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date: 06 December 2023

The Making of the Maghrib: 600–1060 CEfree

The Making of the Maghrib: 600–1060 CEfree

  • Allen FromherzAllen FromherzDepartment of History, Georgia State University


The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.


  • Cultural History
  • Image of Africa
  • Invention of Tradition
  • North Africa and the Gulf

There are several good reasons not to rush through the early Islamic period of North Africa’s history from the 7th century ce to the 11th century ce. As a period of relative prosperity in the Maghrib, the legacy of the medieval period is still a matter of dispute and discussion.1 The first centuries after the coming of Islam are constantly mined for “myths of the nation” and stories of origin by various intellectuals, nationalists, rulers, and kings.2 Most importantly, this was a period of intense acculturation between Berbers and Arabs, germinating the seeds of a cultural synthesis that subsequently grew into a distinctive Maghribi Islam and Maghribi culture, one that that was neither exclusively Arab nor Berber. The coming of Islam in the 7th century did not create an immediate, complete shift in the Maghrib. There was no instant transformation of North Africa or split of Maghrib from its existing geographical, cultural, and political context. Rather, Islam spread slowly and in ways that were adapted to the Maghribi context. Both Berber and Arabic speakers in this period used and shaped the new religion of Islam, adapting and adopting the Islamic faith in a North African context.

The early Islamic period in the Maghrib was characterized by interactions between Berbers and Arabs ranging from instances of severe violence to intense cooperation. Using acculturation as an “explanatory concept,” much as it has been used in Al-Andalus, avoids the pitfalls of a Berber-Arab “dichotomy” that has characterized much of the debate among historians of North Africa.3 Acculturation refers to the social changes that occur when different cultures come into close contact over a long period of time. While the most important of these contacts in Maghribi history were between Berbers and Arabs, North Africa was a “cross roads region” where “Mediterranean, Atlantic, African and European histories intersect.”4 Nonetheless, the history of the Maghrib should not be ignored. The dominance of the Berber-Arab dynamic (not as a “dichotomy” but as a system of interactions and shifting, contextualized identities) can be traced throughout the period.

The focus on Berbers and Arabs is not meant to exclude other important influences. The histories of interaction between Berbers and Arabs must be only a starting point. Sub-Saharan Africans and religious minorities such as Jews, European traders, mercenaries and merchants also played a crucial role in North Africa.5 The historical role of slavery, especially in the case of the Haratin Berbers, has been unjustly bypassed by some of the historiography.6 These stories have only begun to be told by pioneers in the field. Yet historians are always limited by space and resources. Maghribi medieval history is most often portrayed in our written sources and literatures of North Africa—from the chronicle of the early conquest by Al-Baladhuri to the epics of the Bani Hilal—as a history of dynamic tension and cooperation and intermarriage between Berbers and Arabs. It was Berbers and Arabs who were seen as the opposing protagonists; it was both Berbers and Arabs who dominated the conquest and administration of the earliest North African polities. But this dichotomy has also been used to try and pry the histories of Arabs and Berbers apart. In fact, this was often the accusation leveled against French colonial historians: that there was an attempt to separate the “Berbers” as Europeanized and “Arabs” as outsiders. This was seen as a wider effort by the French to create separate “Berber and Arab Constitutions.” In fact, current historiography shows the mutual acculturation of both Arabs and Berbers. The history of Berbers in the Maghrib in this period cannot be fully understood without understanding the history of Arabs and vice versa.

The meaning of the words Arab and Berber in North Africa during this period was in a state of flux and evolution. Clearly, time and history have shaped these broad categories and one must examine the history of Arabs and Berbers in dynamic terms of change and process—not immutable categories. That said, names and categories were used in the sources, and to some extent the interaction between Arabs and Berbers (and even the adoption of different cultural forms) was also part of what created a mutual sense of distinct identity between these groups over time.

The word “Berber” (a more scholarly transliteration would be “Barbar”) is used to identify those peoples who lived throughout much of North Africa before the coming of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries and who maintained a distinct Berber language, culture, and even religious practice after those conquests. Many Berbers maintained their sense of Berberness even after conversion to Islam, even as they often found ways of incorporating themselves into the story of Islamic origins. They also often used terms other than “Berber” to define themselves. Amazigh (singular) or Imazighen (plural) has often been used. The Arabs were generally understood as peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, Syria, and other lands first conquered by Muslim armies and integrated into North African culture after various waves of conquest and migration. Later, some Berbers famously claimed to have also come from Arabia and from Yemen on an earlier “migration” before the time of the Prophet. In fact, Berbers and Arabs in North Africa together crafted a unique form of Islam even as they interacted with the wider Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Islamic world from a position of confidence and prosperity not seen since the height of pre-Roman Carthage.

It would be a mistake to map modern “Berber” and “Arab” identities onto those of the past. As anthropologists such as David Hart have shown, some groups with Berber identities switched to Arab during the past few centuries.7 In this sense, there has been a tendency to subsume Berber names and histories under an Arab identity, a tendency slowed by the modern Berber Spring and a resurgence of Berber nationalism in the postcolonial period. At the same time, there were attempts in the colonial period to describe and identify the Berbers and Arabs as completely different an inherently antagonistic groups: the Berbers were described as decidedly more “Western” or European. The French even provided separate “constitutions” for Berbers and Arabs in an effort to “divide and control.” In this way, some French historians of the period may have focused on the Berber perspective, portraying Arabs as outsiders. Obviously, there are many potential historiographical landmines to avoid. At the same time, the history of the early Maghrib cannot be written without a full and balanced examination of the incredible transformations that occurred with both Arabs and Berbers over a long-term history of encounters. To examine these interactions and the role of that interaction in the creation of a distinctive Maghribi (North African) Islam, we must start at the beginning of an epic story—the coming of Islam into North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Instant Transformation or Gradual Acculturation?

Historians have disagreed about the impact of the Islamic conquests in North Africa. At one end of the spectrum were those who believed that the coming of Islam almost instantaneously broke North Africa away from the Christian-dominated Mediterranean world. The great Belgian European historian Henri Pirenne famously stated in Muhammad and Charlemagne that the Arab conquests split the Mediterranean in two. On the other end were those focused on the continuation of preexisting institutions, dismissing the dramatic aspects of the conquest as a product of later historical writing. One of the reasons for this range of opinion was the difficult nature of the sources, many of which were written after the conquest to help establish a particular vision of the past in favor of the conquering elite. Archaeologists and scholars have shown, for instance, that many North African cities, far from falling into ruin, remained vibrant trading centers after the Arab conquest.8

The first raids into North Africa came from Egypt, which had been conquered by 642 ce. As early as 643 ce there were attacks on Libya and Tripoli. By 647–648 ce the raids had become more organized and attacks began on Carthage. Carthage, near present-day Tunis, was important to Byzantine Exarch Gregory who had declared his independence from the Emperor in Constantinople and declared himself emperor. ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Sarh commanded these attacks and successfully killed Gregory at Sufetula (Sbeitla). This city is located in the great agricultural hinterland south of Carthage that had long been Rome’s breadbasket. Sbeitla is still one of the best-preserved cities of Late Antique North Africa. But Carthage, which was able to obtain supplies from the sea, itself resisted conquest until its final capture in 698 ce. Far from being the last break with the civic culture of Rome, the initial Muslim conquest of Carthage did not end the prospects for urban culture in Ifriqiya. The ruins of Carthage and the new city of Tunis remained close, both geographically and culturally. Arab and Berber commanders knew the strategic advantages of the region and the bay. By moving down to Tunis, they improved this capital’s defensive position and planted the seed of what would become a great port city. Other port cities were bolstered under Muslim and Berber control along the entire North African shore from Bèjaïa to Tangier, reviving old classical cities and stimulating the expansion of new ones. The city of Carthage did not simply die after the Muslim invasions. The esteemed scholar E. F. Gautier called Carthage and Tunis “one and the same city over three thousand years of existence.”9 The conquests moved the activities of Carthage to a much safer and strategic position at Tunis off the hill and on the lake.

