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The Disappearance of Christianity from North Africa in the Wake of the Rise of Islam

  • C. J. Speel (a1)

In most areas where Christianity was confronted during the four centuries after the Hegira by Islam the Christian religion suffered setbacks or was eclipsed in some measure, but it did not disappear. In North Africa, however, Christianity was not merely eclipsed, it was supplanted. Tertullian, the “Father of Latin Christianity,” had labored in North Africa during the latter years of the second century and the early years of the third. Victor I (189–99), the first bishop of Rome to write in Latin, and, according to Prof. G. LaPiana the first “Pope,” had been North African in origin.

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1. The term “North Africa”, in classical and early medieval times, meant essentially Proconsular Africa. In recent times the term has been applied to a vast extension of territory over 1200 miles wide stretching from Tripoli in the east to Casablanca in the west and from the Mediterranean in the north to the Sahara in the south. When originally written this paper dealt only with classical North Africa. It is necessary, however, to consider the larger area because Christianity disappeared, in time, from the bulk of modern North Africa.

2. LaPiana, G., “The Roman Church at the End of the Second Century,” Harvard Theological Review, XVIII (1925), No. 3, pp. 201277.

3. Cf. Bousquet, G. H., Les Berberes (Paris, 1957), chap. III, who says that during the period from about 150 B. C. to 650 A.P. most of the Berbers were little modified ethnically by those who controlled the northern coast of Africa. Berbers in the cities and towns were Latinized and Christianized but Berbers in the villages said “non” to the Romano-Christian civilization and “oui” to the Arabic-Muslim civilization. Hitti, P. K., History of the Arabs, 2nd ed. (London, 1940), p. 214, “the Romans and Byzantines … represented a culture that was quite alien to the … nomadic and semi-nomadic Africans…Islam had a special attraction for people in such a cultural stage as that of the Berbers… This explains the seemingly inexplicable miracle of Islam in Arabicising the language and Islamizing the religion.…” Frend, W. H. C., The Donatist Church (Oxford, 1952), p. 335, “Ponatism [is] one of the movements which led to the extinction of classical culture over a large part of the Mediterranean.” Frend sees Donatism as a part of the movement of the native African population against Roman control. Bel, A., La Religion Musulmane en Berberie (Paris, 1938), introduction. Zernov, N., The Reintegration of the Church (London, 1952), p. 39. Zernov, possibly influenced by Frend, says the mutual hatred of the Donatists and the Orthodox for each other “led to the complete extinction of Christianity in North Africa among its native population.” This is hardly the case and Zernov is not really satisfied with this explanation for he goes on to say “and yet the real cause of the disaster was not theological divergency, but the incompatibility of national temperaments among the Roman colonists and the North Africans.”

4. Fread, op. cit., p. 24.

5. Ibid., pp. 300–301.

6. Ibid., p. 303.

7. Ibid., p. 313.

8. Ibid., pp. 297, 300, 301.

9. Cf. Seston, W., “Sur les derniers temps du Christianisme en Afrique,” Melanges liii, 1936, pp. 101–21. Courtois, Christian, “Gregoire VII et l'Afrique du Nord,” Revue Historique, t. CXCV, 1945, pp. 97122, 193226 asserts that the Christians of North Africa even up to 1160 A. D. were not as negligible as has been frequently assumed.

10. Andrae, Tor, “Der Ursprung des Islams und das Christentum,” Kyrkohistorisk Arsskrift (1924), p. 282; Browne, L. R., The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia— From the Time of Mohammed till the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge, 1933), p. 184.

11. Latourette, K. S., A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York and London, 1938), II, p. 290.

12. Becker, C. H., “The Expansion of the Saracens—Africa and Europe,” The Cambridge Medieval History, ed. Gwatkin, H. M. and Whitney, J. P. (New York, 1926), II, 370.

13. Dagher, I., “Religious Heritage,” Current History, 04, 1954, p. 211.

14. Courtois, Chr., Les Vandales et l'Afrique (Paris, 1955), introduction.

15. Courtois, C., “Gregoire VII et l'Afrique du Nord”, Revue Historique, t. CXCV, 1945, 97122, 193226.

16. Courtois, C., Les Vandales, 7 f.

17. Bremond, G. E., Berberes et Arabes (Paris, 1942). Bremond, who asserts that any dissent from the Constantinopolitan-Nicene definition of the Christian faith aided in some measure the success of Islam, mentions Arianism as an important faetor contributing to Christianity's demise in North Africa. He also traces Vandal Arianism to Ulfilas and says (p. 123) the Vandals were the most Arian of the barbarians and that Vandal Arianism was far more aggressive than the Arianism of the Ostrogoths or Visigoths.

