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Amazighs / ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ Imaziɣen
A woman wearing traditional Berber clothes
Total population
c.36 million [1]
Regions with significant populations
 Morocco ≈ 20 million [2][3][4][5]
 Algeria ≈ 13 million[4][6]
 Niger 1,620,000[7]
 France 1,500,000[8]
 Mali 850,000[9]
 Libya 600,000 [10]
 Mauritania 114,000[11]
 Tunisia 110,000[12]
 Burkina Faso 50,000[13]
 Egypt 34,000[14]
 Israel 3,500[15]
Berber languages, Maghrebi Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, French
Predominantly Sunni Muslim
Minority Irreligion and Ibadi
Related ethnic groups
Iberians,[16] Picts,[16]
Tartessians, Saami,[17] other Afro-Asiatic peoples[18][19][20][21][22][23][24]

The Berbers or Amazighs (Berber: ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ Imaziɣen, singular: ⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖ Amaziɣ/Amazigh) are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They are distributed in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. Historically, they spoke Berber languages, which together form the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century, a large number of Berbers inhabiting the Maghreb have acquired different degrees of knowledge of varieties of the languages of North Africa. After the colonization of North Africa by France, "the French government succeeded in integrating the French language in Algeria by making French the official national language and requiring all education to take place in French."[25] Other foreign languages, mainly French and to some degree Spanish, inherited from former European colonial powers, are used by most educated Berbers in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in some formal contexts, such as higher education or business.

Today, most Berber people live in Northern African countries, such as Algeria and Morocco; a small Berber population is also found in Niger, Mali, Libya, Mauritania, Tunisia,[26] Burkina Faso and Egypt, as well as large immigrant communities living in France, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries of Europe.[27][28]

The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity, and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Berbers are not an entirely homogeneous ethnicity and they encompass a range of phenotypes, societies and ancestries. The unifying forces for the Berber people may be their shared language, belonging to the Berber homeland, or a collective identification with the Berber heritage and history.

There are some twenty-five to thirty million Berber speakers in North Africa.[29] The number of ethnic Berbers (including non-Berber speakers) is far greater, as a large part of the Berbers have acquired other languages over the course of many decades or centuries, and no longer speak Berber today. The majority of North Africa's population is believed to be Berber in origin, although due to Arabization most ethnic Berbers identify as Arab or Arab-Berber.[30][31]

Berbers call themselves some variant of the word i-Mazigh-en (singular: a-Mazigh), possibly meaning "free people" or "noble men".[27] The name likely had its ancient parallel in the Roman and Greek names for Berbers, "Mazices".

Some of the best known of the ancient Berbers are the Numidian king Masinissa, king Jugurtha, the Berber-Roman author Apuleius, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and the Berber-Roman general Lusius Quietus, who was instrumental in defeating the major wave of Jewish revolts of 115–117. Dihya or Kahina was a female Berber religious and military leader who led a fierce Berber resistance against the Arab-Muslim expansion in North-West Africa. Kusaila was a seventh-century male leader of the Awraba tribe of the Berber people and head of the Sanhadja confederation.

Famous Berbers of the Middle Ages include Yusuf ibn Tashfin, king of the Berber Almoravid empire; Tariq ibn Ziyad the general who conquered Hispania; Abbas Ibn Firnas, a prolific inventor and early pioneer in aviation; Ibn Battuta, a medieval explorer who traveled the longest known distances in antiquity; and Estevanico, an early explorer of the Americas. Well-known modern Berbers in Europe include Zinedine Zidane, a French-born international football star of Algerian Kabyle descent, Loreen the Swedish-born winner of Eurovision 2012 and Ibrahim Afellay, a Dutch-born football player of Moroccan Riffian descent.[citation needed]


Further information: Berber (etymology) and Murabtin

The name Berber derives from the Latin barbarus.[32] A history by a Roman consul in Africa made the first reference of the term "barbarian" to describe Numidia.[33] The use of the term Berber spread in the period following the arrival of the Vandals during their major invasions. Muslim historians, some time after, also mentioned the Berbers.[clarification needed][34]

The English term was introduced in the 19th century, replacing the earlier Barbary. The Berbers are the Mauri cited by the Chronicle of 754 during the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, to become since the 11th century the catch-all term Moros (in Spanish; Moors in English) on the charters and chronicles of the expanding Christian Iberian kingdoms to refer to the Andalusi, the north Africans, and the Muslims overall.

For the historian Abraham Isaac Laredo[35] the name Amazigh could be derived from the name of the ancestor Mezeg which is the translation of biblical ancestor Dedan son of Sheba in the Targum. According to Leo Africanus, Amazigh meant "free man", though this has been disputed, because there is no root of M-Z-Gh meaning "free" in modern Berber languages. This dispute, however, is based on a lack of understanding of the Tamazight language[neutrality is disputed] as "Am-" is a prefix meaning "a man/one who is-." Therefore, the root required to verify this endonym would be "(a)zigh", free, this however is also missing from Tamazight's lexicon, but may be related to the well attested "aze" strong, "Tizzit" bravery, or "jeghegh"[36] to be brave/courageous.[original research?] The latter might also be related to the Arabic "Jahada" to wage war/apply ones self to.[37][original research?]

