HIS311 logo Lecture on "Islam in North Africa"
by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (Copyright 2003, All Rights Reserved)
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This lecture covers the history of Islam in northern Africa from the time of the first Muslim invasion in 639 to the Ottoman Empire in 1600. It is based on the reading from Kevin Shillington's History of Africa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), pages 72-77, 107-13 and 157-69.
As you read this material, please refer to the following maps from Shillington's book:
  • "The Arab Conquest of North Africa, 640-711" (page 72)
  • "Muslim States of North Africa, 750-950" (page 76)
  • "Egypt Under Fatimid, Ayyubid & Mamluk Rule, 969-1517" (page 159)
  • "Egypt Under the Ottomans, 16th & 17th centuries" (page 164)
Map of pre-Islamic Arabia
Map of Arabia during Mohammed's lifetime

The following new vocabulary words are italicized on this web page: Medina, Mecca, Kabaa, monotheism, personal religion, Abu Bakr, jihad, Omar, Ummayyids, Abbassids, Fatimids, Seljuks, Mamluks, Quran, Damascas, Baghdad, Maghrib, Pyrennees, Poitiers, Cairo, bedouin, Sarah al-Din, Ottomans, fellahin, caliph, sultan.



Islam arrived in Africa as a unified external invasion, unlike the piecemeal military and economic incursions of the Greeks and the Romans. In other words, all of the people who invaded Egypt around the year 640 shared at least one motivation- -the spread of the true religion. Islam introduced a new concept of universalism.

Note that the first adherents of Islam were desert dwellers on the edge of two large empires. It was entirely logical that their first expansion would be into another desert area (the Sahara) located away from the major powers.


Medina, located near the Red Sea coast of the Arabian peninsula, was the first Muslim city. It was a trading center on a caravan route that prospered when war between the Persian and Byzantine Empires interrupted sea trade between Mediterranean and India. Travel along this route was controlled by the Quraysh, an extended family which had both nomadic and sedentary members.

Mohammed was born in the Hashim clan of the Quraysh about 571. The Hashim were sedentary residents of Mecca, another town on the overland caravan route. Mohammed married well and prospered as a merchant until by the early 7th century, he was a leading citizen of Mecca.

In 611, while resting in a cave, Mohammed heard a voice that he believed came from an all-powerful diety. The voice offered instructions on how to purify religion. In the town of Mecca, there was a religious site called Kabaa, marked by a strange black rock, but throughout the region, there were many other religions including Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, and Persian Zoroastrianism.

Mohammed began to speak about his instructions in Mecca, and was expelled in 622 by a coalition of forces led by priests of the Kabaa. Mohammed left Mecca and followed the caravan route to Medina. At the time, Medina was a fairly wild place compared to . Its economy was booming thanks to the thriving caravan trade, and its population included various ethnic groups who resided in their own neighborhoods. There does not seem to have been a town government in 622, because while the leaders of each ethnic group could settle disputes among its own members, there was no peaceful way to settle disputes between members of different ethnic groups.

After Mohammed arrived, he showed himself to be a fair judge of disputes and during the next eight years, he became an influential citizen of Medina. As the residents accepted Mohammed's rules about justice and his teachings about the nature of the all-powerful diety, the population of the town became the first Muslims. In 630, they followed Mohammed's call to conquer Mecca.

The teachings of Islam: Mohammed did not leave behind a written version of his teachings. Mohammed spoke to a lot of people, however, and fortunately, many of his listeners recorded his words. Over time, their contributions were assembled into a book of scripture called the Quran. The main reforms introduced by Islam included the idea of submission to a single universal diety (monotheism) and a possibility of a direct relationship between each human and the diety (personal religion).

In practice, Islam created a greatly simplified religion. For instance, there were no saints, no sacrements, no official clergy and no religious buildings. Instead, people who learned the most about Islam taught other people, and religious rituals could take place almost anywhere. A practicing Muslim was required to do only five things:

  1. profess faith in Allah as the only god (universalism)
  2. pray to Mecca five times a day
  3. practice charity (payment of the Zakat or 1/50th)
  4. pilgrimmage to Mecca (Hajj)
  5. fasting during the month of Ramadan to commemorate the conquest of Mecca in 630

If a Muslim followed the rules, s/he could expect to reach paradise, which was described using metaphors like flowing rivers, gardens, fountains, fruit, and no work. If not, then hell was divided into boiling water and the abyss of fire, populated by angels whose job was to torture sinners who were condemned there.

