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22.05.27 Valérian (ed.), Les Berbères entre Maghreb et Mashreq

22.05.27 Valérian (ed.), Les Berbères entre Maghreb et Mashreq

Multiple indigenous groups, known collectively as the Imaziɣen, have inhabited the greater Saharan region of Africa between the shores of the Mediterranean to the “shores” of the Sahel for millennia. Since the arrival of Islam in the region from the mid-seventh century, they have been categorised as “Berbers” by Muslim authors, most of whom were writing from a great distance away outside of these communities. The construction of this identity between the seventh and fifteenth centuries is the subject of Les Berbères entre Maghreb et Mashreq, edited by Dominique Valérian. As Valérian relays in the introduction, a history of the Imaziɣen (sing. Amaziɣ) is to centre notions of autochthony, of identity, of their foundation, and of resistance, however a history of the Berbers illustrates how their identity was constructed by Muslim authors beyond the Maghreb (7). Indeed, the Berberisation of the Imaziɣen between “west” and “east,” and their contrasting and competing discourses, is the primary overall focus of the chapters of this book. Conceptually akin to Edward Said’s Orientalism exported by Christian Europe of Asia, this process may best be viewed as Occidentalism within the eastern Islamicate world of the communities of the Sahara.

The collection numbers eight chapters divided into three sections, plus an introduction written by the editor and a concluding essay by Maribel Fierro. The first section (Aux origines des berbères) focuses on “origins” during the formative centuries of Islamic authorship, with chapters by Annliese Nef (“L’invention des Berbères: Retour sur la genèse de la catégorie ‘Barbar’ au cours des premiers siècles de l’Islam”) and Ramzi Rouighi (“La berbérisation et ses masques: Le peuple berbère en question (VIIe-Xe siècle)”). Nef’s focus is on the “invention” of the Berbers as a concept. Nef emphasises how the barbar in Arabic were not synonymous with the barbaros/barbaroi (Greek) or barbarus/barbari (Latin) of antiquity; the genesis of the former was a product of the social structure established after the arrival of the Arabs and Islam. Moreover, the biblical origin of the barbar as being descendants of Ḥām can be viewed as providing a foundation for the “political revolution” from the latter eighth century which enabled Berber authors to realign themselves within a decentred social structure of Islam once caliphal power began to fragment in the west. Rouighi’s chapter discusses the question of Berberisation regarding the dichotomy of genealogical power in texts produced in the east and west in relation to the Arab centre. The highlighting of the problematisation of colonial ideologies between “people” and “race,” particularly the translation of the concept of umma, further contextualises, following from Nef’s discussion, that the definition of who were the Berbers was not static.

The second section (“Résistances et contre-discours) focuses on “resistance and counter discourse,” with chapters by Soléna Cheny (“Approches historiographiques du discours de la résistance berbère”), Allaoua Amara (“L’évolution du discours sur les Berbères dans les sources narratives du Maghreb médiéval (IXe-XIXe siècle) ”), and Cyrille Aillet (“‘Dieu ouvrira une nouvelle porte pour l’islam au Magthreb’: Ibn Sallām (IIIe/IXe siècle) et les hadiths sur les Berbères, entre Orient et ibadisme maghrébin”). Cheny discusses Berber resistance in the texts of the early Arab conquests by highlighting that, despite narratives overwhelmingly portraying glorious Arab victories by eastern authors, certain named individuals--namely Kusayla and Kāhina--should be viewed as reflecting resistance and not merely literary devices to emphasise Muslim piousness. In the absence of indigenous texts of this early period, indigenous narratives can still be gleaned from otherwise colonial authors. Amara analyses the development of discourse on the Berbers from being subjugated populations to having a place within Islamic geography in the Maghreb as two groups--the pastoral Butr and the Barānis, descendants of Māzīġ, son of Cham--between the ninth and fourteenth centuries following the rise of autochthonous power. Berber identity was fragmented and not a singular construct. Aillet takes a focus away from geography and ethnography and discusses the separation of Ḥadith discourse between the Ibāḍīs of the Maghreb and writers in the east through the work of Ibn Sallām, further emphasising the growing independent east-west divide from the latter eighth century, particularly when the Islam of some “Berbers” openly began to rival the claims of piety of those in the east.

The final section (“Langues et généalogies berbères”) discusses “language and genealogy,” with chapters by Helena De Felipe (“Anciens mots, Nouvelles lectures: Hybridisme culturel au Maghreb médiéval”), Mohamed Meouak (“Le monde berbère dans les sources arabes de l’Orient medieval: Motifs afro-asiatiques et visions arabo-musulmanes”), and Mehdi Ghouirgate (“Al-lisān al ġabrī ou la langue des Almohades”). De Felipe discusses the Berbers through the medium of hybridisation in the construction of the Berbers alongside Arab discourse following their initial peripheral place within texts--namely, how Berbers increasingly became incorporated into the Muslim ecumene. Meouak, by contrasting pre-Islamic and Islamic texts, situates the geographical location of the Berbers and the populations they included, highlighting how much of Africa--particularly the Maghreb and the Sahel--was considered Berber territory by eastern Muslim writers. From Senegal to Egypt, the existence of Berbers could be projected across Africa by eastern Muslim authors. Ghouirgate reiterates how the language of the Almohads combatted the isolation of Berber territory in contrast to the east and al-Andalus by rejecting the image of being “Berbers” and emphasising their own piety after uniting the Maṣmūda populations. In turn, the Almohads reversed the narrative and “othered” the Muslims of the mashreq.

The focus of the chapters is varied and would be insightful to many, both those within North African Studies and beyond. However, readers unfamiliar with Arabic should be aware that many terms are not translated or defined and are expected to be known, which may limit the book’s impact beyond the specialist field which it undoubtedly offers. In all, this is an invaluable work for those interested in the history of the portrayal of the populations of the Maghreb by Muslim authors before the fifteenth century, the imagination of race, and how such discourses were navigated by those they centred on. Overall, this collection highlights and situates the contrasting image of the Berbers in eastern Muslim texts, particularly following the early centuries of the Arab conquests of North Africa and how autochthonous powers modified or rejected these discourses. An uneasy relationship between west and east remained throughout the seventh to fifteenth centuries. Above all, as Fierro concludes, these studies provide further examples to compare and contrast how the rise of Islam characterised certain conceptualisations of the world and the people within not only in Africa, but also in other non-Arab peripheries of the Islamicate world.