Sarah Hawkins – The Barghawata Heresy: Contextualizing a Berber Cultural Rebellion

Posté par Michael Peyron le 28 mai 2010

Sarah Hawkins 

Amazigh History and Culture

The Barghawata Heresy: Contextualizing a Berber Cultural Rebellion

The Barghawata reigned over Tamesna, the coastal plain home to modern day Casablanca and Rabat, from the early eighth until the mid twelfth century.  They ruled a fiercely independent kingdom for four centuries.  Not only did they enjoy freedom from outside political interference and Arab domination, one of their kings, Yunus (ruled 842-884), attempted to assert Berber cultural and religious autonomy by introducing a Berberized version of Islam.  While this new Islam only lasted as orthodoxy in their kingdom for less than a century, its mere existence, complete with a new prophet and sacred text, is a testament to the Barghawata’s determination to remain separate from the Arab conquerors, both politically and culturally.  Of the various Berber kingdoms of North Africa, the Barghawata were especially predisposed to leading a cultural rebellion in the form of Berberized Islam; their political and economic independence from the surrounding Arab-ruled areas brought them into constant contact with Arabs who sought to conquer them.  In addition, the Umayyad caliphate treated non-Arab Muslims very poorly, furthering Berber resentment of the Arabs.  The time that Barghawata Islam appeared, the ninth century, was a turbulent time when Berbers were wresting back control of their land from the Arabs.  The Barghawata religion sought to distinguish Berbers from the conquering Arabs, but did not consider itself a new faith altogether; this suggests that the people of the Barghawata kingdom (or, rather, its king) embraced Islam, but rejected a perceived ethnic Arab slant to the faith as it was practiced in ninth century Morocco.    


            The Barghawata kingdom was founded by Tarif in the early eighth century.  Tarif and his descendants were most likely Sufrite Khariji Muslims; some sources even posit that they promoted an extremely orthodox version of Khariji Islam.[1]  The Barghawata ruled a territory stretching from Safi in the south and Salé in the north, with the Atlantic Ocean as its eastern border and the territory of the Haha people as its western border.[2]  Tarif was succeeded by his son, Salih Ibn Tarif (b. 729/730-d. 793).  He was considered an extremely pious and just ruler, as was his son Elias (ruled 793-842).  Salih’s grandson, Yunus, took the throne after Elias’s death in 842.  In the same year, he announced that his grandfather had received a new revelation from God—a Quran written in the Berber language—and introduced these revelations as a new form of Islam.  The religion remained the faith of the Barghawata kingdom until 912.[3] 

            Some speculate that Yunus fabricated the new religion and its Quran in its entirety, then retroactively made his grandfather its prophet to take advantage of Salih’s lofty reputation and untarnished legacy.  Slightly more forgivingly, one source posits that the Berber Quran might have evolved from Salih’s commentary on the Arabic Quran (an early example of the lmazghi tradition—Berber language commentary on the Quran, written in the Arabic script).[4]  If we accept Yunus as the mastermind behind Barghawata Islam, it is important to note that he went on a pilgrimage to the East in 816, and some scholars speculate that he found the inspiration to create a new, Berberized Islam after visiting the Arab world. [5] 

            The largest difference between Barghawata Islam and Muslim Orthodoxy is their sacred texts.  The Barghawata had a Berber language Quran with eighty suras, which followers believed was the direct word of God as He had revealed it to Salih Ibn Tarif. As a result, Salih was considered the final and greatest prophet of Islam.  The Barghawata still believed that Muhammad was a prophet, but simply the prophet of the Arabs.  Salih Ibn Tarif was the prophet of the Berbers, [6] or waryawari, “the one after whom none other would come” [7]

            Barghawata Islam differed vastly from “Arab” Islam in ritual.  Many Muslim practices were maintained, but somehow adjusted.  Instead of fasting during the month of Ramadan, they fasted during Rajab; they assembled for collective prayer on Thursday, not Friday, and prayed an additional five times at night.  Their prayers occurred at no set time, and there was no call to prayer.  Men could take as many wives as they pleased.[8]  In addition to modified Muslim practices, we also see hints of Judaism and paganism in their religious practice, such as their taboo surrounding eating eggs and chickens, and the belief that the saliva of the prophet contained baraka, or, roughly translated, blessedness.[9]   

