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At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Algeria had been a province of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. Like the other provinces of the Empire it developed through three distinct periods: Ottoman imperial conquest, increasing administrative autonomy from Istanbul, and integration of the Turkish ruling class with the local leadership. During the first two periods the country acquired a heroic history of jihad against the Hapsburg Empire and corsair exploits against Christian shipping. Ruling-class integration, however, did not advance very far; local leaders, often claiming religious legitimation, revolted periodically, as in 1805–1808 when sheikhs of the Darqāwīyah brotherhood rebelled against control by the dey, the Ottoman-recognized ruler in the capital Algiers. Although Algerians possessed a shared history and basic central administrative institutions, their rulers remained largely divided, competing with each other militarily rather than forming a single political regime.

Sparsely populated and primarily rural, Algeria also lacked the institutions of learning that buttressed political centralism in other Islamic areas. Legal scholarship (     fiqh), the primary field of intellectual activity from 1500 to 1800, was far less developed in Algiers than it was, for example, in Fez, Tunis, or Cairo. (An exception was the Mzab, a cluster of oases in the Sahara that was the refuge of the Ibāḍī-Khawārij, a minority branch of Islam.) Given the low level of literacy and the absence of large libraries, Algerian Islam was a largely oral religion in which communal mnemonic practices tended to take the place of literary studies.

Saintly Islam.

The central figure in Algerian Islam was the saint (walī or, commonly in northwest Africa, marabout), a person endowed with charisma (barakah) and often descended (or claiming descent) from the Prophet or his companions. The saint was the master (mawlāy) in his lodge (zāwiyah), who instructed his followers in sacred litanies. The recitation of these litanies, requiring repetitive prayer and breathing exercises, induced a communal trance (wajd) in which the saint performed miracles for his followers, such as exorcisms and healings. Over the centuries Algeria had acquired hundreds of saints whose tombs, administered either by their descendants or by new saints, were sites of local pilgrimage and veneration. Some lodges established branch lodges; others, equipped with small libraries, engaged in a measure of scholarship. Saintly Islam was thus highly differentiated, ranging from the sheikh at the head of a large regional brotherhood to the local healer with his handful of adepts.

French Colonization.

The conquest of Algiers by the French in 1830 occurred after France had lost its old colonial empire and before it entered the European scramble for African territories. A minor dispute over outstanding French payments for Algerian wheat deliveries during the Napoleonic wars had escalated into a military confrontation, in which the militarily inept dey in Algiers was soundly trounced. The French were initially reluctant to commit themselves to a costly conquest of the rest of the country, and their hesitancy enabled leaders—such as the Turkish-descended Aḥmad Bey of Constantine, and Emir ʿAbd al-Qādir Muhyī-al-Dīn, the Arab leader of the Qādirīyah (an ancient Sūfī order) in the district of Oran—to establish short-lived regimes.

Even after their defeat in the north in 1857, the Algerians continued to resist the French sporadically. The most violent uprising occurred in 1871–1872 when a regional administrator, Muhammad al-Muqrānī, together with Shaykh al-Ḥaddād of the Rahmanīyah brotherhood, mobilized large areas of eastern Algeria against the French. In the south, the French conquest was completed only in 1882 with the retreat to Morocco of Bū ʿAmāmah, a saintly leader of the Awlād Sīdī-Shaykh (a group of tribes in western Algeria) who traced their descent to the first Caliph Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (632–634).

The French exacted merciless retribution from the vanquished Algerians. By the end of the century the colonial government had settled some 200,000 immigrants from France, Alsace (then part of Germany), Italy, and Spain on 2.3 million hectares—nearly 40 percent of the agricultural land—after either expropriating or buying the land at nominal prices. The most fertile, irrigable lands were turned over to European commercial farming enterprises for the cultivation of grapes, vegetables, and citrus fruits. Another 400,000 European immigrants settled in cities. Since rural Algerians on the remaining agricultural land had no access to irrigation, could not afford fertilizers, and suffered from land subdivison through inheritance, a rising number lost their means of subsistence altogether. Migration from the countryside to the cities increased, as did labor migration to France. By World War I, French colonialism had led to a serious impoverishment of the rural population.


