Ibadism and the Construction of Ethnicity in Medieval North Africa

By Cyrille Aillet
Submitted to Session P4725 (Broadening the Narrative: Ibadi Islam in Focus, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Ibadism and the Construction of Ethnicity in Medieval North Africa

While Kharijism supported the claims of the Yaman? tribes and the Persians in the East, in North Africa Ibadism was soon identified with the Berbers and contributed to shape their ethnic identity. Far from being natural, the Arab-Berber dichotomy was first constructed against the Empire, for legitimizing the new indigenous Islamic polities, in particular the Imamate of Tahart (777-909). Instead of focusing on Berber rebellion as a response to Arabic ‘oppressiveness’ or a struggle for ‘freedom’, our contribution examines how the political confrontation between the Empire and his Western confines determined the Sunni narrative on the Islamic conquest of North Africa and its local population. The polemical image of the Berbers as a wild and rebellious nation, superficially converted to Islam, was probably an answer to the Khariji threat. This is made even clearer by the existence of an Ibadi counter-discourse, preserved by Ibn Sallam al-Law?t? (end of the 9th c.) and later sources, in which the Berbers become a new chosen people and their primitiveness a sign of their religious sincerity. These surviving fa??’il al-Barbar rely on hadiths which prove to be exactly the opposite of the available Abbasid and later Sunni material. The ethnic controversy, called shu??biyya, played a political role and was not reduced to a mere literary game in this context. The Iraqi geographer al-Ya?qub?, who visited North Africa roughly at the same time when Ibn Sall?m compiled his information, observed that local Berber communities had also adopted Eastern genealogies, like the well known affiliation to Barr b. Qays. The praise of indigeneity was therefore combined with the use of other widely diffused references. Among them, the Persian shu??biyya entered North Africa and probably inspired the ‘praise of the Berbers’. The Rustamids, whose name seems to remind of a famous Iranian hero, claimed to be ‘Persians’. At the end of the 11th century, Ab? Zakariyy?’ al-W?rjl?n?, clearly associated the fa??’il al-Barbar with the fa??’il al-Furs tradition by presenting the imams as the heirs of the Sassanid kings. The legendary figure of ?Abd al-Ra?m?n b. Rustam, who rooted a Persian dynasty in a Berber land, was at the crossroad of these two intertwined legitimacies and personified the alliance of the two Gentile nations of Islam oppressed by the ‘Arabs’.