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Jihad against North Africa : The Arab Muslim aggression against the Berbers of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco

The Berbers were the ancient indigenous people of North Africa west of Egypt. They were made up of many tribes, but they managed to maintain their culture, their Hamitic languages, and considerable military power during successive invasions of their land. In ancient times, North Africa had been colonized by the Phoenicians (who became the Carthaginians), they were followed by the Romans, the Vandals (one of the Germanic tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire), the Byzantines, and finally the Arabs. Other foreigners, notably Greeks and Jews, also ruled parts of ancient North Africa at different times.

Kahina – the brave Berber Princess held off the Arab hordes for twenty years

At the time of the Arab aggression, the Berbers were ruled by a Queen of Jewish descent. Her name was Kahina (also spelt Cahina). Kahina's name is also given variously as Dahiyah, Dahia, or Dhabba (Women in World History, v.8, p. 414.) The title Kahina meant Prophetess. The Encyclopedia Judaica (v. 10, p. 686) says that the term is derived from the old Hebrew "Kahin" ("soothsayer") while some other sources say that "Kahina" was derived from the Hebrew root of the modern Jewish term "Cohen".


In the 7th century, the Berbers lived in uneasy peace with the Byzantines, who ruled the coastal cities of North Africa, after defeating the Vandals a century before. The ancient city of Carthage was the Byzantine capital in Africa. Some Berbers were Christians (with a notable tendency towards heresy), some were Jewish, and some adhered to their ancient polytheist religion. Before the end of the century the region faced a new calamity, the traditional rivals of the Berbers, the Byzantines were defeated and driven from Africa by the Muslim Arab hordes who poured out of the Arabian Peninsula and flattened everything in their wake.

The Arab invasion of Egypt that had started in 639 had crossed Libya by 642 and by 643, the Arabs hordes started ravaging Berber lands. In the Arab Muslim invaders, the Berbers who had crossed swords with the Vandals Visigoths, Romans, Greeks faced a foe with a ruthlessness, that the Berbers had never encountered before. Surrender to this invader called for the surrender of not just sovereignty, but also of the ancient Berber religion, language and identity.

At the time of the death of the false Prophet Mohammed in 632, Muslims ruled only in Arabia. But within ten years the Arab Muslims had achieved one of the most spectacular conquests in history. They conquered Palestine (635-636), Syria (638-640), and Egypt (639-642) from the Byzantines and first Iraq (635-637) and then Persia itself (637-642) from the Persians. Wherever they went, most of the people were forced to become Muslims and Arabic-speakers. The converted people forgot their language and identity and started considering themselves to be Arabs. This happened with Palestine (today’s Israel), Syria, Levant (today’s Jordan), Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and also partly with Sudan, and Somalia. This trend was reversed only in Persia, where the people, in spite of the brutal Arab conquest, re-asserted their pre-Islamic Persian language after three hundred years of Arab tyranny. But everywhere else the Arab conquest, Arabized the Middle East and North Africa permanently.


A typical Berber lady. The Berbers do not traditionally keep their women in the Hijab (the tent-like cloak worn by Arab Muslim women). When the Arabs invaded North-West Africa, the Berbers were ruled by a resourceful Queen of Jewish descent named Kahina.

After the Arab general Hassan ibn al Numan took Carthage from the Byzantines, Kahina's forces defeated him. Then, as during World War II, a single defeat in North Africa might lead to a retreat of hundreds of miles. Hassan retreated, probably all the way back to Egypt. Following his retreat, Kahina took Carthage and ruled most of Berber North Africa.


In the 680s the Arabs swept across North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic. For some time the Byzantines clung to their coastal cities, as the Arab Jihadis in their tearing hurry to cover as much land as possible raced towards the Atlantic. When the Jihadi general Oqba ibn Nafi reached the Atlantic in Morocco and, according to legend, rode into the sea and slashed at the water with his sword in frustration that there were no more lands to conquer.

On his return march in 683, the haughty and cruel Oqba was defeated and slain by the Berbers. After this defeat, the Arab aggression paused for a decade but in 698 the Muslims finally took Carthage, evicting the Byzantine Christians completely from Africa. Now the Muslim aggressors faced their last and most stubborn enemy – the Berbers.

Kahina – the brave Berber Princess held off the Arab hordes for twenty years

At the time of the Arab aggression, the Berbers were ruled by a Queen of Jewish descent. Her name was Kahina (also spelt Cahina). Kahina's name is also given variously as Dahiyah, Dahia, or Dhabba (Women in World History, v.8, p. 414.) The title Kahina meant Prophetess. The Encyclopedia Judaica (v. 10, p. 686) says that the term is derived from the old Hebrew "Kahin" ("soothsayer") while some other sources say that "Kahina" was derived from the Hebrew root of the modern Jewish term "Cohen".

