Berbers: Their Language, Religion, Society and Groups

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Berber family from the Chleuh Shiha Shlul subgroup

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.

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.

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. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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.

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths ; Afterhours Sufism Stories ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry

Berbers and Arabs

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.*

Berber Population

Berbers make up about a third of the population of Morocco, a fifth in Algeria, five percent in Libya and a smaller percentage in Tunisia. Figures are hard to come by for Libya where Berbers were discriminated against and many hid their Berber identity. In Morocco they live mainly in the Atlas mountains, southern Morocco and regions around the Sahara. Many consider the Rif mountains in northern Morocco to be their homeland.

Most people of North Africa are of mixed Berber and Arab ancestry and thus defining Berbers can be problematic. What is a Berber? Someone who is 90 percent Berber? 75 percent? 51 percent? And then how do you go about determining that percentage. The Berbers of purer blood tend to live in mountains villages where they were isolated from other people. Berbers in the lowlands intermarried with Arabs and other ethnic groups. Some Berbers with Caucasian ancestors have fair complexions and blue eyes.

Regions with significant populations; 1) Morocco: from 14 million to 20 million; 2) Algeria: from 9 to 13 million; 3) Libya: ~3,850,000; 4) Tunisia: 110,000 or 6,589,652; 5) France: more than 2 million; 6) Mauritania: 2,883,000 (2,768,000 & 115,000); 7) Niger: 1,620,000; 8) Mali: 850,000; 9) Belgium: 500,000 (Including descendants); 10) Netherlands: 367,455 (Including descendants); 11) Burkina Faso: 50,000; 12) Egypt: 34,000 or 1,826,580; 13) Canada: 37,060 (Including those of mixed ancestry); 14) Israel: 3,500; 15) United States: 1,327. [Source: Wikipedia]

Berber Groups

The major Berber groups in Algeria are the Kabyles of the Kabylie Mountains east of Algiers and the Chaouia of the Aurès range south of Constantine. Smaller groups include the Mzab of the northern Sahara region and the Tuareg of the southern Ahaggar highlands, both of which have clearly definable characteristics. The Berber peasantry can also be found in the Atlas Mountains close to Blida, and on the massifs of Dahra and Ouarsenis on either side of the Chelif River valley. Altogether, the Berbers constitute about 20 percent of the population. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Amazigh (Berber) peoples

By far the largest of the Berber-speaking groups, the Kabyles, do not refer to themselves as Berbers but as Imazighen or, in the singular, as Amazigh, which means noble or free men. Some traces of the original blue-eyed and blond-haired Berbers survive to contrast the people from this region with the darker- skinned Arabic speakers of the plains. The land is poor, and the pressure of a dense and rapidly growing population has forced many to migrate to France or to the coastal cities. Kabyles can be found in every part of the country, but in their new environments they tend to gather and to retain some of their clan solidarity and sense of ethnic identity.*

In the hills north of the Chelif River and in some other parts of the Tell, Berbers live in villages among the sedentary Arabs, not sharply distinguished in their way of life from the Arabic speakers but maintaining their own language and a sense of ethnic identity. In addition, in some oasis towns of the Algerian Sahara, small Berber groups remain unassimilated to Arab culture and retain their own language and some of their cultural differences.*

In Morocco, the Chleuh Berbers of the High Atlas are known for their fierceness, agriculture skills, strict adherence to Islam, thriftiness and internecine fighting. The Ammein division of the Chleuh Berbers is known for is financial acumen.


By far the largest of the Berber-speaking groups, the Kabyles, do not refer to themselves as Berbers but as Imazighen or, in the singular, as Amazigh, which means noble or free men. Some traces of the original blue-eyed and blond-haired Berbers survive to contrast the people from this region with the darker- skinned Arabic speakers of the plains. The land is poor, and the pressure of a dense and rapidly growing population has forced many to migrate to France or to the coastal cities. Kabyles can be found in every part of the country, but in their new environments they tend to gather and to retain some of their clan solidarity and sense of ethnic identity. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Kabyle villages, built on the crests of hills, are close- knit, independent, social and political units composed of a number of extended patrilineal kin groups. Traditionally, local government consisted of a jamaa (village council), which included all adult males and legislated according to local custom and law. Efforts to modify this democratic system were only partially successful, and the jamaa has continued to function alongside the civil administration. The majority of Berber mountain peasants hold their land as mulk, or private property, in contrast to those of the valleys and oases where the tribe retains certain rights over land controlled by its members.*