Question: What is the relationship of Islam to earlier monotheisms like Judaism and Christianity? [ANSWER]


Only two years after his followers conquered Mecca, Mohammed died in 632. He left no instructions about who would take his place, and in the following dispute over the succession of leadership, Abu Bakr (father-in-law of Mohammed's second wife) defeated Mohammed's son-in-law Omar (married to Fatima).

Abu Bakr supported his authority by unleasing jihad against the Byzantine and Persian empires to the north, and was aided when peasants in the provinces revolted and joined the Muslim invasion. After Abu Bakr died in 634, Omar took over the jihad and it continued, conquering Damascas in 636, Jerusalem in 638, the Byzantine fortress of Babylon (Cairo) in 639, Alexandria in 640, and the entire Persian empire by 651. However, challengers to Omar's rule continued to resist and he was assasinated in 644. Members of the powerful Umayyid family (the family of Umar) of Mecca took over in 660 and founded a dynasty that lasted until 750.


After 660, followers of Islam continued to spread the religion westward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, which exposed them to the Byzantine navy. They reached Tunisia by 670 and constructed their main base inland at Kairawan (south of Tunis), where it was safe from both water-born Christian Byzantines and inland Berbers of mountain and desert.

Question: Why do you suppose the response of the coastal and inland Berbers was different? [ANSWER]

By 711, Ummayyid armies campaigned in the Magrib, but couldn't totally subdue it. Coastal Berbers who resented centralized Christianity converted readily to Islam, but interior Berbers resisted Islam as strongly as they resisted Christianity. Coastal Berbers joined the Muslim invasion and launched the attack into Spain, followed later by Ummayyid Arab forces after the success of the invasion was certain.

By 720, Muslim forces controlled everything south of the Pyrennees mountains (modern border between France and Spain). In 732, an expedition across the mountains was turned back from Poitiers after it suffered defeat at the hands of a Frankish army led by Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne.

Question: What impact did this have on European history? [ANSWER]


The early 8th century was the time when Muslim strength and unity were at their greatest. As a result of their efforts, Muslims cut off Africa from Mediterranean Europe and cut off (Coptic) Christians in Nubia and Ethiopia from Christians in Europe. The North African coastal territories provided points of departure for Muslim expansion southward across the Sahara Desert. However, the Muslim world was stretched out over an enormous distance, making it difficult to maintain a centralized government.


The strains of constant expansion finally resulted in a revolt against the Umayyids in 750. The new ruling dynasty, the Abbassids, were more interested in eastern expansion, so the spread of Islam in Africa slowed. The new dynasty moved the capital from Damascas (located near the Mediterranean coast) to Baghdad (located on the Tigris River which drains into the Persian Gulf and thence to the Indian Ocean).

Under Abbassid rule, Egypt continued to be a rich producer of food and people. However, as Abbassid rulers turned their attention towards the east, two things happened: 1) Islam began to spread by sea to the lower Red Sea Coast and 2) schisms developed in western Islam that led to political unrest.

An Ummayyid dynasty continued to rule in Spain, creating a schism in Islam. Although Abbassid governors and military garrisons controlled cities along the Maghrib coast, they had little direct control in the interior and the Berber clans of Morocco were only nominally under Abbassid control. Within two centuries, local Muslim brotherhoods formed and they promoted a revival of Islam in the 10th century.

Muslim traders operating along the Red Sea Coast couldn't reach the Upper Red Sea because the prevailing winds (out of the north) prevented regular sail navigation, but they established trading cities from Jiddah (the port city nearest to Mecca, near the southern end of the Red Sea) as far south as Mozambique.

Question: How would you describe the impact of the Abbassid revolution on Islam in Africa? [ANSWER]

FATIMID EGYPT (969-1171)

In a repeat of the pattern that followed the institutionalization of Ummayyid rule, reform movements developed to challenge Abbassid rule. After reformers expelled the Abbassid governor in Yemen in 901, other reformers established a rival caliphate among the Berbers in Tunisia in 908. Their movement spread eastward, overthrew the Abbassid governor in Egypt in 969 and created the Fatimid Muslim state which lasted until the 12th century.

