Blog post

Ibn Khaldun and The Myth of "Arab Invasion"

In this excerpt from Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World, Yves Lacoste shows how Ibn Khaldun's work refutes the myth of the "Arab invasions [of the Maghreb] of the eleventh century," despite the uses to which it has been put by the authors of the myth.

Yves Lacoste23 June 2017

Dome of El Koubba Mosque, Tunis; where Ibn Khaldun studied.

First published in 1966 and translated by David Macey for a 1984 Verso edition, Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World — by French geographer Yves Lacoste — analyzes the life and work of the 14th-century North African historian and polymath. "The most famous of Arab historians," Ibn Khaldun was still little known in Europe at the time of Lacoste's writing, outside the circle of specialists working on the history of the Maghreb. Among them, Lacoste shows, his writings were most typically decontextualized and distorted in the service of colonialist ideology. "For my part," Lacoste writes, "I believe that, if Ibn Khaldun's thought is to become more widely known and if it is to be integrated into contemporary thought, we have to do more than simply restore him to his rightful status as one of the founders of History...

Provided that they are analysed with care, the most important and original features of Ibn Khaldun's work can now be seen as a major contribution to the study of the underlying causes of underdevelopment. It must, however, be stressed that the relationship between the work of the Maghrebian historian and underdevelopment is far from straightforward. It would be not merely simplistic but quite wrong to think that in the fourteenth century Ibn Khaldun described the characteristics of an objectively underdeveloped country. He was studying medieval structures which slowed down or blocked social, political, and economic development It was only several hundred years later that these structures combined with outside influences to facilitate colonization, and colonization determined the appearance of the phenomenon of underdevelopment.

In the excerpt below, Lacoste shows how Ibn Khaldun's work refutes the myth of the "Arab invasions [of the Maghreb] of the eleventh century," despite the uses to which it has been put by the authors of the myth. 

Dome of El Koubba Mosque, Tunis; where Ibn Khaldun studied. via Wikimedia Commons.

Many contemporary historians and specialists in North African history give the impression that the major interest of Ibn Khaldun's work is that it provides us with a complete explanation of the crisis that put an end to the social and economic development of the Maghreb. They argue that the crisis was the result of the gradual invasion of North Africa by nomadic Arab tribes from the east, first the Beni Hilal and then the Beni Solayn. According to C.A. Julien, the most famous specialist in North African history, the Hilalian invasion was “the most important event of the entire medieval period in the Maghreb.”1 It was, he writes, “an invading torrent of nomadic peoples who destroyed the beginnings of Berber organization — which might very well have developed in its own way and put nothing whatever in its place.”2 It must be stressed at the outset that The Muqaddimah does not provide a systematic account of this crisis, the effects of which were still visible in the fourteenth century. Ibn Khaldun gives no methodical account of the underlying causes of this destructive phenomenon. The Histoire des Berbères describes a series of upheavals and crises, and several unsuccessful attempts to establish a centralized monarchy. But the problem of a Crisis with a capital 'C' is never raised. The Hilalian invasion is not the main theme of the The Muqaddimah. Ibn Khaldun refers to it simply as one of the causes of the turmoil.

The encyclopedic Muqaddimah contains a section on methodology, an analysis of political and social structures, and a general synthesis, but basically it does not describe the spectacular collapse which modern historians claim to have discovered. Ibn Khaldun was not studying a major localized event such as an invasion and its aftermath; he makes no systematic distinction between the character of the Maghreb before and after the crisis. But he does make a methodical analysis of the permanent political and social structures that characterized North Africa. And, according to Ibn Khaldun, the arrival of the Hilalian tribes did not alter those structures to any great extent. No space is given to a detailed study of the Hilalian invasion in the systematic and analytic framework of The Muqaddimah or in the Histoire des Berbères, each chapter of which deals with a different dynasty.

The lengthy modern accounts of the Hilalian invasion do not, therefore, derive directly from Ibn Khaldun. It is, of course, quite legitimate to formulate a thesis by collating scattered data. But the theory that the “Arab invasion” was the determining factor in the crisis of medieval North Africa is less than legitimate, as it takes into account only part of the data provided by Ibn Khaldun. The modern historians who established this theory left aside all the facts that did not support it. Yet both the facts and the information provided by Ibn Khaldun are often in complete contradiction with the “Arab invasion” thesis.

