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ROUIGHI Ramzi, Inventing the Berbers : History and Ideology in the Maghrib

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019
Cevat Dargın
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ROUIGHI Ramzi, 2019, Inventing the Berbers : History and Ideology in the Maghrib, The Middle Ages Series, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 312 p. ISBN 9780812251302.

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1The Middle East and North Africa are home to a multitude of ethnic and religious minorities, who have been oppressed, marginalized, and underrepresented in academia both as subjects and objects of historical inquiry. Among them are large ethnic groups that have historically populated interimperial and interstate spaces across the Greater Middle East stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, such as the Kurds, Berbers, Balochs, and the Hazara. As developments like the Arab Spring and the widespread protests in Iran and Turkey have demonstrated, history and contemporary politics in the Middle East are intricately related to ethnic and religious minorities, who have played crucial roles in shaping, and potentially reshaping, the social and political landscape of the region.

2While, until recently, grand narratives produced by prominent scholars such as Albert Hourani, Halil Inalcık, Roy Mottahedeh, and Bernard Lewis about the Arabs, Turks, Persians, and the Sunni-Shia divide, dominated conventional historiography on the Islamic world or Islamdom, Middle Eastern Studies has embarked on exciting paths in recent decades in diversifying the study of the region through interdisciplinary methodologies by examining minority groups as peoples with their own agencies, past and present. One such fledgling field is scholarship on the diverse group of peoples inhabiting the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Tunis : the Berbers, increasingly known as Amazigh. Within that field, Ramzi Rouighi’s Inventing the Berbers is a significant contribution that historicizes the process of “Berberization,” exploring the historical evolution of the term Berber as an epithet applied to non-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. The central argument of the book is that there is a long historical process behind naming once-diverse groups of people, known by different names, collectively as Berber, from the seventh century to today. Historicizing this process also demonstrates that the Maghrib and “the Middle East,” even when they are imagined as separate regions, are historically interwoven in myriad ways.

3Compared to the rich literature on the inventedness of the names and identities of people and places, which mostly focuses on the modern era, such as Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s Invented Traditions, and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Rouighi’s long durée perspective, in some ways similar to Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, sets the book apart, albeit with certain caveats, as it covers a whapping time span across fourteen centuries. Covering such a long period is the source of both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Neither a history of Berbers per se nor a historical account of Berberization as a process of social construction of an ethnonational identity, the book’s mission, Rouighi declares, is to historicize “Berberization” as a long historical process of outer naming a people or peoples (9). Claiming that “No one was a Berber in northwest Africa before the seventh century” (8) even though in the modern period the term is used for all the non-Arab inhabitants of the region, the book explores the major historical developments that have contributed to the process of Berberization between these two polar extremes. The book ends with a lively, and at times potentially controversial, discussion about a recent trend, which could be called “Amazighization,” in which Berbers have increasingly disavowed “Berber” as an epithet laden with negative connotations in favor of appropriating Amazigh as their indigenous name in their native language.

4The book is structured into three parts, each corresponding to a large historical era covered in two chapters. Part I, “Medieval Origins,” explores the “making of Berbers” in the process of the Islamization and Arabization of North Africa from the seventh century onward. Part II, “Genealogy and Homeland,” discusses how medieval authors, most notably Ibn Khaldun, identified the Berbers as a people and the Maghrib as their exclusive homeland, which, Rouighi argues, left its footprint on the modern interpretations of the Berber identity. Part III, “Modern Medieval Berbers,” examines the French (mis)translation of Ibn Khaldun’s works in the nineteenth century, which reshaped the process of Berberization under the French colonial rule while simultaneously making it difficult for historians “to see Berberization at work in medieval sources and in modern studies” (194).