Christian Kabyle family

Set apart by their habitat, language, and well-organized village and social life, Kabyles have a highly developed sense of independence and group solidarity. They have generally opposed incursions of Arabs and Europeans into their region, and much of the resistance activity during the War of Independence was concentrated in the Kabylie. Major Kabyle uprisings took place against the French in 1871, 1876, and 1882; the Chaouia rebelled in 1879.*

Chaouia and Mzab

Perhaps half as numerous as the Kabyles and less densely settled, the Chaouia have occupied the rugged Aurès Mountains of eastern Algeria since their retreat to that region from Tunisia during the Arab invasions of the Middle Ages. In the north they are settled agriculturalists, growing grain in the uplands and fruit trees in the valleys. In the arid south, with its date-palm oases, they are seminomadic, shepherding flocks to the high plains during the summer. The distinction between the two groups is limited, however, because the farmers of the north are also drovers, and the seminomads of the south maintain plots of land. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the past, the Chaouia lived in isolation broken only by visits of Kabyle peddlers and Saharan camel raisers, and relatively few learned to speak either French or Arabic. Like their society, their economy was self-sufficient and closed. Emigration was limited, but during the War of Independence the region was a stronghold of anti-French sentiment, and more than one-half of the population was removed to concentration camps. During the postindependence era, the ancient Chaouia isolation has lessened.*

Far less numerous than their northern Berber kin are the Mzab, whose number was estimated at 100,000 in the mid-1980s. They live beside the Oued Mzab, from which comes their name. Ghardaïa was their largest and most important oasis community. The Mzab are Ibadi Muslims who practice a puritanical form of Islam that emphasizes asceticism, literacy for men and women, and social egalitarianism.*

The Mzab used to be important in trans-Saharan trade but now have moved into other occupations. Some of their members have moved to the cities, where in Algiers, for example, they dominate the grocery and butchery business. They have also extended their commerce south to sub-Saharan Africa, where they and other tribal people trade with cash and letters of exchange, make loans on the harvest, and sell on credit.*



Some people regard the Tuareg as desert Berbers. Of all Berber subgroups, the Tuareg until recently have been the least affected by the outside world. Known as "the blue men" because of their indigo-dyed cotton robes and as "people of the veil" because the men — but not the women — always veil, the Tuareg inhabit the Sahara from southwest Libya to Mali. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In southern Algeria, they are concentrated in the highlands of Tassili-n- Ajjer and Ahaggar and in the 1970s were estimated to number perhaps 5,000 to 10,000. They are organized into tribes and, at least among the Ahaggar Tuareg, into a three-tiered class system of nobles, vassals, and slaves and servants, the last group often being of negroid origin. Tuareg women enjoy high status and many privileges. They do not live in seclusion, and their social responsibilities equal those of men.*

In the past, the Tuareg were famed as camel and cattle herdsmen and as guides and protectors of caravans that plied between West Africa and North Africa. Both occupations have greatly declined during the twentieth century under the impact of colonial and independent government policies, technology, and consumerism associated with the hydrocarbon industry and, most recently, drought. The result has been the breakup of the old social hierarchy and gradual sedentarization around such oases as Djanet and Tamanrasset.*

See Separate Article on the Tuareg

Berber Language

In Morocco, Arabic is the official language. Berber dialects also are spoken and increasingly used as a language of instruction in schools. French is often the language of business, government, and diplomacy and is taught in the schools. Spanish is spoken in the northern part of the country. In Algeria the official language is Arabic. French is the language of business, and Berber (Tamazight) is also spoken. In October 2001, the government recognized Berber as a national language but not as an official language. As a result, the language issue remains contentious. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2006]

Berber has its own very ancient script. About a third of Morocco's population speak at least one of the three Berber languages. Many don't speak Arabic. Women have traditionally kept local Berber dialects alive at home while the men learned Arabic and French to deal with the outside world. Except for Europeans, ethnic communities in North Africa were distinguished primarily by language. Before the arrival of Arabic-speaking invaders, Berber was the language of the indigenous population. Arabic encroached gradually, spreading through the areas most accessible to migrants and conquerors. Berber remained the mother tongue in many rural areas.