Syncretism in the Tunis region continued to thrive after the departure of John the Patriarch, another Byzantine rebel, and the Byzantine elite from Carthage to Crete after the Arab conquest. In fact, the geographer Al-Bakri said that around one thousand Coptic Christians were sent by the Caliph ‘Abd al Malik to “Tarshish” (an early name for Tunis) to build an arsenal that would provision the Muslim armies.10 He also ordered Berbers in the hills and mountains to provide “in perpetuity” the wood to build the ships to combat Rum (the Byzantines) and to engage in organized raids of lands to the north.11 Near the Tunis suburb of Rades the Christian Copts were brought by the Arab commander from Egypt to become sailors, using the wooden ships built by the Berbers.12 Perhaps as an indication of the maritime tradition, now subsumed in Islamic terms, it was also near Rades where, according to the Qur’anic story, the Prophet Al-Khidr destroyed a boat of Moses to teach him a lesson about fate (Sura 18: 71). Tunis became a significant shipyard, an ideal place from which to launch naval power, even as the new caravan city of Kairouan, the new Umayyad Capital of the province of Ifriqiya, moved the political center of gravity landward. Kairouan, according to the geographer Al-Baladhuri, was founded when “Uqba bin Nafi” al Fihri, the Arab-Muslim hero, “saw in a dream as if a man called to prayer at a certain spot where he later erected a minaret.”13 Kairouan, much the same as Marrakech centuries later, but different from Tunis-Carthage with its ancient past, would be founded as part of an Islamic vision and on land where little had existed before. Yet, far from abandoning the Mediterranean, this only connected the port of Tunis with the caravan routes of the Sahara.

The Arab leader who received the most attention for the conquests of North Africa in the Arabic literature, however, was not Abi Sarh or Hassan: it was “Uqba bin Nafi.” While historical legends should be viewed with healthy skepticism, they should not always be summarily dismissed as irrelevant myths. Some stories, such as the accounts of the Islamic conquest of North Africa by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘, can often contribute to our understanding of the importance of the Islamic conquest and how it was viewed by the earliest chroniclers. ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘ was celebrated as a hero throughout the Middle East and North Africa and started his conquest after the first forays into Byzantine North Africa. After setting out on his expedition of conquest westward in 682 ce, this great Arab commander continued until he finally met the Atlantic Ocean, known to Arabs as the “Sea of Darkness.”14 ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘ rode his noble stallion, which was probably a powerful mix of Berber and Arab horse breeds, into the Atlantic and dramatically claimed all of North Africa for Islam. Horses and mounted horsemen were also particularly prominent in Saharan rock art, Tifinagh, Berber writing, and Saharan iconography.15 Berbers would probably just as eagerly have bred their stallions with Arabian ones even as the Arabs saw the benefits of North African breeds. According to legend, ‘Uqba said, “O God, if the sea had not prevented me, I would have galloped on forever like Alexander the Great, upholding your faith and fighting the unbelievers!”16 Yet ‘Uqba’s venture with his horse into the ocean obscured a tide of difficulties gathering behind him. He actually lost most of the land he claimed almost as soon as gained it. For instance, the Masmuda Berbers of the Adrar n Deren (the Berber name for the High Atlas Mountains that form a great geographic wall with a series of natural fortresses) sustained a long war against both ‘Uqba and Musa bin Nusayr, his successor.17 This resistance occurred even as many Berbers joined ‘Uqba or Musa, converted to Islam, and benefited from the booty and spoils of conquests. Tariq ibn Ziyad was one of these Berber converts. Tariq famously entered Iberia in 711 ce in search of such spoils but without authorization from his Arab commander Musa. The name Gibraltar, Jabal Tariq (“Tariq Mountain”), remains a testimony to Tariq’s gumption. Berber and Arab armies quickly conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in just couple of years. Their expansion was stopped only in 732 ce, halted as much by the climate and internal divisions as by the resistance of the Christian armies of Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) at Tours, France. Berber and Arab Muslim kingdoms, in constant contact with the Maghrib, would maintain a presence on the European shore of the Mediterranean until the 15th century.

In fact, the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Al-Andalus was never easy, and conversion was not automatic. Unfortunately, while there have been studies of conversion from Christianity or Judaism to Islam in Al-Andalus, similar research has been lacking on the Berbers.18 Nonetheless, the complex history of conversion was addressed even in the complex mix of legend and history from the period. Many Berbers remained Christian, Pagan, or Jewish, which were the three main faiths that existed pre-conquest. Others simply converted to Islam and then revolted, creating their own form of Islam. These new Muslim Berbers, having been educated in the rudimentary message of Islam and having recognized its power, used the ideals of Islam against their conquerors and proclaimed their own interpretation of the faith. Kusayla, a Berber king and Muslim convert whom ‘Uqba thought he had pacified, escaped from his chains and killed ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘ soon after ‘Uqba’s Atlantic ride. ‘Uqba died at an Oasis near the Algerian town of Biskra. This Sidi ‘Uqba Oasis became a major religious shrine for Berbers and Arabs alike. The mosque built there, was possibly one of the oldest in Algeria. It claims to hold the remains of the martyred ‘Uqba and is still revered as one of the holiest sites in North Africa. In fact, as was the case with many religious sites in North Africa, making multiple journeys to this mosque could be used in place of the obligation to make the hajj, the great pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia. At the same time, there are monuments to his enemies, the Berbers Dihya (Kahina—the Berber Queen) and Kusayla, are still remembered as heroes by North African Muslims.

According to the scholar Abdelmajid Hannoum, this legend of the Berber, possibly Jewish, Queen Kahina who resisted the Arab conquest, has been used in anticolonial struggles, even as it has been used to justify outside incursions by those colonial powers, such as France, who wished to “liberate” the Berbers from Arab influence.19 Crucially, although they started as oral legends and were only written down as late as the 9th century, many generations after the events transpired, these stories of heroism on both sides existed and spread into the literature and mythical storytelling of North Africa.

Of course, Berbers were not the only ones being changed by the conquest. The Arabs who settled in North Africa or Iberia were changed as well. Acculturation, even after a decisive conquest, was not a one-way street. Some of the “Arabization” and “Islamization” of North Africa that did occur happened on the Berber’s own terms. Rather than being forced into the Islamic sphere by conquest or being completely overwhelmed by migration, the Berbers came to adapt the Islamic religion, the Arabic language and the blood lineage of Arabs they intermarried with, as well as Arab notions of identity and authority, to their own social and cultural sphere. Linguists have shown how Arabic also shaped the Berber lexicon and vice versa.20 The medieval period provided no less than the foundation of the distinctive, contemporary culture of North Africa, a culture markedly different from the Middle East, yet still tied to a larger community of Islam.

There are many different legends surrounding the origin of the word “Berber” written in the Arabic sources; many of these legends arose a century or two after the conquest as a way to explain and enhance links between Berber and Arab communities that inevitably developed over time. One story says that an ancient, pre-Islamic Arab king named Ifriqus heard the Berbers speaking and said, “What berbera is theirs!”—as in “What mixture of unintelligible sounds is theirs?”21 Berbers were thus analogous to the “Barbarians” of the Greeks: a broad category for “those whom we cannot understand.” In this way, some of the more simplistic accounts seemed to dismiss the diversity of Berber peoples by declaring them as unintelligible. Other authors writing in Arabic also tried to classify the Berbers as part of the family of Abraham or as descendants of Goliath. Other theories suggested that the Berbers were, in fact, ancient pre-Islamic Arabs who fled from Yemen to the Sahara.22

In fact, at the early stage of the Muslim conquest led by ‘Uqba and Musa bin Nusayr, most Berbers probably did not even identify themselves as “Berbers” but rather as members of a particular lineage group, or larger confederation of groups with specific names such as the Zanata, Sanhaja, Lamtuna, or Masmuda. Even these larger identifications may have meant little to actual Berbers. Sanhaja, for instance, could be found throughout the Maghrib. Of course, the Arabs were also never necessarily a unified force. There were divisions, for instance, between Yemeni and Syrian Arabs that continued to play out as they moved west and into Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. Unlike the Romans and the Byzantines who were focused on maintaining an urban elite, the Arabs were, like the Berbers, familiar with the rural, non-urban environment. It may have been the subtle similarities of Arab and Berber society that fostered acculturation between these groups, despite instances of conflict over time.

