Bedouin Arabs

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Bedouin Arabs mind-mapping diagram

Part Eleven
North and West African Pastoralism
— 52 —
Bedouin Arabs

Within less than a decade after the death of Mohammed, the disciplined forces of the Abbassid caliphate at Baghdad embarked on a career of conquest in North Africa. Egypt fell before them in 639, Cyrenaica and Fezzan in 642, Tripolitania in 647, and then successively Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. By the end of the century the Arabs had achieved political hegemony over all the former Greco-Roman territory and over nearly all the Berber homeland. Islamization and Arabization proceeded apace.
Within a generation Christianity had disappeared completely except for the Copts of Egypt, who survive as a small sect to the present day, and for a few Berber Christians who held out briefly through flight into the desert. Only the Jews withstood this onslaught. Though subjected to severe restrictions, they have persisted in this area until the present century in such surprisingly large numbers as to arouse suspicion that they may have been joined by numerous Christians and perhaps, even earlier, by Carthaginians who preferred the faith of their Semitic cousins to the alien religion of Rome.

Group of Bedouin Arabs in Egypt.
(Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.)

This Arab conquest introduced Islam, the Arabic language, and many features of Arab culture, but it was primarily political in character and did not involve any large-scale immigration from Arabia. Before long the Arabized Berbers revolted and established independent dynasties of their own—in Morocco in 788, in Algeria in 761, and in Tunisia in 800. Only Libya and Egypt continued, at least nominally, to acknowledge the suzerainty of the caliphs of Baghdad. The Moroccan Berbers, however, carried on the momentum of Islamic expansion. They moved northward into Spain, where they laid the foundations of Moorish civilization, and southward into Mauritania and the fringe of the western Sudan, where they established themselves as early as the ninth century. Around 910 the Berber dynasties in Algeria and Tunisia were supplanted by the Arab Fatimids, who assumed the title of caliph, wrested Egypt from the Abbassids in 969, and in 973 removed their capital to Cairo.
Throughout this early Islamic period the rulers of North Africa, whether Arab or Berber, strove with some success to maintain the economic order and the essentials of the urbane civilization which they had inherited from their Greco-Roman predecessors and which the Moors perpetuated and even elaborated in Spain. In the eleventh century, however, their efforts came to nought, and North Africa was plunged suddenly into an era even darker than that which had engulfed Europe. The cause was a mass invasion of Bedouin nomads from central Arabia, beginning about 1045 and continuing at a decreasing rate for several centuries. These “Hilalian” invaders—who numbered, according to various estimates, anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million—poured into Egypt and spread like a swarm of locusts throughout the former Berber regions of North Africa. Illiterate nomads, intolerant alike of agricultural and urban civilization, they preempted all land suitable for grazing, upsetting everywhere the fine balance which the Berbers had achieved between cultivation and animal husbandry. They converted fertile fields to pasture by destroying or neglecting the waterworks constructed by the labor of centuries. Their flocks devoured the natural cover of vegetation, ultimately ruining the forests that had once supplied the timber for the Carthaginian and Roman fleets, and by overgrazing induced erosion which converted even pasture lands to barren semidesert. Population, of course, withered. The vast Roman amphitheater of Thysdrus in central Tunisia, which seated 60,000 spectators, overlooks today a scene of utter desolation, and, on the coast, hamlets of a few score fishermen now occupy the sites of once flourishing cities of 100,000.
Socially, the consequences were similar. Fighting indiscriminately with one another and with the settled Berbers, they infiltrated everywhere, depriving the vanquished of their independent livelihood and reducing them to the status of tributary serfs. The Berbers were faced with the alternative of adopting the new predatory mode of life in self-defense or of fleeing to the oases of the Sahara and there similarly exploiting the indigenous Negroes. Commerce stagnated, and the port rowns turned from trade to piracy. Only a few cities, notably Fez, Tangier, Tlemcen, and Tunis, were able to keep alive a few feeble flickers of the arts and urbane living, preserved mainly by cultivated Moors returning thence after their expulsion from Spain. Conquest by the Turks, achieved in Egypt in 1517, in Tripolitania in 1553, and in Algeria in 1557, brought no improvement.

The occupation of North Africa by the European colonial powers, begun in Algeria in 1830 and completed in Libya a century later, at least reestablished peace and commerce, even though it did not bring the democratic self-government which the Berbers covet so dearly but have, over the past millennium, so rarely enjoyed.

