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The Great Berber Revolt of 739 - 743 AD (122–125 AH in the Muslim calendar) was a war between native Berbers of North Africa and the Maghreb against their Arab rulers. The war took place during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik who ruled from Damascus over an extensive amount of territory, stretching as far as the Atlantic.
Inspired by Kharijite puritan teachings, the Berbers rose up against their Umayyad Arab rulers around the city of Tangiers and North Africa. Initially led by Maysara al-Matghari in Tangiers, the revolt soon spread to the rest of the Maghreb and to al-Andalus across the straits.
The Umayyads scrambled forces from the east to quickly combat the revolting Berbers, managing to protect the core of Ifriqiya from falling into rebel hands. Through a series of costly battles the Umayyad would manage to hold on to much of the northern Maghreb, but would lose control over the majority of Morocco, to which they would never recover.
The Berber alliance eventually disbanded and its army was dissolved after the failed attempt to take the Umayyad provincial capital of Kairouan and other important cities in the north. After the revolt the remaining territory held by the Berbers in the western Maghreb fragmented into a series of small Berber statelets, ruled by tribal chieftains and Kharijite imams.
The independent Berber states became the first independent Muslim states outside the unified Caliphate, resulting in a great setback for Caliph Hisham in the east. The independent Berber states would also lay the foundations for future independent states in the area, and would begin a long tradition of an independent Morocco.
By the time of the Berber Revolt, many Berbers in the Caliphate had become dissatisfied with Arab rule, particularly the Umayyad governors in Kairouan, Ifriqiya, who had authority over the Maghreb and al-Andalus. Many Arab commanders had treated Berbers and other non-Arabs poorly. Although the Berbers were important to the successful invasion of Hispania, they were often given a lesser share of the spoils and frequently assigned to dangerous or harsher roles. Arab governors has also continued to levy extraordinary dhimmi taxation (the jizya and kharaj) and slave-tributes on non-Arab populations that had converted to Islam, which the Berbers felt went against Islamic law.
The levying of extraordinary taxation and slave tributes from non-Arab Muslims was finally forbade in 718 by Umar II, which helped to quell tensions. Following the military campaigns of the 720’s and 730’s however, the Arab authorities were forced to look for other ways to collect revenue and replenish their treasuries.
The Berbers grew resentful and became receptive to Kharijite activists who preached a form of Islam that promised a new political order, where all Muslims would be equal, irrespective of ethnicity or tribal status, and Islamic law would be strictly adhered to. Kharijite activists became popular in Berber regiments and cities, leading to several mutinies, including one by Munnus in Cerdanya, Spain, which were put down with difficulty. Yazid ibn Abi Muslim, an Ifriqiyan governor who openly resumed the jizya and humiliated his Berber guard by branding their hands, was assassinated in 721.
Ubayd Allah ibn al-Habhab was appointed Umayyad governor in Kairouan in 734, with supervisory authority over all the Maghreb and al-Andalus. Following a period of mismanagement, Ubayd Allah soon resumed the extraordinary taxation and slave-tribute in an effort to expand his resources, relying heavily on the non-Arab population. His deputies Oqba ibn al-Hajjaj al-Saluli in Córdoba and Omar ibn el-Moradi in Tangier were given similar instructions. Following the expensive garrisoning of Gaul to the north the tax only increased, while in the east the government in Damascus was unable to provide aid.
In 739 the powerful Ifriqiyan general Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri left the Sous valley of Southern Morocco for al-Andalus, weakening the Arab hold over Morocco. The North African Berber tribes of western Morocco; the Ghomara, Berghwata and Miknasa broke into open rebellion against their Arab overlords, choosing Maysara al-Matghari as their leader. With Habib gone Maysara assembled his coalition of Berber armies, his men donning shaved heads in the Sufri Kharijite fashion and with Qura'nic inscriptures tied to their lances and spears, and marched on Tangier.
