Indigenous North Africa Between Jihad and Imperialism

by Toufik Amayas Mostefaou

My heart
Has become capable
Of taking all sorts of forms,
It is
For gazelles
And Monastery for the monk,
Temple of idols
Kaaba for the pilgrim.
It is the tables of the Torah
The Book of the Koran.
It professes the religion of love
Whatever the place
Toward which
Its caravans wend.
And love
My law
And love
My faith.

—Ibn Arabi, of Andalusia and North Africa, 1165-1240 CE, Sufi

Questions relating to “modernity” and “tradition” have occupied Muslim thinkers—people such as Jamal Addin Al-Afghani, Rashid Ridha, Abd Arrahman Al-Qawakibi, etc.—for the good part of the twentieth century. They continue to exert a considerable force on contemporary Islamic discourse, especially in questions relating to citizenship, forms of government and economic and social organization.

At the beginning of the 21st century, societies with a strong Islamic heritage are facing tough choices between modernity, tradition, democracy, absolute monarchy, Islamism, secularism, imperialism and nationalism (Amazigh, Arabic, Kurdish, etc)…

These struggles are ubiquitous throughout the Muslim world. Whether one goes to Saudi Arabia with its absolute monarchy or Turkey with its official secularism, or to the Indian subcontinent with its millennia-old traditions, questions about “Islamic tradition” (with whatever that may imply), modernity and democracy keep resurfacing to the fore of academic and public discourses. The Islamic world is a geographically vast area that straddles more than two continents, and it will be difficult to address any issues related to it without being trapped in some form or another of analytical reductionism. But even with such a huge structural constraint facing anyone writing about history, there is a lot one can discern from an account of how the past has shaped the present and how the present informs the future.

It is in this context that I write about the history of Sufism in Kabylia, the mountain homeland of Algeria’s largest group of indigenous Imazighen (Berbers), and about how Sufism can provide us with a normative framework in the twenty-first century to transcend the clash of ideologies—especially when one sees the world being reduced cartoonistically into two opposing sides: Western hegemonic imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.

For some ideologists and politicians the choice is exclusive, either the Imperialist side or the Wahhabist one and the submission to the dictates of Sharia. From this direct and frontal opposition will result the Clash of Civilizations, a new cold war, a new confrontation of interests. The world can’t contain two belligerent ideologies that exclude each other, that want to dominate the entire planet and submit it to its own rule and culture.

But the relationship between “imperialists” and “Islamists” has been quite complex and their recent clash is more of an ephemeral episode in a world shaped and reshaped by the interplay of different factors—among which ideology is not necessarily the dominant one. To prove this point one may point to many events in recent history, the most illustrative of which is the war in Afghanistan that occurred in the aftermath of Russian invasion of 1979. At that time, “jihadists” were portrayed as freedom fighters in Western media, and they were an ally for Western countries allied against communist threat.

As a direct consequence of this opposition, Muslims found themselves trapped in a tornado of dilemmas and conflicting interests: aspiration for democracy and social justice attracts them to occidental values; the Wahhabis threaten them with hudud (penalties prescribed by sharia law) and divine punishments if they don’t obey and come back to the orthodox way. This complex situation can be worse in the extreme for religious and ethnic minorities living in large Muslim majority—such as the Amazighs in North Africa.

The beginning of the 21st century has been torn by extreme violence and hardening positions in the two antagonist visions of the world: imperialism, the rule of free markets and military dominance from the occidental side; Islamism and religious extremism in the Middle East, Far East and some African countries. The battlefield has extended to the Internet, media and mosques. The polarization is so serious that some Muslims born in occidental countries are being alienated and join extremist movements. They no longer believe in the occidental values—for them, Europe and the USA are only about money, and are oppressing Muslims and Arabs. For many young Muslims, religion is now more about having personal identity and fighting against oppressors and infidels than about spirituality and personal evolution.

These inflammatory discourses make some Muslims feel that they are before a hard choice: either join religious extremism and save their Nation from the devilish imperialism, or uproot themselves from their Islamic values and jump into the welcoming hands of libertine and oppressive imperialism.

Our interest will be focused on the native Amazigh ethnicity in North Africa to show the potentialities that Sufism has to adapt and to survive in a very resistive culture where orthodox Islam failed to take root. We will also explore the hope that Sufism brings for the existence of a tolerant and spiritual Islam, in harmony with what we can call modern values.

Because of its strategic location between three continents, North Africa has been the target of many invasions throughout its history, and its native Amazigh people (Imazighen in the plural) have become very effective warriors as a result. The last military struggle was that undertaken against French colonialism that spanned the years from 1830 to 1962. But in contrast to all the invading forces that stayed for short or prolonged periods and then left, the Arabs who invaded the region in the 7th century stayed.