Ibn Khaldun does of course mention the arrival of the nomadic Arabs and the destruction they wreaked on several occasions: “However, at the present time — that is, at the end of the eighth century 3 — the situation in the Maghreb, as we can observe, has taken a turn and changed entirely. The Berbers, the original population of the Maghreb, have been replaced by the influx of Arabs that began in the fifth century.4 The Arabs outnumbered and overpowered the Berbers, stripped them of most of their lands, and also obtained a share of those that remained in their possession.”5

Taken out of context, this much-quoted passage does appear to provide a sound basis for the “Arab invasion” thesis. But what are we to make of the following statement from the same author? “The Berbers on the African shore constitute the native inhabitants of the region. Their language is the language of the country, except in the cities. The Arab language there is entirely submerged in the non-Arab native idiom of the Berbers.”6

If the Arabs from the east were really conquerors who drove out the Berbers, how could the Arab language be “submerged”?

The Muqaddimah does contain certain famous and much-quoted passages condemning the behaviour of the Arabs. Thus, Ibn Khaldun writes that “Places that succumb to the Arabs are quickly ruined,”7 and that “It is noteworthy how civilization always collapsed in places the Arabs took over and conquered, and how such settlements were depopulated and the very earth there turned into something that was no longer earth.”8 But in other related passages Ibn Khaldun praises the moral qualities and political virtues of the Arabs, claiming that they are “closer to being good than a sedentary people.” There is no way we can evade this apparent contradiction.

Ibn Khaldun is too good a historian to forget that the Arabs founded great and stable empires in both the east and the west. In a number of important passages he demonstrates that all the kingdoms and viable political organizations founded in North Africa were established by “nomadic” or “Arab” peoples or by tribes with very similar socio-political characteristics. The Almoravids, for instance, were true Saharan nomads; the Fatimids were originally peasants from Kabylia; the Almohads were a mountain tribe from the Moroccan High Atlas. As we shall see, Ibn Khaldun is quite right to classify them together. We are not, then, dealing with “nomads,” “Bedouins,” or “Arabs” but rather with groups having similar political and social structures though very different “ways of life.”

Ibn Khaldun does make a methodological distinction between two major groups which are usually referred to as “Arabs” or “Bedouins” and “sedentary groups” respectively. But the truly radical distinction is between the rural population, the people of the bled — a category which includes both nomads and sedentary farmers — and the townspeople and farmers who live near the towns. Ibn Khaldun does criticize the destructive Arabs who were robbers and incapable of founding a state, but he does so in order to contrast them with the “good” Arabs who did found empires.

For reasons that remain unclear, the terminology used by Ibn Khaldun is not very precise. The confusion is not simply a matter of translation problems. His work is often used as a source of quotations rather than being studied in detail. It is extremely complex and often seems to be contradictory. We have to grasp the true meaning of passages which form part of the same argument but which are obviously contradictory if taken out of context. In his classification of human groups, Ibn Khaldun stresses the differences between them and ignores similarities or dissimilarities between their “ways of life” and we have therefore to try to grasp the real criteria he uses. Despite the obvious complexity of the issues involved, the vast majority of historians of North Africa still subscribe to the thesis that the “Arab invasions of the eleventh century” destroyed the achievements of the sedentary population. They make a systematic distinction between the foreign nomadic invaders (usually and wrongly described as “Arabs”) and the sedentary Berber population, the native victims of the invasion.

The thesis of the Nomadic-Sedentary, Arab-Berber antagonism appears with the colonization of Algeria. According to J. Berque “The Arab-Berber antithesis became a cliché by 1845.”9 Carette's Recherches sur les origines des migrations des principales tribus de l'Afrique septentrionale launched the theme of the “Arab invasions of the eleventh century” in 1853. The French translation of The Muqaddimah published in 1863 was invoked to provide definitive corroboration of what was by then almost an official thesis. One of the greatest Arab thinkers confirmed (or seemed to confirm) the views of the historians of the colonial period. The Arab invasions may not, as has so often been claimed, be the “decisive event” in the history of the Barbary states, but they certainly became the main theme of North African historiography from the nineteenth century onwards. According to G. Marçais, “The entire life of North Africa was deeply and permanently marked by this catastrophe.”10 For Julien, the arrival of a destructive nomadic people was the most important event of the entire medieval period in the Maghreb.11

