Rather than calling themselves “Berbers,” they refer to themselves by the name of their particular subgroup. The Berbers also call themselves the “Imazighen,” which means “man of noble origin.”
Prior to the 7th century, the Berbers had successfully resisted foreign invasions of Islam.
The arrival of Arabs in Morocco in the 7th century resulted in the gradual conversion of some Berbers from Christianity to Islam. In 788, about a century after the Arab conquest of North Africa, a series of Moroccan Muslim dynasties began to rule. It was not until the 13th century, however, with the arrival of large numbers of Arabs from the Middle East, that the majority of Berbers accepted Islam, learned the Arabic language, and were assimilated into Arab culture. The third stage of Arabization occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries.
There are more than 10 million Berbers scattered across the vast regions of Northern Africa. The word Berber comes from an Arabic name for the aboriginal people west and south of Egypt, although it also is said to derive from the Latin word barbari, meaning “barbarians.” This term was used by the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. to describe the “people of the Maghrib.” The Maghrib refers to the regions of North Africa that were conquered by Muslims between 670 and 700 A.D. It included Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the western portion of Libya.
(Note: The majority of Algerians are Muslims. Algeria remains closed to traditional missionary efforts, and fundamental Muslim groups are very outspoken against Christianity.)
In Morocco, Islam is the official religion and 99 percent of the population (32,649,130) are Muslim – with 1 percent Christian. There are 6,000 Jews.
Other Berber groups such as the Kabyles, Shawiya, Tuareg, and other Saharan Berbers are only nominally Muslim. Their observance of Islamic law is generally lax. Consequently, Islam in North Africa is somewhat different from Islam in the Middle East. For example, orthodox Sunnis do not celebrate some of the main Muslim festivals.
The concept of baraka – or holiness – is highly developed in North Africa. The Berbers believe that many people are endowed with baraka, of which the holiest are the shurifa, or the direct descendants of Mohammed. Another class of holy people is known as the marabouts. Among some Berbers, the Tuaregs in particular, the marabouts are considered to be different from ordinary men. They are believed to possess, even after death, the powers of protection and healing.
In view of the general acceptance of Islam, it is particularly interesting that almost all Berbers prefer monogamous marriages (marriage to only one partner). Even the oasis dwellers and the Tuareg hold this preference. In the few tribes where polygamy does exist, it is practiced only by the few wealthy men.
There are still groups of Berbers, like the nine Saharan Berber tribes, who have retained much of their original Berber traditions and characteristics.
Their various languages belong to the Hamito-Semitic language family which includes five major groupings as well as a large number of dialects. Although the Berber languages differ greatly from one another in sound, they only vary slightly in grammar and vocabulary.
Berber societies can be broken down into three basic units: the community, the district, and the tribe. The community is a political collection of clans; the district is a cluster of communities; and the tribe is a group of districts that are characterized by a common territory, name, and culture. Government at the community level is notably democratic. All authority is vested in an assembly called the jemaa. The jemaa, composed of all adult males, usually meets weekly.
In nearly every Berber society, each district, and sometimes each community as well, is divided into two opposing factions called sofs. Membership into the sof is hereditary. Among tribes that no longer live in their original environments, the political units are allied with one another in identical divisions of higher levels known as lefs. Bonds of alliance are re-confirmed by traditional forms of hospitality as well as by huge annual feasts to which members invite one another. If warfare occurs, it is almost exclusively between districts of the opposite lef. However, since lefs are primarily defensive rather than offensive alliances, their primary purpose is to preserve peace in a region.
Contrary to the romantic, popular image that portrays Berbers as nomadic people who cross the desert on camels, their main activity is sedentary agriculture. Nowadays, besides the traditional means of living, there is a new element which is part of the economy of Berber families, namely income from the large number of immigrants in Europe, especially in France.
- Morocco does not provide easy access for Christian influence.
- It is illegal for a Moroccan to become a Christian or to evangelize others.
- To follow Christ causes a Berber to risk much. Losing one’s place in family and society is not a trivial loss, and physical danger may be involved.
- While Morocco is closed to traditional styles of mission work, there are creative ways in which to enter the country as tentmakers.
Much prayer is needed to break down the barriers that separate the Saharan Berbers from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Pray that laws restricting the preaching of the Gospel in Morocco will change.
- Ask the Lord of the harvest to call people who are willing to go to Morocco and share Christ with the Berbers.
- Pray that the Lord will raise missionaries who are sensitive to the Muslim culture and can effectively disciple new converts. Ask the Lord to send Christian teachers to work specifically among the Drawas, who have only a 20-percent literacy rate.
- Ask God to strengthen, encourage, and protect the small number of Berber Christians who are scattered throughout North Africa.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Berbers toward Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
- Pray that God will raise up faithful intercessors who will stand in the gap for the Berbers.
- Ask God to reveal Himself to the Berbers through dreams and visions.
- Ask the Lord to raise a strong local church among the Berbers of North Africa.
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” – Romans 10:14-15 (ESV)
Sources include the Joshua Project