Dahiyya al-Kahina bint D̲j̲arāwa al-Zanāt

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Dahiyya al-Kahina bint D̲j̲arāwa al-Zanāt

Death: circa 693 (39-56)
Immediate Family:

Wife of "The Greek" and "The Berber"
Mother of Yūnānī and unknown

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Immediate Family

About Dahiyya al-Kahina bint D̲j̲arāwa al-Zanāt

al-Kāhina (“the Sorceress”) was the guiding spirit of Berber resistance to the Arab invaders led by Ḥassān b. al-Nuʿmān [q.v.] after the collapse of Byzantine power marked by the fall of Carthage (73/692-3). Her true personality—which must have been highly complex—is very difficult to discern, for only the distorted reflections of her real features can be detected behind the legend.

There is no agreement even on her real name, for al-Kāhina is only a nickname given to her by the Arabs. It is said that she was named Dihya—Ibn K̲h̲aldūn (tr. de Slane, Berbères, i, 172) mentions a Berber tribe known by this name—of which Dahyā, Dāhiya, Damya, Dāmiya, or Daḥya could be merely variant spellings. There is the same doubt about her descent; she is said to be the daughter of Tātīt, or again of Mātiya ( = Matthias, Matthew) son of Tīfān (= Theophanus).

If this means that al-Kāhina was descended from those Berbers of mixed blood, the issue of mixed marriages, it would help to explain her authority, not only over her compatriots but also over the Byzantines. Several other indications confirm this hypothesis. Al-Kāhina herself is said to have married a Greek. We are told that she had two sons: the one of Berber descent, the other of a Greek father (Yūnānī).

She was also, contrary to general belief, Christian by religion rather than Jewish. Her tribe, the nomadic and pastoral D̲j̲arāwa, a subdivision of the Zanāta, themselves related to the Buṭr, had indeed first adopted Judaism, but like many other tribes, such as the Nafūsa, had afterwards been converted to Christianity.

When al-Kāhina appeared on the scene of history she was a widow, and was certainly very old. Legend relates that she lived for 127 years, 35 of them as “queen” (malika) of the Aurès, where in 477, following a successful rebellion against the Vandals, a first independent Berber kingdom had already been set up, governed by Iabdas.

Like those “Arab queens” cited by T. Fahd (Divination arabe, 98), she was clearly an “ecstatic”. At the moment of inspiration she became wildly excited, let her hair stream out, and beat her breast. She also practised more orthodox techniques of divination, such as reading the future in gravel, and there is no doubt that she owed a large part of her power to her prophetic gifts.

Al-Kāhina took up the challenge thrown down by Kusayla, who had mobilized in particular the settled Barānis. At first she was victorious. After taking Carthage and destroying the organized Byzantine forces, Ḥassān turned towards the Aurès, the stronghold of Berber resistance. He regrouped his forces on the banks of the Meskiana and attacked.

Al-Kāhina did likewise, after demolishing Bāg̲h̲āya, which was probably her capital and which she wished to avoid falling into the aggressors’ hands. The decisive confrontation took place on the banks of the Oued Nīnī, probably not far from the railway station of the same name which today is situated 16 km. to the south of Aïn-Beïda on the railway line to Khenchela. The battle was so disastrous for Ḥassān that for many years afterwards the Arabs called the oued where it took place Nahr al-Balāʾ (“river of trials”), or, for less apparent reasons, Wādi ’l-ʿAd̲h̲ārā (“valley of the virgins”). this campaign, Ḥassān’s first setback, had an epilogue in the territory of Gabès in the course of a final battle which drove the invaders out of Ifrīḳiya.

Ḥassān was ordered to halt his retreat four stages to the east of Tripoli, where he established his camp (Ḳuṣūr Ḥassān) and bided his time. Al-Kāhina enlarged the area of her authority, but her power certainly did not spread over the whole Mag̲h̲rib, nor even the whole of Ifrīḳiya, as is stated in some sources (Ibn ʿId̲h̲ārī, Bayān, i, 36; al-Nuwayrī, Nihāya, in de Slane, Berbères, i, 340).

She treated the Arab prisoners well; she had adopted one of them according to the Berber rite of simulated suckling, an influential chief, K̲h̲ālid b. Yazīd (sometimes called Yazīd b. K̲h̲ālid), who was regarded as a spy from Ḥassān’s camp.

Perhaps she wished to establish good relations with the Arabs and bring them to renounce their designs, of which she was doubtless informed, by means more reliable than divination. It was probably the failure of this policy which forced her in despair to devastate the country, adopting in the face of a stubborn enemy a “scorched earth” policy, which Solomon had already employed in 539 against King Iabdas when he was entrenched in the Aurès (Ch.-E. Dufourcq, Berbérie et Ibérie, ... in Rev. Historique, fasc. 488, p. 300, citing Procopius).