During the first half of the twentieth century, educated Muslim Algerians in the French-dominated cities began to move away from the enchanted world of saintly Islam. They embraced the two typical forms of disenchantment, that is, secularism and religious fundamentalism. Secularism gained its first adherents when a few hundred doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, high school teachers, and office clerks assimilated themselves to French culture without abandoning Islam. At the same time, a handful of religious scholars, graduates of mosque schools in Algiers, Constantine, and Tlemcen, began to promote Reform Islam, that is, a return to the scriptural foundations of Islam—Qurʿān and Sunnah (the body of traditional sayings and customs attributed to Muhammad and supplementing the Qurʿān). They criticized the representatives of saintly Islam for having departed from these original fundamentals. Neither secularists nor fundamentalists, however, had an immediate impact on Algerians.

Of greater importance was the cultural transformation of rural Algerians working in France during the interwar period (300,000 by the 1930s). Steeped in the saintly Islam of their villages, and with little education, they had to adjust to life as unskilled industrial or urban workers, acculturating themselves more or less fully to French secularism. The biography of Messali al-Ḥajj (1898–1974), founding father of Algerian nationalism, illustrates the cultural transformation of expatriate laborers. Messali was the son of a Turkish-descended laborer and guardian of the tomb of Sidi Boumédienne (Sīdī Abū Madyan) in Tlemcen. He was a member of the local Darqāwī lodge, graduated from French primary school, served in the army, and then stayed on in France as an unskilled worker. Here, he took evening courses on French and Islamic cultural topics, married a French labor militant, and in 1926 founded a political party—it later became the Party of the Algerian People—which demanded independence for Algeria. In 1940, Messali al-Ḥajj's party was active in both France and Algeria, growing to some 10,000 members but finding itself ignored by the French.


At the end of World War II, Algerian nationalists began to see violence as a means of gaining attention. Messali al-Ḥajj was apparently ready to step forward as the liberator of his native country when riots broke out in Sétif on May 8, 1945, following WWII victory celebrations. Savage French repressions followed, resulting in the death of at least fifteen thousand Muslims and ending any nascent dreams of independence. An additional consequence was a split in the Party of the Algerian People between the central committee and a secret military underground over the question of how to achieve independence. On November 1, 1954, the underground separated itself from Messali al-Ḥajj and the nationalists, declared itself the National Liberation Front (known by its French initials FLN), and launched a carefully prepared guerilla war for independence. Initially, the guerillas were able to exploit serious weaknesses in the French army which was demoralized from the recent loss of Vietnam, but in the long run they were no military match. The independence movement survived primarily because French President Charles de Gaulle realized that France would benefit more from an independent Algeria paying its own bills than from a continued and costly colonialism.

Independence and Civil War.

When Algeria became independent on March 18, 1962, it was an impoverished agrarian country, with only the rudiments of an industrial infrastructure. One million Muslim Algerians, out of a population of nine million, had died in the war, and two million had lost their homes. Two-thirds of the population still depended on subsistence agriculture. Many farmers survived only because they also held part-time urban jobs or relied on remittances from relatives living in cities or abroad. Three-quarters of urban Algerians were jobless because nearly all the European settlers who had employed them had left the country. A rift in the FLN between guerillas of the interior and officers of the National Liberation Army (ALN), who were fighting the French on the Tunisian border, tore the country apart in a three-year civil war. It was only in 1965 that Colonel Houari Boumédienne (Hawārī Abū Madyan) of the ALN was able to establish a more or less stable government. Under his presidency, the FLN became an uneasy coalition of demilitarized FLN guerillas and active ALN officers.


