Thursday, July 3, 2008




In the 680s the Arabs swept across North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic. The Byzantines clung to their coastal cities. The Muslim leader Oqba ibn Nafi reached the Atlantic in Morocco and, according to legend, rode into the sea and slashed at the water with his sword in frustration that there were no more lands to conquer.

On his return march in 683, Oqba was defeated and slain by the Berbers. The Arab Conquest paused for a decade but in 698 the Muslims finally took Carthage, evicting the Byzantine Christians completely from Africa. Now the conquerors faced their last and most stubborn enemy.

The Kahina's name is given variously as Dahiyah, Dahia, or Dhabba (Women in World History, v.8, p. 414.) The title Kahina meant Prophetess. The Encyclopedia Judaica (v. 10, p. 686) says that the term is derived from the Arabic "Kahin" ("soothsayer") and dismisses as error the idea that "Kahina" was derived from the Jewish term "Cohen".

The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that Arabic authors, notably the major 14th century historian Ibn-Khaldun, say that the Kahina and her tribe, the Jerawa of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria and Tunisia, were Jewish. Charles-André Julien, in his History of North Africa, notes that another writer gave the Kahina "the picturesque appellation of the 'Berber Deborah'" (after Deborah, the judge of ancient Israel). Julien believes that the Kahina's resistance to the Arabs was "nurtured, as it seems, by Berber patriotism and Jewish faith." On the other hand, the Encyclopedia Judaica concludes "her opposition to the Muslim Arabs was not religiously inspired; some authorities deny she was Jewish. The history of Kahina remains controversial."

What is known is that soon after the Arab general Hassan ibn al Numan took Carthage from the Byzantines, the Kahina's forces defeated him. Then, as during World War II, a single defeat in North Africa might lead to a retreat of hundreds of miles. Hassan retreated, probably all the way back to Egypt. The Kahina took Carthage and ruled most of Berber North Africa.

According to Ibn-Khaldun, as she waited for the inevitable renewed Arab assault, the Kahina carried out a brutal and disastrous policy. She declared that the Arabs wished to conquer North Africa only because of its wealth. She ordered Berbers who were still nomadic to destroy the cities, orchards, and herds of sedentary Berbers, to make North Africa a desert.

If the Kahina actually made this amazing decision, she was tragically mistaken. The Arabs were determined to take North Africa regardless of its wealth or poverty, because there were people to be converted to Islam, and because North Africa was a gateway to Spain and Europe. Unsurprisingly, according to Ibn-Khaldun, this savage policy of city burning cost the Kahina the support of city-dwelling Berbers.

In 702, Hassan again invaded the Berber lands and quickly defeated the Kahina. Julien writes, "on the eve of the final battle, the Kahina ordered her sons to go over to the enemy." Her sons had to convert to Islam to seal their defection to the Arabs. Julien believes that for the Kahina, the survival of her family and its supremacy over her tribe were ultimately more important than any questions of nationalism or religion.

Accounts differ as to whether the Kahina died in battle or was captured and executed.

Much more about the Moslem conquest of North Africa and the conversion to Islam of the Imazighen at this most excellent blog:

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