Muslim North Africa


Political life of the Maghrib in the 8th century was dominated by the contradiction in the position of the Arab rulers who, while posing as the champions of a religion recognizing the equality of all believers, emphasized their ethnic distinctiveness and exercised authority with little regard for Islamic religious norms. This contradiction surfaced in their relations with the Berbers after the latter became Muslim in large numbers—especially through serving in the Arab army, which is known to have included Berber contingents when it was commanded by Ḥassān ibn al-Nu‘mān and his successor Mūsā ibn Nuṣayr. Many Berber warriors participated in the conquest of Spain in 711. Though professing Islam, they were treated as mawālī (“clients”) of the Arab tribes and consequently had a status inferior to, and received less pay than, the Arab warriors. Furthermore, the Arab ruling class alone reaped the fruits of conquest, as was clearly the case in Spain. The grievances of the warriors highlighted the resentment of Berbers in general, caused by such practices as levying human tribute on the Berber tribes, through which the Arab ruling class was provided with slaves, especially female slaves. ‘Umar II (717–720) was the only Umayyad caliph who is known to have condemned the levying of human tribute and ordered that it be discontinued. He also sent 10 tābi‘ūn (“followers”; disciples of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions) to teach Islam to the Berbers. The enlightened policy of this pious caliph did not survive his short reign, however. Rather, it contributed toward confirming the conviction of Muslims in the Maghrib that Islam could not be equated with Umayyad caliphal rule.

The Muslim Khārijite sect exploited this revolutionary potential in their struggle against Umayyad rule. Khārijite doctrine apparently appealed to the Berbers because it rejected the Arab monopoly on political leadership of the Muslim community, stressed piety and learning as the main qualifications of the head of the community, and sanctioned rebellion against the head when he acted unjustly. In 740 a major Berber rebellion broke out against Arab rule in the region of Tangier. Its first leader was a Berber called Maysara who had come to Kairouan under the influence of the Ṣufriyyah, the extremist branch of the Khārijite sect. The Berber rebels achieved an astounding military success against the Arab army. By 742 they had taken control of the whole of Algeria and were threatening Kairouan. In the meantime the Ibāḍiyyah, who constituted the moderate branch of the Khārijite sect, had taken control of Tripolitania by converting the Berber tribes living there, especially the Hawwāra and Nafusa, to their doctrine. Ibāḍī domination in Tripolitania resulted from the activities of dā‘īs (“propagandists”) sent from the main centre of the group, in Iraq, after the Khārijite rebellion there had been suppressed by the Umayyad army in 697.

Umayyad caliphal rule in the Maghrib came to an end in 747 when the Fihrids, the descendants of ‘Uqbah ibn Nāfi‘—taking advantage of the Umayyads’ preoccupation with the ‘Abbāsid rebellion that led to their downfall—seized power in Ifrīqiyyah. The Fihrid dynasty controlled all of Tunisia except for the south, which was dominated at the time by the Warfajūma Berber tribe associated with the Ṣufrī Khārijites. Fihrid rule came to an end in 756 when the Warfajūma conquered the north and captured Kairouan. Immediately thereafter, however, the Ibāḍiyyah in Tripolitania proclaimed one of their religious leaders as imam (the Khārijite equivalent to the Sunni caliph) and in 758 conquered Tunisia from the Ṣufriyyah. An Ibāḍī state comprising Tunisia and Tripolitania thus came into being, which lasted until the ‘Abbāsids, having consolidated their authority as caliphs in the Middle East, sent an army to the region in 761 to restore caliphal rule in the Maghrib.

The ‘Abbāsids could impose their authority only on Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and Tripolitania. The authority of their governors of the reconstituted wilāyah of Ifrīqiyyah was hampered because they depended on an army that was recruited predominantly from among the unruly Arabs of the province. After Arab troops mutinied against the ‘Abbāsid governor in 800, Ifrīqiyyah was transformed into an Arab kingdom ruled by the Aghlabid dynasty in the name of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs. The founder of the dynasty, Ibrāhīm ibn al-Aghlab, had commanded until then the Arab army in eastern Algeria. After using his troops to restore order in Tunisia, he established himself as ruler of the province. The acquiescence of the caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd, to Ibn al-Aghlab’s usurpation of authority was linked to the latter’s continued recognition of ‘Abbāsid suzerainty and payment of tributes to Baghdad.


Through their rebellion against caliphal rule in the name of Islam, the Berbers forged religious bonds with other Muslim opponents of the caliphs, and Islamic political concepts and religious norms gained favour in Berber society. Their rebellion also led to the rule of caliphs being replaced by four separate Muslim states dominated by dynasties that either nominally recognized caliphal authority, as was the case with the Aghlabids, or totally rejected it, as was the case with the three other states. Only the smallest and most politically insignificant state, the principality of the Banū Midrār in Sijilmāssah (southern Morocco), was ruled by a Berber dynasty. The survival of the four states depended on the balance of political forces within the region itself.


The ‘Abbāsid conquest of Ifrīqiyyah in 761, which precipitated the collapse of the Ibāḍī state in Tunisia and Tripolitania, also caused important Ibāḍī tribes from Tripolitania and southern Tunisia to migrate to western Algeria. There they were led in attacks on ‘Abbāsid positions by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam, an Ibāḍī of Persian origin, born and brought up in Tunisia. Ibn Rustam had acquired prominence among the Ibāḍiyyah as governor of Tunisia between 758 and 761. In 776 or 777 he was proclaimed imam by the Ibāḍī tribes of Algeria, and immediately afterward he started constructing his own capital, Tāhart (modern Tiaret, Alg.), in the area where the most important Ibāḍī tribes of Algeria were settled. Until the 760s the Berber tribes affiliated with the Ṣufrī branch of Khārijīsm were the major forces opposing caliphal rule in Algeria. After the foundation of the Rustamid state, these tribes became subordinate allies of the Ibāḍiyyah.

