Amazigh Centrality to Moroccan Civilization

Dr Mohamed Chtatou

Nearly 60% of Moroccans can trace their ancestry to the Amazigh, the indigenous people of the entire Maghreb. Though many have lost their lingual and cultural ties to the many Amazigh tribes that dot the Maghrebi landscape, the significance of the Amazigh to the history, society, and culture of the region cannot be denied. Though a number of Arab scholars may argue to the contrary, Moroccan identity embodies an amalgamation between an indigenous culture—that of the Amazigh—and an imported culture—that of the Arab-Islamic east. 

From the Barghwata movement to the current identity movement, the Amazigh have played a central role in shaping the religious, cultural, and social climate of Morocco. In particular, the Amazigh have reconciled Arab-Islamic customs and beliefs with indigenous beliefs and traditions. Just as the Arab influence and the Arabic language have contributed to the Amazigh culture and religion, so too has Amazigh society contributed to the cultural and intellectual life of Islam and Morocco as a whole.

Amalgamation of religious and cultural beliefs

The amalgamation of religious and cultural beliefs between the Arab world and the Berber world—prevalent in Moroccan society— prominently arose nearly two centuries after the initial Islamic conquest of North Africa with the emergence of the Barghwata movement in the 9th century. Established in opposition to the ruling Umayyad Caliphate, the Barghwata sought to distinguish Amazigh identity.

Yunus, second descendent of Salih Ibn Tarif, believed in retaining an Amazigh religious identity. In 842 CE, Yunus proclaimed that his forefather Salih was the Prophet of the Berbers and subsequently composed the Berber Koran. Influenced by his pilgrimage to the East in 816 CE, Yunus aimed to make Islam an independent Berber belief system; however, as Norris (H. T. Norris: The Berbers in Arabic literature, 1982) notes:

“in order to achieve this he made use of ideas and beliefs which had entered the Maghreb from the Orient with Muslim conquest… Other beliefs had a marked kinship with Jewish beliefs.”

While the doctrine itself borrowed heavily from Shi’ism, Barghwata adopted an ancient Berber view of prophethood where only the king can assume such an elevated status.

The legacy of the Barghwata movement as fervent religionists seeking to influence the religious identity of Morocco would continue with the great Berber dynasties of the 11th century. As historian Alfred Bel (La religion musulmane en Berbérie: Établissement et développement de l’Islam en Berbérie du VIIe au XXe siècle, 1938) once remarked, the Amazigh dynasties were sects before they were empires; each sought to leave their mark on the faith by addressing the heresies and heterodoxies that existed in Moroccan society.

The Almoravid dynasty began as a religious movement—Imazighen disciples of an austere, orthodox doctrine of Islam. The Almoravids emerged from their ribats to fasten Malikite orthodoxy on the whole of lowland Morocco and became known for Arabizing Moroccan society. In a similar light, the Almohad dynasty emerged from the High Atlas Mountains to accuse the Almoravids of impiety. The founder Ibn Tumart, a member of the Masmuda tribe, studied in Andalusia and Baghdad, where he became a believer in the unity of God. Theology and philosophy flourished under Almohad rule, especially in Spain. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Arabi, and Ibn Mimun (Maimonides), among other Almoravid philosophers, wrote extensively on mysticism and Sufism at this time.

Amazigh dynasties and development of culture 

Following in the footsteps of the Almohad dynasty, the Marinid dynasty would contribute to the development of Andalusian culture within Morocco and southern Spain. Unlike their orthodox predecessors, the Marinids held liberal religious beliefs and allowing different schools of religion to freely practice within the dynasty. In addition, the Marinids allowed for the Jewish or Sephardic population to freely exercise their religious rights. In fact, though the Amirs were Muslim, most government officials were Jewish. The existence of religious tolerance within Morocco to this day can be traced back to the Marinid dynasty.

Tamghrabit, intertwined identities

The Amazigh have made a significant impact on the judicial practices in Moroccan society. Though Arab-Islamic dynasties encouraged the adoption of imported shari’a law, the preservation of customary law azref in rural regions has allowed for Amazigh cultural practices to continue within Moroccan society. In particular, customary land and water rights, as well as family law, have not been contested by the Makhzen. This has allowed for nomadic and semi-nomadic societies to maintain their social structures and way of life.

Lastly, the Amazigh also made significant contributions to the art, music, and architectural tradition of Morocco. In the city of Fes as well as a number of Spanish provinces like Sevilla and Granada, evidence of the Marinid and Almohad influence on architectural style is abundant. The Marinids for example constructed the Marinia Madrasa in the heart of Fes.

Amazigh oral tradition also played an influential role in the historical and artistic tradition of the country. Amazigh poetry, which was written in couplets and generally sung, would discuss concepts of love, life, lullabies, ballads, and religion. Amazigh dances and music, another way in which oral tradition has been preserved, are also important elements in Moroccan society, especially in the Atlas Mountains. Many Amazigh folk tales and riddles share important places in the conscience and collective identity of the Moroccan people.

Unique Moroccan identity: tamaghrabit

The reconciliation between Arab-Islamic beliefs and Amazigh beliefs still exists today with the modern Amazigh identity movement. The modern nationalist movement has therefore sought to emphasize this mingling of the two ethnic groups that has resulted in a unique Moroccan identity – tamaghrabit-, neither Arab nor Amazigh. The revival of Amazigh culture, lingual tradition, and history– an integral component this nationalist movement—can be characterized as a response to increasing Arabization.

During the colonial period, French attempts to separate national identity between Arabs and Amazigh was actually viewed as a threat to national integrity and ultimately aided in the formation of a combined Moroccan independence movement, which began in Arab metropolises and spread to rural Amazigh regions. Though the Arab elite initially refused to recognize Amazigh identity, they soon realized that the Amazigh represented a sizable minority in Amazigh society.

The modern Amazigh cultural revival represents according to Maddy-Weitzman (The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States, 2011) a “national narrative complete with ancient and modern icons,” including a flag, anthems, and collective memory sites. It reflects a general trend in a number of Arab countries that challenges hegemonic Arab nationalism—the revival of identity politics to assert the ethno-cultural value of historically marginalized groups such as the Kurds, Syrian Christian, Amazigh, and Bedouin.

This cultural revival has shed light on the importance the Amazigh ethnic groups have played in shaping the historical and cultural tradition of Morocco.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

Moroccan traditional architecture

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