Islam Expands Throughout North Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The expansion of Islam beyond the Middle East came with the conquest and conversion of Berber tribes in North Africa by Muslim forces. This expansion influenced the cultural and intellectual shaping of both the Islamic world and the European world beginning in the Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

By the time of the Islamic conquests, most of interior of North Africa was either in the hands of or under the influence of powerful Berber Berbers tribes and tribal coalitions. It was these tribal bodies that controlled the massive trade networks that transported precious resources and products from sub-Saharan Africa to trade centers and commercial ports on the Mediterranean, most of which were controlled by the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire . [kw]Islam Expands Throughout North Africa (630-711) [kw]Africa, Islam Expands Throughout North (630-711) [kw]North Africa, Islam Expands Throughout (630-711) Africa;Islam and Islam;Africa Africa;630-711: Islam Expands Throughout North Africa[0340] Expansion and land acquisition;630-711: Islam Expands Throughout North Africa[0340] Religion;630-711: Islam Expands Throughout North Africa[0340] Trade and commerce;630-711: Islam Expands Throughout North Africa[0340] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;630-711: Islam Expands Throughout North Africa[0340] ՙAmr ibn al-ՙAṣ ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān ՙAbd Allāh ibn Saՙd ibn Abū Sarḥ Mu՚āwiyah I ՙUqbah ibn Nāfiՙ Abū al-Muhajir Kasila ՙAbd al-Malik (646-705) Mūsā ibn Nuṣayr Damia al-Kāhina Ḥassān

The Byzantines had regained control of such coastal cities as Carthage and Tripoli after having lost these to Vandal armies during the sixth century. After returning to North Africa, the Byzantines never managed to reestablish the kind of direct control over wide swaths of territory they had enjoyed in previous centuries. Instead, they depended upon their capacity to control certain crucial trade routes, sheltered in fortresses, and sought cooperation and exchange with the Berber tribes. Trade;Byzantine Empire

Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt Egypt;Muslim conquest of , which concluded with the Treaty of Alexandria Alexandria, Treaty of (642) in 642, ՙAmr ibn al-ՙAṣ ՙAmr ibn al-ՙAṣ (d. 663), the Muslim commander in Egypt, sought to protect his new holdings by countering the threat posed by Byzantine naval power in the Mediterranean. To do so, he deemed it necessary to launch a series of campaigns into the lands to the west (al-maghrib) of his Egyptian frontiers—the Maghreb Desert area in northwest Africa. He began by dispatching troops to Barka, the main city of the region of Cyrenaica (now in Libya). ՙAmr then continued along the coast, concluding treaties with some cities, and eventually taking Tripoli as the Byzantine defenders escaped by sea or down the coast to smaller cities.

In 645, ՙAmr was relieved of his duties in Egypt and north Africa. The caliph ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān (r. 644-656) appointed another governor over Egypt, ՙAbd Allāh ibn Saՙd ibn Abī Sarḥ ՙAbd Allāh ibn Saՙd ibn Abī Sarḥ . ՙUthmān’s policy as caliph called for continued expansion of Islam through the conquest of the territories of Iran and North Africa. When the Muslims took the field against Byzantine forces at ՙAqūba, Abī Sarḥ’s troops killed the Byzantine exarch Gregory and routed his army. When the alarmed Byzantines offered a reported tribute of 2.5 million dinars to the Muslims if they would withdraw from North Africa, Abī Sarḥ took the money and returned to Egypt.

Over the next thirteen years, the Arabs avoided open conflict with the Byzantines in North Africa but began building a navy to counter the Byzantine Mediterranean fleet. When the first Muslim civil war ended in 661, the new caliph, Mu՚āwiyah I Muՙāwiyah I (r. 661-680), returned to a policy of conquests on the frontiers of the Muslim world, and ՙAmr returned to Egypt as governor and began again the process of subjecting North Africa to Muslim rule.