The classification and mapping of the North African Arabs and Arabized Berbers present exceptional difficulties. Ethnographic accounts are few and, with some notable exceptions, of inferior quality. Scholars have concerned themselves principally with unraveling complex tribal histories and genealogies, with the result that for some regions we possess hundreds of names of “tribes” and “fractions” arranged according to their genealogical relationships, whereas for others even the names of the principal tribes are lacking. In accordance with the practice followed elsewhere in this volume, we have attempted to group tribes into units on the basis of cultural similarities and geographical contiguity. The resulting classification, as a highly tentative pioneer effort, will satisfy few. Nor will the names which we have chosen for these clusters—sometimes that of a region, sometimes that of a single particularly well-known tribe, and in one case, the Sanusi, the name of an indigenous religious movement. The groups which we have distinguished are listed below and may be located on Map 17 in the pocket at the back of the book.

  1. Algerians, embracing the Arabized Berber inhabitants of the coastal zone of Algeria with the Angad and related tribes of adjacent Morocco. They are sedentary and in 1936 numbered approximately 4 million.
  2. Arad, including the sedentary inhabitants of Gabes (population about 20,000) and the outlying tribes of southern Tunisia, e.g., the Atria, Gumrage (Ghoumrage), Hamerna, Hazzem, Yakub (Uled Yacoub), and Zid (Beni Zid).
  3. Bahariya (Beharia), embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the oases of Bahariya and Frafra in western Egypt. They number about 7,000.
  4. Berabish. This nomadic tribe, inhabiting the Sahara northwest of Timbuktu, numbers about 35,000 together with the adjacent Kuma.
  5. Chaamba (Shaanba), with other Bedouin tribes of the Algerian Sahara between the Atlas Moumains and the Tuareg country. They number about 25,000.
  6. Cyrenaicans, embracing the sedentary population of the coastal fringe of Cyrenaica in Libya. They number about 50,000.
  7. Dakhla (Dachel), embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the oasis of Dakhla in western Egypt. They number about 10,000.
  8. Delim (Oulad Delim), embracing the Amar (Ulad ba Amar), Seba (Bouba, Oulad Bu-Seba), Sheukh (Oulad Chouekh, Ulad Chouick), and other subtribes in Mauritania. They number about 70,000.
  9. Dui-Menia (Doui-Menia), with the Atauna (Uled Atauna), Jerir (Uled Djerir), and Nacem (Uled Nacem) tribes and the sedentary oasis dwellers along the Kanatsa, Saura, and lower Zusfana Rivers in southeastern Morocco and adjacent Algeria.
  10. Egyptians, embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the Nile Valley in Egypt. They number about 20 million.
  11. Fezzan, ineluding the Murahidya tribe and other inhabitants of the oases of Fezzan in Libya. They number about 40,000, of whom 10,000 inhabit the town of Murzuk.
  12. Gafsa, embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the oases of El Ksar, Gafsa, and Lala in central Tunisia. They number about 15,000.
  13. Gil (Beni Guil), with the Lhadj (Uled Lhaddj) and other Bedouin tribes of the steppe region of eastern Morocco.
  14. Hamama, with the kindred Aun (Uled Aoun, Uled Sidi ben Aoun), Fraichich (Frechich), Majeur (Majer), Mehadba, Methellith (Metellit), Neffet, Swassi (Souassi), and Zlass (Djelass, Jlass) tribes of the interior steppe region of Tunisia. They number about 150,000.
  15. Hamyan (Hamian), embracing the Hamyan proper and numerous other Bedouin tribes of the steppe zone of Algeria. They number nearly a million.
  16. Imragen (Imeragen), with the Aita (Ulad bu Aita), Foikat, and Lammiar. These people lead a precarious existenee by fishing along the Atlantic coast.
  17. Jebala (Djebala), embracing the Anjera (Endjra), Arus (Beni Arous), Gorfet (Beni Gorfet), Mesgilda (Beni Mesguilda), Mestara (Beni Mestara), Rhuna (Rehouna, Rhona), Serif (Ahal Srif, Ehl Serif), Serra, Sless (Slass), Tzul (Dsoul, Tsoul), Zerwal (Beni Zeroual), and other Arabized Berber tribes of the mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco, together with the towns of Ceuta and Tetuan. They number about 600,000.
  18. Jerid (Djerid), embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the oases of El Guettar, El Hamma, El Udian (El Oudian), Kriz, Nefta, and Tozeur in southern Tunisia, as well as the Nefzawa tribe to the east. They number about 40,000.
  19. Kharga, embracing the inhabitants of the Egyptian oases of Kharga and Selima. They number about 10,000.