Further, it also has a cognate in the Tuareg word "Amajegh", meaning "noble".[38][39] This term is common in Morocco, especially among Central Atlas, Rifian and Shilah speakers in 1980,[40] but elsewhere within the Berber homeland sometimes a local, more particular term, such as Kabyle (Kabyle comes from Arabic: tribal confederation) or Chaoui, is more often used instead in Algeria.[41]

The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines mentioned various tribes with similar names living in Greater "Libya" (North Africa) in the areas where Berbers were later found. Later tribal names differ from the classical sources, but are probably still related to the modern Amazigh. The Meshwesh tribe among them represents the first thus identified from the field. Scholars believe it would be the same tribe called a few centuries afterwards in Greek as Mazyes by Hektaios and as Maxyes by Herodotus, while it was called after that "Mazaces" and "Mazax" in Latin sources, and related to the later Massylii and Masaesyli. All those names are similar and perhaps foreign renditions of the name used by the Berbers in general for themselves, Imazighen.


Hoggar painting

The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers from at least 10,000 B.C.[42] Northern African cave paintings, dating back twelve millennia, have been found in the Tassili n'Ajjer region of southern Algeria. Others were found in Tadrart Acacus in the Libyan desert. A Neolithic society, marked by domestication and subsistence agriculture, developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean region (the Maghreb) of northern Africa between 6000 B.C and 2000 B.C. This type of life, richly depicted in the Tassili n'Ajjer cave paintings of south-eastern Algeria, predominated in the Maghreb until the classical period. Prehistorical Tifinagh scripts were also found in the Oran region. During the pre-Roman era, several successive independent states (Massylii) existed before the king Masinissa unified the people of Numidia.[43][43][44][45][46][47]


In historical times, the Berbers expanded south into the Sahara (displacing earlier populations such as the Azer and Bafour), and have in turn been mainly culturally assimilated in much of North Africa by Arabs, particularly following the incursion of the Banu Hilal in the eleventh century. However much of Berber culture is still celebrated among the cultural elite in Morocco, and Algeria, a precedent set as early as Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century.

The areas of North Africa that have retained the Berber language and traditions best have been, in general, Morocco and the highlands of Algeria (Kabylie, Aurès et cetera), most of which in Roman and Ottoman times remained largely independent. The Ottomans did penetrate the Kabylie area; Turkish influence can be seen in food, clothes and music, and to places the Phoenicians never penetrated, far beyond the coast. These areas have been affected by some of the many invasions of North Africa, most recently that of the French.


Ancient Libu Libyan. Bronze inlaid with gold and silver, during the reign of Rameses II, Louvre Museum

The prehistoric populations of North Africa are related to the wider group of Paleo-Mediterranean peoples. The Afroasiatic family may have originated in the mesolithic period, perhaps in the context of the Caspian culture.[48][49] DNA analysis has found commonalities between Berber populations and those of the Sami people of Scandinavia showing a link dating from around 9,000 years ago.[50]

By 5000 B.C., the populations of North Africa are an amalgamation of Ibero-Maurisian and Capsian stock blended with a more recent intrusion associated with the Neolithic revolution.[51] Out of these populations, the proto-Berber tribes form during the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age.[52]


Heracles wrestling with the Libyan giant Antaeus

The Berbers enter historicity gradually during the Roman era.

Byzantine authors mention the Mazikes (Amazigh) as tribal people raiding the monasteries of Cyrenaica.

Garamantia was a notable Berber kingdom that flourished in the Fezzan area of modern-day Libya, in the Sahara desert, between 400 BC and 600 AD.

Roman era Cyrenaica became a center of Early Christianity. Some pre-Islamic Berbers were Christians[53] (there is a strong correlation between membership of the Donatist doctrine and being Berber, ascribed to its matching their culture as well as their alienation from the dominant Roman culture of the Catholic church),[54] some perhaps Jewish, and some adhered to their traditional polytheist religion. The Roman era authors Apuleius and St. Augustine were born in the Roman province of Africa; claims that they had Berber ancestry are unproven. As is true of three popes from the province: Pope Victor I served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who was a North African of Roman/Punic ancestry (perhaps with some Berber blood).[55]


Main articles: Numidia and Jugurthine War
A map of Numidia

Numidia (202 B.C. – 46 B.C.) was an ancient Berber kingdom in modern Algeria and part of Tunisia that later alternated between being a Roman province and being a Roman client state. It was located on the eastern border of modern Algeria, bordered by the Roman province of Mauretania (in modern Algeria and Morocco) to the west, the Roman province of Africa (modern Tunisia) to the east, the Mediterranean to the north, and the Sahara Desert to the south. Its people were the Numidians.

The name Numidia was first applied by Polybius and other historians during the third century B.C. to indicate the territory west of Carthage, including the entire north of Algeria as far as the river Mulucha (Muluya), about 160 kilometres (100 mi) west of Oran. The Numidians were conceived of as two great groups: the Massylii in eastern Numidia, and the Masaesyli in the west. During the first part of the Second Punic War, the eastern Massylii under their king Gala were allied with Carthage, while the western Masaesyli under king Syphax were allied with Rome.

