HISTORY OF THE BERBERS
Berbers are the indigenous people of Morocco and Algeria and to a lesser extent Libya and Tunisia. They are descendants of an ancient race that has inhabited Morocco and much of northen Africa since Neolithic times. The origins of the Berbers are unclear; a number of waves of people, some from Western Europe, some from sub-Saharan Africa, and others from Northeast Africa, eventually settled in North Africa and made up its indigenous population.
The Berbers entered Moroccan history toward the end of the second millennium B.C., when they made initial contact with oasis dwellers on the steppe who may have been the remnants of the earlier savanna people. Phoenician traders, who had penetrated the western Mediterranean before the twelfth century B.C., set up depots for salt and ore along the coast and up the rivers of the territory that is now Morocco. Later, Carthage developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes of the interior and paid them an annual tribute to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008 **]
Berber tribesmen with a warlike reputation resisted the spread of Carthaginian and Roman colonization before the Christian era, and they struggled for more than a generation against the seventh century Arab invaders who spread Islam to North Africa by military conquests mounted as jihads, or holy wars. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Berber is a foreign word. The Berbers call themselves Imazighen (men of the land). Their languages is totally unlike Arabic, the national language of Morocco and Algeria. One reason the Jews have prospered in Morocco is that has been a place where Berbers and Arabs shaped the history and multi-culturalism has been a fixture of everyday life for a long time.
Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;
Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net
Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org
Berbers and Arabs
The Arabs have traditionally been townspeople while the Berbers lives in the mountains and desert. The Berbers have traditionally been dominated politically by the Arab ruling class and population majority but many Moroccan believe the Berbers are what gives the country its character. "Morocco “is” Berber, the roots and the leaves," Mahjoubi Aherdan, longtime leader of the Berber party, told National Geographic.
Because present-day Berbers and the overwhelming majority of the Arabs largely descend from the same indigenous stock, physical distinctions carry little or no social connotation and are in most instances impossible to make. The term Berber is derived from the Greeks, who used it to refer to the people of North Africa. The term was retained by the Romans, Arabs, and other groups who occupied the region, but is not used by the people themselves. Identification with the Berber or Arab community is largely a matter of personal choice rather than of membership in discrete and bounded social entities. In addition to their own language, many adult Berbers also speak Arabic and French; for centuries Berbers have entered the general society and merged, within a generation or two, into the Arab group. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
This permeable boundary between the two major ethnic groups permits a good deal of movement and, along with other factors, prevents the development of rigid and exclusive ethnic blocs. It appears that whole groups slipped across the ethnic "boundary" in the past — and others may do so in the future. In areas of linguistic contiguity, bilingualism is common, and in most cases Arabic eventually comes to predominate.*
Algerian Arabs, or native speakers of Arabic, include descendants of Arab invaders and of indigenous Berbers. Since 1966, however, the Algerian census no longer has had a category for Berbers; thus, it is only an estimate that Algerian Arabs, the major ethnic group of the country, constitute 80 percent of Algeria's people and are culturally and politically dominant. The mode of life of Arabs varies from region to region. Nomadic herders are found in the desert, settled cultivators and gardeners in the Tell, and urban dwellers on the coast. Linguistically, the various Arab groups differ little from each other, except that dialects spoken by nomadic and seminomadic peoples are thought to be derived from beduin dialects; the dialects spoken by the sedentary population of the north are thought to stem from those of early seventh-century invaders. Urban Arabs are more apt to identify with the Algerian nation, whereas ethnic loyalties of more remote rural Arabs are likely to be limited to the tribe.*
Origin of the Berbers
The origin of the Berbers is a mystery, the investigation of which has produced an abundance of educated speculation but no solution. Archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly suggests southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers may have begun their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium B.C. Over the succeeding centuries they extended their range from Egypt to the Niger Basin. Caucasians of predominantly Mediterranean stock, the Berbers present a broad range of physical types and speak a variety of mutually unintelligible dialects that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They never developed a sense of nationhood and have historically identified themselves in terms of their tribe, clan, and family. Collectively, Berbers refer to themselves simply as imazighan, to which has been attributed the meaning "free men."
Inscriptions found in Egypt dating from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 B.C.) are the earliest known recorded testimony of the Berber migration and also the earliest written documentation of Libyan history. At least as early as this period, troublesome Berber tribes, one of which was identified in Egyptian records as the Levu (or "Libyans"), were raiding eastward as far as the Nile Delta and attempting to settle there. During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2200-1700 B.C.) the Egyptian pharaohs succeeded in imposing their overlordship on these eastern Berbers and extracted tribute from them. Many Berbers served in the army of the pharaohs, and some rose to positions of importance in the Egyptian state. One such Berber officer seized control of Egypt in about 950 B.C. and, as Shishonk I, ruled as pharaoh. His successors of the twentysecond and twenty-third dynasties — the so-called Libyan dynasties (ca. 945-730 B.C.) — are also believed to have been Berbers.*
The name Libya is derived from the name by which a single Berber tribe was known to the ancient Egyptians, the name Libya was subsequently applied by the Greeks to most of North Africa and the term Libyan to all of its Berber inhabitants. Although ancient in origin, these names were not used to designate the specific territory of modern Libya and its people until the twentieth century, nor indeed was the whole area formed into a coherent political unit until then. Hence, despite the long and distinct histories of its regions, modern Libya must be viewed as a new country still developing national consciousness and institutions.
