In the late 7th century, there thrived a powerful Berber woman named Kahina. Also known as, Kāhinah, al-Kahina, Dahlia, Daya, Dihya al-Kahina or Dahia-al-Kahina, this intriguing woman held influence within the Berber Confederacy in the Mauretania region of North Africa. In particular, her base of power was with the Jawāra tribe in the Aurès Mountain region. By the end of the 7th century, Kahina had risen to the top of Berber society, wielding political and military authority. Yet, with power came responsibility, and in her case, the grave responsibility she inherited was to lead the Berber people in resistance against Arab invasions that were occurring during her reign.
Unfortunately, the stories recorded about Kahina were mostly written down by scholars from the cultures that invaded her realm. Furthermore, many of these scholars lived more than a century after Kahina’s own time. The Futūh of Ibn Abd al-Hakam (c. 9th century), is one of the most cited texts concerning Kahina’s reign, but even Abd al-Hakam’s account is filled with far-fetched folktales and embellishments. Nevertheless, a general outline of her reign can be pieced together.
Kahina was reportedly related to (and possibly a daughter of) the Berber leader, Kusayla b. Lamsam, who flourished in the 680s. Although Kusayla tried to coexist with the Arabs and even converted to Islam, this did not stop the Arab commander, Uqba b. Nafi, from invading Berber territory in an attempt to impose direct Arab rule over the region. Since an enemy of an enemy is a friend, Kusayla reached out to the emperor and vassals of Constantinople, who had been defending against Arab invasions for decades. With imperial support, Kusayla was able to put forward a formidable defense of the Berber Confederacy, and it would not be surprising if Kahina played a role in helping Kusayla with his achievements. In the course of his campaigns, Kusayla killed Uqba b. Nafi in a battle around 683 and forced the Arab forces to retreat. Kusayla continued to lead the Berber forces in their resistance until around 688, when he was killed during an invasion by the Arab commander, Zuhayr ibn Qays al-Balawī. There was not much time for Zuhayr ibn Qays to celebrate, however, for he, too, was reportedly killed in battle before the end of 688.
During that intermission, while the Arab and Berber forces were finding new commanders after the loss of Kusayla and Zuhayr ibn Qays, it finally came time for Kahina to ascend to power. There may have been a succession dispute or competition, but she seems to have solidified her leadership position among the Berbers by 690. Although she had big shoes to fill, she did an admirable job of reorganizing and refocusing the Berber forces in anticipation of another Arab invasion. Her opponents, however, took their time to plan and prepare before launching their next major campaign.
In 698, around a decade after the deaths of the previous leaders, Kusayla and Zuhayr ibn Qays, the Arabs launched their long-delayed invasion of the Berber Confederacy. Commanding the Arab forces was Hasan ibn al Nu’man, and he faced off against Kahina’s prepared defenses. Unfortunately, the war between the two leaders is difficult to accurately date on a timeline, and accounts of Kahina’s actions are filled with propaganda and folkloric embellishments, such as stories of Kahina having magical or supernatural abilities. Whatever the case, it was a long war with momentum shifts going back and forth; and as the conflict dragged on, the region became devastated as slash-and-burn tactics were implemented, taking a great toll on the landscape.
As the story goes, Kahina was dominant in the beginning phase of the war. When Hasan ibn al Nu’man launched his invasion in 698, Kahina was ready for a fight and was able to outplay the invaders. She managed to definitively defeat Hasan on the battlefield at least one or two times, forcing the Arab commander to retreat and regroup before continuing on with his campaign. Nevertheless, as the years pressed on and her resources dwindled, momentum began to shift. Again, the timeline is vague, but Hasan eventually backed Kahina into a corner between 702 and 705. In that window of time, Hasan won a decisive victory against Kahina’s forces, causing the Berber queen’s death. Despite her demise, the memory of Kahina, as well as her predecessor, Kusayla, continued to serve as inspiration for Berber freedom fighters. Unfortunately, later rebel figures could not reproduce the successes of Kusayla and Kahina.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration from Rustam Captures the Shah of Sham and the Shah of Berber, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausica, dated c. 1330–40, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.