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Lesson Plan:
The History of North Africa (The Maghreb)

Allen Fromherz
Associate Professor
Georgia State University


Students may come to class with little awareness of the diversity and distinctness of the North African Maghreb (the Islamic West, or 'land of the setting sun'), both in terms of its relationship to Islamic heartlands in the East (the Mashriq) and in terms of its relationship to the larger, African continent to the South. It will be common for misconceptions to emerge during discussions of race, skin color, ethnicity, and religion. Students may also be justifiably confused by the ambiguous place of North Africa in the discipline itself: North Africa can be taught both within the context of African History and Near Eastern History. This course will show that North Africa is a vibrant region connected simultaneously to the Mediterranean, to the East, and, through the Sahara, to the rest of Africa. The period covered by the course includes pre-Islamic North Africa up to and including the colonial period.

Scope and Sequence

This course could be taught in full over a semester or it could be condensed into a two week or two month section. If the latter option is chosen, it may be possible to delete some of the reading requirements.


This lesson plan seeks to:

  1. 1. Provide an opportunity for students to understand the diverse and distinct manifestations of Islamic and non-Islamic religious identities and histories in North Africa.
  2. 2. Demonstrate the key role of historical geography in shaping the history of North Africa, both in terms of its relationship with the Mediterranean to the North and Saharan trade to the South. In this way, the course will show the wider relevance of North Africa to world history.
  3. 3. Encourage discussion of what is meant by ethnic and political categories such as 'Berber' and 'Arab' and how these categories have been shaped not only through primary sources but also through their interpretation in colonial and post-colonial historiography.
  4. 4. Provide students with a chronological framework and understanding of key events with which they can engage critically.
  5. 5. Encourage awareness of historiography, especially through the work of the famed Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406).

The lesson plan is thematic and loosely chronological. Even as the plan provides a historical framework, it also focuses on key events and sources as case studies. This is to avoid overwhelming students with excessive historical detail and chronological complexity.

I. Orientation to the Maghreb

Suggested Activities

The first activity should be a general orientation to the Maghreb. The extreme geographic diversity of the region should be emphasized. Students may come into the class thinking that the environment is primarily desert or barren. Photographs and imagery of the great agricultural plains of Morocco and the breadbasket of Northern Tunisia should dispel these misconceptions. Give a geography quiz that highlights the main cities, mountain ranges, deserts, bodies of water, etc. Students could also read Ibn Khaldun's description of geographical zones and discuss his views on race and geography.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Divide the class between desert, mountain, and city groups. Ask students to consider and discuss what their lives would be like in these different settings. How does geography shape the efforts and needs of each group? Where might there be conflict and accommodation? In what ways might these divisions NOT necessarily determine the way people act?
  2. 2. Might scholars overemphasize geography for regions that are not as well studied? What happens when historical sources are difficult, few, or missing?
  3. 3. What might have been the motivations or reasons for Ibn Khaldun to divide the world into climatic zones? Why does he claim that the horizontal zone of North Africa and the Middle East provides an ideal balance for civilization?
  4. 4. What are Ibn Khaldun's views on geography and slavery? Are justifications for slavery always racially based or can they be geographical? Why? What do Ibn Khaldun's ideas on slavery tell us about his worldview? How do they contrast with the views of al-Jahiz?
  5. 5. What does Abdun Nasr mean by the "centripetal and centrifugal forces" in Maghrebi history?


Primary sources:

Cornell, Vincent. The Book of the Glory of the Black Race: al-Jahiz's Kitab Fakhr as-Sudan 'ala al-Bidan. Waddington, The Phyllis Preston Collection, 1981. 65 pp.

Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah, ed. NJ Dawood (Abridged edition). Princeton University Press, 1989. "The Parts of the Earth Where Civilization is Found," pp. 45-65.

Secondary sources:

Abun-Nasr, Jamil M.. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge University Press, 1987. "Maghreb: Land and People," pp. 1-26.

Laroui, 'Abdallah. The History of the Maghreb: An Interpretive Essay. ACLS Humanities E-Book, 2008. "Introduction."

Naylor, Philip. North Africa: A History from Antiquity to Present. University of Texas Press, 2010. "Introduction."

