We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Berbers - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Berbers

By:
Omar Chaoura Bourouh
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Berbers

The term “Berbers” refers to the indigenous populations of North Africa and the Sahara who settled there in ancient times and then scattered across different regions as a result of successive waves of foreign invasions and settlements by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Muslims, and Europeans (especially French). Berbers fought invaders off their land, struck alliances with some, and lived peacefully with others. In the process, a substantial number of them retreated to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. In either case, this relative seclusion helped them preserve their identity, language, and cultural heritage. Berbers mixed with various ethnic groups (Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Europeans) to form the current stock of urban populations in North Africa. Other smaller groups of Berbers in different countries were assimilated into the dominant culture.

Because of direct exposure to and intermixing with various foreign populations, the precise number of Berbers is unknown. “In a genetic sense,” Ernest Gellner (1969) noted, “it is probable that many of the Arabic-speaking regions of North Africa also have populations composed in large part of arabized Berbers. Similarly, it is unlikely that the Berber-speaking regions are of ‘pure’ ancestry” (p. 13). In the absence of reliable statistics, it is estimated that Berbers now constitute 50 percent (about 17 million) of Morocco's population, 30 percent (about 10 million) of Algeria's population, and 10 percent (about 1.2 million) each the populations of Mali and Niger. Berbers also constitute demographic minorities in Libya, Mauritania, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain (including the Canary Islands), and Burkina Faso.

Historians disagree on the origin of Berbers. Some relate them to Mazigh, the son of Canaan in ancient Palestine, others trace them to the original inhabitants of Yemen, still others claim that they are Caucasians who emigrated from Europe. Today, various Berber groups speak related but distinct dialects commonly known as Tamazīght: Shelhia among the Shluḥ in Morocco and Mauritania; Taqbaylit among the Kabyle in west Algiers and the Chenoua in east Algiers; Shāwiyah in the Aurès mountains in east Algeria; Rīfian and Tamazīght predominantly in Morocco; Tumzabt among Mzāb (Mozabites or Ibāḍīs) in the northern Algerian desert city of Ghardaïa, in Jerba in Tunisia, and in Jebel Nafusa in northwestern Libya; and Zanāga in Senegal. The Tuareg (nomadic and semi-nomadic Berbers of the Sahara across Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger), who remained relatively homogeneous, are the only Berber groups who still use the original written alphabet (Tifinagh) of their language, Tamāshek. Other Berber groups speak colloquial Arabic in North Africa or Spanish in Spain. In the last four decades, there have been attempts by academics and activists to revive the written Berber language. In Algeria for example, Mouloud Mammeri (1917–1989), a linguist and anthropologist, developed the Tamazīght alphabet (Tifinagh using Latin symbols) and worked to record the Berber cultural heritage.

Berbers of North Africa are predominantly Sunnī Muslims. Before their Islamization, Berbers adhered to Christianity, Judaism, and indigenous practices. In ancient times, Berbers established the kingdom of Numidia in North Africa (202–105 B.C.E.), which was ruled by Masinissa and later by his grandson Jugurtha before it was conquered by the Romans. The Romans, in turn, were overthrown by the Byzantines, who ruled Berber lands until the Islamic conquest.

In 670 CE/49 AH, Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula and the freshly conquered territories of the Middle East swept through the Berber territories from the west of Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean, quickly taking over North Africa (Maghrib) from the Byzantines. By the late seventh century, Muslims, supported by the newly Islamized Berbers, had consolidated their conquest of the Maghrib. Islam was also spread among Berbers through the migration, settlement, and missionary activities of Muslims in North Africa. Trans-Saharan trade to the south spread Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Muslim Berbers not only provided fresh recruits for Muslim armies but took on leadership roles as well. In 711 CE/92 AH, Ṭarīq ibn Ziyād, a Berber, commanded a military force of twelve thousand Muslim fighters, of whom the majority were Berbers, and crossed the strait of Gibraltar (which was named after him) to conquer the southern part of Spain (Andalusia). The Muslim conquest of North Africa, however, took longer than that of other regions in the east or even in southern Spain, because the Berbers had a history of resisting foreign attempts at control and domination. Berbers from urban areas, who were mostly Christian and wealthier than rural Berbers, resisted Islamic conquests, perhaps for fear of losing their privileges, while rural Berbers embraced Islam more quickly. Other Berber resistance movements may have taken place to preserve their freedom and autonomy.

