- Although the Berbers form sizable populations in North Africa and the Sahel, they have been reduced to a minority within their respective home states. Berbers are the ancient inhabitants of North Africa, but rarely have they formed an actual kingdom or separate nation-state. They have, however, formed dispersed communities that came under a series of foreign invaders: the Punic settlers, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Vandals, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the French, the Spanish, and the Italian colonial powers were integrated into North African societies and in large part dominated it. The Berbers influenced the culture and religion of Roman North Africa and played key roles in the spread of Islam and its culture in North Africa, Spain, and sub-Saharan Africa. In their encounter with the Arabs, the Ottomans, and the European colonial powers, they often faced adversity and still do so because of postcolonial government policies aimed at stamping out Berber identity, language, and culture.Today, celebrating Berber contributions before and after the Arab conquest is still not entirely politically correct in North Africa. There are many reasons for this sentiment. First, there is the Islamist plan to maintain the professed unity of Islam through its sacred language, Arabic. Second, the French use of the Berbers to support their racist policies was rejected by the nationalist and Islamist movements. Third, most of the political parties on the left and the right have always been hostile to the emphasizing of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Consequently, the renaissance of Berber culture and history are stifled by the leftovers of the French colonial Berber question, the postindependence ideologies of Arabism, and the current Islamist discourses on the linguistic and cultural merits of Berberness. Taken together, these dynamics have over time converged to redefine the field of Berber identity and its sociopolitical representations and symbols, making it an even more important issue in the new century.The name "Berber" is of external origin and is not a Berber word. In their language, Tamazight, Berbers use the name "Imazighen" to describe themselves (singular masculine is Amazigh; singular feminine is Tamazight). The word "Berber" is derived from the Greek word barabaroi, Latinized barbari, which denoted people who spoke neither Latin nor Greek or to refer to non-Phoenicians within the Carthaginian state. Ancient Greek writers also used "Libyan" as another name to refer to the inhabitants of North Africa while also speaking of other Berbers as the Numidians, "the Nomads," a name that reflected that most of them practiced pastoral nomadism. With the arrival of the Arab Muslims in the seventh century, the word barbari took an Arabized form, al barabir or barabira. Today, the Berbers use the collective designation "Imazighen" (singular is Amazigh, i.e., free men and women), and "Imazighen" is the word that embodies the Amazigh sense of being the real and essentially human beings of their homeland, called Tamazgha. Tamazgha is the land where Imazighen have lived since time immemorial and captures the state of being free from domination of others. "Tamazgha" and "Amazigh" are words by which indigenous peoples of North Africa contrast themselves to outsiders and foreigners during the cycles of violence and conquests that Imazighen suffered at the hands of numerous invaders from the Phoenicians through the Ottomans and Arabs to the French and Spanish, and their usage over time has intensified Berber feelings about freedom and nobility and other essential human qualities of themselves. In the words of anthropologist Edward H. Spicer (1980), they are an enduringpeople, and their enduring qualities depend on continuous possession of a homeland sustained by such constructs as ethnicity, language, and culture. The etymology and meaning of the word "Amazigh" varies from region to region. Among the Berber-speaking communities, there is a general phonetic shift between h(Ahaggar), z(Algeria and Morocco), ch (Adrar and sub-Saharan areas), and j (Aïr), so that it is linguistically valid to see the terms "Imuhag" (Ahaggar), "Amazigh" (Algeria and Morocco), "Amajeg" (Aïr), and "Amacheg" (Adrar and sub-Saharan areas) as deriving from the Berber root MZG. The name "Imuhag" is used in Ahaggar to designate all those Tuareg who speak Tamahak. In Adrar and in and around the Niger Bend, the word "Amaheg" is used to refer to the noble Tuareg. In Aïr, the word "Amajeg" is equivalent to its broader meaning of "Imuhag" and designates any Tuareg or a noble Tuareg.The origin of the Imazighen as well as their racial classification and language relationship with any other Mediterranean or African race, present or ancient, has long been a subject of intense debate among scholars. Just as the definition of race remains at best a contentious cultural construct, the notion that Berbers must represent descendants of some purely homogeneous cultural group originating in a particular area or site is still a matter of conjecture. Throughout time and even over the past two millennia, North Africa has absorbed a large number of successive migration flows. There is no hard evidence to indicate that things were different in the so-called obscure centuries of North African historiography and archaeology. The earliest type of Homo sapiens in North Africa is known as "Mekta Afalou," which is equivalent to Cro-Magnons in Europe. The Mekta Afalou type, associated with Capsian culture of around 7000 B.C., was earlier believed to have split off from the Cro-Magnons, moving from Asia into North Africa