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Thematic Guide to Islam in Algeria

Phillip C. Naylor, Marquette University


Algeria offers students and scholars an opportunity to study a multifaceted Islamic history, which correlates closely with the country’s political and social development. Indeed, Islamism plays an important role in contemporary Algerian politics.

Islam arrived in Algeria as a consequence of Arab expansion along the North African littoral during the mid-to-late seventh century. Arab commanders, including ‘Uqbah ibn Nāf‘i, confronted the resolute resistance of Berbers, notably Kusayla and al-Kāhina. Although Berbers eventually submitted and converted to Islam, they maintained their language and customs. The Arab conquest integrated Algeria within the vast Umayyad Caliphate. Nevertheless, with the overthrow of the Umayyads by the ‘Abbāsids in 750, administrative control over Algeria temporarily became nominal or nonexistent.

The Establishment of Muslim Polities in Algeria

This geopolitical vacuum permitted the Ibāḍī Rustamid dynasty (778–909), led by imams ruling from Tahart, to establish the first independent Muslim polity in North Africa. Concurrently in Ifriqiya [region approximating Tunisia], the Aghlabid dynasty (800–909) extended its authority into eastern Algeria. The missionary work of the Isma‘ili Fāṭimids (909–1171) resulted in the conversion of the martial Algerian Berber Kutāma tribe of Kabylia to Shī‘ī Islam. The Fāṭimids and their Berber allies subsequently overwhelmed the Aghlabids and then the Rustamids. Ruling from Ifriqiya, Fāṭimid power stretched westward and conflicted with the strategic interests of the Umayyad Caliphate at Córdoba in al-Andalus. Nevertheless, the Ibāḍīs mounted a greater threat to the Fātimids, who with difficulty suppressed revolts. The principal Fāṭimid goal was to dominate the Muslim world, which meant challenging the ‘Abbāsids and Sunni Islam. After several attempts, the Fāṭimids took over Egypt in 969. With their attention directed toward the Mashriq, the Fāṭimids assigned its western territories to their clients, the Zirids (972–1152), who, in turn, established a capital at Ashir, in the Titeri Mountains, south of Algiers. The Zirids expanded westward reaching northern Morocco and conflicted with the Umayyads of Córdoba. Governing an area from Ifriqiya to Morocco posed administrative problems for the Zirids, and so they assigned the western territory to a branch of their family, the Hammadids (1015–1152). The Hammadids founded their capital at Qal‘at Bani Hammad in north central Algeria. Although related to each other, the Zirids and Hammadids occasionally conflicted. When the Zirids and Hammadids shifted their loyalties to the ‘Abbasids, thereby rejecting Shī‘ī for Sunni Islam, the Fāṭimids dispatched disruptive Arab tribes westward, notably the Bānū Hilāl. There are opposing interpretations regarding the destruction wrought by the Bānū Hilāl and successive Arab migrations. The renowned scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) contended that the Bānū Hilāl caused severe damage. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that these tribes significantly contributed to the Arabization of Algeria and the Maghrib (North Africa west of Egypt). The tumult forced the Hammadids to leave Qal‘at and reestablish themselves in Bejaïa along the Mediterranean coast.

The Almoravids, Almohads, and Their Successors

Islamic revivalism and empire-building characterized the next period in Algeria’s political and social development as two powerful Berber states emerged. The Almoravids [Murabīṭūn] (1056–1147) were Ṣanhāja (desert) Berbers, who initiated a militant reform movement under the guidance of Ibn Yasin, an ardent proponent of Malikism, one of the four Sunni schools of law. Ibn Yasin and his adherents constructed a fortress or ribāṭ on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River. Thus, they became known as those of the ribāṭ or Murabīṭūn (Almoravids) Mobilizing Ṣanhāja tribes and Black Africans, the Almoravids took over Morocco, invaded the kingdom of Ghana, and advanced into western Algeria. They took Tlemcen and Algiers fell in 1082. The Hammadids, however, successfully resisted the Almoravids, who also became increasingly involved in al-Andalus. The greatest contribution of the Almoravids was religious. They institutionalized Malikism and constructed impressive “Great Mosques” at Tlemcen and Algiers, which were also influenced by Andalusian aesthetics.

The Almoravids’ legalistic approach to Islam dissatisfied Ibn Tūmart, who questioned Almoravid doctrine. Ibn Tūmart’s followers became the Almohads (Muwaḥḥidūn). Like the Almoravids, Ibn Tūmart established a ribaṭ but at Tinmal in southern Morocco. Identifying himself as the Mahdī, Ibn Tūmart, backed by Zanāta (mountain) Berbers (specifically the Masmuda), launched attacks against his adversaries. His successor, ‘Abd al-Mu’min, embarked upon a series of conquests that created an empire stretching from al-Andalus to Ifriqiya.

This was a period of remarkable theological and philosophical achievement. Bejaïa and Tlemcen served as major Islamic centers of learning. Abu Madyan, one of Islam’s greatest teachers and theologians, taught in Bejaia. He died near Tlemcen, where his tomb remains a site of veneration.

After the defeat of the Almohads by Christian forces at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, their authority declined rapidly in al-Andalus as well as in the Maghrib. With the Hafsids dominating in Ifriqiya, the Marinids in Morocco, and the Zayyanids in central and western Algeria, the Almohad caliphate ended. The Zayyanids often found themselves pressured by their two more powerful neighbors.

The legacy of the Almoravids, Almohads, and their successor Berber states includes impressive contributions to Islamic architecture. In addition, despite the opposition of the Almohads, Malikism sustained its predominance in Islamic jurisprudence in Algeria and the Maghrib.