In 206 B.C., the new king of the eastern Massylii, Masinissa, allied himself with Rome, and Syphax of the Masaesyli switched his allegiance to the Carthaginian side. At the end of the war, the victorious Romans gave all of Numidia to Masinissa of the Massylii. At the time of his death in 148 B.C., Masinissa's territory extended from Mauretania to the boundary of the Carthaginian territory, and also south-east as far as Cyrenaica, so that Numidia entirely surrounded Carthage (Appian, Punica, 106) except towards the sea.

Masinissa was succeeded by his son Micipsa. When Micipsa died in 118, he was succeeded jointly by his two sons Hiempsal I and Adherbal and Masinissa's illegitimate grandson, Jugurtha, of Berber origin, who was very popular among the Numidians. Hiempsal and Jugurtha quarreled immediately after the death of Micipsa. Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed, which led to open war with Adherbal.

After Jugurtha defeated him in open battle, Adherbal fled to Rome for help. The Roman officials, allegedly due to bribes but perhaps more likely because of a desire to quickly end conflict in a profitable client kingdom, settled the fight by dividing Numidia into two parts. Jugurtha was assigned the western half. However, soon after conflict broke out again, leading to the Jugurthine War between Rome and Numidia.


Main article: Mauretania
Mauritanian cavalry under Lusius Quietus fighting in the Dacian wars, from the Column of Trajan

In antiquity, Mauretania was an independent Berber kingdom under King Bocchus I (110-80 B.C.). It was situated on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, in modern western Algeria and northern Morocco.

Middle Ages[edit]

Fernández de Lugo presenting the captured Guanche kings of Tenerife to Ferdinand and Isabella, 1497

Before the eleventh century, most of North-West Africa was a Berber-speaking Muslim area. The process of Arabization only became a major factor with the arrival of the Banu Hilal, a tribe sent by the Fatimids of Egypt to punish the Berber Zirid dynasty for having abandoned Shiism. The Banu Hilal reduced the Zirids to a few coastal towns and took over much of the plains; their influx was a major factor in the Arabization of the region and in the spread of nomadism in areas where agriculture had previously been dominant.

After the Muslim conquest, the Berber tribes of coastal North Africa became almost fully Islamized. Besides the Arabian influence, North African population also saw an influx via the Barbary Slave Trade of European peoples, with some estimates placing the number of European slaves brought to North Africa during the Ottoman period as high as 1.25 million.[56] Interactions with neighboring Sudanic empires, traders, and nomads from other parts of Africa also left impressions upon the Berber people.

According to historians of the Middle Ages, the Berbers were divided into two branches, Botr and Barnès, descended from Mazigh ancestors, who were themselves divided into tribes and subtribes. Each region of the Maghreb contained several tribes (e.g. Sanhadja, Houaras, Zenata, Masmouda, Kutama, Awarba, Berghwata, et cetera). All these tribes had independence and territorial hegemony.[57][58]

Several Berber dynasties emerged during the Middle Ages in the Maghreb and Al-Andalus. The most notable are the Zirids (Ifriqiya, 973-1148), the Hammadids (Western Ifriqiya, 1014–1152), the Almoravids (Morocco and Al-Andalus, 1050–1147), the Almohads (Morocco and Al-Andalus, 1147–1248), the Hafsids (Ifriqiya, 1229–1574), the Zianids (Tlemcen, 1235–1556), the Marinids (Morocco, 1248–1465) and the Wattasids (Morocco, 1471–1554).

They belong to a powerful, formidable, brave and numerous people; a true people like so many others the world has seen - like the Arabs, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. The men who belong to this family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning.

— Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Tunisian historian[54]

Berbers and the Islamic conquest[edit]

Tlemcen, Patio of the Zianids
Berber Architecture as seen in an Algiers building

Unlike the conquests of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have extensive and long-lasting effects on the Maghreb. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of Berber society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political idioms.

Nonetheless, the Islamization and Arabization of the region was a complicated and lengthy process. Whereas nomadic Berbers were quick to convert and assist the Arab conquerors, it was not until the twelfth century, under the Almohad Dynasty, that the Christian, Jewish, and animist communities of the Maghreb became marginalized.

Jews persisted within Northern Africa as dhimmis, protected peoples, under Islamic law. They continued to occupy prominent economic and political roles within the Maghreb.[59] Indeed, some scholars believe that Jewish merchants may have crossed the Sahara, although others dispute this claim.[citation needed] Indigenous Christian communities within the Maghreb all but disappeared under Islamic rule, although Christian communities from Europe may still be found in the Maghreb to this day.[citation needed]

The first Arabian military expeditions into the Maghreb, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. These early forays from a base in Egypt occurred under local initiative rather than under orders from the central caliphate. But when the seat of the caliphate moved from Medina to Damascus, the Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty ruling from 661 to 750) recognized that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front. In 670, therefore, an Arab army under Uqba ibn Nafi established the town of Qayrawan about 160 kilometres south of modern Tunis and used it as a base for further operations.