            This new Barghawata religion is wildly different from Muslim orthodoxy, but it still clearly considers itself a form of Islam.  Firstly, Salih’s position as prophet is partially justified by the mention of a Salih in the Arabic Quran in the Surat al-Tahrim: 

If ye both turn repentant unto God—for your hearts have swerved!—but if ye back each other up against him, verily God, He is the sovereign; and Gabriel and the righteous of the believers (salih al-mu’minin), and the angels after that will back him up.[10] 

               Here, “salih” is among those most protected by God; this was used as proof that Salih Ibn Tarif’s prophethood was foretold in the Quran of the Arabs, thus making Barghawata Islam more credible. [11]  In contrast, a typical Muslim would not go hunting for Muhammad’s legitimacy in the Bible or Torah.  This is our first indication that, while the Barghawata wanted to make a clean break with Islam as it was practiced by the Arabs, they did not seek to abandon Islam altogether.  Muhammad is also an important figure in the Berber Quran, appearing the in the very first sura, entitled the Sura of Job: 


In the name of Allah who has sent this book to mankind.  Allah has made plain His reports therein.  They have said that Satan (Iblis) had a knowledge of destiny.  Allah forbid it.  Satan has not the power to know as Allah knows.  Enquire of anything which will master tongues in what they say.  Allah alone is the One who commands the utterances of men’s tongues.  He does so by His will for the tongue which He has sent with the truth for mankind.  The truth has become straight and steadfast and well established.  Behold Muhammad!…when he was alive all those who were his Companions were upright until his decease.  Then men became corrupt.  He is a liar who says that the truth is sound and correct, yet there is no messenger of Allah…[12] 


           This first sura affirms that God has revealed truths to mankind, and one instance of this was Muhammad’s revelations in Arabia.  The Berber Quran uses Muhammad, not Salih, as an example of a human who knew God’s truth and lived piously.  Favoring Muhammad in this case is proof that the Arab prophet and his religious tradition would continue to be an integral part of this Berberized Islam, and that this was certainly not an unrelated religion. 

            In addition to these nods to the Arab Muslim tradition in Barghawata Islam, El-Bekri and others emphasize another reason that a Berber Quran could be an acceptable part of Muslim practice.  As stated in the first Barghawata sura, Iskander explains, “the truth could not be preserved without a Prophet whom they [the Berbers] could recognize.” This, he explains, blends well with the Muslim belief that God sent messages to earth in many different vernaculars so that all peoples could learn the truth.  In light of this belief, the Barghawata’s Berber Quran seems necessary and more legitimate; they had finally received God’s word in their language, and could now worship properly, having been delivered from ignorance.[14] 

            We have seen how the Barghawata’s new Islam was a break with orthodoxy, yet did not strive to be a completely new religion. However, this does not explain why this particular Berber kingdom, at this particular point in history, decided to introduce a radically different version of Islam.  

           When we examine the Barghawata’s political independence and durability as a regime, it seems only natural that they would be the Berber kingdom to seek a cultural emancipation from the Arabs.  They maintained an independent Berber regime for four centuries, starting less than one century after the Arab conquests.  Their longevity can be attributed to several factors.  Firstly, they had an advantageous geographical position.  A huge portion of their border was along the Atlantic Ocean, and only one nearby kingdom, Al-Andalous, had a skilled navy.  The Barghawata were friendly with Al-Andalous, meaning they were able to focus the bulk of their defenses on their land borders.[15]  Since they spent so little energy protecting their oceanic border, the Barghawata could afford to maintain an unusually large army to defend their land frontiers.  The topography of their land was complex, with countless winding river valleys, which made it difficult to navigate as an invading outsider; this discouraged neighboring kingdoms from invading.  

