In 644 at Damascus, Caliph Umar (Omar) was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan (Othman), during whose twelve-year rule Armenia, Cyprus, and all of Iran, would be added to the growing Islamic empire; Afghanistan and North Africa would receive major invasions; and Muslim sea raids would range from Rhodes to the southern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. The Byzantine navy would be defeated in the eastern Mediterranean.
The earliest Arab accounts that have come down to us are those of Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, Al-Baladhuri and Ibn Khayyat, all of which were written in the 9th century some 200 years after the first invasions. These are not very detailed. In the case of the most informative, the History of the Conquest of Egypt and North Africa and Spain by Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, Brunschvig has shown that it was written with a view to illustrating points of Maliki law rather than documenting a history, and that some of the events it describes are probably ahistorical.
Beginning in the 11th century, scholars at Kairouan began to construct a new version of the history of the conquest, which was finalised by ar-Raqiq. This version was copied in its entirety, and sometimes interpolated, by later authors, reaching its zenith in the 14th century with scholars such as Ibn Idhari, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Nuwayri. It differs from the earlier version not only in the greater detail, but also in giving conflicting accounts of events. This, however, is the best known version and is the one given below.
There is ongoing controversy regarding the relative merits of the two versions. For more information, refer to the works cited below by Brunschvig, Modéran and Benabbès (all supporters of the earlier version) and Siraj (supports the later version).
The first incursion into North Africa ordered by the caliph was launched in 647. Marching from Medina, Arabia, 20,000 Arabs were joined in Memphis, Egypt, by another 20,000 and led into the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa by Abdallah ibn al-Sa’ad. Tripolitania in what is modern Libya was taken. Count Gregory, the local Byzantine governor, had declared his independence from Byzantine Empire in North Africa , gathered his allies and initiated a confrontation with the Muslims and was defeated at the battle of Sufetula, a city 150 miles south of Carthage. With the death of Gregory the whole of north Africa submitted to the Rashidun Caliphate and paid tribute, and became a vassal state to the Muslims. The campaign lasted fifteen months and Abdallah's force returned to Egypt in 648.
All Muslim conquests were soon interrupted, however, by a civil war between rival Arab factions that resulted in the murder of Caliph Uthman in 656. He was replaced by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who in turn was murdered in 661. The Umayyad (Omayyad) Dynasty of largely secular and hereditary Arab caliphs then established itself at Damascus and Caliph Muawiya I began consolidating the empire from the Aral Sea to the western border of Egypt. He put a governor in place in Egypt at al-Fustat, creating a subordinate seat of power that would continue for the next two centuries. He then launched more efforts outward, attacking Sicily and Anatolia (Turkey) in 663. In 664 Kabul, Afghanistan, fell to the invading Muslims.
It began, according to Will Durant, to protect Egypt "from flank attack by Byzantine Cyrene." So "an army of 40,000 Moslems advanced through the desert to Barca, took it, and marched to the neighborhood of Carthage." An army of 30,000 Byzantine Greeks was defeated in the process.
Next came a force of 10,000 Arabs led by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi and enlarged by thousands of others. Departing from Damascus, the army marched into North Africa and took the vanguard. In 670 the city of Kairouan (roughly eighty miles or 160 kilometers south of modern Tunis) was established as a refuge and base for further operations. This would become the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, which would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.
After this, as Edward Gibbon writes, the fearless general "plunged into the heart of the country, traversed the wilderness in which his successors erected the splendid capitals of Fes and Morocco, and at length penetrated to the verge of the Atlantic and the great desert." In his conquest of the Maghreb (western North Africa) he took the coastal city of Bugia as well as Tingi or Tangier, overwhelming what had once been the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.
But here he was stopped and partially repulsed. Luis Garcia de Valdeavellano writes:
by a man who became known to history and legend as Count Julian.
Moreover, as Gibbon writes, Uqba, "this Mahometan Alexander, who sighed for new worlds, was unable to preserve his recent conquests. By the universal defection of the Greeks and Africans he was recalled from the shores of the Atlantic." His forces were directed at putting down rebellion. In one such battle he was surrounded by insurgents and killed.
Then, adds Gibbon, "The third general or governor of Africa, Zuheir, avenged and encountered the fate of his predecessor. He vanquished the natives in many battles; he was overthrown by a powerful army, which Constantinople had sent to the relief of Carthage."
Meanwhile, a new civil war among rivals of the monarchy was raging in Arabia and Syria. It resulted in a series of four caliphs between the death of Muawiya in 680 and the ascension of Abd al-Malik (Abdalmalek) in 685 and didn't end until 692 with the death of the rebel leader.
This development brought about a return of domestic order that allowed the caliph to resume the conquest of North Africa. It began with the retaking of Ifrikquiya. Gibbon writes:
the standard was delivered to Hassan governor of Egypt, and the revenue of that kingdom, with an army of forty thousand men, was consecrated to the important service. In the vicissitudes of war, the interior provinces had been alternately won and lost by the Saracens. But the seacoast still remained in the hands of the Greeks; the predecessors of Hassan had respected the name and fortifications of Carthage; and the number of its defenders was recruited by the fugitives of Cabes and Tripoli. The arms of Hassan were bolder and more fortunate: he reduced and pillaged the metropolis of Africa; and the mention of scaling-ladders may justify the suspicion, that he anticipated, by a sudden assault, the more tedious operations of a regular siege.