Officially a socialist state, Algeria adopted an ambitious program of state-controlled industrialization. It financed this program through the export of oil and gas (discovered by the French in the Sahara during the early 1960s). Algeria benefited from its membership in OPEC which increased the international oil price eightfold in 1972 and again in 1979. Massive investments in basic industries (oil refining, gas liquification, steel, cement, and fertilizers) were made in order to prepare the ground for a future diversified manufacturing sector. The government paid lip service to improvements in the agricultural sector—an agrarian “revolution” was even initiated—but its efforts remained focused on the basic industries. The private sector, denounced as lacking the national will to develop the country, remained confined to retail.

Although secular, the FLN established an educational system that borrowed from the fundamentalist ʿulamāʿ (a group of Muslim theologians) of a generation earlier. Children were educated in the literary Reform Islam of the religious scholars (constitutionally sanctioned as the state religion) and in the heroic history of Muslim North Africa. Saintly Islam was officially vilified in the National Charter of 1976 as archaic and tainted by collaboration with colonialism, destined to wither away under the onslaught of modernity. An ambitious program of Arabizing the educational and administrative structures was initiated, even among the twenty percent of Algerians in the east and southeast who spoke Berber languages. French continued, however, to be the de facto language of instruction in the sciences, and bilingualism remained the ticket for admission to the ruling class. Although intended to become vehicles of national integration, Reform Islam and Arabic actually accentuated existing cultural divisions.

Industrialization resulted in a rapid growth of Algerian cities that lowered the fraction of the population depending on agriculture from two-thirds to one-quarter. At the same time, a high birthrate (from two percent to over three percent between 1962 and 1992) nearly tripled the population to about 27 million in 1992. Most of the new urbanites, and eighty-four percent of those between the ages of six and fifteen, had at least a primary-school education. By the mid-1980s the majority of the population born since Independence was acculturated into the new Arabic and Islamic culture officially decreed by the nationalists.

Reform Attempted.

Unfortunately for Algeria, the industrialization process turned sour in the mid-1980s. A worldwide decline in oil prices forced drastic reductions in the program of heavy industrialization. The government had to reschedule its foreign debt, reduce its domestic food subsidies, close plants, and withhold salaries. After widespread urban riots in October 1988, Chedli Benjedid (Shazlī Ibn Jadīd), a former ALN officer who had succeeded Boumédienne in the presidency after the latter 's death in 1978, sought to reform Algeriaʾs socialist program by decentralizing control of state industries and allowing the emergence of a multiparty political system. A new constitution, adopted by referendum in 1989, terminated socialism as the official state policy, ended the FLN's dependence on the ALN, and ratified the privatization of state industries.

With the help of communal elections in 1990, Bendjedid and his reformist clan hoped to weaken entrenched rival clans in the army which had exploited state socialism for a variety of illegal but tolerated business ventures. Contrary to the reformers’ expectations, however, the electorate did not dissipate its votes among a large number of smaller rivals to the FLN but instead voted for the newly founded fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (known by its French initials FIS). Under two rhetorically powerful leaders, ʿAbbāsī Madanī and ʿAlī Bel Hajj, the FIS captured over half of the town and city councils. Bendjedid and the reformers now found themselves caught between Islamists demanding early national elections and outraged ALN generals opposing any further democratization. Bendjedid was able to work out a compromise, elections in December 1991 and January 1992 in favor of the FIS but in gerrymandered districts favoring the FLN. When, however, the Islamists won forty-three percent of the seats in the first round, and stood a good chance of gaining an absolute majority in the second round, an alarmed ALN stepped in and halted the election.

Islamist Rebellion.

It took only days for the FIS to lose control over the majority of its voters. Outraged young Algerians, with an Arabic education but unemployed and excluded from the bilingual secular ruling class, took to the streets and demanded the establishment of an Islamic state. Amid bloody confrontations the army at first looked for a constitutional fig leaf. It invited Mohamed Boudiaf (Muhammad Abū Diyāf), a widely respected member of the “Historic Nine” who had founded the FLN, to return from his Moroccan exile and assume the presidency of a new “High State Council.” But when Boudiaf began to pursue his own reform plans he fell victim, on June 29, 1992, to a still unsolved assassination plot. Now the generals found themselves in direct confrontation with FIS members who had escaped mass arrest and organized a guerilla underground. A brutal uprising broke out which, during the period of greatest intensity from 1993 to 1997, claimed at least 100,000 victims.