The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that Arabic authors, notably the major 14th century historian Ibn-Khaldun, say that Kahina and her tribe, the Jerawa of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria and Tunisia, were Jewish. Charles-André Julien, in his History of North Africa, notes that another writer gave Kahina "the picturesque appellation of the 'Berber Deborah'" (after Deborah, the judge of ancient Israel). Julien believes that Kahina 's resistance to the Arabs was "nurtured, as it seems, by Berber patriotism and Jewish faith." On the other hand, the Encyclopedia Judaica concludes "her opposition to the Muslim Arabs was not religiously inspired; some authorities deny she was Jewish. The history of Kahina remains controversial."

What is known is that soon after the Arab general Hassan ibn al Numan took Carthage from the Byzantines, Kahina's forces defeated him. Then, as during World War II, a single defeat in North Africa might lead to a retreat of hundreds of miles. Hassan retreated, probably all the way back to Egypt. Following his retreat, Kahina took Carthage and ruled most of Berber North Africa.


A Berber warrior. The Berbers differ from the Arabs in their ethnicity. This is reflected in the differences in language customs, dress habits. The schism between the native Berbers and the invading Arabs continues to this day. The Algerian civil war was in part between the Berbers and the Arabs.


According to Ibn-Khaldun, as she waited for the inevitable renewed Arab assault, Kahina carried out a brutal and disastrous policy. She declared that the Arabs wished to conquer North Africa only because of its wealth. She ordered Berbers who were still nomadic to destroy the cities, orchards, and herds of sedentary Berbers, to make North Africa a desert.

If Kahina actually made this amazing decision, she was tragically mistaken. The Arabs were determined to take North Africa regardless of its wealth or poverty, because their sole aim was to convert the people to Islam, and because North Africa was a gateway to Spain and Europe. Unsurprisingly, according to Ibn-Khaldun, this savage policy of city burning cost Kahina the support of city-dwelling Berbers.

In 702, Hassan again invaded the Berber lands and quickly defeated Kahina. after she lost the final battle, Kahina ordered her sons to go over to the enemy." Her sons had to convert to Islam to seal their defection to the Arabs. Julien believes that for Kahina, the survival of her family and its supremacy over her tribe were ultimately more important than any questions of nationalism or religion.

Accounts differ as to whether Kahina died in battle or was captured and executed.

The advantage which the nomadic invaders like the Arabs had over settled city dwellers like the Persians and Romans did not hold for nomadic Berbers

Over the ages, the conflict between nomadic and settled peoples, and between rural and urban peoples, has been the most important factor in history. This theory seemed to account for many events in the ancient history of the Middle East, as well as the fall of the Roman Empire to the Germanic Goth and Vandals and also for the swift Arab conquest of the Byzantines and Persians. It is still a good theoretical model for some modern conflicts. Many of the wars of modern world have been primarily conflicts between mobile nomadic terrorists and city people. A case in point are the wars of the Taliban in Afghanistan against the settled Govt. of Kabul in the late 1990s.

Obviously the tale of Kahina 's destruction of the North African cities and her subsequent loss of the support of city-dwellers fits well into this worldview. This also explains the stubborn resistance that the Berbers put up against the Arabs, while pushing back the Arabs over and over again in the next few centuries. Even till today the conflict in Algeria is an expression of this hoary Arab-Berber conflict.


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The Berbers who once occupied the entire stretch of land along the coast of Libya, Tunisia through Algeria up to Morocco, have today been pushed into the fastness of the Sahara desert, indicated here by the blue blob in Southern Algeria, North-eastern Mali and North-Western Niger. The Berbers still continue to cling on in small clusters along the fertile coast, which has been largely occupied by the Arab Muslim invaders. Today most of the Berbers have been converted to Islam. But some continue to practice their pre-Islamic nature worshipping religious practices in the remote fastness of the Sahara desert.


There are several references to the nature of Berber resistance in the translation by Franz Rosenthal. Ibn-Khaldun notes that the Berbers were given to rebellion and heresy under the Muslims, just as they had been under the Christian Byzantines, before the Muslim conquest. The Berbers continued to rebel and apostatized time after time. The Muslims massacred many of them. Centuries after Islam had been established among the Berber tribes, they continued reverting to their animistic practices and continued revolting and seceding. To merge Islam with their native animism, they adopted dissident [Kharajite] opinions many times.

Ibn Abi Zayd said that the Berbers in the Maghrib [North Africa] revolted twelve times and that Islam become firmly established among them only during the governorship of Musa ben Nusayr and thereafter. That is what is meant by the statement reported on the authority of 'Umar, that "Ifriqiyah [Africa] divides the hearts of its inhabitants." The statement refers to the great number of tribes and groups there, which causes them to be disobedient and unmanageable.