Like the Phoenicians, Minoan and Greek seafarers had for centuries probed the North African coast, which at the nearest point lay 300 kilometers from Crete, but systematic Greek settlement there began only in the seventh century B.C. during the great age of Hellenic overseas colonization. According to tradition, emigrants from the crowded island of Thera were commanded by the oracle at Delphi to seek a new home in North Africa, where in 631 B.C. they founded the city of Cyrene. The site to which Berber guides had led them was in a fertile highland region about 20 kilometers inland from the sea at a place where, according to the Berbers, a "hole in the heavens" would provide ample rainfall for the colony.*
Early History of North Africa and the Berbers
Ancient Berbers are believed to have entered present-day Morocco in the 2nd millennium B.C. By the 2nd century B.C., Berber social and political organization had evolved from extended families and clans to kingdoms. The first records of the Berbers are descriptions of Berber merchants trading with the Phoenicians. At that time Berbers controlled much of the trans-Saharan caravan trade.
Early inhabitants of the central Maghrib (also seen as Maghreb; designates North Africa west of Egypt) left behind significant remains including remnants of hominid occupation from ca. 200,000 B.C. found near Saïda. Neolithic civilization (marked by animal domestication and subsistence agriculture) developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean Maghrib between 6000 and 2000 B.C. This type of economy, so richly depicted in the Tassili-n-Ajjer cave paintings in southeastern Algeria, predominated in the Maghrib until the classical period. The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually into a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers. Distinguished primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes, the Berbers lacked a written language and hence tended to be overlooked or marginalized in historical accounts. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008 **]
The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually into a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers. Distinguished primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes, the Berbers lacked a written language and hence tended to be overlooked or marginalized in historical accounts. Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Arab Muslim chroniclers typically depicted the Berbers as "barbaric" enemies, troublesome nomads, or ignorant peasants. They were, however, to play a major role in the area's history. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994]
The Berbers entered Moroccan history toward the end of the second millennium B.C., when they made initial contact with oasis dwellers on the steppe who may have been the remnants of the earlier savanna people. Phoenician traders, who had penetrated the western Mediterranean before the twelfth century B.C., set up depots for salt and ore along the coast and up the rivers of the territory that is now Morocco. Later, Carthage developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes of the interior and paid them an annual tribute to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008]
North Africa During the Classical Period
Berbers held off Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Sometimes they allied themselves with the Carthaginians to fight the Romans. Rome annexed their domain in 40 A.D. but never ruled beyond the coastal regions. Trade was helped by the introduction of camels which occurred in the Roman period.
Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 B.C. and established Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) around 800 B.C. By the fifth century B.C., Carthage had extended its hegemony across much of North Africa. By the second century B.C., several large, although loosely administered, Berber kingdoms had emerged. The Berber kings ruled in the shadow of Carthage and Rome, often as satellites. After the fall of Carthage, the area was annexed to the Roman Empire in A.D. 40. Rome controlled the vast, ill-defined territory through alliances with the tribes rather than through military occupation, expanding its authority only to those areas that were economically useful or that could be defended without additional manpower. Hence, Roman administration never extended outside the restricted area of the coastal plain and valleys. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008 **]
During the classical period, Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also brought about the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and the extraction of tribute from others. The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars, and in 146 B.C. the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. **
Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire in A.D. 24. Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber society, and Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture, and the region was known as the “granary of the empire.” Christianity arrived in the second century. By the end of the fourth century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted en masse. **
Carthage and the Berbers
Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 B.C. and established Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) around 800 B.C. By the sixth century B.C., a Phoenician presence existed at Tipasa (east of Cherchell in Algeria). From their principal center of power at Carthage, the Carthaginians expanded and established small settlements (called emporia in Greek) along the North African coast; these settlements eventually served as market towns as well as anchorages. Hippo Regius (modern Annaba) and Rusicade (modern Skikda) are among the towns of Carthaginian origin on the coast of present-day Algeria. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
As Carthaginian power grew, its impact on the indigenous population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of tribute from others. By the early fourth century B.C., Berbers formed the single largest element of the Carthaginian army. In the Revolt of the Mercenaries, Berber soldiers rebelled from 241 to 238 B.C. after being unpaid following the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War. They succeeded in obtaining control of much of Carthage's North African territory, and they minted coins bearing the name Libyan, used in Greek to describe natives of North Africa.