Thus, we encounter a central challenge for historians who wish to transform the available sources into a story, or to “emplot” or write the narrative of Maghribi history.23 The medieval Maghrib cannot be understood only from an Arab point of view. Although there are some exceptions such as when Berbers are writing histories, they are most often writing in the language and of Arabic and for Arabized courts.24

Historians wishing to understand both the Arab and the Berber point of view must encounter these challenges. Outside of some inscriptions in Berber text (Tifinagh) or references to Berber words transliterated into Arabic chronicles, there remain comparatively few remnants of written, medieval Berber languages. Medieval historians such as Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) were sympathetic to Berber history and dedicated his work to Berber princes and rulers such as the Hafsid Sultan in Tunis Abu al ‘Abbas. Yet even Ibn Khaldun claimed, as did many elite scholars and ministers, to come from pure Yemeni Arab stock, and his view of the Berbers was not always entirely transparent. Even “Berbers” writing in Arabic, such as Al-Idrisi (from the Berber Hammudid dynasty), also claimed an elite Arab or Arabized identity. They sometimes seemed to view pre-Islamic Berber culture and history in problematic ways. Archaeology, traditionally focused on ancient sites, has only started to fill vast gaps in our knowledge of the Berbers and of the medieval Maghrib in general. Nonetheless, several studies revealed some surprising results that occasionally seem to contradict the Arab chronicles.25

Despite the challenge of working with Arab chronicles written by Arabs or by Berbers largely influenced by Arab culture, it would be a mistake to say the Berbers were completely without their own historical legacy throughout this medieval period. By the mid to late medieval period, some Berbers seemed to embrace the apparently derogatory Arab name of “Barbar” or “Berber” as a badge of pride. Just as Islam provided Arabs with an overarching identity, it did so for Berbers as well. Berbers used Arabic, and certainly Islam itself, in some rather explicit reactions to Arab rule and the disparagement of their culture. A text called the Boasts of the Berbers, for instance, stated the Maghrib had been unfairly portrayed as “a land, which has acquired the disparagement of men, the basest of all provinces in the world.” In an eastern city an esteemed Arab poet speaking to an assembly of Muslims in front of an Arab ruler likened the world to a bird,

“‘The Orient is its head, the Yemen is one of its wings and Syria is the other. Iraq is its chest and the Maghrib is its tail.’ One Berber who was in the audience spoke up and said, ‘you have spoken the truth. The bird is a peacock! The Sultan laughed and was generous in his gift. What he meant was that the tail is the glory of the peacock.’”26

In fact, the Berbers of North Africa managed to recast elements of their unique culture and, as the story suggested, adopted and adapted both Islam and Arabic to create conglomerated traditions and practices. Often Berbers attempted to outmaneuver Arab ancestral claims, suggesting that they also originated in Arabia and that practiced a primordial form of Islam even before the life of Muhammad. Berber rulers or tribes simply claimed to be from the line of the prophet, linking themselves to the lineage of the few Arab raiders who did participate in the initial conquest with ‘Uqba. In doing so, Berbers often presented a new and appealing vision of Islam that would eventually influence even the eastern lands of Islam’s origin. As Islam started in the east and spread west to the Maghrib, Maghribi and Berber-developed confident ideas about Islam could also spread back to the East. Despite what may appear, on the surface, a dominant Arab narrative in many of the sources, acculturation and syncretism was almost always a two-way street. While always linked to the larger Islamic world, Maghribi culture and history is set apart from the Islamic East, despite almost fourteen hundred years of influence from the East. Far from being the story of conquest and submission, the North African medieval past was mostly what made Maghribi such a distinctive culture.

While there was consistent back and forth movement between East (Mashriq) and West (Maghrib) in the Islamic world, North Africa was as much influenced by connections to the North (the Mediterranean) and South (Sub-Saharan Africa) as it was East to West. North Africa had already seen many centuries of migrations, invasions, and new settlers from the Phoenicians to the Vandals to the Romans and the Christians. In the 7th century the Arabs were only the latest group to enter the scene. Far from living under the oppression or control of the East and a small elite group of Arabs, both Berbers and Arab tribes in the Maghrib instead developed their own interpretations of Islam, intermarried, and created an amalgamated culture. While a part of a larger Islamic culture of trade and exchange, the Maghrib (the West) was not a homogenous extension of Islamic culture in the East.

The Meaning of Early Raids and “Conquests”

As argued above, the distinctiveness of Maghribi culture and society, both linked to the East and uniquely situated within a Mediterranean and African context, can already be seen after the earliest conquests. While his ride into the Atlantic was probably the most famous myth, ‘Uqba was also portrayed as a civilizing influence in much the same way that early Christian Monks and missionaries tamed the “heathen” Saxons and Vikings of the North. Thus, the adoption of Islam in these myths was about far more than religious doctrine, it was also portrayed a force for order, crying out in the wilderness. Nonetheless, just as the Vikings, Celts, and Saxons selectively adopted Christianity to their own cultural traditions, so did the Berbers the Berbers adopt Islam and, sometimes, even use its unifying doctrine against the Arab conquerors.

‘Uqba tamed the snakes, serpents, and the wild animals around the wild lands of the city of Kairouan, the city he founded in Ifriqiya. He proclaimed, “Ferocious beasts and serpents! We are the companions of the beneficent Prophet. Therefore remove yourself from this place, for we shall establish ourselves here, and will shall kill all those [beasts] whom we find after this warning!”27

While the snakes and wild animals may have submitted to the mud brick and the walls of the mosque, true sovereignty over the Maghrib was elusive. Control of the Maghrib from the East, or even from Kairouan in Tunisia, that outpost of Sunni Islam contrasted with the Kharijites, faltered almost as soon as it started. ‘Uqba’s cries into the Sea of Darkness (the Atlantic) notwithstanding, there has never been a period in history when all of North Africa has been united under a single Muslim political power. Kairouan would be the first of many new Islamic cities and trading centers on the frontiers of Berber culture. The foundation of similar cities and market towns, it has been argued, eventually encouraged pagan or non-Muslim Berbers to adhere to the laws of Islam to gain access to economic opportunities. Over time, long distance trade and traders were integrated into a fairly common, if loosely and locally controlled, Islamic system of laws that seemed to have facilitated trade.

One of the most important contributions to this trade was the introduction of the camel and the advanced use of camel technology in the Saharan desert. Even before the coming of Islam, the camel had “replaced” the wheel in much of Arabia by the 4th century ad. According to the scholar Richard Bulliet, this was not part of a step backward but rather an advance in technology, as the camel was far better adapted to desert conditions—

rocky and sandy soil—than the wheel.28 In North Africa several other advances occurred in camel husbandry with the adoption of the Tunisian camel harness that may indicate the camel was even used as a draft animal in agriculture. Regardless of the archaeological debate about its precise moment of domestication in North Africa, the increased use of the camel would provide a vital link between North Africa and the Middle East both culturally and economically and set the stage for the linking of the Middle East and North Africa. Similarly, the interbreeding of Arabian and stout Berber warm-blooded stallions would create a sturdy and extremely prized warhorse, not only for the cavalry of North Africans but also of Spain. The famed Lipizzaner of the Spanish riding school and Hapsburg Vienna, famous for their ability to “dance” with their riders, for instance, were bred from Berber and Arab horses brought to Spain by North African Muslims. Christian Spain even banned the export of these horses for fear they would fall into the hands of their English enemies. They were known for having the speed and agility of the Arab stock but also the power and fortitude of the Berber horse, trained for different environments. Thus, even in animal husbandry we see a largely decentralized adaptation of Middle Eastern influences to meet the specific needs of the Maghrib and the Mediterranean.