  20. Kufra (Cufra), embracing the inhabitants of the Libyan oases of Kufra and Manyanga. They number about 6,000. Prior to 1813 these oases were occupied by Sahar an Tegroes uf the Teda group.
  21. Kunta (Kounta). This Bedouin tribe inhabits the Sahara north of Timbuktu.
  22. Laguat (Aruat, Laghouat), embracing the inhabitants of the Algerian oases of in Madhi and Laguat. They number about 10,000.
  23. Maaza, with the Haweitat and a few other Bedouin tribes who extend from the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt along the Gulf of Suez.
  24. Moroccans, embracing the Ahsen, Cherarda, Chiadma, Dukkala (Doukkala), Fahsya, Gharbya (Rharbya), Khlot, Rehamna, Shawia (Chaouia), Sragna, Tadla, Tliq, and other sedentary tribes of the plains region of western Morocco, together with the inhabitants of the cities of Casablanea, Fez, Marrakech, Mazagan, Meknes, Rabat, Sali, Soli, and Tangier. They numbered over 3 million in 1936.
  25. Nail (Uled Nail). The nomadic inhabitants of the central Atlas region of Algeria between Biskra and Laguat.
  26. Regeibat (Ergeibat, Rgibat), embracing the Ajur (Ahel Ajur), Daud (Uled Daued), Elguasem (Guassem), Mussa (Oulad Moussa), Othman (Ahel Othman, Oulad Iahia ben Othman, Yaya-ben-Othman), Rehalat, Reilane (Oulad Reilane), Shej (Oulad Cheikh, Ulad Sej), Suaad, and Taleb (Oulad Talet) tribes of interior Mauritania. They are nomads and number about 35,000.
  27. Riyah (Riah), with the Busaif (Uled Busaif), Hasauna, Hurman (Hotma), Maqarha (Megarha), Mozda, Urfilla (Ourfellah) , Ziman, and other Bedouin tribes and small oasis populations in the desert region of western Libya.
  28. Ruarha, embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the oases of Chema (Dahema), Megharin, Mraier, Sidi Khelil, Tamerna, Temassin, Tinedla, Tuggurt (Touggourt), and Urhlana on the Oued Rir in the northeastern Algerian Sahara. They number about 60,000 and include a few Berber-speaking remnants.
  29. Saadi, with the tributary Murabirin and lesser Bedouin tribes of western Egypt.
  30. Sanusi, including the sedentary Arafa and Darsa, the seminomadic Abaidat, Awaqir, and Hasa, the nomadic Abid, Baraasa, Fayid, and Magharba, and various smaller client tribes in interior Cyrenaica. They number about 150,000 and were united by the Sanusiya movement in the nineteenth century.
  31. Sahel, embracing the now sedentary Riyah (Riah), Said (Uled Said), and Urazla (Ourazla) tribes and the inhabitants of the towns of Kairouan, Sfax, and Sousse and of some fifty smaller villages in the Sahel or eastern coastal zone of Tunisia, together with the people of the Kerkena Islands. They number over a million.
  32. Sidi (Uled Sidi Sheikh), with the Aissa (Uled Aissa), Jagub (Uled Jagub), Mahiyan, and Trafi tribes of Bedouins in the region south of Ceryville in Algeria, together with the sedentary inhabitants of Brezina, El Abiod, and neighboring oases.
  33. Sirticans, including the Jamaat, Qadharhfa, Soliman (Uled Soliman), and other Bedouin tribes of the arid coast of Sirtica in Libya.
  34. Soliman (Uled Sliman). This branch of the Sirtican tribe of the same name, numbering about 5,000, migrated to Kanem in the early nineteenth century.
  35. Suafa, embracing the sedentary inhabitants of El Oued and other oases on the Oued Souf in the northeastern Algerian Sahara, together with the neighboring pastoral Acheche, Ftaiet, and Messaaba. They number about 40,000.
  36. Tajakant (Ojakana, Tazzerkant, Tenakee), with the Arib, Aruisin (Arosien, Arouissiin, Arusin), Blat (Daublal, Dui Belal, Ida u Blal), and Meribda (Ait u Mribet). These nomads inhabit northern Mauritania and number about 30,000.
  37. Traza, with the kindred Brakna of southwestern Mauritania. They were reported in 1912 to number about 75,000.
  38. Tripolitanians, embracing the inhabitants of coastal Tripolitania in Libya. They numbered about 525,000 in 1931.
  39. Tunisians, including the inhabitants of northern Tunisia and a small strip of adjacent Algeria. They number over a million.
  40. Yahi (Beni Bou Yahi), with the Settut (Uled Stut). They inhabit the valley of the lower Moulouva River in eastern Morocco and number about 40,000.
  41. Zenaga, embracing the Allush (Allouch), Girganke (Massin), Mbarek (Oulad Mbarek), Meshduf, Nasser (Oulad Nasser), Sirifou (Chorfa), and Tichit (Ahl Tichit).
    These Arabized Berbers occupy the Hodh region of the French Sudan and number more than 100,000.
  42. Ziban, embracing the inhabitants of the oases of the Ziban and Zab Chergui districts of the Algerian Sahara. The town of Biskra alone had a population of 22,000 in 1936.

