Back to top

The Maghrib in Question

The Maghrib in Question
Essays in History and Historiography

This book provides a "state of the field" survey of postcolonial Maghribi historiography.

January 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
286 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 tables |

A wealth of historical writing dealing with the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) has been published during the roughly forty years since European colonial control ended in the region. This book provides a "state of the field" survey of this postcolonial Maghribi historiography.


The book contains thirteen essays by leading Maghribi and North American scholars. The first section surveys the Maghrib as a whole; the second focuses on individual countries of the Maghrib; and the third explores theoretical issues and case studies. Cutting across chronological categories, the book encompasses historiographical writing dealing with all eras, from the ancient Maghrib to the contemporary period.


  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Wilfrid J. Rollman, Harvard University
  • Part 1: Reconnoitering the Terrain
    1. Maghrib Historiography: The Unit of Analysis Problem: L. Carl Brown, Princeton University
    2. Reflections on the Historiography of the Ancient Maghrib: Ammar Mahjoubi, Université de Tunis
    3. Thirty Years of Research on the History of the Medieval Maghrib: Mounira Chapoutot-Remadi, Université de Tunis
    4. Some Reflections on Recent Trends in the Study of Modern North African History: Wilfrid J. Rollman, Harvard University
  • Part 2: Modern History and Historiography
    1. Algerian Historiography in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: From Chronicle to History: Houari Touati, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris)
    2. Forging the Nation-State: Some Issues in the Historiography of Modern Libya: Michel Le Gall, St. Olaf College
    3. Moroccan Historiography since Independence: Mohamed El Mansour, Université Mohammed V
    4. Recent Historiography of the Colonial Period in North Africa: The "Copernican Revolution" and Beyond: Kenneth Perkins, University of South Carolina
    5. Scholars and Politicians: An Examination of the Algerian View of Algerian Nationalism: Omar Carlier, Centre de Recherches Africaines (Université de Paris)
  • Part 3: Theoretical Issues and Case Studies
    1. Rereading Medieval Sources through Multidisciplinary Glasses: Ronald A. Messier, Middle Tennessee State University
    2. The Eighteenth Century: A Poor Relation in the Historiography of Morocco: Abderrahmane El Moudden, Al-Akhawayn University
    3. An Aspect of Tunisian Historiography in the Modern and Contemporary Periods: Research in the Notarial Archives: Sami Bergaoui, Université de Tunis
    4. The Maghrib and the Mediterranean World in the Nineteenth Century: Illicit Exchanges, Migrants, and Social Marginals: Julia Clancy-Smith, University of Arizona
  • Conclusion: Toward an Authentic and Balanced Historical Perspective
  • Contributors to this Collection
  • List of Abbreviations

Michel Le Gall is Associate Professor of History at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Kenneth Perkins is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.


Browse this book with Google Preview »

Our apprenticeships in Maghribi history began roughly a quarter of a century ago. At the time, if it were not exactly true that one could count on the fingers of a single hand the scholars in the United States and Europe (excluding France) who were primarily engaged in the writing of North African history, it was true that the fingers of the second hand provided quite suff1cient reinforcements for the enumeration. In the Maghrib itself, a somewhat larger cadre of historians had emerged in the years since European political control had ended, but with only a handful of exceptions, the work of these pioneers was difficult to obtain and was not widely known outside the Maghrib, even among their historian colleagues.

A number of significant developments occurred in the field of North African history in the 1970s and 1980s: the annual publication of more monographs than one could read; the appearance of specialized journals; and the organization of scholarly associations. The expansion of Maghrib-related panels at professional conferences underscored how dramatically the situation was changing, not only in these quantifiable terms, but also—and more importantly—with respect to the nature of the discourse within this enlarged community of historians of the Maghrib.

After participating in an especially thought-provoking seminar entitled "The Historiography of the Maghrib" held in 1989 at the Unité de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (URASC) at Oran University under the joint sponsorship of the Centre d'Etudes Maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT) and the American Institute of Maghrib Studies (AIMS), we concluded that the time was ripe for a serious assessment of the state of our field—a project which, somewhat to our surprise, had not been previously attempted in any systematic fashion. The result is the collection of essays contained in this volume. In it, we have endeavored to develop an overview of historiographical production in the years since the Maghrib states won their independence, to assess the quality of that work, and to identify its most salient trends.

To render our inquiry as inclusive as possible, we solicited contributions from historians of the Maghrib from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the United States. Their chronological expertise ranges from the ancient, pre-Islamic Maghrib through the medieval, early modern, and Ottoman periods, to the contemporary era. The views on the nature and condition of their discipline that they express in these essays constitute a unique collective statement that reflects the prevailing intellectual discourse in each country and indicates how each scholar's own research and thinking have contributed to it. In their previous writings, some of these historians have developed overviews of a particular period or place; others have tended to focus on case studies; and still others have concentrated on more theoretical and methodological themes.

Thus, the scope of this work is broad, both in terms of chronology and technique. While it is not comprehensive in the usual sense of that term, the book does survey many of the principal historical questions, types of sources, and methodological problems that have shaped the parameters of the historiography of the Maghrib. As a result, these essays should prove a useful guide to both the beginner and the seasoned student of Maghribi history.