A statue of Kahina, a seventh-century female Berber religious and military leader

Abu al-Muhajir Dinar, Uqba's successor, pushed westward into Algeria and eventually worked out a modus vivendi with Kusaila, the ruler of an extensive confederation of Christian Berbers. Kusaila, who had been based in Tlemcen, became a Muslim and moved his headquarters to Takirwan, near Al Qayrawan. This harmony was short-lived; Arabian 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 Kairouan, capital of the new wilaya (province) of Ifriqiya, which covered Tripolitania (the western part of modern Libya), Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.

The spread of Islam among the Berbers did not guarantee their support for the Arab-dominated caliphate due to the discriminatory attitude of the Arabs. The ruling Arabs alienated the Berbers by taxing them heavily; treating converts as second-class Muslims; and, worst of all, by enslaving them. As a result, widespread opposition took the form of open revolt in 739-40 under the banner of Ibadin Islam. The Ibadin had been fighting Umayyad rule in the East, and many Berbers were attracted by the sect's seemingly egalitarian precepts.

After the revolt, Ibadin established a number of theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled histories. But others, like Sijilmasa and Tlemcen, 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 Kairouan. Though nominally serving at the caliph's pleasure, Al Aghlab and his successors, the Aghlabids, 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 Rustam ruled most of the central Maghreb from Tahert, south-west of Algiers. The rulers of the Rustamid imamate (761-909), each an Ibadi imam, were elected by leading citizens. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and justice. The court at Tahert was noted for its support of scholarship in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, theology, and law. The Rustamid imams 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 Tahert's demise under the assault of the Fatimids. The Muslim Mahdia was founded by the Fatimids under the Caliph Abdallah al-Mahdi in 921 and made the capital city of Ifriqiya, by caliph Abdallah El Fatimi.[60] It was chosen as the capital because of its proximity to the sea, and the promontory on which an important military settlement had been since the time of the Phoenicians.[61]

The Fatimids established the Tunisian city of Mahdia and made it their capital city, before conquering Egypt, and building the city of Cairo in 969.

Berbers in Al-Andalus[edit]

The Almohad Empire, a powerful Berber empire that lasted from 1121 to 1269

The Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 were mainly Berbers, and were led by a Berber, Tariq ibn Ziyad, though under the suzerainty of the Arab Caliph of Damascus Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and his North African Viceroy, Musa ibn Nusayr. A second mixed army of Arabs and Berbers came in 712 under Ibn Nusayr himself. They supposedly helped the Umayyad caliph Abd ar-Rahman I in Al-Andalus, because his mother was a Berber.

During the Taifa era, the petty kings came from a variety of ethnic groups; some—for instance the Zirid kings of Granada—were of Berber origin. The Taifa period ended when a Berber dynasty—the Moroccan Almoravids—took over Al-Andalus; they were succeeded by the Almohad dynasty of Morocco, during which time al-Andalus flourished.

In the power hierarchy, Berbers were situated between the Arabic aristocracy and the Muladi populace. Ethnic rivalry was one of the most important factors driving Andalusi politics. Berbers made up as much as 20% of the population of the occupied territory.[62] After the fall of the Caliphate, the Taifa kingdoms of Toledo, Badajoz, Málaga and Granada had Berber rulers.[citation needed] During the Reconquista, Berbers in the areas which became Christian kingdoms were acculturated and lost their ethnic identity, their descendants being among modern Spanish and Portuguese peoples.[citation needed] Yeah right... But also don't forget about the reality: Alhambra Decree; Expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Portugal; Expulsion of the moriscos.

Modern history[edit]

Further information: Arabized Berber and Berberism
Berber village in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco

There is an identity-related debate about the persecution of Berbers by the Arab-minded regimes of North Africa. Through both exclusivities of Pan-Arabism and Islamism,[63] their issue of identity is due to the pan-Arabist ideology of the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Some activists have claimed that "It is time—long past overdue—to confront the racist arabization of the Amazigh lands."[64]

Soon after independence in the middle of the twentieth century, the countries of North Africa established Arabic as their official language, replacing French, Spanish and Italian; although the shift from European colonial languages to Arabic for official purposes continues even to this day. As a result, most Berbers had to study and know Arabic, and had no opportunities until the twenty-first century to use their mother tongue at school or university. This may have accelerated the existing process of Arabization of Berbers, especially in already bilingual areas, such as among the Chaouis of Algeria. Tamazight is now taught in Aures since the march led by Mr. Salim Yezza in 2004, which has started to the teaching of Tamazight in the schools in Aures.

While Berberism had its roots before the independence of these countries, it was limited to the Berber elite. It only began to gain success among the greater populace when North African states replaced their European colonial languages with Arabic and identified exclusively as Arabian nations, downplaying or ignoring the existence and the social specificity of Berbers. However, its distribution remains highly uneven. In response to its demands, Morocco and Algeria have both modified their policies, with Algeria redefining itself constitutionally as an "Arab, Berber, Muslim nation".

Now, Berber is a "national" language in Algeria and is taught in some Berber-speaking areas as a noncompulsory language. In Morocco, after the constitutional reforms of 2011, Berber has become an official language, and is now taught as a compulsory language in all schools regardless of the area or the ethnicity.