In the writings of E.F. Gautier, the nomadic-sedentary opposition becomes even more important, takes on still greater resonances. The invasion assumes “the proportions of an apocalypse,” an “immense catastrophe,” “the end of a world.”12 The struggle between the two groups becomes an eternal, cosmic battle. According to Gautier, the entire history of North Africa from classical antiquity onwards is a duel between “two biological species which always behave in totally opposite ways.” “Throughout the two millenia separating classical antiquity from our own day, the Maghreb has always been divided into two irreconcilable halves: nomads and sedentary groups. The nomad's instincts are quite different (from those of the sedentary farmer). His way of life means that he is a communist. The harshness of his life means that, when led by his prince, he is a disciplined soldier, at least for the duration of the battle. But it also means that he is permanently dissatisfied and always eager for new conquests. Politically, he is an anarchist, a nihilist. He has a great predilection for disorder and for the opportunities it affords him. He is destructive and negative. Even his victories accomplish nothing as he destroys their fruits in an unaccustomed orgy of extravagance.”13

Despite their official nature, the thesis of the nomad's historical guilt and the theory of the eternal opposition between nomadic and sedentary groups are in contradiction with a number of elementary points of geography.

There is no basis in reality for any such total, metaphysical opposition between nomadic and sedentary groups, even though novelists have found it a fertile source of inspiration. From ancient times until the beginning of the nineteenth century, one of the major features of the areas was the importance of semi-nomadic groups who practised both stockbreeding and farming, their activities at any given moment depending upon the seasons and upon where they were. There were, of course, completely sedentary arboriculturalists and pure nomads, but such groups were extreme cases and rarely came into direct contact with one another (except in Tunisia, for example). The vast majority of the population came in between these extremes. The interests of farmers and herdsmen were interconnected. Although some passages in Ibn Khaldun do suggest that nomadic and sedentary groups were irreconcilable, others could easily be used to support the more convincing argument that farmers and herdsmen coexisted in harmony.

The simplistic opposition between nomadic Arabs and sedentary Berbers is equally fallacious, as any geographer or anthropologist would recognize. But the fact remains that this worn-out argument is still used. It is therefore worth pointing out that not all nomads were “Arabs” and that not all Berbers were sedentary by any means. The number of authentically “Arab” groups who came from Arabia and settled in the Maghreb was very small. The people known as “Arabs” in the Maghreb were in fact Arabic-speaking Berbers who retained many of their original characteristics. Although some of the Berber-speaking population were truly sedentary (in Kabylia, the western Rif and the western High Atlas), others were nomadic or semi-nomadic (as for instance in the mountains of the Central Atlas and the western High Atlas). In an attempt to get around this fact, which completely invalidates the equations between Arab and nomadic and Berber and sedentary, E.F. Gautier tries to divide the Berbers along linguistic lines.14

Even if we do accept the existence of some sedentary-nomadic opposition, it does not correspond to any major ethnic or linguistic divisions. Moreover, herdsmen and villagers were capable of coexisting within small but highly unified political and social formations. Brunschwig has shown that during the Middle Ages there were tribes in Ifriqiyah made up of complementary but equal sedentary and nomadic fractions.15

The political distinction between nomadic and sedentary groups is equally artificial. There are no known examples of conflict between purely sedentary and purely nomadic groups. On the contrary, all recorded conflicts appear to have been between singularly disparate groups. “Nomadic factions and sedentary groups entered into alliances against other nomads who were allied with other sedentary groups. Bedouin sheikhs and rulers of cities formed alliances against other Bedouins and their urban allies. The mutually hostile blocs formed in this way had nothing to do with notions of origins or ways of life. Contradictory as their respective mentalities and aims may have been, the nomads no more tried to undermine sedentary institutions in any systematic way than the sedentary groups tried to wipe out nomadism.” Such is Brunschwig's view of Ifriqiyah, the country which suffered most at the hands of certain nomadic groups.