The Ottoman Turks and Ṣūfīsm

The expansion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire resulted in the creation of the Algiers Regency (1525–1830), which flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ottomans also extended their control to Constantine and Oran. Although infamous for privateering, the Algiers Regency was especially dependent on commerce. The Ottomans also constructed two significant mosques in Algiers: the New Mosque and the Ketchoua Mosque. Although they favored the Sunni ḥanafī school of law, Maliki jurisprudence remained most influential [in Algeria].

Ottoman power radiated from cities. Their control over the interior was nominal or indirect. Ṣūfīsm was especially popular. Mystics known as marabouts were popular, as were Ṣūfī orders such as the Qādirīyah, the Shādhilīyah, the ‘Alawīyah, the Khalwatīyah and its Algerian branch the Rahmānīyah, and the Tījanīyah.

Islam and Colonial Algeria

The French capture of Algiers in 1830 was a momentous event in the history of Islam in Algeria. Although they occasionally placed their conquest in religious terms, i.e., the restoration of Christianity in North Africa, the French perceived the importance of Islam. Nevertheless, mosques were converted into churches, notably Algiers’s Ketchoua, and prelates such as Cardinal Lavigerie pursued Christian proselytism.

‘Abd al-Qadir of the Qadīrīyah order resisted the French until his capture in 1847. His actions inspired 20th-century Algerian revolutionaries. The Raḥmānīyah order played a major role in the Revolt of 1871, which the French suppressed with difficulty. Algeria suffered from an oppressive colonialism. Algerians could not receive French citizenship without renouncing their Muslim status, i.e., allegiance to the Sharī‘a. Nevertheless, Algeria became an important center of Islamic Modernism, which included a visit in 1903 from Muḥammad ‘Abduh. Algeria produced a renowned Islamic modernist, ‘Abd al-ḥamīd ibn Bādīs (1889-1940), who founded the Association of Algerian ‘Ulamā’ in 1931. Ibn Bādīs established schools and subscribed to the Salafīyah movement that emphasized that Islam and modernity were complementary. In addition, he condemned superstition, which he equated with Ṣūfī orders. Ibn Bādīs could also be viewed as a cultural nationalist, since he rejected French universalist ideas, namely assimilation. Nationalists respected Islam, such as Ferhat ‘Abbās, although, unlike Ibn Bādīs, he questioned, at least for a time, the notion of an extant Algerian nation. On the other hand, Algeria’s principal nationalist, Messali al-Hajj, strongly asserted Algeria’s Muslim identity as he strove for independence.

Algerian Independence and the Post-Colonial and Contemporary Periods

Breaking away from older nationalists, the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) (FLN) issued the Proclamation of 1 November 1954 that announced its intention to fight for independence and to create a country framed by “Islamic principles.” After a brutal war (1954–1962), Algeria achieved its liberation. During the post-colonial period, authoritarian governments embarked on state-building based on socialist principles with Islam viewed as ideologically compatible. This relegation of Islam did not satisfy increasingly alienated Islamists.

In October 1988, populist riots in Algerian cities, led by students and workers, led to rapid political liberalization. One of the new parties legalized was the Islamic Salvation Front (or FIS) led by ‘Abāssī Madanī and ‘Ali Belhadj. The FIS won local and provincial elections in June 1990. The government postponed parliamentary elections slated for June 1991 because of civil unrest that resulted in the arrests of Madanī and Belhadj. When the first round of elections was held in December, the FIS predominated and anticipated forming a government after the second round. Before that happened, however, military and civilian elites ousted President Chadli Benjedid in January 1992 and set up a new government preventing a FIS victory. In March, the FIS was banned. This provoked an Islamist insurgency and enormous civil strife from the 1990s to the early 2000s resulting in an estimated 150,000–200,000 deaths. One extremist Islamist group is particularly still active, al-Qa‘ida in the Maghrib (AQIM). Moderate Algerian Islamist parties recently united as a “Green Alliance” in 2012 parliamentary elections and may select a single candidate for presidential elections in 2014.

Understanding the history of Islam in Algeria requires studying the religion’s evolution and expression, including that of Sunnism, Shī‘īsm, and Ṣūfīsm. It provides an opportunity to view the impact of Islam on Algerian (and North African) political and social development. Islam remains a determining, if not decisive, influence in contemporary Algerian affairs.

Further Reading

  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Ageron, Charles-Robert. Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present. Translated by Michael Brett. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1991.
  • Al-Ahnaf, Mustafa, Bernard Botiveau, and Franck Frégosi, eds. L’Algérie par ses islamistes. Paris: Karthala, 1991.
  • Entelis, John P. Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986.
  • Evans, Martin, and John Phillips. Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006.
  • Kaddache, Mahfoud. L’Algérie des Algériens: de la préhistoire à 1954. Paris: Editions Paris-Méditerranée, 2003; Algiers: EDIF, 2000, 2003.
  • Le Sueur, James D. Between Terror and Democracy: Algeria since 1989. Halifax/Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2010.
  • Martinez, Luis. The Algerian Civil War, 1990–1998. Translated by Jonathan Derrick. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • McDougall, James. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Naylor, Phillip C. Historical Dictionary of Algeria. 3d ed. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
  • Roberts, Hugh. The Battlefield Algeria, 1988–2002. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. 2d. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, 2005.
  • Willis, Michael. The Islamist Challenge in Algeria. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Wolf, John B. The Barbary Coast: Algeria under the Turks. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972.

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