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The Berber Queen who defied the Caliphate: Al-Kahina and the Islamic Conquest of North Africa

By Adam Ali

Seventh-century North Africa would see the rise of a warrior queen named al-Kahina. Who was she and how was she able to wage a war against the Umayyad Caliphate?

After their unification under the banner of Islam and the rule of the caliphs in Medina, the Arabs embarked on a series of spectacular conquests during the 7th and 8th centuries. By the mid-8th century, they created an empire that encompassed the territories between the Iberian Peninsula in the west to Norther India and Central Asia in the East.

The level of resistance to the Arab invaders by the local populations in the conquered territories varied and depended on the region and its people. In some areas there was little to no resistance and some people even welcomed the invaders as they were more religiously tolerant than their former masters. It was primarily the elites that stood to lose in both the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires and it was they who fought the hardest against the Arabs. More often than not, they received little to no support from their subjects who often did not share their religion, language, or culture.

However, there were regions where the Arabs came up against very stiff opposition to their advance. In their westward push, they encountered the Berber tribes inhabiting North Africa. These tribes also had a long tradition of independence and autonomy and put up a tough fight against the invaders. One of the most notable figures to arise in this struggle was al-Kahina, a Berber queen who would go down in history as a ruler and warrior who refused to bend the knee to imperial conquerors and even drove them out of North Africa before being overwhelmed in the final encounter between her and her adversaries. Although al-Kahina is seldom mentioned in the history books, she stands on level ground with other great female warriors and rulers such as Boudica of the Iceni, Zenobia of Palmyra, Mavia of the Tanukhids, and Caterina Sforza; all of whom defied the expansion of the great powers of their eras into their domains.

The Mediterranean Sea region around the year 650 – image by Justinian43 /Wikimedia Commons

The Berbers

Before discussing the clash between al-Kahina and the Arabs, I will give an outline of the history of North Africa and its inhabitants up to the 8th century. The people inhabiting the area from the Egyptian Western frontier to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the great bend of the Niger have been and still are referred to as Berbers. The term “Berber” is a linguistic designation for the language (in all its various dialects) spoken by these people – before their Arabicisation. However, this designation to the inhabitants of North Africa is probably a contemptuous epithet given to them by outsiders; used in Greek (Barbaroi) and in Latin (Barbari) as well as in Arabic (Barbar, singular Barbari , pl. Barabir , Barabira), and does not constitute a national name, as some people maintain. The term “Amazigh” or “Amahagh” – meaning “free man” – is a more common self-designation among the Berbers. However, due to the lack of unity among the various tribes and groups the Berbers/Amazigh historically did not view themselves as a single united community and usually employed the names of their tribes when they referred to themselves or have otherwise more or less willingly accepted foreign designations.

There is no consensus regarding the origins of the Berbers and it is a question still being debated by scholars to this day. Various classical authors have either stated that they were autochthonous, or of oriental (i.e. eastern), or Aegean origin. The Arab writers usually consider them as coming from the east and state that they were either Canaanites or Ḥimyarites. Some modern scholars have stated that the Berbers are autochthonous, with an admixture of Asian blood, especially Phoenician. Other modern scholars have stated that the population of North Africa was originally very similar to that inhabiting the Northern Mediterranean and had mixed with other elements coming from the east, south, and perhaps the north, but they argue that this mixture may have occurred at a very remote period, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) to date the migrations and intermixing of the various groups.

The Berbers were divided into tribes that were often in conflict with one another. However, they were capable of uniting into confederations to fight off foreigners. These unions were short-lived and never lasted to the point where the Berbers were able to establish powerful states. North Africa was colonized by foreigners such as the Carthaginians/Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans and in some cases incorporated into their empires. However, these outsiders were only able to fully control the coastal regions. The Berbers of the hinterland remained independent and in control of their territories. Rome’s dominion of North Africa lasted until the 5th century. Despite the long period of Roman rule it was only some of the Berbers of the provinces of Africa and Numidia that became assimilated to imperial life. The Berbers of the mountainous regions, plateaus, and the Sahara remained autonomous and the only relation they had with Rome was through their payment of tribute and providing auxiliary soldiers.