II. Pre-Islamic North Africa

The period before the coming of Islam was dominated by a thriving Roman culture on the coasts, a culture inherited not only by "barbarian" Vandal invaders but also by Berber chieftains and cheiftesses such as Tin-Hinan, the "desert queen." The Berbers continue to have a central role to play in the history of North Africa. Students will realize over time differences in gender roles and identities between Berbers and Arabs, as well as connections, intermarriages, and interactions. Students can be asked to think of how the interactions between the Romans and the Berbers, and the Arabs and the Berbers, have changed over time. The "desert queen" Tin Hinan and her Roman funerary remains are a useful exemplar of both the mythical and archaeological aspects of the history of the Berbers.


Divide students into groups. Ask students in each group to choose an archaeological site mentioned in The Berbers (Brett and Fentress). What is currently known about the site? How does it contribute to the historical narrative? What might the site and its archaeology NOT be able to reveal?

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Who was Tin-Hinan? What may have compelled her to be buried with Roman treasure?
  2. 2. What explains the acculturation of Berber chiefs to Roman imperial ideals, even after the decline of the Empire?
  3. 3. What were the fundamental weaknesses of late Roman society and economy?
  4. 4. How have modern views of the Roman past justified colonialism?
  5. 5. Show an image from the Bardo collection of Mosaics. What can historians learn from the intricate mosaic collections of North Africa? What might the owners of the homes of these mosaics have wanted to communicate about their Roman identity?


Abed, Ben Aicha. Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa. Getty Conservation Institute, 2006. [The Bardo collection of mosaics from Tunisia is mindboggling to witness in person. This book brings together images form the Bardo as well as more recent excavations. There are frequent, new discoveries of ancient mosaics in the rich olive plantations of the Tunisian hinterland.]

Brett, Michael and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Blackwell, 1997. "Berbers in Antiquity" and "The Empire and the Other," pp. 10-79.

Hannoum, Abdelmajid. "The Historiographic State: How Algeria Once Became French." History and Anthropology, vol 19, 2008, pp. 91-114. [Known for his critiques of classic, colonial histories of North Africa, Hannoum examines the problematic construction of a legendary Franco-Roman-Berber past in North Africa.]

III. The Coming of Islam

This unit is an opportunity to discuss the process of "acculturation": the adaptation of two different cultures, languages, and ethnicities (Berbers and Arabs) to their mutual presence. The rise of Islam profoundly influenced the Berber inhabitants of North Africa even as it focused trade and commerce inland. Eventually, large migrations of Arab speaking peoples (Banu Hilal) would have a major impact on the region.


Once they have read Brett's 1992 article, "The Islamisation of Morocco: From the Arabs to the Almoravids," students can be asked to grapple with how and why Islam spread through North Africa despite the heightened tensions between Berbers and Arabs. This is also an opportunity for discussion of the sources. Almost all of the relevant sources about the conquest are in Arabic and often paint a particular view of the Berber people, including their legendary leader, the "Kahina," or prophetess, who resisted the conquest. Students should be asked to consider why Arabic sources would want to magnify the power and legend of their adversaries in their histories. Also, what are the issues associated with writing a history of acculturation primarily through the lens of one language and culture? Students should also be encouraged to consider the legacy of the pre-Islamic past.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What is acculturation? How and in what ways were Berbers and Arabs acculturated to one another in North Africa?
  2. 2. What might explain the brave depiction of Berbers in Arabic sources?
  3. 3. Why and for what reasons might power and commerce in North Africa have moved away from the coasts and towards desert trade?
  4. 4. Why might many Berbers adopt Kharijism?
  5. 5. What explained the origins of the Fatimids in North Africa? Why would the Kutama Berbers support the millenialist ambitions of the Fatimid founders?
  6. 6. How did Idris I and II and the Idrissids establish legitimacy in Morocco from their capital in Fes?


Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Ibid. "The Call of the Minaret," pp. 26-71.

al Nu'man, Qadi. Founding the Fatimid State: The Rise of an Early Islamic Empire, trans. Hajj, Hamid. IB Tauris, 2006. [This is a primary source for the extraordinary rise of the Fatimid Empire in North Africa under the influence of the Mahdi and the Kutama Berbers.]

Brett, Michael. "The Islamisation of Morocco: From the Arabs to the Almoravids." Morocco, Vol. 2, 1992, pp. 57-71.

Brett, Michael and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Ibid. "The Unification of North Africa by Islam," pp. 81-116.

