Today, the vast region of Northern Africa is predominantly inhabited by Arab Muslims. However, this was not always the case. The territory was once dominated by the Berbers, a non-Arab people who were at one time mostly Christians. The Berbers successfully withstood numerous invasions before finally being overrun by Arabs.
Beginning in the seventh century, Arab invasions caused many non-Islamic tribes, including the Berbers, to be displaced. The Berbers were particularly affected by the mass immigrations of Arab Bedouins in the eleventh century. At that time, some of the Berbers fled. Others were driven into the desert, where they began displacing or enslaving the Negroes who lived there. Many Berbers remained and submitted, becoming “Arabized” in language and, to some extent, racially mixed with the Arabs. All of the Berbers, without exception, embraced Islam.
Today, most of the Arabized Berbers still identify themselves as Berbers. However, elements of Arabic origin have now become so prominent that it is difficult to distinguish them from the Arabs.
What are their lives like?
For the Berbers, “Arabization” occurred in three overlapping stages. The first stage was the initial contact with the Arab invaders in the seventh century. The second stage began with the arrival of the Bedouins in the eleventh century. The third stage of Arabization, which took place between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, was accelerated by the arrival of refugees from Andalusia (a region in southern Spain).
Traditionally, the Berber economy rested on a fine balance between farming and breeding cattle. Each tribe depended heavily on domestic animals for carrying heavy loads, milk and dairy products, meat, and hides or wool. Similarly, there was not a single tribe that did not also rely on agriculture for survival.
The arrival of the Bedouins in the eleventh century brought competition for pasture land. The Bedouins were numerous enough to compete with the Berbers who lived in the plains, but were not able to dislodge or greatly influence the mountain tribes. For this reason, the Arabization of the Berber was confined to the plains and plateau areas.
Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Andalusian refugees settled in towns. They brought with them a richer and more classical form of Arabic speech. This had a profound effect on the partially-Arabized Berbers, causing the differences between urban and rural dialects to become even greater. Certainly, those who retained the original Berber language have also retained more of the traditional Berber culture and customs.
The adoption of Arab speech is only one aspect of Arabization. Many Berber groups resisted Islam at first; but by two or three centuries after the Arab invasions, they had all converted to the Islamic faith, at least in name. Wherever Arabic replaced the Berber language, laws from the Koran replaced the traditional tribal order.
The harshness of the Berber lifestyle in Northern Africa has led many of the Berbers to immigrate. Today, large communities of Arabized Berbers can be found in several nations, particularly Europe. Although most of them are only involved in unskilled or semi-skilled labor, they are able to earn more than they would “back home.”
The Arabized Berbers, like many other groups that have immigrated to other nations, send much of their earnings back home to support their larger, extended families. Similarly, members of the extended families often travel to Europe, where they will live and work for short periods of time before returning home.
What are their beliefs?
Today, virtually all of these tribes are Sunni Muslim, with most belonging to the Malikite branch of Islam. Islam is a major world religion that is based on five essential duties or “pillars”: (1) A Muslim must affirm that “there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” (2) Five times a day he must pray while facing Mecca. (3) He must give alms generously. (4) He must fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year. (5) He must try to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in his lifetime. Muslims are also prohibited to drink alcohol, eat pork, gamble, steal, use deceit, slander, and make idols.
While the Berbers adopted the five pillars of Islam, each was modified a little to fit their local traditions and tastes. For instance, many are very casual about prayer. Also, among some tribes, the giving of alms was not accepted because it was perceived as being some type of tax.
What are their needs?
There are several Christian resources available to the Arabized Berbers; however, most of the tribes have a minimal Christian population. Several missions agencies have focused on the Arabized Berbers living in European nations, but they have had little success. New strategies must be developed and implemented so that these tribes can be effectively reached with the Gospel.
* Ask God to call out prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through intercession.
* Pray for the small number of Arabized Berber Christians.
* Ask God to give the missions agencies new strategies for reaching these tribes with the Gospel.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of these Muslim tribes towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
* Pray that God will reveal Himself to these precious people through dreams and visions.
* Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among each of the Arabized Berber tribes.
* Pray for completion of Bible translation in this people group’s primary language.
Text source: Bethany World Prayer Center © 1999.