The Berbers had a strong spirit of independence and they rebelled frequently against Rome, especially during times of crisis in the empire. One example is the war Tacfarinus of the Musulamii tribe waged on Rome. This conflict lasted from 15-24 (during the reign of Tiberius – r. 14-37) and the Romans suffered several humiliating defeats at the hands of the Musulamii and their tribal allies before they were finally defeated in 24. To further emphasize their independence from Rome, several Berber tribes adopted “heretical” creeds when they converted to Christianity such as Donatism. Thus the religious conflicts that plagued North Africa during the 4th century were also racial wars between the indigenous inhabitants of the region and the imperial colonists. Additionally, Berber hostility towards Rome facilitated the Vandal conquest of North Africa. However, even these Germanic conquerors had to constantly struggle against their native subjects. The Byzantines defeated the Vandals and reconquered North Africa, which they ruled for about one century (531-642). The local tribal chiefs constantly resisted and fought against the Byzantine governors. Byzantine authority was only fully established in the province of Africa (Tunisia) and the northern part of the province of Cyrenaica (Northeastern Algeria) and the coastal towns. The interior, with the exception of a few strongholds, was under the control of the various Berber tribes that were practically independent. This was the situation when the Muslims showed up on the scene in 647 just after their conquest of Egypt.

The Muslims entered North Africa through Egypt. In 639, the Muslim general Amr ibn al-‘As, led an army of about 4,000 tribesmen from the region of southern Hijaz and initiated the conquest of Egypt. He soon received reinforcements numbering another 12,000 men. Considering Egypt’s size and its population, the conquering army was quiet small. Amr defeated the main Byzantine army, numbering well over 20,000 men, at the Battle of Heliopolis in 640. He then proceeded to occupy Babylon in 641 and Alexandria in 642. The local Coptic population did not support their Byzantine overlords due to the persecution they had suffered at their hands for refusing to adopt the Chalcedonian creed. In fact, Egypt had been occupied from 619-629 by the Sassanians during the long war they had fought against their Byzantine rivals and during the Persian occupation the Copts were treated very benevolently by the Persians. When the Sassanians left, the Byzantines resumed persecuting the Copts.

When the Arabs arrived on the scene they also treated the Coptic peasantry with relative leniency. In fact, many Copts viewed them favorably as the Arabs allowed the Copts to select their own Coptic patriarch, rather than having a patriarch appointed by Constantinople who professed the Dyophysite Creed of the Greeks. The Copts were allowed to continue practicing their religion and had to pay a poll tax (the jizya) to their new Muslim rulers. However, this poll tax was carried over from previous taxation systems that had been practiced prior to the Muslim conquest in both Roman and Persian territories. For example, after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, all non-Christians were required to pay a poll tax. After conquering Egypt Amr moved west to secure the frontier and clear the regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan of Byzantine presence. These operations brought the Muslims into contact with North Africa and the Berber population inhabiting this region.

Uqba ibn Nafi’

Uqba ibn Nafi’ was one of the most prominent Muslim commanders during the early phases of the conquest of North Africa. He was a nephew of Amr ibn al-‘As and had accompanied his uncle in his first raid against North Africa in 642. Amr reached Barqa and dispatched Uqba with a contingent to Zawila, the capital of Fezzan at the time, to the south (in modern day south western Libya). These early operations were primarily raids for booty and slaves, but Barqa and the easternmost parts of North Africa fell into the hands of the Arabs. This area was called Ifriqiya and roughly corresponded to the Roman province of Africa and comprised parts of Tunisia and north western Libya. Uqba also took part in the campaign of another Muslim general, Abd Allah ibn Abi Sarh, against the Byzantine exarch, Gregorius, which is dated around 646-648. Prior to his death in 663, Amr gave Uqba command of the territories west of Egypt.