The book speaks to a broader audience as well, for the historiography of the Maghrib invariably touches upon connections between North Africa and Europe (especially the Mediterranean lands), West and Central Africa, and the Arab Middle East. In the process of exploring these links, our contributors relate the historiography of North Africa to such wider political and intellectual issues as European colonialism, the internal contests in the Maghribi states over national historical identities, the agendas of professional historians, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the possibilities and limitations imposed by the raw materials of history from archives to archeological digs. It is our hope that the attentive reader will acquire insights into the complexity of Maghribi history and will come to recognize the region as more than merely a poor western cousin of the Islamic Middle East or a stepchild of the European Mediterranean or sub-Saharan Africa worlds.

One general theme that emerges in this volume is the common challenge facing historians of the Maghrib as well as other regions of the once-colonized world: the search for an authentic and balanced view of the past. But the test of authenticity and balance is not a simple one. It transcends the summons issued to an earlier generation to "decolonize" history. That enterprise, launched in the 1960s, has not proven entirely satisfactory, since decolonizing history all too often meant simply embracing the so-called indigenous forces while rejecting those labeled as foreign, colonial, or extraneous. The varieties of the history and historiography of the Maghrib reveal the limits of this earlier dialectic, largely because the region has been both victim and beneficiary of the interaction of numerous political and cultural legacies from the Berbers to the Byzantines, from the Muslims to the officials of metropolitan France.

Of course, this reality has not deterred some historians and politicians from pursuing efforts to refashion the past in light of what they understand as powerful national imperatives. Consequently, historians have, willy-nilly, become engaged—indeed, sometimes locked—in a difficult struggle to counter political expediency with historical truth, a process that echoes what Lucien Febvre described in a different context as "combats pour l'histoire." The events that have shaken Algeria in the 1990s give eloquent testimony to the ongoing relevance of the debate over history and historiography in the Maghrib and much of the rest of the developing world. The end results of this process may vary, but professional historians must never lose sight of the impact of such controversies.

While this volume does not directly concern itself with the political ramifications of historical debates, it does proffer an invitation to appreciate the intricacy and sophistication of the historiography of the Maghrib. For those who study what is now termed "Western history," this book opens a window onto the field of Maghribi history and its maturation over the past forty years. In the process, it demonstrates convincingly that a subject once labeled "area studies" has evolved into a multifaceted discipline that can take stock of its accomplishments, assess historical agendas, and offer suggestions to that universal enterprise known simply as History.

In arranging this volume, we have opted not to adhere to a rigidly chronological format. We have done so because many of the essays offer, on both historical and historiographical issues, comparative perspectives that overstep chronological determinants. Instead, we have brought together essays focusing on different periods in order to throw into relief important continuities, patterns of interaction, and linkages between eras that might otherwise escape notice. The volume is divided into three parts. Part One groups several general pieces on the nature and scope of the historiography of the Maghrib; Part Two delves into a series of specific issues related to the modern history of the Maghrib; and Part Three explores the range of possibilities offered by the sources for Maghribi history.

Several technical notes are in order here. Transliteration in any book on the Maghrib is a thorny problem. We have tried to simplify matters by following these rules: works in Arabic and the names of their authors have been transliterated according to the system used by the International Journal of Middle East Studies, but with one modification—the omission of diacritical marks. In transliterating the names of Maghribi scholars who have written in French or English, we have adhered to the spellings that they themselves have adopted. Occasionally, however, the same author's name appears on his or her publications in variant forms. In such instances, we have adopted the most frequently cited version and utilized it throughout this volume. With respect to well-known political figures, we have again opted for the most commonly used spelling rather than the more esoteric standardized Arabic transliteration which would, for example, render Bourguiba as Abu Raqiba. Other Arabic words in this book are italicized (and accompanied by a brief definition intended to assist nonspecialist readers) at their first usage in each essay. A few Arabic common nouns that are in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.), for example, amir, suq, ulama, and sheikh, are treated as English words when given in the plural, and these are not italicized. A list of the abbreviations used in this work is found at the end of the essays.

The essays by Professors Bergaoui, Carlier, Chapoutot-Remadi, E1 Moudden, Mahjoubi, and Touati were originally written in French. As we translated them into English, we were aided by the invaluable advice of Louis Le Gall, who placed his many years of experience as a translator at our disposal. We gratefully acknowledge his assistance.

We have benefitted from the services of many others in preparing this volume. First and foremost, we thank our contributors for the quality of their work and the depth of their patience. We are deeply appreciative of the faculty and staffs of URASC, CEMAT, and AIMS for organizing the conference in Algeria that sparked the idea for this volume. The warm reception extended by our Algerian hosts in both Oran and Tlemcen to their Maghribi colleagues and those of us from the United States ensured that a stimulating and exciting intellectual experience was also a delightful social occasion. Thanks are also due to Dr. Ali Hossaini of the University of Texas Press for shepherding this volume through the acceptance process; toJane H. Chamberlain for a superb job of editing that brought uniformity and consistency to the work; and, finally, to Professor L. Carl Brown who has been our mentor in things Maghribi and who has done much to forge links among the members of the guild of Maghribi historians scattered throughout North Africa, Europe, and North America.

Michel Le Gall, St. Olaf College
Kenneth Perkins, University of South Carolina