Berber dialects in Morocco

There has been considerable borrowing of words between Berber and Arabic. In some Arabic-speaking areas, the words for various flora and fauna are still in Berber, and Berber place-names are numerous throughout the country, some of them borrowed. Examples of Berber place-names are Illizi, Skikda, Tamanrasset, Tipasa, and Tizi Ouzou. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Berber is primarily a spoken language, although an ancient Berber script called tifinagh survives among the Tuareg of the Algerian Sahara, where the characters are used more for special purposes than for communication. Several Berber dialect groups are recognized in modern Algeria, but only Kabyle and Chaouia are spoken by any considerable number. The Chaouia dialect, which is distinguishable from but related to Kabyle, bears the mark and influence of Arabic. Separate dialects, however, are spoken by the Tuareg and by the Mzab.*

The pressure for arabization has brought resistance from Berber elements in the population, particularly in Algeria. 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.*

In 2004 and 2005, the Algerian government increased the access of Berber language and culture to both print and broadcast media. 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.

Islam in North Africa

After the Arab conquests beginning in the 7th century, many Berbers converted to Islam, as their ancestors had converted to Christianity, and today the majority practice a form of Islam that incorporates local beliefs. Berbers believe that silver brings good luck.

Islam as practiced in North Africa is interlaced with indigenous Berber beliefs. Although the orthodox faith preached the unique and inimitable majesty and sanctity of God and the equality of God's believers, an important element of North African Islam for centuries has been a belief in the coalescence of special spiritual power in particular living human beings. The power is known as baraka, a transferable quality of personal blessedness and spiritual force said to lodge in certain individuals. Those whose claim to possess baraka can be substantiated--through performance of apparent miracles, exemplary human insight, or genealogical connection with a recognized possessor--are viewed as saints. These persons are known in the West as marabouts, a French transliteration of al murabitun (those who have made a religious retreat), and the benefits of their baraka are believed to accrue to those ordinary people who come in contact with them. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Libya: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987*]

Minaret at the Kasbah mosque in Marrakech

The cult of saints became widespread in rural areas; in urban localities, Islam in its orthodox form continued to prevail. Saints were present in Tripolitania, but they were particularly numerous in Cyrenaica. Their baraka continued to reside in their tombs after their deaths. The number of venerated tombs varied from tribe to tribe, although there tended to be fewer among the camel herders of the desert than among the sedentary and nomadic tribes of the plateau area. In one village, a visitor in the late 1960s counted sixteen still-venerated tombs.*

Coteries of disciples frequently clustered around particular saints, especially those who preached an original tariqa (devotional "way"). Brotherhoods of the followers of such mystical teachers appeared in North Africa at least as early as the eleventh century and in some cases became mass movements. The founder ruled an order of followers, who were organized under the frequently absolute authority of a leader, or shaykh. The brotherhood was centered on a zawiya (pl., zawaya.*

Because of Islam's austere rational and intellectual qualities, many people have felt drawn toward the more emotional and personal ways of knowing God practiced by mystical Islam, or Sufism. Found in many parts of the Muslim world, Sufism endeavored to produce a personal experience of the divine through mystic and ascetic discipline. Sufi adherents gathered into brotherhoods, and Sufi cults became extremely popular, particularly in rural areas. Sufi brotherhoods exercised great influence and ultimately played an important part in the religious revival that swept through North Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Libya, when the Ottoman Empire proved unable to mount effective resistance to the encroachment of Christian missionaries, the work was taken over by Sufi-inspired revivalist movements. Among these, the most forceful and effective was that of the Sanusis, which extended into numerous parts of North Africa.*

