Military Wiki
Muslims conquest of North Africa
Part of the Muslim conquests and the Arab–Byzantine Wars
LocationNorth Africa
Result Muslim victory
North Africa brought under Muslim rule
Byzantine Empire
Rashidun Caliphate
Umayyad Caliphate
Commanders and leaders
Gregory the Patrician
John the Patrician
Abdallah ibn Sa'ad
Musa bin Nusayr
Hasan ibn al-Nu'man

The Muslim conquest of North Africa continued the century of rapid Arab Muslim military expansion following the death of Muhammad in 632 AD. By 642, the Arabs controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria, had invaded Armenia, and were concluding their conquest of the Persian Empire with their destruction of the Persian army at the Battle of Nihawānd (Nehawand). It was at this point that Arab military expeditions into North African regions west of Egypt were first launched, continuing for years and furthering the spread of Islam.

In 644 at Madinah, Caliph Umar (Omar) was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan (Othman), during whose twelve-year rule Armenia, Cyprus, and all of Iran, would be added to the growing Islamic empire; Afghanistan and North Africa would receive major invasions; and Muslim sea raids would range from Rhodes to the southern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. The Byzantine navy would be defeated in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sources for the history of the invasion

The earliest Arab accounts that have come down to us are those of Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, Al-Baladhuri and Ibn Khayyat, all of which were written in the 9th century some 200 years after the first invasions. These are not very detailed. In the case of the most informative, the History of the Conquest of Egypt and North Africa and Spain by Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, Brunschvig[1] has shown that it was written with a view to illustrating points of Maliki law rather than documenting a history, and that some of the events it describes are probably historical.

Beginning in the 12th century, scholars at Kairouan began to construct a new version of the history of the conquest, which was finalised by ar-Raqiq. This version was copied in its entirety, and sometimes interpolated, by later authors, reaching its zenith in the 14th century with scholars such as Ibn Idhari, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Nuwayri. It differs from the earlier version not only in the greater detail, but also in giving conflicting accounts of events. This, however, is the best known version and is the one given below.

There is ongoing controversy regarding the relative merits of the two versions. For more information, refer to the works cited below by Brunschvig, Modéran and Benabbès (all supporters of the earlier version) and Siraj (supports the later version).

First invasion

The first invasion of North Africa, ordered by Caliph Umar, commenced in 647. 20,000 Arabs marched from Medina in Arabia, another 20,000 joined them in Memphis, Egypt, and Abdallah ibn al-Sa’ad led them into the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa. The army took Tripolitania (in present-day Libya). Count Gregory, the local Byzantine governor,[2] had declared his independence from the Byzantine Empire in North Africa. He gathered his allies, confronted the Islamic invasion force and suffered defeat (647) at the battle of Sufetula, a city 150 miles south of Carthage. With the death of Gregory his successor, probably Gennadius, secured the Arab withdrawal in exchange for tribute. The campaign lasted fifteen months and Abdallah's force returned to Egypt in 648.

All further Muslim conquests were soon interrupted, however, by a civil war between rival Arab factions that resulted in the murder of Caliph Uthman in 656. He was replaced by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who in turn was murdered in 661. The Umayyad (Omayyad) Dynasty of largely secular and hereditary Arab caliphs, then established itself at Damascus and Caliph Muawiya I began consolidating the empire from the Aral Sea to the western border of Egypt. He put a governor in place in Egypt at al-Fustat, creating a subordinate seat of power that would continue for the next two centuries. He then continued the invasion of non-Muslim neighbouring states, attacking Sicily and Anatolia (in Asia Minor) in 663. In 664 Kabul, Afghanistan, fell to the invading Muslim armies.

Second invasion

The Great Mosque of Kairouan also known as the Mosque of Uqba was founded by the Arab conqueror and general Uqba Ibn Nafi in 670 AD; it is the oldest and most important mosque in North Africa,[3] city of Kairouan, Tunisia.

Then, from 665 to 689, a new invasion of North Africa was launched.

It began, according to Will Durant, to protect Egypt "from flank attack by Byzantine Cyrene." So "an army of 40,000 Muslims advanced through the desert to Barca, took it, and marched to the neighborhood of Carthage." A defending Byzantine army of 30,000 was defeated in the process.

Next came a force of 10,000 Arabs led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and took the vanguard. In 670 the city of Kairouan (roughly eighty miles or 160 kilometers south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations. This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. After this, as Edward Gibbon writes, the fearless general "plunged into the heart of the country, traversed the wilderness in which his successors erected the splendid capitals of Fes and Morocco, and at length penetrated to the verge of the Atlantic and the great desert." In his conquest of the Maghreb (western North Africa) he besieged the coastal city of Bugia as well as Tingi or Tangier, overwhelming what had once been the traditional Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.