A statue of Uqba ibn Nafi in Algeria – photo by Al hilali al sulaymi / Wikimedia Commons

In 670, Uqba founded a new garrison town, Qayrawan, in the central plain of Tunisia. Like other garrison towns that were established in conquered territories such as Fustat in Egypt, and Basra and Kufa in Iraq, Qayrawan served as a settlement where the Muslims could concentrate their strength and preserve their identity, as they were a small minority for the first few centuries of Islam in much of the caliphate. In North Africa, unlike in the eastern caliphate, several Berber tribes quickly converted to Islam and joined the Arabs in the conquest and subjugation of the other tribes. This new pool of manpower was much needed because the Byzantine and Iranian frontiers tied down much of the caliphate’s military manpower and the North African front received fewer reinforcements then the others. The primary resistance to the Arab advance in North Africa came from the coastal cities that were still under Byzantine imperial rule and the Afariqa or Romanized Berbers, who inhabited the coastal regions and the areas near these imperial centers.

In 673, the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, dismissed Uqba from his position as the governor of Ifriqiya. The caliph may have wished to keep the province as a dependency of Egypt and also may have had apprehensions regarding Uqba’s growing power in the region and the possibility that he may attempt to create an independent principality for himself. The new governor, Abu al-Muhajir, imprisoned Uqba and launched new raids into what is now Algeria. He defeated the powerful Berber chief of the Awraba tribe, Kusayla, and instead of humiliating him and his followers sought an alliance with him against the Afariqa and the Byzantines.

After Muwaiya’s death in 680, the new caliph, Yazid, reinstated Uqba to his former position. In an act of vengeance, Uqba arrested Abu al-Muhajir and Kusayla and put them in chains and dragged them along with him wherever he went. In 681 Uqba planned and led the largest campaign into the west to date. His expedition, according to some sources, took him all the way to the Atlantic coast. Uqba demonstrated his military genius in this campaign. His army swept westward defeating Berber and Byzantine forces at the Zab and Tahart and reaching and capturing Tangier. He then marched south into Morocco capturing several regions before crossing the Atlas Mountains and arriving at the Atlantic coast. He forced his defeated foes to pay tribute and gathered huge quantities of spoils and slaves.

Despite these successes Uqba’s campaign was little more than a grand raid and did little to permanently secure and incorporate the defeated regions and peoples into the caliphate. Uqba turned his army around and headed back to Qayrawan. He stopped at Tubna in the Central Maghrib and for unknown reasons he divided his forces and sent them back to Qayrawan in separate groups. In the meantime, Kusayla had escaped captivity and joined forces with the remaining Byzantines. When Uqba left Tubna with a small contingent, he was ambushed by Kusayla and a joint Berber-Byzantine army. The Arabs, heavily outnumbered, were overwhelmed and Uqba and his companions all died in the battle. With Uqba’s death the Muslims temporarily withdrew from Ifriqiya and Kusayla took Qayrawan, which became the capital of a large Berber kingdom ruled by him.

Panorama of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, in Tunisia. This mosque, also called the Mosque of Uqba, extends over a surface area of 9,000 square metres. Founded in 670 AD by the Arab general and conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi, it dates, in its present form, from the 9th century. Photo by MAREK SZAREJKO / Wikimedia Commons

Kusayla’s Berber kingdom was to be short-lived. In 688 a strong army under the command of Zuhayr ibn Qays al-Balawi once again marched into North Africa in 688. Kusayla chose to abandon his capital and to face the invading Arabs at Mams, a mountainous region 50 km to the west of Qayrawan. Kusayla hope to use the mountains to his advantage and as an avenue of retreat if the battle turned against him. After a hard fought and bloody battle Kusayla’s army was defeated. Kusayla died fighting and his dreams of founding a Berber empire in North Africa died with him. The losses on both sides were so heavy that the victorious Muslim forces once again evacuated Ifriqiya. In the meantime, the Byzantines had landed an army at Barqa, perhaps hoping to carry out a coordinated attack on the Muslims armies with Kusayla. This joint operation failed due to miscommunication. However, the Byzantines were able to catch Zuhayr off guard. He and 70 of his men died bravely fighting off a much larger Byzantine force at Barqa before the rest of the army could come to its commander’s aid. The remaining Arab forces, tired, depleted, and demoralized continued their withdrawal to the east.

Who was al-Kahina?