In many instances, the conversion of Berbers to Islam during this period actually complicated the picture and slowed down Arabization. It allowed Berber clans and tribes to assert power while drawing on the prestige of a new religion. Although the influence from great Eastern Islamic centers such as Baghdad and Damascus increased, the Maghrib was never fully assimilated into the Islamic East. Geography, especially high mountainous regions and vast deserts, allowed Berber traditions and practices to survive, even if they were often re-invented or re-interpreted as Islamic. In some instances, even blatantly pagan practices survived and continued until well after the initial forays of Arab commanders into North Africa. Al-Bakri, the 11th-century geographer from Muslim Spain, wrote of an idol shrine to the Bull-Shaped Gurzil, the partner of a pre-Islamic Sky God, Deus Coelestis, in the region south of Tripoli. “Those Berber tribes who are round about it make offerings to it and by invoking it they seek a cure for their maladies. They perform these rites up to this very day.”29 Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century and anthropologists in the 20th century have recorded instances of the survival uniquely non-Arab and non-Islamic Maghribi practices. Although many of these practices are understood and legitimized as Islamic or Arab they were, in fact, unique to the Maghrib.

Although syncretism, or the mixing of religious traditions and cultures, folded pagan practices under the veneer of Islam, there were also many new, original, and independent Berber adaptations of Islam. These Berber interpretations of Islam would have been hardly recognized by most orthodox theologians in Mecca, Baghdad, or Damascus. Indeed, almost as soon as Kusayla and Kahina (a great Berber queen who resisted Arab armies) had been subdued and the first raids into Al-Andalus (Iberia) by the Berber commander Tariq had begun in 711, the Berbers revolted in a great uprising inspired by a form of Islam that was both highly egalitarian and highly strict in its interpretation of sin. In some ways, it could even be argued that North African Ibadism was similar to the Donatism of the Late Antique North Africa.

The Berbers Revolt

Centuries before the Muslim conquest, the Donatist Christians of North Africa had refused to forgive the sins of priests who were complicit in Roman crimes against Christians. Following a similar theology, the first “Kharijite” missionaries to the Maghrib claimed that any Muslim who committed a great sin was the same as an unbeliever or an apostate. Ascribing to a radical egalitarianism for all Muslims, regardless of tribe or family, they also rejected the notion that the Caliph (or ruler of all Muslims) should be an Arab or that the ruler of Islam should be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Although called Kharijites (meaning “the ones who left—who went out”) most consider this a pejorative term and prefer to be called Ibadis, which refers to the “whites” based in the great citadel town of Tahart, Algeria.30 There were also the Sufris, the “yellows” who were based in Sijilmasa, the great market town on the Sahara, and Tlemcen in the northwest of Algeria. The Kharijites founded both Tahart and Sijilmasa during their revolt. The city of Zuwila in Fezzan, southwestern Libya also increased in prominence under the Ibadi Banu Khattan. These cities provided important opportunities for trade, especially Sijilmasa and Zuwila as quintessential “desert ports.”31 Desert ports functioned in ways similar to seaports, providing markets and provisions for the essential Saharan caravan routes bringing gold and other goods on camels from south of the Niger River.32 In the context of elite, Arab rule, initially radical beliefs seemed to have great appeal among Berbers. Although some Arab sources may have exaggerated, it seemed that the first revolutionaries reacted bitterly toward non-believing Arab Sunnis, killing indiscriminately at times and selling Muslim women and children into slavery, much as some Arabs had done to Berbers in earlier conquests. The first rebellions occurred near Tangier and throughout the Muslim West, sparked, allegedly by an Arab commander who branded his Berber guard with a hot iron like he was livestock.33 But the Kharijites primarily established their rule in somewhat remote and easily defended outposts such as Mt. Nafusa, Sijilmasa, and Tahart. Over time, even these revolutionaries settled down into a routine, they founded dynasties and became integrated into a larger economic system.

Tahart, their capital, was ruled first by the Imam Ibn Rustam, a Persian born in Tunisia who traveled to Basra in southern Iraq and then came back to Tunisia with a revolutionary message. This practice of traveling from west to east in search of knowledge and coming back to spark a revolution in North Africa was repeated over and over again by later revolutionaries and reformers. In this way, “Travelers set off from home, encounter ‘others’ and return with a sharpened sense of difference or similarity.”34 From the Rustamids to the Fatimids to the Almoravids to the Almohads, ideas developed in the East would come to be manifested among certain willing Berber tribes from the mountains and deserts of North Africa, always willing to revolt against attempts to rule them. Although the East was considered the heart of new ideas in Islamic doctrine, the West and the Maghrib was seen as the territory of the setting sun, where those new ideas could actually be implemented. Indeed, it was from the West where the eventual apocalypse, conceived of in Islam as ultimate unfolding of the truth, was supposed to start. The Rustamids ruled as heads of a confederacy of Ibadi Berber tribes from Tahart, a type of military fortress base from which the “Imam,” the first among equals, would exert influence as the military and religious ruler. Over time, non-Ibadi Muslims and Christians came to Tahart in large numbers, attracted to the trading and other opportunities afforded by its strategic location and supply of water. Eventually the Rustamids settled down into a more conventional routine—despite Ibadi doctrine they allowed for dynastic succession to the son of Ibn Rustam, came to an understanding with the Sunni, Aghlabid rulers in Tunisia and stopped the expansion of their territory. The Aghlabids were the independent, dynastic governors of Kairouan and the surrounding country of Ifriqiya, appointed by the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. These Aghlabid governors maintained Sunni, orthodox Islam, a form of Islam formulated primarily by the great Arab scholars and theologians of the East. They remained in Kairouan permanently from 800 ce when the ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid appointed the first governor Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab.

The Fatimids, another religious movement supported by a Berber tribal confederation, in 909, replaced the Aghlabids. As a sign of their comfort with the status quo, the Rustamid Imam’s army came to be composed not of Berbers but of Arab soldiers. This sort of mellowing of initial religious fervor supported by tribal following and the replacement of tribes with mercenaries was chronicled many times by the historian Ibn Khaldun. He saw a pattern. Separation from original founding fervor of a dynasty meant the start of a cycle of decline and eventual replacement by a new dynasty. Oftentimes, especially in the early medieval period, the actual orthodoxy or content of the religious message that inspired these dynasties did not reflect the same understanding of Islam that existed in the East, in cities such as Baghdad and Cairo.

The Barghawata and Ha Mim

The Berber Ibadis under Ibn Rustam in Tahart, Algeria created unique manifestations of Islamic culture at variance with much of Eastern orthodox practice. However, they were perhaps not the most unique form of Berber Islam. The Ibadis used Arabic and the Arabic Qur’an in their religious writings. Muslims closer to Kairouan were a part of larger sphere of theological and religious arguments that defined the early history of Islam as a whole. In contrast, the Barghawata and the mysterious followers of Ha Mim created a form of Islam that was dominated much more by Berber language and local Berber traditions and ways of life.

