond the State,” Journal of North African Studies 13.1 (2008): 1–13.

(38.) McDougall, “Crisis and Recovery Narratives,” 138 and 144.

(39.) Ahmad Ibn Abi Diyaf, Consult Them in the Matter: A Nineteenth-Century Islamic Argument for Constitutional Government: The muqaddima to Ithaf ahl al-zaman bi akhbar mulu Tunis wa ahd al-aman, trans. L. Carl Brown (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005), 2 and 9.

(40.) Ibn Abi Diyaf, Consult Them in the Matter, 29.

(41.) Ibn Abi Diyaf, Consult Them in the Matter, 36.

(42.) Omar Carlier, “Scholars and Politicians: An Examination of the Algerian View of Algerian Nationalism,” in The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography, eds. Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 138–139; for French colonial ethnography in Morocco, see Edmund Burke, The Ethnographic State: France and the invention of Moroccan Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

(43.) On ex-prisoners’ testimonies, see Miller, A History of Modern Morocco, 5.

(44.) Cited in Kenneth Perkins, “Recent Historiography of the Colonial Period in North Africa: The ‘Copernican Revolution’ and Beyond,” in The Maghrib in Question: Essays in History and Historiography, eds. Michel Le Gall and Kenneth Perkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 122–123.

(45.) Perkins, “Recent Historiography of the Colonial Period,” 124. For specific case studies, which seek to problematize these official histories, see James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, on Algeria and Sahar Bazzaz, Forgotten Saints, on Morocco.

(46.) Al-Ashari was the Moroccan minister of culture. Cited in Calderwood, “The Beginning (or End) of Moroccan History,” 399.

(47.) Prasanjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 18 and 27.

(48.) al-Nasiri, al-Istiqsa (Casablanca: Manshūrāt Wizārat al-Thaqāfah wa-al-Ittiṣāl, 2001–2005); al-Kattani, Salwat al-anfas (Casablanca: Dar al-Thaqafa, 2004); and Ibn Abi Diaf, Ithaf ahl al-zaman (Tunis: al-Dar al-Tunisiyah lil-Nashr: Wizarat al-Shuʾun al-Thaqafīya, 1989).

(49.) (Beirut: Dar al-Nawadir, 2013).

(50.) (Beirut, Mu’assasat al-risala/Tunis, al-Maktaba al-‘atika, 1982).

(51.) Extraits des historiens arabes du Maroc (Paris, Larose, 1948) and Les historiens des chorfas (Paris, Larose, 1922).