Banu Hilal
بنو هلال
Qaysi Arab tribe
LocationNajd (origin), Maghreb, Egypt
Descended fromHilal bin 'Amir bin Sa'sa bin Mu'awiya bin Bakr bin Hawazin
Parent tribeBanu 'Amir
Population4,000,000 (1573)[1]
ReligionShia Islam (originally)[2]
Sunni Islam (later)[3]
Arab tribes in 600 AD

The Banu Hilal (Arabic: بنو هلال, romanizedBanū Hilāl) was a confederation of Arab tribes from the Najd region of the central Arabian Peninsula that emigrated to the Maghreb region of North Africa in the 11th century. Masters of the vast plateaux of the Najd, they enjoyed a somewhat infamous reputation, possibly owing to their relatively late (for the Arabian tribes) conversion to Islam and accounts of their campaigns in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria. When the Fatimid Caliphate became the rulers of Egypt and the founders of Cairo in 969, they hastened to confine the unruly Bedouin in the south before sending them to Central North Africa (Libya, Tunisia and Algeria) and then to Morocco.

Historians estimate the total number of Arab nomads who migrated to the Maghreb in the 11th century to be to 500,000[4] to 700,000[5] to 1,000,000.[6] Historian Mármol Carvajal estimated that more than a million Hilalians migrated to the Maghreb between 1051-1110, and estimated that the Hilalian population in the Maghreb at his time in 1573 was at 4,000,000 individuals, excluding other Arab tribes and other Arabs already present.[1]


Patrilineal genealogy table

The Banu Hilal originated in Najd in the central Arabian Peninsula,[7] sometimes travelling towards Iraq in search of pastures and oases.[8] According to Arab genealogists, the Banu Hilal were a sub-tribe of the Mudar tribal confederation, specifically of the Amir ibn Sa'sa'a, and their progenitor was Hilal. According to traditional Arab sources, their full genealogy was the following: Hilāl ibn ʿĀmir ibn Ṣaʿṣaʿa ibn Muʿāwiya ibn Bakr ibn Hawāzin ibn Manṣūr ibn ʿIkrima ibn K̲h̲aṣafa ibn Qays ibn ʿAylān ibn Muḍar ibn Nizār ibn Ma'ad ibn ʿAdnān.[3] The Banu Hilal were very numerous, effectively a nation divided into its own sub-tribes, of which the most notable were the Athbaj, Riyah, Jusham, Zughba, Adi, and Qurra.[9]

Ibn Khaldun described their genealogy, which consisted of two mother tribes: themselves and the Banu Sulaym. In Arabia, they lived on the Ghazwan near Ta'if while the Banu Sulaym attended nearby Medina, sharing a common cousin in the Al Yas branch of the Quraysh. At the time of their migration, Banu Hilal comprised six sub-tribes: Athbadj, Riyah, Jusham, Adi, Zughba, and Rabi'a.[10]


Pre-Islamic Arabia

Its original habitat, like that of its related tribes, was the Najd, and its history during pre-Islamic times is bound with other tribes of BanuʿĀmir ibn Ṣaʿṣaʿa, especially in Ayyām al-ʿArab and in affairs related to the rise of Islam in the region, such as that of Biʾr Māʿūna.[3] Banu Hilal likely did not accept the rule of Islam until after Muhammad's victory at the Battle of Hunayn in 630, but like other Āmirid tribes, they also did not join in the Ridda Wars that followed Muhammad's death in 632.[3]

Migration to Egypt, Iraq and the Levant

The tribe does not appear to have played any significant role in the early Muslim conquests, and for the most part remained in the Nejd.[3] Only in the early 8th century did some of the Banu Hilal (and the Banu Sulaym) move to Egypt. Many followed, so that the two groups became numerous in Egypt.[3] During the Abbasid Caliphate, the Hilal were known for their unruliness.[3] In the 9th century, Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym migrated from Najd to Iraq, and later to the Levant, before migrating to the Maghreb in the 11th century.[11]

In the 970s, the Hilal and the Sulaym joined the radical sect of the Qarmatians in their attacks on the Fatimid Caliphate, which had just conquered Egypt and was pushing into Syria.[3][12] As a result, after his victory over the Qarmatians in 978, the Fatimid caliph al-Aziz (r. 975–996) forcibly relocated the two tribes to Upper Egypt.[3][12] As they continued to fight among themselves and pillage the area, they were prohibited from crossing the Nile River or leaving Upper Egypt.[3]

Migration to the Maghreb

Main article: Arab migrations to the Maghreb

The Banu Hilal first began migrating to the Maghreb when the Zirid dynasty of Ifriqiya proclaimed its independence from the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. In retribution against the Zirids, the Fatimids dispatched large Bedouin Arab tribes, mainly the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym, to defeat the Zirids and settle in the Maghreb. These tribes followed a nomadic lifestyle and were originally from the Hejaz and Najd.[13] To persuade the Bedouin into migrating to the Maghreb, the Fatimid caliph gave each tribesman a camel and money and helped them cross from the east to the west bank of the Nile River. The severe drought in Egypt at the time also persuaded these tribes to migrate to the Maghreb, which had a better economic situation at the time. The Fatimid caliph instructed them to rule the Maghreb instead of the Zirid emir Al-Mu'izz and told them "I have given you the Maghrib and the rule of al-Mu'izz ibn Balkīn as-Sanhājī the runaway slave. You will want for nothing." and told Al-Mu'izz "I have sent you horses and put brave men on them so that God might accomplish a matter already enacted".[14]