In post-Gaddfi Libya the austere Salafi strand of Islam is making it presence known, iand challenging more moderate forms of Islam. Waleed Muhammad, a Salafi adherent, told the Los Angeles Times: "People are free to do as they like, as long as they do not go outside from Islam. The woman's role is to take care of the house but it is not wrong for her to work, as long as this does not affect the house. She can communicate with men, but not outside of what her work requires." [Source: Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2012]

Early History of Islam in North Africa

During the seventh century, Muslim conquerors reached North Africa, and by the beginning of the eighth century the Berbers had been for the most part converted to Islam. Orthodox Sunni Islam, the larger of the two great branches of the faith, is the form practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Algeria. Shia Islam is not represented apart from a few members of the Ibadi sect, a Shia offshoot. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

prayer tent

Before the Arab incursions, most of the Berber inhabitants of the area's mountainous interior were pagan. Some had adopted Judaism, and in the coastal plains many had accepted Christianity under the Romans. A wave of Arab incursions into the Maghrib in the latter half of the seventh century and the early eighth century introduced Islam to parts of the area.*

One of the dominant characteristics of Islam in North Africa was the cult of holy men, or maraboutism. Marabouts were believed to have baraka, or divine grace, as reflected in their ability to perform miracles. Recognized as just and spiritual men, marabouts often had extensive followings locally and regionally. Muslims believed that baraka could be inherited, or that a marabout could confer it on a follower.*

The turuq (sing., tariqa, way or path), or brotherhoods, were another feature of Islam in the Maghrib from the Middle Ages onward. Each brotherhood had its own prescribed path to salvation, its own rituals, signs, symbols, and mysteries. The brotherhoods were prevalent in the rural and mountainous areas of Algeria and other parts of North Africa. Their leaders were often marabouts or shaykhs. The more orthodox Sunni Muslims dominated the urban centers, where traditionally trained men of religion, the ulama, conducted the religious and legal affairs of the Muslim community.*

Berber Society

Berber society is organized around clan and village. Each village is autonomous and ruled by a council. The Berbers are still largely governed by clan and tribal customs. They have been resistant to letting go of their culture and being absorbed by the Arab majority.

Berbers are very loyal to their tribes and its council of elders, local saint and ancient rituals. The government has tried hard to integrate them in Moroccan life. Berber social life revolves around annual festivals called “moussems”, which are often regional trade markets combined with part religious festival honoring a local saint.

Members of a single patrilineage lived in one compound and shared the work on the family's common land. The lineage expressed solidarity by adhering to a code of honor that obligated members to provide aid to relatives in need and even in the clinging together of members who had gone to the city to find work. Among Berber groups, the honor and wealth of the lineage were so important that blood revenge was justified in their defense. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Berber Families

Berbers in 1902

Before independence the basic Algerian family unit, particularly in the countryside, was the extended family consisting of grandparents, their married sons and families, unmarried sons, daughters if unmarried or if divorced or widowed with their children, and occasionally other related adults. The structure of the family was patriarchal and patrilineal, with the senior male member making all major decisions affecting family welfare, dividing land and work assignments, and representing it in dealings with outsiders. Each married couple usually had a separate room opening onto the family courtyard and prepared meals separately. Women spent their lives under male authority-- first that of their fathers, then of their husbands--and were expected to devote themselves entirely to the activities of the home. Children were raised by all members of the group, who passed on to them the concept and value of family solidarity. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Since independence there has been a trend toward smaller family units consisting only of a husband and wife and their unmarried children. Upon marriage a young man who can afford to do so sets up a household for himself and his bride, and on the death of the head of an extended family, male members and their dependents break off into separate households.*

The trend toward the smaller nuclear family has affected the extended family structure in both urban and rural areas, although it is more pronounced in the former. The nuclear family is fast becoming the prevalent family structure. This change has occurred gradually in response to many factors, including increased urbanization and the development of wage labor.*

In the early 1990s, younger and better educated Algerians tended to favor smaller families than did previous generations. They preferred to live in separate quarters, have fewer children, and run their lives independently. Familial ties of loyalty and respect were not in question, although they tended to loosen. Rather, family relationships were rearranged with respect to living space and decision making.*