Even if we restrict the argument to the extreme examples of arboriculturalists and long-distance camel nomads, the conflict between their interests is much less serious than has sometimes been suggested. On the contrary, there are many cases in which their interests coincided: the nomads guarded and guided the caravans and were responsible for most transport in North Africa. They supplied the towns with food and contributed to the existence of some trade-based rural economies. They provided a skilled labour force that was much appreciated and greatly sought after at harvest time. Marçais cites specific examples of nomads and villagers entering mutual contractual agreements to farm land in the Constantine area. All too often compared to plagues of locusts, the Beni Hilal “were taking an active part in the life of the country barely a century after their arrival and were contributing to the wealth of those they had once reduced to poverty.”16 Brunschwig cites other similar cases. Stock breeding was far from being simply a cause of conflict or from being detrimental to the interests of the sedentary population.

These brief remarks are enough to show that the nomadic-sedentary distinction has to be regarded with a certain scepticism. North Africa did, undoubtedly, go through a prolonged period of turmoil. But was that turmoil basically the result of the “nomadic invasion”? And was there in fact an “invasion”?

Modern historians usually describe the arrival of the nomads in terms of an invasion or a flood: “Waves of nomads broke over the country without ceasing, trailing women and children after them and thrusting back those who had gone before them.”17

The “Hilalian invasion,” which is often presented as being as irresistible as the invasions led by Tamerlane or Genghis Khan and on the same scale, was in fact very different. The Arab nomads were not the destructive conquerors of legend. There are no grounds for describing their arrival as a “flood.” There were relatively few of them: about fifty thousand, according to the most reliable estimates. Although they did cause considerable destruction in the southern part of Ifriqiyah, the only area they actually conquered, in other areas their movements bore no resemblance to a conquest. Except in southern Ifriqiyah, they created no states and did not overthrow any established governments. In other regions, the only battles that took place along the routes taken by the “invaders” were those in which they suffered heavy defeats.

Besides, it is by no means proven that the tribes' main aim was to march westwards. On the contrary, they were mainly concerned with moving from north to south, from the Tell to the edge of the desert in search of new pastures for their herds, and had no desire to stray outside their traditional territory. “They moved from north to south in the same way that water follows the movement of the tides, and very rarely moved parallel to the coast.” (Marçais)

The Arab tribes moved west against their will and were pressurized into doing so by various rulers of the Maghreb. Far from trying to drive the tribes back, the rulers wanted them to come. Arab tribes were often forced to leave their own territory and settle in other areas. When the Almohad sultan inflicted a major defeat on the Arab tribes at Sétif in 1152 he was not trying to halt their advance. On the contrary, he was trying to force them to settle in Morocco and enter his service.

As a general description of the movements of the Arab tribes across North Africa from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the term “invasion” is, then, totally inaccurate. Although something of an exaggeration, “deportation” might still be a more accurate term. In most cases, the tribes were invited to come to the Maghreb, or even recruited.

“It would be wrong to imagine the Berber sultans as having been in constant conflict with the Arabs. ... Their presence was frequently considered desirable. ... The large-scale movements of the tribes were usually organized in order to bring in forces that could serve the state rather than to repress neighbouring tribes that were considered a threat. ... The nomads were brought from every corner of the empire and stationed at the weakest point. . . . Their departure was considered an irreparable loss and they were granted concessions to make them stay” (Marçais). The history of North Africa shows that, far from behaving like Gautier’s “anarchists and destructive nihilists,” the nomadic tribes almost always worked in association with the governments. “Emergent dynasties were virtually forced to gain the support of a powerful nomadic group” (Marçais). The rulers of Morocco and Tunis often allied themselves with nomadic tribes, and for the sultans of Tlemcen, such alliances were a regular policy. Marriage ties, the role played by the nomads in gathering taxes and maintaining order, and their participation in military expeditions all point to the closeness of the association.

It is clear, then, that the theories of the Hilalian “invasion” and of the basic nomadic-sedentary clash are both incorrect. One of the most curious features of North African historiography is the survival of these erroneous theories, despite all the efforts of the most eminent historians.

It would, of course, be absurd to go to the other extreme and to argue that the nomads caused no destruction and were invariably devoted supporters of law and order. They did play an important role in insurrections and dynastic struggles. But, just as it would be wrong to see the nomad-government alliance as a specific feature of the nomadic way of life, it would be wrong to see participation in. insurrections as being restricted to the herdsmen.