Although sometimes portrayed as “devout heretics” in Maghribi historiography, the Barghawata are often singled out in the sources for practices that would have been deemed “strange” by most Muslims in the 10th century.35 Barghawata did not pray five times a day as did most Muslims. They did not use a set schedule determined by the sun. Instead they prayed according to the crowing of a cock. Although many of the sources of the Barghawata, such as Al-Bakri’s account, are probably biased, it seems that their Qur’an was written in Berber. The Barghawata existed on the coast of the Sea of Darkness, the Atlantic, from the port of Salé to Safi (Assafi). They formed in the 8th century under the leadership of a former Kharijite from the time of the Berber revolt called Tarif abu Salih. His son, Salih, perhaps inheriting the rebelliousness of the Kharijite movement, took a step most Kharijites, however radical, would have taken. He rejected not simply the authority of the Caliphs but of the Qur’an itself, adding unique Sutras (or chapters) of the holiest book in Islam. This Berber rewriting of Islam’s holiest book occurred even as jurists in Fez, Damascus, and Baghdad were arguing that the Qur’an was so holy it was uncreated, an inviolable manifestation of Allah’s word and being. By proclaiming verses in Berber, he violated a central tenant of the Qur’an—that it’s truth can only be manifested in Arabic and that Arabic, was a key that could unlock the gates to belief and paradise.

Among the chapters of the Barghawata Qur’an, there was one on the Cock, one of Harut and Marut of Babel, one on Iblis (the devil in Arabic), and one of the marvels of the world.36 As with later, Berber-supported religious movements, one of the central tenants of the Barghawata was Mahdism, a concentration on the Mahdi, the one who would usher in the end of time. Perhaps imitating the Prophet Muhammad who was the “seal of the prophets,” Salih was called the Urya in Berber. This meant “the one after whom there will be no other prophet.” Some called Salih a Jew. Other accounts suggested that a certain Yunis bin Ilyas (b. 842–d. 884) was the one who composed the Berber Qur’an imposing this heterodox religion by force.37 Despite constant attempts by neighboring dynasties to wipe them out, the Barghawata lasted for more than three hundred years. Salih, not just Muhammad, was proclaimed as the last of the Prophets in the western lands of the Maghrib. Their scholars visited Córdoba, and their rule outlasted even the glories of the Umayyad Caliphate in Muslim Spain. The coming of the Almoravids of the desert in the 11th century would end the Barghawata.

Ha Mim, another Prophet, arose among the Majkasa Berber tribe of the Ghumara, which was a major confederation in the northern Rif Mountains of Morocco: site of many future rebellions throughout the history of the Maghrib. Ha Mim, named after two letters of Arabic Alphabet, perhaps a reference to the secret letters at the start of many verses of the Qur’an, flourished as late as the 10th century. Like the Barghawata, Ha Mim modified and re-casted Islam—reducing the required number of daily prayers from five to two. Ramadan, the month of fasting, was reduced from one month to three days. Reflecting perhaps a Majkasa tendency toward matriarchy, women and the power of oracles were a central part of Ha Mim’s prophecy: “Oh [God] who hast created the universe for us to see, deliver me from my sins! I believe in Hamim and in his father Abu Khalif Min Allah; my mind and my head and my heart, all that is locked in my blood and in my flesh [all] believe. I believe in Tabait, aunt of Hamim and sister of Abu Khalif Min Allah.”38

Specifically, Tabait, the maternal aunt of Ha Mim was invoked in several of these prayers. Ibn Khaldun called her a magician. Ha Mim’s sister, named Debu was also known for her magic and for her spells during war and drought. Ibn Khaldun records that women, especially the young women, were famous for their cultivation of the magical arts in the Rif as late as the 14th century. At the same time, stories of “magical” practices may have simply been an attempt by more orthodox, Sunni Muslims campaign to delegitimize both Ha Mim and the Barghawata. What seemed to be “magic” from one point of view was legitimate religious practice that reflected cultural traditions and local notions about the roles and powers of women in society.

The Idrisids

By writing their own Qur’ans and proclaiming new prophets and visions it could be claimed that the followers of Ha Mim in the Rif Mountains and the Barghawata on the Atlantic Coast may have created not only new sects but new religions based on new prophets—religions that have now been largely erased from history. There were also much more subtle modifications of Islamic orthodoxy that would emerge in western North Africa. This shaping of Islamic orthodoxy started with a powerful frequent enemy of the Barghawata—the Idrisid dynasty. The Idrisids, who were Zaydi Shi‘ites, embraced an Arab identity and ancestry but also promulgated standard aspects of Islam as interpreted in the East, as opposed to the Barghawata. They sponsored learning and scholarship in their capital of Fez, a new city Idris II founded after abandoning Volubilis, capital of Roman Mauretania Tigitania in 809 ce. Although they did not create an entirely new religious doctrine based on Berber tradition, culture, and language, the Idrisids instead focused on their decent from the prophet and the baraka (powerful blessings) that came from being blood relatives of the family of Muhammad.

The Idrisids still needed support, however, from Berber tribes to maintain power. Their founder Idris bin ‘Abdulla was allied with the Awraba, a Berber confederation from western Algeria. These Awraba Berbers were once supporters of the Berber king Kusayla who had briefly ruled over a cosmopolitan mix of Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and Berbers until he was ousted from Kairouan. Idris I had escaped from a battle between the ‘Abbasids and the family of ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. He had the blood of the prophet in his veins and the memory of massacre of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad Karbala in Iraq singed in his memory.

Idris II, the son of Idris I who first founded the city with the help of his freedman Rashid, built up Fez as a capital city. This attracted Arabs from the East and exiles from Al-Andalus into Morocco. Fez became a great success and a center of a mixed Arab and Berber culture. Fatima al Fihriyya, a wealthy Arab woman may have founded the Qarawiyyin neighborhood mosque, which eventually became one of the earliest centers for higher learning in North Africa, and is still in operation. A magnificent yearly festival commemorates the Sharif (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad are called Sharif) Moulay Idris Zerhoune or Idris I. Fez continues to hold a position of great religious prominence in the Maghrib and the Islamic world. The Idrisids resisted not only existential threats by the Barghawata, the Ibadis and other rival Berber groups but also various assassins sent from the East by the ‘Abbasids, determined to snuff out their distant rival. Claiming legitimacy through the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad still has a strong hold on the culture of North Africa. The King of Morocco, for instance, still claims to be a Sharif, or descendant of the Prophet.

Maliki Sunni Islam is now officially the dominant legal school of Islam followed throughout most of North Africa. Even so, earlier sectarian movements, led by Arabs or outsiders adapted as they were to local Berber allies, still contributed as streams into the larger trends of medieval Maghribi Islam. One of these streams was Fatimid Islam that highlighted the eschatological idea of the Mahdi, bringer of the apocalypse, just as the Idrisids brought with them the deep reverence of the Sharif, descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Fatimids

By the late 9th and early 10th century the Maghrib was a varied quilt of diverse political and religious centers loosely connected by trade, competition, and rival claims to legitimacy. There were the Rustamids in Tahart, the Barghawata on the Atlantic coast, Ha Mim in the Rif, the Idrisids in Fez, the Umayyad rulers of Al-Andalus, who occasionally ventured opportunistically into North Africa, and a slew of other minor dynasties and local rulers scattered in between. Even the Aghlabids, the governors or Kairouan—that city ‘Uqba had cleansed of snakes and wild beasts—had become almost completely independent of the East. The Aghlabids did uphold and encourage a Maghribi form of orthodoxy through support the Maliki school of Islam and the building great mosque of Kairouan. The Kairouan mosque, which is still standing as of this writing, a testament to the holiness of this city founded by some of the first Arab Muslims in the Maghrib. The survival of vast Aghlabid cisterns and waterworks in Kairouan to this day showed their mastery of urban life and sophistication.