After a brief battle the city soon fell into rebel hands and the hated governor Omar al-Moradi was killed. Maysara took up the title and pretension of amir al-mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful", or "Caliph"), rallying support to his cause. A Berber garrison was left in Tangier under the command of Abd al-Allah al-Hodeij al-Ifriqi, while Maysara's army proceeded to sweep down western Morocco. As he marched his ranks increased as Berbers joined his cause, and soon he had overwhelmed the Umayyad garrisons from the Straits down to the Sous.
Taken aback by the sudden revolt, the Umayyad governor in Kairouan, Ubayd Allah ibn al-Habhab, immediately sent messengers to the general Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri in Al-Andalus, urging him to immediately send his army back to Africa to add to his small garrison. As he waited for his army to return, Ubayd Allah assembled an army almost entirely consisting of cavalry from the Arab elite of Kairouan. Khalid ibn Abi Habib al-Fihri was appointed as their commander, and was dispatched to Tangier to keep the Berber rebels contained. Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Mughira al-Abdari was also placed in command of a small reserve army and instructed to hold Tlemcen, to protect against a potential Berber army breaking the column and marching toward Kairouan.
The Arab army under Khalid ibn Abi Habib attacked Tangier where they met Maysara’s Berbers on the outskirts of the city. The vanguard Arab cavalry engaged in a brief skirmish before Maysara ordered a withdraw into the city. Rather than pursuing the Berbers, the attackers held the line south of the city, cutting off the enemy army from supplies as they awaited the army from the north to arrive. Having set out from Gibraltar the main army arrived north of the city.
In the city an internal coup was launched by the Berbers against their leaders. After Maysara’s seemingly cowardly actions against the Arab cavalry, many within his ranks saw him as an unfit ruler. Maysara was swiftly deposed and executed, and was replaced by the newly elected Khalid ibn Hamid al-Zanati, a Zenata Berber chieftain, as the new Berber 'caliph'. Khalid ibn Hamid al-Zanati immediately ordered an attack on the resting Arab column outside the city before they could be reinforced. In the so called ‘Battle of the Nobles’, the Arab cavalry was caught off guard and initially pushed back by the defenders, however the reinforcing army having recently arrived managed to turn the tide of the battle.
In the end the reinforcements were able to continue the siege, although almost all of the Arab cavalry initially around the city had been killed. Following the heavy loss of life the Arab command was shocked by this unexpected turn of events. In Tlemcen the reserve army of Ibn al-Mughira was ordered west to reinforce the army at Tangiers, which they did voluntarily to leave the a city filled with Sufrite preachers all around them.
In the meantime Habib ibn Abi Obeida entrenched the gathered army and his own in the vicinity of Tlemcen, and called upon Kairouan for reinforcements. The request was forwarded to Damascus. In the east Caliph Hisham was shocked and outraged by the Berber revolt, and ordered an army to crush resistance to his rule.
News of the Berber Revolt also reached al-Andalus where the heavily outnumbered Arab population became paranoid of a similar conflict in their own territory. The Arab elite of al-Andalus quickly deposed Obeid Allah's deputy, Oqba ibn al-Hajjaj al-Saluli, in January 741 and reinstated his predecessor, Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan al-Fihri, a more popular figure among local Arabs and Berbers alike.
In February 741, Kulthum ibn Iyad al-Qasi was appointed by the Umayyad Caliph Hisham as governor in Kairouan, replacing the disgraced Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab, whose misgovernment had provoked the revolt. As governor Kulthum was to lead an Arab army numbering 30,000 regulars, raised from the regiments (junds) of Syria, and an additional 3,000 from Egypt, into Morocco to combat the rebelling Berbers. Caliph Hisham also appointed Kulthum's nephew Balj ibn Bishr al-Qushayri as his lieutenant and designated successor, and the Jordanian commander Thalaba ibn Salama al-Amili as his second successor in case of emergency.
