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12.3: Islamic Conquest of the Maghreb

  • Page ID
    72296
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    Learning Objective

    • Discuss the effects the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb had on the area

    Key Points

    • The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632. The conquest of the Maghreb region (more or less west of Egypt) took place largely under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750).
    • The Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan in 661. Syria was the Umayyads’ main power base,  and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, creating one of the vastest empires in human history.
    • The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times. Departing from Damascus, Arab forces marched into North Africa, and in 670 the city of Kairouan (south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations.
    • By 698, the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers. Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708.
    • Arab expansion and the spread of Islam into the Maghreb pushed the development of trans-Saharan trade. Though restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable.
    • The conventional historical view that the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad Caliphate effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries has been recently questioned by historians who found evidence that Christianity persisted in the region for centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest.

    Terms

    Berbers

    An ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They are distributed in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. Historically, they spoke Berber languages, which together form the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, a large number of them inhabiting the Maghreb have acquired different degrees of knowledge of varieties of the languages of North Africa.

    caliphate

    An area containing an Islamic steward known as a caliph—a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community. During the history of Islam after the Rashidun period, many Muslim states, almost all of them hereditary monarchies, have claimed the right to be defined as such.

    The Maghreb

    Much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition as the region including the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya was later superseded by the inclusion of Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara (mostly controlled by Morocco).

    the Umayyad Caliphate

    The second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. This caliphate was centered on the Umayyad dynasty, hailing from Mecca. The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE/41 AH. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital.

    The Maghreb and Islam

    The Maghreb is usually defined as much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of today’s Egypt. It is important to keep in mind, however, that because of the constantly changing borders of the first caliphates in the region, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb is intertwined with the history of the territories east of the border of the region that is today defined as the Maghreb. Consequently, the history of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb and the history of the Muslim conquest of a greater North African region (reaching far into the Middle East) cannot be sharply distinguished.

    The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. By 642, the Arabs controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria, had invaded Armenia, and were concluding their conquest of the Persian Empire. It was at this point that Arab military expeditions into North African regions west of Egypt were first launched, continuing for years and furthering the spread of Islam. The conquest of the Maghreb region (more or less west of Egypt) took place largely under
    the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), which was the second of the four major Arab caliphates established after the death of Muhammad.

    The Umayyad Caliphate

    The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE/41 AH. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Caucasus, Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb, and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles) and 62 million people (29% of the world’s population), making it the fifth largest empire in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population.

    The Conquest

    The Arabs reached the Maghreb in early Umayyad times.
    The years 665–689 saw another Arab invasion of North Africa. It began with an army of more than 40,000 Muslims advancing through the desert to Barca and marching to the neighborhood of Carthage (today’s Tunisia). Next came a force of 10,000 led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and in 670 the city of Kairouan (south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations. This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of today’s western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. After this, Uqba ibn Nafi moved forward until reaching the Atlantic coast. In his conquest of the Maghreb, he besieged the coastal city of Bugia as well as Tingi or Tangier, overwhelming what had once been the traditional Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. However, he was stopped and partially repulsed here. Unable to occupy Tangier, he was recalled from the coast. On his return, a Berber-Byzantine coalition ambushed and crushed his forces near Biskra, killing Uqba and wiping out his troops.

    Meanwhile, a new civil war among rivals for the monarchy raged in Arabia and Syria. It resulted in a series of four caliphs between the death of Muawiya in 680 and the accession of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (Abdalmalek) in 685. Strife ended only in 692, which brought about a return of domestic order that allowed the caliph to resume the Islamic conquest of North Africa. It began with the renewed invasion of Ifriqiya, but the Byzantine Empire responded with troops from Constantinople, joined by soldiers and ships from Sicily and a powerful contingent of Visigoths from Hispania. This forced the invading Arab army to run back to Kairouan (today’s Tunisia). The following spring, however, the Arabs launched a new assault by sea and land, forcing the Byzantines and their allies to evacuate Carthage. The Arabs slaughtered the civilians, totally destroyed the city, and burned it to the ground, leaving the area desolate for the next two centuries. After the departure of the main force of the Byzantines and their allies, another battle was fought near Utica and the Arabs were again victorious, forcing the Byzantines to leave that part of North Africa for good.

    By 698, the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers.
    Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708. After the fall of Tangiers, many Berbers joined the Muslim army. In 740, Umayyad rule in the region was shaken by a major Berber revolt. After a series of defeats, the caliphate was finally able to crush the rebellion in 742, although local Berber dynasties continued to drift away from imperial control from that time on.

    image
    Age of the Caliphs: [dark purple] Expansion under the Prophet Mohammad, 622-632; [dark pink] Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661; [dark orange] Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750. 

    Effects of the Arab Conquest on the Maghreb

    Arab expansion and the spread of Islam into the Maghreb pushed the development of trans-Saharan trade. Though restricted due to the cost and dangers, the trade was highly profitable. Commodities traded included such goods as salt, gold, and ivory. Slaves were also transferred. Arab control over the Maghreb was quite weak. Various Islamic variations, such as the Ibadis and the Shia, were adopted by some Berbers, often leading to scorning of caliph control in favor of other interpretations of Islam. The Arabic language became widespread only later.

    The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Umayyad Caliphate effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries. The prevailing view is that the church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies, and that this contributed to the early obliteration of the church in the present day Maghreb. However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes these claims. There are reports that Christianity persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700.

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