The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars; in 146 B.C. the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the second century B.C. After Masinissa's death in 148 B.C., the Berber kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's line survived until A.D. 24, when the remaining Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire.*
Berbers and North Africa in the Roman Era
Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber society. Nomadic tribes were forced to settle or move from traditional rangelands. Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and connection with the land. Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The Roman emperor Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117) established a frontier in the south by encircling the Aurès and Nemencha mountains and building a line of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended at least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest of Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled and developed the area around Sitifis (modern Sétif) in the second century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The Roman military presence in North Africa was relatively small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the second century A.D., these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.*
Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman emperors Claudius (r. A.D. 41-54), Nerva (r. A.D. 96-98), and Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul (modern Djemila, northeast of Sétif), Thamugadi (modern Timgad, southeast of Sétif), and Sitifis. The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa, according to one estimate, produced 1 million tons of cereals each year, one-quarter of which was exported. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the second century A.D., olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item.*
The beginnings of the decline of the Roman Empire were less serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however. In A.D. 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288. The towns also suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost ceased.*
The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish population. Some Jews were deported from Palestine in the first and second centuries A.D. for rebelling against Roman rule; others had come earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a number of Berber tribes had converted to Judaism.*
Berbers and Christianity
Christianity arrived in Berber regions of North Africa in the A.D. 2nd century. Many Berbers adopted the heretical Donatist sect of Christianity. St. Augustine was of Berber stock. Christianity gained converts in the towns and among slaves and Berber farmers. More than eighty bishops, some from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended the Council of Carthage in 256. By the end of the fourth century, the Romanized areas had been Christianized, and inroads had been made as well among the Berber tribes, who sometimes converted en masse. But schismatic and heretical movements also developed, usually as forms of political protest. The area had a substantial Jewish population as well. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008 **]
A division in the church that came to be known as the Donatist controversy began in 313 among Christians in North Africa. The Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and refused to accept the authority to administer the sacraments of those who had surrendered the scriptures when they were forbidden under the Emperor Diocletaian (r. 284-305). The Donatists also opposed the involvement of Emperor Constantine (r. 306-37) in church affairs in contrast to the majority of Christians who welcomed official imperial recognition. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized as a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman system. The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist position, which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine (354-430) maintained that the unworthiness of a minister did not affect the validity of the sacraments because their true minister was Christ. In his sermons and books Augustine, who is considered a leading exponent of Christian truths, evolved a theory of the right of orthodox Christian rulers to use force against schismatics and heretics. Although the dispute was resolved by a decision of an imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist communities continued to exist through the sixth century.*
The resulting decline in trade weakened Roman control. Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas, towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.*
Belisarius, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 with 16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Local opposition delayed full Byzantine control of the region for twelve years, however, and imperial control, when it came, was but a shadow of the control exercised by Rome. Although an impressive series of fortifications were built, Byzantine rule was compromised by official corruption, incompetence, military weakness, and lack of concern in Constantinople for African affairs. As a result, many rural areas reverted to Berber rule.*
Spread of Islam in Berber Regions
After the arrival of Arabs in the 7th century, many Berbers converted to Islam. The Islamization and arabization of the region were complicated and lengthy processes. Whereas nomadic Berbers were quick to convert and assist the Arab invaders, not until the twelfth century under the Almohad Dynasty did the Christian and Jewish communities become totally marginalized. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Islamic influence began in Morocco in the seventh century A.D. Arab conquerors converted the indigenous Berber population to Islam, but Berber tribes retained their customary laws. The Arabs abhorred the Berbers as barbarians, while the Berbers often saw the Arabs as only an arrogant and brutal soldiery bent on collecting taxes. Once established as Muslims, the Berbers shaped Islam in their own image and embraced schismatic Muslim sects, which, in many cases, were simply folk religion barely disguised as Islam, as their way of breaking from Arab control. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2006 **]
The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the founding of several great Berber dynasties led by religious reformers and each based on a tribal confederation that dominated the Maghrib (also seen as Maghreb; refers to North Africa west of Egypt) and Spain for more than 200 years. The Berber dynasties (Almoravids, Almohads, and Merinids) gave the Berber people some measure of collective identity and political unity under a native regime for the first time in their history, and they created the idea of an “imperial Maghrib” under Berber aegis that survived in some form from dynasty to dynasty. But ultimately each of the Berber dynasties proved to be a political failure because none managed to create an integrated society out of a social landscape dominated by tribes that prized their autonomy and individual identity.**
Arab Conquest of the Maghrib
The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. This harmony was short-lived, however. Arab and Berber forces controlled the region in turn until 697. By 711 Umayyad forces helped by Berber converts to Islam had conquered all of North Africa. Governors appointed by the Umayyad caliphs ruled from Al Qayrawan, the new wilaya (province) of Ifriqiya, which covered Tripolitania (the western part of present-day Libya), Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In 750 the Abbasids succeeded the Umayyads as Muslim rulers and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Under the Abbasids, the Rustumid imamate (761–909) actually ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahirt, southwest of Algiers. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and justice, and the court of Tahirt was noted for its support of scholarship. The Rustumid imams failed, however, to organize a reliable standing army, which opened the way for Tahirt’s demise under the assault of the Fatimid dynasty. With their interest focused primarily on Egypt and Muslim lands beyond, the Fatimids left the rule of most of Algeria to the Zirids (972–1148), a Berber dynasty that centered significant local power in Algeria for the first time. This period was marked by constant conflict, political instability, and economic decline. *
The Berbers used the schism between Sunnis and Shiities to carve out their unique niche in Islam. They embraced, the Kharijite sect of Islam, a puritanical movement that originally supported Ali , the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, but later rejected the leadership of Ali after his supporters battled with forces loyal to one of Muhammad’s wives and revolted against the rule of the caliphs in Iraq and the Maghreb. Ali was murdered by a knife-carrying Kharajite assassin on his way to a mosque in Kufa, near Najaf in Iraq in A.D. 661.
