Libya Table of Contents

By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam (literally, "submission"), which was conceived of as uniting the individual believer and society under the omnipotent will of Allah (God). Islamic rulers therefore exercised both temporal and religious authority. Adherents of Islam, called Muslims ("those who submit" to the will of God), collectively formed the House of Islam (Dar al Islam).

Within a generation, Arab armies had carried Islam north and east from Arabia and westward into North Africa. In 642 Amr ibn al As, an Arab general under Caliph Umar I, conquered Cyrenaica, establishing his headquarters at Barce. Two years later, he moved into Tripolitania, where, by the end of the decade, the isolated Byzantine garrisons on the coast were overrun and Arab control of the region consolidated. Uqba bin Nafi, an Arab general under the ruling Caliph, invaded Fezzan in 663, forcing the capitulation of Germa. Stiff Berber resistance in Tripolitania had slowed the Arab advance to the west, however, and efforts at permanent conquest were resumed only when it became apparent that the Maghrib could be opened up as a theater of operations in the Muslim campaign against the Byzantine Empire. In 670 the Arabs surged into the Roman province of Africa (transliterated Ifriqiya in Arabic; present-day Tunisia), where Uqba founded the city of Kairouan (present-day Al Qayrawan) as a military base for an assault on Byzantine-held Carthage. Twice the Berber tribes compelled them to retreat into Tripolitania, but each time the Arabs, employing recently converted Berber tribesmen recruited in Tripolitania, returned in greater force, and in 693 they took Carthage. The Arabs cautiously probed the western Maghrib and in 710 invaded Morocco, carrying their conquests to the Atlantic. In 712 they mounted an invasion of Spain and in three years had subdued all but the mountainous regions in the extreme north. Muslim Spain (called Andalusia), the Maghrib (including Tripolitania), and Cyrenaica were systematically organized under the political and religious leadership of the Umayyad caliph of Damascus.

Arab rule in North Africa--as elsewhere in the Islamic world in the eighth century--had as its ideal the establishment of political and religious unity under a caliphate (the office of the Prophet's successor as supreme earthly leader of Islam) governed in accord with sharia (a legal system) administered by qadis (religious judges) to which all other considerations, including tribal loyalties, were subordinated. The sharia was based primarily on the Quran and the hadith and derived in part from Arab tribal and market law.

Arab rule was easily imposed in the coastal farming areas and on the towns, which prospered again under Arab patronage. Townsmen valued the security that permitted them to practice their commerce and trade in peace, while the Punicized farmers recognized their affinity with the Semitic Arabs to whom they looked to protect their lands; in Cyrenaica, Monophysite adherents of the Coptic Church had welcomed the Muslim Arabs as liberators from Byzantine oppression. Communal and representative Berber tribal institutions, however, contrasted sharply and frequently clashed with the personal and authoritarian government that the Arabs had adopted under Byzantine influence. While the Arabs abhorred the tribal Berbers as barbarians, the Berbers in the hinterland often saw the Arabs only as an arrogant and brutal soldiery bent on collecting taxes.

The Arabs formed an urban elite in North Africa, where they had come as conquerors and missionaries, not as colonists. Their armies had traveled without women and married among the indigenous population, transmitting Arab culture and Islamic religion over a period of time to the townspeople and farmers. Although the nomadic tribes of the hinterland had stoutly resisted Arab political domination, they rapidly accepted Islam. Once established as Muslims, however, the Berbers, with their characteristic love of independence and impassioned religious temperament, shaped Islam in their own image, enthusiastically embracing schismatic Muslim sects--often traditional folk religion barely distinguished as Islam--as a way of breaking from Arab control.

One such sect, the Kharijites (seceders; literally, "those who emerge from impropriety") surfaced in North Africa in the mideighth century, proclaiming its belief that any suitable Muslim candidate could be elected caliph without regard to his race, station, or descent from the Prophet. The attack on the Arab monopoly of the religious leadership of Islam was explicit in Kharijite doctrine, and Berbers across the Maghrib rose in revolt in the name of religion against Arab domination. The rise of the Kharijites coincided with a period of turmoil in the Arab world during which the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads and relocated the caliphate in Baghdad. In the wake of the revolt, Kharijite sectarians established a number of theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled histories. One such kingdom, however, founded by the Bani Khattab, succeeded in putting down roots in remote Fezzan, where the capital, Zawilah, developed into an important oasis trading center.

After the Arab conquest, North Africa was governed by a succession of amirs (commanders) who were subordinate to the caliph in Damascus and, after 750, in Baghdad. In 800 the Abbasid caliph Harun ar Rashid appointed as amir Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, who established a hereditary dynasty at Kairouan that ruled Ifriqiya and Tripolitania as an autonomous state that was subject to the caliph's spiritual jurisdiction and that nominally recognized him as its political suzerain. The Aghlabid amirs repaired the neglected Roman irrigation system, rebuilding the region's prosperity and restoring the vitality of its cities and towns with the agricultural surplus that was produced. At the top of the political and social hierarchy were the bureaucracy, the military caste, and an Arab urban elite that included merchants, scholars, and government officials who had come to Kairouan, Tunis, and Tripoli from many parts of the Islamic world. Members of the large Jewish communities that also resided in those cities held office under the amirs and engaged in commerce and the crafts. Converts to Islam often retained the positions of authority held traditionally by their families or class in Roman Africa, but a dwindling, Latinspeaking , Christian community lingered on in the towns until the eleventh century. The Aghlabids contested control of the central Mediterranean with the Byzantine Empire and, after conquering Sicily, played an active role in the internal politics of Italy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress