Dihya memorial in Khenchela, Algeria
Reign Early VIIth Century
Buried Khenchela, (present day Algeria)

al-Kāhina (Classical Arabic for "female seer"; modern Maghreb Arabic: L-Kahna, Berber: Dihya or Kahya, Romanized name: Kahina) was a 7th century female Berber religious and military leader, who led indigenous resistance to Arab expansion in Northwest Africa, the region then known as Numidia, known as the Maghreb today. She was born in the early 7th century and died around the end of the 7th century probably in modern day Algeria.


Kahina's disputed origins and religion

Her real name is Daya Ult Yenfaq Tajrawt Dihyā, Dahyā or Damiya (the Arabic spellings are difficult to distinguish between these variants)[1]. al-Kāhinat (the female soothsayer) was the nickname used by her Muslim opponents because of her reputed ability to foresee the future. The name was also used for Deborah El Kahina of Israel, said to also be a foreseer and whom also fought against the Arabs.

Over four centuries after her death, Tunisian hagiographer al-Mālikī seems to have been among the first to state she resided in the Aurès Mountains. Just on seven centuries after her death, the pilgrim at-Tijani was told she belonged to the Lūwāta tribe[2]. When the later historian Ibn Khaldun came to write his account, he placed her with the Jrāwa tribe.

According to various sources, al-Kāhinat was the daughter of Tabat, or some say Mātiya[3]. These sources depend on tribal genealogies, which were generally concocted for political reasons during the 9th century[4].

Accounts from the nineteenth century on claim she was a Jew or that her tribe were Judaized Berbers, though scholars dispute this[5]. According to al-Mālikī she was said to have been accompanied in her travels by what the Arabs called an "idol", possibly an icon of the Virgin or one of the Christian saints,[6] but certainly not something associated with Jewish religious customs.

The idea that the Jrāwa were Judaized comes from the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun, who named them among a number of such tribes. Hirschberg and Talbi note that Ibn Khaldun seems to have been referring to a time before the advent of the late Roman and Byzantine empires, and a little later in the same paragraph seems to say that by Roman times "the tribes" (presumably those he had listed before) had become Christianized.[7] In the words of H. Z. Hirschberg, "of all the known movements of conversion to Judaism and incidents of Judaizing, those connected with the Berbers and Sudanese in Africa are the least authenticated. Whatever has been written on them is extremely questionable."[8] Hirschberg further points out that in the oral legends of Algerian Jews, "Kahya" was depicted as an ogre and persecutor of Jews.

al-Kāhinat may have been of mixed descent: Berber and Byzantine Christian, since one of her sons is described as a 'yunani' or Greek.[9]

Romans had wrote: Daya would pray to get God of war before battle, and carry Ba'al head with her while she fought the Arabs. Her tomb has pagan Gods engraved on the outside, and pagan Gods, in pottery in the inside of it. Thus ruling out she was Jewish.

Ibn Khaldun records many legends about al-Kāhinat. A number of them refer to her long hair or great size, both legendary characteristics of sorcerers. She is also supposed to have had the gift of prophecy and she had three sons, which is characteristic of witches in legends. Even the fact that two were her own and one was adopted (an Arab officer she had captured), was an alleged trait of sorcerers in tales. Another legend claims that in her youth, she had supposedly freed her people from a tyrant by agreeing to marry him and then murdering him on their wedding night. Virtually nothing else of her personal life is known.

al-Kāhinat's legendary life

al-Kāhinat succeeded Kusaila as the war leader of the Berber tribes in the 680s and opposed the encroaching Arab armies of the Umayyad Dynasty. Hasan ibn al-Nu'man marched from Egypt and captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage and other cities (see Umayyad conquest of North Africa ). Searching for another enemy to defeat, he was told that the most powerful monarch in North Africa was "the queen of the Berbers" (Arabic: malikat al-barbar) al-Kāhinat, and accordingly marched into Numidia. The armies met near Meskiana [10] in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, Algeria. She defeated Hasan so soundly that he fled Ifriqiya and holed up in Cyrenaica (Libya) for four or five years. Realizing that the enemy was too powerful and bound to return, she was said to have embarked on a scorched earth campaign, which had little impact on the mountain and desert tribes, but lost her the crucial support of the sedentary oasis-dwellers. Instead of discouraging the Arab armies, her desperate decision hastened defeat.[11]

Hasan eventually returned and, aided by communications with the captured officer adopted by Kahina, defeated her at a locality (presumably in present-day Algeria) about which there is some uncertainty[12]. Before the battle, foreseeing the outcome, she sent her two real sons over to the Arab army under the care of the adopted son, and Hasan is said to have given one of them charge of a section of his forces[13]. According to some accounts, al-Kāhinat died fighting the invaders, sword in hand, a warrior's death. Other accounts say she committed suicide by swallowing poison rather than be taken by the enemy. This final act occurred in the 690s or 700s, with 702 or 703 given as the most likely year[14]. In that year, she was, according to Ibn Khaldun, 127 years old. This is evidently yet another of the many myths which surround her.

In later centuries, Kahina's legend was used to bolster the claims of Berbers in al-Andalūs against Arab claims of ethnic supremacy—in the early modern age, she was used by French colonials, Berber nationalists, Arab Nationalists, North African Jews, North African feminists, and Maghrebi nationalists alike for their own didactic purposes.

Manly Wade Wellman wrote a historical fantasy novel about her, called Cahena.

Her sons Bagay and Khanchla, converted, and led the berber army to Iberia.


  1. ^ see discussion of these supposed names by Talbi
  2. ^ at-Tijani, arabic text p. 57: al-kāhinat al-ma'arūfat bi-kāhinat lūwātat, p. 118 of the translation
  3. ^ according to some, this name is an arabicized form of the Christian name Matthias or Matthew, see cited paper by Talbi for more discussion
  4. ^ Talbi (1971) and Modéran (2005) discuss the various sources.
  5. ^ see Hirschberg (1963) and Talbi (1971)
  6. ^ Modéran (2005) discussing this point also points out that according to the 6th-century historian Procopius a Berber king carried an idol of the god Gurzil
  7. ^ The most recent study, by Modéran (cited below), agrees with and reinforces Talbi's conclusions.
  8. ^ Hirschberg (1963) p. 339.
  9. ^ The two main sources for this are discussed by Talbi.
  10. ^ Talbi suggests that based on the topography reported by al-Mālikī, the actual battlefield was the Wadi Nīnī.
  11. ^ However, even if true, the Arab accounts are considered to be greatly exaggerated. See Talbi (1971) and Modéran (2005).
  12. ^ Talbi suggests it was between Setif and Tobna but this is not certain
  13. ^ However, the historian Ibn al-Athīr says they died with their mother
  14. ^ Modéran (2005)


  • Ibn Khaldun, Kitāb al-Ibar. Usually cited as: Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de l'Afrique septentrionale, a French trans. by William McGuckin de Slane, Paul Geuthner, Paris, 1978. This 19th-century translation should now be regarded as obsolete. There is a more accurate modern French translation by Abdesselam Cheddadi, Peuples et Nations du Monde: extraits des Ibar, Sindbad, Paris, 1986 & 1995. Hirschberg (1963) gives an English translation of the section where Ibn Khaldun discusses the supposed Judaized Jarāwa.
  • Hannoum, Abdelmajid. (2001). Post-Colonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine (Studies in African Literature). ISBN 0-325-00253-3. This is a study of the legend of the Kahina in the 19th century and later. The first chapter is a detailed critique of how the legend of the Kahina emerged after several transformations from the 9th century to the 14th.
  • H. Z. Hirschberg, 'The Problem of the Judaized Berbers', Journal of African History, 4 (1963), 313-339.
  • H.Z. Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa. E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 (2nd ed., Eng. trans.).
  • al-Mālikī, Riyād an-Nufūs. Partial French trans. (including the story of the Kāhina) by H.R. Idris, 'Le récit d'al-Mālikī sur la Conquête de l'Ifrīqiya', Revue des Etudes Islamiques 37 (1969) 117-149. The accuracy of this translation has been criticised by Talbi (1971) and others.
  • Modéran, Yves. (2005). Article 'Kahena (Al-Kâhina)', Encyclopédie Berbère vol. 27, p. 4102-4111. The most recent critical study of the historical sources.
  • Talbi, Mohammed. (1971). Un nouveau fragment de l'histoire de l'Occident musulman (62-196/682-812) : l'épopée d'al Kahina. (Cahiers de Tunisie vol. 19 p. 19-52). An important historiographical study.
  • at-Tijānī, Rihlat. Arabic text ed. by H.H. Abdulwahhab, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, 1994. French trans. by A. Rousseau in Journal Asiatique, section containing the story of the Kāhina is in n.s. 4, vol. 20 (1852) 57-208.

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