18. Scott, C. A. A., Ulfilas, Apostle of the Goths (Cambridge, 1885), 105, 106. See also von Schubert, H., Das älteste germanische Christentum (Tübingen, 1916), and Revillout, C. J., De l'Arianisme des peuples Germanique qui ont envahi l'empire Romain (Paris, 1850). The evidence we have about the conversion of the Vandals from paganism to Arianism does not permit us to say whether the tribal groups which made up the Vandal invasion of North Africa were Arianized in Hungary or in Gaul. It seems probable that the Hasding and the Alains were partially converted in Hungary and some of the Silings may have been Arianized when they were in the upper Danube valley. When these tribes moved into Gaul they were still somewhat pagan. The earliest trace of Arianism among the Vandals does not predate 421 A.D. Courtois says it is the best hypothesis that the neighboring Visigoths converted the Vandals to Arianism, but the proof is lacking. Courtois, C., Les Vandales, 35, 36.

19. Ficker, P. G., Studien von Vigilius von Thapsus (Leipzig, 1897): Lapeyre, G. G., Saint Fulgence de Ruspe (Paris, 1929), pp. 211, 212 especially; Courtois, C., Les Vandales, p. 223 especially. Lapeyre reports many interesting features of the Vandal occupation of North Africa. On page 45 he indicates that the Vandals, according to some evidence, sought to convert the Catholics of North Africa not only by a display of temporal power but by an exemplary conduct of life, by their abstinence, sobriety and virtue, which contrasted with the life in North Africa. Lapeyre feels that the Catholics, eager to convert the Vandals, acted imprudently when they actively polemicized against the Arianism of the Vandals. This activity actually backfired much as the Jewish polemics agalnst Mohammed backfired in Medina. Lapeyre cites a report made by Potentius (possibly the bishop of Tipasa) to Pope Leo the Great in which it is stated that some North African bishops marry, remarry and even have two wives at the same time. This situation also existed among the laity. Such a cultural practice differs little from Berber, Vandal and Muslim practices, but contrasts with Catholic Christianity in general. (See St. Leo. Epist. VII, P. L., 54, col. 646 f. and Mansi, V, col. 1257–1267).

20. Thomson, W. M., in the Ignace Goldziher Memorial Volume, ed. Lowinger, S. (Budapest, 1949).

21. Julien, C. A., Histoire de l'Afrigue du Nord, 2nd edit., 2 vols. (Paris, 19511952), I, 234, 325. For the material over the next six pages I am largely indebted to this source.

22. Augustine, S., Epist. 220, 4 (P. L., 33, col 994; C. S. E. L. 57, p. 433). G. G. Lapeyre, op. cit., 51.

23. C. A. Julien, op. cit., I, 235, 236.

24. Ibid., 236 ff.

25. Geiseric and the Vandals had much the same idea as Mohammed and the Muslims: contact with God was better effected in the native tongue.

26. This included two churches built in honor of Cyprian.

27. Courtois, Chr., Les Vandales, 289.

28. Ibid., 291, 292.

29. C. A. Julien, op. cit., I, 242.

30. Cf. the list of 173 inscriptions given in Courtois, Chr.Les Vandales, 367388.

31. C. A. Julien, op. cit., I, 247.

32. Ibid., 247–250.

33. Cf. Courtois, Chr., Les Vandales, 301 and footnote 19 of this paper.

34. C. A. Julien, op. cit., I, 250, 251.

35. There were no major changes in their moral or eleemosynary behavior. The “Christological” change is obvious and there were also changes in worship forms, liturgical practices and formulas. These changes had a serious effect on Christianity's “source de vie” and liturgical dynamic in North Africa.

36. In support of the remarks in the above three paragraphs see Procopius, , History of the Wars, Books III, IV, Eng. Trans. Dewing, H. B., Loeb Classical Library (London and New York, 1916); Julien, C. A., Histoire de l'Afrique du Nord, t. 1. (Paris, 1951), Chap. X; Mesnage, J., Le Christianisme en Afrique, t. 2., Declin et Extinction (Paris, 1915), pp. 5172.

