The term “Berber” was historically assigned by foreign conquerors, and modern-day Berbers typically prefer their own designations such as “Amazigh” (male Berber) and “tamazight” (female Berber or Berber language/dialect). Berbers, or speakers of Berber languages, are primarily located in western North Africa but can also be found in eastern Libya, western Egypt, and northern Saharan regions of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The nation of Senegal takes its name from a Berber-speaking group, the Zenaga, who reside in southwestern Mauritania.
There is no distinct Berber race, as the range of physical features found throughout the Maghrib are those commonly associated with Mediterranean peoples. Berbers have a wide spectrum of skin colors, statures, and cranial and facial proportions due to historical intermingling.
Some of the largest groups of Berbers are distinguished by linguistic and cultural characteristics and are referred to using terms of non-Berber origin, often from Arabic. These groups include the Kabyles, Chawia, Tuareg, Chleuh, and Berber of the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. Other Berber groups are identified by their place or region of origin.
Native language data has not been included in the census process of North African countries. However, it is estimated that Berber speakers constitute between 30 percent and 70 percent of Morocco’s population, around 20 percent of Algeria’s, with several tens of thousands of speakers in Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, bringing the total estimated number of Berber speakers to around 12 million in the mid-1990s.
The majority of Berbers live in rural environments, typically in the mountains, high plateaus, pre-Saharan hammada, or the Sahara Desert. Although the Tuareg are well known for their camel nomadic lifestyle, most Berbers are sedentary agriculturalists. Some Berbers practice forms of seminomadism or transhumance along the mountains bordering the high plateaus and desert.
Sedentary Berbers live in villages and subsist through small irrigated gardens, dry cereal culture, arboriculture, and small flocks of sheep and goats, occasionally supplemented by a cow or two. Due to economic necessity, many able-bodied men must export their labor temporarily to North African cities or European industrial centers and send money home to support their families. This has led to the specialization of some villages or areas in a particular vocational field, allowing them to hold a near monopoly on a particular activity or commercial enterprise, such as the grocery trade. This successful adaptation to nontraditional ways enables the maintenance of the traditional homeland and lifestyle for the majority of Berbers.
Berber artistic expression in the modern era is primarily associated with utilitarian objects, such as pottery, weaving, jewelry, and architecture. These art forms are distinguished by their geometric, non-representational patterns, which have persisted with little change since ancient times. Although these patterns and techniques are not unique to Berbers, their tradition is remarkable for its continuity and persistence in Berber country. Some of the most notable examples of Berber artistic expression include the fortified architecture of southern Moroccan ksars, Kabyle and Chawia pottery, silver jewelry, and textiles found throughout North Africa, particularly in southern Tunisia and central and southern Morocco. These art forms are renowned for their elegant forms, intricate patterns, and sophisticated composition, making them a valuable contribution to the cultural heritage of the region.
Berber society has a family-based traditional social organization, which is characterized by its segmentary nature. The Djemaʿa, an assembly of family heads or elders, mediates relations between extended families, clans, or villages. Although many of the traditional competencies of the assembly have been taken over by government agencies in today’s more centrally administered bureaucratic world, certain local issues continue to require consensus decisions and shared provision of labor and material resources. These issues include local resources of common interest and responsibility, such as maintenance of paths, irrigation canals, mosques, Qurʾanic schools, and forests and pastureland, as well as organizing local religious or secular celebrations, among others. Berber institutions have often been described as democratic; however, this term may not be appropriate. Instead, their profound egalitarianism, born of a distrust of power concentrated in the hands of any particular segment, is often summarized in the concepts of balance and opposition. They maintain a balance of power by constant resistance to other segments’ self-interest and ensure that all segments bear equal burdens and reap equal benefits.