Berbers have reached high positions in the social hierarchy across the Maghreb; good examples are the former president of Algeria, Liamine Zeroual, and the former prime minister of Morocco, Driss Jettou.

Nevertheless, Berberists who openly show their political orientations rarely reach high hierarchical positions. But, there are some exceptions; for example, Khalida Toumi, a feminist and Berberist militant, has been nominated as head of the Ministry of Communication in Algeria.

In the 2011 Libyan civil war, Berbers in the Nafusa Mountains were quick to revolt against the Gaddafi regime. The mountains became a stronghold of the rebel movement, and were a focal point of the conflict, with much fighting occurring between rebels and loyalists for control of the region.

Contemporary demographics[edit]

The Distribution of the Y-Haplogroup E1B1B1B (Berber Genetic Marker)

The Maghreb today is home to large Berber (Amazigh) minority populations. Berber (Amazigh) forms the largest indigenous ancestry in the Maghreb;[65][66][67][68][69][70][71][72][73][74] the Semitic ethnic presence in the region is mainly due to the Phoenicians, Jews and Arab Bedouin Hilallians migratory movements (third century B.C. and eleventh century, respectively) which mixed in. However, the majority of Arabized Berbers, particularly in Morocco and Algeria, claim an Arabian heritage; this is a consequence of the Arab nationalism of the early twentieth century.

Regarding the remaining populations that speak a Berber language in the Maghreb, they account for about 60% [2][4] of the Moroccan population and for about 35% [4] of the Algerian population, besides smaller communities in Libya and Tunisia and very small groups in Egypt and Mauritania.

Outside the Maghreb, the Tuareg in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso number some 600,000, 400,000 and 120,000 respectively,[75] although Tuaregs are often seen as a distinct group. They are thought to be the founder population of the Berbers due to their high frequency of E-M81(E1b1b1b), the Berber genetic marker.

Prominent Berber groups include the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who number about six million and have kept, to a large degree, their original language and society; and the Shilha or Chleuh (French, from Arabic Shalh and Shilha ašəlḥi) in High and Anti-Atlas regions of Morocco, numbering about eight million. Other groups include the Riffians of northern Morocco, the Chaoui people of eastern Algeria, the Chenouas in western Algeria, the Berbers of Tripolitania and the Tuaregs of the Sahara scattered through several countries.

Though stereotyped in Europe and North America as nomads, most Berbers were in fact traditionally farmers,[citation needed] living in mountains relatively close to the Mediterranean coast, or oasis dwellers, such as the Siwa of Egypt; but the Tuareg and Zenaga of the southern Sahara were almost wholly nomadic. Some groups, such as the Chaouis, practiced transhumance.

Political tensions have arisen between some Berber groups (especially the Kabyle) and North African governments over the past few decades, partly over linguistic and social issues; for instance, in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, giving children Berber names was banned. The regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya also banned the teaching of Berber languages, and the leader warned Berber leaders in a 2008 diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks "You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes – Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes."[76] As a result of the persecution suffered under Gaddafi's rule, many Berbers joined the Libyan opposition in the 2011 Libyan civil war.[77]


Berbers set up communities In Mauritania[78] near the Malian imperial capital of Timbuktu.[79] According to an estimate from 2004, there were about 2.2 million Berber immigrants in Europe, especially the Riffians in Belgium, the Netherlands and France and Algerians of Kabyles and Chaouis heritage in France.[80]


Main article: Berber languages
Areas in North Africa where Berber languages are spoken

The Berber languages form a branch of Afro-Asiatic, and thus descend from the proto-Afro-Asiatic language. It is still disputed which branches of Afro-Asiatic are most closely related to Berber, but most linguists accept at least either Egyptian[81] or Chadic as among its closest relatives within the family (see Afro-Asiatic languages.)

There are between thirty and forty million speakers of Berber languages in Africa (see population estimation), principally concentrated in Morocco, Algeria, to a lesser extent in Mali, Niger, and Libya, and with smaller communities as far east as Egypt and as far south as Burkina Faso.

Their Berber languages form a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family comprising many closely related varieties, including Riff, Kabyle and Shilha, with a total of roughly thirty million to forty million speakers. A frequently used generic name for all Berber languages is Tamazight, though this may also be used to refer specifically to Central Morocco Tamazight or Riffian dialects.

Main groups[edit]

Although most Maghrebis are of Berber ancestry, only some scattered ethnicities succeeded in conserving the Berber language for centuries. This table resumes those groups.