But here he was stopped and partially repulsed. Luis Garcia de Valdeavellano writes:

In their struggle against the Byzantines and the Berbers, the Arab chieftains had greatly extended their African dominions, and as early as the year 682 Uqba had reached the shores of the Atlantic, but he was unable to occupy Tangier, for he was forced to turn back toward the Atlas Mountains

by a man who became known to history and legend as Count Julian.

Moreover, as Gibbon writes, Uqba, "this Mahometan Alexander, who sighed for new worlds, was unable to preserve his recent conquests. By the universal defection of the Greeks and Africans he was recalled from the shores of the Atlantic." On his return, his forces were ambushed by a Berber-Byzantine coalition near Biskra. Uqba was defeated and killed in this battle.

Then, adds Gibbon, "The third general or governor of Africa, Zuheir, avenged and encountered the fate of his predecessor. He vanquished the natives in many battles; he was overthrown by a powerful army, which Constantinople had sent to the relief of Carthage."

Meanwhile, a new civil war among rivals of the monarchy was raging in Arabia and Syria. It resulted in a series of four caliphs between the death of Muawiya in 680 and the ascension of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (Abdalmalek) in 685 and didn't end until 692 with the death of the rebel leader.

Third invasion

This development brought about a return of domestic order that allowed the caliph to resume the Islamic conquest of North Africa. It began with the retaking of Ifriqiya. Gibbon writes:

the standard was delivered to Hassan governor of Egypt, and the revenue of that kingdom, with an army of forty thousand men, was consecrated to the important service. In the vicissitudes of war, the interior provinces had been alternately won and lost by the Saracens. But the seacoast still remained in the hands of the Greeks; the predecessors of Hassan had respected the name and fortifications of Carthage; and the number of its defenders was recruited by the fugitives of Cabes and Tripoli. The arms of Hassan were bolder and more fortunate: he reduced and pillaged the metropolis of Africa; and the mention of scaling-ladders may justify the suspicion, that he anticipated, by a sudden assault, the more tedious operations of a regular siege.

But the Byzantine Empire responded with troops from Constantinople, joined by soldiers and ships from Sicily and a powerful contingent of Visigoths from Hispania. This forced the invading Arab army to retreat to Kairouan. Then, writes Gibbon, "the Christians landed; the citizens hailed the ensign of the cross, and the winter was idly wasted in the dream of victory or deliverance.

The following spring, however, the Arabs launched a new assault by sea and land, forcing the Byzantines and their allies to evacuate Carthage. The Arabs totally destroyed the city and burned it to the ground, leaving the area desolate for the next two centuries. Another battle was fought near Utica and the Arabs were again victorious, forcing the Byzantines to leave that part of North Africa for good.

This was followed by a Berber rebellion against the new Arab overlords. Gibbon writes:

Under the standard of their queen Cahina, the independent tribes acquired some degree of union and discipline; and as the Moors respected in their females the character of a prophetess, they attacked the invaders with an enthusiasm similar to their own. The veteran bands of Hassan were inadequate to the defence of Africa: the conquests of an age were lost in a single day; and the Arabian chief, overwhelmed by the torrent, retired to the confines of Egypt.

Five years passed before Hassan received fresh troops from the caliph. Meanwhile the people of North Africa's cities chafed under a Berber reign of destruction. Thus Hassan was welcomed upon his return. Gibbon writes that "the friends of civil society conspired against the savages of the land; and the royal prophetess was slain in the first battle."

By 698, the Arabs had conquered most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco) with its governor at Tangiers.

Musa bin Nusair, a successful Yemeni general in the campaign, was made governor of Ifriqiya and given the responsibility of putting down a renewed Berber rebellion and converting the population to Islam. Musa and his two sons prevailed over the rebels and enslaved 300,000 captives. The caliph's portion was 60,000 of the captives. These the caliph sold into slavery, the proceeds from their sale going into the public treasury. Another 30,000 captives were pressed into military service.

Musa also had to deal with constant harassment from the Byzantine navy. So he built a navy of his own which went on to conquer the Christian islands of Ibiza, Majorca, and Minorca. Advancing into the Maghreb, his forces took Algiers in 700.

Completion of the conquest

By 709, all of North Africa was under the control of the Arab caliphate. The only possible exception was Ceuta at the African Pillar of Hercules. Gibbon declares: "In that age, as well as in the present, the kings of Spain were possessed of the fortress of Ceuta [...] Musa, in the pride of victory, was repulsed from the walls of Ceuta, by the vigilance and courage of Count Julian, the general of the Goths."

Other sources, however, maintain that Ceuta represented the last Byzantine outpost in Africa and that Julian, whom the Arabs called Ilyan, was an exarch or Byzantine governor. Valdeavellano offers another possibility, that "as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic tribe of Gomera." In any case, being an able diplomat who was adept in Visigothic, Berber, and Arab politics, Julian might well have surrendered to Musa on terms that allowed him to retain his title and command.

