Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab: Wikis


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Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab al-Maousili (?- ?) was an important Umayyad official in Egypt from 724 to 734, and subsequently Umayyad governor of Kairouan, Ifriqiya from 734 to 741. It was under his rule that the Great Berber Revolt broke out in the Maghreb (North Africa) and al-Andalus (Spain).



Background and Character

Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab was an Arab official of the Banu Makhzoum, a clan of the Quraysh. Although exceptionally educated and remarkably competent and well-respected, Obeid Allah was the grandson of a manumitted slave.[1]. That humble origin may have embarrassed him and left him with a sense of personal insecurity among the high-bloods that packed the Umayyad circles. Throughout his career, Obeid Allah seemed to have been overly obsequious, a little too eager to please the whims of the well-born lords of Damascus, while simultaneously exhibiting and harsh and almost vicious disdain of those below him, particularly non-Arabs.[2]. Both those character traits would have significant consequences.

Official in Egypt

In 724, the Umayyad Caliph Hisham appointed Obeid Allah as sahib al-kharaj, or head of taxation in Egypt. As Egyptian governors proved ineffective, Obeid Allah became Hisham's point man and effective ruler of Egypt. Obeid Allah secured the dismissal of Egyptian governor Al-Hurr ibn Yusuf in 727, and again his successor Abd al-Malik ibn Rifa'a al-Fahmi, after they challenged his administrative powers. [3]

To expand fiscal revenues, in 725, Obeid Allah raised the kharaj by an eighth and appointed Arab officials (rather than local Egyptians) as tax-collectors. This provoked a revolt by Egyptian Copts in 725-26. Leaderless and disorganized, the Coptic revolt went nowhere and was quashed by the Arab authorities under the direction of Obeid Allah, with quite some bloodshed.

It became evident that the Arabs needed to expand their presence in Egypt. At Obeid Allah's suggestion, in 726, the Caliph Hisham began dispatching Arab regiments drawn from the Qaysid (or 'Syrian') tribes of northern Arabia, partly in order to get the more troublesome Qaysid regiments (junds) out of the vicinity of Damascus, partly to counter-balance the local Arab junds already in Fustat and Alexandria (drawn from Kalbid or 'Yemenite' stock of south Arabian tribes) lest they be used as a power base for ambitious local nobles against the central Umayyad government. To prevent quarrels, the Qaysid junds, some 5,000 who arrived during the time of Obeid Allah, were settled in the Eastern Hawf and forbidden from entering Fustat.

Governor in Ifriqiya

In late 732, Obeida ibn Abd al-Rahman es-Solemi, governor of Ifriqiya had been swiftly dismissed by Caliph Hisham following a personal quarrel. The Kairouan government was placed in the temporary hands of the lieutenant-governor Oqba ibn Qudama and the qadi Abd Allah ibn Mogheir ibn Berda. In Spain, Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan al-Fihri of the illustrious Fihrid clan, was acclaimed by the Andalusian Arabs as ruler after the death of wali Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi at the Battle of Tours in October 732.

Seeking to restore order in the west, in April 734, the Umayyad Caliph Hisham appointed his old Egyptian hand Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab as governor of Kairouan, Ifriqiya, with supervisory authority over all the Maghreb (North Africa west of Egypt) and al-Andalus (Spain).

Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab found the westerly domains of the Caliphate in disorder and the treasury thin following the mismanagement and reverses of the preceding years. Over Andalusian opposition, Obeid Allah dispatched Oqba ibn al-Hajjaj al-Saluli as his deputy in Cordoba (al-Andalus), replacing the popular governor Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan al-Fihri. Around this time, Obeid Allah appointed Omar ibn Abd Allah el-Moradi as his deputy in Tangier (al-Udwa).

Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab immediately set about dynamizing his fiscal resources by ordering new raids. In 734, an expedition was set out against Byzantine-ruled Sicily (the seventh in as many years), but it proved to be a failure. In 735, Obeid Allah dispatched an Ifriqiyan army under commander Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri to conquer Sous and the southerly regions of Morocco, acquiring substantial booty to replenish the treasury and bringing the region within the Umayyad caliphate. In 735, an amphibian Arab expedition was launched upon Provence, capturing Arles and Avignon and the lower Rhone valley. But the expeditionary force was expelled from Provence in 737-38 in a joint operation by Charles Martel of the Franks and Liutprand of the Lombards.

