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Prophetic Traditions about the Virtues of the Berbers in the North African Ibadi Tradition

The following is excerpted from Ibn Sallām, Kitāb fīhi bada’ al-islām wa sharā’i‘ al-dīn, pp. 121–125. This book, written by an Ibadi from the Tripolitania region, is the first-known historical account which has survived from the Ibadis of North Africa. This set of hadiths is part of a genre of literature known as faḍā’il in which the virtues of a particular group of people is praised through the citation of alleged (and often weak/fabricated) Prophetic traditions. In this case, Ibn Sallām (himself a Berber and an Ibadi) cites three alleged prophetic traditions in order to indicate that it was the Berbers, and not the Arabs, who were the most virtuous believers. 

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Ḥadīth 1

It was related to us that the Mother of the Believers, ‘Ā’isha (may God have mercy upon her), was once approached by a man from among the Berbers while she was sitting in the company of twelve men from among the Emigrants and Helpers (al-muhājirūn wa al-anṣār). As a result, ‘Ā’isha arose from the cushion upon which she was sitting and broke apart from the gathering to [give her attention] to the Berber, leading the people present to angrily disperse. The Berber sought that which he was after and then departed. ‘Ā’isha then sent for those [who had left] in order to gather them together. [When] they all arrived, she said to them: “Why did you all angrily leave my presence?”

They said “We were angry at the man. Verily, a Berber had entered into our presence even though we all hold him in contempt and despise his people (qawm). He esteems himself above us and you.”

‘Ā’isha said “He only esteems himself above us because of the statement of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) about [the Berbers].”

They said: “And what exactly did the Prophet of God say about them?”

She said: “Do you recall so-and-so the Berber?”

They said: “Yes.”

‘Ā’isha said: “The Prophet and I were sitting one day when that Berber entered upon us with a pale face and sunken eyes. The Prophet of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) gazed upon him and said to him: ‘What happened to you or are you ill? You departed from my presence yesterday with in good spirits and looking healthy, but now you return looking as if you have emerged from the grave!”

The Berber said: “I have spent the night, O Prophet of God, in severe distress and preoccupation.”

The Prophet said: “What has you worried?”

He said: “Yesterday, you repeatedly turned your gaze towards me and I feared that this was because a verse of the Qur’ān was revealed about me.”

The Prophet said: “Do not let this sadden you! Verily, my repeatedly looking towards you yesterday was only because Gabriel (peace be upon him) came to me and said: ‘O Muḥammad, I entrust you to be mindful of God and to treat the Berbers well.’” The Prophet continued: “Then I said: ‘O Gabriel and who are the Berbers?’ Gabriel said: ‘They are his people’ and he pointed to you, so I looked.” The Prophet continued: “Then I said to Gabriel: ‘And what is it about the Berbers?’ To which Gabriel replied: ‘They will be the ones who revivify God’s religion after it should perish and they shall be the ones to revitalize/renew it if it should falter.’ Gabriel continued: ‘O Muḥammad, the religion of God is a creation from among the creations of God. It arose in the Ḥijāz, its origins/roots being in Medina where it was created weak before He nourished it and caused it to grow until it became ascendant and increased in greatness and became fruitful in the same manner that a tree bears fruit and it will also become decrepit as a tree becomes decrepit. Verily, the head of God’s religion will be located in the West (al-Maghreb) and, truly, when the great, heavy thing falls it is not lifted up from its center or from its roots but rather it is raised up from its head.”

Ḥadīth II

It has been related to us that ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (may God have mercy upon him) was approached by a group of Berbers from the Lawāta tribe which were sent to him by ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ from Egypt; the latter was at that time the governor of Egypt during ‘Umar’s caliphate. They entered into ‘Umar’s presence with shaved heads and beards and ‘Umar asked them: “Who are you?”

They said: “We are from among the Berbers of the tribe of Lawāta.”

‘Umar said to the others in the gathering: “Are there any among you who know anything about this tribe and its relations with the tribes of Arabs and non-Arabs?”

They said: “We know nothing about them.”