The first expeditions in this project were intended to subdue the powerful Berber tribes, who were now less willing than before to submit to the Muslims because they now doubted that the Arab armies were capable of maintaining rule in the region after their long absence. After a series of early successes, ՙAmr died in 663 and his brother ՙUtba bin Abū Sufyān ՙUtba bin Abū Sufyān was put in command of Egypt and military operations in North Africa. For the next three years, raids were carried out against the Byzantines and Berber tribesmen, but no sustained effort toward definitive conquest of the region seems to have been undertaken.





Beginning in 666, the Muslim armies began a new series of raids under the leadership of ՙUqbah ibn Nāfiՙ ՙUqbah ibn Nāfiՙ (d. 683), a veteran of many campaigns in North Africa since the days of ՙAmr. ՙUqbah understood that subduing and converting the Berbers was key to control of the region. He then allied with the Berbers against the Byzantines and established a base at al-Qayrān, situated at a distance from the coast that was beyond the reach of Byzantine forces. The city he founded there was built by 675, but in that year he was suddenly dismissed from power. His replacement, Abū al-Muhajir Abū al-Muhajir , faced a growing alliance of Berber warriors under the command of a Christian leader.

Shortly after taking command in North Africa, Abū al-Muhajir defeated Kasila Kasila , who had previously been an ally of the Byzantines. Little is known about the battle itself, but in its wake, the defeated Kasila was treated equitably by Abū al-Muhajir, and the Berber chieftain converted and formed an alliance with the Muslims. Additionally, Abū al-Muhajir set in place a policy of converting and assimilating Berber tribesmen into the Muslim forces. He understood that the Arabs alone would never be numerous enough to conquer and maintain control over the entire region. His policy met with considerable initial success. In 678, he began operations against the Byzantines.

Abū al-Muhajir was by some accounts a converted former Coptic Christian. If this is true, his personal experience with conversion and assimilation into the Islamic community may have helped him understand the importance of the shift in policy with regard to the Berber tribes that his actions initiated. In any case, beginning with the period of Abū al-Muhajir’s command in North Africa, the conversion and assimilation of Berber tribesmen would facilitate the Islamic conquest of North Africa and would eventually shape the intellectual and cultural life of not only the Islamic world, but that of Western Europe as well.

Despite some successes against the Byzantines, Abū al-Muhajir was replaced in 681 by ՙUqbah. Upon retaking command, ՙUqbah set out on a long and hard-fought campaign against a combined Byzantine and Berber force. During his tenure, however, ՙUqbah rejected Abū al-Muhajir’s egalitarian policies with regard to the new Berber Muslims, a choice for which he was to pay a heavy price. The powerful recent convert Kasila eventually abandoned and then attacked ՙUqbah, finally killing him in battle near the fortress of Tahūda. The crushing defeat led the Arabs to partially and, in some cases, completely abandon their recently conquered territories in North Africa.

In 688, however, the Arabs were back. Kasila was soon killed in battle, but so was the new Muslim commander, Zuhayr bnu Qays al-Balawī Zuhayr bnu Qays al-Balawī . His death alarmed Caliph ՙAbd al-Malik ՙAbd al-Malik , who dispatched forty thousand troops to root out the Byzantine forces in North Africa. The commander of these troops was Ḥassān Ḥassān (Muslim commander) . Ḥassān was a tried and proven warrior and administrator, and in 695 he entered the Byzantine provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and took the strategic and commercial capital of Carthage.

A new leader had now arisen among the Berbers, however. She was Damia al-Kāhina Kāhina, Damia al- (the priestess or the soothsayer), a member of the Jarawa tribe, one of the leading tribes of the mighty Butr confederation. Al-Kāhina’s tribe had previously converted to some form of Judaism Judaism;Berbers and , and there is some evidence to suggest that she herself was either Christian or Jewish. She proved a formidable opponent for Ḥassān in the last stages of the conquest of North Africa. During the first clash, al-Kāhina routed Ḥassān’s forces and chased them back to the coast. Then she made a fatal mistake. Assuming that the Arabs were out on yet another raiding expedition, she ravaged the surrounding countryside so that there would be nothing for which the Arabs would return. These actions earned her the animosity of many Berber tribes, who invited the Arabs back and assisted them in their future campaigns.