At this time the population of Ceuta included many refugees from a Visigothic civil war that had broken out in Hispania (modern Portugal and Spain). These included family and confederates of the late King Wittiza, Arian Christians fleeing forced conversions at the hands of the Visigothic Catholic church, and persecuted Jews. Perhaps it was they, through Count Julian, who appealed to the North African Muslims for help in overthrowing Roderic, the new king of the Visigoths.

As Gibbon puts it, Musa received an unexpected message from Julian, "who offered his place, his person, and his sword" to the Muslim leader in exchange for help in the civil war. Though Julian's "estates were ample, his followers bold and numerous", he "had little to hope and much to fear from the new reign." And he was too feeble to challenge Roderic directly. So he sought Musa's aid.

For Musa, Julian, "by his Andalusian and Mauritanian commands, ... held in his hands the keys of the Spanish monarchy." And so Musa ordered some initial raids on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula in 710. In the spring of that same year Tariq ibn Ziyad—a Berber, a freed slave, and a Muslim general—took Tangier. Musa thereupon made him governor there, backed by an army of 1,700.

The next year, 711, Musa directed Tariq to invade Hispania for Islam. Disembarking from Ceuta aboard ships provided by Julian, Tariq plunged into the Iberian Peninsula, defeated Roderic, and went on to besiege the Visigothic capital of Toledo. He and his allies also took Córdoba, Ecija, Granada, Málaga, Seville, and other cities. By this process, Tariq was conquering Iberia for Islam rather than taking sides in a Visigothic civil war. And in so doing he established beyond all doubt that Ceuta, the last Christian stronghold in North Africa, was now part of the Arab empire. By this means the Umayyad conquest of Hispania brought to a close the total Islamic conquest of North Africa.

Fate of indigenous Christianity in northwest Africa after the Arab conquest

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Catholicism in Africa for several centuries.[4] The prevailing view is that the Church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies including the so-called Donatist heresy, and that this contributed to the early obliteration of the Church in the present day Maghreb.[5] Some historians contrast this with the strong monastic tradition in Coptic Egypt, which is credited as a factor that allowed the Coptic Church to remain the majority faith in that country until around after the 14th century.

However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes this. There are reports that the Roman Catholic faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700. A Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. There is also evidence of religious pilgrimages after 850 to tombs of Catholic saints outside of the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians of Arab Spain. In addition, calendrical reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Rome. Local Catholicism came under pressure when the Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis to convert to Islam. We still have reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 – a significant report, since this city was founded by Arab Muslims around 680 as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Catholic Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Arab conquest.[6] Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia until the early 15th century, and "[i]n the first quarter of the fifteenth century, we even read that the native Christians of Tunis, though much assimilated, extended their church, perhaps because the last Christians from all over the Maghreb had gathered there."[7]

By 1830, when the French came as colonial conquerors to Algeria and Tunis, local Catholicism had been extinguished. The growth of Catholicism in the region after the French conquest was built on European colonizers and settlers, and these immigrants and their descendants mostly left when the countries of the region became independent.

See also


  1. article by Brunschvig cited below
  2. Rodd, Francis. "Kahena, Queen of the Berbers: "A Sketch of the Arab Invasion of Ifriqiya in the First Century of the Hijra" Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, Vol. 3, No. 4, (1925), 731-2
  3. Hans Kung, Tracing the Way : Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, page 248
  5. The Disappearance of Christianity from North Africa in the Wake of the Rise of Islam C. J. Speel, II Church History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (December , 1960), pp. 379-397
  7., citing Mohamed Talbi, "Le Christianisme maghrébin", in M. Gervers & R. Bikhazi, Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands; Toronto, 1990; pp. 344-345.


  • Robert Brunschvig, "Ibn Abd al-Hakam et la conquète de l'Afrique du Nord par les arabes", Al-Andalus, 40 (1975), pp. 129–179
  • A. Benabbès: "Les premiers raids arabes en Numidie Byzantine: questions toponymiques." In Identités et Cultures dans l'Algérie Antique, University of Rouen, 2005 (ISBN 2-87775-391-3)
  • Will Durant, The History of Civilization: Part IV—The Age of Faith. 1950. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 51.
  • Charles Scott Kimball, A History of Europe. 2001. And A History of Africa. 2004. Published online at
  • Yves Modéran: "Kusayla, l'Afrique et les Arabes." In Identités et Cultures dans l'Algérie Antique, University of Rouen, 2005 (ISBN 2-87775-391-3).
  • Ahmed Siraj: L'Image de la Tingitane. L'historiographie arabe medievale et l'Antiquite nord-africaine. École Française de Rome, 1995. ISBN 2-7283-0317-7.
  • James Trager, editor, The People's Chronology. 1979. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0-03-017811-8
  • Luis Garcia de Valdeavellano, Historia de España. 1968. Madrid: Alianza. Quotes as translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane in Count Julian by Juan Goytisolo. 1974. New York: The Viking Press, Inc. ISBN 0-670-24407-4

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