In contrast to the typical image of this invasion drawn by Arabs, the Imazighen did not receive Arabs as liberators. The process of Islamization in North Africa was not momentous, but has taken many centuries, and in some respects it is still taking place today.

All the invading powers that tried, to different degrees, to annex North Africa politically or religiously have generally had very little success. Phoenicians appropriated the Amazigh goddess Tanit. Saturn, conceived as an African god, dethroned Jupiter in the local Roman Pantheon. And in the Christian era, Amazighs opposed St Paul’s version of Christianity and adopted Arian monotheism.

Arius (c. 250-336 CE, of Alexandria) was an early Amazigh Christian theologian, who taught that the Son of God was not eternal, and was subordinate to God the Father (a view known generally as Arianism). Theologically, Arius’ view of creation shared strong parallels to both neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. He taught that God did not create matter directly, but via the Logos, thus giving Christ the unique status as the only being created directly by God, yet subject to the Father. Gnosticism, in nearly all of its forms, taught some form of dualism, that matter is inherently evil, and the spirit inherently good. Therefore there had to be a mediating process through which God created that world, because good cannot create evil. This distinct view of transcendence is one of the foundational presuppositions of Arius’ thought.

The Arians were opposed to St Augustine’s Church and created an African one under the leadership of St Donate. This resistance to foreign religious subjugation is quite indicative of the attachment of Imazighen to their ancestral beliefs (cults of ancestors and leaders, a Spirit living and appearing on a daily basis to humans, personified trees, Earth and Mother Godesses, et cetera). Although he attracted considerable support at the time (and since), Arius’ views were declared heretical at the Council of Nicaea, leading to the formation of the Nicene Creed.

Upon its arrival in their midst, Islam faced serious resistance from Imazighen. Muslims took power by force and imposed the monarchy of Mo’awiya ibnu Abi Sofian, the, governor of Syria who was dispached by Caliph Umar to conquer North Africa. His reign was marked by suppression of any opposition to his diktat. He sent his armies to other countries to make futuh’at (campaigns of conquest, literally “opening”) and jihad in the name of God to give legitimacy to his rule.

Almost one century after the first invasion, most of the cities were submitted to the new rulers, but the mountains and the rural areas remained independent and faithful to their earlier religions (paganism, Christianity or Judaism). Shortly after the fall of the Amazigh land under Islamic rule, the jizya fiscal system was introduced, impsoing special taxes on non-Muslims. In order to avoid paying this huge amount of money to the Umayyad Caliphate’s central government in Damascus, a large part of Amazighs chose the conversion to the new religion. Surprisingly, Umayyad kings refused to suppress these taxes even after conversion of Amazighs. This led to defections to Kharijite sect, and the Berber Revolt of 740-43 CE. The key Amazigh victory at the Battle of the Nobles (Ma’rakatu al Ashraf), turned the tide, and Arab rulers were driven out of North Africa. Amazigh land got its independence from the Islamic Caliphate and was called by Arabs al Maghrib al Islami (Muslim occident) in contrast to al Maghrib al Masih’i (Christian occident).

As dynastic struggles shook the Islamic world, local rulers might be formally loyal to the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the displaced Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia or the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. But the Amazigh really ruled themselves, and changed sides according to their interests. The Amazigh dynasties of the Almohads and the Almoravides eventaully proclaimed their own Caliphate in Iberia.

The succession struggles following the death of the fourth caliph, Ali, in 661 led to a profusion of schisms in Islam. To oppose the Sunni diktat and to make a definitive clear cut with Arab imperialism and the oppressive Umayyad regime, Amazighs adopted Kharijism and later the Ismaili Shi’ism of the Fatimid Caliphate, a more tolerant branch of Islam. There was also a more radical answer among Amazighs: the creation of an Amazigh religion where God is Amazigh, speaks Amazigh and speaks to Amazighs only—the Barghawata heresy, which held sway on the Atlantic coast of Morocco from the Berber Revolt through the 11th century. Apostasy and revolts against Islam were frequent to the point that The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, the great North African historian, reported twelve apostasies of Amazighs.

