Sunday, April 1, 2018

Who were the Aghlabids?

An Islamic dynasty that ruled the province of Ifriqiyah from 800 to 909, the Aghlabids oversaw the creation of a center of culture, religion, and commerce in the region.
Aghlabid Emirate of Ifriqiya on the Map


The Aghlabids came from the Arab Muslim tribe called Banu Tanim. They along with other Arab tribal armies marched across all directions to conquer and convert people to Islam. The Banu Tanim in particular marched westward and helped to bring North Africa into the fold of the Islamic Caliphates.

Many clans and tribes settled in this region and established themselves as elite ruling class. Rebellions against the central Caliphate government were most frequent as some Arabs desired to maintain their autonomy. During the reign of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786 – 809) a renewed rebellion embroiled Ifriqiya caused by the insistent of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, to reassert control over the province. Eventually, Ibrahim ibn Aghlab went to Ifriqiya to crush the rebellion. Ibrahim requested as a reward for his deed to be given the province as a hereditary fiefdom. Caliph al-Rashid agreed to grant Ibrahim ibn Aghlab’s wishes and named him Emir in exchange for an annual tribute of 40,000 dinar.

Ibrahim ibn Aghlab settled in al-Qayrawan or Kairouan and built the palace complex called al-Abbasiyya, in honor of the Abbasid Caliphate. And so began the Aghlabid Emirate of Ifriqiya that was independent all but in name.

Consolidation of Power

The Aghlabids Emirs had a tough task ahead of them. After all, they were foreigners and Ibrahim ibn Aghlab had been nobody in the province because he had been the governor of the neighboring Zab province. His grandfather though ruled as governor of the region in the middle of the 7th century. But he and his successors had the challenge of ruling over a people they saw as foreign and who them foreign as well.

The Aghlabids ruled over a proud people. They included independent nomadic Berbers, pious religious leaders, and longtime Arab nobles and soldiers called the Jund settling in the province for decades. During the early decades of the Aghlabid rule, the Emirs and religious leaders quarreled over taxation as the latter opposed the fixed amount of tax imposed by the former that they deemed deviation from the Quran. Moreover, the Aghlabids adopted the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence while the locals adopted the stricter Maliki School. Eventually, the Aghlabids bended to pressure from the locals in 820 and adopted the Maliki School.

Meanwhile, the Aghlabids also had full hands in facing the Arab elite soldiery. Within less than 30 years, 3 major revolts erupted in 802, 809, and 824. All crushed, but Aghlabids knew they had to find a way to silence them to secure the Emirate’s internal affairs. They then built ribats or fortified mosque to serve as defense bases against rebellions as well as primary coastal defense.

During the reign of Emir Ziyadat Allah I (r. 817 – 838), the Emir found another way to prevent rebellion by the Arab soldiery by redirecting their energy and attention from local politics towards adventure and conquest. In 827, the Aghlabids received request for military support from Sicily. Ziyadat sent then his forces to land in Sicily and began the conquest of the island just as Tariq did with Spain a century ago. After the conquest of Sicily, the Muslims held the Island and raided Italy for 2 centuries. Aghlabids even raided Rome itself. Corsica and Malta too fell to the Aghlabids.

The attack of Italy also brought additional benefits for the Aghlabids. It united the Emirates under the banner of Jihad or holy war against infidels in Italy. Also, it allowed the Aghlabids to establish a powerful navy that dominated the Mediterranean.


With Sicily, booty, a powerful navy, and a good location, the Aghlabids prospered for decades.

As the Aghlabid navy ruled the waves, piracy became frequent at the expense of many European shipping. Aghlabid raiders captured ships and took hostages for ransom. Ransoms and booties enriched many sailors and the Aghlabids had their share. Though exemptions applied, they spared shipping conducting business with Ifriqiya regardless of religion. This secular way of choosing target angered some of Qayrawan’s clerics.

Moreover, Aghlabids also practiced toleration of other religions as the Abbasids. They welcomed all people from different ethnicity and religion. This opened the country for contribution of many talents of different sort of people. It also opened the Emirate for open trade.

