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Berber Religion


BERBER RELIGION . It is difficult to refer with any sort of precision to "Berber religion" per se, even as it is difficult to speak about a "Berber people." The term berber originally a derogatory name (cf. Gr. barbaroi, Eng. barbarians ) applied by outsidersdesignates the rather heterogeneous, indigenous population of North Africa extending from the Siwa Oasis in the western Egyptian desert to Morocco, Mauretania, and even as far as the great bend of the Niger River. These people, who have been in the region since prehistoric times, exhibit varying physical features, customs, and social organizations. They are united mainly by language. But even the language itself is highly variegated and is subdivided into a number of mutually unintelligible dialects and many localized vernaculars. In addition to language, another trait that has characterized the Berbers as a whole throughout history has been a strong spirit of local political, social, and cultural independence in the face of domination by civilizations that have imposed themselves upon the Maghreb (the Arabic name for western North Africa): Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and, for a relatively short time, modern Europeans.

Ancient Berber Religion

Echoes of prehistoric Berber religiosity may be found in rock paintings and carvings from the Neolithic period. Many of these depictions are difficult to interpret, but some seem to indicate clearly the veneration of certain animals and perhaps even fetishism. The numerous animal sculptures in hard rock must certainly be idols. These include rams, bulls, and antelopes. By Punic and Roman times, however, zoolatry seems to have been a thing of the past. Augustine of Hippo singles out the Egyptians as animal worshipers, but he does not mention his fellow North Africans in this regard (Sermons 198.1).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, leading European scholars (e.g., Gsell, Basset, Bel, and Gautier) generally held that the Egyptian cult of Amun-Re was widespread across the Maghreb in antiquity. They based this supposition upon the iconography of a few rock drawings discovered in Algeria and upon the popularity in Carthage of the Punic deity Baal-Hammon, who was identified with Zeus-Amun of the Siwa Oasis. This interpretation, however, has been called into serious question by Gabriel Camps, who has argued that the depictions are of sacrificial animals with ornamental bonnets and not sun disks on their heads. The ram god of Siwa does not seem to have played any special role among the ancient Berbers beyond Libya.

If any deity enjoyed extensive popularity in classical times, it was Saturn. The omnipresence of depictions of this god and his associations with the Punic Baal-Hammon are evidence that he was the real master of the region. One of his iconographic representations, showing him seated on a lion (his animal attribute) and holding a serpent (the symbol of death and fertility), has continued in folk religion down to the present. Rabbi Ephraim Enqawa of Tlemcen, a Jewish saint, who is venerated throughout the Berber regions of southern Morocco, is invariably depicted in the same fashion.

From Punic times onward, it seems that foreign gods were borrowed and syncretized with local North African deities. However, it is difficult to isolate the native Berber divinities from the overlay of official Punic and Roman religion. Because of its essentially popular character, Berber religious practice receives only occasional mention in classical sources or early Christian writings.

Most of the dii Mauri (i.e., Mauretanian gods), for whom some fifty-two names survive, were local spirits. Many of these have recognizably Berber names, such as Varsissima (Berb., war ism, "the nameless one") and Macurgum (Berb., imqqor, amqran, "the great one"), both members of the pantheon of seven deities worshiped at Vaga (modern Béja in Tunisia).

Natural phenomena were the main focuses of Berber veneration, and nature worship has continued to be the core of Berber religiosity into the modern era despite the official overlay of Islam. Writing nearly two thousand years apart, both Herodotus (Histories 4.188) and Ibn Khaldun (ʿIbar 6.94) relate that the Berbers worshiped the sun and the moon, although in what way is not known. Inscriptions from the Roman period mention a god, Ieru, whose name corresponds to the Berber ayyur or ior ("moon"). Latin dedications to the sun have been found in Tunisia and Algeria, and Spanish writers report that the Guanches (the Berber natives of the Canaries) worshiped the sun, one of whose names was Amen, which in certain Tuareg dialects still means "lord" or "god."

Rocks, mountains, caves, and springs were frequently places of sanctity for the ancient Berbers, as they have continued to be for their modern descendants. Few of the spirits inhabiting these holy spots had names; they were impersonal forces, like so many of the jnun of later Berber folk belief.

