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North Africa

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    North Africa

    Islam spread rapidly across North Africa in the years following Muhammad's death. After conquering Egypt in 642 , Arab armies swept westward into lands inhabited by Berber tribes. Arabs called this region, which encompasses present-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, the Bilad al-Maghrib, or “Land of Sunset.” By 705 Muslim armies had incorporated the Maghrib into the Muslim empire. Within several centuries, the region's native population converted to Islam and adopted many elements of Arab culture.

    A Winning Strategy.

    Home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire during the 600s. Its diverse population included thriving Jewish and Coptic Christian communities. The fertile lands along the Nile River provided abundant agricultural products, and the city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, served as an important seaport.

    With the growth of Islam, Muslims turned their attention to economic and political ventures in lands beyond the Arabian Peninsula. During the 630s, they attacked Byzantine and Persian cities in the north. Although Muslim armies captured key cities in Syria and Palestine, they worried that the Byzantines could launch a counterattack on Syria from their base in Egypt. To prevent this from occurring, Arab forces invaded Egypt in 639 . Amr ibn al-As, an Arab general who had visited Alexandria as a child and knew of Egypt's great wealth, led an army of about 4,000 men into Egyptian territory. By 642 , with the help of military reinforcements, these troops defeated the Byzantines and forced them to withdraw from Egypt. The Byzantine navy launched an attack on Alexandria in 645 , but Muslim forces quickly suppressed it.

    The Arab conquerors built a new fortified town called Fustat (later Cairo) on the banks of the Nile. Its Amr ibn al-As mosque served as a religious and administrative center. But for many years, Fustat was the only town in Egypt with an Arab majority, and Islam took root in the country slowly. In accordance with Islamic law, Muslim leaders extended legal protections to Jews and Christians living under their rule. The Arabs actually discouraged conversion to Islam, because they collected taxes (jizyah) from non-Muslims. When local people eventually converted, the governors required them to continue paying the tax.

    Egypt's tax revenues and grain harvests enriched the Arab rulers. The strategic location of the province also facilitated the expansion of the Muslim empire. During the mid-600s, Egyptian and Syrian fleets launched a series of attacks on the islands of Rhodes, Cyprus, and Sicily. These combined forces defeated the Byzantine fleet in a decisive battle at the Mediterranean port of Phoenix in 655 . From their base in Egypt, Arab troops also expanded westward into Berber territory and southward along the Nile into East Africa.

    Early Victories.

    Around 1100 B.C.E. , Phoenician traders established settlements around North Africa as they made their way to Spain in search of silver and tin. They founded the city of Carthage (in what is now Tunisia) in 814 B.C.E. The Romans conquered the area in 146 B.C.E. , and by the early 500s C.E., North Africa was under Byzantine control.

    Beginning in the 640s, Muslim armies raided the lands west of Egypt. They did not attempt to formally establish Arab rule, however, until the rise of the Umayyad caliphate in the 660s. Umayyad rulers realized that their empire would never be secure from Byzantine invasion unless they brought the Maghrib under their control. In 670 Arab army commander Uqbah ibn Nafi led his troops into Tunisia. He established the fortified city of al-Qayrawan, which became the first center of Arab rule in the region and replaced Fustat as the base for further expansion in North Africa.

    Venturing west of Tunisia, Arab armies encountered resistance from the Berber population. Abu al-Muhajir Dinar al-Ansari , who had assumed command of the Arab forces, was able to persuade the Berber king Kusaylah to accept Islam. Kusaylah presided over a group of tribes living in the area between northeastern Algeria and central Morocco. Because the king accepted the authority of the caliphate, he remained in power, and a period of peaceful relations followed. But in 681 , Uqbah resumed command, and within a year, Muslim armies swept westward across Algeria and into Morocco, imposing direct Arab rule throughout the region. Under Kusaylah's orders, a group of Berbers ambushed Uqbah on his way back to al-Qayrawan. He died near Biskra (in present-day Algeria), becoming a folk hero of the Muslim conquest of the Maghrib.

    The Arabs had no intention of yielding control of the Maghrib to the Berbers. In an effort to crush the rebellion, they sent two armies from Egypt to the region. Fierce resistance lasted for several years, but Arab armies eventually reoccupied al-Qayrawan. Moreover, they captured Carthage from the Byzantines. As a result of these victories and successful naval expeditions in the Mediterranean Sea, the Byzantines were forced to cede their remaining positions on the coast of North Africa. In 705 the Maghrib became an official part of the Umayyad caliphate.

    Restoring Order.

    Once conquered, the Berbers readily converted to Islam. They soon discovered, however, that Arab rulers had betrayed the ideals of the faith. Although Islam emphasizes the equality of believers and rejects the concept of privilege based on social class or race, the Arabs ruled as elites. They treated the Berbers as mawali (clients) instead of equals, paying Berber soldiers less than Arab warriors and requiring Berbers to supply slaves to the Arab ruling class.

    Frustrated by this mistreatment from fellow Muslims, the Berbers used Islamic teachings to justify rebellion. War broke out in 740 , when Berber fighters defeated the Arab army near Tangier, Morocco. By 742 the Berbers controlled all of Algeria and threatened al-Qayrawan. For the next two decades, fighting continued and power frequently changed hands. Finally, in 761 , the Abbasids, the new rulers of the caliphate, sent an army to the Maghrib to restore order and authority. Eventually the region was divided into four separate Muslim states ruled by dynasties, only one of which accepted the authority of the caliphate.

    Almoravids and Almohads.

    During the 1000s, Abd Allah Ibn Yasin , a Berber religious scholar from southern Morocco initiated a militant Islamic movement among a group of tribes in Mauritania. He and his followers, known as Almoravids, invaded Morocco in 1056 . Within the next 30 years, the Almoravids conquered most of the Maghrib, creating the first empire to unify the region under Berber Islamic rule. But their supremacy did not endure. In 1147 the Almohads, another group of Berber tribes, toppled the Almoravids. By the mid-1200s, however, the Almohad empire had begun to disintegrate and other Berber tribes seized power. The region remained politically unstable for the next several centuries. The Ottoman Turks extended their authority over Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan (the three historic regions that comprise modern-day Libya), the northern part of Algeria, and Tunisia. In the 1600s, the Alawi gained control in Morocco

    Facing the Challenges.

    Like other parts of the Islamic world, North Africa was profoundly affected by European imperialism. France invaded Algeria in 1830 , and after several decades of warfare, French forces gained control of the country. Tunisia fell to the French during the 1880s. In the early 1900s, France and Spain divided Morocco into protectorates. Italy conquered Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan in 1912 . Resistance to colonial rule strengthened the Muslim identity of these regions but also led to conflict between traditionalists and those who called for liberal reforms.

    Since achieving independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the countries of North Africa have faced significant political and social challenges, including poverty, corruption, ethnic conflicts, and civil war. Particularly in Algeria, civil war has been associated with the struggle for Islamic revival. As North Africa enters the twenty-first century, it will forge increasingly important ties with the global Muslim community as well as the non-Muslim societies of the developing continent. See also Algeria; Egypt; Libya; Morocco; Tunisia.

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