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib born to Tuareg parents from northern Mali
Zinedine Zidane, born to Berber parents from Algeria (Kabyle; Berbers in France)
Main Berber groups
Group Country Notes
Berbers  Morocco Atlas mountains of Morocco.
Zayanes  Morocco Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco.
Blida Berbers  Algeria in Central Algeria.
Chlouhs  Morocco Southern Morocco.
Chaoui people  Algeria Mainly located in Eastern Algeria.
Riffians  Morocco Mostly in Northern Morocco with a minority in Algeria.
Chenini & Douiret Berbers  Tunisia
Chenoui Berbers  Algeria Ouarsenis and Mount Chenoua (Western Algeria).
Djerba Berbers  Tunisia speakers of the Djerbi language.
Kabyles  Algeria  Kabylie in North Algeria.
Matmata Berbers  Tunisia in Southern Tunisia.
Mozabites  Algeria in the M'zab Valley (southern Algeria).
Nafusis  Libya in Western Libya.
Siwi people  Egypt in the Siwa valley of Egypt.
Tlemcen Berbers  Algeria Aith Snouss villages of Western Algeria.
Tuaregs  Algeria  Libya  Niger  Mali  Burkina Faso Sahara (Southern Algeria and north of the Sahel).
Zenaga people  Mauritania in South-Western Mauritania.
Zenatas  Algeria in Western-Central Algeria.
Zuwaras  Libya in North-West Libya.

Religions and beliefs[edit]

Berbers are mostly Sunni Muslim, while the Mozabites of the Saharan Mozabite Valley are mostly Ibadi. Until the 1960s, there was also an important Jewish Berber community in Morocco,[82] but emigration (mostly to Israel and France) reduced their number to only a few hundred individuals. Following Christian missions, the Kabyle community in Algeria has a decent-sized recently constituted Christian minority, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, whereas among the 800-1500 Moroccans who have converted to Christianity in the last decades several Berbers are found; some of them explain their conversion as an attempt to go back to their "Christian sources".[83]

Notable Berbers in Islamic history[edit]

Tariq ibn Ziyad, Berber Muslim and Umayyad general who led the conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711

Tariq ibn Ziyad (died 720), known in Spanish history and legend as Taric el Tuerto (Taric the one-eyed), was a Berber Muslim and Umayyad general who led the conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711. He is considered to be one of the most important military commanders in Spanish history. He was initially the deputy of Musa ibn Nusair in North Africa, and was sent by his superior to launch the first thrust of an invasion of the Iberian peninsula. Some claim that he was invited to intervene by the heirs of the Visigothic King, Wittiza, in the Visigothic civil war.

On April 29, 711, the armies of Tariq landed at Gibraltar (the name Gibraltar is derived from the Arabic name Jabal Tariq, which means mountain of Tariq, or the more obvious Gibr Al-Tariq, meaning rock of Tariq). Upon landing, Tariq is said to have burned his ships then made the following speech, well known in the Muslim world, to his soldiers:

O People ! There is nowhere to run away! The sea is behind you, and the enemy in front of you: There is nothing for you, by God, except only sincerity and patience.

— as recounted by al-Maqqari

Ziri ibn Manad (died 971), founder of the Zirid dynasty in the Maghreb. Ziri ibn Manad was a clan leader of the Berber Sanhaja tribe who, as an ally of the Fatimids, defeated the rebellion of Abu Yazid (943-947). His reward was the governorship of the western provinces, an area that roughly corresponds with modern Algeria north of the Sahara.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin (c. 1061–1106) was the Berber Almoravid ruler in North Africa and Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia). He took the title of amir al-muslimin (commander of the Muslims) after visiting the Caliph of Baghdad 'amir al-moumineen" ("commander of the faithful") and officially receiving his support. He was either a cousin or nephew of Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, the founder of the Almoravid dynasty. He united all of the Muslim dominions in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal and Spain) to the Maghreb (c. 1090), after being called to the Al-Andalus by the Emir of Seville.

Alfonso VI was defeated on 23 October 1086, at the battle of Sagrajas, at the hands of Yusuf ibn Tashfin, and Abbad III al-Mu'tamid. Yusuf bin Tashfin is the founder of the famous Moroccan city Marrakech (in Berber Murakush, corrupted to Morocco in English). He himself chose the place where it was built in 1070 and later made it the capital of his Empire. Until then, the Almoravids had been desert nomads, but the new capital marked their settling into a more urban way of life.

Ibn Tumart (c. 1080 - c. 1130), was a Berber religious teacher and leader from the Masmuda tribe who spiritually founded the Almohad dynasty. He is also known as El-Mahdi (المهدي) in reference to his prophesied redeeming. In 1125, he began an open revolt against Almoravid rule. The name "Ibn Tumart" comes from the Berber language and means "son of the earth."[84]

Abu Ya'qub Yusuf (died on 29 July 1184) was the second Almohad caliph. He reigned from 1163 until 1184. He had the Giralda in Seville built.

Abu Yaqub al-Mustansir Yusuf II Caliph of Maghreb from 1213 until his death. The son of the previous caliph, Muhammad an-Nasir, Yusuf assumed the throne following his father's death, at the age of only 16 years.

Ibn Battuta (born 1304; year of death uncertain, possibly 1368 or 1377) was a Berber[85] Sunni Islamic scholar and jurisprudent from the Maliki Madhhab (a school of Fiqh, or Islamic law), and at times a Qadi or judge. However, he is best known as a traveler and explorer, whose account documents his travels and excursions over a period of almost thirty years, covering some 117,000 kilometres (73,000 mi). These journeys covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic realm, extending from modern West Africa to Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia and China, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessor, near-contemporary Marco Polo.