Kharijism was a puritanical form of Shia Islam that developed over disagreements over the succession of the caliph. It was regarded as heretical by the Muslim status quo. Kharijism took root in the countryside of North Africa and denounced people living in the cities as decadent. Kharajitism was particularly strong in a Sijilmassa, a great caravan center in southern Morocco, and Tahert, in present-day Algeria. These kingdoms became strong in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The Kharijites objected to Ali, the fourth caliph, making peace with the Umayyads in 657 and left Ali's camp (khariji means "those who leave"). The Kharijites had been fighting Umayyad rule in the East, and many Berbers were attracted by the sect's egalitarian precepts. For example, according to Kharijism, any suitable Muslim candidate could be elected caliph without regard to race, station, or descent from the Prophet Muhammad. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
After the revolt, Kharijites established a number of theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled histories. Others, however, like Sijilmasa and Tilimsan, which straddled the principal trade routes, proved more viable and prospered. In 750 the Abbasids, who succeeded the Umayyads as Muslim rulers, moved the caliphate to Baghdad and reestablished caliphal authority in Ifriqiya, appointing Ibrahim ibn Al Aghlab as governor in Al Qayrawan. Although nominally serving at the caliph's pleasure, Al Aghlab and his successors ruled independently until 909, presiding over a court that became a center for learning and culture.*
Just to the west of Aghlabid lands, Abd ar Rahman ibn Rustum ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahirt, southwest of Algiers. The rulers of the Rustumid imamate, which lasted from 761 to 909, each an Ibadi Kharijite imam, were elected by leading citizens. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and justice. The court at Tahirt was noted for its support of scholarship in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology, as well as theology and law. The Rustumid imams, however, failed, by choice or by neglect, to organize a reliable standing army. This important factor, accompanied by the dynasty's eventual collapse into decadence, opened the way for Tahirt's demise under the assault of the Fatimids.*
One of the Kharijite communities, the Idrisids established a kingdom around Fez. It was led by Idriss I, the great grandson of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, and Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad. He is believed to be have come from Baghdad with the mission of converting the Berber tribes.
The Idrisids were Morocco's first national dynasty. Idriss I began the tradition, which lasts to this day, of independent dynasties ruling Morocco and justifying the rule by claiming descent from Muhammad. According to a story in “Arabian Nights”, Idriss I was killed by a poisoned rose sent to hom by the Abbasid ruler Harun el Rashid.
Idriss II (792-828), the son of Idriss I, founded Fez in 808 as the Idrisid capital. He established the world’s oldest university, Qarawiyin University, in Fez. His tomb is one of the most sacred placed in Morocco.
When Idriss II died the kingdom was divided between his two sons. The kingdoms proved to be weak. They soon broke up, in A.D. 921, and fighting broke out between the Berber tribes. The fighting continued until the 11th century when there was a second Arab invasion and many North African cities were sacked and many tribes were forced to become nomads.
Fatimids in East Africa
In the closing decades of the ninth century, missionaries of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of what was later known as the Petite Kabylie region and led them in battle against the Sunni rulers of Ifriqiya. Al Qayrawan fell to them in 909. The Ismaili imam, Ubaydallah, declared himself caliph and established Mahdia as his capital. Ubaydallah initiated the Fatimid Dynasty, named after Fatima, daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali, from whom the caliph claimed descent. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The Fatimids turned westward in 911, destroying the imamate of Tahirt and conquering Sijilmasa in Morocco. Ibadi Kharijite refugees from Tahirt fled south to the oasis at Ouargla beyond the Atlas Mountains, whence in the eleventh century they moved southwest to Oued Mzab. Maintaining their cohesion and beliefs over the centuries, Ibadi religious leaders have dominated public life in the region to this day.*
For many years, the Fatimids posed a threat to Morocco, but their deepest ambition was to rule the East, the Mashriq, which included Egypt and Muslim lands beyond. By 969 they had conquered Egypt. In 972 the Fatimid ruler Al Muizz established the new city of Cairo as his capital. The Fatimids left the rule of Ifriqiya and most of Algeria to the Zirids (972-1148). This Berber dynasty, which had founded the towns of Miliana, Médéa, and Algiers and centered significant local power in Algeria for the first time, turned over its domain west of Ifriqiya to the Banu Hammad branch of its family. The Hammadids ruled from 1011 to 1151, during which time Bejaïa became the most important port in the Maghrib.*
This period was marked by constant conflict, political instability, and economic decline. The Hammadids, by rejecting the Ismaili doctrine for Sunni orthodoxy and renouncing submission to the Fatimids, initiated chronic conflict with the Zirids. Two great Berber confederations — the Sanhaja and the Zenata — engaged in an epic struggle. The fiercely brave, camelborne nomads of the western desert and steppe as well as the sedentary farmers of the Kabylie to the east swore allegiance to the Sanhaja. Their traditional enemies, the Zenata, were tough, resourceful horsemen from the cold plateau of the northern interior of Morocco and the western Tell in Algeria.*
For the first time, the extensive use of Arabic spread to the countryside. Sedentary Berbers who sought protection from the Hilalians were gradually arabized.*
Morocco reached its golden period from the 11th to the mid-15th century under the Berber dynasties: the Almoravids, Almohads and Merinids. The Berbers were famous warriors. None of the Muslim dynasties or colonial powers were ever able to subdue and absorb the Berber clans in the mountainous regions. The later dynasties—the Almoravids, the Almohads, the Merinids, the Wattasids, the Saadians, and the still reining Alaouits—moved the capital around from Fez, to Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat.