The first Fatimid caliph, Al-Mu'izz, established his capital in Egypt in 973. He chose a site next to the Abbassid capital of Fustat, which was located next to the former Byzantine fortress of Babylon and just downriver from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis near Giza, site of the Great Pyramid. The caliph called his new capital al- Khaira, or Cairo.

Later Fatimid caliphs established the University of al-Azhar in Cairo, and by the 11th century, the Cairo- based Fatimids were more powerful than the Abbassids in Baghdad. The Fatimids briefly occupied Baghdad in 1056 and captured Jerusalem in 1098, only to lose it the following year to soldiers of the First Crusade. To protect their western flank, the Fatimids encouraged nomads from the Arabian peninsula (ethnic bedouin groups led by the Bani Hillal and Beni Sullaim) to cross the Red Sea and invade northwest Africa. The bedouins began to arrive in the mid-11th century and fought devastating campaigns against sedentary Berber rebels.


While the Fatimids were establishing their dynasty in Cairo, the nature of the leadership of the Abbassids changed. Gradually, Seljuk military families descended from converted Turks became dominant in Baghdad in 950s. The same thing took place a bit later in Fatimid Egypt--military leaders became dominant over religious leaders--and by the end of the 12th century, Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks. In both cases, military commanders and ordinary people all publicly recognized the authority of the caliph of Islam, but army commanders had the power to influence the choice of the new caliph each time one died. Consequently, in the long run only candidates who were favorable to military interests could be chosen as caliph.

Who were the Mamluks? Mamluks were the descendants of Black Sea slaves, imported as children by Fatimid caliphs and converted to Islam beginning in the 11th century. The caliphs had them trained to become loyal commanders and officials to serve in the army and government bureaucracy. In exchange for their service to the caliph, Mamluks (the word means "owned") received tax exemptions, land grants and the right to control "departments" of the government (such as tax collection in a province).

Question: What religion was practiced in the Black Sea area. [ANSWER]

Question: Why were Mamluks likely to be more loyal than officials sleected by other means? [ANSWER]

By the end of the 11th century, their control over the army gave the Mamluks the right to confirm the succession of caliphs. Mamluk authority in Egypt declined into rivalries between Mamluk nobles who only united in order to suppress peasant resistance. Centralized authority was not restored until 1171, when the Mamluk vizier Sarah al-Din (known in the west as "Saladin"), ended the Fatimid dynasty and founded a Mamluk dynasty by declaring himself ruler of Egypt.


Since their legitimacy of caliphs--be they Ummayyid, Abbassid or Fatimid--derived from their knowledge of the Quran, their powers included legislative and judicial functions, but no executive power. In particular, there was no mandate to lead an army, so the Fatimid caliphs, just like the Abbassid caliphs in Baghdad, relied on professional military officers called sultans.

Mamluks took control in Egypt after the Mamluk Aybak executed the last Fatimid caliph, Turanshah, in 1250 (Note: By a similar process, Seljuk military leaders seized power in Baghdad in 1055). There followed a succession of assassinations as each Mamluk leader deposed his predecessor until Baybar murdered the Mamluk sultan Qutuz (victor over the Mongols in 1260) and established a dynasty of sultans that lasted until the Ottoman conquest in 1516-17.

The life of Egyptian peasants under the Mamluks changed little. Taxation was higher, thanks to all the warfare. They worked for absentee Mamluk landlords who, as officers in the army, received land in return for their military service. Mamluk landowners appointed local officials to handle the day-to-day administration. Mamluks were orthodox Muslims, but they oppressed religious minorities. As a consequence, it was a bad time to be a Coptic Christian in Egypt.


