Berbers and Jews


Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Was surfing around and came across this...

"In the year 694, when the Arab armies invaded westward along the North African coast, the local Jews found themselves allied with the Berbers against the invasion. The confederacy of Jewish Berber tribes rallied around the Jewish/Berber priestess Kahena. The Berbers crowned Kahena as queen, and accepted her as their military leader.

The story of Dehiyya al-Kahina malkat Afriqah (Queen of Africa) is told by Ibn Khaldun, in a literary biography in Hebrew by N. Sloushz. Khaldun’s rendition leans heavily on legendary sources, but Salo Baron notes that "Nevertheless this account is essentially confirmed and amplified in many significant details in the more recently published chronicle of an older Arab writer, ‘Ubaud ibn Salih ibn ‘Abd al-Halim."

Khaldun’s chronicles about "this medieval version of the prophetess Deborah" hold that the priestess lived 127 years, and governed the tribe of Jeraua with the aid of her three sons for 65 years. Clearly an expansion of the truth, the historical kernel of the legends remains a classic of women’s participation in the resistance to tyranny, "as women sooth-sayers and tribal leaders in war and peace had long been known and poetically extolled even among the pre-Islamic Arabs."

Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson paid tribute to many noteworthy women warriors in their book, Wars of the Jews, and report about Kahena that "The Berbers of the Aures mountains retain legends of her bravery. She was said to have been born to a poor Jewish family of cave-dwellers. A chieftain of a Judeo-Berber tribe terrorized her Aures mountain settlement and demanded Kahena as a wife. When she rejected him he slaughtered people of her village. She then gave herself to him, but, like the Biblical heroine, slew him with a nail to the skull on the wedding night."

The Arab armies enriched themselves as they rampaged across Persia, Afghanistan and northern India to the east, and then in Egypt and Libya to the west. "The march of Islam had barely missed a step when, in 694, the Arab forces drove into Africa Minor. Expecting an easy sweep, the Moslems met fierce resistance in Barbary."

The Berbers rallied around their queen, the Jewess, Kahena, swearing to follow her into battle against the invaders. The Judeo/Berber army was swelled by soldiers of the pagan Berber tribes after their king Kocilla was killed by the Arabs. Queen Kahena became truly the queen and military commander of all the Berbers! "Lions of Africa and Judah," the queen would shout to her Berber troops, "show these Arabs that we will never be enslaved by Islam. Our beloved Africa will remain free. Let our slogan be the cry of the Zealots of old: Freedom or death."

Under their valiant queen, Northwest Africa was cleansed of Arab mercenaries. Commander Ukba, who had at one point broken through all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, was killed in a Berber ambush. His armies were pushed back in retreat to Kairwan, the new Moslem base in central Tunisia. "The arrogant Ukba had tried to intimidate the proud Berbers with force instead of patiently trying to convert them to Islam with face-saving diplomacy."

Queen Kahena’s skills were again tested in the second, more massive Arab invasion. A new Arab general, Hassan, had driven across North Africa with a fresh army of 40,000 horseman, and had taken Carthage from the Byzantine Greeks. Queen Kahena did not confront this massive force, but outflanked it by taking the city of Bagia from its Byzantine garrison. She roused the Christian population to join her forces in resistance to the Islamic invaders. When the Arab army laid siege to liberated Bagia, Kahena and her army streamed out of the city by secret passageways. They circled around to assault the enemy from behind a rocky prominence at Wadmini. The queen’s cavalries spent the night in the saddle, forcing the Arab horsemen to do likewise. The relentless pressure through the night took a toll on the on the travel-weary Arabs, who were not in their native environment and were disadvantaged by an ignorance of the terrain.

With the break of dawn, "the Berber cavalry attacked - spurred on by their fiery queen. The townspeople of Bagia, Greeks, Copts and Phoenicians, united and inspired by Queen Kahena, simultaneously marched out on foot at the Arabs’ rear. The Berbers charged with their rugged mountain ponies, while the Moslems countered with their swifter but more nervous Arabian stallions. A thousand Berber lances clashed with slashing Arab scimitars, as the impassioned Judeo-Berbers threw themselves at the fanatic Moslem Ishmaelites. The Arabs were completely routed. The main body of the army retreated as far as Gabes, while stragglers were driven into the wilderness where they perished."