Following a large incursion of Arab bedouins from Egypt beginning in the first half of the eleventh century, the use of Arabic spread to the countryside, and sedentary Berbers were gradually Arabized. The Almoravid (“those who have made a religious retreat”) movement developed early in the eleventh century among the Sanhaja Berbers of the western Sahara. The movement’s initial impetus was religious, an attempt by a tribal leader to impose moral discipline and strict adherence to Islamic principles on followers. But the Almoravid movement shifted to engaging in military conquest after 1054. By 1106 the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Like the Almoravids, the Almohads (“unitarians”) found their inspiration in Islamic reform. The Almohads took control of Morocco by 1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the conquest of the central Maghrib. The zenith of Almohad power occurred between 1163 and 1199. For the first time, the Maghrib was united under a local regime, but the continuing wars in Spain overtaxed the resources of the Almohads, and in the Maghrib their position was compromised by factional strife and a renewal of tribal warfare. In the central Maghrib, the Zayanids founded a dynasty at Tlemcen in Algeria. For more than 300 years, until the region came under Ottoman suzerainty in the sixteenth century, the Zayanids kept a tenuous hold in the central Maghrib. Many coastal cities asserted their autonomy as municipal republics governed by merchant oligarchies, tribal chieftains from the surrounding countryside, or the privateers who operated out of their ports. Nonetheless, Tlemcen, the “pearl of the Maghrib,” prospered as a commercial center. *
The Almoravids (1056-1147) are a Berber group that emerged in the deserts of southern Morocco and Mauritania. They embraced a puritanical form of Islam and were popular among the dispossessed in the countryside and the desert. Within a short time they became powerful. The Almoravid movement initial impetus was religious, an attempt by a tribal leader to impose moral discipline and strict adherence to Islamic principles on followers. But the Almoravid movement shifted to engaging in military conquest after 1054. By 1106 the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2008 **]
The Almoravid (“those who have made a religious retreat”) movement developed early in the eleventh century among the Sanhaja Berbers of the western Sahara, whose control of trans-Saharan trade routes was under pressure from the Zenata Berbers in the north and the state of Ghana in the south. Yahya ibn Ibrahim al Jaddali, a leader of the Lamtuna tribe of the Sanhaja confederation, decided to raise the level of Islamic knowledge and practice among his people. To accomplish this, on his return from the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1048-49, he brought with him Abd Allah ibn Yasin al Juzuli, a Moroccan scholar. In the early years of the movement, the scholar was concerned only with imposing moral discipline and a strict adherence to Islamic principles among his followers. Abd Allah ibn Yasin also became known as one of the marabouts, or holy persons (from al murabitun, "those who have made a religious retreat." Almoravids is the Spanish transliteration of al murabitun. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The Almoravid movement shifted from promoting religious reform to engaging in military conquest after 1054 and was led by Lamtuna leaders: first Yahya, then his brother Abu Bakr, and then his cousin Yusuf (Youssef) ibn Tashfin. Under ibn Tashfin, the Almoravids rose to power by capturing the key Saharan trade route to Sijilmasa and defeating their primary rivals in Fez. With Marrakech as their capital, the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River by 1106.
At its height the Berber Almoravid empire stretched from the Pyrenees to Mauritania to Libya. Under the Almoravids, the Maghrib and Spain acknowledged the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, reuniting them temporarily with the Islamic community in the Mashriq.*
Although it was not an entirely peaceful time, North Africa benefited economically and culturally during the Almoravid period, which lasted until 1147. Muslim Spain (Andalus in Arabic) was a great source of artistic and intellectual inspiration. The most famous writers of Andalus worked in the Almoravid court, and the builders of the Grand Mosque of Tilimsan, completed in 1136, used as a model the Grand Mosque of Córdoba. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The Almoravids established Marrakesh in A.D. 1070. The city began as a rudimentary camp of black wool tents with a kasbah called "the Castle of Stones." The city prospered on the trade of gold, ivory and other exotica that traveled by camel caravans from Timbuktu to the Barbary Coast.
The Almoravids were intolerant of other religions By the 12th century the Christian churches in the Maghreb had largely disappeared. Judaism, however, managed to endure in Spain As the Almoravids became rich they lost their religious zeal and military cohesion that marked their rise to power. The peasants that supported them regarded them as corrupt and turned against them. They were overthrown in revolt led by the Berber Masmuda tribes from the Atlas mountains.
The Almohads (1130-1269) displaced the Almoravids after capturing the strategic Sijilmasa trade routes. They relied on support that came from the Berbers in the Atlas mountains. The Almohads took control of Morocco by 1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the conquest of the central Maghrib. The zenith of Almohad power occurred between 1163 and 1199. Their empire at its greatest extent included Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and the Muslim part of Spain.
Like the Almoravids, the Almohads (“unitarians”) found their initial inspiration in Islamic reform. Their spiritual leader, the Moroccan Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart, sought to reform Almoravid decadence. Rejected in Marrakech and other cities, he turned to his Masmuda tribe in the Atlas Mountains for support. Because of their emphasis on the unity of God, his followers were known as Al Muwahhidun (unitarians, or Almohads). [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Although declaring himself mahdi, imam, and masum (infallible leader sent by God), Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart consulted with a council of ten of his oldest disciples. Influenced by the Berber tradition of representative government, he later added an assembly composed of fifty leaders from various tribes. The Almohad rebellion began in 1125 with attacks on Moroccan cities, including Sus and Marrakech.*
Upon Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tumart's death in 1130, his successor Abd al Mumin took the title of caliph and placed members of his own family in power, converting the system into a traditional monarchy. The Almohads entered Spain at the invitation of the Andalusian amirs, who had risen against the Almoravids there. Abd al Mumin forced the submission of the amirs and reestablished the caliphate of Córdoba, giving the Almohad sultan supreme religious as well as political authority within his domains. The Almohads took control of Morocco in 1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the conquest of the central Maghrib and advanced to Tripolitania. Nonetheless, pockets of Almoravid resistance continued to hold out in the Kabylie for at least fifty years.*
The Almohads established a professional civil service—recruited from the intellectual communities of Spain and the Maghreb—and elevated the cities of Marrakesh, Fez, Tlemcen and Rabat into great centers of culture and learning. They established a powerful army and navy, built up the cities and taxed the population based on productivity. They clashed with local tribes over taxation and the distribution of wealth.