These alleged devastations have been a matter of controversy for many years. Some modern historians deny them altogether. The Arab chroniclers exaggerated them to an enormous extent. In fact, it seems that they cannot be denied completely, but nor should they be seen as a cataclysm. They could not have extended beyond certain regions of Ifrīḳiya, but they must nevertheless have been sufficiently serious to disaffect large sections of the settled population, who, when they did not seek refuge in the Mediterranean islands or even in Spain, were ready to beg Ḥassān to intervene.

Ḥassān, who had kept himself informed of the situation and had received reinforcements, once more invaded Ifrīḳiya, probably in 78/697-8 (the chronology is not clear), this time probably with the support of some Berber contingents hostile to the policy of al-Kāhina.

Henceforth the indigenous peoples no longer made common cause. From this moment an air of defeatism began to prevail in the Aurès, and this inspired Kāhina, her hair flowing, in ecstasy (nās̲h̲iratan s̲h̲aʿarahā), to give voice in her desperate state to those alarming prophecies which were but the warnings of despair and have come down to us as so many oracles. The first clash took place in the Gabès region and was unfavourable to al-Kāhina.

This is the logical moment to place the dramatic episode, unlikely yet probably true, in which the “queen”, certain of her forthcoming destruction, advised her sons to change sides before it was too late. She herself, with Ḥassān on her heels, fled for refuge to the mountains of the Aurès.

The final engagement took place in a place which al-Mālikī (Riyāḍ, i, 36) calls Ṭarfa: the form Tabarka given by al-Bakrī (Masālik, 57, trans. 121), Ibn Nād̲j̲ī (Maʿālim, i, 61), and Ibn Abī Dīnār (Muʾnis, 35) is surely a graphic corruption of This. Here, probably at the exit of D̲j̲abal Neshshār about 50 km. north of Tobna, al-Kāhina fought her last battle, which, we are told, both sides regarded as a fight to the death, before perishing beside a well which long bore her name. Her energy and determination made a considerable impression, and some modern historians hâve seen in her a sort of Berber Joan of Arc (de Lartigues, Monographie, 182).

(M. Talbi)


Sources in chronological order: Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, Futūḥ, ed. and tr. A. Gateau, Algiers 1948, 76-8

Balād̲h̲urī, Futūḥ, ed. Riḍwān Muḥammad Riḍwān, Cairo 1932, 231

Mālikī, Riyāḍ, ed. H. Monés, Cairo 1951, i, 32-6

Bakrī, Masālik, ed. and tr. de Slane, Paris 1965, text, 7-8, 20, 31, 57, 145, 182, tr., 22-3, 48, 69, 121, 277, 340

Ibn al-At̲h̲īr, Kāmil, Cairo 1357/1938-9, iv, 31-3

Yāḳūt, Buldān, Beirut 1957, v, 339, s.v. Nīnī

ʿUbayd Allāh b. Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm, Fatḥ al-ʿArab li ’l-Mag̲h̲rib, ed. E. Lévi-Provençal, in RIEEI, Madrid 1954, ii, 222-3 (tr. in Arabica, i, 40-41)

Pseudo-Ibn al-Raḳīḳ, Tāʾrīk̲h̲, ed. al-Kaâbi, Tunis 1968, 55-64

Ibn ʿId̲h̲ārī, Bayān, ed. G. S. Colin and E. Lévi-Provençal, Leiden 1948, i, 35-8

Tīd̲j̲ānī, Riḥla, Tunis 1958, 58

Nuwayrī, ¶ Nihāya, tr. de Slane, al-Wazīr al-Sarrād̲j̲, Ḥulal, ed. M. H. al-Ḥīla, Tunis 1970, i, 533-37

in Berbères, Algiers 1852, i, 340-2

Ibn K̲h̲aldūn, ʿIbar, Beirut 1950, vi, 214, 218-19, vii, 17-18, tr. de Slane, Berbères, i, 208-9, 213-15

Ibn Nād̲j̲ī, Maʿālim, Tunis 1902, i, 55-61

Ibn Abī Dīnār, Muʾnis, Tunis 1967, 21, 34-5

al-Mawlā Aḥmad, Riḥla, Fez n.d., 48-51 (trans. Berbrugger, Voyages, Paris 1846, 234-41)

al-Urt̲h̲ilānī, Nuzha, Algiers 1326/1908, 101-4

Ibn Abi ’l-Ḍiyāf, Itḥāf, Tunis 1963, i, 82-3

Nāṣirī, Istiḳṣā, Rabat 1954, i, 58, 82-3. Modern studies: S. W. Baron, A social and religious history of the Jews