The Berber tribes in the West are innumerable. All of them are nomads and members of different tribal groups and families. Whenever one tribe is destroyed, another takes its place and is as refractory and rebellious as the former one had been. Therefore, it has taken the Arabs a long time to establish their dynasty in the land of Ifriqiyah. (Rosenthal translation, p. 333)

Berber resistance to Islam

The story of the Berber resistance to Islam begins after the Arab defeat of the Byzantines and conquest of Carthage. With the defeat of the Byzantines, they were expelled, but the Arabs were not yet the masters of the country. In the interior provinces the Berbers maintained a disorderly resistance to the religion and power of the Arabs.


The colorful liberated existence of the Berber women reflects the pre-Islamic culture of the Berbers that has more in common with that of African womanhood, rather than the cloistered hijab-enclosed one of the Arab Muslim women.


In the face of repeated Berber counterattacks, the cruel gangsters of the Muslim marauder Hassan were inadequate to hold North Africa peacefully. During some Berber counterattacks, the Arab conquests of many years were lost in a single day; and the Arab chieftains, overwhelmed by the Berber torrent, repeatedly retired to the confines of Egypt, and appealed for succor from the caliph.

The same rebellious Berber spirit was revived under the tyranny of Musa, the successor of Hassan; it was finally quelled by the repeated waves of bloodletting by Musa and his two sons; but the number of the rebels may be presumed from that of three hundred thousand Berber captives; sixty thousand of whom, the caliph's fifth, were sold for the profit of the public treasury. Thirty thousand of the Berber youth were forcibly conscripted in to the Muslim army to be used for the invasion of Spain.

In their climate and government, their diet and habitation, the wandering Berbers resembled the Arabs of the desert. And gradually the Berbers, accepted Islam and with the religion they also accepted the Arabic as a second language, Arabic names, and also the history of Arabs. This way the blood of the Arab strangers and Berber natives was insensibly mingled; and the impression was created that from the Euphrates to the Atlantic the same nation was diffused over the sandy plains of Asia and Africa.

Yet in spite of this dissolution of Berber identity in that of the Arabs, some of the Berber tribes still retain their original language, with the appellation and character of White Africans. (Gibbon, v. 2, p. 279-280)


A Berber male. In spite of being Arabized the Berbers, have retained their original African ethnicity. The tradition of painting their faces is one such element. This is not prevalent among the Arabs.


After the defeat of the Berbers, the ancient polytheistic religions of North Africa disappeared. Most Berbers became Muslims (with a persistent taste for heresy). Many Berbers became Arabic-speakers; while some retained their own languages to be spoken in the privacy of their homes. Berbers were prominent among the Muslim conquerors of Spain. Christianity almost disappeared in North Africa west of Egypt. The Jews were more stubborn and persisted in a few areas, especially in the Atlas Mountains.

The Jewish presence in North Africa was revived by a tragedy in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. After the completion of the Christian Reconquest of Spain in 1492, the Inquisition gave the Muslims and Jews of Spain the alternatives of conversion to Catholicism or expulsion. Large numbers of Spanish Jews, as well as most Spanish Muslims, immigrated to Africa.


A tombstone from Carthage with the symbol of the pre-Islamic Berber goddess Tanit.

The goddess Tanit was brought to Africa by the Phoenicians, in about 800 BC. Tanit was a moon goddess, maybe the same as Ishtar or Astarte. She also seems to have absorbed an older Berber goddess. People thought of Tanit as being married to another Phoenician god, Baal. Tanit's symbol appears on gravestones and temples all over North Africa, not just during the Carthaginian period but all through the Roman Empire too, until most people converted to Islam about 700 AD. Then Tanit faded away.


Another dramatic foreign event ended the long Jewish presence in North Africa. The establishment of Israel in 1948 caused a rise in active anti-Semitism in North Africa. This, combined with the retreat of European colonialism and the independence of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and finally Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, led to a mass emigration of Jews. For the first time in about 2000 years, North Africa had almost no Jews.

Today even ruins associated with Jews can be a magnet for violence in North Africa. On April 11, 2002 a truck bomb loaded with fuel exploded outside an ancient, abandoned synagogue on the tourist island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia. Besides the suicide bomber, twenty people were killed, most of them German tourists. German investigators said the attack was the work of al-Qaida.

The Algerian civil war was in a way a Berber-Arab war

The Berbers are still a major presence in North Africa and are still often at odds with their rulers. An Associated Press article published June 1, 2002 ("Algerian prime minister's party wins election majority") reported that Berbers are about one-third of Algeria's population and that about sixty people had been killed in riots between Berbers and police in the Kabyle region in 2001 and early 2002.

Most North African Jews went to Israel, where they are a significant part of the population and the armed forces. Memories are long in the Middle East. Perhaps some Israelis from North Africa consider Israel's victories a long-delayed revenge for the Arab conquest of the Berbers and the death of Kahina .


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