Yet these various dynasties and interpretations of Maghribi Islam hardly had much impact beyond the Maghrib itself. Islam and Arabic were being slowly mixed into the complex cultural diversities of North Africa, but hardly enough acculturation had occurred to spill back to the East. While Maghribis engaged in pilgrimage to Mecca almost as soon as the first conversions to Islam and while Berber female slaves, famed for their beauty, became important members of the households of the most powerful Muslim rulers of the East, the claims of such an esteemed Muslim and Arab as Idris I, let alone the prophesies of the Barghawata, hardly had much impact on the political and religious systems outside of the Maghrib. Nonetheless, Arabic was spreading among the Berbers. Intermarriage between Arab and Berber tribes, and the notion of Arab or Sharifian blood of the Prophet as a source of legitimacy, began to change the narrative. Instead of writing a Berber Qur’an, many Berbers instead wanted to write themselves into the narrative of Islamic orthodoxy. Some even embraced an apocalyptic message that was specifically tailored to the notion of the Mahdi, the one who would come from the West to change the world and prepare it for the end of time. By the early 10th century the Maghrib had become an incubator of far greater change and of a movement that would change not only the immediate region but also core of the Arab and Islamic world farther East—the Fatimids. Even as ‘Uqba’s conquests started from the East and went West, now the Maghribis and Berbers began a brilliant period as a major influence from the West to East, upending the status quo and even challenging the core beliefs of Islam itself.

Even as the orthodox, and more-Arabized Aghlabids attempted to increase their share of control over the countryside, settling new cities and imposing taxes, they met resistance from Berbers in the highlands who took advantage of growing dissent against the Arab-Muslim dynasty protected behind the decadent city’s walls. The Kutama Berbers, probably from the old Numidian tribes, were especially dangerous to the status quo. The Kutama were masterful horsemen. Their warrior skills, combined with the leadership of ‘Abd Allah al Shi‘i, the Mahdi, and their adherence to the doctrine of Isma‘ili Shi’ism, made them unstoppable.

The Mahdi ‘Abd Allah, another man who had traveled “from the East” and from the enfeeblement of the Aghlabid regime after centuries of taxation, made the fierce Kutama Berber cavalry the basis of major change. Soon the Mahdi—not a Berber but one who claimed to be descended from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet (hence the name “Fatimids”)—was installed as the new ruler in Raqqada, near Kairouan in 909. Eventually, the Fatimids moved East and even conquered Egypt and the Hejaz, the heart of Islamic world; they established themselves as the new, legitimate Caliphs. Although they soon lost control of their homeland in Tunisia, their reign lasted for over two centuries in Egypt. As Isma‘ili Shiite Muslims, the Fatimid elite allowed a great deal of tolerance toward minority faiths even as they shrouded much of their secret doctrine in mystery, thus creating an exclusive core. The Kutama Berbers, however, were the bedrock of the dynasty, supporting the rulers as able military guards and cavalry. As a sign of their commercial acumen and interest in trade, and to provide protection for their minority beliefs, the Fatimids founded a new capital at Al-Mahdiyya, “The City of the Mahdi,” on a strategic promontory settled since Phoenician times on the Tunisian coast in 921 ce.

The Arab Migrations—the Epic of the Bani Hilal

After conquering Egypt, the Fatimids concentrated their power in Fustat (the progenitor of modern Cairo) and left control of Tunisia (Ifriqiya) to the Berbers. In a pragmatic break from the revolutionary ideology of the Fatimids, who had conquered Egypt and built their new capital, al-Qahira (Cairo), in Egypt in 969 ce, the powerful and long-reigning Berber Zirid governor for the Fatimids in Ifriqiya, Al-Mu‘izz bin Badis, renounced Fatimid Shi‘ism in 1048. He minted new coins, acknowledged the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and returned to Sunni orthodoxy. This change of heart only came about after encouraging the intellectual debates and disputations that were long a central part of courtly life throughout the Mediterranean. Asking both Fatimid and Sunni scholars to present their points of view, Al-Mu‘izz bin Badis considered himself something of an intellectual king. His teacher, Ibn Abi al-Rijal (known as Abenragel in Latin) was one of the foremost astrologers of the day. He equipped Al-Mu‘izz bin Badis with the tools of dialogue and debate.39 After siding with the Sunnis he renewed formal recognition of the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and minted coins that no longer mentioned the Shi‘ite imam; clerics were then asked to replace their white, Fatimid robes with the black mantle of the ‘Abbasids who ruled from Baghdad. At Sabra al Mansuriyya, a city established by the Fatimids to rival Kairouan, he built a new oratory and formed alliances with other Sunnis and Berbers throughout the region, even threatening distant Egypt after having formed an alliance with al-Muntasir ibn Khazrun, the independent ruler of Tripoli. Some art historians have claimed that the unique stucco design at Sabra al Mansuriyya, may be the “missing link” for the origins of Romanesque style in southern Italy.40

The Fatimids responded to this threat to their power, at least according to legend, by “unleashing” the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaim Bedouin Arabs across the Nile into Ifriqiya. For dramatic effect, the Ibn Khaldun called these tribes a “cloud of locusts” that devastated North Africa. The Banu Hilal were blamed for every possible decline and caused, according to some historians, a great “historical breach” that devastated the Berber culture of the region. This story then became the basis for later colonial arguments by French administrators particularly for a separation in the recognition legal and cultural systems between Berber and Arab in North Africa. In fact, there were already Arab tribes on the other side of the Nile and the movement must have been as much a voluntary migration as a weapon of reprisal. As the Arabs migrated in thousands, the Bedouin were often blamed for the breakdown of central authority in North Africa and the decline in agriculture. More Arabs and Arabic cultural influence came from the Arab tribes of the Banu Hilal and later migrations than from the original invasions of the 7th century. Although much scholarship has critiqued his work, the French colonial scholar George Marçais even counted the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaim as the major turning point in North African history, the point when large swaths of North Africa, particularly the plains and the urban ports, tipped from Berber to Arab cultural, linguistic predominance in many areas.41 Nonetheless, even the great epic of the Banu Hilal recognized the centrality of Berber cultural influences and indicated that existence of several intermarriages between Berber and Arab. General turmoil and revolt was already a problem for the region, long before the Banu Hilal.

The so-called invasion was as much a massive, disorganized migration as a purposeful effort. Historical sources, often written by Arabs in Arabic, have both glorified the Banu Hilal and admitted to their brutality. Also their cultural and linguistic legacy was far from simply destructive, the poetic Epic of the Bani Hilal, still described the relationship between Arab and Berber tribes as one of competition and accommodation, not simply annihilation and dominance.42 The story of the Banu Hilal has been preserved in the great epic that continues to be recited and sung among those of both Berber and Arab ancestry. In fact, the coming of the Arabs, at least in literary form, has many parallels with the Roman-Latin entry into northern Etruscan Italy. A new people, in this myth, did not set out to “destroy” the existing people but rather to find a place beside the Berbers in their new home.

Even as they struggled with one another, Berbers and these new Arabic speaking peoples traded and intermarried. There seemed as many divisions between the Arabs of the Bani Hilal and Bani Sulaim, there were many different Arabic speaking lineage groups that came at different times, as there were between the Berbers. Rulers and princes in the cities could pick and choose or play one alliance against another. Force, however, was not particularly effective outside of the city walls or the caravan of the ruling prince.

The force of some new, revolutionary ideology or religious prophecy, however, could inspire unity; and the message of Islam was still somewhat novel to tribes and peoples far from the urban centers of Tunis, Kairouan, and Fez. Sometimes the prophecy was not that even that new; rather, it was new to the peoples who embraced it with vigor. The coming of the Bani Hilal and other Arab tribes that spread through the plains of North Africa did little to end the revolutionary potential of the Berbers themselves, especially Berbers from remote regions vested with the fervor of new converts: the Sanhaja Almoravids from deep in the desert.

Discussion of the Literature

The field has been dominated by two influential surveys from two very different perspectives. First, Jamil Abun-Nasr in A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period focuses on the Islamic and Arabic sources, and through persuasive details sets the stage for our understanding of the role of Sharifianism (Sharifs are esteemed descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) in Morocco and the Maghrib. As both a compliment (but also perhaps a contrast) to Professor Abun-Nasr is the work of Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress. Their book The Berbers provides an overview that attempts to move beyond the traditional reliance only on Islamic and Arabic sources. A synthesis of multiple approaches, along with some new material, was provided by Philip Naylor in his book North Africa, A History from Antiquity to Present.