ʿAbd al-Rahmān ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406 CE/732–808 AH), the well-known North African Muslim historian, philosopher, and sociologist, recounted that Berbers apostatized twelve times after their initial conversion to Islam. Ibn Khaldūn developed his theory of history in his monumental work Kitāb al-ʿibar (Book of Advice) by analyzing the rise and fall of Arab and Berber dynasties, which he attributed to conflict between desert-dwelling nomads (Bedouin) and urbanized populations. Two notable resistance movements (681–705 CE/61–85 AH) were led by Kusayla (who had initially converted to Islam) and the legendary female leader Kāhinah. Both were defeated by the newly arriving Muslim forces from the east.

Berbers were divided among three main Muslim sects competing for control of North Africa: Kharijites (Ibāḍīs), Shīʿī groups (Ismāʿīlīs and Fāṭimids), and the subsequent Sunnī states of the Almoravids (1062–1150 CE/453–544 AH) and Almohads (1130–1269 CE/524–667 AH). “In certain regions,” the historian Albert Hourani observed, “there were movements of opposition and separation in the name of some dissident form of Islam. Such movements resulted in the creation of separate political units, but at the same time they helped the spread of Islam by giving it a form which did not disturb the social order” (p. 39). After the defeat of Kāhinah, Berbers overwhelmingly became Muslims. Those of urban areas became mostly Arabized, but Berber inhabitants of remote villages and the Tuareg in the Sahara retained their local Tamazīght dialects.

The Ottomans ruled North Africa from 1525 CE/931 AHto 1830 CE/1245> AH Because Ottoman governors were unable to control the Berbers of the remote mountains, they signed a treaty with them, respecting their autonomous status. Sahara Berbers (the Tuareg) remained mostly out of reach of Ottoman rule. French colonialists, however, in their quest to control and win the support of Berbers, sent missionaries to Christianize them in both the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. As a result, a small minority may have converted to Christianity, particularly in the Kabylia region, but the overwhelming majority remains Sunnī Muslim. Berbers and Arabs fought French colonialism through several armed resistance movements, particularly in Algeria and Morocco, leading to political independence. These armed movements mobilized Berbers and Arabs alike as mujāhidīn (Muslim fighters against infidels).

Following their independence, North African states (notably Algeria, Morocco, and Libya) tried to Arabize Berbers through schooling and sociocultural programs. Some Berber groups contested the marginalization of Berber languages. In Algeria and Morocco, especially during the last thirty years, Berbers have taken a very active role by organizing protests, forming political parties and associations, and making demands for the recognition of their language and preservation of their heritage. Their efforts have culminated in the official recognition of Tamazīght as a national language and the creation of special public institutions to promote Berber language and culture. Berbers of Libya have also made cultural demands in recent years. The Tuareg of Mali and Niger have been waging war against their governments beginning in the 1980s to demand their political rights. In an effort to bring the Berber cause together, the World Amazigh Congress (an international NGO) has been working to represent all Berbers in the United Nations and other international organizations.

ALGERIA; ETHNICITY; LIBYA; MOROCCO; OTTOMAN EMPIRE; and TUNISIA.]

Bibliography

  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil. M.A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987. Find it in your Library
  • Bloom, Jonathan, and Sheila Blair. Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power. New York, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Gautier, E. F.L’Islamisation de l’Afrique du Nord: Les siècles obscurs du Maghreb. Paris, 1927. Find it in your Library
  • Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. London, 1969. Find it in your Library
  • Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. Find it in your Library
  • Ibn Khaldūn, ʿAbd al-Rahmān. Histoire des berberes et des dynasties musulmanes de l’Afrique septentrionale. Translated from the Arabic by Baron de Slane. 4 vols. Paris, 1925–1956. Find it in your Library
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice