Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
Between 1510–1822, Morocco went through significant changes that laid the foundation for its modern nation state. Most noteworthy among these changes was a shift from the Berber dynasties that had dominated the country for almost five hundred years to governments headed by shurafā’, Arab leaders who claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Muhammad. A combination of external threats (e.g., colonization from Portugal and Spain, and the threat of Ottoman expansion) and internal developments (e.g., the rising influence of murābitūn and shurafā’ within the country), along with the perceived inability of the Berber Wattasids to meet the Portuguese challenge, contributed to this dynastic change. In the five hundred years leading up to the early 21st century, two separate sharifian dynasties have governed Morocco, and the country has vacillated between periods of strong central rule and times of unrest (fitna) and weak central government. However, since the rise of the ʿAlawi dynasty in the late 17th century, ʿAlawi supremacy has not been seriously challenged, even during extensive periods of fitna or foreign colonization. Although Morocco developed a flexible system of government that helped unify the country during this period, it still fell behind European states in terms of technology, science, economy, and military strength. A degree of intellectual and social stagnation set in, such that European visitors in the 19th century perceived Morocco to be a country stuck in its medieval past. This weakness vis-à-vis its near neighbors to the north (particularly England and France) eventually set the stage for the direct colonization of Morocco by Europeans in the early 20th century.
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.