The uprising hit Algeria when it was at its weakest. The population was more than three times what it had been at Independence (over 33 million in 2007), with one-third under the age of fifteen. Fortunately, after 1993 the birthrate began to decline (to 1.7 in 2006). Housing was so scarce that an average of nearly nine people had to cram into each available room. One-third of the workforce of 10.5 million was unemployed. Three-quarters of the export earnings from oil and gas had to be spent on debt repayment and the rest on grain imports to make up the insufficiencies of domestic production. The near-bankruptcy of the state affected even the army which—for lack of helicopters, night-vision goggles, and other anti-guerilla equipment—could employ only about sixty thousand soldiers (thirty-six percent of the army) against about twenty-seven thousand guerillas. In the end, it was mainly because of bickering over strategy among the guerillas, and the establishment of militias and village guards by the government, that terrorism began to decline.

From Socialism to Pluralism, Slowly.

By 1997, the military had gained the upper hand over the Islamist guerillas. With carefully staged elections for regional and national parliaments and the presidency, the generals began to search for legitimate political structures. By allowing the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika (ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Abū Taflīqah), a former ALN member, diplomat, and foreign minister, to the presidency in April 1999 they signaled their willingness to recede behind the scenes. Although Bouteflika (reelected in 2004) was kept on a short leash by the military, which continued to oppose economic liberalization and cultural pluralism, he made some progress toward political pacification (amnesties in 1999 and 2005 for guerillas who lay down their arms). Parliamentary elections in May 2007 confirmed the hold of the governing coalition, led by the FLN, on power. Initially, the head of the electoral-control commission reported ballot irregularities but later withdrew his report. The low turnout (35.6 percent), however, shows the electorateʾs continued lack of trust in the current governmentʾs ability to make a dent in the countryʾs many problems. Only a few businesses in steel and cement were privatized, and the restless Berber-speaking Kabyles continued to chafe under the Arabization policy. International oil- and gas-price increases, beginning in 2004, contributed to a slackening of reform, which in turn ensured the survival of the terrorists who call themselves now al-Qaʿida in the Islamic Maghreb (250 deaths from January 2006 to June 2007). In sum, the transformation of Algeria from socialism to pluralism continued at a glacial pace. See also ABD AL-QāDIR; BARAKAH; ʿIBāDīYAH; ISLAMIC SALVATION FRONT; MAWLāY; MESSALI AL-ḤAJJ; QāDIRīYAH; SAINTHOOD; SUFISM; SUFISM, subentry onSUFI SHRINE CULTURE; TIJāNīYAH; and ZāWIYAH.


  • Religion and religious practices of the Ottoman period are covered by J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).
  • Jamil M. Abun-Nasr studied one of the brotherhoods that arose concurrently with the French conquest in The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
  • John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992; second edition, 2005)
  • Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830–2000: A Short History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).
  • Ali Merad, Le réformisme musulman en Algérie de 1925 à 1940 (Paris: Mouton, 1967).
  • Benjamin Stora, Messali Hadj, 1898–1974: Pionnier du nationalisme algérien (Paris: Editions l’Harmattan, 1986).
  • Robert Malley, The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996).
  • Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990–1998 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000);
  • Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield Algeria, 1988–2002: Studies in a Broken Polity (London and New York: Verso, 2003);
  • Frédéric Volpi, Islam and Democracy: The Failure of Dialogue in Algeria (London and Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2003).

Historical overviews are offered by


The best-researched work on Islam in the first half of the twentieth century is

The definitive biography on the founder of Algerian nationalism is by

The rise of fundamentalist Islam in post-independence Algeria is analyzed in

There are several scholarly studies on the civil war, especially


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