Tariq ibn al-Ziyad, a berber commander
Tariq ibn al-Ziyad, a berber commander

The Berbers are the earliest known inhabitants of northwestern Africa’s Mediterranean coast, plains, and mountain ranges. Living as nomadic herders or farmers in Morocco’s Atlas and Rif mountain ranges, Algeria, the Sahara Desert, east into Libya and Egypt, the exact ethnic and cultural origins of the Berbers is unknown, though their languages, called Tamazight, belongs to a family of Afro-Asiatic languages. In ancient times, Berber religions were polytheistic.

Although ancient Berber history is sketchy because of the fact that there was no written form of their langu ages, references to them do exist in chronicles from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Beginning around 600 b.c.e. some Berber regions of North Africa came under foreign occupation, first by the mighty city-state of Carthage, and then by the Roman republic. Under Carthaginian and Roman rule, Berber merchants linked the Mediterranean coastal settlements with West Africa, trading in slaves, gold, and ivory.

Under the Roman Empire, some Berbers residing on the Mediterranean coast became imperial citizens, though Berber communities living in the North African interior mountain ranges and other rural areas remained largely independent. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, large sections of North Africa’s seacoast remained under the control of the Byzantine Empire of Asia Minor.

After the rise of Islam in the first half of the seventh century c.e. Arab Muslim expansion into North Africa began in earnest, beginning in 642 during the reign of the second al-Rashidun caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. The new religion slowly spread among segments of the Berber tribes, replacing Byzantine Christianity, which many Berbers practiced in some form, and Judaism.

Although many Berbers accepted the basic tenets of Islam, their method of practice generally remained unorthodox. This led to a growing level of tension between them and the Arab Umayyad Caliphate of Syria by the middle of the eighth century.

A large number of Berbers joined the fundamentalist movement of the Kharijites, who opposed the Umayyads and preached that any qualified Muslim could lead the community. Berber opposition to the centralized power of the caliphate continued after the collapse of the Umayyads in 750 by the Abbasid Revolution.

The Fatimids, an Isma’ili Shi’i movement that arose in 969, received substantial Berber support in their takeover of Egypt and parts of North Africa from the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, Iraq. During the Fatimid dynasty, there is evidence that there was an attempt to instill Arab culture within Berber societies, which had largely retained their own cultural practices and languages.

Berber warriors
Berber warriors

In 711 during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the first Muslim expeditions to the Iberian Peninsula were launched under the command of a Berber, Tariq ibn al-Ziyad, and other Berber Muslims. A mixed party of Arabs and Berbers under the Umayyad commander Musa ibn Nusayr followed al-Ziyad’s landing the next year and Berber soldiers continued to play a major role in Muslim expansion throughout Iberia and southern France for centuries.

The first major Berber political-military state to emerge was the Almoravid Empire, which was founded in Mauritania and the Sahara around 1050 and practiced a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam. With the founding of their capital city, Marrakesh, in Morocco in 1062, Almoravid expansion continued under the joint rule of Yusuf ibn Tashfin and his cousin, Abu Bakr.

In 1086 Almoravid armies landed in Iberia, where Yusuf defeated Alfonso VI, the Christian king of Castile, which allowed the Berber empire to establish a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim state with control over much of southern Iberia, all of Morocco, and parts of West Africa.

By 1150 another Berber movement, the Almohads, under ‘Abd al-Mu’min overthrew the Almoravids, taking over Morocco and southern Spain while expanding east across North Africa. Like their predecessors, the Almohads founded a fundamentalist and militaristic Sunni Muslim state.

Unlike the Almoravids the Almohad Empire slowly broke apart into smaller states, and the last Almohad caliph, Idris II, ruled only the city of Marrakesh before his murder in 1269. Under the Almoravid and Almohad periods, the majority of the Berber tribes converted to Sunni Islam, following the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence.

Although the Berbers continued to hold onto aspects of their culture and continued to speak Berber languages, many also adopted some Arab cultural practices. Berbers continue to live throughout present-day North Africa and form a large segment of the populations in Morocco and Algeria, with some tribes continuing to reside in Mauritania, Tunisia, and Mali.