Four years passed before the caliphate could renew its offensive in North Africa. The Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) could not spare the men and resources for a new expedition due to several urgent matters and crises that plagued his domains closer to home. Abd al-Malik appointed Hassan ibn al-Numan as the new governor and commander of the caliphate on the North African front. Hassan ibn al-Numan was given the revenues of Egypt in their entirety to raise and equip a large army to permanently conquer North Africa. His first objective was to eliminate Byzantine presence in the region. After retaking Qayrawan, he attacked and occupied Carthage. He destroyed the city’s port to prevent the Byzantine navy from utilizing it to reinforce and resupply it. After occupying Carthage, Hassan sent detachments to fight and expel the last remnants of the Byzantines in the region. Most of the surviving Byzantines fled north to the Islands of the Mediterranean, primarily Sicily.

Al-Kahina enters the scene at this point. She took up the mantle of resistance against Hassan and his army after Kusayla’s death and the expulsion of the Byzantines from North Africa. In fact, Hassan had believed that he had accomplished his military task after defeating the Byzantines and had returned to Qayrawan. He rebuilt the city’s great mosque using more durable materials than the original construction. He is also credited with setting up Ifriqiya’s first efficient administration and with building the arsenal (Dar al-sina‘a) at Tunis. He also set up administrative policies that allowed for the incorporation and assimilation of the Berbers and ensured their cooperation and loyalty, a policy that his successor, Musa ibn Nusayr, would continue which would result in the complete conquest of North Africa by 710. Hassan received surprising news in Qayrawan that a woman, al-Kahina, had gathered a large force of Berbers and proclaimed that she would expel the Arabs from Ifriqiya.

Berber woman by Émile Vernet-Lecomte (1821–1900)

So who was al-Kahina? It is difficult to get a clear picture of her true personality, which was certainly very complex. The sources that mention her are so steeped in legend that one can only get a distorted image of this impressive woman. Even her real name is a point of debate. Al-Kahina is the name given to her by the Arabs and means: “sorceress,” “seeress,” “prophetess,” or “priestess.” After the death of Kusayla and the collapse of Byzantine power in the region she became the leader and guiding spirit of Berber resistance to the Arabs under the command of Hassan ibn Numan. Some say her real name was Dihya and ibn Khaldun mentions several variants of it including: Dahya, Dahiya, Damya, and Damiya – according to him these were also variant for the name of a Berber tribe.

Her descent is also uncertain. The sources state that she was the daughter of Tatit, or of Matiya (Matthias, Matthew) son of Tifan (Theophanus). This may mean that she was a Berber of mixed blood and thus explains her authority over the few remaining Byzantines in her domains in addition to her Berber followers. She had two sons from two fathers: one Berber and the other Greek. Several Berber tribes in her domains, including her own Djawara tribe (a subgroup of the Zanata), had initially converted to Judaism, but by al-Kahina’s reign they had become Christian. Al-Kahina was a prophetess and practiced divination. According to the Arab chronicles, she was an ecstatic who became gripped with violent excitement when she was received her prophetic inspiration. In those moments, she beat her breasts and let her hair abundant stream out, which stood on end. At the time of her challenge to the Arabs, al-Kahina was a widow and probably a very old woman. Ibn Khaldun claims that at her death she was 127 years old, though this is most probably an exaggeration and a part of her “legend.”

Kusayla had been al-Kahina’s rival leading an enemy tribe, the Sanhadja. She had watched with consternation as his domains grew and came to border her own realm, which was centered on the Aures Mountains. When the Arabs defeated the Sanhadja and reached the boundaries of her domains she decided to act and push them back. She united all the Zanata tribes and marched out to face Hassan and his forces. Prior to launching her attack on Hassan, al-Kahina demolished the town of Baghaya to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Arabs, who could have used it as a staging point for attacks on the Aures. The two armies met in 696 on the banks of the Meskiana River or Oued Nini River (or probably somewhere in between the two rivers/streams – there are towns in Algeria today with these names both about 15km south of Ain-Beida). Hassan suffered a disastrous defeat at this battle. So fierce was the first Berber charge that it dislodged his troops from their positions and drove them back. The Arabs left hundreds of dead and wounded behind as well as 80 prisoners. The defeat was so severe that the Arab chronicles have called this site of this battle the river/wadi of disaster/trials (wadi al-balaa’). Hassan was defeated again in the area of Gabes and once again the Arabs were driven out of Ifriqiya. Satisfied with her accomplishments, al-Kahina withdrew to her own territories instead of marching on Qawrayan. Hassan was commanded to halt his retreat near Barqa to the east of Tripoli. He established a camp, Qusur Hassan, and regrouped his forces and waited there patiently for the right moment to strike.

