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  • Tunisia since the Arab Conquest: The Saga of a Westernized Muslim State by Jacob Abadi
  • Michael B. Bishku (bio)
Tunisia since the Arab Conquest: The Saga of a Westernized Muslim State, by Jacob Abadi. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2013. 586pages. $84.95.

Not since the late Stanford Shaw wrote the History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey in the 1970s has any academic attempted to publish such an encyclopedic historical study (i.e., one covering many centuries of a Middle Eastern country). Unlike Shaw, who caused controversy, especially over his account of what Armenian scholars refer to as a genocide, Abadi presents a very balanced summary and analysis of Tunisian history and the people who have inhabited the region, utilizing European and Tunisian archival material, as well as published works in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and English. As the author points out in his introduction: “The purpose of this study is not to provide an alternative interpretation of Tunisia’s history, nor to refute conclusions of eminent historians who have written on this subject, but to offer a comprehensive book in the English language, which is currently lacking” (p. xii). Indeed, most scholarly sources and published works specifically on Tunisia are either in Arabic or French, as this book’s bibliography makes abundantly clear; and most often, the latter cover only limited historical periods. Abadi devotes either individual or multiple chapters to the Arab conquest of Tunisia (then Ifriqiya); the Aghlabids; the Fatimids; the Zirids; the Hafsids; Ottoman rule under the deys, and later, the beys, who gained autonomy; the French Protectorate; and independent Tunisia up to the overthrow of President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali, which ushered in the Arab Spring. About half the book covers developments prior to the 19th century.

Jacob Abadi deals with all aspects of history, including water management and the expansion of the hydraulics system in Tunisia under the Umayyads, ‘Abbasids, and Aghlabids, as well as the fact that the dirham coin was minted in only four places in the early 8th century, one of which was Kairouan (p. 24). His coverage of the Aghlabids is very thorough and includes such matters as foreign policy, political and administrative institutions, social structure, economic, intellectual and cultural life, and the ethnic composition within the emirate. While the Zirid vassals were left in charge in Tunisia in 973 as the Isma‘ili Shi‘i Fatimids moved their base to Egypt, the former concentrated on expansion to the west. Less than a century later, with the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba and the weakening of the Fatimid state, the Zirids reconciled with the ‘Abbasids and restored Sunni Islam as the official creed. In 1207, the Hafsids asserted their independence from Almohads, whose power base was in Morocco and Spain, and ruled Tunisia uninterrupted for the next 300 years. Abadi devotes two chapters to their history, government, and population. Interestingly, Tunisia was threatened briefly early in the Hafsid reign by the Seventh Crusade. By the 1570s, after fighting off the Spanish, the Ottomans established regencies over Tunis, as well as Algiers and Tripoli. Abadi provides the same thorough coverage of the next century or more, but notes that the years beginning in 1705, when the Husayni dynasty began, until 1830, when the French occupied Algiers, were “undoubtedly the most decisive in the history of modern Tunisia, largely because it was during this time that a unique Tunisian identity was formed” (p. 229). [End Page 330]

Unlike in the 1827 Battle of Navarino during the Greek War of Independence — at which time the naval forces of Russia, Britain, and France destroyed the Tunisian fleet along with the Ottoman squadron — Tunisia’s Bey Husayn II refused Sultan Mahmud II’s pleas three years later to come to the aid of Algiers; instead, the former signed a treaty with the French, a document written in Arabic in which the bey was referred to as a “king,” but which made him and his successors “dependent on France” (p. 267). While military, fiscal, and some political and educational reforms were subsequently implemented, the Tunisian economy was still very agrarian and could not compete with the Europeans even in...


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