Under their triumphant queen’s command, the Berber armies liberated Carthage, and swept on across North Africa to free it from both the Byzantines and the Arabs. The local Christians hailed the queen as liberator from the Arabs, and the Judaic communities, who had suffered dreadfully under heavy Roman and Byzantine taxation, hailed her as their deliverer. Kahena’s armies swelled with Jewish volunteers from the numerous hill communities that dotted the ridges of the mountains. The Bishop of Bula Regia had flowers strewn along her path.

For the next five years, the coalition of the diverse local elements held firm, and the region enjoyed a peaceful period of freedom from foreign domination. The wily Arab commander, Hassan Ibn Numan, learned through bitter experience that the dedicated armies under queen Kahena’s command were a formidable force. He set out on a classic "divide and conquer" diplomatic maneuver in preparation for another invasion. Noting Christian antipathy toward the Jews, he sent emissaries to the Christians, offering a carrot of proposed tolerance while playing on the latent fear and hostility toward the Jews.

The North African Christians were fearful of Visigothan conquest. They were susceptible to Hassan’s deceptive promises of autonomy, and their latent anti-Semitism proved more powerful than the peace and freedom they enjoyed under Judeo/Berber hegemony.

At the time, the Spanish Jews were suffering under Visigothan rule in Spain. The Visigoth kings instituted a antisemitic regimen at a succession of ecclesiastical councils at Toledo. They decreed forcible baptism, forbade circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and rites. "Jews were flogged, executed and their property confiscated, were subjected to ruinous taxes, forbidden to trade, and, at times, dragged to the baptismal font."

Hassan cunningly played upon the Judaic concern for their co-religionists suffering Visigothan oppression. He held out an olive branch to the Jews and proposed a joint Iberian invasion to rescue the Sephardic Jewish community from Visigothan tyranny. "Hassan’s seductive offer was actually first proposed by the Spanish Jews themselves. It was they who requested that the Arabs and the forces of Queen Kahena join to conquer the Iberian peninsula. The Spanish Jews were desperate for help in light of harsh new decrees that appropriated all their property, forbade them from all navigation and trade with Africa, prohibited all business with Christians, and required all converted Jews to eat non-kosher food in the presence of supervising clergy."

The Judeo/Berbers were lulled into failing to mobilize for defense against the Arab army. Hassan ‘s new, fresh army of 60,000 troops, swept swiftly across the continent, this time unresisted and even sustained by the Christian communities in their path.

It soon became clear that Hassan had no intention of halting at Barbary’s borders. Unprepared, the Berber army was thrown into retreat. The queen, learning too late of the Arab perfidy, hastily mounted a counter-offensive. In desperation, the queen launched a scorched earth campaign in the path of the thundering Arab troops, burning fields, cutting down trees, and destroying dwellings to deny sustenance and booty to the invaders.

The queen’s plans were also frustrated by an enemy within her ranks. "Just as King Saul lost his kingdom upon sparing the Amelekite king, Queen Kahena lost hers when she spared the brave and handsome Khalid Ibn Yessid El Kaisi, a srikingly aristocratic youth among the captives."

Khalid feigned to have become a loyal adopted member of Kahena’s own family. Secretly remaining a devoted Muslim, Khalid passed critical information to general Hassan about planned surprise attacks and ambushes. Thus armed, Hassan was able to prevail. Finally, probably concerned that his perfidy was about to be exposed, the trusted spy slipped out of the Berber camp, and was rewarded by Hassan with the position of deputy commander. Khalid’s intimate knowledge of Berber encampments, haunts and hideouts was a major factor in sealing the queen’s doom.

