North Africa is a diverse region with a rich history and society, part of a set of varied landscapes that make up a compounded and multiplex socio-ecosystem. Its position as a meeting point—of the desert and the sea, of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, of North and South, of East and West—makes it a complex and rewarding area of study. This multiplicity of environments and societies means there is no one history of North Africa, it is rather a structure of imbricating stories, no one of which records the whole. The environmental history of the region is no different, as the many different ecosystems—and human relations within them—give rise to different stories and different ways to tell them. Indeed, the strength of the environmental approach to the history of the region is that it allows scholars to introduce important factors into the narrative that are otherwise left out. If history is to capture the richness of past lives, tell a compelling story of people in the world, then it needs to embrace those elements of the world that were important to people. These can be the everyday concerns with watering a garden, the spectacular catastrophes of multiyear drought, or the contemplation of what factors make a place one place and not another. While there is this bottomless well of potential stories to tell within the environmental history of North Africa, there are some centripetal forces that hold it together. One is the geographical setting, defined by the desert, seas, and Atlas Mountains. Within this setting the relative aridity of the region is its central concern; each history has a place for water within it. The other generalizing trend over the modern period is the increasing centralization of decision-making about the management of that aridity: since 1800, small-scale and localized knowledge, practice, and control over hydrology has been eroded. More and more the local ecosystem has become the regional ecosystem, managed according to a logic shared on a global scale. The tension between these generalized trends and the multiplicity of local ecologies and stories is what gives the environmental history of North Africa its power and appeal.
Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.
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.