The Story of Africa


- One god, many deities


- Two worlds


- Rites and living


- Religion and politics


- Islam


- Intellectual traditions


- Practices


- North Africa and Ethopia


- The Berbers


- East Africa


- West Africa


- Christianity


- North Africa


- Ethiopia and Nubia


- Missionaries


- African churches

North Africa and Ethiopia


*All dates given are according to the Western Calendar

Islam arrived in North Africa (the Maghreb) just seven years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 639. The 4,000 strong Arab invading forces came from Mecca under the leadership of the military ruler Amr ibn al-Asi. The Arabs were not entirely foreign to North Africa - they were well known as traders. There were also some well-established Arab communities. Within three years of arriving, the Arabs moved South, in retreat from the Byzantine fleet, to found the city of Cairo.

Islam and Christianity

At the time of invasion the Christian Coptic Church was being persecuted on doctrinal grounds by the Byzantine church in Constantinople. Many Christians welcomed the Muslim forces as possible allies against Byzantium. After an initial display of force, the Muslims treated the Church leaders with deference.

In the long term, those that refused to convert to Islam were penalised. They had to pay high taxes and were barred or evicted from positions in government. There was periodic persecution, notably at the end of the 10th century and at the beginning of the 11th century, but no executions. Pockets of Christians remained in Egypt; there was also resistance to Islam from the Berbers and from the Christian church in Nubia.

"Here (Dongola) is the throne of the King. It is a large city on the banks of the blessed Nile, and contains many churches and large houses and wide streets. The King's house is lofty with several domes built of red-brick and resembles the buildings in Iraq." - Traveller and writer, Abu Salih's description of 11th century, Dongola.

In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia became the focus for Christianity following the decline of the Kingdom of Aksum in the 8th century.

Change and continuity

The history of the Maghreb from the 7th to the 16th century was dynamic and turbulent, with reforming movements and dynasties clashing and succeeding each other. This took place against a background of vigorous trade and urban growth.

The Umayyad dynasty was followed by successive dynasties, operating across the Maghreb. These included the Abbasid dynasty, the Fatimid dynasty (claiming direct descent from the Prophet's daughter, Fatima) and the Ayyubid dynasty of Saleh al Din ibn Ayub (known as Saladin by English speakers).

A number of ruling dynasties began life as reforming movements, which launched jihads (Holy Wars) and then often took on the mantle of government. The most powerful and far-reaching was the Almoravid movement (al-Murabitun) in the West. This movement started in what is today modern Mauritania in 1070, and moved South as well as North, conquering Southern Spain in 1086.

Almoravids were overtaken by the Almohads in the 13th century. They in turn collapsed into three states by the 15th century. By this time Islam's hold over the Mediterranean was giving way to the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Castile and Portugal.

From Mecca to Baghdad

A crucial change for North Africa came in 750. This was when the Islamic centre shifted from Mecca to Baghdad (modern Iraq). In the long term this meant that Muslim society in the Maghreb became more independent, strengthening its ties with the flourishing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as establishing new Indian Ocean routes from the Horn of Africa.


Another critical event was the arrival of the Plague or Black Death in 1348 from Europe via Sicily. It reduced the population of the Maghreb between a third and a quarter. It seriously undermined the economy both in terms of trade and agricultural production.

"Civilisation decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed..." - Excerpt from The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History by Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun, who lost both his parents in the plague.

Ethiopian church

The Ethiopian Church continued through the centuries to resist Islam. However, from the 12th century to the 16th century, Ethiopian rulers were under periodic attacks from Muslim neighbours, starting with the Sultan of Shoa and culminating in 1543 with a decisive victory over the Muslim King of Adal, achieved with the help of the Portuguese.

Ottoman rule

Ottoman control over the Maghreb ran from the 16th century to the 19th century through rulers of varying independence. North African politics then became increasingly caught up in Anglo-French rivalry and burgeoning nationalism and religious revival, particularly in Sudan and Egypt.

A Christian account of the Muslim invasion of Egypt


"...the Muslims captured the city of Alexandria, and destroyed its walls and burnt many churches with fire and they burnt the church of Saint Mark, which was built by the sea, where his body was laid..." - Address of Leader of Muslim Forces, Amr ibn al-Asi, to Benjamin, Patriarch of the Coptic Church in Alexandria.

The Patriarch's response:
"Resume the government of all your churches and of your people, and administer their affairs. And if you will pray for me, that I may go to the West and to Pentapolis, and take possession of them, as I have of Egypt, and return to you in safety and speedily, I will do for you all that you shall ask of me.

Then the holy Benjamin prayed for Amr, and pronounced an eloquent discourse, which made Amr and those present with him marvel, and which contained words of exhortation and much profit for those that hear him; and he revealed certain matters to Amr, and departed from his presence honoured and revered."
- Taken from History of The Patriarchs of Alexandria, 642, The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Why come to Africa?

"I think this (the Muslim invasion of North Africa in 639) is an historical and strategic matter. No one can be in Palestine and Syria without being concerned about Egypt and vice versa.

Egypt is the threat or the potential threat to those who are in Palestine or in Syria and those in Palestine and Syria are also a potential threat to Egypt.

Those who wanted to control the whole area of the Levant or the eastern Mediterranean must control Egypt. It is a historical must. We know from the time of the Pharaohs."
- Dr Kassem Abdou Kassem, Professor of Medieval History at Zagazig University, North of Cairo.

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