On the basis of archaeological evidence, it seems that the Berbers of antiquity had a well-developed funerary cult. Decorated rock-cut tombs, funeral altars, and tumuliall with votive offeringshave been found throughout the region. Among the Numidians, charismatic rulers were venerated as gods after their death, a practice that had its parallel in the widespread saint and marabout cults of later Christian and Islamic times.

Berber Religion in Christian Times

During the early centuries of the common era, when Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman empire, many Berbers in the urbanized parts of North Africa adopted the Christian faith. However, Berber particularism frequently imparted to their Christianity an individualistic stamp. The cult of local martyrs was very strong and widely diffused. Many of the practices and votive offerings reflected earlier funerary cults. Certain customs from this period, such as the partaking by women of ritual meals at the grave site, continued after islamization.

Adherence to heretical schisms was another manifestation of Berber individualism. In addition to Donatism, which was an indigenous North African movement, there were active communities of Montanists, Pelagians, Arians, and Manichaeans. As in the pre-Christian era, there was a great deal of syncretizing of native religious traditions with the adopted religion of the dominant culture.

Berber Religion in Islamic Times

According to Arab historians, the Berber tribes of North Africa submitted to Muslim rule and accepted Islam at the end of the seventh century, after more than fifty years of fierce resistance. This mass conversion was due more to political interest than to religious conviction. Since Arab settlement outside the few urban centers was very sparse indeed, the islamization of much of the interior and outlying regions must have been nominal at best. According to orthodox Muslim tradition, the Berbers seceded from Islam no fewer than twelve times. As late as the eleventh century, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakrī mentions Berber tribes who worshiped a stone idol named Kurzah (or Gurzah), which may be related to a Berber deity of Roman and Christian times known as Gurzil. Even in the major towns, Berber particularism made itself felt quite early by the widespread adherence to Khārijī sectarianism, whose egalitarian doctrines had great appeal in the wake of Arab domination and oppression.

New Berber religions appeared during the Middle Ages; influenced by Islam, they adopted aspects of its external form but remained native in language, rite, and usage. The earliest of these was the religion of the Barghawāah, who inhabited the Atlantic coastal region of eastern Morocco. During the eighth to twelfth centuries, they adhered to the faith of their prophet, āli, as propagated and led by his descendants. The Barghawāah worshiped one god, Yākush, and had a Berber scripture consisting of eighty chapters. Their religion was highly ascetic and had a strict moral code. In contrast to Islam's five daily prayers, it had ten (five daily and five nightly). There were numerous food taboos: fish, animal heads, eggs, and cocks were all forbidden (some of these have modern parallels among particular families in Morocco for whom eating a taboo food is considered "inauspicious"Berb., tteath; Arab., īrah ). The charisma of the prophet, āli 's family was a central element in Barghawāah communal life. As in the case of the late marabouts, their spittle was considered to have great spiritual and curative powers.

Another new Berber religion influenced by Islam was that of ā-Mīm, who appeared among the Ghumārah tribe in the Rif province of northern Morocco during the tenth century. He too produced a Berber scripture, and had dietary taboos similar to those of the Barghawāah. However, ā-Mīm's religion had only two daily prayers, at sunrise and sunset. An important place was accorded to ā-Mīm's paternal aunt and sister, both of whom were sorceresses. According to al-Bakrī and Ibn Khaldūn, the Ghumārah sought their aid in times of war, drought, and calamity.

The Muslim reform movements of the Almoravids in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and of the Almohads in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although properly speaking a part of Islamic religious history, nevertheless show certain important affinities with the independent religious movements of the Barghawāah and Ghumārah. Tribal or regional Berber identity is very strong in all of them. In each instance the role of the charismatic leader is paramount (in the case of the Almoravids and Almohads this is truest at the early stages of their respective movements).

Although Islam had no rivals as the official religion among the Berbers from the thirteenth century onward, many native Berber rites continued to be practiced within the Maghrebi Islamic context. These are particularly apparent in the highly developed cults of saints both living and dead, in the veneration of such natural phenomena as springs, caves, rocks, and trees, and in numerous rituals linked to agriculture and the seasons. Many Berber groups have retained a solar calendar alongside the Muslim one, which, because it is not only lunar but not intercalated, is of little use to farmers and pastoralists.