After Abd al Mumin's death in 1163, his son Abu Yaqub Yusuf (r. 1163-84) and grandson Yaqub al Mansur (r. 1184-99) presided over the zenith of Almohad power. For the first time, the Maghrib was united under a local regime, and although the empire was troubled by conflict on its fringes, handcrafts and agriculture flourished at its center and an efficient bureaucracy filled the tax coffers. In 1229 the Almohad court renounced the teachings of Muhammad ibn Tumart, opting instead for greater tolerance and a return to the Maliki school of law. As evidence of this change, the Almohads hosted two of the greatest thinkers of Andalus: Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
The Almohads shared the crusading instincts of their Castilian adversaries, but the continuing wars in Spain overtaxed their resources. In the Maghrib, the Almohad position was compromised by factional strife and was challenged by a renewal of tribal warfare. The Bani Merin (Zenata Berbers) took advantage of declining Almohad power to establish a tribal state in Morocco, initiating nearly sixty years of warfare there that concluded with their capture of Marrakech, the last Almohad stronghold, in 1271. Despite repeated efforts to subjugate the central Maghrib, however, the Merinids were never able to restore the frontiers of the Almohad Empire.*
For the first time, the Maghrib was united under a local regime, but the continuing wars in Spain overtaxed the resources of the Almohads, and in the Maghrib their position was compromised by factional strife and a renewal of tribal warfare. The Almohads were weakened by their inabilty to create a sense of statehood among the warring Berber tribes and by incursions from Christian armies in the north and rival Bedouin armies in Morocco. They were forced to divide their administration. After being defeated by the Christians in Las Nevas de Tolosa in Spain their empire collapsed.
From its capital at Tunis, the Hafsid Dynasty made good its claim to be the legitimate successor of the Almohads in Ifriqiya, while, in the central Maghrib, the Zayanids founded a dynasty at Tlemcen. Based on a Zenata tribe, the Bani Abd el Wad, which had been settled in the region by Abd al Mumin, the Zayanids also emphasized their links with the Almohads. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
For more than 300 years, until the region came under Ottoman suzerainty in the sixteenth century, the Zayanids kept a tenuous hold in the central Maghrib. The regime, which depended on the administrative skills of Andalusians, was plagued by frequent rebellions but learned to survive as the vassal of the Merinids or Hafsids or later as an ally of Spain.*
Many coastal cities defied the ruling dynasties and asserted their autonomy as municipal republics. They were governed by their merchant oligarchies, by tribal chieftains from the surrounding countryside, or by the privateers who operated out of their ports.*
Nonetheless, Tlemcen prospered as a commercial center and was called the "pearl of the Maghrib." Situated at the head of the Imperial Road through the strategic Taza Gap to Marrakech, the city controlled the caravan route to Sijilmasa, gateway for the gold and slave trade with the western Sudan. Aragon came to control commerce between Tlemcen's port, Oran, and Europe beginning about 1250. An outbreak of privateering out of Aragon, however, severely disrupted this trade after about 1420.*
Ottoman Take Over of North Africa
At about the time Spain was establishing its presidios in the Maghrib, the Muslim privateer brothers Aruj and Khair ad Din — the latter known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard — were operating successfully off Tunisia under the Hafsids. In 1516 Aruj moved his base of operations to Algiers, but was killed in 1518 during his invasion of Tlemcen. Khair ad Din succeeded him as military commander of Algiers. The Ottoman sultan gave him the title of beylerbey (provincial governor) and a contingent of some 2,000 janissaries, well-armed Ottoman soldiers. With the aid of this force, Khair ad Din subdued the coastal region between Constantine and Oran (although the city of Oran remained in Spanish hands until 1791). Under Khair ad Din's regency, Algiers became the center of Ottoman authority in the Maghrib, from which Tunis, Tripoli, and Tlemcen would be overcome and Morocco's independence would be threatened. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
So successful was Khair ad Din at Algiers that he was recalled to Constantinople in 1533 by the sultan, Süleyman I (r. 1520-66), known in Europe as Süleyman the Magnificent, and appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet. The next year he mounted a successful seaborne assault on Tunis. The next beylerbey was Khair ad Din's son Hassan, who assumed the position in 1544. Until 1587 the area was governed by officers who served terms with no fixed limits. Subsequently, with the institution of a regular Ottoman administration, governors with the title of pasha ruled for three-year terms. Turkish was the official language, and Arabs and Berbers were excluded from government posts.*
The pasha was assisted by janissaries, known in Algeria as the ojaq and led by an agha. Recruited from Anatolian peasants, they were committed to a lifetime of service. Although isolated from the rest of society and subject to their own laws and courts, they depended on the ruler and the taifa for income. In the seventeenth century, the force numbered about 15,000, but it was to shrink to only 3,700 by 1830. Discontent among the ojaq rose in the mid-1600s because they were not paid regularly, and they repeatedly revolted against the pasha. As a result, the agha charged the pasha with corruption and incompetence and seized power in 1659.*
The dey was in effect a constitutional autocrat, but his authority was restricted by the divan and the taifa, as well as by local political conditions. The dey was elected for a life term, but in the 159 years (1671-1830) that the system survived, fourteen of the twenty-nine deys were removed from office by assassination. Despite usurpation, military coups, and occasional mob rule, the day-to-day operation of government was remarkably orderly. In accordance with the millet system applied throughout the Ottoman Empire, each ethnic group — Turks, Arabs, Kabyles, Berbers, Jews, Europeans — was represented by a guild that exercised legal jurisdiction over its constituents.*
Revolt in the Rif Mountains
Spain took control over northern Morocco in 1912 but it took 14 years to subdue the Rif mountains. There, a zealous Berber chieftain and former judge named Abd el Krim el Khattabi — outraged by Spanish rule and exploitation — organized a band of mountain guerillas and declared a “jihad “against the Spanish. Armed only with rifles, his men routed a Spanish force at Annaoual, massacring more than 16,000 Spanish soldiers and then, armed with captured weapons, drove a force of 40,000 Spanish out of their main mountain stronghold at Chechaouene.
