Everyone Should Know Kairouan, a City of Peace, Knowledge and Power

From the foundation until the Abbasid Era

“Kairouan is the Mother of the Cities and capital of the land, it is the greatest city in the Islamic West, the most populated, prosperous, and thriving with the most perfect buildings,” wrote Al-Idrisi, one of the most popular Muslim geographers in world history, about his description of Kairouan in his book “The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands”.

Kairouan, also known as al-Qayrawan, is one of the most popular Arabo-Islamic cities in the world. Situated in the center of Tunisia, Kairouan will play the most important role for spreading Islam in Europe and Africa in different ways.

I fell in love with Kairouan when I visited it for the first time in my life. I still remember my first impression of this historical city. I was fascinated by its glorious past and felt so thankful to live the experience of walking in the streets of the old madina, visiting the souk, the Arabic market, smelling the perfume of the typical Eastern spices, and tasting the Tunisian sweets.

I still remember how glad and thankful I was when I felt the Arabo-islamic serenity after I entered the first mosque built in North Africa (and one of the most important mosques in the world). The Great Mosque of Kairouan, better known as the Uqbah Ibn Nafi Mosque.

The history behind Kairouan

Kairouan was founded in 670 by Uqbah ibn Nafi, one of the most important Muslim commanders who served the Ummayad dynasty during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan. It is the first Arabo-islamic city in North Africa.

Its original name was derived from Arabic kairuwân, which is in turn derived from the Persian Kâravân , meaning military/civilian camp or resting place. Originally, it was a military camp and as a garrison town. The ultimate goal was to continue the conquest to the western part of North Africa, the Sub-Saharan countries, and Europe through the conquest of Andalusia, Sicily, and Malta. Kairouan would serve as a base to continue all these conquests.

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To make sure that the city he founded could not be taken by the Byzantines and their Berber allies and to build a strong Islamic garrison town, Uqbah and his troops built three important symbols in Kairouan to show the enemy and their Berber allies the religious, political, and military strength of Muslims.

The first thing was to transform Kairouan from a military camp to a garrison town. The second thing he did was building a mosque: the Uqbah Ibn Nafi Mosque.

There were two goals for the construction of a mosque in a recently conquered territory. The first one was to send a message of fraternization between the Arab Muslims and their new brothers in Islam, the Berber Muslims.The second goal was to show the Byzantine enemy and their Berber allies, who didn’t convert to the Islam, that Islam has now gained a firm foothold in this area.

The last thing Uqbah did in Kairouan was to build a governmental house to facilitate the administration of the Ummayad dynasty in Kairouan and to secure the political power in North Africa. After him, the Muslim general Hassan ibn Nu’man founded the city of Tunis, beated the Berber princes Al-Kahina, and conquered Carthage.

North Africa had officially become a new Islamic province with Kairouan as the new Islamic capital. It was from that moment that the Muslims started thinking about crossing the sea and conquering Europe. Whose idea was it? It was Musa Ibn Nusayr’s idea, the new Ummayad general under the rule of the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid I. He was also the new governor of Kairouan. He gave the order to Tariq Ibn Ziyad to conquer Spain from Tangier. We wouldn’t be able speak about Al-Andalus or the rest of North Africa without mentioning the important role that Kairouan played in their conquest.

During the reign Abbasid reign in Baghdad, Ifriqiyyah (modern Tunisia, including the East part of Algeria and the West part of Libya) became the shield and bodyguard of the Abbasid Dynasty. Ifriqiyyah protected the Abbasid dynasty from internal enemies, like some Berber tribes who refused to pledge allegiance to the Abbasids, and external enemies, especially the Byzantines who tried several times to take control over the Mediterranean Sea.

In 800, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid gave Ifriqiyyah to Ibrahim Ibn al-Aghlab. His task was to deal with the Umayyads in al-Andalus and the Idrisids (a Shia dynasty) in Morocco.

Ibrahim Ibn al-Aghlab became the founder of the Aghlabid dynasty, the first semi-independent Arab dynasty in North Africa. That means that the Aghlabids could take decisions about internal affairs concerning Ifriqiyyah and almost all external affairs concerning the political and commercial affairs between Ifriqiyyah and other countries. As long as they pay the annual tribute to the Abbasid caliph and their suzerainty was referenced in the khutba at Friday prayers. Kairouan became the capital of the Aghlabid dynasty.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.