The Kutama (Berber: Iktamen) were a major Berber people in northern Algeria. The tribe was known as Ukutamanorum under the Romans, and subsequently identified as the Ucutamani under the Byzantines..
The Kutama played a pivotal role during North Africa's early Medieval period (909 - 1171). They were originators of the Fatimid dynasty, which eventually overthrew the Aghlabids who controlled Ifriqiya (North Africa) between 800-909 as Abbasid Caliphate vassals. The Kotamas also formed the first Islamic dynasty of indigenous Berbers in the Maghreb, the Zirids (972-1148), a line founded by the Kutama General Buluggin ibn Ziri (also: Bologhine ibn Ziri, Bologhin ibn Ziri) after his defeat of the Kharijite rebellion of Abu Yazid (943-947).
Origins of the Kutama
The Kutama are part of the Branes branch of Berbers, which regroups the Sanhaja. The Kutama are related to the Zouaoua, and are located in the larger Kabylia region. They are neighbouring the Zenati of the Ulhassa in the eastern part towards Annaba and the Aures.
In his book, published in 1867, Ernest Mercier mentions the presence of Oulhaça in the vicinity of Annaba in Algeria today.
The Kutamas were a group of Eastern Algeria in the 13th century located at the border terminals Wilayas of Bejaia and Constantine and the borders of the Aures which corresponds to la Petite Kabylie or Kabylie orientale (far Eastern Kabylia) in the 20th century.
The Zedjala are part of Ulhassa in the Medjana, a plain bordered by the Aures. They are installed near the Aures Mountains Eiad.
Today, representatives of the Ulhaasa live in the neighborhood of Wad Tafna west of modern Algeria in the Wilaya of Ain Temouchent near Tlemcen. The Kutamas on the other hand also settled in the Rif (in the Fatimid Dynasty), this is why we find in the Rif region of Morocco tribes akin to that dynasty (Ketama).
An anecdote explaining the origins of the term "Kutama" is recounted by the Tenth-Century Ismaili jurist, al-Qadi al Nu‘man in his work entitled Iftitāḥ al-da‘wa, in which a preacher by the name of Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Shi’i encountered a group of Shi’i Kutama on the pilgrimage at Mecca in 893 CE. Upon meeting him, this particular group of Kutama Pilgrims became convinced of the Ismaili faith and brought Abu ‘Abd Allah along with them back to their country of origin. Along the way, Abu ‘Abd Allah asked the pilgrims about a region called the Valley of the Pious (fajj al-akhyār). The Kutama were astounded that he knew of this place and asked how he came to hear of it. Citing a prophetic tradition (hadīth) of Muhammad, Abu ‘Abd Allah replied that in fact this place was named after the very Kutama themselves: "The Mahdi shall emigrate far from his home at a time full of trials and tribulations. The pious (al-akhyār) of that age shall support him, a people whose name is derived from kitmān (secrecy)." He explained that it was to the Kutama that the tradition referred and on account of them that the region was named the Valley of the Pious.
History of the Kutama
In was in the beginning of the Muslim era and in the Middle Ages that their influence was the greatest.
The Maghreb is the historic home of the great Berber tribe Kutama, who played a considerable role in the Middle Ages, mainly because it was behind the creation of the Fatimid empire in the tenth century, The Fatimid state was one of the largest empires of Islamic history that extended from today's Morocco to Saudi Arabia.
Unlike other Muslim authorities, the Fatimids based their administration, not on tribal, ethnic or even religious criteria, but primarily on merit and competence. The Kutama and other Berbers were attracted by this.
In the early tenth century Kutama formed a coalition with the Shi'a Fatimids against the Sunni Aghlabids who ruled Ifriqiya and supported the Abbasids. The Kutama became fierce protectors of the new Fatimid state and constituted the main strength of its army.
Abu Abd Allah ash-Shi'i, Shiite missionary met the Kutama and paved the way for his master Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, a Shi'te Ismaili from Syria and founder of the Fatimid Caliphate to be presented as the Mahdi. Abu Abdullah ash-Shî'î dream was to topple the Sunni power in Abbasid Baghdad in favor of a Shi'te dynasty.
In the 903 the Kutama, by then converted to Shiism and also to the ideology of al-Mahdi, began the uprising. On March 19, 909, they destroyed Aghlabid dynasty installed by the Abbasids in Ifriqiya near Laribus. Six days later, they entered the Aghlabid capital, Raqqada. Later the Fatimid capital was moved to Mahdiyah.
The Kutamas installed a military camp near Cairo, forming a formidable military power in the service of the Fatimid Caliph. They led later expeditions to Damascus against the Abbasids. The district Kotama "El-Hai Kotamiyine" in Cairo and the Maghreb area of "Al-Harat Maghariba" in Damascus, still testify to the influence of this tribe whose members were, during different periods, repressed by the Abbasids and their allies. Saladin in 1171 overthrew the Fatimids in 1171 and returned Egypt to Sunni Abbasid allegiance. The Siwis, Berbers of Egypt, are Kutama.
After conquering Egypt, the Fatimids left the Maghreb under the general Kutama Bologhin ibn Ziri, Ifriqiya governor and founder of the Zirid dynasty .
Kotamas in the 21st century
But according to al-Idrissi (12th century) there were only 4,000 individuals throughout the Ifriqiya
The Kotamas was located before the in the provinces of Béjaïa, Jijel, Sétif, and West Mila . Kotama culture is still present to some wide extent; for instance, the "fish couscous", seksou bel'hout, popular in this region and in northern Tunisia is of Kotama origin.
From a cultural standpoint, the inhabitants of this region keep track of their identity as Kutama, but most tribes have been assimilated to the Kabyles (Bejaia), Arabs (Annaba) and the Kabyles el hadra (Jijel, Mila), Keita and Skikda, Setif. There are also descendants of Kutama Siwis in Egypt. The challenge to resist the influence of the dominant tribes, such as the Sanhadja or the Bani Hilal, and the dynasties who succeeded the Fatimids, such as the Ayyubids, the Hammadids, the Almoravids, and the Almohads was difficult. That there is a Kotama identity today is evidence of their persistence in the face of these challenges. The language of the Kotama has largely been Arabized (as in Jijel) or diluted with other Berber dialects (as is true in Bejaia).
- Virani, Shafique N. The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 47.