After her victory, al-Kahina’s expanded her domains. She occupied large parts of Ifriqiya, but not all of North Africa as some sources claim. She treated her prisoners well and as is customary in many tribal societies, she adopted one of them, Khalid ibn Yazid, as a son. She may have also had political objectives for doing this. By adopting one of the Arab prisoners she may have hoped to establish relations with the Muslims and to prevent further incursions into her domains.

The failure of the policy to dissuade Hassan from renewing his attacks and the misguided assumption that the Arabs were there only there for plunder led al-Kahina to implement a scorched earth policy. She devastated large areas of her domains. This policy caused a rift in the ranks of al-Kahina’s followers who were unhappy with the destruction of their properties and the devastation of their lands; especially disaffected were her sedentary subjects, the farmers, townspeople, and merchants, who relied on the land and agriculture for their livelihood. Many of these people either fled the region or begged Hassan to intervene.

This was the moment that Hassan had been waiting for. The Arab commander had kept himself well-informed regarding the happenings in al-Kahina’s realm. In 697-699 (chronology unclear in the sources) he once again marched into Ifriqiya with his army which had received reinforcements from the caliph and also contained large groups of Berbers who opposed al-Kahina’s policies. This was the largest Muslim army to march into Ifriqiya to date and according to some reports the Berber contingent alone numbered 24,000 men. As he marched into Ifriqiya many of the locals hailed him as a liberator and threw open the gates of towns and cities to his forces.

Al-Kahina’s weakened and demoralized army met Hassan’s forces at Gabes, where they were defeated. It was after this defeat that al-Kahina commanded her sons to defect to the Arab side. Hassan welcomed al-Kahina’s sons into his army and made them officers (and in a sense also adopting them into the Islamic fold – the Arabs like the Berbers were a tribal society that often adopted prisoners and defectors into their tribes). Al-Kahina was attempting to flee to the Aures Mountains, her stronghold and the center of her power, when Hassan’s forces caught up with her and forced a battle. The final battle took place in 701 in a place called Tarfa or Tabarka (depending on the chronicle) – around 50 km north of Tabna on the border region between Tunisia and Libya. Al-Kahina’s army was crushed in this battle and she died in the fight. According to legend she perished near a well, which to this day carries her name, Bir al-Kahina. After this defeat the Berbers of the Aures Mountains asked the Arabs for amnesty, which they were granted. 12,000 of them joined the Arab army, converted to Islam, and were put under the command of al-Kahina’s sons, who would play a role in the subjugation of the rest of North Africa and the Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711.

Al-Kahina’s defeat spelled the end of large scale Berber resistance to the advance of the armies of the caliphate, which by now contained as many Berbers (if not more) as Arabs. Hassan ibn Numan was recalled by the caliph and replaced with his protégé, Musa ibn Nusayr. Musa continued the policies of his predecessor of taking a reconciliatory attitude towards the Berbers and incorporating them into the Muslim armies and domains and allowing them shares in the spoils of war. By 710, less than a decade after al-Kahina’s defeat, all of North Africa was firmly under the control of the Umayyad Caliphate. The following year, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, the Berber commander, would lead an army of 12,000 men, mostly Berbers, across the Strait of Gibraltar (named after him – Jabal Tariq) to defeat the Visigoths and conquer all the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of its mountainous northern regions.

Al-Kahina, despite her final defeat, has gone down in history as a legendary queen, prophetess, and warrior. She has been adopted as a symbol Berber pride by Berber nationalists, North African feminists, and against colonizing foreigners. One can imagine her at the head of her army, hair in the wind, sword in hand, inspiring her followers with the power of her charisma and ecstatic prophecies and urging them to fight on.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Top Image: Statue of al-Kahina / Dyhia in Algeria – Wikimedia Commons

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