37. P. K. Hitti, op. cit., 214.

38. I. Dagher, op. cit., p. 210. Dagher also says, “It might be safely said that there was in each North African tribe a clan or family that embraced the Jewish faith …. Many Jewish Berbers were able to preserve their identity and have kept their religious independence until today, despite the advent of Christianity and Islam in North Africa.” This is a good indication that the Berbers were not a fickle lot, hut could and did make religious choices and affiliations independently of cultural and political forces. Dagher says that monotheism gained much favor in North Africa during Roman rule because such a concept was ianately acceptable to the North Africans. Again he says, on. p. 209, “The feasts of the pre-Christian North Africans were characterized by the exclusive directness between the individual and the supernatural, without the intermediary of a priesthood.” One wonders how much of a part this latter characteristic played in the rejection of Christianity and the acceptance of Islam.

39. Albertini, E., in the Cambridge Ancient History, II (1936), 481, 487, asserts that the Berber wives spoke little or no Latin. See also, Grove, C. P., The Planting of Christianity in Africa, I (London, 1948), 57, 58.

40. Over a thousand Arian soldiers came with General Belisanius to help retake North Africa from the Vandals. Many of these settled in North Africa.

41. W. H. C. Frend, op. cit., p. 300–301; Woodward, E. L., Christianity and Nationalism in the Later Roman Empire (London, 1916) pp. 3132.

42. Frend says that Deo Laudes was the characteristic expression of the Donatists. Bremoud says that Deo Laudes was the cry of the Circumeellions and that this cry is the El Hamdoullah of the Muslims. Evidence also indicates the use of Deo Laudes by the Vandals and a case could be made for its use by other Christians and by pagans. The Circumcellions were peasants from Upper Numidia and Mauretania who ravaged and plundered the country whenever they wished.

43. C. H. Becker, loc. cit., p. 370. E. L. Woodward, op. cit., 67 ff., supports the fact that Vandal Arianism was widely accepted by the Berbers and many other North Africans and that Justinian's restoration was ineffective in changing this situation. He shows moreover, that when the Vandals invaded North Africa they used tactics and policies for getting the population to accept their Anianism and rule which were similar to the tactics and policies of the later Muslim invaders, although the Vandals appear to have been more energetic in North Africa in replacing the religion they found there with their own type of Christianity. In both instances these tactics were successful.

44. The term “Chnistology” refers to the doctrine or view of the person of Christ, involving principally his divine and / or human nature or natures. The Koran has definite statements about the miraculous birth, the miracles, the pure life, the death, the raising up alive and the coming again of Jesus the Christ. It also has statements about Jesus' relation to God. This is “Christology,” and since the Koranic view makes Jesus subordinate to God it has a “subordinist Christology.”

45. Frovencal, E. Levi, “Un Noveau Recit de la Conquête de l'Afrique du Nord par les Arabes,” Arabica, t. I, 1954, 1743.

46. Arberry, A. J., The Koran Interpreted (New York, 1955), v. I, 331 f.

47. K. S. Latourette, op. cit., II, 290.

48. It is interesting to note that the very word Islama connoted, in one usage, “peace” even as the Latin pax did. And this meaning of Islama or “peace” meant much the game as the word pax meant to many North African Christians. As far back as the time of Cypnian, when many Christians lapsed from the faith during the Decian persecution, the word pax or “peace” denoted not a cessation of strife but a return to and an acceptance by the presiding religious body. Moreover, it continued to have this meaning in subsequent years. It is not far fetched to assert that by clamoring for Islama and accepting Islama the same relationship of acceptance into the presiding religious body was involved in the minds of the North Africans of the seventh and eighth centuries. The almost unanimous use of the term pax (or pace) on the grave inscriptions of North Africa during the Vandal period (vide supra, footnote 30) indicates not simply rest from life's vicissitudes, but acceptance into the abiding and eternal presence of God. In North Africa these inscriptions are not Tninitanian, but are entirely in keeping with Teutonic Anianism and could be just as easily used in Islam. Too much weight, however, must not be accorded to this unique parallel, although similar simple parallelisms have decided the outcome of other decisions. Cf. the choice of Martin as bishop of Tours: Sulpicii Seven, Vita S. Martini, 9 and Speel, C. J.2nd, An Inquiry into Communal Authority in the Ancient Church, Ph. D., Thesis (Harvard University, 1955), 222.

49. Leclerq, H., L'Espagne Chrétienne (Paris, 1906), 253285; Cambridge Medieval History (New York, 1913), 159173, by Altamira, H.; Latourette, K. S., A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York, 1938), II, 2729.

50. G. H. Williams, in a letter to the present writer dated February 27, 1958.

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