Berbers are known for their fierce independence, inclination to rebellion, and resistance to any imposition of control over their lives. North African history is fragmented and constantly jostled by new revolts, realignments, and alliances. Berbers have welcomed every schismatic movement against previous orthodoxy, such as Donatism during Christianization and Kharijism in the early years of Islamization. Their history is marked by a search for ever-purer forms, along with their deep cultural conservatism, and a constant recurring theme throughout their history. Rarely have the Berbers put together a Berber nation, uniting over a vast territory to create a state or empire. In the two most important instances, the Almoravid and the Almohad dynasties of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they were drawn together by the ideal of reform of the previously dominant regime(s), which they saw as having fallen into corrupt ways.
In the twenty-first century, the vast majority of Berbers embraced Sunni Islam, which is the predominant form of Islam in North Africa. However, there are still some Ibadite communities, predominantly Berber-speaking, in certain regions such as the Mzab and Ouargla in Algeria, the island of Djerba in Tunisia, and the Nefusa mountains in Libya, which trace their origins back to the Kharijite schism of the seventh and eighth centuries.
Reliable information on the religious beliefs and practices of Berbers prior to the introduction of Islam is limited. Archaeological evidence, as well as ancient accounts and surviving popular practices in North Africa, suggest that their beliefs were generally animistic, with a focus on the sacralization of natural features such as promontories, caves, trees, and water sources. These practices varied widely by region and were likely intended to placate the spirits believed to influence everyday life. The tradition of venerating local saints, known as Maraboutism, is believed to have originated from this animistic sub-stratum. The tombs of these saints are often situated near natural features that have been used for cultic activity for centuries, indicating a connection between pre-Islamic beliefs and the practice of venerating saints. Although this practice is considered somewhat marginal by mainstream Islamic tradition, it continues to be an important aspect of the religious and cultural practices of many North African communities.
Language and Literature
The Berber languages are a branch of the Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) language family, along with the Semitic, Egyptian, Cushitic, and Chadic branches. The Berber languages exhibit a high level of grammatical homogeneity, with fewer and less significant differences than those found in the Semitic, Cushitic, or Chadic branches. Berber also shares many features with Semitic languages, such as the use of contrasts in consonant “length” and pharyngealization, tri-radical roots in the morphological system, and a fundamental contrast between perfective and imperfective aspect in the verbal system. In addition, word order is predominantly VSO in Berber, although SVO is common in main clauses.
Some unique features of Berber include masculine nouns beginning with a vowel and feminine nouns beginning with “t” + vowel, with most feminine nouns ending in “t,” as well as the use of a special form of the noun, known as the annexed or construct form, after verbs, prepositions, and as the second element in a noun-complement construction. Berber literature is primarily oral, consisting of traditional stories and various forms of poetry, including songs, commentaries, and popular music.
While Berber languages are mainly spoken and rarely written, the Tuareg use the Tifinagh alphabet, which descends from the Libyan alphabet and is similar to the Arabic alphabet. However, Tifinagh is primarily used for short inscriptions and messages, and efforts to expand its use for writing stories, documents, and history have been limited. Berber languages have been influenced by various languages over time, with Arabic having the most significant impact. Berber languages continue to be passed down through maternal language acquisition, as women have traditionally had little education and limited contact with Arabic-speaking communities.
In conclusion, Berbers are a diverse group of people who primarily live in western North Africa. The term “Berber” is a historically assigned term by foreign conquerors, and modern-day Berbers prefer their own designations. Berber society has a family-based traditional social organization, which is characterized by its segmentary nature. Berbers are known for their fierce independence, inclination to rebellion, and resistance to any imposition of control over their lives. The majority of Berbers live in rural environments, typically in the mountains, high plateaus, pre-Saharan hammada, or the Sahara Desert. Although the Tuareg are well known for their camel nomadic lifestyle, most Berbers are sedentary agriculturalists. Berbers have made valuable contributions to the cultural heritage of the region through their art forms, such as pottery, weaving, jewelry, and architecture. Religion-wise, the vast majority of Berbers embraced Sunni Islam, which is the predominant form of Islam in North Africa.