Talbi, Mohamed. "Kahina," in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition. Brill, 1954. [This article discusses the history and historiography of the great Berber priestess and her followers' resistance to the Islamic conquest.]

IV. From Unity to Fragmentation

It was first the Almoravid Empire of veiled, desert Berbers, stretching through the Sahara up to Islamic Spain, and then their Almohad mountain Berber successors, who represent a height of unity and power for both North Africa and the Berbers. Their meteoric rise and their decline and dissolution into Marinid, Zayyanid, and Hafsid dynasties remain a matter of debate that inspired the work of Ibn Khaldun and scholars of North Africa today.


This unit will ask students to consider the unlikely origins of the Almohad and Almoravid empires. What explained their rapid success despite their remote origins? How did the two empires manage to harness both religious ideology and geographical advantages? What impact did the Almoravids and Almohads have on Iberia and the balance of power in the Mediterranean? This was also a period of spiritual resurgence and the rise of Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) in North Africa. Discuss with students the possible reasons for this "new religiosity."

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What might explain the rapid rise and eventual disintegration of the Almoravid and Almohad Empires?
  2. 2. What was the role of religion in the unification of Berber lineage groups?
  3. 3. How did the Almoravids and Almohads influence the wider history of the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa?


Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Ibid. "The Maghreb Under Berber Dynasties", pp. 76-143. [This text provides a survey of major events.]

al-Marrakushi, Abdel Wahid. The history of the Almohades, preceded by a sketch of the history of Spain from the time of the conquest till the reign of Yúsof ibn-Téshúfin, and of the history of the Almoravides, ed. R.P.A. Dozy. 1968. (Reprint from the first, 1881 edition). [This important text is a key chronicle of the Almoravids and Almohads.]

Bennison, Amira. "The Almohads and the Qur'an of Uthman: The Legacy of the Umayyads of Cordoba in the Twelfth Century Maghreb." Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. Vol. 19, Issue 2, 2007, pp. 131-154. [This insightful article links the Almohads with Europe and the Umayyads of Cordoba.]

Cornell, Vincent. "Understanding the Mother of Ability: Responsibility and Action in the Doctrine of Ibn Tumart." Studia Islamica. Vol. 66, 1987, pp. 71-103. [Cornell examines the doctrine of Ibn Tumart as portrayed in his book of doctrine, the A'zz ma Yutlab.]

Fromherz, Allen. The Almohads: Rise of an Islamic Empire. IB Tauris, 2010. "Introduction." [This work provides a theoretical framework for the rise of the Almohad Berber dynasty and Berber empires and dynasties in general.]

V. Ibn Khaldun

Few individuals would merit an entire, lengthy unit in this lesson plan as much as Ibn Khaldun. As the major source for North African history before the fourteenth century, his chronicle is priceless. However, he is even more important as an interpreter of historical phenomena and the sociology of North Africa. His Muqaddimah, conveniently translated and abridged, is accessible to students who are just entering Middle Eastern and North African Studies.


Assign students into groups. Have the groups present on different chapters of the Muqaddimah at the discretion of the instructor. Require students to engage the class in discussion of the source and the possible reasons for Ibn Khaldun's views. Instead of dealing simply with excerpts, this is an opportunity for in-depth primary source analysis in a way that is relevant to the entire history the students have previously studied.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Who was Ibn Khaldun and what might have been his motivations for writing the Muqaddimah?
  2. 2. What did Ibn Khaldun mean by the important role of 'asabiyya, tribal solidarity, in the rise of dynasties?
  3. 3. Explain Ibn Khaldun's cycle of history. What about our previous studies might relate to this theory?
  4. 4. How does Ibn Khaldun treat the role of religion and prophecy in society and the rise of dynastic power?


Fromherz, Allen. Ibn Khaldun, Life and Times. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah, ed. NJ Dawood (Abridged edition). Princeton University Press, 1989.

VI. The Ottomans and the Moroccan Exception

The rise of Ottoman influence came just as Western European powers encroached on the coastlines of North Africa. Morocco, however, remained independent from direct Ottoman influence. Contact with Europe remained strong, despite tensions, as the memoirs of Leo Africanus reveal. The political disunity in the medieval dynasties of North Africa left something of a vacuum of power. The need to repel the invading, Christian Iberians led to the rise of the Ottomans in Algeria and Tunisia and the growing influence of Sharifian dynasties in Morocco. This was also an interesting period of tension between the "Pirate Corsairs" and a new Atlantic power: the United States.