In 740, Obeid Allah dispatched Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri at the head of an Arab expedition across the water to Sicily in what was possibly the first attempt at a full-scale invasion of the island (rather than a mere raid). Habib had a successful landing and laid a brief siege to Syracuse, securing its submission to tribute, before events in Africa forced them to break off the invasion.

The Berber Revolt

In the late 730s, Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab had begun leaning more heavily on the Berbers under his jurisdiction to make up for the financial shortfalls. Contravening Islamic law and the 718 edicts of the Caliph Umar II, Obeid Allah reinstated some of the extraordinary dhimmi taxation (the jizyah and kharaj) and slave-tributes on the Muslim Berber population, provoking immense opposition. Similar policies were implemented by his deputies Oqba ibn al-Saluli in Spain and (with particular zeal) Omar ibn el-Moradi in Morocco.

But Obeid Allah went above and beyond his duties. Seeking to satisfy the luxurious tastes of the nobles of Damascus, Obeid Allah sent his officials in the relentless pursuit of the highly-prized wool of unborn Merino lambs, seizing (and destroying) entire flocks - the livelihoods of many Berber communities - just to gather the handful he could dispatch back to Syria. Berber girls and women were also highly prized as concubines by Damascus lords. Obeid Allah, eager to please as always, ordered them seized and kidnapped in great numbers, not stopping even at the wives and daughters of loyal Berber chieftans. [4]

Berber patience finally broke in 740, in what became known as the Great Berber Revolt. It began with an uprising in Tangiers against Obeid Allah's tax-collectors and raiders. Fired up by Sufrite (Kharijite) activists, the Berber tribes of western Morocco (the Ghomara, Miknasa and Berghwata) formed a coalition and acclaimed the Berber chieftan Maysara al-Matghari as 'caliph'. Tangiers fell into the hands of the Berber rebels hands, and soon enough the entire length of Morocco, from the Straits down to the Sous. Obeid Allah's own son, Ismail, then a governor in the Sous, was killed by the rebels.

Obeid Allah immediately dispatched orders to Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri to break off the Sicilian invasion and return the Ifriqiyan army to Africa. In the meantime, he dispatched a vanguard cavalry force, composed of the aristocratic Arab elite of Kairouan under the command of Khalid ibn Abi Habib al-Fihri (Habib's brother?), to hold the line against the Berber rebels while awaiting the Sicilian expeditionary force.

After a few skirmishes with the Arab vanguard in the outskirts of Tangiers, the Berber rebels decided to depose Maysara and reorganize their forces under the Zenata chieftan Khalid ibn Hamid al-Zanati. Khalid ordered an immediate attack and destroyed the Ifriqiyan vanguard at the Battle of the Nobles in October 740, cutting down the cream of the Ifriqyan Arab nobility. The main Ifriqiyan force under Habib ibn Abi Obeida arrived too late to prevent the massacre, and retreated to Tlemcen, which had in the meantime itself been raised to revolt by Sufrite activists.

Governor Obeid Allah ibn al-Habhab forwarded the report of the battle to Damascus and requested reinforcements. Caliph Hisham, shocked at the news, dismissed Obeid Allah in February, 741 and began preparations to dispatch a large eastern Arab army under a new governor, Kulthum ibn Iyad al-Qasi to crush the Berber rebellion. The disgraced Obeid Allah left Ifriqiya in April, 741, and returned to the east.

Preceded by
Obeida ibn Abd al-Rahman es-Solemi

(vacant after 732)

Governor of Ifriqiya
Succeeded by
Kulthum ibn Iyad al-Qasi

See also


  1. ^ Dozy, R. (1861) Histoire de Musulmans d'Espagne. (transl. Spanish Islam: A history of the Muslims in Spain, 1915), p.126
  2. ^ Dozy, ibid.
  3. ^ Hugh Kennedy, 1998, "Egypt as a Province in the Islamic Caliphate", in M.W. Daly and C.F. Petry, editors, Cambridge History of Egypt, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, p.74
  4. ^ Dozy (1861:p.128)


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