Muhammad al-Jazuli - From the tribe of Jazulah which was settled in the Sous area of Maghreb between the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains. He is most famous for compiling the Dala'il al-Khayrat, an extremely popular Muslim prayer book.

Muhammad Awzal was a religious Berber poet. He is considered the most important author of the Shilha literary tradition. He was born around 1670 in the village of al-Qasaba in the region of Sous, Maghreb and died in 1748/9 (1162 of the Egira).

Notable Berbers in Christian history[edit]

Main article: Early African Church

Before the arrival of Islam into the region, most Berber groups were either Christians, Jewish or Animists, and a number of Berber theologians were important figures in the development of western Christianity. In particular, the Berber Donatus Magnus was the founder of a Christian group known as the Donatists. The 4th-century Catholic Church viewed the donatists as heretics and the dispute led to a schism in the Church dividing North African Christians.[86] They are directly related to Circumcellions, a sect that worked on disseminating the doctrine in North Africa by the force of the sword.

Augustine of Hippo (Hippo being the modern Algerian city of Annaba), may have been of Berber ancestry on his mother's side, although his father was a Roman colonist. He is recognized as a saint and a Doctor of the Church by Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Communion and revered by the Reformed; he was an outspoken opponent of Donatism.[87]

Of all the fathers of the church, St. Augustine was the most admired and the most influential during the Middle Ages ... Augustine was an outsider—a native North African whose family was not Roman but Berber ... He was a genius—an intellectual giant.[88]

Many believe that Arius, another early Christian theologian who was deemed a heretic by the Catholic Church, was of Libyan Berber descent. Another Berber cleric, Saint Adrian of Canterbury, traveled to England and played a significant role in its early medieval religious history.

Lusius Quietus, was the son of a Christian tribal lord from unconquered Mauretania (modern Morocco). Lusius' father and his warriors had supported the Roman legions in their attempt to subdue Mauretania Tingitana (northern modern Morocco) during Aedemon's revolt in 40.

Masuna (fl. 508) was a Romano-Moorish Christian king in Mauretania Caesariensis (western Algeria) who is said to have encouraged the Byzantine general Solomon, the Prefect of Africa, to launch an invasion of the Moorish kingdom of Numidia.[89]

Kahina (Berber: Daya Ult Yenfaq Tajrawt) was a Berber Byzantine Christian religious and military leader who led indigenous resistance to Arabian expansion in North-West Africa, the region then known as Numidia, known as the Algeria today. She was born in the early seventh century and died around the end of the seventh century in modern Algeria. According to al-Mālikī she was said to have been accompanied in her travels by what the Arabs called an "idol", possibly an icon of the Virgin or one of the Christian saints.[90]

Sabellius, who was a third-century priest and theologian who most likely taught in Rome, may have been of African Berber descent. Basil and others call him a Libyan from Pentapolis, but this seems to rest on the fact that Pentapolis was a place where the teachings of Sabellius thrived, according to Dionysius of Alexandria, c. 260. What is known of Sabellius is drawn mostly from the polemical writings of his opponents.

Fadhma Aït Mansour, born in Tizi Hibel, Algeria, is the mother of writers Jean Amrouche and Taos Amrouche. Fadhma was born in a Kabylie village, the illegitimate daughter of a widow. Later, when she was with the Sisters at Aït Manguellet hospital, she converted to Roman Catholicism. She met another Kabyle Catholic convert, Antoine-Belkacem Amrouche, whom she married in 1898.

Ahmed es-Sikeli (Arabic: احمد السقيلي‎), born in Djerba to a Berber family of the Sadwikish tribe was baptized a Christian under the name Peter, was a eunuch and kaid of the Diwan of the Kingdom of Sicily during the reign of William I. His story was recorded by his Christian contemporaries Romuald Guarna and Hugo Falcandus from Sicily and the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun.[91]

Brother Rachid, a Moroccan Christian convert from Islam whose father is a well-known respected Imam. He is one of the most outspoken converts in the world, he hosts a weekly live call-in show on AL-Hayat channel where he compares Islam and Christianity as well as debating with Islamic scholars.

Muley Xeque (Arabic: مولاي الشيخ Mawlay al-Shaykh) was a Moroccan prince, born in Marrakech in 1566 and died in Vigevano (Lombardy, Italy) in 1621. Exiled in Spain, he was converted to Catholicism in Madrid and was known as Philip of Africa or Philip of Austria. On November 3, 1593 he was baptized in the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, sponsored by Philip II, after whom he was named. He was made a grandee of Spain and Commander of the Order of Santiago.

Malika Oufkir is a Moroccan writer and former "disappeared" person. She is the daughter of General Mohamed Oufkir and a cousin of fellow Moroccan writer and actress Leila Shenna. She and her siblings are converts from Islam to Catholicism, and she writes in her book, Stolen Lives: "we had rejected Islam, which had brought us nothing good, and opted for Catholicism instead."[92]

Pre-Christian era[edit]

Main article: Berber mythology

Traditional Berber religion is the ancient and native set of beliefs and deities developed by the Berber people in their historical land of North Africa. Many of Berber ancient beliefs were developed locally while some other ones were imported or influenced over time by contact from other Traditional African religions such as the Ancient Egyptian religion along with external forces from Phoenician mythology, Judaism, Iberian mythology, and the Hellenistic religion during antiquity.[citation needed] Some of the Berber ancient beliefs still exist today subtly within the Berber popular culture and tradition.[citation needed]


Main article: Moorish architecture


Traditionally, men take care of livestock. They migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton and plants used for dyeing. For their part, women look after the family and handicrafts - first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in the souqs in their locality.