The Aghlabid Emirate boasted a perfect location as an entrepot. With connection to Baghdad, goods from the Silk Road reached the markets of Qayrawan and North Africa. Then also came the North African trade network where salt, gold, and slaves circulated and shipped to Europe through ports with some located in Ifriqiya. Slave trade also gave the Aghlabids additional source of income. Their raids resulted to hostages with some either ransomed or sold into slavery. Thus, raid only not meant as part of Jihad but also of the slave enterprise. Food production also improved much credit to the capture of Sicily, once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Local craft industries also flourished as commercial centers attracted skilled labors. Cottage industries such as carpentry provided additional source of income. With these economic activities, the capital Qayrawan teemed with business deals and filled the coffers of the Aghlabid Emirs giving them the money and prosperity to stay in power.

The wealth obtained from the economy then went to public works meant to show charity, prosperity, and power. As Muslim rulers, they built or improve numerous mosque including the Great Mosque of Qayrawan and the Great Mosque of Souse. They also showed that they had power over nature and built amazing works in the transportation and storage of water. They built aqueducts to bring water to Qayrawan and into the famous 3 Aghlabid cisterns, one having a diameter of 128 meters.

Besides water works and mosque, the Aghlabids also sponsored the establishment of hospitals. Emir Ziyadat Allah ordered the establishment of the ad-Dimnah hospital in 830. It provided excellent service with halls for the sick and visitors. It also provided a special ward for lepers, people scorned for their deforming disease called by many back then as a curse. This hospital allowed the training of doctors and provided insights in diseases and hygiene.

Finally, the Aghlabids also invested in learning. During the last decades of the 9th century, the Aghlabids established their very own Bayat al-Hikam or House of Wisdom modeled after the same institution in Baghdad. Like the one in the Abbasid capital, it worked in the translation of many classical works to Arabic and hosted scholars for their studies and research. Islamic studies proliferated, especially the study of Maliki School. Women participated allowed to study. Many medical works by Ishaq ibn Imran about melancholy conceived during the Aghlabid’s patronage. Qayrawan became a hub for medical studies and in the 11th century, the works from the Aghlabid era were translated by Constantine the African and used for the curriculum of the University of Salerno, a premier institution of medical studies during the Medieval Age.

Decline and Downfall

The decline of the Aghlabids came less than a century after its foundation. Due to wasteful opulence, simmering local discontent, and ineffective Emirs, the Aghlabid dynasty met its demise under a new Shia Caliphate.

In 875, Ibrahim II came to power as the 9th Emir of Ifriqiya. He planned to open his reign with extravagance by ordering the construction of a new palace complex, Raqqada, few miles from the capital. Its large area, walls, towers, and palaces brought an aura of magnificence and grandeur. However, the cost for this project earned criticism from the religious leaders. Worst, the projects of the Emirs had put a burden in the population as revenue from tremendously high taxes financed it.

The out of control expenditure of the Aghlabid Emir Ibrahim came in a time of Shia Muslim penetrating deep into the minds and hearts of the people of Ifriqiya. Aghlabids showed themselves as Sunni and ruled with almost secular ideas. The waste of the Raqqada project became an opportunity for Shia Muslims to undermine the Aghlabids.

Thus, in 893, Kutama Berbers, led by Ubaydalla Said, mounted a rebellion against the Aghlabids. Said claimed himself as a descendant of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, and called himself the Mahdi, the one who would bring redemption before the judgment day. Gradually, his movement gained the support of locals.

By the time of Ibrahim’s death in 902, the days of the dynasty were numbered. Infighting between the Aghlabids brought Ziyadat Allah III to power over a weakened dynasty. Ziyadat came to power by killing his rivals which the Shia used to portray the Emir as a cruel despot. Ziyadat had the option of bringing in support from Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphs who were still their overlords. But fear of interference from Baghdad weighted more than the need of military support.

In 909, Ziyadat Allah loss the Battle of al-Urbus against Ubaydalla’s Fatimid army. He fled to Egypt only to see his former holding become part of the newly established Fatimid Caliphate. He eventually passed away in the Levant, ending the Aghlabid dynasty for good.

See also:

Metcalfe, Alex. Muslims of Medieval Italy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2009.

Meredith, Martin. Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2014.

General References:
“Aghlabids (800-909).” Historical Dictionary of Algeria. Edited by Philip Naylor. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006.

Perkins, Kenneth. “Aghlabid Amirate of Ifriqiya (800-909).” In Encyclopedia of African History. Edited by Kevin Shillington. New York, New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

"Aghlabids." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (March 29, 2018).

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Aghlabid Dynasty.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on March 30, 2018. URL:

Zaimeche, Salah. “The Aghlabids of Tunisia.” In Muslim Heritage. Accessed on April 1, 2018. URL:

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