as Cro-Magnons moved into Europe. This claim, however, has been challenged, and an indigenous development from the Neanderthals has been suggested. Gabriel Camps (1974), for instance, has described the physical evidence as well as material culture found in the Capsian sites as "proto-Mediterranean." He also asserts, despite the scanty evidence of the archaeological record, that Berbers migrated from the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, bringing with them the chamber tombs, dolmens, and pottery styles borrowed from Sicily.Today, many scholars believe that the peopling of North Africa was infused with migrations from the east and south and across the straits from western Europe. Additionally, the linguistic evidence is thin. Berber has been, for the most part of its history, a spoken rather than a written language, although there is archaeological evidence of rock art and inscriptions in deciphered Berber script, the Tifinagh still used by the Tuareg in the central Sahara. Thousands of undeciphered Libyan inscriptions have been published claiming that the earliest Libyco-Berber inscriptions date back to the third millennium B.C. Berber has affinities to Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, but the connection to ancient Middle Eastern languages such as Ancient Egyptian or Akkadian writing systems remains to be fully investigated. The one statement that can be made with some confidence is that the Berber languages are all extraordinarily similar, which implies that their spread through the North African and Saharan landscape was relatively identical over time. One study by David Hart (1975) on the glottochronology of three main dialects of the Berber language in Morocco, Tamazight (Tashalhiyt, Tamazight, and Dhamazight), provides a rough date for the separation of these three dialects. He suggests that Dhamazight of the Rif separated from Tamazight about 1,000 years ago, while Tamazight diverged from Tashalhiyt about 2,000 years ago. His analysis also suggests 2,900 years of divergence between Tamazight and Tashalhiyt. If Hart's claims are true, one may suppose that linguistic differences between the Tuareg, Aures, Kabylia, Jabal Nafusa, and Rif are much greater.Although there is a strong oral tradition, the lack of a universal alphabet and a common literature has made it difficult to substantiate linguistic evidence. The first known Berber writers belong to the Roman and Byzantine cultural times and wrote in Latin or Greek. Today, much of the intellectual production of Berbers is in Arabic, French, and Spanish. The scarce literature in Berber language is of recent date: short religious works in Arabic script and a few books of didactic character. Richer is the flow of oral literature, transmitted mainly by women, and of popular poetry, some of which has been collected and documented by a number of writers and anthropologists.Over the centuries, there have been ethnocultural symbioses with the conquerors (Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Ottoman, Arab, French, and Spanish). King Massinissa of the Massyles established the first Berber state, Numidia. After his death, Numidia became a Roman client state. After Jugurtha's failure to gain Massyli's independence, Numidia became a Roman protectorate and was absorbed into the empire's provincial systems. During Roman times, the Berbers were pushed into the hinterlands. Consequently, they mounted numerous rebellions such as that of Tacfarinas (A.D. 17-29). The appearance and spread of Christianity produced dissention given the rise of Donatism. One Berber who distinguished himself during this religious dispute was the bishop of Hippo (`Annaba), Augustine. At the same time, insurrections led by Firmus (372-375) and Gildon (398) contributed to the weakening of the Romans, which hastened their fall to the Vandals. The Vandals were not as successful as the Romans in controlling Berber country. However, the Vandals recognized the fighting abilities of the Berbers and recruited them. The Byzantines also admired the military qualities of the Berbers, but, similar to the Vandals, they found it very hard to extend their control over the entire Berber country. Considered to be the historian of the Berbers, Ibn Khaldun, in his History of the Berbers(translated into French by W. Mac. Guckin De Slane, Histoire des Berbères, Alger, 1852-1856), illustrates a very comprehensive knowledge of Berber history and appears sympathetic to their aspirations. He divided Berbers into two great branches, al-Baranis (sedentary, from the plural of "Bernous," or "cloak") and Madghis al-Abtar or al-Botr ("nomadic"). Al-Botr moved from the steppes and the highlands between the Nile and southern Tunisia into the Jabal Nafusa in Libya and into Algeria, where they settled in the areas of Tahart and Tlemcen, while others continued into Morocco, spread along the Mulwiyya and Sabu rivers and on the fringe of the Sahara. Some of the Baranis moved from the Aures and Kabylia regions into the area of Oran and further on to central Morocco and parts of the Rif. Furthermore, Ibn Khaldun distinguished three major groups among the Berbers-Masmuda, Sanhaja, and Zanata-and ascribed to each a separate genealogy leading to a common ancestor. Although this dichotomy of Berber history-al-Baranis and al-Botr-is linked to his rural-urban dichotomy, it is less valuable and has probably caused much confusion in Berber scholarship. His simplified classification based in part on classic ideas appears to be misguided in stating that Berbers were relatively new settlers from the east-specifically the folktale of Goliath's migration to the Maghrib after his defeat. From