Cornell, Vincent. The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. University of Texas Press, 1971. [This detailed study of the role of saints in Maghribi history traces the history of sainthood and its role in the Maghribi political and social system.]

Cory, Stephen. "Breaking the Khaldunian Cycle? The Rise of Sharifianism as the Basis for Political Legitimacy in Early Modern Morocco". The Journal of North African Studies. Vol. 13, Issue 3, 2008, pp. 377-394. [Cory discusses the sharifian Sa'di and Alawi dynasties in Morocco and argues that they developed a new political and religious system that broke through the pattern of rise and fall discussed by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah.]

Davis, Natalie. Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth Century Muslim Between Worlds. Hill and Wang, 2007. [An entertaining, if scholarly, account of the travels of Leo Africanus and his writings.]

Gawalt, Gerard. The Thomas Jefferson Papers - America and the Barbary Pirates". Library of Congress Collections.

VII. Colonialism and Independence

As Ottoman influence declined, North Africa became a part of the European colonial project. Most of the Maghreb was under the influence of France, although Spain maintained holdings in Northern Morocco and Italy increased its presence in Libya. The way each state in North Africa fought for independence from France, Italy, and Spain would have a major impact on their present political and social configurations.


Ask students to consider the diverse responses of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to European colonialism and consider the legacies of the colonial project.

Watch "The Battle of Algiers" in class, followed by a round-table discussion of its significance.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. How did France's colonial project differ in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco? What are the reasons for these differences?
  2. 2. What are the main messages of "The Battle of Algiers"? Why might this film still be shown to US troops today?


Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Ibid. "The Age of European Colonialism," pp. 248-314, and "1919 to Independence," pp. 324-393.

Davis, Diana. Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Ohio University Press, 2007. "Introduction." [In this text, Davis examines the way French colonialists used Roman history to support their claims.]

Naylor, Philip. France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation. University Press of Florida, 2000.

Films: "The Battle of Algiers" and "The Lion of the Desert."

VIII. Further, suggested readings

Books and essays

Laroui, Abdallah. The History of the Maghreb: An Interpretive Essay. ACLS Humanities E-Book, 2008. (Originally Princeton University Press, 1979). [This is the classic interpretive text and alternative to colonial histories that found a wide audience outside of the region and in the discipline of history. As teacher to the royal family, Laroui is both a member of the Moroccan elite and, at times, an impassioned critic of the North African political system.]

Le Gall, Michel and Kenneth Perkins, eds. The Maghrib in Question, Essays in History and Historiography. University of Texas Press, 1997. [The history and historiography of North Africa and the Maghreb is discussed, debated, and dissected in this authoritative collection of articles by respected scholars of the field.]

Naylor, Philip. North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present. University of Texas Press, 2009. [A general survey of the history of the region including Egypt, this text integrates several key themes and discusses the historical background for current events.]

Norris, H.T.. The Berbers in Arabic Literature. Longman, 1982. [This text is an excellent reference for scholars and for students just beginning their research of the region. More a commentary on sources than a singular narrative, it allows the reader to digest directly from primary sources. The bibliography is a goldmine of references.]

Internet sources and research organizations

American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS)

Center for Maghrib Studies in Tunis (CEMAT)

Tangier American Legation Institute (TALIM)

Center for Maghrebi Studies in Algeria (CEMA)

Student Paper Topics

  1. 1. To what extent did Berber interactions with the Romans and the Arabs differ? Why?
  2. 2. What explains the rapid rise of organized empires such as the Almohads in the midst of lineage groups without a previous history of hierarchy or government?
  3. 3. What are Ibn Khaldun's main ideas about the rise and fall of dynasties? How might he have been influenced by his own historical context?
  4. 4. In what ways and why did France use the pre-Islamic past to support its colonial claims? Cite examples.


By the end of the course students will have a strong grasp of the history, geography, and cultural diversity of the Maghreb. They will also have developed new critical thinking skills about the nature of primary sources, the construction and meaning of identities (both religious and ethnic), and theories of the rise of complex human societies. They will also have a unique understanding of the interaction of long-term societal trends with the actions of individuals in response to specific events.

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