          We also cannot discount the importance of the Barghawata’s lines of communication, which made use of fire  signals and local rivers, in allowing them to have the upper hand over an invading army.  In addition, their strategically located territory had very fertile soil, permitting them to produce their own crops and minimize their material dependence on surrounding kingdoms.  The benefits of their geography—along an ocean with no nearby threatening navies, complex topography, and fertile soil—permitted the Barghawata to thrive for four centuries as a politically and economically independent Berber kingdom.[16] 

          The Barghawata defied the historical convention that Berbers were merely foot soldiers in the service of the mighty Arabs; this Berberized Islam serves as proof that, for a time, the Barghawata also sought to defy the notion that Berbers merrily abandoned their savage heresies in favor of Arab Islamic Orthodoxy.  In this context, it is significant that Yunus, the man who introduced this new Islam to the Barghawata, traveled to the Arab East.  While the historical record is spotty on Yunus’s trip to the East (the only readily available information is that he traveled with four other Kharijis, visited Damascus, and became addicted to mind-altering substances[17]), we can surmise that he was confronted with an Islamic culture that was very different from his own in Morocco.  And, being from a remote part of the Muslim world, his practice of the faith was probably mocked or perceived to be greatly flawed by those who inhabited the Muslim world’s epicenter.  After being mocked for his difference, Yunus was encouraged to return home and further promote this difference.  The emergence of ethnic identity has been explained in similar terms, in Gellner’s classic example of the Ruritanian who visits Megalomania.  A Ruritanian from a small village goes to his capital city, Megalomania, looking for work, and is mocked for his various cultural differences, which he had never noticed before.  Upon returning to his hometown, he is proud of his Ruritanian culture and preaches political emancipation from Megalomania’s rule.[18] 

           In this case, Yunus traveled from Morocco to the East, thinking himself a devout Muslim like any other.  Upon arrival, he realizes that he is different from the Arabs around him, and is possibly mocked or looked down upon because of this difference or Berberness.  Upon his return to Morocco he seeks to assert the Berbers’ ethnic difference from Arabs, and liberate them from Arab cultural domination, by modifying and Berberizing Islam. 

          The Barghawata’s unique historical attributes, such as long-lived political independence and Yunus’s trip to the East, made them an obvious breeding ground for the assertion of ethnic and religious difference.  However, we must still explain why their new religion emerged when it did, in the mid-9th century.  First, we must note the fundamental changes to the Berber universe with the first Arab invasions, carried out by the Umayyads in the seventh century.  The caliphate, and therefore Islam, reached northwest Africa excepting Morocco (Ifriqiyya), by the mid seventh century; Morocco was also under Umayyad control by the early eighth century.  The early Umayyad caliphate was tolerant of religious diversity, but had a demonstrated prejudice against non-Arab Muslims, called mawali.  This angered Berber converts to Islam; one Berber leader in what is modern-day Algeria, named Kusayla, reportedly vented this frustration by leading Berbers and Byzantines in killing an Arab commander in 680.  After this success, Kusayla continued on to Qayrawan and briefly became the regional political authority, but he was quickly chased out by the Arabs and ultimately defeated in 686.[19]  This is one of several early examples of Berber resistance to the Arab invasion, setting a precedent for the rebellious actions of the Barghawata.   

          For a time after the initial Arab conquests, Berbers mainly lived under Arab rule.  The first Arab rulers were the Umayyad Caliphate, whose capital was in faraway Damascus.  Although many Berbers had converted to Islam and had aided the Arabs in their conquest of Al-Andalous, they continued to be mistreated by the caliphate, in some cases being taxed heavily or even taken as slaves.  These inequities sparked a full-fledged Berber revolt in Ifriqiyya in 741.[20]  However, in the centuries following the Arab conquests, Berber-controlled states began to reclaim their sovereignty and authority.  The Abbasid caliphate, which took power in the mid eighth century, treated non-Arab Muslims much better than the Umayyads had, even ceding direct control of Morocco to the Idrisids.  While the Idrisid dynasty was founded by Arabs, its sultan intermarried with Berbers and lived in Morocco, as opposed to in the Sham;[21] this undoubtedly led to an improvement in the treatment of Berbers in Morocco.  In Ifriqiyya, there are also instances of Berbers gaining more autonomy from the Mashriq, such as the Hammadids.   They were a Berber dynasty located in modern day Algeria, who declared their independence from the Fatimids and renounced Fatimid Shiite doctrine in 1014.[22]  In the context of this Berber political renaissance, the Barghawata’s new religious tradition can be seen as a cultural rebellion from Arab domination, a logical compliment to their already successful political rebellion. 