Certain dates of the solar year have traditionally been marked by widespread religious observances. For example, New Year's Daycalled variously ʿ Ī Ennayr (Feast of January); Asuggwas Ujdid (New Year); Byannu, Bu-ini, Bubennāni, or Bumennāni (all apparently from the Latin bonum annum ); and ʿĪ n-agūza (Feast of the Old Woman); is commonly celebrated with special meals, with household rites to ensure a good year, and, in some regions of Morocco and Algeria, with carnivals and bonfires.

Another important celebration in the solar cycle is the summer solstice, called variously l-ʿanra, l-ʿanart, and tʿaynsāt (Arab., anārah ). It is celebrated all over Morocco and Algeria with bonfires, fumigation with braziers, and water rites that include ritual bathing, sprinkling, and water fights. The Jews of North Africa have incorporated playful water fights into the celebration of Shavu'ot, which takes place only a few weeks before the ʿanrah. (It should be noted that the very word ʿanrah has been linked by some scholars to the Hebrew ʿatseret, or "holy convocation," a term used to describe Shavuʿot.)

Although Islam has its own rogatory ceremony for rain in time of droughtthe istisqāʾ ritualthe Berbers throughout North Africa have in addition their own practices for seeking divine intervention at such times of crisis. One ceremony involves the use of dolls called tislātin (sg., taslit, "bride"). These are frequently made from ladles or stirring sticks and are carried about by women and children who chant and pray. Even the North African Arabs who perform this ritual call the little effigies by their Berber name, which seems to underscore its autochthonous character.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that, because of the many conquests of North Africa over the last three millennia and its domination by outside civilizations, it is extremely difficult to identify in many instances what is indigenous Berber religious practice. Even in those parts of the Maghreb where there has been a reassertion of Berber ethnic identity (e.g., in the Algerian Kabylia region), the primary emphasis has been ethnolinguistic and not religious. Islamwhether practiced normatively or notstill commands the Berbers' fundamental religious allegiance.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in North Africa; Islam, article on Islam in North Africa.


There is no single work devoted to the history of Berber religion as a discrete entity, although there is an enormous literature on Maghrebi Islam and on popular beliefs and rituals. Berber religion receives extensive treatment within this broader context.

Though somewhat outdated in part, Alfred Bel's La religion musulmane en Berbérie, vol. 1 (the only volume to appear; Paris, 1938), remains the best survey of Berber religious history from antiquity through the later Islamic Middle Ages. An important bibliography precedes each chapter. The chapter on religion in Gabriel Camps's Berbères: Aux marges de l'histoire (Paris, 1980), pp. 193271, goes a long way toward updating and correcting Bel and is especially good for the pre-Islamic periods. Edward A. Westermarck's Ritual and Belief in Morocco, 2 vols. (1926; reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1968), remains a classic source of information on popular religion in Morocco. In addition to a wealth of descriptive detail, the book offers much comparative data. Another valuable survey of popular religious practice is Edmond Doutté's Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord (Algiers, 1909).

There are many studies on saint veneration in North Africa. The best dealing with holy men in a Berber society is Ernest Gellner's Saints of the Atlas (London, 1969). For a comparison of Muslim and Jewish saints, see my study "Saddiq and Marabout in Morocco," in The Sepharadi and Oriental Jewish Heritage, edited by Issachar Ben-Ami (Jerusalem, 1982), pp. 489500.

New Sources

Aki'o Nakano. Ethnographic Texts in Moroccan Berber (Dialect of Anti-Atlas). Tokyo, 1994.

Benyounès, Arav. Berberes, Hier et Aujourd'hui = Imazighen Idelli Ass-a. Hull, Quebec, 1997.

Haddadou, Mohand Akli. Le Guide de la Culture Berbere. Paris, 2000.

Kratochwil, Gabi. Die Berber in der Historischen Entwicklung Algeriens von 1949 bis 1990. Berlin, 1996.

Norman A. Stillman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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