Virginie Prevost: L'aventure ibadite dans le Sud tunisien (VIIIe-XIIIe siecle). Effervescence d'une region meconnue.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Vikor, Knut S.
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Acta Orientalia Publisher: Hermes Academic Publishing Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Hermes Academic Publishing ISSN: 0001-6438
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 70
Topic: NamedWork: L'aventure ibadite dans le Sud tunisien (VIIIe-XIIIe siecle): Effervescence d'une region meconnue (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Prevost, Virginie
Accession Number: 300652473
Full Text: Virginie Prevost: L'aventure ibadite dans le Sud tunisien (VIIIe-XIIIe siecle). Effervescence d'une region meconnue. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica 2008. 479 pp. ISBN 978-0-7619-3634-3.

Students of Islamic history often get confused when they hear that are three major branches of Islam, not just the Sunnis and Shiis. The third, the Ibadi form of Islam, has lived a discreet and retired life in some of the more remote areas of the Islamic world, in Oman, in the Sahara and in patches along the Indian Ocean coast.

However, it was not always so. Arguably, the Ibadi, or Khariji branch was the first of the three to be formed, and in the early part of the Islamic Middle Ages, it was an activist theology that dominated most of North Africa. The Ibadis preceded the Shii challenge to caliphal rule by more than a century, but their North African heartland eventually fell to the Fatimid Shiis in the tenth century. Since then, the Ibadis were forced into the desert, where they still survive in the Mzab oasis in Algeria, and into some parts of southern Tunisia, in particular the island of Djerba.

This history is the topic of Virginie Prevost's detailed and masterly thesis. It is a major addition to a literature that still is dominated by the large, but scattered work of the Polish historian Tadeusz Lewicki, and more recent monographs by Ulrich Rebstock and Elizabeth Savage.

Prevost focuses on southern Tunisia, at the time an important centre of Ibadism. She does however put this into the larger perspective of Maghribi history, as the fate of the local Ibadis are intricately linked to that of the Ibadi state outside.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, and longer, is a political history of the Ibadi communities, their inception and their relation to the growing hostile powers, Aghlabids, Fatimids and Zirids. The central focus is the history of the Berbers and their relation with the Arab invaders, as the Ibadis were primarily a Berber reaction to, or rather adaptation into, the Arab-dominated Islam. Whether or not the Kharijis' more austere form of Islam was closer to the Berber conception of religion, their insistence that any Muslim, irrespective of ethnic origin, could rise to the highest position in society was clearly attractive to the Berbers. Thus also other Khariji branches as the Sufris gained support in the Maghreb. The strength of the Ibadis, however, largely made the Sufris align with the various IbadT subgroups, making Ibadism more or less synonymous with Kharijism. Today the term khariji has become a general term of abuse for "violent extremists". As latter-day Ibadis are neither violent nor extremist, some Ibadis try to deny this heritage and claim there is no link to the "Kharijis". Historically, there is no doubt about the continuity, but one must distinguish when later sources use khariji as synonymous with "rebel" and when they are referring to the actual theological and philosophical current we are dealing with here.

This book is more concerned with politics than with dogma. The highest point of Ibadi politics was no doubt the Rustamid state of Tahert (western Algeria), a state that dominated the Maghreb in the ninth century. It was weakened when succession disputes combined with theology split the movement into various branches, such as the Wahbis, Nukkaris and others. This division also had consequence for the Rustamid "periphery" such as Tunisia, as the various branches set up centres for themselves in the different provinces.

The main challenge, however, was the non-Ibadi powers, and external relations take up more space in this work than the internal strife and development. The conflicts with the Sunni centres on the coast were endemic, with towns regularly changing hands between the warring parties. Prevost marks in particular the battle with the Aghlabids at Manu in 896, which turned into a massacre not only of the Ibadi soldiers but also their religious leaders, as a disaster for the movement in Tunisia.

It was, however, the rise of the Shiis with the Fatimid revolt from 909 that marked the end of the Rustamid state, and started the longer decline of the Ibadi Muslims in general. The conflict here was religious and political, but also ethnic; the early Fatimid revolt was also a Berber-based movement, but with links to different Berber groups than those of the Ibadis, thus the struggle was in part Berber against Berber, as it was to be in many permutations down the Middle Ages. The Fatimid victory was a big blow to the Ibadi communities, but some tried to raise local resistance. That, however, led to the second, and final military disaster for the Ibadi movement, when the revolt of Baghaya in 969 was crushed. The Fatimids soon turned their attention to Egypt, but after Baghaya, the Ibadis never raised any military challenge to the rulers of the day, and focused on survival increasingly as a minority in a Muslim world dominated by others.

At this time, a large part of the population probably still adhered to the Ibadi doctrines. But over time, Ibadism as a theology was also forced into retreat. By the end of the thirteenth century, Ibadi centres were mostly found only in the remote south and desert-side towns like Wargla, Ghadames and in the Fezzan. With time, they dwindled even there, by the sixteenth century even the memory of Ibadi past had disappeared from most of these places.

The reasons for these changes are partly, besides the mere fact of Sunni political power, the growing strength and coherency of Sunnism, which in the tenth century was still hardly a unified theology, but was clear and consistent by the thirteenth. Of no less importance were the changes in the ethnic composition of the region. The famous population movements of Arab tribes Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym from the eleventh century changed the ethnic composition, and also led to many Berber tribes slowly modifying their identity and language and reappearing as "Arabs", with SunnT theology as an evident element of this Arabization.

The second part of Prevost's book concerns the economic role of the Ibadis in southern Tunisia, and in particular in the trans-Saharan trade. The heyday of the Ibadi expansion was also the period when the trade in gold and slaves from the "Sudan" (West Africa) developed most speedily, and when Islam was introduced south of the desert. There is no doubt that the Islam of the early medieval states of West Africa was an Ibadi Islam. That may not, however, have meant much to them, as Islamic theology only really started to take hold from the thirteenth century onwards; the early conversions of rulers were mostly formal acknowledgements. Even so, the Berber traders who did settle in townships in the south were to a large extent Ibadis, which has an effect on their history; e.g., the lack of Islamic tombstones from the period is natural, as Ibadis do not mark their graves with engraved stones.

Prevost focuses in this section on trade routes passing through southern Tunisia, and provides a wealth of detail. That is indeed the strength of this work, its abundance of facts and careful examination of original sources from the period. Here she has used both Sunni and Shii "mainstream" historians and geographers, but also many internal Ibadi accounts. Thus she is able to pinpoint careers of individual traders to the Sudan, for example, and to delve deeply into the internal affairs of Ibadi politics, which the Sunni chronicles pass over quickly. Her main Ibadi source is the sixteenth-century chronicler al-Shammakhi. It is a bit curious that she makes so little use of earlier sources like al-Warjlani and al-Darjini, both fairly easily accessible (both are published), but she does include them and is probably correct in saying that the later Shammakhi does incorporate much of their information into his work, and she does add much previously unused Ibadi material.

The book certainly does not suffer from lack of detail. It may, however, perhaps be a bit too close to the sources. Her work is a faithful presentation of what the chroniclers tell us, weighing different versions and stories into a critical narrative in the best historical tradition. Sometimes this may become a bit dense, and her use of some architectural comparison could certainly have been expanded to bring in archaeological or other sources to add aspects to the story she tells, so that it did not quite become the retelling of Arabic medieval chronicles that it has become.

However, this is also the strength of the volume; its wealth of detail of Ibadi history makes it now an indispensable addition to our knowledge about the medieval history of the Maghreb and Tunisia in particular, and to any historian of this "third branch of Islam".

Knut S. Vikor

University of Bergen
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