           There are clear reasons as to why the 9th century Barghawatas, as opposed to any other Berber kingdom at any other time, chose to introduce a radically different form of Islam, but one question remains: why maintain any vestiges of Islam?  Why not create an entirely new religion, which builds upon the previous monotheistic traditions like Islam builds on Christianity and Judaism?  There is no single explanation for this.  However, we can speculate that Yunus might have been concerned about the packaging of this new religion.  We have already seen his attention to this matter in the (supposed) decision to make his revered grandfather the prophet of this new faith in an attempt to lend it credence.  He was selling an extremely different, even blasphemous, version of Islam to his people, who probably considered themselves devout Muslims.  Yunus must have perceived that his people would accept changes in their practice, so long as they remained Muslims in title.  Even today, foreign Muslims would consider some Moroccan traditions, such as praying to a saint, to be heretical, yet Moroccan Muslims who visit saints would never consider it so.  Thus, it is not so difficult to envision the Barghawata reciting Berber text as they pray—a vision that would scandalize an Arab Muslim—while still considering themselves good Muslims. 

           The introduction, then disappearance, of Barghawata Islam is an interesting historical phenomenon that contradicts our common perception of the post-Arab invasion Maghreb.  We have been taught that the Berbers of North Africa welcomed the Arabs and their new religion with open arms.  However, the Barghawata’s new Islam proves that this was not entirely so, and that some Berbers sought to free themselves from Arab imperialism.  The Barghawata kingdom persisted for four centuries and was founded during the Arab invasions.  This means they endured the bulk of early Arab cultural and political domination, repeatedly defending their territory from Arab incursion.  Their political and economic self-reliance flies in the face of the perception that Berbers happily and passively served their Arab overlords.  The Barghawata’s introduction of a Berberized Islam also indicates that Berbers did not quietly submit to Arab cultural norms; instead, they tried to modify an ethnically Arab religion to fit the Berber experience.  Berberized Islam ultimately failed, but modern Moroccan deviations from Muslim orthodoxy, such as the cult of saints, remind us of the Berbers’ persisting determination to practice Islam in their own cultural context. 


Works Cited 

Abun-Nasr, Jamil M.  A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 

El-Bekri.  Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale. Translated by Mac Guckin de Slane.  Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1859. 

Gellner, Ernest.  Nations and Nationalism.  Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.   

Iskander, John. “Devout Heretics: The Barghawata in Maghribi Historiography.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 12, no. 1 (2007): 37-53. 

Kifani, Abdelouahab.  « Berghwata, nos ancêtres les païens. »  TelQuel Online, 18 Nov 2006.  .   

L’houari, Bouattar.  “Le Royaume des Berghouata.”  Amazigh World, 19 Aug 2009.   


Naylor, Phillip Chiviges.  North Africa: A History from Antiquity to Present.  Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 2009. 

Nicholle, David, and Angus McBride.  The Moors: The Islamic West 7th-15th Century AD.  Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2001.   

Norris, H.T.  The Berbers in Arabic Literature.  Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1982. 

Peyron, Michael.  « Barghawata et Résistance. »  La Résistance marocaine à travers l’histoire, ou le Maroc des Résistances. (Mohammed Hammam & Abdellah Salih, eds.), Rabat: IRCAM, vol. 2 (2005): 165-181.

N.B. For technical reasons, the original end-notes have not been included in this version of the paper.

N.B. Miss Sarah Hawkins, one of 15 US students who attended my lectures on « Amazigh History and Culture » in Rabat during the spring of 2010, kindly gave permission for this paper to be included here.


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