Islam never managed to penetrate by force into Kabylia. It was only in the 10th century that Islam started to penetrate peacefully into Kabylian Mountains thanks to Shi’a missionaries. This led to the adoption of Shi’a Islam by the Kutama, one of the principal Amazigh tribes of Kabylia Mountains, and the creation of the unique Shi’a Caliphate: the Fatimid Dynasty. Sunni extremists wanted to uproot the previous faith and replace it with a hostile Arabian version of Islam incompatible with Kabylian traditions. Shi’a Islam, holding that Caliph Ali inherited the esoteric explanation of Islam from the Prophet Muhammad, spread naturally all over Kabylia—to the point that even today we can find traces of the Shi’a Islam in Kabylia. Ali is singled among the followers and companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ashura festivals are observed under the name of Taachurt. These commemorations include “un-Islamic” traditions, like kids wearing masks and going from one house to an other collecting sweets and cakes. Later in the day there is a visit to the village mausoleum for a short pilgrimage

The Shi’a period was short in Kabylia, but it led to a peaceful cohabitation of a spiritual Islam with the original traditions of the natives. In the 11th century, Almohads, an occidental Amazigh dynasty, conquered much of North Africa and imposed a new version of Sunni Islam with a strong Amazigh signature but with a strict, rigorist and authoritarian stamp. They swept away several other kingdoms and completed the homogenization and total conversion of most of the Amazighs to Sunni Islam. The Almohads’ arrival was the end of the Barghawata dynasty and the fall of Shi’ism in the Amazigh lands. Ibadites (descendants of the Kharajites), Christians, Jews and pagans survived only in very small communities.

But the Almohads’ conquest of power coincided with the diffusion of a highly spiritual Islam: Sufism. Most Sufi tariqas (paths or brotherhoods) claim Ali their first master, and that was initiated into esoteric Islam from Prophet Muhammad. To some extent, both branches of Islam (Sunni and Shi’ite) recognize Sufis as saints and devoted Muslims. But there are exceptions—the Hanbalites (a rigorist Sunni school) and extremists who see Sufis as deviants, heretics and kafirs (unbelievers). The history of Islam is full of executions and excommunications of Sufis—the most famous case being the public execution of Mansur Hallaj in Bagdad in 922.

Even if puritan dynasties managed to get rid of the Barghawata kingdom and to convert the last Jewish and Christian tribes, the austerity of official Sunni Islam had little appeal outside the mosques and schools of the cities. Rural cults survived the triumph of orthodoxy in the twelfth century despite the efforts of the Almoravids and Almohads to stamp them out. This survival is quite impressive and astonishing.

Sufism spread in cities but even more quickly in rural areas. So, in the countryside, Sufis and wandering marabouts, or holy people, drew a large and devoted following. These men and women were believed to possess baraka (divine and special grace), or to be able to channel it to others. In life, marabouts offered spiritual guidance, arbitrated disputes, and often wielded political power. After death, their followers erected domed tombs that became sites of pilgrimage.

There are many such Sufi shrines in Algeria. In most cases, these sites have a sacred tree, a rock, a totem or a geological formation that increase their power in the eyes of North Africans (both Amazigh and Arab). The sacralisation of natural phenomena is in complete harmony with the Amazigh pre-Islamic faith and beliefs that have survived Arab invasion. In fact, some mausoleums of Sufi saints are pre-Islamic sacred sites. They can be graves of village founders. In some cases, after the Sufi’s death, the baraka might be transmitted to an object. The care of this totem is handled by descendants of that wali (saint), or is shared among the oldest families of the village.

As in the other parts of the Muslim world, Sufism was opposed in North Africa by both reformist movements such as the Islah, which advocated for the rights of Algerians under the French colonization, and extremists such as the Salafiya and Wahabiya movements. The Islah movement, initiated by a group of Islamic scholars or ulema (‘Abd al-Hamid b. Badis, Bashir al-Ibrahimi), won the support of secular reformists and agitated against both French rule and Sufi brotherhoods in the 1930s. After independence in 1962, the Algerian state imposed its own nationalist ideology and barred Sufis from religious power. Nevertheless, most of the Sufi brotherhoods quietly continued practicing their rituals.

The ’80s were more favorable to Sufis. Some zawiyas (local headquarters of the brotherhoods) resumed open activity; regional branches of brotherhoods re-established contact with each other. Some which had been accused in state propaganda of collaboration with French had their reputation officially rehabilitated, lauded for their role in the diffusion of Islam in the region. The new recognition of Sufism by the state was attested by the 1991 establishment of a the National Association of the Zawiyas.

The official view of Sufism in Algerian society changed under the threat from Islamism—the Salafists, inspired by the Wahhabis of Arabia. While the ’30s witnessed a condemnation of mysticism in the name of reason, in the ’80s the state became tolerant of Sufism to show that they were not against Islam, and to encourage an alternative that was non-violent and distinctly Algerian. Intellectuals who sympathized with this religious trend were legitimized.

In the ’90s, a wave of Islamist violence and terrorism, and consequent government repression, claimed many thousands of lives in Algeria. But in the Kabylia Mountains, Salafi Islam won very little support, and Islamist political parties gained almost no ground. There were several reactions to the shock of the ’90s Islamist explosions. Some in Kabylia simply rejected Islam and everything that has linked the Amazigh to the Arabs (Islam and Arabic language); a few converted to Christianity. Others came back to Sufism as an indigenous cultural reference, or just because of the tolerance and the spiritual dimension of this mystical Islam.