Among the groups listed above should be segregated a number of Arabic-speaking peoples who are descended from the coastal populations that participated fully in the earlier Greco-Roman civilization. These littoral peoples, as we shall term them, include the Algerians, Cyrenaicans, Egyptians, Jebala, Moroccans, Sahel, Tripolitanians, and Tunisians. All are sedentary and partially urbanized, and all were Islamized and Arabized in the first period of rab political conquest. All have received some infusion of Arab blood, but in every instance the bulk of the population is descended from the earlier inhabitants with increments of alien origin—European officials, businessmen, and colonists; the so-called Kulugli, the descendants of crosses between Turks and native women; many Spanish and Levantine as well as local Jews; and a very large number of people descended from the Moors expelled from Spain, many of whom still speak Spanish. These Littoral groups have remained to a considerable extent aloof from the Hilalian Bedouins, and the comments which follow will apply to them only when specifically so indicated.
The economy of the Littoral peoples still resembles that of Greco-Roman times, though far less flourishing. It is based primarily on cereal agriculture, with barley and wheat as the staples, but with important auxiliary aboriculmre, animal husbandry, urban handicraft manufactures, and trade. The following is a list of the crops specifically reported in the sources for at least half of the societies of this group:

  • Cereal grains: barley, maize, millet, oats, rice, sorghum, wheat
  • Legumes and forage crops: alfalfa, broad beans, chick peas, lentils, peas, vetch
  • Tubers and root crops: carrots, onions, radishes, turnips
  • Leaf and stalk vegetables: cabbage, celery, okra, rape
  • Vine and ground fruits: cucumbers, eggplant, grapes, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelons
  • Tree fruits and nuts: almonds, apples, apricots, carob, citrons, dates, figs, jujubes, mulberries, olives, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, quinces
  • Condiments and indulgents: coriander, cumin, fennel, garlic, peppers, tobacco
  • Textile plants: cotton, flax, hemp
  • Dye plants: henna, indigo

