Balj ibn Bishr al-Qushayri

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Balj ibn Bishr al-Qushayri (sometime surnamed al-Qasi) (Arabic: بلج بن بشر القشيري ‎) (? – August 742); was a Syrian Arab military commander in North Africa and Iberia, and briefly ruler of al-Andalus in 742.

Balj ibn Bishr was the nephew of Kulthum ibn Iyad al-Qasi, who had been appointed by Caliph Hisham as governor of Ifriqiya in 741 and charged with crushing the Great Berber Revolt in North Africa. Kulthum was dispatched with a fresh Arab army of 30,000, raised from the regiments (junds) of the east - specifically, Damascus, Jordan, Qinnasrin, Emesa (Hims), Palestine and Egypt. Despite its significant Egyptian contingent, historians frequently refer to them collectively as the 'Syrian' junds. Balj ibn Bishr came as his uncle's lieutenant and, by grant of Caliph Hisham, his designated successor. Balj was given military command of the elite Syrian cavalry.

Balj ibn Bishr led the vanguard that arrived in Kairouan in the Summer of 741. In haughty spirits, Balj and his fellow Syrian commanders alienated their Ifriqiyan hosts by billeting troops, requisitioning supplies, and paying little or no respect to local authorities. Balj's behavior hardly improved when the Syrian expedition made junction with the remnant of the Ifriqiyan army near Tlemcen. His high-handed manner provoked a quarrel with the Ifriqiyan commander Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri that nearly led to blows between the two armies, before his uncle arrived and defused the situation.

(Ancient pre-Islamic tribal rivalries also played their part, as Ifriqiyan (and Andalusian) Arabs were largely of south Arabian ('Kalbid' or 'Yemenite') tribal origin, while the Syrian junds were drawn from north Arabian ('Qaysid', 'Mudharite' or 'Syrian') tribes. Balj ibn Bishr, by all accounts something of a Qaysid chauvinist, played up the difference.)

The bad feeling generated between the armies is partly to blame for the subsequent defeat of the joint Syrian-Ifriqiyan army by the Berber rebels at the Battle of Bagdoura (near modern Fes). Two-thirds of the Syrian army, including his uncle, Kulthum ibn Iyad, were either killed or captured. Balj ibn Bishr took charge of the remaining 10,000 Syrians and fled north towards the coast, the Berbers hot in pursuit.

Barricading themselves in at Ceuta, Balj ibn Bishr tried to secure sea passage for his army. But the Andalusian governor Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan al-Fihri, wary the Syrians might upset his delicate domestic balance, not only refused the Syrians passage across the water to al-Andalus, but went so far as to forbid his Andalusian subjects from providing any relief to the besieged Syrians at Ceuta. It is reported that one Arab merchant who surreptitiously dispatched a couple of grain boats to feed the starving Syrians was publicly tortured and executed by the governor's command.[1]

At length, facing a Berber uprising in his own hinterlands, the governor relented and allowed the Syrians to cross, but forced Balj ibn Bishr to sign on to a treaty with strict terms - the Syrians were to assist the Andalusian Arabs put down the Berber rebellion, but return to North Africa within a year of the Berber matter being settled. Hostages were handed over to ensure Balj's compliance.

Crossing over in early 742, the Syrians performed as requested, and swiftly helped the Andalusians crush the three main Berber rebel armies in a series of encounters - at Medina-Sidonia, Córdoba and, finally, Toledo.

But no sooner had the Berber armies been defeated that the governor Ibn Qatan began pressing Balj on the point of the Syrian departure back to Africa. Balj ibn Bishr's patience with the governor broke. Invoking his caliphal credentials as designated successor to his uncle, the late Kulthum ibn Iyad, Balj noted he was legally the current governor of Ifriqiya and consequently overlord of al-Andalus. He promptly deposed Ibn Qatan and declared himself governor of al-Andalus. Avenging the punishment of the good Andalusian who had relieved them at Ceuta, Balj had the elderly Ibn Qatan publicly tortured to death.[2]

The reaction was not long in coming. Rallied by Qattan and Umayya, the sons of the late Fihrid governor, Andalusian Arabs took up arms against Balj ibn Bishr and the Syrian junds. The Syrians delivered a decisive defeat upon the Andalusians at the Battle of Aqua Portora, outside of Córdoba on 6 August, 742, but Balj ibn Bishr was mortally wounded in the process and died two days later. He was succeeded by his lieutenant and designated successor Thalaba ibn Salama al-Amili.

The chronicler Ibn al-Khatam asserts Balj ibn Bishr was killed in the battle by Abd al-Rahman ibn Habib al-Fihri, the future ruler of Ifriqiya, who had accompanied the Syrians to al-Andalus, but defected to the Andalusians upon the execution of the Fihrid governor. But this is likely confusion with Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Qama al-Lakhmi, the Andalusian governor of Narbonne, who is reported elsewhere to have, in the heat of battle, as his army was falling apart, sought out Balj amongst the Syrian cavalry and struck him with his spear.[3]

Preceded by
Kulthum ibn Iyad al-Qasi
Governor of Ifriqiya
741–742
Succeeded by
Handhala ibn Safwan al-Kalbi
Preceded by
Abd al-Malik ibn Katan al-Fihri
Governor of Al-Andalus
742
Succeeded by
Thalaba ibn Salama al-Amili

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ al-Maqqari (1840-43, v.2, p.41), Mercier (1888: p.234)
  2. ^ Al-Maqqari, p.42
  3. ^ Al-Maqqari, p.42

Sources[edit]

  • Al-Maqqari, trans. 1840-43, The History of the Mohammedan dynasties in Spain, v.2, London: Royal Asiatic Society.
  • Kennedy, Hugh (1996) Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus, New York and London: Longman.
  • Lévi-Provençal, E. (1950) Histoire de l'Espagne musulmane, Tome 1, 1999 ed., Paris: Larose.
  • Mercier, E. (1888) Histoire de l'Afrique septentrionale, v. 1, Paris: Leroux. Repr. Elibron Classics, 2005.
  • Taha, Abd al-Wahid Dhannun (1989) The Muslim conquest and settlement of North Africa and Spain, London, Routledge.

See also[edit]