The Berber tribes traditionally weave kilims. The tapestry maintains the traditional appearance and distinctiveness of the region of origin of each tribe, which has in effect its own repertoire of drawings. The textile of plain weave is represented by a wide variety of stripes, and more rarely by geometrical patterns such as triangles and diamonds. Additional decorations such as sequins or fringes, are typical of Berber weave in Morocco. The nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Berbers is very suitable for weaving kilims. The customs and traditions differ from one region to another.[94]

The social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern, such as Kahina and Tazoughert Fatma in Aurès, Tin Hinan in Hoggar, Chemci in Aït Iraten, Fatma Tazoughert in the Aurès. Lalla Fatma N'Soumer was a Berber woman in Kabylie who fought against the French.

The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe. In Algeria, the el Kseur platform in Kabylie gives tribes the right to fine criminal offenders. In areas of Chaoui, tribal leaders enact sanctions against criminals.[95] The Tuareg have a king who decides the fate of the tribe and is known as Amenokal. It is a very hierarchical society. The Mozabites are governed by the spiritual leaders of Ibadism. The Mozabites lead communal lives. During the crisis of Berriane, the heads of each tribe resolved the problem and began talks to end the crisis between the Maliki and Ibadite movements.[96]

In marriages, the man selects the woman, and depending on the tribe, the family often makes the decision. In comparison, in the Tuareg culture, the woman chooses her future husband. The rites of marriage are different for each tribe. Families are either patriarchal or matriarchal, according to the tribe.


Main article: Berber cuisine

Berber cuisine is a traditional cuisine which has evolved little over time. It differs from one area to another within and among Berber groups.

Principal Berber foods are:

  • Couscous, a semolina staple dish
  • Tajine, a stew made in various forms
  • Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with squab (fledgling pigeon) often today using chicken
  • Bread made with traditional yeast
  • "Bouchiar" (fine yeastless wafers soaked in butter and natural honey)
  • "Bourjeje" (pancake containing flour, eggs, yeast and salt)
  • "Tahricht" (sheep offal: brains, tripe, lungs, and heart): these organ meats are rolled up with the intestines on an oak stick and cooked on embers in specially designed ovens. The meat is coated with butter to make it even tastier. This dish is served mainly at festivities.

Although they are the original inhabitants of North Africa, and in spite of numerous incursions by Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French, Berber groups lived in very contained communities. Having been subject to limited external influences, these populations lived free from acculturating factors.


The most common traditional music instruments

Berber music, the traditional music of North Africa, has a wide variety of regional styles. The best known are the Moroccan music, the popular Gasba, Kabyle and Chawi music of Algeria, and the widespread Tuareg music of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The instruments used are the bendir (large drums) and Gambra (a lute), which accompanying songs and dances.

Traditional Kabyle music consists of vocalists accompanied by a rhythm section, consisting of e'ṯbel (tambourine) and bendir (frame drum), and a melody section, consisting of a ghaita (bagpipe) and ajouag (flute). Kabyle music has been popular in France since the 1930s, when it was played at cafés. As it evolved, Western string instruments and Arab musical conventions, like large backing orchestras, were added.

By the time raï, a style of Algerian popular music, became popular in France and elsewhere in Europe, Kabyle artists began using less traditional instruments and formats. Hassen Zermani's all-electric Takfarinas and Abdelli's work with Peter Gabriel's Real World helped bring Kabyle music to new audiences, while the murder of Matoub Lounes inspired many Kabyles to rally around their popular musicians.

There are three varieties of Berber folk music: village and ritual music, and the music performed by professional musicians. Village music is performed collectively for dancing, including ahidus and ahouach dances. Instruments include flutes and drums. These dances begin with a chanted prayer. Ritual music is performed at regular ceremonies to celebrate marriages and other important life events. Ritual music is also used as protection against evil spirits. Professional musicians (imdyazn) travel in groups of four, led by a poet (amydaz). The amydaz performs improvised poems, often accompanied by drums and rabab (a one-stringed fiddle), along with a bou oughanim who plays a double clarinet and acts as a clown for the group.

The fantasia festival, 19th-century illustration

The Chleuh Berbers have professional musicians called rwais who play in ensembles consisting of lutes, rababs and cymbals, with any number of vocalist. The leader, or rayes, leads the choreography and music of the group. These performances begin with an instrumental astara on rabab, which also gives the notes of the melody which follows. The next phase is the amarg, or sung poetry, and then ammussu, a danced overture, tammust, an energetic song, aberdag, a dance, and finally the rhythmically swift tabbayt. There is some variation in the presentation of the order, but the astara always begins, and the tabbayt always ends.


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