5Rouighi’s discussion of Berberization up to and through the colonial period is informative, engaging, and refreshing. Drawing on primary sources by non-Berber authors both in Arabic and French, he explores the influence of both Muslim Arab conquest and the European colonization of the region, mostly through the French model in Algeria, and he engages both with intellectual and political currents that have influenced “Berberization” in different ways. His examination of Ibn Khaldun’s influence on Berberization and his foundational role in constructing a Berber history before and after his lifetime in the late fourteenth century—perhaps comparable in this regard to Ferdowsi in Persian or Ehmedê Xanî in Kurdish history—is particularly significant. As Rouighi makes the case quite convincingly, it is indeed not possible to imagine “Berberization” or a Berber history without Ibn Khaldun, who is widely known for his contribution to the cyclical theory of civilization but not necessarily for his foundational role in Berber histography. As such, it is eye-opening for those who are not experts in the field.

6It is Rouighi’s discussion about what happens to Berberization in the process and aftermath of decolonization that could prove controversial. Rouighi underlines the impact of French colonial policies in the construction of a Berber identity separate from the Arabs, defying the common religious ground between the two people. He argues that it was the French colonial approach of divide-and-rule that generated the Amazigh movement, which presents “the culmination of a colonial idea” decorated with a “native face” by the nationalists (who are understood from the context as being Amazigh nationalists even if Rouighi abstains from using the term as such). According to Rouighi, the proponents of Amazigh “mobilized colonial indigeneity to perform the eviction of Arabness,” which fractured “native resistance to European colonialism.” He writes that “‘Amazigh’ (indigeneity) was the parting gift of a dying colonialism” which “dealt a blow to anticolonial nationalism” (188). With these words, Rouighi not only accuses the proponents of the Amazigh of subscribing to an identity created by and for colonialist policies, but he also charges them with undermining anticolonial nationalisms. Rouighi’s reference to Israel “among other governments, in supporting secessionist Berberist parties in Algeria, but not in Morocco” to “illustrate the diversity of the sources of Berberization” (196) may bring a further controversy to the fore as he falls short of explaining his choice of Israel “among other governments.” These, in my opinion, may take heat from scholars and Amazigh activists who are invested in understanding Berberization as a process of double-colonization, first by the Arabs and then by the French, which puts the proponents of the Amazigh movement in a precarious double-edged position in the politics of decolonization.

7Another potentially controversial point lies in Roughi’s historiographical approach to the switch from Berber to Amazigh. Instead of approaching “Amazighization” as a subject of historical inquiry, which Rouighi does with regards to “Berberization,” he takes issue with it as a politically problematic development, with negative consequences for historians. Rouighi argues, for example, that the switch from Berber to Amazigh “naturalized the inscription of (colonial) indigeneity into history and foreclosed the historicizing of the category Berber” (189), making the already difficult job of the historian “almost impossible” (190) because it added another layer of anachronism to the already existing anachronism inherent in the process of Berberization. This does not seem to sit well with his eloquent description of historians’ job: “Physicians heal, engineers build. Historians historicize” (p. 191). In other words, why take issue with Amazighization instead of historicizing it? Moreover, name changes are neither unique to Berbers, nor necessarily a predicament for historians. Alevis in Anatolia and the Balkans, for example, were until the beginning of the twentieth century known as Kizilbash, an epithet which was invented and later abandoned under historical circumstances and for reasons quite similar to the Berber case. These two points also blur the distinction between “Berberization” as the process of inventing a name and the making of a people as a socially constructed or imagined entity. Providing a more sustained treatment of decolonization, an extremely complicated subject for the historiography on the region, might/could have provided Rouighi the space in which to resolve such tensions and tease out these issues for readers.

8Inventing the Berbers will be of particular interest for scholars interested in understanding the historical background of contemporary dynamics in several North African countries from the vantage point of an underrepresented and marginalized group in the historical scholarship. The book is also essential for historians of other such groups in the Middle East, who look for alternative ways through which to explore histories of minoritized groups, regardless of the size of their population and the geographies they inhabit. It could also be used in graduate seminars exploring new perspectives on the modern and medieval history of Islamdom through unconventional themes.

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Cevat Dargın, « ROUIGHI Ramzi, Inventing the Berbers : History and Ideology in the Maghrib  »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 152 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 octobre 2022, consulté le 20 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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