The Berbers were emboldened by their religious beliefs and protected by the mountains. They held off the Spanish even though they were outnumbered by an overwhelming margin and were bombed by airplanes. Finally, in 1926, with more than 300,000 French and Spanish soldiers mounted against him, Abd el-Krim was forced to surrender. He was exiled to Cairo where he died in 1963.
French conquest of the whole of North Africa was complete by the end of the 1920s. The last mountain tribes were not “pacified” until 1934.
King Muhammad V
After World War II, King Muhammad V (1927-62) of Morocco called for gradual independence, seeking greater autonomy from the French. He also called for social reforms. In 1947 Muhammad V asked his daughter Princess Lalla Aicha to deliver a speech without a veil. King Muhammad V still kept some traditional customs. He was cared for by a stable of slaves and harem of concubines that faced severe beatings if they displeased him.
France regarded Muhammad V as a dreamer and exiled him in 1951. He was replaced by a Berber chieftain and leader of a tribal force that the French had hoped would intimidate the nationalists. The plan backfired. The move made Muhammad V a hero and a rallying point for the independence movement.
After World War II, France was relatively weak. It was humiliated by its defeat, preoccupied with matters at home and had more of a stake in Algeria than in Morocco. Military action by nationalists and Berber tribesmen prompted France to accept the King's return in November 1955 and preparations were made for Moroccan independence.
The Berbers have resisted foreign influences since ancient times. They fought against the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Ottoman Turks, and the French after their 1830 occupation of Algeria. In the fighting between 1954 and 1962 against France, Berber men from the Kabylie region participated in larger numbers than their share of the population warranted. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Since independence the Berbers have maintained a strong ethnic consciousness and a determination to preserve their distinctive cultural identity and language. They have particularly objected to efforts to force them to use Arabic; they regard these efforts as a form of Arab imperialism. Except for a handful of individuals, they have not been identified with the Islamist movement. In common with most other Algerians, they are Sunni Muslims of the Maliki legal school. In 1980 Berber students, protesting that their culture was being suppressed by the government's arabization policies, launched mass demonstrations and a general strike. In the wake of riots at Tizi Ouzou that resulted in a number of deaths and injuries, the government agreed to the teaching of the Berber language as opposed to classical Arabic at certain universities and promised to respect Berber culture. Nevertheless, ten years later, in 1990, the Berbers were again forced to rally in large numbers to protest a new language law requiring total use of Arabic by 1997.*
The Berber party, the Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes — FFS), gained twenty-five of the 231 contested seats in the first round of the legislative elections of December 1991, all of these in the Kabylie region. The FFS leadership did not approve of the military's cancellation of the second stage of the elections. Although strongly rejecting the FIS's demand that Islamic law be extended to all facets of life, the FFS expressed confidence that it could prevail against Islamist pressure.*
The primary language of school instruction is Arabic, but Berber-language instruction has been permitted since 2003, in part to ease reliance on foreign teachers but also in response to complaints about Arabization. In November 2005, the government held special regional elections to address under-representation of Berber interests in regional and local assemblies. *
Berber Politics in Algeria in the 1980s
The pressure for arabization has brought resistance from Berber elements in the population. Different Berber groups, such as the Kabyles, the Chaouia, the Tuareg, and the Mzab, each speak a different dialect. The Kabyles, who are the most numerous, have succeeded, for example, in instituting the study of Kabyle, or Zouaouah, their Berber language, at the University of Tizi Ouzou, in the center of the Kabylie region. Arabization of education and the government bureaucracy has been an emotional and dominant issue in Berber political participation. Young Kabyle students were particularly vocal in the 1980s about the advantages of French over Arabic. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In the 1980s, real opposition in Algeria came from two main quarters: the "modernizers" among bureaucrats and technocrats and the Berbers, or, more specifically, the Kabyles. For the urban elite, French constituted the medium of modernization and technology. French facilitated their access to Western commerce and to economic development theory and culture, and their command of the language guaranteed their continued social and political prominence. *
The Kabyles identified with these arguments. Young Kabyle students were particularly vocal in expressing their opposition to arabization. In the early 1980s, their movement and demands formed the basis of the "Berber question" or the Kabyle "cultural movement." Militant Kabyles complained about "cultural imperialism" and "domination" by the Arabic-speaking majority. They vigorously opposed arabization of the education system and the government bureaucracy. They also demanded recognition of the Kabyle dialect as a primary national language, respect for Berber culture, and greater attention to the economic development of Kabylie and other Berber homelands.*
The Kabyle "cultural movement" was more than a reaction against arabization. Rather, it challenged the centralizing policies the national government had pursued since 1962 and sought wider scope for regional development free of bureaucratic controls. Essentially, the issue was the integration of Kabylie into the Algerian body politic. To the extent that the Kabyle position reflected parochial Kabyle interests and regionalism, it did not find favor with other Berber groups or with Algerians at large.*
Long-simmering passions about arabization boiled over in late 1979 and early 1980. In response to demands of Arabic-language university students for increased arabization, Kabyle students in Algiers and Tizi Ouzou, the provincial capital of Kabylie, went on strike in the spring of 1980. At Tizi Ouzou, the students were forcibly cleared from the university, an action that precipitated tension and a general strike throughout Kabylie. A year later, there were renewed Kabyle demonstrations.*
