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North Africa, the Island of Rebels

sectitle-featureseyes of egyptTo an outsider’s view, North Africa presents an image of social conformity and religious orthodoxy. But inside North Africa, a vast gap has repeatedly opened between two virtually opposite kinds of orthodoxy. Since before Roman times this has been a region of clashing cultures, divided between values of partnership and domination.

The first kind of orthodoxy was that of the rulers, with their claims to unconditional power over a desiccated land. This was a basically a political and economic orthodoxy, but it infringed on religion by making the rulers into objects of reverence. For example, when King Hassan II of Morocco spoke at the commissioning of a new army general in the 1970s, he said, “Anyone we entrust with a civil or military mission must reflect our mission, that of the commander of the faithful, obliged to serve as the divine shadow on earth.” At the time, the Moroccan army was engaged in the will of its master, namely annexing the southwest Sahara and exterminating the local resistance.

The second kind of orthodoxy was that of the local people, with their strong group loyalties. In the hands of these people, both ancient Christianity and medieval Islam were mainly expressions of community values like hospitality and solidarity. For these traditionalists, an injunction to love one’s neighbor might seem like simple common sense. The moral was driven home in a thousand folktales: Once upon a time, the ancestors knew hardship, hunger and thirst. Yet they shared what little they had, and behold, there was enough.

These two kinds of orthodoxy both claimed the same deities and holy books as their sources of inspiration. But aside from this claim, the two orders of religion bore little or no resemblance. To the outside world, it was the orthodoxy of the rulers that appeared as the “official” form of religion. This, it seemed, was the outer vestment of Middle Eastern and North African civilization. When sultans like Hassan II spoke of their own power as the essential element in Islamic culture, the outside world commonly believed them. But within North Africa, the claims of rulers to God-like omnipotence were less readily believed. The divine right of sultans was not widely accepted as an article of real religion. That was a belief of central importance only to the rulers themselves

Of course local people and their clerics seldom attacked the ruler’s beliefs in public, and silence could be taken for consent. To challenge the divine right of kings often brought the death penalty more speedily than any other possible heresy. As King Hassan II said to his country after a coup attempt in 1972, “God has placed the king on the throne to safeguard the monarchy, and to do this the Maliki school of Islam stipulates that he must not hesitate, if necessary, to eliminate one third of the population infected by evil ideas to protect the two thirds of the population not so infected.”

Naturally, the Moroccan people did not greet such sentiments with enthusiasm. But also naturally, they usually phrased any criticism of their rulers in indirect language. As Henry Munson explains, statements of general religious principle could be made to simply affirm the communal values violated by the sultans. So a series of Moroccan proverbs called down the wrath of God on unjust rulers:

  • The oppressor will not be helped by God.
  • The oppressor is cursed by God and despised by the people.
  • There is no protection from the call of the oppressed to God.

In a side of traditional North African culture veiled to the outside world like the dark side of the moon, those who stood up against despotic warlords were commonly revered as the greatest saints of Islam.

Over the past 2,000 years, the North Africans embraced two religions—first Christianity under the Romans, then Islam, initially under the Arabs. In both cases, the local people took the invader’s religion, and used it to express of their own values. They turned both religions against those who brought them, repeatedly rejecting foreign rulers not only for their oppression, but also of betraying their own faiths. Islam, of course, evolved primarily within the arid lands and was strongly shaped by the high-pressure politics of scarcity. What is less well recognized is how deeply Christianity took its “orthodox” form within that same environment, before it ever became the orthodoxy of medieval Europe.

muscle menThe Donatist Christian Revolt Against Rome and its Church

Before Christianity was the official religion of Rome, it spread rapidly in North Africa as a popular cult. The Romans periodically repressed it, because Berber Christians tended to use Christianity as a justification for refusing homage and taxes to the emperor. During this period of sporadic conflict and persecution, the Christian churches in Italy began growing apart from churches in the colonies. For Roman Christians, there often seemed no contradiction between loyalty to the empire and loyalty to God. In the colonies, the divergence of interests was more obvious.