The imamate of Tāhart was inherited within the family of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam. This breach of Khārijite doctrine led to a split within the Ibāḍī leadership, which, however, had little effect on the position of the Rustamid imams as leaders of Berber opposition to ‘Abbāsid authority. The tribes that recognized the religio-political leadership of and paid tribute to the imams of Tāhart lived in western Algeria, southern Tunisia, and Tripolitania. The imams maintained contacts with them by encouraging tribal chiefs to visit Tāhart and by sending emissaries that toured their areas. The Rustamid imams maintained especially close contacts with the Nafusa of Tripolitania—who had been associated with the Ibāḍī movement in the Maghrib since the beginning of the 8th century—and entrusted important state offices to them. Tāhart became prosperous and developed a cosmopolitan character both by serving as a meeting place for numerous trade caravans connecting the various parts of the Maghrib and by playing an important role itself in Maghribi and trans-Saharan trade. The Rustamids’ readiness to live in peace with their neighbours, including the Aghlabids, caused discontent among the Ibāḍī tribes of Tripolitania and southern Tunisia but enabled the Rustamids to retain power until Tāhart was conquered by the Fāṭimids in 909.


The principality of the Banū Midrār came into existence after the 740s, when Miknāsah Berbers (a group affiliated with the Ṣufriyyah) migrated from northern Morocco to the oasis of Tafilalt in the south. The principality was named after Abū al-Qāsim ibn Wāsūl, nicknamed Midrār, the Miknāsah chief who founded the town of Sijilmāssah there in 757. Tafilalt had played a role in trans-Saharan trade before the influx and settlement of the Miknāsah. After the establishment of Sijilmāssah, however, it became the foremost centre of trans-Saharan trade in the western Maghrib. At the zenith of its power during the reign of Yasa’ ibn Midrār (790–823), the principality controlled the entire region of Drâa in southern Morocco. Nevertheless, the state remained primarily a trading principality, playing almost no role in the political life of the rest of the Maghrib until it, too, was conquered by the Fāṭimids in 909.


The Idrīsid state of Fez (modern Fès, Mor.) originated in the desire of Isḥāq ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd, chief of the powerful tribal confederation of the Awrāba, to consolidate his authority in northern Morocco by giving his rule an Islamic religious character. For that purpose he invited Idrīs ibn ‘Abd Allāh, a sharif (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) living in Tangier, to settle at his seat of government in Walīla (Oulili). Idrīs moved to Walīla in 788 and was recognized Imam Idrīs I of the Awrāba the following year, but he was assassinated by agents of the ‘Abbāsids in 791. His son, born a few months later and also called Idrīs, was proclaimed imam of the Awrāba in 803, when he was still a young boy. Idrīs II founded the state—called, for himself, Idrīsid—with the help of Arab refugees coming from both Spain and Aghlabid territory. By moving the seat of his authority in 809 to Fez, the capital city he had started to build a year earlier, he made it clear he was establishing a state that was distinct from the Awrāba confederation. The arrival of more Arabs from Spain and Aghlabid territory in the following two decades gave the Idrīsid state a distinctly Arab character.

Although Idrīs I had Shī‘ite sympathies, the state founded by his son was Sunni in matters of religious doctrine. Its rulers, however, identified themselves with Berber rejection of caliphal rule and stressed their own descent from the Prophet as a means of legitimizing their authority. During Idrīs II’s reign (809–828) the state included the greater part of present-day Morocco. From the 860s, however, the authority of the Idrīsids started to decline, and the tribes of northern Morocco that had previously followed them allied themselves with the Umayyad rulers of Spain. Nevertheless, the Idrīsids continued to rule in Fez until they were deposed by the Fāṭimids in 921. Under the Idrīsids, Islamic urban culture began to appear in Morocco. The foremost urban centre was Fez, which continued to exercise a dominant influence on the religious and cultural as well as the political life of Morocco until the French protectorate was imposed in 1912


After they usurped power in 800, the Aghlabids adapted their government to the requirements of political survival in a land still dominated by an Arab class of large landowners, who also provided the government with its regular troops. The urban, ethnically mixed communities resented the domination of the state by the old Arab families and the heavy taxes that they and the peasant communities had to pay. Emphasizing Islamic religious norms was the means by which these groups articulated their grievances against the state and the Arab ruling class. By the beginning of the 9th century such grievances could be expressed formally when two of the four Sunni schools of Islamic religious law, the Ḥanafiyyah and the Mālikiyyah, had become established in the Maghrib. The Ḥanafī school developed in Iraq; as it was recognized by the ‘Abbāsid caliphs, it also was adopted by the Aghlabids. Most of the religious scholars in Tunisia, however, adhered to the simpler and stricter teachings of the Mālikī school. By teaching the religious law and admonishing the rulers to adhere to its provisions when administering justice and in such matters as taxation and the prohibition of alcohol, Mālikī scholars have emerged since the 820s as defenders of the rights of the common people against the state.

Political life in the Aghlabid state reflected the rulers’ constant fear that their Arab troops would rebel and preoccupation with the need to allay the grievances of the religious scholars. They tried to placate the Mālikī scholars by appointing many of them to the office of qāḍī (“judge”) and by instituting a program of sacred building construction. The Grand Mosque of Tunis (the Zaytūnah), among others, was built in the Aghlabid period. In order to reduce the threat of Arab troop rebellions, the Aghlabids channeled their energies into conquering Sicily. Initiated in 827, the conquest of Sicily was given a religious character by entrusting the command of the army to the qāḍī Asad ibn al-Furāt.

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