The government's response to the Kabyle outburst was firm yet cautious. Arabization was reaffirmed as official state policy, but it proceeded at a moderate pace. The government quickly reestablished a chair of Berber studies at the University of Algiers that had been abolished in 1973 and promised a similar chair for the University of Tizi Ouzou, as well as language departments for Berber and dialectical Arabic at four other universities. At the same time, levels of development funding for Kabylie were increased significantly.*
By the mid-1980s, arabization had begun to produce some measurable results. In the primary schools, instruction was in literary Arabic; French was taught as a second language, beginning in the third year. On the secondary level, arabization was proceeding on a grade-by-grade basis. French remained the main language of instruction in the universities, despite the demands of arabists.*
A 1968 law requiring officials in government ministries to acquire at least minimal facility in literary Arabic has produced spotty results. The Ministry of Justice came closest to the goal by arabizing internal functions and all court proceedings during the 1970s. Other ministries, however, were slower to follow suit, and French remained in general use. An effort was also made to use radio and television to popularize literary Arabic. By the mid-1980s, programming in dialectical Arabic and Berber had increased, whereas broadcasts in French had declined sharply.*
As is true of other peoples of the Maghrib, Algerian society has considerable historical depth and has been subjected to a number of external influences and migrations. Fundamentally Berber in cultural and racial terms, the society was organized around extended family, clan, and tribe and was adapted to a rural rather than an urban setting before the arrival of the Arabs and, later, the French. An identifiable modern class structure began to materialize during the colonial period. This structure has undergone further differentiation in the period since independence, despite the country's commitment to egalitarian ideals.
Berbers in Libya
In Libya, Berbers are known as Amazigh. Glen Johnson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Under Kadafi's oppressive identity politics...there was no reading, writing or singing in the Amazigh language, Tamazight. Attempts to organize festivals were met with intimidation. Amazigh activists stood accused of militant Islamist activity and were imprisoned. Torture was common....In a post-Kadafi Libya globalized youths dream of greater autonomy while traditionalists and religious conservatives find comfort in more familiar strictures.” [Source: Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2012]
Part of what was once the dominant ethnic group throughout North Africa, the Berbers of Libya today live principally in remote mountain areas or in desert localities where successive waves of Arab migration failed to reach or to which they retreated to escape the invaders. In the 1980s Berbers, or native speakers of Berber dialects, constituted about 5 percent, or 135,000, of the total population, although a substantially larger proportion is bilingual in Arabic and Berber. Berber place-names are still common in some areas where Berber is no longer spoken. The language survives most notably in the Jabal Nafusah highlands of Tripolitania and in the Cyrenaican town of Awjilah. In the latter, the customs of seclusion and concealment of women have been largely responsible for the persistence of the Berber tongue. Because it is used largely in public life, most men have acquired Arabic, but it has become a functional language for only a handful of modernized young women. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Libya: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987*]
By and large, cultural and linguistic, rather than physical, distinctions separate Berber from Arab. The touchstone of Berberhood is the use of the Berber language. A continuum of related but not always mutually intelligible dialects, Berber is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is distantly related to Arabic, but unlike Arabic it has not developed a written form and as a consequence has no written literature.*
Unlike the Arabs, who see themselves as a single nation, Berbers do not conceive of a united Berberdom and have no name for themselves as a people. The name Berber has been attributed to them by outsiders and is thought to derive from barbari, the term the ancient Romans applied to them. Berbers identify with their families, clans, and tribe. Only when dealing with outsiders do they identify with other groupings such as the Tuareg. Traditionally, Berbers recognized private property, and the poor often worked the lands of the rich. Otherwise, they were remarkably egalitarian. A majority of the surviving Berbers belong to the Khariji sect of Islam, which emphasizes the equality of believers to a greater extent than does the Maliki rite of Sunni Islam, which is followed by the Arab population. A young Berber sometimes visits Tunisia or Algeria to find a Khariji bride when none is available in his own community.*
Most of the remaining Berbers live in Tripolitania, and many Arabs of the region still show traces of their mixed Berber ancestry. Their dwellings are clustered in groups made up of related families; households consist of nuclear families, however, and the land is individually held. Berber enclaves also are scattered along the coast and in a few desert oases. The traditional Berber economy has struck a balance between farming and pastoralism, the majority of the village or tribe remaining in one place throughout the year while a minority accompanies the flock on its circuit of seasonal pastures.*
Berbers and Arabs in Libya live together in general amicability, but quarrels between the two peoples occasionally erupted until recent times. A short-lived Berber state existed in Cyrenaica during 1911 and 1912. Elsewhere in the Maghrib during the 1980s, substantial Berber minorities continued to play important economic and political roles. In Libya their number was too small for them to enjoy corresponding distinction as a group. Berber leaders, however, were in the forefront of the independence movement in Tripolitania.*
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018