North Africa’s Maghreb (now Libya to Morocco) was arguably the most hard-pressed of Roman colonies. There, the rationalizations of Roman Christians often appeared as nothing but self-serving injustice masquerading as faith. The anti-colonial Maghreb became a breeding ground for a “church of martyrs,” in which refusal of loyalty to Rome was taken as an article of Christian faith. Death for the sake of that principle was proclaimed a guarantee of salvation in the next world.

After Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity (around 320 CE), the churches of North Africa suffered from identification with the colonizing government. When numerous ethnic-Roman church leaders gained high church office in North Africa, indigenous Christians often rejected them. Perhaps most North African Berber Christians regarded any priest or bishop who compromised with Rome as unfit to pose as a spiritual leader.

In 312 CE, the church hierarchy in Rome appointed a new bishop of Carthage. The chosen candidate, Caecilian, was a loyal Roman—so loyal that earlier in his career, while Rome still persecuted Christians, he had reportedly allowed Roman officials to destroy Christian scriptures and kill his rebellious parishioners rather than defy the soldiers. The lowly parishioners of Carthage presumed to veto his appointment. Their heresy was in claiming the right to choose their own spiritual leaders. As this protest movement, called the Donatist heresy, spread in the following decades, Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, saw the implications clearly. If the Donatist principle prevailed, the official Roman church would have no power to enforce its authority over anyone.

AugustineSt. Augustine (354–430), who perhaps shaped the Roman church more than St. Paul, was both a North African and a well-educated member of the empire’s upper classes. During his youth, the North African plantations of wheat were failing, the plantation workers were rebelling, and the Barbarians of Inner Asia were thundering into Europe. During his last days in 430, the Berbers were reclaiming their land from Roman farmers. The Vandals were hammering at the gates of Hippo and Carthage. In the conflict between Berber peasants and Roman masters, Augustine saw the empire as a force for God’s order, and felt it his duty to maintain discipline over an unruly flock. Just as many modern Moroccans feared the chaos that might result if King Hassan II was overthrown, Augustine placed his trust in a military dictatorship under God.

Theologically, Augustine argued that the Roman church’s priesthood stood above criticism from the laity. If the church hierarchy appointed a man as priest or bishop, his qualifications were not subject to review by the people. The church’s nomination defined a man as priest or bishop, not the consensus of the sinful parishioners. But why were the parishioners so incapable of choosing their own leaders? Because, Augustine explained, they were in the grip of an inborn disobedience to ultimate authority, ever since the first disobedient acts of Adam and Eve. And if this was not obvious, the depth of people’s inherited evil could be easily observed. For example, if Augustine set his mind against any desires of the flesh such as desire for sex, his body still returned to that desire again and again. Despite his vow of chastity, Augustine dreamed of sex and woke with his penis erect. Obviously, the body was tainted with disobedience and could not be trusted. The options, as Augustine saw them, were to give free reign to the chaos of disobedient passion (which the common people were obviously wont to do), or to subject this disobedience to a superhuman authority. Christians, Augustine maintained, should recognize that they were born sinners, incapable of discerning or choosing between good and evil. They should give up relying on their own twisted common sense, and instead depend on a higher external authority. And who were those correct superhuman authorities? They were the heads of the established Roman church and state. Was not the church’s succession of bishops and popes set in motion by Christ the king? And how could the rulers of this world have come to power save by God’s will? If life was a battle of Good vs Evil, what else besides a powerful alliance of church and state could save the peasants from their own sinful ways?

This theological argument was most convincing to the empire’s rulers and ecclesiastical heads. Those in high office did not usually ask why they themselves should be considered less prone to sin than their subjects, such as the peasants of the Maghreb. Therefore, Augustine’s arguments against peasant revolt in the lands of scarcity were adopted as church dogma. A Christianity of the rulers was given its clearest formulation in North Africa, and then became the outer vestment of European civilization for the next thousand years.

As for the Maghreb, when the Donatist heresy was finally suppressed by armed force, the indigenous population quickly abandoned Christianity. In this case, the religion of the rulers defended itself by destroying the popular religion.