But the Byzantine Empire responded with troops from Constantinople, joined by soldiers and ships from Sicily and a powerful contingent of Visigoths from Hispania. This forced the Arab army to retreat to Kairouan. Then, writes Gibbon, "the Christians landed; the citizens hailed the ensign of the cross, and the winter was idly wasted in the dream of victory or deliverance.
The following spring, however, the Arabs launched an assault by sea and land, forcing the Byzantines and their allies to evacuate Carthage. The city was burned to the ground, leaving the area desolate for the next two centuries. Another battle was fought near Utica and the Arabs were again victorious, forcing the Byzantines to leave that part of North Africa for good.
This was followed by a Berber rebellion against the new Arab overlords. Gibbon writes:
Under the standard of their queen Cahina, the independent tribes acquired some degree of union and discipline; and as the Moors respected in their females the character of a prophetess, they attacked the invaders with an enthusiasm similar to their own. The veteran bands of Hassan were inadequate to the defence of Africa: the conquests of an age were lost in a single day; and the Arabian chief, overwhelmed by the torrent, retired to the confines of Egypt.
Five years passed before Hassan received fresh troops from the caliph. Meanwhile the people of North Africa's cities chafed under a Berber reign of destruction. Thus Hassan was welcomed upon his return. Gibbon writes that "the friends of civil society conspired against the savages of the land; and the royal prophetess was slain in the first battle."
By 698 the Arabs had taken most of North Africa from the Byzantines. The area was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its governor at al-Fustat, Ifrikquiya with its governor at Kairouan, and the Maghreb (modern Morocco and Mauritania) with its governor at Fes.
Musa bin Nusair, a successful Yemeni general in the campaign, was made governor of Ifrikquiya and given the responsibility of putting down a renewed Berber rebellion and spreading the message of Islam. Musa and his two sons prevailed, netting 300,000 captives. The caliph's portion was 60,000 of them. These were sold into slavery, the proceeds from their sale going into the public treasury. Another 30,000 captives were pressed into military service.
Musa also had to deal with constant harassment from the Byzantine navy. So he built a navy of his own which went on to conquer the islands of Ibiza, Majorca, and Minorca. Advancing into the Maghreb, his forces took Algiers in 700.
By 709 all of North Africa was under the control of the Arab caliphate. The only possible exception was Ceuta at the African Pillar of Hercules. Gibbon declares: "In that age, as well as in the present, the kings of Spain were possessed of the fortress of Ceuta [...] Musa, in the pride of victory, was repulsed from the walls of Ceuta, by the vigilance and courage of Count Julian, the general of the Goths."
Other sources, however, maintain that Ceuta represented the last Byzantine outpost in Africa and that Julian, who the Arabs called Ilyan, was an exarch or Byzantine governor. Valdeavellano offers another possibility, that "as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic tribe of Gomera." In any case, being an able diplomat who was adept in Visigothic, Berber, and Arab politics, Julian might well have surrendered to Musa on terms that allowed him to retain his title and command.
At this time the population of Ceuta included many refugees from a Visigothic civil war that had broken out in Hispania (modern Portugal and Spain). These included family and confederates of the late King Wittiza, Arian Christians fleeing forced conversions at the hands of the Visigothic Catholic church, and persecuted Jews. Perhaps it was they, through Count Julian, who appealed to the North African Muslims for help in overthrowing Roderic, the new king of the Visigoths.
As Gibbon puts it, Musa received an unexpected message from Julian, "who offered his place, his person, and his sword" to the Muslim leader in exchange for help in the civil war. Though Julian's "estates were ample, his followers bold and numerous," he "had little to hope and much to fear from the new reign." And he was too feeble to challenge Roderic directly. So he sought Musa's aid.
For Musa, Julian, "by his Andalusian and Mauritanian commands, ... held in his hands the keys of the Spanish monarchy." And so Musa ordered some initial raids on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula in 710. In the spring of that same year Tariq ibn Ziyad—a Berber, a freed slave, and a Muslim general—took Tangier. Musa thereupon made him governor there, backed by an army of 1,700.
The next year, 711, Musa directed Tariq to invade Hispania. Disembarking from Ceuta aboard ships provided by Julian, Tariq plunged into the Iberian Peninsula, defeated Roderic, and went on to take the Visigothic capital of Toledo. He and his allies also took Córdoba, Ecija, Granada, Málaga, Seville, and other cities. By this process, Tariq was conquering Iberia for Islam rather than taking sides in a Visigothic civil war. And in so doing he established beyond all doubt that Ceuta, the last Christian stronghold in North Africa, was now part of the Arab empire. By this means the Umayyad conquest of Hispania brought to a close the Islamic conquest of North Africa.