Fatimid Egypt fought the Abbassids in Baghdad from 1000-1300. Both financed armies and produced claimants to the caliphate of all Islam (umma). To the west of Egypt, the bedouins were allies of the Fatimids in theory, but in fact were beyond the control of all but their local chiefs. Christian crusaders threatened Egypt during the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Crusades with attempts to capture Cairo and exchange it for Jerusalem. Although the Mongol invasion of the 13th century crossed Asia, killed the last Abbassid caliph in 1258 and overran Palestine, it did not reach into Africa thanks to a Mamluk victory at Ain Jalut (Palestine) on September 3, 1260 by a force led by the Egyptian commander Qutuz, the successor to Aybak (mentioned previously).


The Ottoman dynasty was founded in 1300s by Turkish military commanders. One of their leaders, Othman, was a Turkish mercenary in the Abbassid Seljuk army. He converted to Islam and conquered portions of the Byzantine Empire (1290-1326). As a military conqueror, he received land holdings in his own name and that formed the basis of the empire enlarged by his descendants. One of them, Mohammed II, conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it his capital.

Unlike previous rulers of the Muslim world, the Ottoman leaders did not take the title Caliph. Instead, they were content to appoint puppet caliphs and rule as sultans. Like the Fatimids and Seljuks, they imported Christian slaves from the Balkans to serve as officers.

Question: Review the difference between "caliph" and "sultan" if necessary, then explain why the Ottoman approach was significant? [ANSWER]

From 1481-1512 the sons of Mohammed II, Bayazid II and Jem, fought for control over Ottoman lands. Bayazid won and Jem fled, only to wind up as hostage of a succession of European powers and then to die while a French captive at Naples in 1495. Bayazid's son Selim I "the Grim" (ruled 1512-1520), the grandson of Mohammed II, forced his father to abdicate and then defeated his brothers Corcud and Ahmed to become the "Sultan of all Islam." Selim also conquered Persian land by winning the Battle of Chaldrian on August 23, 1514, land in Kurdistan and eastern Turkey in 1515, and finally, all of Mamluk Egypt by defeating Sultan Qansaw al-Ghawri at the Battle of Marj- Dabik (north of Aleppo) on August 24, 1516. Selim's forces occupied Cairo on January 22, 1517, and from then until the French invasion of 1798, Egypt was an Ottoman province.

Ottoman rule in Egypt was similar to Roman rule, in that foreigners held power and peasants were taxed to support military administration and conquest in other parts of the empire. It appears that the Egyptian peasants (the fellahin) reacted to their increased exploitation by reducing their efforts and that production declined during the Ottoman years. Although there are no reliable statistics on agricultural output during this period, it is certain that there were no improvement in farming methods, few public works were constructed, and the frequency of predatory raids by desert nomads increased.

During the lengthy reign of Selim I's son, Suleyman (known to Europeans as "the Magnificent," ruled 1520-1566), the Ottoman Empire completed the conquest of the Arabian coast in 1538 and the North African coast to Tunisia by 1556. Suleyman established a system of local military governors in coastal towns known variously as beys and deys. Suleyman's forces also invaded Europe several times in the mid-16th century and won victories at Belgrade in 1521, Rhodes in 1522 (defeating the Knights of St. John) and the Battle of Mohacs in Hungary on August 29-30, 1526. The Muslim advance up the Danube River valley ended at the siege of Vienna in September 1529, but continued in the form of a naval war with Venice (1539-1540) and an alliance with France's Francis I (1536) against the Hapsburgs. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire began to decline after 1585 thanks to the unification of Russia under Ivan the Terrible (beginning in 1547) and the growth in the power of European navies which led to the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).


The conflict in the center of the Muslim world had repercussions at the extremities of the Muslim world, which included not only Africa, but also southeast Asia. Specifically, 1) factions in the center were reproduced in the extremities, and 2) waves of refugees moved to the outer regions.

At the center of all the disputes was the question, "Who was most faithful to the teachings of Mohammed?" In North Africa, the struggles created rivalries between the inhabitants of Muslim towns who followed different Muslim clerics. Along the East African coast, a second wave of Muslim immigrants from the Hijaz (Iran and Pakistan) settled coastal towns south of Kilwa (in modern Tanzania) as far as Sofala (in modern Mozambique). Since that region produced gold, the new towns ultimately became rivals to the older towns located further north between Kilwa and the mouth of the Red Sea.

Question: What are the main ideas covered in this lecture? [ANSWER]


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