Unable to evade confrontation with the far more numerous forces under Hassan, "the two armies clashed head-on in a decisive battle at the ancient [Roman] amphitheater at Thysdrus, the modern town of El Jern. In the shadow of Rome’s former African glory, the fate of Barbary was decided. Arab historian Ibn Nuvairi records that the Berbers and the Jews fought like furies, and only the will of Allah allowed the Moslems to triumph. The remnants of the Berber force fled to the Aures mountains, with the queen’s guard at the rear. Her men begged her to flee to the safety of the Moroccan hinterlands, but Kahena preferred to remain with a handful of men holding a mountain pass against the onrushing Arabs. Like a true Zealot, she died with sword in hand.
The ignoble Hassan had her decapitated head sent back to the Arab Caliph, Abd el-Malik."

The Jews and Berbers were given a choice: convert to Islam or die. Some 50,000 refused to convert and were massacred. The others opted for conversion."

Now I know Jews have a long history in North Africa but this version of events is the first I've heard describing the Jews as so important to the difficult struggle of Islamic armies to conquer North Africa. I've almost always heard this story as pagan Berbers resisting Arabs so I wondered if anyone on here has more information or sources on this angle?

There are some other sources I can look at but it recasts my view of North African history at this point in time if this description has much validity. I'm aware that many Jews fled persecution in Alexandria and Visigoth Spain but somehow in this early period I'd read of Jewish families moving into Italy and France during this era and less about them moving to North Africa where several centuries later thousands of Jews and Muslims fled after the fall of Granada.
Apr 2014
as far as I know, this issue is raised recently after the publication of a book in French language titled "la Kahina" by Gisèle Halimi, a feminist writer of a Jewish mother and a Berber father. But her thesis is more based on speculations and unfounded assertions.

the reality is that nobody knows who was kahina exactly and what was her religion, since all accounts about her life and resistance were written centuries later, so it's impossible to separate the myth from the reality.

but if we count on the available sources we will get a portrait of pagan culture rather then Jewish or Christian...

the problem with Halimi thesis and the text above is that they invent stories, because all those references about zealots and the torah and Yahweh never existed in any historical source.

the only argument Halimi uses is the assumption that kahina comes from "Cohen" , but the reality is that the word kahina in well known Arabic word and it means a "divineress" or a "priestess".

it's just another narrative motivated more by subjectivity and communitarian spirit rather than objectivity and scientific method.

it will be better to admit that we don't know much about her and we don't have any contemporary accounts to draw an image closer to reality...


Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Got a link to the site by any chance?

Fairly biased on other examples on the site but this story intrigued me because from what I've read the alliance between urban and rural resistance was strong and made the Arab conquest particularly difficult. Jews being part of the binding of such cooperation seemed plausible.

as far as I know, this issue is raised recently after the publication of a book in French language titled "la Kahina" by Gisèle Halimi, a feminist writer of a Jewish mother and a Berber father. But her thesis is more based on speculations and unfounded assertions.
Thanks, I'll look into that.
Nov 2010
Ichon I have no reason to doubt it and it is very interesting. Lots of alliances in the ancient and higher medieval ages that most people dont have a clue about.

But what worries me about Ibn Khaldun is he was born in 1332. I've read a lot about muslim scholars from the 9th to 14th centuries and there is no doubting the brilliance of much of their work.

But 600 years is a long time to carry word of mouth legends.

Emilio Gonzalo Ferrin asserts that the period at that time in the invasion of Africa through to the invasion of Spain is basically a black hole without too much being known about it until around 800. The previous 100 years being an armed chaos with various ruling parties in both areas.

Histories and things started to be written in the 9th century, by the then rulers, in Islamic glory version - miraculous cavalry etc. But when you remember everyone had a name in arabic as well as latin or visigothic it's difficult to tell whether, for example, Tariq is an arabic-based character, or Taric (see Genseric, Alaric) is a Visigothic or Vandal origin character, or a Berber. In truth there is no evidence, and the period 650 to 800 is vastly more confused than later glorious stories would have us believe.

HISTORIA GENERAL DE AL ANDALUS - EMILIO GONZALEZ FERRIN, comprar el libro en tu librería online Casa del Libro

That said, for these reasons, the jewish/berber alliance is easily plausible.

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