It is certainly the case that nomads played an important political role during the Middle Ages. They were mobile and owned riding camels, which meant that their military potential was much greater than that of the sedentary population. Most fighting-men were recruited from amongst the ranks of the herdsmen, with no distinction being made between true Arabs and Arabized Berbers. If some of the herdsmen in a given area supported the authorities, pretenders would look to other pastoral groups for support. Nomadic mercenaries provided most of the forces used in struggles between rival rulers, rulers and pretenders and between local chieftains, and there was considerable competition to recruit them. Nor was the role of the nomads purely passive: their leaders were cunning and often took advantage of the weakness of their employers to demand more money for their services or even to act on their own behalf.

As the political instability developed into a permanent state of war, it would seem that the political importance of the tribes increased along with their numbers. Their herds represented a mobile form of capital ideally suited to an unsettled situation, in that they could easily be moved away from marauding bands. Harvests and plantations, by contrast, were frequently plundered. The destruction was no doubt in part the result of anarchic and spontaneous actions on the part of the troops. But usually it was organized by governments which wanted to punish the local population for their political actions or force them to pay taxes.

The destruction caused by the herdsmen seems to have been the result of actions carried out on the orders of the rulers they served rather than of their personal initiative. The nomads’ domination over a frequently exploited and oppressed sedentary population did not result from a conflict between two ways of life. The subordination of the sedentary population was usually the result of government policy: nomadic groups were rewarded for their services by being given the right to raise taxes. As Marçais has shown, spontaneous looting was relatively rare and was usually the work of the poorer tribes. Nor is it irrelevant that many North African chroniclers see the contrast between the poverty and insecurity of the government-controlled Bled el Maghzan, in which nomadic mercenaries were active, and the relative wealth of the Bled essiba, which refused to pay taxes and where nomadic and sedentary tribes coexisted more or less peacefully, as a perfectly natural phenomenon. In many respects, the actions of some nomadic tribes in North Africa correspond to those of the mercenary forces employed in fourteenth-century Europe.

The developing role of the nomads and their movement into North Africa during the Middle Ages was an effect of the political and social organization of the Maghreb, rather than a prime or determinant cause. In the Middle East, where natural and technical conditions were similar to those in the Maghreb, the role of nomads was much less important.

Arabs from the east were not the only group to play this military and political role in North Africa. The sultans often used Berber tribes in the same way. Being more closely connected with the towns and the royal courts, which were the main centres for the spread of Arabic, the mercenary Berber tribes of the Bled Maghzan obviously tended to become Arabized more rapidly than tribes which lived in outlying areas where they were safe from royal troops and tax-gathering raids. It is also possible that the sultans who were looking for mercenaries preferred tribes from the east to older tribes who had been settled in one area for a long time simply because the former were more mobile.

It is now possible to demonstrate that the simplistic and erroneous theory of the Hilalian invasion does not appear in Ibn Khaldun's work. On the contrary, the fourteenth-century writer shows, with a perspicacity and accuracy that modern historians would do well to imitate, the real process whereby the so-called “invasion” took place.

Ibn Khaldun describes the beginnings of the “invasion” in the opening pages of his Histoire des Berbères: “It was only towards the middle of the fifth century of the Hejira that Africa was invaded by groups from the Hilal and Solaym tribes. As soon as they arrived, they made contact with the established governments... their history is bound up with that of the ruling powers.”18 It was in 433 (1051-52 AD) that the Arabs came to Ifriqiyah: “Mounes-Ibn-Yahya-es Sinberi, Emir of the Ryah,19 was the first to come. El-Moez immediately tried to win his support.20 He called him to him, declared that he was his friend and married his daughter. He then proposed that he brought in the Arabs from their outlying camps so as to overwhelm the princes of the Hammad family,21 his collateral relatives and those who had rebelled against him in the eastern part of the empire. After some hesitation, Mounes agreed and sent for the Arabs. The nomads then began to devastate the countryside.”22

This passage alone makes it clear that it was the ruling monarchs who invited the nomads into their realms so that they could use them as mercenaries. Ibn Khaldun stresses that before long the same methods were being used against rebellious vassals: “When el-Moez retreated to Mahdiya after having abandoned Kairouan, he lit a fire that was soon to rage throughout Ifriqiyah. The victors divided the cities amongst themselves and appointed their own governors. They distributed the surrounding lands amongst the nomads.”23