In the summer of 741 the first forces from Syria arrived, consisting of elite Syrian cavalry under Balj ibn Bishr, which had moved ahead of the bulk of the forces. Kulthum ibn Iyad did not enter Kairouan himself, but dispatched a message assigning the government of the city to Abd al-Rahman ibn Oqba al-Ghaffari, the qadi of Ifriqiya instead. Kulthum collected the Syrian forces and the remaining Ifriqiyan forces of Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri holding ground in the vicinity of Tangiers and began his military campaign in the Maghreb immediately. The North African and Eastern forces often bickered in the initial months of the campaign, but were quelled by Kulthum ibn Iyad, keeping the contingency together for the time being.
Having gathered his forces, Kulthum ibn Iyad clashed with Berber forces for the first time at the Battle of Bagdoura in October by the Sebou river. Having taken the experiences and cautious advice of the Ifriqiyans, Kulthum ibn Iyad used his elite cavalry to his advantage, targeting the enemy flanks and the undefended light infantry. Despite being under equipped the Berber infantry heavily outnumbered the Arab infantry, and managed to severely weaken the Arab line throughout the battle. Arab forces were entrenched and prepared for the long waves of attack however, and with frequent aid from the elite cavalry were able to hold the line.
Throughout the battle the Arabs were forced to fight defensively, taking notice of the Berber’s slingers who could easily knock through cavalry units if the Arabs stayed out in the open. The Berbers also employed the use of wild mares maddened by water bags and leather straps tied to their tails, which rushed straight across the Arab ranks, sowing much confusion.
Finally, having suffered numerous casualties, the Berber forces fell into retreat. In their defensive positions the Arabs did not give chase for the most part, allowing the remaining Berber army to slip away. Leaders of the Syrian expedition would later be chastised for this, although having defeated the Berbers on their own territory, the morale of the Arab army greatly recovered, and Kulthum ibn Iyad’s forces gained much needed experience.
The costly engagements under the command of the Zenata Berber leader Khalid ibn Hamid al-Zanati didn’t help to persuade remaining Berber tribes in Morocco and al-Andalus to join his revolt, severely weakening the Berber effort. Many quiet Berber communities would continue to remain neutral or limit support for the rebellion in the wake of such a disastrous war. The few tribes that answered the call to arms against the Umayyad in the eastern Maghreb were defeated. This included the Sufrite leader Oqasha ibn Ayub al-Fezari, who raised a Berber army and laid siege to Gabès and Gafsa. A small Ifriqiyan army was deployed south under the Kairouan qadi Abd al-Rahman ibn Oqba al-Ghaffari, who managed to defeat and disperse Oqasha's forces near Gafsa in December.
Caliph Hisham ordered the Umayyad governor of Egypt, Handhala ibn Safwan al-Kalbi to capture Oqasha and disperse his forces. Handhala ibn Safwan hurried his army from Egypt in February 742 and reached Kairouan around April 742, just as forces under Oqasha raised from Algeria returned to raid the area around the city. Oqasha was once again defeated outside the city, but fled back into Algeria to gather support once more.
A large force under the Hawwara Berber chieftain Abd al-Wahid ibn Yazid al-Hawwari came to Oqasha’s aid, advancing east to attack the Umayyad army in Algeria and Kairouan. Assembled from the remaining Berber forces in Morocco, Abd al-Wahid ibn Yazid al-Hawwari’s army was one of the largest ever gathered that far east throughout the war, posing an immediate threat to Umayyad administration in the Maghreb and cutting off supplies to the west where an army centered around Tangiers continued operations in Morocco. Handhala ibn Safwan knew it was important to cut off the Berber army before it arrived in full at Kairouan, dispatching a cavalry force to harass and slow down Abd al-Wahid in the north. The majority of Handhala’s forces were concentrated on Oqasha, who had taken a southern route to meet up with the rest of the Berber forces. Oqasha’s army was crushed in a bloody battle at El-Qarn and he was taken prisoner, although at a heavy cost to Handhala’s main army.
