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A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise: The North African Response to the Arab Conquest.

A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise: The North African Response to the Arab Conquest. By ELIZABETH SAVAGE. Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, vol. 7. Princeton: DARWIN PRESS, 1997. Pp. x + 206. $29.95.

Unlike the native populations of most of the Near East, the Berbers of North Africa converted in large numbers to Islam soon after their conquest by the Arabs in the second half of the seventh century. However, we have little reliable evidence for how and when these conversions look place. As soon as we find Berbers as protagonists in the Islamic history of the Maghrib, it is often (though not always) as dissident Muslims of the Kharijite persuasion. In the 740s the Maghrib saw spectacular revolts in which both Berbers and Kharijism were central. After more decades of instability, one form of Kharijism, Ibadism, prevailed over its rivals and, beginning in 160/777, found its political expression in the Rustamid imamate of Tahert. This Rustamid state held loose and shifting control over the cradle-shaped tribal hinterland of the [[blank].sup.c]Abbasid province of Ifriqiya and its successor, the Aghlabid amirate. As Elizabeth Savage shows here, the Rustamid and Aghlabid states lived in a largely symbiotic relat ionship, despite doctrinal and other differences, until the demise of both at the hands of the Fatimids in 296/909.

This complex story presents a number of puzzles which Savage has undertaken to clarify in this book, The result is highly interesting and in some cases illuminating, even if some of the puzzles remain unsolved. In the introduction the reader may have difficulty in identifying the book's precise focus. The thesis implicit in the subtitle does not emerge until later, as at p. 90:

Many Berbers became Muslim, possibly not Muslims in a strictly religious sense, but rather in terms of throwing in their lot with Muslim leaders who seemed most likely to protect their interests. It is at any rate clear that Khariji Islam spread like wildfire from the early eighth century, when the motivation was less spiritual than a pragmatic vigorous response to the Arabs' military invasion, political usurpation, and regular enslavement.

It might have been more effective to feature this and similar ideas from the beginning.

The first chapter is devoted to the Rustamid imamate. The founding figures of Ibadism in the East (mainly Basra) were claimed afterwards as Imams by North African Ibadi tradition. However, the Rustamid Imams of Tahert were anything but fictional. Their religious authority went hand-in-hand with considerable political power, as has been argued convincingly by Crone and Hinds in the case of the Umayyad caliphate. After the fall of the Rustamid state, religious authority dispersed among the Ibadi mashayikh or men of religious learning. Chapter two, "Survival through Alliance," describes the early history of the Ibadiyya in Iraq and North Africa, in particular the Ibadis' alliance in the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods with the Muhallabid family. One interesting point, already alluded to here, is the understanding arrived at between the Ibadis and the governors of Ifriqiya for the early Abbasids, especially Yazid b. Hatim and his brother Rawh. This understanding allowed Yazid, Rawh, and some of their successor s to trace a path for themselves between the often hostile Arab jund, on the one hand, and the Berber majority, on the other. Meanwhile, for the Ibadis this understanding with the local caliphal authorities meant that the "Ibadisation" of the Berhers of the central Maghrib could get underway. Chapter three, "From Imam to King," is concerned with the "actual exercise of authority" by the Rustamid imams within the Ibadi community. This was a short sequence of capable rulers with long reigns, more or less conforming to the classic Ibn Khaldunian scheme. Throughout this period we see growing tension between centralizing monarchy and the Kharijite principle of election of the best (most righteous, most learned) Muslim.

The rest of the book goes beyond the Rustamid imamate. Chapter four is devoted to "Ibadi slavers." The first Arab-Muslim incursions into North Africa brought back many Berber slaves. Because of high demand for these in the East, later commanders and governors in the West came under intense pressure to take slaves, despite the Berbers' status as Muslims and the subsequent contradictions in terms of religious law. Savage shows in some detail how Ibadis, most of them Berbers, exploited an alternative source of supply in the ninth century by establishing lucrative trade routes with sub-Saharan Africa. Chapter five, on "Christian Ibadis," begins by stating that at the time of the Arab conquest of North Africa, not only were the Latin-speaking cities predominantly Christian, but also the Berber-speaking hinterland. Savage wishes to show that the Ibadiyya had Christian supporters, in Iraq at the time of its origins, as well as afterwards in North Africa. Her argument is interesting, but partly speculative. On the C hristianity of the Berbers, she has to admit that "in practice the tribal Berbers were not recognized as Christian, and so were obliged to make their submission to the Arabs and to [the Muslim] God" (p. 97). Savage discusses connections between the Christians of al-Hira in Iraq, who where called al- ibad ("worshippers/servants of God"), and the Muslim Kharijite Ibadiyya. The similarity in the names does not seem to be any more than that, and does not explain much about the identity and actions of the Ibadiyya. Similarly, Savage describes the Donatism that had reemerged among rural Christians of North Africa in the sixth century. But while it is easy to see similarities between Donatist and Kharijite principles of authority, clear proof of a connection still seems to be lacking. Savage does, however, convincingly describe a mixed and tolerant Ibadi world where Christians circulated and lived, with some of them playing important roles in commerce and even politics.

Chapter six, "Nafusa Sword, Mazata Wealth," is a nuanced discussion of the tribal context. The tribal configuration of the Ibadiyya in the mid-eighth century "represented a widespread political reaction to the Arab conquest." Indeed the Ibadiyya provided an impetus for tribe formation. The Nafusa were known as the earliest and staunchest supporters of the Ibadi imams, and afterwards tended to receive the choicest positions in the bureaucracy of the Rustamid state. Savage shows how place names in the Jabal Nafusa indicate assimilation of various Berber groups under Nafusa denomination. She discusses the roles of other tribal groups, some of which are less clear, as in the case of the Hawwara. It remains impossible to tell whether the Berber tribes were already Islamized, let alone Ibadi, in the great revolts of the 740s. But afterwards, the Berber tribes did unite and consolidate under Ibn Rustam and his followers.

Chapter seven, "Beyond Tahart," discusses the movement and progress of Ibadi learning after the fall of the Rustamid imamate in 296/909. The book's conclusion deals mainly with matters of trade. Clearly the Ibadi "merchant-shaykhs in their ever-widening web of trade" held an advantage, not unlike that of the Jews, in being a minority community with its members scattered along strategic trade routes.

This book holds rewards for anyone interested in the early history of Islamic North Africa. It is based on intensive reading of little-known sources, of which it offers (in the introduction) a well-organized and useful account. (However, references to translated sources ought to be accompanied by references to standard editions of the originals.) Savage also shows good control over modern scholarship, offering a list and summary of the enormous output of Tadeus Lewicki. If this book has a problem, it is in its apparent shifts of focus and of main theme. However, Savage makes contributions in several areas, including religious authority and the Rustamid imamate, Berber tribal identity in relation to the coming of Islam and of the Ibadiyya, and the role of the Ibadis in the slave trade and in commerce more generally. If the chapters seem to stand apart from one another, this is because, as so often for early Islamic history, the sources tend to impose thematic divisions on the historian. In this case the extra attention required from the reader will be amply repaid.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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