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Introspection: did Arabs “colonise” North Africa?

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(Last Updated On: 04/04/2018)

Colonialism remains a contested concept: there exists no widespread agreement amongst academics upon what it should be properly defined as.

Activity that could be called ‘colonialism’ (at least, in the contemporary sense of which it is commonly thought of) is, however, frequently traced back to the Age of Discovery.

Stretching from the beginning of the 15th century until the end of the 18th century, the Age of Discovery refers to a period in European history heavily characterised by overseas exploration and the conquest of already inhabited foreign lands.

Portugal and the Crown of Castile (Spain) led the way in this global exploration. Their discoveries of oversea territories led to land expeditions where European explorers conquered vast amounts of land, establishing political control over the native populations.

For many, it is this creation of a colony, often overseas, via the subjugation of a country or area under the political control of a foreign country and occupied by settlers from that country, that best defines acts of colonialism.

This is important as it differentiates colonialism from other forms of expansionism, including imperialism, which may be seen as the political control over foreign lands without an occupation of foreign settlers.

As such, ‘colonialism’, as a historical phenomenon, has been confined to a select number of cases of (mostly European) expansionism.

However, to narrow down colonialism as a policy or activity based on a few particular cases, or to assume that colonialism is characteristic of only one civilisation, is to ignore the full extent of human history.

Indeed, almost every civilisation, including many Arab dynasties, have sought to extend their borders and influence in one way or another.

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While, at the very least, it is generally agreed that colonialism is a form of domination, consensus on the specifics of what constitutes colonialism remain elusive. Arguably, this is because it is hard to discuss colonialism without evoking personal sentiment and subjective opinion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of the Nigerian journalist Chinweizu Ibekwe. In his three-part series discussing African historic relations with Arabs and Europeans, Chinweizu unapologetically states that:

Arab colonialism is no figment of the imagination. And it persists today in different guises. Unlike European colonialism, it is not even in nominal retreat. The Arabs in Africa are colonialists.

Chinweizu draws comparisons between the well-documented European colonialism and the often-forgotten Arab colonialism to reinforce his argument.

He reminds us of the assimilationist policies of European colonisers which, premised on the superiority of European culture, insisted on using the colonisers’ European language over the native languages in the colonies.

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Today, one of the biggest reminders of colonialism is language. Spanish is the de facto official language of Argentina. In Brazil, it is Portuguese. In Saint Lucia, it is English. And, across North Africa, the lingua franca is a blend of native Amazighi, Arabic and other European colonial languages.

Following the Arab invasions of North Africa in the 7th century, native languages challenged by the introduction of Arabic by the invaders. This is a battle that has continued to do this day.

For decades, giving children Amazigh names was forbidden in Morocco. Furthermore, there has been great suppression of the Nubian language, native to the Nilo-Saharan Nubian people, in both Egypt and Sudan.

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Throughout his discussion on the historic relations between Africans and Arabs, Chinweizu identifies several other examples of the subjugation of North Africans under the political control of invading Arabs.

From the Arab’s civilising mission doctrine in North Africa, to the land expropriation committed by Arabs against native populations in the Maghreb and the Nilo-Saharan region, these examples add to Chinweizu’s claim that Arabs have colonised North Africa.

History is on Chinweizu’s side.

During the 7th century, the Arabs invaded North Africa three times. Beginning with their invasion of Egypt in 639CE, the Arabs, led by the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate Umar ibn al-Khattab, committed themselves to a war of conquest against foreign non-Arab people.

By doing so, the Arabs essentially began the process of creating a colony by bringing North Africa under their political control. This process was cemented in 643CE when the Arab military of the Rashidun Caliphate established a permanent Arab base in Barca, eastern Libya.

Arabs introduced many beneficial academic processes to North Africa, further bolstering trade across the Mediterranean. However, from here, the occupation of North Africa by Arab settlers only continued to grow.

In 647CE, Umar’s successor, Uthman ibn Affan, dispatched an army of over 10,000 Arab soldiers on a campaign that lasted over a year. Their expedition saw them face relatively little opposition in modern-day Libya, and they eventually settled in modern-day Tunisia.

In 710CE, the Arab forces took over the city of Tangiers in modern-day Morocco, thus completing their conquest of North Africa before moving on to Iberia.

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Though Arabs settled in North Africa, their conquest is rarely classified as colonialism.

Chinweizu is an exception to this trend. Where he sees similarities between European colonialism and the Arab conquest of North Africa, most see differences.

It is true that the Arab conquests were not characterised by overseas exploration or the conquest of vast amounts of land from around the globe. But this does not mean that their land expedition was not a colonial one.

Rather, when juxtaposed against ‘traditional’ European colonialism, the Arab conquest of North Africa is best described as cultural or assimilation colonialism. Alongside the subjugation of North Africa under the political control of Arabs, what occurred during the conquests was a vast cultural transfer from the colonisers to the colonised.

The Arabs introduced architecture, religion, language, medicine, philosophy and customs that were all alien to the native Berbers and Nilo-Saharan people of North Africa who were equally sophisticated but in other esoteric ways. This oppressed the native populations of North Africa by side-lining their own customs and ways of life, eventually assimilating them into the Arab dynasties.

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The Arab conquest of North Africa, though unfamiliar – yet not drastically dissimilar – to the ‘traditional’ European colonialism, deserves to be remembered as a colonial conquest. We can then discuss whether the benefits outweighs the disadvantages or vice-versa.

Indeed, wherever there exists the subjugation of an area under the political control of a foreign nation and occupied by settlers from that nation, there is potentially colonialism.

Maybe Herbert Lüthy was right when he wrote that ‘the history of colonisation is the history of mankind itself’.

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References

Ronald J. Horvath, ‘A Definition of Colonialism’ (1972), in Current Anthropology, Vol.13 No.1.

Chinweizu Ibekwe, ‘Colonialism: Arab & European Compared’ (2007), in Comparative Digest [3] Colonialism: Arab & European Compared – Black Power Pan Africanism (BPPA), Tract No.3.

Chinweizu Ibekwe, ‘Colonialism: Arab & European Compared’ (2007), in Comparative Digest [3] Colonialism: Arab & European Compared – Black Power Pan Africanism (BPPA), Tract No.3.

Ronald J. Horvath, ‘A Definition of Colonialism’ (1972), in Current Anthropology, Vol.13 No.1.

Herbert Luthy, ‘Colonisation and the Making of Mankind’ (1961), in Journal of Economic History, Vol.21 No.4.