a modern anthropological perspective, not only is this folk history discredited, but so also is the notion that ethnic groups in a region such as the Maghrib can be neatly classified as either sedentary or nomadic. Human adaptation in the Maghrib is far too complex and messy for such a simple and static dichotomy to explain.The attitude of the Berbers toward the Arab advance in the seventh century was expressed in two major ways. Berber warriors fought on the side of the Arabs on their march through North Africa against the Byzantine forces. Tarif and his 400 men, the first to cross the straits into Spain, were Berbers, as were Tariq Ibn Ziyad and his force of 12,000 who overran the Visigoth capital Toledo. The main body of the army that conquered the Iberian Peninsula and pushed deep into France consisted of Berber contingents. At the time, the Arabs were soon confronted with insurrections instigated by misuse of power, high taxation, and injustice. This resistance was illustrated in the revolts of al-Kahina and of Kusayla Ibn Lemten. More dangerous was the insurrection of a large tribal confederation under Maysara al-Matghari, which in the last days of the Umayyad led to the defection of the whole Berber country. Inseparably connected with the political quality of this resistance is its religious dimension in the form of popular adoption of the Kharejite doctrine and practices. This heresy, viewed as revolutionary by orthodox Sunni Islam on which the caliphate sustained its political leadership, was in decline in the east, while its variants, such as the Ibadhiyyah and the Sufriyya, found fertile soil in Berber political and economic grievances in North Africa. The growing number of Berber proselytes came from among the early converts to Islam, from pagan tribes and the Christian sedentary communities. A number of heterodox Berber theocracies were established in the eighth century by the Rustumid in Tahart, by the Banu Midrar in Sijilmassa extending eastward into Jabal Nafusa in Tripolitania, by Abu Qurra in Agadir (near present-day Tlemcen), and by the Barghwata confederation on the Atlantic coast. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Almoravid dynasty's brand of rigorous orthodox Sunni Islam had forever replaced Kharijite doctrine and practices in Morocco and Algeria, except for scattered communities in North Africa. Berber Ibadithe groups have survived to the present day in Tripolitania in the Jabal Nafusa, in Tunisia on the island of Jerba and in the oases of Jarid, and in southern Algeria in the Oued Mzab, where they make up the Mozabite communities.Longer than the temporal authority of the Arab caliphate and its version of Islam, the Berbers remained, for the most part, noncompliant to the process of Arabization. Following the establishment of al-Qayrawan as the seat of the caliph's provincial administrator in the seventh century, the rise of the Idrissids in the ninth century, coupled with the commercial and social relations with al-Andalus, Arabic spread slowly but continuously throughout the 9th and 10th centuries into most parts of North Africa. It acquired a place of prominence as the exclusive means of learning in major urban and religious centers, some of which developed into major centers of Islamic studies in North Africa (Fès, al-Qayrawan, and Tlemcen). From the 10th to the 13th century, Berbers developed dynamic dynasties in North Africa and al-Andalus, such as the Zirids (972-1152), Hammadids (1007-1152), Banu Zizi (1018-1090), Aftasids or Banu al-Aftas (1022-1095), Dhu al-Nun or Banu Dhu al-Nun (1033-1095), and Banu Ghaaniya (1146-1237). The most famous North African dynasties were the Almoravids (1043-1147) and the Almohads (1147-1269), who distinguished themselves by their military power, territorial and political expansion, and cultural achievements. They united the Berbers of North Africa, if only for a short time. After the decline of the Almohads, other Berber dynasties established themselves in the 13th and 14th centuries, such as the Hafsids (1234-1569) in Tunisia and East Algeria, `Abd al-Wadids or Banu Zayyan (1235-1509) in Tlemcen, and Marinids (1269-1465) and Wattasids or Banu Wattas (1465-1549) in Morocco.Although with minor variations, within the widespread Berber society, Berbers have crafted age-old social and economic institutions. They have developed a sophisticated body of customary law that has survived the Islamic period because Islam has usually accommodated the practice of customary law, or azerf, within its system of jurisprudence, as long as azerfdoes not deliberately violate the most fundamental principles and articles of faith of Islamic law, or shari`a. Customary law, known also by its Arabic name `urf, is not uniform among Berber groups, with the socially stratified Tuareg and the democratically oriented Berbers in North Africa exemplifying two major types of Berber political organization. The jama`a, or the appointed village/tribal council that functions at various levels of Berber organization, has defined much of Berber political management. Although the institution of jama`atends to result in oligarchic decisions made by men, it has regulated a wide range of legal matters, including land tenure, tribal alliance formation, and social and life ceremonies. In the 19th and 20th centuries, for political reasons French colonial administrations in Algeria and Morocco accorded official recognition to Berber customary law and its dispensation in tribal and rural courts. In Morocco, nationwide opposition led to the revocation of the Berber Dahir as far as penal jurisdiction was concerned. Since the achievement of independence, the legal process