Similar conclusions could be drawn from the following passage, which is only one of the many that could be cited. Ibn Khaldun was well aware of the links between the rulers and the so-called invaders: “Sultan Abu Hammu began to make preparations for a new expedition to thwart the plans of the rebels.24 He sent emissaries to the Arabs, poured money into the tribes and granted them sufficient territory to satisfy all their needs.”25

Ibn Khaldun gives an accurate description of the results of these policies: “The central Maghreb is still in the state I have described so often. The Arabs are the masters of the plains. The authority of the Abd el Wadids does not extend to the outlying areas of the empire or beyond the coastal regions they ruled in the past. The power of the Arabs has weakened the dynasty. The Abd el-Wadids helped to make them strong by giving them money, granting them vast areas of land and surrendering a large number of towns to them. The only way they can control them now is to involve them in tribal quarrels and set them against one another.”

He uses other examples to show that the power of the nomadic tribes derived from their alliance with the government and that they never made any real offensives on their own initiative: “That branch of the Zanatah known as the Beni Badin... became devoted supporters of the Almohads as soon as they achieved power. The Beni Badin were much closer to the dynasty than their rivals. . . . In the central Maghreb they controlled more of the plateaux and more of the coastal area than any other branch of the Zanatah. During their summer migrations, they were allowed to go much further than any other nomadic tribe. They made up part of the Almohad army and were responsible for defending the Empire's frontiers.”

It is quite clear, then, that according to Ibn Khaldun the importance of the “nomadic” tribes (Arabs and Berbers alike) was to a large extent an effect of the political organization of the Barbary States during the Middle Ages. There would, however, still appear to be a contradiction between those passages in The Muqaddimah in which he anathemizes robber “Arabs” and those in which he praises the political virtues of those “Arabs” who founded states.

As noted previously, there is no historical basis for the theory that there was a basic antagonism between nomads and sedentary groups or between Arabs and Berbers. It is a myth. Some serious historians have gone on believing in it, however, even though the results of their own research contradicted the theory in a number of ways. Thus Marçais, one of the greatest experts on the problems of the Arabs in North Africa, subscribed to this view, even though he himself had collected a host of facts which prove that there was no real invasion. He never demolished the fables about the “Arab invaders” by collating his objections and reservations. Gautier, meanwhile, made the “invasion” an obligatory leitmotiv of all historical accounts of North Africa and an official theory.

This refusal to accept the mass of evidence, the stubborn repetition of the error, and the insistence on making it a central theme in any account of Maghrebian history cannot be accidental. The myth did not arise by chance. It was deliberately forged and inculcated into the framework of colonial ideology. From the very beginning of the conquest of Algeria, French generals tried to drive a wedge between “Arabs” and “Kabyls,” and they succeeded in doing so. Abd el-Kader would never have been defeated in 1847 if the Kabyls had not remained neutral. But they were not attacked until 1851. It was in Morocco that this “pro-Berber”26 and anti-Arab policy was organized most methodically. Its most spectacular and most serious manifestation came in 1953 during the so-called revolt of the Berber mountain tribes against Muhammad V, who was thought to be too sympathetic to the nationalist movement.

Turning the Arabs into destructive invaders was one way of legitimizing the “French presence.” In the work of Louis Bertrand 27 (Academician and official bard of the Gouvernement Général de l'Algérie) the Christian Barbary states are symbolized by St Augustine and are represented as having fallen to invaders from the east and then being restored to the bosom of the Christian west by France. Officials who had to make speeches about France's “civilizing mission” were only too glad to exploit this fanciful argument.

Attempts were made to set the seal of history and geography on these literary fantasies. E.F. Gautier was the theoretician of the Nomadic-Sedentary antagonism. Gautier had been at Galliéni's side during the savage repression of the Fahavalo revolt in Madagascar in 1897. He was a professor at the University of Algiers and one of the most brilliant ideologues of colonialism. Gautier did his best to prove that nationalist feelings had no legitimate place in North Africa: Nomads, Arabs and Orientals had “a biological and not a historical conception of the past and of history. The Arab is proud of his family, his clan and his tribe; the difference between this and our sense of patriotism is obvious. . . . A fatherland is a geographical country; only a settled population can love the land.”28

The Arab, therefore, has no right to a country of his own: QED. The fate of the Berber is no better, at least not according to Gautier: “The most obvious feature of the Maghreb is the absence of any emotional basis on which to build a feeling of nationhood. We have to accept that this individualistic flaw is incurable.” 29 There is of course no basis for such gratuitous and partisan statements.