Kabyles Elite

Berbers, or more specifically, Kabyles, were represented in disproportionately large numbers in this elite because the French, as part of their "divide and rule" policy, deliberately favored Kabyles in education and employment in the colonial system. As a result, in the years after independence Kabyles moved into all levels of state administration across Algeria, where they remained a large and influential group. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Important as these problems were, the real opposition 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.*

Development of Berber Society

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. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

During the Ottoman period, before the coming of the French in 1830, the people were divided among a few ancient cities and a sparsely settled countryside where subsistence farmers and nomadic herdsmen lived in small, ethnically homogeneous groups. Rural patterns of social organization had many common features, although some differences existed between Arabs and Berbers and between nomads and settled cultivators. The groups did not form a cohesive social class because individual behavior and action were circumscribed by the framework of tribe or clan.*

In this period, 5 to 6 percent of the population lived in cities. The cities were the location of the principal mosques and the major sharia (Islamic law) courts and institutions of higher Islamic learning. Various Islamic legal schools, such as the Hanafi and Maliki as well as the Ibadi schools, also had their mosques in the cities. In addition, cities had public baths and markets, where goods coming from various parts of the world were traded. The heterogeneous population of the cities included men of mixed Turkish and Algerian descent called Kouloughli Moors, a term coined by the French to refer to descendants of Andalusian refugees; Christian slaves from around the Mediterranean captured by Barbary Coast pirates; and African slaves who worked as laborers and domestics. The cities also had small Jewish communities that would become more important under the French colonial system. Many cities had small groups of Mzab who owned grocery and butcher shops and operated the public baths, and Kabyles who came briefly to the cities before returning to their areas of origin.*

In the rural areas, social organization depended primarily on kinship ties. The basic kinship unit was the ayla, a small lineage whose members claimed descent through males from a common grandfather or great-grandfather. The male members of such a group maintained mutual economic obligations and recognized a form of collective ownership of pastoral or agricultural lands. Several ayla formed the larger lineage, whose members traced their origin to a more remote male ancestor. Beyond these lineages were the patrilineal clans called adhrum by the Kabyles and firq by the Arabs, in which kinship was assumed and the links between individuals and families were close. The largest units consisted of tribes that were aggregations of clans claiming common or related ancestors or of clans brought together by the force of circumstance. Sharing a common territory, name, and way of life, member units of a tribe, particularly among the Berbers, had little political cohesion and tended to accept the authority of a chief only when faced with the danger of alien conquest or subjugation. Tribal confederations were rare in the modern era but were more common before the nineteenth century.*

Settled Berber groups were democratic and egalitarian. The community, an aggregation of localized clans consisting of a cluster of hamlets or a village inhabited by a single clan, was governed by a jamaa composed of all adult males. Social stratification of the kind found in Arab groups did not exist in Berber villages.*

Berber oasis village

The European population increased rapidly in the nineteenth century, more than quadrupling from 26,987 in the early 1840s to 125,963 a decade later, and reaching almost 2 million by the turn of the century. This population growth, coupled with the appropriation of cultivated and pastoral lands by colonials, which increased sharply in the early twentieth century, created tremendous pressures on the cultivable land. Displaced villagers and tribesmen flocked to towns and cities, where they formed an unskilled labor mass, ill-adapted to industrial work, scorned by Europeans, and isolated from the kinship units that had formerly given them security and a sense of solidarity. This urban movement increased after World War I and after World War II. At the same time, large numbers of Algerians migrated to France in search of work. The Kabyles were the principal migrants; during the 1950s, as many as 10 percent of the people of Kabylie were working in France at any one time; even larger numbers were working in cities of the Tell.Europeans constituted a separate sector of society, and the European-Algerian dichotomy was the country's basic social division.

Today, in an area only about two hours distant by highway from Algiers, a densely packed rural population continues to live in remote mountain areas, sheltered from outside influences and maintaining Berber languages and customs in their purest forms. A large majority of the emigrant laborers in France were Berbers from the Kabylie, and the funds remitted by them to their families at home made the surge of building possible in this generally impoverished region.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “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

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