Upon arriving in Cyrenaica, the Arab nomads found the region almost empty of its inhabitants, except a few Zenata Berbers that Al-Mu'izz had already mostly destroyed.[15] The number of Hilalians who moved westward out of Egypt has been estimated as high as 200,000 families.[16] Cyrenaica was left to be settled by Banu Sulaym while the Hilalians marched westwards. As a result of the settlement by Arab tribes, Cyrenaica became the most Arab place in the Arab world after the interior of Arabia.[16] According to Ibn Khaldun, the Banu Hilal were accompanied by their wives and their children when they came to the Maghreb. They settled in Ifriqiya after winning battles against Berber tribes, eventually going on to coexist with them. Abu Zayd al-Hilali led between 150,000 and 300,000 Arabs into the Maghreb, who intermarried with the indigenous peoples.[6] The Fatimids used the tribe, which began their journey as allies and vassals, to punish the particularly difficult to control Zirids after the conquest of Egypt and the founding of Cairo. As the dynasty became increasingly independent and abandoned Shia Islam, they quickly defeated the Zirids after the battle of Haydaran and deeply weakened the neighboring Hammadid dynasty and the Zenata. The Zirids abandoned Kairouan to take refuge on the coast where they survived for a century. The Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym spread on the high plains of Constantine where they gradually obstructed the Qal'at Bani Hammad as they had done to Kairouan a few decades ago. From there, they gradually gained control over the high plains of Algiers and Oran. In the second half of the 12th century, they went to the Moulouya valley and the Atlantic coast in the western Maghreb to areas such as Doukkala.[17]

A rare Arabic manuscript of the orally-transmitted epic poem about the Banu Hilal, by Hussein Al-Ulaimi, 1849 CE, origin unknown

Their influx was a major factor in the linguistic, cultural and ethnic Arabization of the Maghreb and in the spread of nomadism in areas where agriculture had previously been dominant.[18] They had also heavily transformed the culture of the Maghreb into Arab culture, and spread nomadism in areas where agriculture was previously dominant.[19] It played a major role in spreading Bedouin Arabic to rural areas such as the countryside and steppes, and as far as the southern areas near the Sahara. Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.[20]

Historians estimate the total number of Arab nomads who migrated to the Maghreb in the 11th century to be 250,000[21] (only the first few decades) to 700,000[5] to 1,000,000[6] when the entire population of the Maghreb at the time was 5,000,000.[22] Historian Mármol Carvajal estimated that more than a million Hilalians migrated to the Maghreb between 1051-1110, and estimated that the Hilalian population at his time in 1573 at 4,000,000 individuals, excluding other Arab tribes and other Arabs already present.[1]

The Banu Hilal later came under the rule of various subsequent dynasties, including the Almohad Caliphate, Hafsid dynasty, Zayyanid dynasty and Marinid dynasty. Finding their continued presence intolerable, the Almohad Caliphate defeated the Banu Hilal in the Battle of Setif and forced many of them to leave Ifriqiya and settle in Morocco. Upon the arrival of the Turks, the Banu Hilal rose against the Ottoman Empire near the Aurès region and south Algeria. In Morocco during the 17th century, the sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif created a guich army made up of Arab warriors from the Banu Hilal and the Banu Maqil which was one of the main parts of the Moroccan army. They were garrisoned in their own lands of water and pastures and served as troops and military garrisons to fight in wars and suppress rebellions.[23][24]

Social organization

Originally, the Banu Hilal embraced a nomadic lifestyle, rearing cattle and sheep. Despite several tribes living in arid and desert areas, they became experts in the field of agriculture. The Banu Hilal were conservative and patriarchal, and were tolerant Shi'ites.[25] They were initially Isma'ili Shia, but after their conquest of the Sunni Maghreb, the vast majority of Banu Hilal progressively adopted the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, following the Malikization of the Maghreb in the twelfth century and later centuries.[25][26]

Taghribat Banu Hilal

Main article: Sirat Bani Hilal

The accounts and records that the folk poet Abdul Rahman al-Abnudi gathered from the bards of Upper Egypt culminated in the Taghribat Bani Hilal, an Arab epic describing the journey of the tribe from Arabia to the Maghreb. The tale is divided into three main cycles. The first two bring together unfolding events in Arabia and other countries of the east, while the third, called Taghriba (march west), recounts the migration of the Banu Hilal to North Africa.[27] Until the early 20th century, the story of Banu Hilal was performed in a variety of forms across the Arab world from Morocco to Iraq, as folktale or local legend recounted in poetry.[28]


  1. ^ a b c Leroux, E. (1886). Revue d'ethnographie (in French). p. 330. Marmol évalue à plus d'un million le nombre d'individus que le premier flot versa en Afrique. Vers la fin du xv siècle, le nombre des Arabes répartis sur toute la surface du Maghreb s'élevait à plus de quatre millions, et l'empire du Maroc en contenait à lui seul deux fois autant que les trois autres états (Alger, Tunis et Tripoli). == Marmol estimates the number of individuals that the first flood poured into Africa at more than a million. Towards the end of the 15th century, the number of Arabs spread over the entire surface of the Maghreb amounted to more than four million, and the empire of Morocco alone contained twice as many as the three other states (Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli).((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
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