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The Spread of Islam in North Africa

Map of the Spread of Islam in North Africa

Islam's Entrance Into Egypt

Islam came to Africa from the Arabs of Syria and Arabia. The invading Arab forces invaded Egypt against Byzantine rule. The Byzantine Church had declared the native Coptic Egyptians heretical and sought to replace it with their own imperial church. The Byzantine rulers sought to exploit the land and the people of Egypt for their own wealth and profit. Thus when ‘Amr ibn al-‘As invaded Egypt, whose population at the time was around 15 million, with a band of no more than 12,000 men he was able to have success because the vast majority of native Egyptians welcomed him in his attack of the hated Byzantines.

Amr had success against the Byzantines and soon made an alliance with the Coptic Patriarch against the Byzantines. Amr would drive out the Byzantines, and the Egyptians would pay an annual tax of 2 dinars per adult male and a tax against the produce of the land to the Arabs. The Arabs agreed to not interfere with the religion, church, property or land of the native Egyptians.
Soon the Arab administration was drawing 12 million dinars a year, moved the capital of the fiefdom to Cairo and away from Alexandria and its proximity to the Byzantine navy. The Arabs contented themselves with their cash flows and didn't seek to increase revenue further in order not to create unrest among the Coptic peoples.

As Egypt continued to be profitable more and more Arabs migrated to the country. Due to the Arabs increasing the amount of irrigated land, Egypt was able to accommodate the influx of Arabs well, and did not seek to dispossess the Copts from their land. They also didn't actively seek to convert the Coptics as this would decrease their revenue from taxes. But, as Egyptians became closer related to the Arabs, as wives, servants, employees, they began to adopt their masters' religion. By 750AD there would be only an estimated five million Coptic Christians. The majority of the population had become Malawi, assimilated Muslims.1

Westward Raids

When Abdullah b Sa'ad became governor of Egypt, he began to send raiding parties into the west. These raids proved to be lucrative and were the impetus of a campaign for conquest in North Africa.2 At that time, North Africa was under nominal Byzantine control.

Byzantines controlled some important port cities, but much of North Africa was still controlled by independent Berber tribes. Abdulla b Sa'ad sought permission to undertake a jihad against North Africa. Forces were sent from Medina to join the Egyptian forces in the jihad.
This Muslim army, focused on Byzantine strongholds, and marched on Tripoli and succeeded. From there, they marched to Subetula, home of the North African Byzantine ruler Gregory. During the battle at Subetula (648 AD), Gregory was slain and the town won by the Muslims.3

The North Africans there signed a peace treaty with the Muslims in which, a tribute was paid to the Muslims and North Africa became a vassal state. The Muslim armies, satisfied with their treasures, withdrew from the region.  

Focusing on the Berbers

In 660, the Arabs began to undertake more campaigns into North Africa. These were met with moderate successes and focused against the remaining Byzantine settlements in North Africa, but they were unable to drive the Byzantines out of North Africa completely.

In one of these campaigns, ‘Uqba b. Nafi launched a campaign focused on Berbers instead of the Byzantines. ‘Uqba's army was composed of tribesmen from Egypt and Muslim Berber converts. His intention was to conquer the Berbers and then use them to attack the Byzantines at Carthage.

While he did not take Carthage, he was able to succeed in taking more land for the Arabs, and founded al-Qayrawan which was to become a permanent Arab garrison in North Africa to exercise continued control over the Berbers and be a center for further spreading Islam among the Berbers.4

Expansion, Subjection, & Assimilation

At the founding of al-Qayrawan, many Berbers moved away from the Arab presence in the region. The next round of conquests against the Berbers was led by Muslim leader Abu al-Muhajir. He staged a conquest on a prominent Berber tribe and succeed in conquering the tribe and converting the leader. As terms of the post-war settlement, Al-Muhajir offered the conquered Berbers treatment in society equal to Arab Muslims. He thus began to assimilate these conquered Berbers into society. These Berbers viewed the Arabs as allies. Al-Muhajir, for his part, realized that Egyptian Arab forces were too small to control North Africa and that they must work in partnership with the Berbers to control the land.

From their al-Muhajir staged an attack on Carthage, but was unable to subdue the city. This led to his removal as leader of the army. ‘Uqba b. Nafi was appointed as leader in the place of al-Muhajir, and he returned to his original Berber policy of conquering and subjection, not assimilation.

‘Uqba carried out a deep march in the Maghreb trying to subdue the various Berber tribes. He reached Tangier, and began to work southward, battling Berber tribes all the way to Agadir. He was finally killed in battle by the Berbers near the Auras Mountains.
With the defeat of ‘Uqba the Arabs had to flee their stronghold in al-Qayrawan.

The next campaign was undertaken by Hassan and with a plan to assimilate the Berbers into Islamic society. Hassan founded Tunis. With the plan of assimilation, and the fact that Muslim Berber converts were given equal reward from any conquests in the same measure as their Arab counterparts, the Muslim army in North Africa became stocked with Berbers and succeeded in continuing to subdue North Africa for Muslim rule.5

Traditional Berber society remained, except for a seemingly rapid acceptance of Islam. The idea of monotheism had already been introduced to the Berbers by centuries of contact with Christians and Jews. The Berbers adopted the basic tenets of Islam, but seemed to mix them freely with their own traditional beliefs in spirits, shrines, and saints. The opportunity for imperial advanced was appealing to them as well. "These Berber on their frontiers had accepted Islam, but this did not involve any desire to accept the authority of an imperial government. They chose rather to look in Islam for concepts which might be used to strengthen and justify their local particularisms."6

The Muslim armies that climbed into Spain and moved toward France were as much Berber as they were Arab.

Broken Unity

By 711, the unity of the Islamic nation began to falter. The ruling Arabs had seen their revenues decrease dramatically as more native North Africans became Muslims, for they were not subject to the same taxes. At that point, the ruling dynasty claimed that it was the land, not the person who farmed it, from whom the tax was due. Thus, if a non-Arab became a Muslim they were still subject to the same taxes.

This created a rift in the society because the ruling Arabs could not give the Malawi equal status in society, which was their due as Muslims, without destroying their revenue base. And, if they did not give them equal status, then the Arabs would soon be viewed, like the Byzantines, as ruling aristocracy of foreign conquerors. This situation combined with the continued influx of Arabs into North Africa, who were also looking for land and prosperity created quite a division.

Soon North Africa was a divided band of competing Muslim states.7

Sources & Recommended Resources

Map of the Expansion of Islam

1- A History of Africa, by Fage and Tordoff, pg 143-157.

2- The Encyclopedia of Islam,by Ahmed and Syed, pg 39-43

3- The Encyclopedia of Islam,by Ahmed and Syed, pg 39-43

4- A History of the Maghreb in the Islamic Period, by Abun-Nasr, pg 27-75

5- The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of Spain and North Africa, by Taha, pg 56-83.

6- A History of Africa, by Fage and Tordoff, pg 143-157.

7- A History of the Maghreb in the Islamic Period, by Abun-Nasr, pg 27-75

Other Helpful Resources

Chronology of Islam 

History of Islam

Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz (available on Amazon)

Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair (available on Amazon)