In contrast to the Littoral peoples, the Bedouin Arabs of North Africa have retained, wherever possible, the nomadic pastoral economy which they brought with them from Arabia. They subsist primarily on the meat, milk, and dairy products provided by their herds, though many tribes also practice a little subsidiary agriculture. They often possess a cenain number of cattle, donkeys, and horses, but their principal animals are sheep, goats, and camels, with sheep in general predominating near the coast and camels toward the interior. Only those tribes who have penetrated the farthest into the Sudan depend primarily upon cattle. These include the Kunta and Zenaga, as well as the Baggara of the eastern Sudan, who will be separately treated in Chapter 54
The Bedouin Arabs leave agriculture, industry, and commerce to the indigenous peoples, both Caucasoid and Negroid. When forced to adopt such pursuits they do so reluctantly, depending, where they can, on the labor of slaves and serfs. So strong is their aversion to settled life that they have refused even to adopt the balanced, seminomadic economy characteristic of the earlier Berbers. The only groups that have become sedentary are the lmragen fishermen and those rab groups that have replaced or absorbed the Egyptians, Teda, or Berbers previously in possession of certain Saharan oases, namely, the Bahariya, Dakhla, Dui-Menia, Fezzan, Gafsa, Jerid, Kharga, Kufra, Laguat, Ruarha, Suafa, and Ziban. Even among these people, the politically dominant tribes commonly lead a nomadic existence in the neighborhood of the oases, leaving the actual cultivation to dependent subject peoples.
Aside from animal husbandry, the economy of Arab orth Africa rests primarily on exploitation, on predatory rather than productive pursuits. The history of the region since the eleventh century is a sordid record of the application of force in every conceivable manner to wrest from others the fruits of their labor. Through warfare one tribe, Arab or Arabized Berber, reduces another, Berber or Arab, to dependent status, extorting from it regular tribute in the products of despised agriculture. Through conquest, a sedentary people is dispossessed of its lands and reduced to peonage; among the Algerians one source reports that the sharecropping tenant works the land for one-fifth of the produce, the remaining four-fifths being appropriated by the landlord. Captured coastal cities have repeatedly been converted from ports of sea-borne commerce to centers of piracy and of kidnapping on the high seas for ransom-activities which offer quicker and more spectacular immediate profits. The Negro tribes of the Sudan have been systematically raided for slaves. The occupation or domination of an oasis offers a double exploitative reward. The hapless inhabitants can easily be mulcted of their agricultural surplus, and the caravan traders can be blackmailed for “protection.” Along every route in the Sahara the nomadic tribes extort a substantial fee from each caravan crossing their territory, in return for which they not only refrain from raiding it themselves but undertake to fend off raiders from other tribes. They commonly attempt to extract, of course, only what the traffic will bear, for excessive greed would force the merchants to take an alternative route.
The essentially exploitative and predatory character of the Bedouin invaders, coupled with their intolerance of settled life, explains why they have established no urban civilization in North Africa and why thev have blighted those which they found alreadv in existence. Civilization has flourished and the arts of life have been a·dvanced in other rab regions, such as Moorish Spain and Baghdad under the caliphs, but among African Arabs we encounter little more than the exaltation of naked force. Even the Berbers, who, though warlike, followed a basically producti,·e rather than parasitic mode of livelihood have widely succumbed to the racketeering standards of their conquerors.
Social organization is remarkably uniform throughout Arabic-speaking North Africa and shows strong affinities with Bedouin Arabia. In the division of labor by sex, for example, the men normally do the herding and the bulk of the agricultural labor not performed by slaves or serfs, whereas the women do the milking (except of camels) and perform all dairy operations. Only in groups where Berber influence is still strong, e.g., the Jebala and Tunisians, do women participate in agriculture. Occasionally, as among the Saadi, they herd sheep and goats, but never the larger animals.
Marriage regularly involves a bride-price, paid usually in money but occasionally in livestock. Virginity is demanded and is tested on the wedding night. Monogamy prevails only in a few Arabized Berber tribes, no tably the Jebala, Kunta, Trarza, and Zenaga. Elsewhere polygyny is permitted, excl usively in the nonsororal form, up to the Koranic limit of four wives. In general, however, it is practiced extensively only by the more undiluted Bedouin tribes. Among the Egyptians its freq uency is reported to be about 5 per cent, and this seems to be fairly typical as well for the Littoral peoples, the oasis Arabs, and the Bedouin tribes with a substantial Berber infusion. Residence is universally patrilocal, and the prevailing form of domestic organization is a small patrilocal extended family under a patriarchal head. In the sedentary tribes this normally con titutes a household unit; in nomadic tribes, a camp group or segment thereof, with each component nuclear family occupying a separate tent.
Descent is patrilineal, with a highly segmentary lineage organization. We may distinguish a series of levels of increasing size and depth:

  1. the minimal patrilineage, forming the core of an extended family
  2. the minor lineage, commonly localized as a camp group in nomadic tribes
  3. the major lineage, often constituting a band
  4. the sib, “fraction,” or subtribe
  5. the tribe (qabila)