Aspirations to a better life, modernity and freedom, inevitably raise the question of Islam’s compatibility with these values. Modernity, as imperialism sees it, is taking our world to the edge of destruction. In the name of democracy and free trade, countries are being attacked, elected governments overthrown and local economies destroyed. The effects of industrialization and savage misuse of natural resources have not only been an economically unbalanced world (with extremely rich capitalists and an extremely poor underprivileged class). This conception of modernity ultimately threatens human existence. For the first time, the human race has to decide on its own existence! Do we want to exist, or do we decide to destroy our planet and its ecological balance.

The race for material wealth, immediate pleasures and the accumulation of commodities is exhausting our planet. Imperialism has become a threat to civilization and human existence, not just national sovereignty. If Islamic terrorism threatens a number of governments, and violates human rights in many areas, imperialism in its contemporary face is a threat not only to the whole of humanity, but also to trees, rivers, animals… Our ecosystem is victim of an imperialism unleashed as never before, that refuses to recognize its role in the climate changes our planet is experiencing. We can clearly say: Modernity no longer means the reign of reason, but the gratification of needs and the satiation of desires. Imperialism and capitalism are turning back against two pillars of modernity and their own existence: reason and science. In the same way, Islamic extremism is turning against its own roots and source: spirituality and mercy.

This simple observation makes us say that Islamism on the one hand, and globalization and imperialism on the other are identical from the point of view of mechanism and principle. Both want to dominate the world and submit humanity to their sole law: their proper and extremist view of religion and God, or the reign of the sacred trio capital-market-free trade.

Opposing or resisting the Islamists’ fight for a new caliphate is a clear sign, for them, of heresy or idolatry. Extremists’ fatwas make it licit to kill every opponent, even if they are innocent civilians. Their argument in such a cases is that innocent victims will go directly to paradise and the kafir will burn for eternity in hell fire.

This dichotomy of “with us or against us” is not unique to the Islamists, but it is shared with the imperialists, as shown in George Bush’s infamous pronouncement after the attacks of September 11: “You are with us or with the terrorists.” Effectively, the imperialists’ forces were unleashed and sent to fight against their alter ego “Islamists” in different part of the world. All this is done in the name of Justice and the spread of Democracy and Freedom. Exactly as Islamists kill in the name of Divine justice and the spread of the Good way of life (under the shari’a law).

Astonishingly, this comparison between these two extremisms reveals the same basis and goals behind their mutual atrocities and arrogance: material gains and physical pleasures. For imperialism and capitalism the sole God is Capital. All means to defend “free markets” are acceptable and justifiable. Stability and social order are necessary for the growth of trade and capital. For this pragmatic reason, dictators and authoritarian regimes are obstacles to “international order” if they assert national control of their natural resources, but if they offer access they became allies.

The Islamists’ God offers them cities of gold and silver with a harem of 72 virgins each in Paradise, the only condition being to follow sharia law (as interpreted in the fatwas of the sheikhs and mullahs) and to die for it as a mujahid. Unfortunately, the way to this paradise is paved with the bodies of innocent civilians and naive Muslims. They see the divine reward and their struggle (terrorist activities) as a business transaction with God. A well known adage is: “Isn’t trading with God the best trade?”

Finally, it all comes down to selling and buying. Capitalists and Islamists have the same goal: maximum gains. For the first category, the reward is earthly; for the second it is an afterlife reward.

The Kabyles adopted Sufi Islam while keeping their identity and tradition. For centuries, these Muslims of the Kabylia Mountains lived their lives as farmers, working their ancestral lands, making jewelry, harvesting wheat and collecting fruits. They lived also their lives as Muslims devoted to the One God of Islam. They made a distance between themselves and the religious clergy, forbidding them from interfering in their earthly life. As the Amazigh saying goes: Igenni n Rebbi, ma t-tamurt n vav-is (Heaven belongs to God, Earth belongs to those who cultivate it). They kept their reverence for their Mother, the land that gave birth to all beings, and where they shall all return. They had a balance between their faith in Islam and their ancestral identity. They were peaceful as long as they were not attacked.

Maybe this is the way, not only for Amazigh of Kabylia, but for all the inhabitants of North Africa.


See also:

Paradoxical Legacies of the Militant Mystics
by Khaleb Khazari-El
WW4 REPORT #123, July 2006

Berber Boycott in Restive Region Signals Continued Struggle
by Zighen Ayml
WW4 REPORT #113, November 2005

From our weblog:

NYT: North Africa “staging ground for terror”
WW4 REPORT, Feb. 21, 2007


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, March 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution