ʿUqbah was the nephew of 'Amr ibn al-'As. He is often surnamed al-Fihri in reference to the Banu Fihri, a clan connected to the Quraysh. His descendants would be known as the ʿUqbids or Fihrids. ʿUqbah is the founder of the cultural city of Kairouan in Tunisia.
ʿUqbah accompanied al-ʿAs in his initial capture of cities in North Africa starting with Barca, then proceeding to Tripolitania in 644. In 670 now the emir or commander, ʿUqbah led an Arab army to North Africa, crossing the Egyptian deserts, and setting up military posts at regular intervals along his route. In a region of what is now Tunisia, he established the town now called Kairouan (meaning "camp" or "caravanserai" in Persian) about 160 kilometres (99 mi) south of present-day Tunis, which he used as a base for further operations.
According to one legend, one of ʿUqbah's soldiers stumbled across a golden goblet buried in the sands. It was recognized as one that had disappeared from Mecca some years before, and when it was dug out of the sand a spring appeared, with waters said to come from the same source as those of the sacred Zamzam Well in Mecca. This story led to Kairouan becoming a place of pilgrimage and then a holy city ("the Mecca of the Maghreb") and the most important city in North Africa.
In 683 ʿUqbah was ambushed and killed near Biskra by Kusaila. He died beside his hated rival, Abu al-Muhajir Dinar, during the battle with Kusaila's troops at the Battle of Vescera. His armies evacuated Kairouan and withdrew to Barca, though it was recaptured in 688.
Most of the accounts describing Arab conquests of North Africa in general and Uqba's conquests in particular date back to at least two centuries after the conquests have happened.
One of the earliest reports come from the Andalucian chronicler Ibn Idhari in his Al-Bayan al-Mughrib. In it, Ibn Idhari describes the moment when Uqba reached the Atlantic Ocean, where he allegedly said, "O God, if the sea had not prevented me, I would have galloped on for ever like Alexander the Great, upholding your faith and fighting the unbelievers!"
Edward Gibbon, referring to Uqba ibn Nafi as Akbah, gives him the title "conqueror of Africa," beginning his story when he "marched from Damascus at the head of ten thousand of the bravest Arabs; and the genuine force of the Moslems was enlarged by the doubtful aid and conversion of many thousand Barbarians." He then marched into North Africa. Gibbon continues: "It would be difficult, nor is it necessary, to trace the accurate line of the progress of Akbah." On the North African coast, "the well-known titles of Bugia, and Tangier define the more certain limits of the Saracen victories." Gibbon then tells the story of Akbah's conquest of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana:
The fearless Akbah plunged into the heart of the country, traversed the wilderness in which his successors erected the splendid capitals of Fez and Morocco, and at length penetrated to the verge of the Atlantic and the great desert.... The career, though not the zeal, of Akbah was checked by the prospect of a boundless ocean. He spurred his horse into the waves, and raising his eyes to heaven, exclaimed: 'Great God! if my course were not stopped by this sea, I would still go on, to the unknown kingdoms of the West, preaching the unity of the holy name, and putting to the sword the rebellious nations who worship another gods than Allah.'
It should be pointed out that although much scholarship on the life and conquests of ibn Nafi are available, most have not been translated from their original Arabic into English or French.