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Prevost Virginie, L’aventure ibâḍite dans le sud tunisien.  Effervescence d’une région méconnue (viiie-xiiie siècle), Helsinki, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2008, 480 p.

Lorenz Nigst

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1Whoever followed Virginie Prevost’s work over the past years, is well aware of the fact that she established herself as an important scholar on the history of the Ibâīs. The volume at hand is entitled « L’aventure ibâite dans le sud tunisien. Effervescence d’une région méconnue ». It is an impressive testimony to her ongoing work in that field and a momentous presentation of the results her painstaking research has yielded so far. The volume is impressive both in the wealth of sources it scrutinizes and in its ability to integrate the information thus gained into a convincing reconstruction of the turbulent history of the Ibâī communities of medieval Tunisia. It is truly admirable how the author manages to disentangle a material of so intricate a nature and to present it with utmost clarity. Maps, timetables, a chronology of sources etc. contribute to this.

2As to the structure of the book, it is divided into two major parts plus some additional chapters (dealing e. g. with the geography of the region under study, its history prior to the Arabic conquest or the subject of the conversion of Sudanese people through the Ibâīs, whereby the latter subject is another highly interesting outcome of the author’s use of Ibâī sources). The largest part of book reconstructs the history of the Ibâī communities in the region studied. It traces the formation and evolution of these communities in a chronological order, which corresponds to the succession of the political powers that be. Subjects such as the conversion of the Berbers to Islam, the appearance of Khârijism in the region etc. are taken up, and the author presents the reader with a deeply convincing depiction of a social situation that makes the popularity of the egalitarian message of Khârijism comprehensible. The author argues that the evolution of the Ibâī communities comprises two markedly different phases (one of  « combat » and one of « secrecy »). The turning point here seems to be the failure of the revolt of Baghâya (well known to those who follow Prevost’s work) after which the Ibâīs seem to have given up fighting and decided to live in secrecy/kitmân. That is, they definitely abandoned long cherished ambitions to recreate a new Ibâī imâmat after the fall of the imâmat of Tâhart. Nevertheless, the Ibâīs did everything they could to defend at least a relative autonomy. The study convincingly argues that, in order to safeguard the survival of their doctrine, the Ibâī scholars were aware that they had to find a way to organise their communities in such a way as to avoid internal discord. From the XIth century A. D. onwards, they implemented the « council of the ʿazzāba »(alqa), what the author terms a new form of theocratic goverment, which gained more and more influence over the Ibâī communities. Thus, as far as this state of kitmān is concerned, it is characterised by a marked emphasis on learning (a most salient feature of Ibâīs to this day). It should not come as a surprise then that the massacres committed against the Ibâīs often targeted their scholars to deal a blow at the cultural foundations which allowed the Ibâī communities to survive. The second part of the book takes up the fascinating subject of the Ibâī trade networks. It contains a very informative discussion of the principal trade routes and explains which regions were covered by the stunning transsaharian commercial network set up by the Ibâīs.

3As the title of the book leads one to suspect, the book is concerned with southern Tunisia only – and deliberately so. If the line of the argument requires the author to leave « southern Tunisia » , this is done with great precision and so as to render intelligible wider historical developments (as is the case, for example, when the author takes up the subject of the first Khârijite victories in the Far Maghreb in the middle of the VIIIth century A. D.) The reason for why the author confines herself to « southern Tunisia » seems to be that up to now the research on the history of medieval southern Tunisia has suffered from important lacunae (not without justification, the author speaks of « une région meconnue »), in the removal of which the book makes great efforts. And further because this self-imposed « restriction » allows the author to dedicate her whole attention to that region, which is very much to the advantage of the book. Given the enormous extension of the region termed « southern Tunisia », it comes as no surprise that the wealth of historic information to be gained from the sources differs widely for different regions. As the author emphasizes, the medieval documentation is rich for Tozeur or Gabès and virtually nonexistent for e. g. the Jabal Dammâr. As to those regions for which the documentation is relatively abundant, the study provides fascinating insights. By the way of example, it clearly brings out the important role played by the Djérid for several religious communities: Apart from the fact that Christian communities abided there for a long time, the study clearly works out the importance of that region for the development of both Shīʿism and Ibâism in the Maghreb. As the title of the book clearly suggests also, the study at hand is concerned with the activities of a particular group in a specific region. If it is certainly the Ibâīs, to whom much attention is being payed, the book does not speak about Ibâīs alone, since to study the history of any community necessarily means to study concrete historic situations and developments. The book is such a pleasure to read also for it always tries to depict the fullness of the particular situation and has a lot to say about all those on the scene, the relations between them etc. (e. g. it adduces precious information about other religious communities such as Jews or Christians as well; parallels between some Jewish and Ibâī communities such as an extreme fear of impurity are thereby taken up). So, bit by bit the reader will be able to build up an understanding of the region under study.