Handhala gathered every abled bodied man in Kairouan to serve as militia in his army before setting out again to combat the approaching army of Abd al-Wahid. In May 742 Handhala ibn Safwan defeated the great Berber army of Abd al-Wahid ibn Yazid at El-Asnam, just beyond the city limits of Kairouan. Some 100,000-150,000 Berbers, including Abd al-Wahid, fell in the field of battle in that single encounter. Oqasha was executed shortly after. The defeat of Abd al-Wahid effectively ended the revolt in the core of Ifriqiya, but the Umayyad still had to take back the rest of the Maghreb, including Morocco, which remained heavily under the sway of the Berber forces.
With Syrian and Egyptian forces under Handhala now advancing toward Morocco, the remaining forces of the initial Syrian expedition garrisoned within Tangiers disembarked for al-Andalus to aid in dispersing a number of minor revolts. Leaving a small garrison in Tangiers, the Arab army marched for the north, where the majority of the garrison consisted of Berber soldiers. Acting quickly the minor revolt was able to be put down swiftly, but the weakness along the border forced the expedition to garrison there permanently to protect against possible raids from Asturias. Several skirmishes would occur with the Christians of the north and the Syrian garrison, trapping Berber communities between to be raided by Asturias. Any captured Berbers in the area would become known as "Maragatos" by the local Christians (etymology uncertain, possibly from mauri capti, "captive Moors").
By 743 the Berber Revolt was considered over. With the failed attempts to seize Kairouan and other major cities, the Berbers had not gained any significant holdings to decisively defeat the Umayyad. In Morocco however the Berbers had established a foothold in North Africa, which heavily resisted the advances of Umayyad soldiers. Territory south of Fes and along the coast was lost to the Berber rebels, who established several independent kingdoms hostile to the Umayyad Caliphate.
The Great Berber Revolt was noted as one of the greatest setbacks to Arab rule during the Umayyad Caliphate, and heavily weakened the Umayyads overall. Never again would the Umayyad have the capabilities to launch an invasion into Morocco and further into Africa, and the majority of forces in the Maghreb would have to be dedicated to holding on to the remaining territories the Caliphate still held in North Africa.
Grasping toward independent rule by the end of the Berber Revolt, several Berber tribes would unite into a series of confederacies. The first of these monarchies to form in the aftermath of the war would be the nation of Barghawata, a confederation of Berber tribes along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Alongside the Ghomara and the Miknasa, the Barghawatas were one fo the first tribes to revolt against the Arab rulers of the Maghreb, and were also Sufri Kharlijite converts. By the end of the revolt however the Berber alliances had dissolved, and much of the rebel army had been disbanded.
Having grown resentful to many later adherents, notably the Zenata chieftains, as the founders of the revolt movement, the Barghawata had attempted to become leaders of the revolt while it still operated. Following the end of the war however, the Barghwata retreated to the Tamesna region, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where they founded their new independent state and abandoned their Sufri Kharijitism. Led by Tarif al-Matghari, the Barghawata established a kingdom stretching from Safi to Salé, and including the city of Azemmour.,
Further to the south, many Berbers settled the city of Sijilmasa. Led by Sufrite Kharijites, the early group of settlers numbered about four thousand people, who began construction of this new city. Founded on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, along the River Ziz in the Tafilalt oasis, the settlement attracted many other Berber soldiers and settlers from northern Morocco. ‘Isa bin Mazid al-Aswad was selected as the group’s first leader, who handled the city’s affairs during the town’s establishment and early history. However, after ruling for 14 years, he was blamed by his companions of corruption and executed. Abu al-Qasim Samgu bin Wasul al-Miknasi, chief of a branch of the Miknasa tribe, became the leader of the town. This Abu al-Qasim and his descendants are known as the Midrarid dynasty.