Berber studies in general, although described as historically “sidelined” by Berberist scholars such as Michael Peyron, who wrote an article on the subject in the Journal of North African Studies, has seen something of a limited revival in English language scholarship.43 For example, there was the publication by John Iskander on the historiography of the Berghwata, who are mentioned earlier in the article.44 Also, the work of Jim Miller and Ron Messier on Sijilmasa, Sijilmasa and its Saharan Destiny should be mentioned along with the work of scholars examining the role of the Berbers in North Africa including Camilo Gómez-Rivas and his work Law and the Islamization of Morocco under the Almoravids. Also, Michael Brett, mentioned earlier, has done notable work on the Fatimids and the Eastern Maghrib in the early period. The Ibadis of Tahart, fortunately, have received some much-deserved attention. See Adam Gaiser, Shurat Legends, Ibadi Identities. Also, the pre-Islamic history of Berbers has seen a revival; for the pre-Islamic period leading up to the coming of Islam there is the volume by A. H. Merills, Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa. Nonetheless, the general state of the literature on the early medieval Maghrib in English remains somewhat thin and understudied. The historian at the University of Southern California, Ramzi Rouighi, has provided some helpful background information on the state of the historiography both in English and in other languages.45 In general, there is a need for intensely focused book-length studies and monographs on the major early Maghribi dynasties, using the most updated historiography, perhaps with the benefit of some of the excellent work coming out of Andalusi (Muslim Spain) and Mediterranean studies. Scholars of the medieval Maghrib writing in English have a prime opportunity to move beyond the old colonial and postcolonial debates about the alleged artificial “dichotomy” in some of the literature that has been placed between Berbers and Arabs. Instead, we can learn from the work of Mediterraneanists and scholars in North Africa who are beginning to show the level of complexity behind the relationship between Berbers and Arabs and other groups in this period.

Primary Sources

One of the benefits of studying the history of the early Maghrib is the relative richness and complexity of the primary source material available, especially from the second half of the medieval or “middle period” from around 1000 ce–1400 ce. North Africa deserved its reputation in the medieval period as a hub of great intellectuals and scholars. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), considered by many Arabic speakers as the greatest historian to ever write in that language, provides a rich and (for French or Arabic readers) largely accessible corpus of works on the history of Berbers and Arabs in the Maghrib. His Muqaddimah, an introduction to history, goes even deeper than his chronological accounts, however, and delves in to questions of social structures, interactions, and patterns over time. Rarely are there primary sources that can be the starting point for new students of a region. With Ibn Khaldun, however, it would be hard to surpass the Muqaddimah, especially the helpful edited version by N. J. Dawood and Bruce Lawrence, translated by the esteemed Franz Rosenthal, as an introduction to the period. For more in-depth sources of the period see Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab al ‘Ibar wa diwan al mubtada wa al khabar fi ayyami al ‘arab wa al barbar. Often referred to as the fundamental source for the history of North Africa from ancient times to the 14th century, portions of Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab al ‘Ibar have been translated by scholars including William De Slane’s L’histoire des Berbères d’Ibn Khaldun. Much of the monumental text, however, remains best approached in its original Arabic. The introduction to “the universal history” of the Kitab al ‘Ibar, the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun is that rare primary source that not only provides detailed information but independent and insightful interpretation of events and history in its own right. Works on the conquest include ‘Ubaydallah ibn al-Habhab, “Un récit de la Conquête de l’Afrique du Nord.” Ibn ‘Abd al Hakam, Futuh misr wa al Maghrib, (Conquest of Egypt and the Maghrib). One of the most important, early primary sources for the Arab and Islamic conquest of Egypt and North Africa, Ibn ‘Abd al Hakam’s text is a central reference for historians. Also, see the French translation by A. Gateau, Conquête de l’Afrique du Nord et de l’Espagne. Although his account has been questioned, ‘Ubaydallah remains a source for the conquest. There is also the work of translation of Al-Baladhuri on the Islamic conquests by Philip K. Hitti, The Origins of the Islamic State. And there is also the work of the geographer Al- Ya‘qubi, Kitab al Buldan. For more on the Barghawata and the period before the coming of the Almoravids, see the fascinating geography of Abu Ubayd al Bakri, Al-Maghrib fi dhikr bilad ifriqiyya wa al maghrib wa huwa juza min kitab al masalik wa al mamalik/Description de l’Afrique septentrionale. This work is often compared to the writings of al-Idrisi. It is of central importance, containing detailed accounts of North African regions, tribes, dynasties, and their histories. There is also fascinating information about the Berghwata heresy of early medieval Morocco. An important work on Fez in this period is Abu al-Hassan Ali al-Jaznai, French translation by Alfred Bel, Ali El Djaznai, La fleur du myrte, traitant de la fondation de la ville de Fès. Living in the 14th century, Jaznai wrote this important text on the foundation of Fez and the history of the Idrisid dynasty. Several earlier texts are quoted.

Further Reading

  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Azaykou, Ali Sidqi. Histoire du Maroc et ses possibles interprétations. Recueil d’articles. Rabat, Morocco: Centre Tarik Ibn Zyad, 2002.
  • Bel, Alfred. La Religion musulmane en Berbérie. Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1938.
  • Berque, Jacques. “Du nouveau sur les Bani Hilal.” Studia Islamica 36 (1972): 86–109.
  • Brett, Michael. “The Islamisation of Morocco: From the Arabs to the Almoravids.” Morocco (1992): 57–71.
  • Brett, Michael. The Rise of the Fatimids: The World of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the 10th Century CE. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
  • Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Halm, Heinz. The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids. Translated by Michael Bonner. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996.
  • Hannoum, Abdelmajid. “The Historiographic State: How Algeria Once Became French.” History and Anthropology 19 (2008): 91–114.
  • Hirschberg, Haim. A History of the Jews in North Africa: From Antiquity to the Sixteenth Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974.
  • Hirschberg, H. Z. “The Problem of the Judaized Berbers.” Journal of African History 4 (1963): 313–339.
  • Julien, Charles André. History of North Africa, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. New York: Praeger, 1970.
  • Laroui, Abdallah. The History of the Maghreb: An Interpretive Essay. New York: ACLS Humanities E-Book, 2008.
  • Le Gall, Michel, and Kenneth Perkins, eds. The Maghrib in Question, Essays in History and Historiography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.
  • Love, Paul. “The Sufris of Sijilmasa: Toward a history of the Midrarids.” Journal of North African Studies 15.2 (2010).
  • Messier, Ron, and Jim Miller. Sijilmasa and its Saharan Destiny. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
  • Naylor, Philip. North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
  • Norris, Harry T. Saharan Myth and Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Norris, Harry T. The Tuaregs. London: Aris and Philips, 1975.
  • Norris, Harry T. The Berbers in Arabic Literature. London: Longman, 1982.
  • Qadi al Nu‘man. Founding the Fatimid State: The Rise of an Early Islamic Empire. Translated by Hajj Hamid. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.
  • Roth, Norman. “The Kahina: Legendary Material in the Accounts of the ‘Jewish Berber Queen.’” The Maghreb Review 7.5–6 (1982): 122–125.
  • Talbi, Mohamed. “Kahina.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2nd ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1954.
  • Talbi, Mohamed. “Law and Economy in Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in the Third Islamic Century.” In The Islamic Middle East, 700–1900. Edited by A. L. Udovitch, 209–249. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Talbi, Mohamed. L’Emirat Aglabide. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient A.-Maisonneuve, 1966.
  • Talbi, Mohamed. “Hérésie, acculturation et nationalisme des Berbères Bargwata.” In Actes du premier congrès d’études des cultures méditerranéennes d’influence arabo-berbère (pp. 217–233). Algiers: Société Nationale d’Édition et de Diffusion, 1973.
  • Whitcomb, Thomas. “New Evidence on the Origins of the Kunta-I and II.” SOAS Bulletin 38 (1975): 103–123, 403–417.