Al-‘Abbās ibn Mirdās al-Sulamī said: “I have knowledge about them, O Commander of the Believers. These are descended from Barr ibn Qays. Qays had a number of children, among whom was one called Barr ibn Qays and his character abounded with indecency and licentiousness, meaning he was of low morals, and he fought all his brothers one day and withdrew to the desert (al-barārī) and his descendants increased vastly in number so the Arabs said: ‘They have become Berbers (tabarbarū),’ which means they increased in number.”

When ‘Umar looked at them, who had been sent as a delegation by ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ, who had sent translators along with them to translate on their behalf when ‘Umar asked them anything. ‘Umar asked them: “Why have you completely shaved your hair and beards?”

They said: “That was hair which grew during the days when we were unbelievers. We wished to replace it with hair which will grow while we are Muslim.”

‘Umar said: “Do you possess any towns or cities in which you live?”

They said: “No.”

He said: “Do you have any fortresses in which you seek refuge?”

They said: “No.”

He said: “Do you have markets in which you engage in commerce?”

They said: “No.”

At this, ‘Umar (may God have mercy upon him) began to weep.

Those present asked: “What is making you weep, O Commander of the Believers?”

He said: “I weep because of a statement of the Prophet of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) on the day of Ḥunayn. The Muslims were defeated and the Prophet of God looked at me while I was weeping and said: ‘Why are you weeping, O ‘Umar?’ I replied: ‘I am crying, O Prophet of God, because of this small band of Muslims and the gathering of entire nations of unbelievers against them.’ He told me: ‘Do not weep, O ‘Umar, for verily God shall open a door for Islam from the West. God shall glorify Islam through them and God shall humiliate the unbelievers though them. They will be people of piety and discernment (ahl khashya wa baṣā’ir) who will die for that which they have discerned. They do not inhabit cities or towns nor do they possess any fortresses in which they seek refuge nor do they possess any markets in which they engage in commerce.’ As a result of this, I wept because I remembered this statement by the Prophet and other virtues about [the Berbers] which he related to me.”

Then, [‘Umar] sent them back to ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ in Egypt and ordered that they be placed at the vanguard of his armies. ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb treated them kindly and graciously and he ordered that they be placed at the vanguard of his retinue. They remained with ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ās until ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān was killed.

When we heard that this ḥadīth, which is related from the Prophet by ‘Umar, refers to a group of people from the West we hoped and anticipated that it refers to the people of our faith (ahl da‘watuna) who are the most entitled to realizing and embodying the virtues of this Prophetic statement.

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Ḥadīth III

It was related to us from a man who was from among the descendants of Abū Bakr: “‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib said: ‘O people of Mecca and people of Medina I entreat you to be mindful of God and to treat the Berbers well for they shall come to you from the West with God’s religion after you have squandered it. Indeed, they are the ones whom God mentioned in His Book: ‘God will substitute in your place people whom He loves and who love Him. They will be kind with the believers, stern with the disbelievers, and will strive in the cause of God without fear of any blame’ [Q. 5:54]. They will not assess the deeds of anyone who has violated the obedience of God.

The descendant of Abū Bakr said: “Since the time of the killing of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, we Arabs have fought each other over dinars and dirhams, and since the time of strife (al-fitna) the Berbers have fought only for the establishment of God’s religion.” This descendant of Abū Bakr continued, extending the chain of the ḥadīth to ‘Abd Allāh ibn Mas‘ūd and said: “During the last pilgrimage which he attended, he arose to give a sermon and said: ‘O people of Mecca and people of Medina I entreat you to be mindful of God and to treat the Berbers well. Verily, they are the ones who shall come to you from the West with God’s religion and they are the ones by whom… [blank in the manuscript]…God shall replace when He says [in the Qur’ān]: ‘If you turn away, God will substitute another people in your place’ [Q. 47: 38]. And, by the One in Whose Hands is the soul of Ibn Mas‘ūd, if you were to see them you would be more obedient to them than their own right hand and closer to them than their own covers, meaning their clothing. And they remembered that the number of Muslims on the day of Ḥunayn was 12,000 and God knows best.”

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