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Thematic Guide to the History of Islam in North Africa

Russell Hopley
Lecturer in Arabic
Bowdoin College


Most courses on the history of Islam focus primarily on the central Islamic lands, i.e. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula, while touching only briefly on those lands that lay outside this core region. This thematic guide is intended to serve as an introduction to the main trends in North African history during the Islamic era, from the late-seventh century CE to the present day. For the purposes of this guide, North Africa comprises Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, four countries that are often collectively termed the Maghrib. Sunni Islam is today practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in North Africa, and a signal theme in the history of Islamic North Africa is the spread of orthodox Islam in the region, frequently at the expense of numerous sectarian groups.

Early Spread of Islam in North Africa

Islam was brought to North Africa in the mid-seventh century CE by Muslim armies under the leadership of 'Uqba ibn Nafi', a figure of considerable importance for the early spread of Islam outside the Arabian Peninsula. The Tunisian city of Qayrawan (also spelled Kairouan), established initially as a garrison town for the conquering Muslim armies, emerged in the eighth century as a vital center for the initial elaboration of Islam in North Africa. This was due in no small measure to its proximity to several principle trading routes, and the city would continue to serve as an important base for the study and propagation of Islam until its destruction in the mid-eleventh century by Bedouin tribesmen. Important political dynasties that arose in North Africa during the first three centuries of Islam include the Idrissids in Morocco, the Rustamids in central Algeria, and the Aghlabids in Tunisia. Although these were North African dynasties, each had origins in the Islamic east, either in the Arab lands, as was the case with the Idrissids and the Aghlabids, or in Persia, in the case of the Rustamids. In addition, the three dynasties, despite being markedly distinct from one another, played a role, to varying degrees, in Arabizing and Islamizing the indigenous Berber population, a process that would continue well into the early modern period. Alongside the Idrissids, Rustamids, and Aghlabids, numerous heretical polities also appeared across North Africa during this early period. Notable among them was the Barghawata state that existed on the Atlantic coast of Morocco for some three centuries.

The Period of Berber Rule

The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the rise of two significant indigenous dynasties in North Africa, the Almoravids and the Almohads, that would place rule in the hands of the native Berbers. The Almoravids were a powerful confederation of nomadic Berbers that emerged from the Western Sahara in the mid-eleventh century under the leadership of 'Abd Allah ibn Yasin. Ibn Yasin sought to bring political and doctrinal unity to much of North Africa, and his successor, the highly competent emir Yusuf bin Tashfin, succeeded in melding Islamic Spain with the Almoravid empire in North Africa, thereby bringing most of the western Mediterranean under unified Islamic rule. The Almohads, successors to the Almoravids, extended their rule eastward into Libya, but lost considerable territory in Andalusia to the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. The spiritual leader of the Almohads, Ibn Tumart, replaced the orthodox Islam of the Almoravids with his own unique doctrine that contained a strong undercurrent of messianism and Islamic mysticism.

The Late Medieval and Early Modern Period: From Unity to Fragmentation

While the Almoravids and Almohads succeeded in bringing unity to North Africa in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the following centuries witnessed a return to political fragmentation with the rise of the Marinids in Morocco, the 'Abd al-Wadids in Algeria, and the Hafsids in Tunisia. Relations between these three dynasties were often strained, and the troubled circumstances of Islamic Spain served only to increase the tension among them. Of particular significance for the history of Islamic North Africa is the degree to which the successors to the Marinids in Morocco, the Sa'adids followed by the 'Alawis, looked back to the Idrissids as a source of religious and political legitimacy. This is best explained by the eastern, Arab origin of the Idrissids and by their close relation to the Prophet's family, both of which were attributes that conferred considerable prestige in the eyes of the Muslims of North Africa.

The Modern Period and the Experience of European Colonialism

The period following the fifteenth century in North Africa was marked by the increased presence of Europeans in the region. This came initially in the sixteenth century with the establishment along the North African coast of European trading posts, Portuguese for the most part, followed in the nineteenth century by the French occupation and colonization of Algeria, and later Tunisia and Morocco, and the Italian occupation of Libya. European administration of North Africa was well underway by 1915, and would continue unabated for three decades. The French penetration of North Africa was remarkably thorough, and its occupation of Algeria came to an end in 1962, after a protracted, bloody 8-year struggle. The Italian occupation of Libya was by comparison quite short, but it was no less brutal. Libyans today count 'Umar al-Mukhtar, a fierce opponent of Italian occupation, among their national heroes, as do the Algerians with the emir 'Abd al-Qadir, an early adversary of the French in Algeria.

North Africa in the Post-Independence Era

The countries of North Africa have taken very different paths in the past half century. Morocco has enjoyed relative stability, continuing its tradition of monarchical rule by the 'Alawi dynasty. Algeria experimented with progressive politics under the single-party rule of the FLN until the early 1990s. This was violently interrupted, however, by an Islamist insurrection in the mid-'90s that by some accounts left close to 100,000 dead. Tunisia enjoyed relative calm during the rule of Habib Bourguiba and, subsequently, Zein al-'Abidine bin 'Ali. The rule of this latter figure grew increasingly authoritarian, and the opposition he engendered among Tunisians set the stage for the "Arab Spring" that would subsequently spread to other nations of the Middle East. Libya under the leadership of the mercurial Muammar al-Qaddafi espoused an especially volatile mix of pan-Arabism, revolutionary third-worldism, and anti-colonialism. His demise in 2011 has left Libya in a state of uncertainty and fragmentation as the country emerges from four decades of despotic rule. North Africa has most recently witnessed the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), an extremist group that seeks to establish rule of the region under the banner of a unified Islamic caliphate. The chaos that came in the wake of Qaddafi's fall allowed the group to engage in a number of high-profile operations, most notably in Mali in 2012.

Further Reading

  • Abu-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Clancy-Smith, Julia. Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Popular Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Fromherz, Allen. The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. London: MacMillan, 1977.
  • Howe, Marvine. Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Laroui, Abdallah. The History of the Maghrib: An Interpretive Essay. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
  • Pennel, Richard. Morocco since 1830: A History. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2000.
  • Stora, Benjamin. Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
  • Vandewalle, Dirk. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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