Because of the eternal struggle between nomad and sedentary groups, “the modern Maghreb is a complex of incompatible and irreconcilable elements” and only foreign domination can weld it into a cohesive whole. “Not only has the Maghreb never been a nation; it has never been an autonomous state. It has always been part of an empire.” 30 “The people of the Maghreb have always been a conquered people... they have never succeeded in driving out their masters.” 31

It is amazing to hear an academic come out with such a tissue of historical untruths. It is not true that North Africa has always been part of a foreign empire: between the eighth and the sixteenth centuries the countries now known as Algeria and Tunisia were ruled by native dynasties. Morocco was independent from ancient times until the twentieth century. Roman domination was no more than a brief localized episode, and the sovereignty of the Caliph of Damascus never existed except in theory. This eternally conquered people once ruled both Spain and Egypt. Just think what could be written about France if only the period of the Hundred Years War was taken into consideration!

The falsification of history not being enough, purely racist arguments were also used. According to Gautier, “Of all the white races in the Mediterranean area, the Maghrebian race must be the most backward by far. ... This race has no positive individuality.” 32

But surely Ibn Khaldun, whose greatness was evoked to lend more weight to the anti-Arab theories attributed to him, was a Maghrebian? And surely there can be no doubt as to his worth? Gautier thinks otherwise: “The oriental mind is quite different from ours. The oriental has no sense of critical rationalism, no sense of reality.” Ibn Khaldun wanted to understand — a very western ambition for a Muslim. “This oriental had a sharp, critical mind. In other words, he had a western sense of history.” 33

Gautier goes on quite imperturbably with his falsehoods: “Muslim civilization suffers from a curious paralysis of the historical sense.” 34 “During the Middle Ages, the humblest of our historians wrote history in the same way that Monsieur Jourdain wrote prose; without realizing that he was doing so. It never occurred to even the most enlightened Saracen to do so.” 35

It might, however, be pointed out that if Ibn Khaldun and Froissard are compared, the representative of the Western Mind does not come out too well. Just as Louis Bertrand saw the Maghreb as a Christian country under Oriental domination, Gautier turns Ibn Khaldun into a western-style thinker. “He has a western conception of history. ... Ibn Khaldun's stay in Andalusia brought a breath of our Renaissance into his oriental mind.” 36

Why the stubborn refusal, which flies in the face of all the evidence, to admit that Arab civilization could produce historians? Why try to disassociate Ibn Khaldun from this caricature of the Arab world? Because, as Paul Valéry put it, history is a dangerous science. Gautier inadvertently admits his true motives when he writes that “In order to have a sense of history, one must belong to a nation.” 37 He uses the most laughable arguments to prove that “Arabs” have no sense of history, thereby “proving” that Maghrebians have no legitimate claim to a country of their own. Finally, according to Gautier, “The Maghreb never changes.” It would be euphemistic to describe this as wishful thinking.

Gautier was not the only contributor to this colonial ideology. Bouthoul also sees the struggle between nomadic and sedentary groups as being at the origin of the so-called dilemma facing North Africa: “Freedom and Barbarism or Servitude and Civilization.” The only governments stable enough to “impose peace upon these irreconcilable groups ... were governments which could rely upon aid from a powerful foreign state. Whenever North Africa was left to itself, it always experienced the same vicissitudes.” 38

Even C.A. Julien, that eminent socialist, subscribes to the same views: after a preamble dealing with geography and prehistory, he offers the following comment on North African history: “No matter how far back in time we go, the entire region always seems to have been afflicted with a congenital inability to be independent.” 39 The supposed unfitness of Maghrebians for independence and the nature of Gautier's “eternally conquered people” became keystones of colonial ideology. Given that there could be no doubt as to the fact that, after the Kharijite insurrection of the eighth century, the Maghreb became independent of the eastern dynasties, the migrations of a few Arab tribes who reached North Africa in the ninth century and entered the service of native rulers had to be transformed into an Arab “invasion” to give credence to the theory of the Maghreb's congenital unfitness for independence.