  • 1. This piece will focus on particular events that illustrate wider themes—themes also addressed in subsequent articles (see also Making of the Maghrib 1060–1500 CE and The Maghrib and the Medieval Mediterranean and The Rise and Relevance of Maghribi Sufism). These articles all argue that the so-called medieval era in the Maghrib was crucial to the development of a distinctive, if complex, Maghribi culture.

  • 2. Patrick Geary, Myths of the Nation, Princeton 2003, discusses the use of the Medieval past to bolster nationalist notions of identity in Europe could easily be applied to North Africa and the importance of the medieval past to the formation of modern, national myths in the Maghrib. See, for instance, Sebastian Walsh, “Killing the Post-Almohad Man: Malek Bennabi, Algerian Islamism and the Search for a Liberal Governance,” Journal of North African Studies, 12, no. 2 (2007): 235–254. Also see Philip Naylor’s insightful discussion of memory and historiography of this period: North Africa, A History from Antiquity to Present (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

  • 3. On acculturation as a methodology see Thomas Glick and Oriol Pi-Sunyer, “Acculturation as an Explanatory Concept in Spanish History,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 11, no. 2 (1969): 136–154. On the problem of the Berber-Arab dichotomy see Michael Peyron, “Recent Cases of Incomplete Research on Morocco’s Berbers,” Journal of North African Studies 15 (2010): 157–171. The classic text that has been accused of the “dichotomy” is the influential work by C. Michad an E. Gellner eds., Arabs and Berbers (G. Duckworth, 1973).

  • 4. Julia Clancy-Smith, “Introduction” in Julia Clancy-Smith ed., North Africa, Islam and the Mediterranean World, from the Almoravids to the Algerian War (New York: Frank Cass, 2001), 1–10, 1.

  • 5. On the memory of Jews in Morocco see Aomar Boum, Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013) and Emily Gottreich and David Schroeter, eds., Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

  • 6. Scholars such as Ghislaine Lydon have called for transcending an “artificial Saharan frontier.” See “Writing trans-Saharan history: Methods, Sources and Interpretations across the African Divide,” Journal of North African Studies 10, nos. 3–4 (2005): 293–324. On the Haratin see Chouki el Hamel, “‘Race’, Slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean Thought: The Question of the Haratin in Morocco,” Journal of North African Studies 7, no. 3 (2002): 29–52.

  • 7. David Hart, “Persistence and Change in the Names on the North African Landscape: The Berber Tribes in Ibn Khaldun’s Geneaologies as they Appear Today,” in Journal of North African Studies 5, no. 1 (2000): 121–146.

  • 8. On the Islamic conquests and the issues of Arab, Byzantine, and Latin sources see Walter Kaegi, Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

  • 9. On Tahert and Ibadis in North Africa and see Adam Gaiser, Muslims, Scholars and Soldiers: The Origins and Elaborations of Ibadi Imamate Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). For the quote on Carthage-Tunis, see E. F. Gautier, Genseric, roi des Vandales (Paris: Payot., 1935), 215. Quoted in Paul Sebag, Tunis: histoire d’une Ville (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998), 76.

  • 10. Al-Bakri, Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale, trans. De Slane, 2nd ed. (Algiers: A. Jourdan, 1913), 80.

  • 11. Al-Bakri, Description, 84.

  • 12. Al-Bakri, Description, 84.

  • 13. Philip Hitti, trans., The Origins of the Islamic State, Kitab Futuh al Buldan, vol. 1 (Columbia University, 1916).

  • 14. For more information on the prophet Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the conquests, consult these two important works: Robert Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

  • 15. On horses in rock art see William Challis et al., “Funerary Monuments and Horse Paintings: A Preliminary Report on the Archaeology of a Site in the Tagant Region of Southeast Mauretania,” Journal of North African Studies 10, nos. 3–4 (2005): 459–470.

  • 16. Ibn Idhari, Al Bayan al Mughrib fi Akhbar al Andalus, eds. Georges S. Colin and Evariste Lévi-Provençal, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1949), 27.

  • 17. Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berbères, vol. 1 (Algiers: Berti Editions, 2001), 321.

  • 18. On conversion see Richard Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

  • 19. Berbers, in fact, often reject the name “Kahina,” which means “Sorceress” in classical Arabic. Dihya, a Berber name, is used instead. See A. Hannoum, Colonial Histories, Postcolonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina (Porthmouth NH: Heinemann, cop., 2001).

  • 20. Maarten Kossmann, The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013). For changes and influences in the medieval period specifically, see Mohamed Meouak, La langue berbère au Maghreb medieval (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015).

  • 21. Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berbères, 115–155.

  • 22. Maya Shatzmiller in The Berbers and the Islamic State (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner, 2000), speaks of the Berbers in the medieval period being accused of shu‘ubiyya—the sin of defending their own culture in the face of Arab influences. In fact, some scholars have suggested this medieval history as one of many roots of the current, “Berber identity movement.” See, for instance, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).

  • 23. On theories of “emplotment” in history see Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

  • 24. Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress tackle this historiographical problem of writing Berber history using Arab sources in The Berbers (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1997).

  • 25. For archaeological work that challenges the dominant narrative see Corisande Fenwick, “From Africa to Ifriqiya: Settlement and Society in Early Medieval North Africa (650–800),” Al-Masaq 25, no. 1 (2013), 9–33; James Boone and Nancy Benco, “Islamic Settlement in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula,” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 51–78; and Ronald Messier and James Miller, The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and its Saharan Destiny (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

  • 26. From H. T. Norris, The Berbers in Arabic Literature (New York: Longman, 1982), xxiv.

  • 27. Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berbères, 357.

  • 28. Columbia University Press, 1975.

  • 29. Al-Bakri, Description, 12.

  • 30. On the literature and history of the Ibadis of North Africa and Oman see Adam Gaiser, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibadi Imamate Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • 31. On Zuwila see David Mattingly, Martin Sterry, and David Edwards, “The Origins and Development of Zuwila, Libyan Sahara,” Azania: Archaeological Research of Africa 50, no. 1 (2015): 27–75.

  • 32. On Sijilmasa see Ronald Messier and James Miller, The Last Civilized Place: Sijilmasa and its Saharan Destiny (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

  • 33. Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 86.

  • 34. On the role and importance of travel in Muslim societies, from North Africa to the Mashriq see Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori eds., Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  • 35. John Iskander, “Devout Heretics: the Barghawata in Maghribi Historiography,” Journal of North African Studies 12 (2007): 37–53.

  • 36. Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berbères, 295–301.

  • 37. Mohamed Talbi, “Hérésie, acculturation et nationalisme des Berbères Bargawata” in Micheline Galley and David Marshall, eds. Proceedings of the First Congress of Mediterranean Studies of Arabo-Berber Influence (Algiers: Société nationale d’édition et de diffusion, 1973), 221–226.

  • 38. Ibn Khaldun, Histoire des Berbères, 308.

  • 39. J. Berque, “Du nouveau sur les Banu Hilal,” Studia Islamica 36 (1972), 99–111.

  • 40. Marianne Barrucand, eds. A Shalem and J. Van-Stäevel, “Sabra al Mansuriyya and her Neighbors during the First Half of the Eleventh Century,” Muqarnas 26 (2009): 349–376.

  • 41. G. Marçais, Les Arabes en Berbérie, Paris, 1913. His worked has been critiqued, if not entirely dismissed, by scholars such as J. Poncet, “Le mythe de la catastrophe hilalienne,” Annales ESC 22 (1967), 1099–1120.

  • 42. It remains a major oral tradition in Egypt to this day. Dwight Reynolds at the University of Santa Barbara set up a digital archive.

  • 43. Peyron, “Recent Cases of Incomplete Research on Morocco’s Berbers,” 157–171.

  • 44. Iskander, “Devout Heretics: The Barghawata in Maghribi Historiography,” 37–53.

  • 45. “The Berbers of the Arabs,” Studia Islamica 106 (2011): 49–76.