Urban groups, particularly those of Berber origin, rarely carry kinship reckoning this far, but nomadic groups even keep careful count of the genealogical relationships between tribes. The bonds of union, primarily those of kinship in the smaller segments, become increasingly political in larger segments. Collective responsibility for wrongs committed by its members and the obligation for blood vengeance normally appear in association with the minor lineage. The universal preference for marriage with a father’s brother’s daughter renders exogamy impossible at any level of the lineage structure. Kinship terminology, wherever reported, conforms to the typical Arabic descriptive pattern.
Settlement patterns differ with the mode of life. The nomadic tribes are organized in bands and live in tents, which they transport from one camp site to the next. These are usually pitched in a circle, but in some tribes they are arranged in a single line, as among the Chaamba, or in two parallel rows. The sedentary peoples live in permanent houses, which are grouped in compact towns or villages with narrow streets and commonly also an encircling fortified wall. In social composition, both nomadic bands and all but the largest villages are patricians, i.e., localized patrilineages.
The typical nomad tent consists of a framework of upright posts and a central horizontal ridgepole, supporting a cover which is pegged to the ground with ropes at the sides and ends. The Bedouins usually make their tent covers of strips of cloth woven from goat’s or camel’s hair and vegetable fibers, sewn together, and dyed black, but some cattle tribes, like the Kuma, substitute hides. The prevailing type of permanent dwelling is a rectangular house, often several stories in height, with external walls of stone or sun-dried brick (frequently whitewashed), an interior courtyard, and flat terraced roofs of horizontal beams and beaten earth.
This structure occurs in Egypt, in the Saharan oases, and in many parts of the Maghrcb (the coastal zone of original Berber occupation); but in other parts of the last region, especially among rural Algerians, Jebala, Moroccans, and Tunisians, it has not replaced an earlier type, also rectangular but with a thatched gable or hip roof and no interior courtyard. The Sudanese cylindrical hut with conical roof appears occasionally on the fringes of the udan and also, curiously enough, among the distant Mloroccans of the Dukkala and Rehamna tribes, where it must have been introduced by egro slaves.
The political system of the Bedouin Arabs is simplicity itself. Above the extended family with its patriarchal head, each segment from minor lineage to tribe has a sheikh. This office descends typically from father to eldest son in the senior patrilineal line, but the political authority of its occupant depends largely upon his wealth and personal influence. Judicial authority is exercised by a hereditary judge (qadi); there is usually one in each sib or fraction. The judge decides questions of fact; on questions of law he commonly seeks guidance from learned men who are versed in the Koran but who do not necessarily have any official standing.
Where genuine states have developed, sheikhs and judges are replaced by appointive officials. The head of the state, e.g., the Moroccan Sultan or the Tunisian Bey, typically appoints a governor (caid) over each tribe or province subject to him, a sheikh over each sib or district, and commonly judges and local officials as well. Turkish rule followed a similar system, with provincial governors appointed from Constantinople, appointive district chiefs (qaimaqam), and subdistrict heads (mudir). In societies with a strong Berber substratum, e.g., the Algerians, Dui-Menia, Hamyan, Jebala, Moroccans, Regeibat, and Zenaga, councils of Berber type have survived with considerable success on the local level, despite Arab and Turkish influence.
A special type of ecclesiastical government, centered on Marabouts, or holy men, deserves special note. Marabouts first appeared in southern Morocco, as a product of a medieval Islamic reformation, and have since spread throughout much of North Africa. They are devout men who renounce military and other mundane pursuits and devote themselves to the study of the Koran and Islamic lore. They conduct schools, are called upon to arbitrate disputes, and often acquire such reputations for saintliness, learning, and the ability to bring rain and cure illness that people flock to their support and cults grow up around their tombs after their death. They and their hereditary successors receive landed endowments and a flow of gifts from their pious admirers and are exempted from secular political rule. Out of the Marabout movement there arose among the Sanusi, in 1843, the Sanusiya, or Mahdist, movement, a religious order with a conservative and antiforeign ideology, which spread like wildfire throughout Libya, Egypt, the Sahara, and the eastern Sudan. It was the Mahdists who defeated the British under Gordon at Khartoum in 1885.