When Ḥassān returned to the field, al-Kāhina was defeated and eventually killed after fleeing to the Aurès Mountains. Free to turn his attentions to the coast and the Byzantine contingents there, Ḥassān expelled the Byzantines again from Carthage, effectively ending the Byzantine presence in North Africa. To preserve his gains, Ḥassān re-adopted the policy of Abū al-Muhajir, treating defeated Berber tribesmen equitably, even generously, and sending missionaries among the tribes to seek converts. The newly converted tribesmen—among them the sons of al-Kāhina—were promised full and equal shares of all future conquests.

The next commander of North Africa, Mūsa ibn Nuṣayr Mūsa ibn Nuṣayr , found it necessary to continue Ḥassān’s policy as he attempted to consolidate Ḥassān’s achievements and bring North Africa under stable administration. Troops assisted in bringing the rest of North Africa under Muslim control, and they also participated in raiding expeditions outside of Africa. As Musa and his Berber allies subdued the remaining portions of North Africa, they met and slowly assimilated such powerful tribes as Kutama, Hawwara, Zanata, and Musmuda. Their practice was to invite these tribes to accept Islam, and if they refused, to attack and fight them stubbornly until they agreed to convert. On conversion, the tribes would contribute troops to the Arab armies and their native chiefs would be confirmed by the Muslim authorities. Increasingly, the Muslim army in North Africa was becoming mostly Berber rather than Arab.


Following the Muslim conquest of North Africa, the region would remain part of the larger Islamic world, and it continues to be a part of that world into the twenty-first century. The conquest of North Africa did not end the resistance of local peoples to foreign domination, however. Although the Berbers converted to Islam, they did not quietly join the growing Muslim empire. Instead, they frequently adopted strains of Islam that lent an Islamic aura to continued resistance, most notably within the Ibādi Khārijite community. However, the most profound impact of the conquest of North Africa may have been its sequel, the conquest of Iberia with the revival of Sunni Islam in the eleventh century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Emory C. Islam: Origin and Belief. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. A concise look at Islam and its expansion between 570 and 1517. Also includes discussion of Muḥammad and Islam’s beginnings. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Michael. “The Arab Conquest and the Rise of Islam in North Africa.” In The Cambridge History of Africa, edited by J. D. Fage. Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. One of the best analyses available of the conquests and their consequences, written by the field’s leading authority. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Michael. “The Islamisization of Morocco from the Arabs to the Almoravids.” Journal of the Society for Moroccan Studies 2 (1992): 57-71. A study of the process whereby North Africa developed a distinct Islamic character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jandora, John Walter. Militarism in Arab Society: An Historiographical and Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A detailed history of Arab military culture, with a discussion of Muՙāwiyah and his descendants and “Muslim warriors of medieval times.” Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenny, Joseph. The Spread of Islam Through North to West Africa, Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries: A Historical Survey with Relevant Arab Documents. Lagos, Nigeria: Dominican, 2000. Although this text might be difficult to locate, it is a valuable collection of Arab and other sources on the expansion of Islam into North and West Africa, beginning in the seventh century. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L. Pouwels, eds. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. A comprehensive examination of the history of Islam in Africa, including a chapter on the period immediately following the initial conquest in the seventh century. Introductory chapter looks at the “Patterns of Islamization and Varieties of Religious Experience Among Muslims of Africa.” Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mones, H. “The Conquest of North Africa and Berber Resistance.” In General History of Africa, edited by Ivan Hrbek. Vol. 3. Abridged ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. A study of the conquest that emphasizes the reasons and means of Berber resistance to Arabicization. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taha, Abdulwahid Dhanun. The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of North Africa and Spain. New York: Routledge, 1989. A narrative guide to the conquest and settlement. One of relatively few serious histories of this topic by a modern Arab scholar, a work that relies heavily on Arabic sources. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, William Montgomery. A Short History of Islam. Boston: Oneworld, 1996. Provides a concise history of Islamic expansionism, the formation of the caliphate, and the politics of Islam. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History