Who was Kahina?

Updated: 4/28/2022
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Kahina was a military and religious leader of the Jrawa Zenata tribe who drove off, and later, was defeated by Muslim invaders in the 7th century.

Kahina, also known as al-Kahinat -meaning "female seer"- and Kahya, I-Kahna in modern Magreb Arabic romanised as Kahina, was a military and religious leader of the Jrawa Zenata tribe. Her real name was Dihya, Dahya, or Damiya. al-Kahinat is a nickname that was used by her Muslim opponents because of her reputed ability to foresee the future. Kahina was born early in the 7th century, and died in the 690s in modern day Algeria.

Before the Islamic ConquestBefore the Islamic conquest of northern Africa began, Africa was a province of the Byzantine Empire. At that time it had been reconquered by Emperor Justinian. The entire area thrived under the capital city, Carthage. A peace in the land brought economic prosperity. Its grain was exported, as well as goods produced by artisans, such as red pottery which had become renowned throughout the Empire. Africa was rising to become an intellectual center of the world. Kahina's youth had been spent in this time and near, where peoples of different races and religions thrived, Romans, Berbers, Visigoth settlers, and Numidians; there were Catholics, Arians, Donatists, and Jews. There was some tension as the Jews and Donatists were subject to outbreaks of persecution and conflict however.

Kahina was the daughter of the Jrawa tribe's chieftain, Tabat. The tribe lived in the region of the Aures mountains. Little is know about her father, or even of her own life. Some historians claim that Kahina may have professed Judaism, meaning that her Arab name, al-Kahinat, may be of the Hebrew word Khn, meaning "a person of the priest class." One Arab chronicle by Ibn Khaldoun that had been written after Kahinas death called Kahina "a Jewess." At this time many Berber tribes were Jewish, but some were of Christian or native beliefs, so it is possible the Kahina was a Jew. One thing know about her was her appearance. Kahina had very long black hair, and large dark eyes; she was very tall for a woman of her time, and was charismatic.

She was known most of all for her great intelligence, wisdom, and the said ability to foresee the future. She was also a woman of great control. When she was a young woman, she was demanded by another chieftain to become his bride; when she refused he began to terrorize her tribe. Kahina was forced into hiding for a time, but finally she agreed to the marriage. On the wedding night, she murdered her new husband by smashing his skull with a nail. The man was a tyrant, and Kahina was greatly praised and thanked for rescuing the people of his tribe from his leadership.

Her renown life became known to the people of Masmuda. Their shaykhs and princes began to seek her hand in marriage, but she said that she would only marry the man who ruled the entirety of the Maghrib. Supposedly it was Amir Abu Bakr b. Umar who married her. She had promised him great wealth. One story shows that she blindfolded him and took him within a subterranean dwelling. When she took off the blindfold he saw rooms filled with gems, gold, and silver. He was amazed at what he saw. Kahina told him that all of it was his wealth, and that God had given it to him, also that she had delivered it to him. She then blindfolded him and took him out. She did this so he did not know who or where he had entered and exited.

The Conquest BeginsWhen the Muslims finally conquered Egypt in 646 AD, the year of peace would come to a close. Islam as quickly approaching, and the Byzantine Empire was suffering defeats on many other fronts, further weakened by a great civil war. There was no assistance given as the Muslim armies approached so the Exarches of Africa were forced to rely upon the limited resources that could be found locally.

Amazingly they were able to hold of the Arabs until 680 AD, when they finally broke through the defenses. The Byzantine retreated to the coastal cities as the Muslim commander, Oqba led raids along the coast, which reached the Atlantic Ocean in modern Morocco. Oqba is said to have slashed the waves of the ocean with his Sabre in fury that there was no more land to conquer, however he, and his army were soon annihilated by a group of Berber tribes. Eventually Carthage fell, and the Byzantine presence in Africa ended.

However, during the siege of Carthage, Kahina had been busy rallying together all the Berber tribes under one ideal; she also gathered survivors of the Byzantine army and the remnants of the Visigoths. They were determined to drive out the invaders. They began with guerrilla warfare which turned into a full scale attack against the Muslim army. She completely defeated it and pushed the invading army all the way back into Egypt, supposedly to the Nile.

She reclaimed the ruins of Carthage, and became the unquestioned leader and heroine of northern Africa. She was now joined also by deserters of the Muslim army, including an apostate who became a lieutenant and her adopted son. It was at this time she gained the name al-Kahinat. She ruled as a great military and administrative leader over her transformed army which now had discipline and was capable of being maintained, all while holding off the Muslims, for almost three years. However Kahina knew that the Muslims would attempt to conquer their lands again, and so she began preparing in the best way she knew how.

According to Muslim chroniclers, Kahina began a "scorched earth" campaign, thinking that by destroying what the invaders wanted out of their land -livestock, crops, and cities- they would abandon they invasion altogether. However, Kahina misunderstood one important point, the intent of the Muslims invasion. Another problem was that her actions caused her to lose support of the settled population who were terrified by the destruction. The intent of the Muslim's invasion was not to gain land, food, or livestock, but converts. Soon the Muslims sent out their armies who benefited from the destruction Kahina had done. Without the support Kahina's army and people desperately needed, they were utterly destroyed. It is said Kahina died with a sword in her hand and was slain by Ibn Khaldun when she was 127 years old, however this is most likely exaggerated. Her head was mummified and sent to the Caliph who had it nailed to the entrance of his favorite mosque. After her defeat much of the remaining people of northern Africa quickly converted to Islam or were killed as there was no, or little, organized resistance left.

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