In terms of colonial ideology, the theory that the Barbary States were conquered by the Arabs was important for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that the French were merely the latest to conquer a land which had always been conquered and which, it was hoped, would always remain so. Secondly, it provided a historical basis for a policy of turning Arabs and Berbers against each other. 40

It is not surprising that the supporters of colonialism, hardly renowned for singing the praises of the great names of Arab civilization, should have given such importance to Ibn Khaldun. They could have hoped for no better confirmation of their fraudulent theories.


1. C.A. Julien (tr. J. Petrie, C. Stewart), History of North Africa. From the Arab Conquest to 1830, London 1970, p. 73.

2. Ibid.

3. Of the Hejira.

4. Of the Hejira.

5. Muqaddimah Vol. 1, p. 64.

6. Muqaddimah Vol. 3, p. 366.

7. Muqaddimah Vol. 1, p. 302.

8. Muqaddimah Vol. i. p. 304.

9. “Cent vingt ans de sociologie maghrébienne,” Annales 3, 1946.

10. G.F. Marçais, La Berbérie musulmane et l'Orient au Moyen-Age, Paris 1946.

11. Julien, History, p. 73.

12. E.F. Gautier, Le Passé de l'Afrique du Nord, Paris 1937, pp. 72, 374.

13. E.F. Gautier, Histoire et historiens de l'Algérie, Paris 1930, p. 31.

14. He makes a distinction between Sanhadja-speaking Berbers and Zanata speakers, and claims that the former are sedentary whereas the latter are nomads allied to the Arabs. This theory is extremely schematic, and there is no relationship between the ethnic and linguistic characteristics of a group and its way of life. Many Berber herdsmen spoke Zanata, but so did sedentary groups like the montagnards of the Aures. But the sedentary Kabyls and the nomadic herdsmen of the Atlas spoke Sanhadja.

15. R. Brunschwig, La Berbérie occidentale sous les Hafsides, Paris 1940, Vol.2, p. 421.

16. R. Brunschwig, Les Arabes en Berbérie, p. l69.

17. C.A. Julien, History, p. 73.

18. Histoire Vol. 1, p. 7. Emphasis added.

19. A tribe belonging to the Beni Hilal confederation.

20. The Zirid ruler of Ifriquiyah, then at war with the Hammadites.

21. Former governor of the eastern part of Ifriqiyah, which was now independent, and founder of the Hammadid dynasty. His capital was initially the Qalat of the Beni Hammad, but was later moved to Bougie.

22. Histoire Vol. 1, p. 34.

23. Histoire Vol. 1, p. 29. Emphasis added.

24. The ruler of Tlemcen, on whose behalf Ibn Khaldun himself recruited mercenaries.

25. Histoire Vol.3, p. 454.

26. For the application of this policy in Algeria, see C.R. Ageron, “La France a-t-elle eu une politique kabyle?,” Revue historique, 1960.

27. Saint Augustin, Paris 1913; Autour de Saint Augustin, Sanguis martyrum, Paris 1918; Les Villes d'or, Paris 1921.

28. E.F. Gautier, Le Passé de l'Afrique du Nord, Paris 1937, p. 114.

29. Ibid., p. 92.

30. Ibid., p. 25.

31. Ibid., p. 24.

32. Ibid., pp. 9, 24.

33. Ibid., pp. 95-101.

34. Ibid, p. 102.

35. E.F. Gautier, Moeurs et Coutumes des Musulmans, Paris 1931, p. 722.

36. E.F. Gautier, Le Passé, p. 96.

37. Ibid., p. 272.

38. G. Bouthoul, Ibn Khaldun, sa philosophie sociale, Paris 1930, pp. 50-51.

39. Julien et Courtois, Histoire de l'Afrique du Nord des origines à la conquête, Paris 1951, p. 48.

40. Cf. the statement made to the Senate Commission of Enquiry in 1891 by Camille Sabatier, “administrator” and one of the “theoreticians” of policy towards the Kabyls: “Divide et ut imperes? And why not? Why not prevent the Kabyls and the Arabs from uniting? The only thing they could unite against is France!”



Filed under: history, imperialism, islamophobia, mena, weekend-read