M. Dall’ Arche, Scomparsa del Cristianismo ed espansione dell’Islam nell’Africa Settentrionale, Rome 1967, 125-32

Ch.-E. Dufourcq, Berbérie et Ibérie médievales: un problème de rupture, in Rev. Historique (Paris 1968), fasc. 488, 297-302, 311

H. Fournel, Berbers, Paris 1875-81, i, 215-25

Masqueray, Traditions de l’Aurès, in Bull, de corr. Afr., 1885, 1-2, 80-3

E. Mercier, Hist. de l’Afrique Septentrionale, Paris 1888, i, 212-6

de Lartigues, Monographie de l’Aurès, Constantine 1904, 182

E. F. Gautier, Le Passé de l’Afrique du Nord, Paris 1952, 270-80

G. Marçais, La Berbérie musulmane et l’Orient au Moyen Age, Paris 1946, 29, 34-5

H. Monés, Fatḥ al-ʿArab li ’l-Mag̲h̲rib, Cairo 1947, 242-59

A. Gateau, Conquête de l’Afrique du Nord, Paris 1948, 161, n. 106

E. Lévi-Provençal, Un nouveau récit de la conquête de l’Afrique du Nord par les Arabes, in Arabica, i (1954), 32-3

H. Z. Hirschberg, Ha-Kāhina ha-berberit, in Tarbitz, xxvi (1957), 370-83

T. Lewicki, Prophètes, devins et magiciens chez les Berbères médiévaux, in Folia Orientalia, vii (1965), 4, 6

idem, Survivances chez les Berbères médiévaux d’ère musulmane de cultes anciens et de croyances païennes, in Folia Orientalia, viii (1967), 7

Saʿd Zag̲h̲lūl ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Taʾrīk̲h̲ al-Mag̲h̲rib al-ʿArabī, Cairo 1965, 182-95

H. Simon, Le judaïsme berbère dans l’Afrique ancienne, in Rev. d’Hist. de Phil. Religieuses, Strasburg 1946, 6, 8

T. Fahd, Divination arabe, Leiden 1966, 92-3, 97-8, 100

M. Talbi, Un nouveau fragment de l’Histoire de l’Occident Musulman (62-196/682-812), l’épopée d’al-Kāhina, in CT, 1971, no. 73.

Citation Talbi, M.. " al-Kāhina." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 12 August 2012

Further Reading

  • Ibn Khaldun, Kitāb al-Ibar. Usually cited as: Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de l'Afrique septentrionale, a French trans. by William McGuckin de Slane, Paul Geuthner, Paris, 1978. This 19th-century translation should now be regarded as obsolete. There is a more accurate modern French translation by Abdesselam Cheddadi, Peuples et Nations du Monde: extraits des Ibar, Sindbad, Paris, 1986 & 1995. Hirschberg (1963) gives an English translation of the section where Ibn Khaldun discusses the supposed Judaized Jarāwa.
  • Hannoum, Abdelmajid. (2001). Post-Colonial Memories: The Legend of the Dihyā, a North African Heroine (Studies in African Literature). ISBN 0-325-00253-3. This is a study of the legend of the Dihyā in the 19th century and later. The first chapter is a detailed critique of how the legend of the Dihyā emerged after several transformations from the 9th century to the 14th.
  • H. Z. Hirschberg, The Problem of the Judaized Berbers', Journal of African History, 4 (1963), 313-339.
  • H.Z. Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa. E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 (2nd ed., Eng. trans.).
  • al-Mālikī, Riyād an-Nufūs. Partial French trans. (including the story of the Dihyā) by H.R. Idris, 'Le récit d'al-Mālikī sur la Conquête de l'Ifrīqiya', Revue des Etudes Islamiques 37 (1969) 117-149. The accuracy of this translation has been criticised by Talbi (1971) and others.
  • Modéran, Yves. (2005). Article Dihyā (Dihyā)', Encyclopédie Berbère vol. 27, p. 4102-4111. The most recent critical study of the historical sources.
  • Talbi, Mohammed. (1971). Un nouveau fragment de l'histoire de l'Occident musulman (62-196/682-812) : l'épopée d'al Kahina. (Cahiers de Tunisie vol. 19 p. 19-52). An important historiographical study.
  • at-Tijānī, Rihlat. Arabic text ed. by H.H. Abdulwahhab, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, 1994. French trans. by A. Rousseau in Journal Asiatique, section containing the story of the Dihyā is in n.s. 4, vol. 20 (1852) 57-208.