4The study excels by the fact that the author deliberately falls back on Ibāī sources (above all on Abû l-ʿAbbâs Amad ash-Shammâkhī’s Kitâb as-siyar) aside from the, mostly Sunnī, Arabic ones. In fact, it is the outspoken aim of the study to confront the latter (al-Wazīr as-Sarrâj etc.) with Ibâī sources such as as-Shammâkhī. This is even more promising, given the Ibâīs’ minute record of their own history. The study at hand is highly successful in its combined use of Ibāī and non-Ibâī sources, which allows the author to both elicit information concerning regions that up to now were not at all given the attention they deserve and the history of which has remained rather unknown due to their (non-)treatment by Arabic geographers and historians (ʿAkâra, Jerba, etc.), and to shed a different light on the history of the region under study (as is clearly visible e. g. in the fascinating pages dedicated to the migration of the Banû Hilâl, where the author shatters the idea that in the region under study this migration represents something like a watershed between prosperity and decline).

5Notwithstanding the intricacy of its subject matter, the book at hand is highly readable. A major factor, which holds responsible for this quality, is that the author carefully avoids to overload her study with a back-breaking mass of (maybe interesting, but within the frame of her study: insignificant) information. On the contrary, she gives exactly as much information as is necessary to help on the argument – nothing seems to be out place. Such terms, names etc. as are indispensable to follow the argument, are adduced. The author’s exposition of e. g. Ibâī doctrine and factions bears testify to this. She doesn’t delve into the subtleties of dogma, but introduces – the potentially uninformed – reader to such facts as are of importance for the comprehension of her argument. This does not entail any unjustifiable simplification, but on the contrary, by doing so the author even seems to be closer to the historical reality she tries to reconstruct, since, as she convincingly argues, those Berbers who joined one or the other Khârijite faction certainly payed no attention at all to the dogmatic differences that seperated those factions, but understandably were receptive above all to the egalitarian and revolutionary message all of them were spreading. This quality is clearly palpable also in the author’s discussion of the various types of imâms the Ibâī doctrine envisages or of typically Ibâī notions such as kitmân or uhûr. The study not only builds up a concise but solid understanding of such notions, but does so in order to render accessible such important changes and stages in the evolution of the Ibâī communities as mentioned above.

6« L’aventure ibâite dans le sud tunisien » will be of immense benefit for all those who are interested in the (history of the) Ibâī communities of southern Tunisia and in the history of medieval southern Tunisia in general. This book, which will certainly become a major reference for other scholars, presents the readers all the important phases and turnabouts in the history of the Ibâī communities and renders eminently accessible the historic record extant. Needless to say that along the way the readers of this careful and empathic study will come across many interesting details (mention may be made here of e. g. of Ibâīs under the protection of the baraka of a given sheikh; allusion to « miracles » etc.).

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Lorenz Nigst, « Prevost Virginie, L’aventure ibâḍite dans le sud tunisien.  Effervescence d’une région méconnue (viiie-xiiie siècle), Helsinki, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2008, 480 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 127 | juillet 2010, mis en ligne le 16 novembre 2009, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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