embedded in the Arabization policy has, for the most part, eliminated azerfpractices and passed it into shari`a structures. Although Imazighen are unjustly considered a minority in North Africa, the area that Berber speakers inhabit is vast and testifies to the sheer size and broad spread of the Amazigh population. While official census data on the demographic characteristics and dynamics of Imazighen are sorely lacking, Amazigh scholars and activists claim that perhaps 80 to 90 percent of the North African population remains ethnically Amazigh, although a large segment of this percentage has been significantly Arabized and has thereby lost its original Amazigh identity markers. Tamazgha, or the original homeland of the Berbers, stretches east to west from Siwa in the Western Desert of Egypt to the Canary Islands and north to south from the Mediterranean shores to Mauritania and the southern limits of the Niger and Senegal rivers. Small communities are located in Siwa, in the Western Desert of Egypt, and in the Fezzan region of Libya. A series of Berber-speaking villages extend from Jabal Nafusa in Libya through southeastern Tunisia to the island of Jerba, where many Berbers practice the Ibadithe sect. In Tunisia, Berber speakers constitute less than 1 percent of the population, while they make up 4 percent of the population of Libya. Larger communities are found from northern Tunisia to Morocco, especially in Kabylia, Dahra, Aurès, and Shawiya. South of the mountains lie the oases of the Mozabites, Ibadithe Berbers who live in five villages along the Oued Mzab. Further to the south of the Mozabites, the Tuareg occupy a vast area of the Sahara, from the Ahaggar to Tassili to northern Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The number of Tuareg varies from sources to source, and the estimates vary between 2 and 3 million. In Algeria, Berber speakers constitute about 20 percent of the Algerian population. In Morocco, Berber speakers make up about 45 to 50 percent of the population (Mohamed Chafiq estimates the number of Berber speakers in Morocco to be about 80 percent). They are found in the Rif, Middle, and High Atlas Mountains; in the Sous and Anti-Atlas; and on the fringes of the Sahara. In all, despite the fact that the exact numbers of Berber speakers in Tamazgha and in the diaspora are hard to come by because of the sensitive political nature of census taking, official as well as nonofficial estimates point to a range of between 15 and 50 million Berber speakers.The last half of the 20th century, despite playing leading roles in the fight against colonialism and nation building of their respective nationstates, has not been kind to the aspirations of the Berbers in North Africa. Ever since independence, government policies have marginalized Berber regions, stifled and belittled Berber language and culture, and displaced and destabilized entire populations, as in the case of the Tuareg refugees. Berber political activism, whether it took the form of the Berberist crisis in Algeria or the Rif revolts or other Berber rebellions in Morocco, led to repression and oppression of all things Berber. Since the uprising in Tizi Ouzou in the spring of 1980, also known as the Berber Spring, Berbers have organized and demonstrated for cultural, linguistic, and economic rights-and self-determination or regional autonomy in the case of the Tuareg. Berbers believe that they have been shortchanged by state policies of education, culture, and economic modernization. Government responses, in most cases, have been brutal and repressive and usually took the form of police crackdowns and military assaults. To complicate matters even more, the rise of political Islam and its relentless pursuit of a strict orthodox Sunni Islam in the 1980s further aggravated the situation and demands of the Berbers. Arab and Amazigh Islamists, despite North Africa's history of religious syncretism and hybridity, tend to view Berber grievances with contempt and see in the secularist Berber demands of cultural pluralism, democratization, and human rights a threat to the Islamic way of life and its vehicle the Arabic language, however that is defined.Today, the Amazigh question remains a sensitive cultural and political issue in North Africa because it is explicitly connected to a range of contested ideas about language, place, and religion-or politics of identity boundaries. In the first years of the 21st century, to circumvent Amazigh cultural and linguistic rights and identity claims, North African governments have made hesitant efforts to at least start the discussion of the remote possibility of considering Tamazight an official and equal language to its sister, Arabic, in their constitutions. While Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, is a national language in Niger and Mali, the politicking of the Amazigh question is an ongoing, frenzied contest between Arabists, Islamicists, and secularists in Algeria and Morocco. However, short of a constitutional recognition of Tamazight and a clear mandate backed by a solid budget and effective directives for the teaching of Tamazight in public schools, allocation of media time for Tamazight and other Tamazight dialects, and recognition of the Amazigh role in the formation processes of North African states, the ceremonial acts invested in the establishment of task forces, commissions, and institutes for the inclusion of Tamazight and all things Amazigh into the North African identity matrix will remain for some time to come unfinished business or, in North American parlance, "business as usual."
Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) . Hsain Ilahiane. 2014.