The Maghreb’s Muslim Rebels

Supposedly, the Berbers who joined Islam as comrades in arms were to be welcomed as full members of the Islamic brotherhood. Many Arabs, however, felt that North Africa’s Berbers lacked all marks of higher Arabian civilization. To them, the Berber’s conversion seemed an opportunistic gesture, for participating in plunder while evading the tax on unbelievers. Besides, Arab governors needed revenue with which to rule. Therefore, they re-imposed the unbelievers’ tax on Berber Muslims. And at this insult, the Berbers rose to fight again, taking up the banner of an outlawed Islamic sect known as the Kharjites.

The Kharjites did not recognize the hereditary Umayyad caliphs of Islam. They claimed that the caliph should not simply inherit his position, but should be chosen by a consensus of those learned in the faith. The leader should be the greatest exemplar of spirituality in each generation, be that person a prince or a slave. As the Quran said, “The most righteous among you is the most honored before God.”(49:13). The original Kharjites fled persecution in Persia and Iraq by coming to North Africa. And in meeting these exiled heretics, the Berbers found other Muslims who treated and regarded them as equals. It was like a spark catching the pre-Saharan bush aflame.

revoltThe Kharjite revolt of 740 drove the Arabs completely out of northwest Africa. And aside from an Arab re-conquest of Tunisia, no Arabia-based empire ever ruled the Maghreb again. Unfortunately, however, the Kharjites’ opposition to central rule left them prone to division. Without a common external enemy, the Kharjites turned on each other. In doctrinal disputes they splintered into sects like Protestants. Their councilors were fallible, sometimes corrupt, and often ineffective as military commanders. For many in that time and place, such difficulties were enough to discredit primitive democracy.

The second Muslim Berber revolt was a Shiite jihad to remake the Islamic world. This was the Fatimid movement of the 800s, which rose first against the Arab rulers of Tunisia, then swept the Maghreb and went on to conquer Egypt. The Fatimid Shiites also objected to the rulers of orthodox Islam, but for a different reason. They believed that the caliphate had been seized by the wrong family. With an old belief that holiness is inherited, the Shias held that only a direct descendent of the Prophet through Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, could be a sinless, rightly guided head of the faith. The Fatimid’s leader claimed to be just such an imam of the Prophet’s lineage. Of course his claim to Imam-hood could never stand alone as the inspiration of revolt. The Imam also had to inspire the hopes of the poor. Basil Davidson says, “The impoverished people were the mainspring of revolutionary Shi’ism.”

With an army largely of Berbers from the Kabylia region of Algeria, the Fatimids swept into Egypt in the 960s. The Fatimid caliph Mo’izz then built his new capital at Cairo and moved on to attack Syria and Arabia. The Maghreb itself was left behind, ruled as a province in an Egypt-based empire. Within decades, many Berbers viewed the Fatimids as just another foreign power, collecting taxes from the Maghreb’s poor and giving nothing in return. In 1049, the North Africans rebelled again, this time claiming allegiance to the Fatimid’s enemies, who were the Sunni orthodox caliphs of Baghdad. This reversal of loyalties involved “apostasy” against the Shi’ite faith, and acceptance of Sunni orthodoxy. So North Africa’s rebels came full circle in the spectrum of Islamic denominations. But this latest rebellion cost them more than any other. Because when the Berbers apostatized against Fatimid rule, the Fatimid caliphs took revenge. They invited certain of their Arabian allies such as the Bani Hilal and the Banu Sulaym tribes to come and take the Berbers’ land. Starting in 1050 CE, these huge tribes passed through Egypt with their vast herds of animals. On reaching the coastal strip of Libya, they fanned out over the countryside.


Alport, E.A., “The Mzab,” in Berbers and Arabs: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa,  Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 142-144.

Davidson Basil, Africa in History: Themes and Outlines, MacMillan, New York, 132-133.

Laroui, Abdallah, The History of the Maghreb, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 96.

Munson, Henry Jr., Religion and Power in Morocco, Yale University Press, New Haven, 127-134, 143-144.

Pagels, Elaine, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Vintage Books, New York, 113-114, 125.

Reudy, John, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 11.

 Article Written by Brian Griffith

Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.


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