Their power was shattered in the Sudan by Kitchener in 1898 and in their homeland by the Italian military conquest of Libya in 1923-1932.
The nomadic peoples recognize the collective right of each tribe, sib, and lineage to particular tracts of grazing land and natural water resources. Tilled land, however, is universally subject to private property, including full rights to lease or sell. In a few societies, e.g., the Sahel, small peasant holdings predominate, but usually the land is unequally divided, mainly into large estates worked by tenant farmers. Inheritance is strictly patrilineal and usually follows Islamic law, which reserves one-eighth of a man’s estate to his widow and divides the balance equally among his children, except that daughters receive half rather than full shares. The Hamama, Nail, and Soliman, however, follow the Berber practice and exclude daughters from inheritance, at least of land.
In marked contrast to the egalitarian Berbers, the Bedouin Arabs reveal an elaborate stratification into strongly differentiated and usually endogamous castes. Six separate strata must be distinguished: nobles, freemen, vassals, serfs, slaves, and outcastes. In no society, even of relatively simple nomads, do the sources reveal fewer than four of these divisions, and frequently, especially in the west, all six are clearly indicated.
The nobles, at the top of the hierarchy, fall into three distinct subgroups:

  1. Shorfa, or genealogical nobles, allegedly the direct descendants of Mohammed, who are exempted from taxation and all labor and are supported by endowments and voluntary gifts
  2. Marabouts, or religious nobles, who have already been described
  3. Military and political nobles

The last group, where states exist, is further subdivided into royalty and a ruling aristocracy.
Freemen consist of the ordinary members of politically dominant or at least independent tribes. They are internally differentiated on the basis of wealth, e.g., into herders who are relatively rich or poor in livestock and, in sedentary groups, into large landowners, small peasants, and tenant farmers.
Vassals are the members of subjugated tribrs who pay a regular tribute to their dominant neighbors. They may be Arabs, Berbers, or Negroes, but in the last case they are more often reduced to the still lower status of serfs. Even when they are Arabs, as in the case of the tributarv lurabitin among the dominant Saadi, they are de pised by their masters, who do not intermarry with them.
Serfs, usually of Negro or mixed origin, appear only in those regions where Bedouin tribes have conquered an indigenous sedentary population and have reduced them to a dependent and tributary status. They differ from vassals chiefly in being even more thoroughly despised and more ruthlessly exploited. They are especially prevalent in the western Sahara among such peoples as the Chaamba, Delim, Kunta, Regeibat, Trana, and Zenaga. Here, as noted in Chapter 16, they are known as Haratin and represent remnants of the autochthonous Negro inhabitants of the region.
Slavery prevailed in every Arab tribe until its relatively recent abolition, usually by European colonial governments. Slaves in former times were occasionally Caucasian, e.g., the European galley slaves of the Barbary pirates, but more recently they have been exclusively egroes from the udan, obtained either through Arab raiders or through purchase in the trans-saharan trade. The descendants of slaves today as in the Southern United States, form an endogamous caste.
At the bottom of the social hierarchy, despised by all, are certain outcaste groups following occupations that are considered unclean. In cities like Fez, for example, they include street cleaners and donkey drivers; in Mauritania, bards, or griots. The commonest categories, however, are smiths, leatherworkers, and artisans of related specialties. Almost without exception they are Caucasoid in race. Among them must be included the Jews, who, in North Africa, are mainly artisans rather than merchants and who are everywhere confined to g hettos and subjected to repressive restrictions.
Rural residents, whether nomadic or sedentary, have as little in common with the urban inhabitants of the larger towns as do the segregated castes with one another. The urban population, largely of alien origin as previously noted, is divided into castes along ethnic lines and also into social classes based on economic criteria, both tending strongly toward endogamy. The class hierarchy comprises four principal divisions:

  1. Wealthy families engaged mainly in foreign commerce
  2. Middle-class retail merchants, who are organized in guilds
  3. Master artisans, who are organized separately in craft guilds
  4. Unskilled laborers and poor journeymen
  5. Literacy prevails only in the two highest classes

Coon (1951) has depicted vividly the “mosaic” composition of Middle Eastern society, including that of Arab North Africa. He has perhaps not sufficiently stressed, however, that this structure, striking as it certai nly is, rests on a caste stratification so extreme that it can be paralleled elsewhere in the world only in India and the Union of South Africa. It is at least possible that the caste, as oppo ed to class, distinctions found today in societies of European origin, once perhaps as egalitarian as those of the Berbers, may be ultimately derived historically from Arab North Africa, mediated first by the Spaniards and then by the Dutch and English. If so, the principal contributions of the North African Arabs to Western civilization may well be the Jewish ghetto and the inferior and segregated status of the Negro race.


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.