Reflections On The Amazigh Customary Law Azref – Analysis


Amazigh way of life is not only a culture it is a civilization

The Berber tribes have deep historical roots in North and sub-Saharan Africa, going back more than 20,000 years and pre-dating the Arab conquest of the region. Called the Amazigh which means ‘’Free Men’’, they’re the descendants of the indigenous tribes who inhabited the area for thousands of years. (1)

Descended from Stone Age tribes of North Africa, accounts of the Imazighen were first mentioned in Ancient Egyptian writings. (2) From about 2000 BCE, Berber languages spread westward from the Nile Valley across the northern Sahara into the Maghreb. A series of Berber peoples such as the Mauri, Masaesyli, Massyli, Musulamii, Gaetuli, and Garamantes gave rise to Berber kingdoms, such as Numidia and Mauretania. Other kingdoms appeared in late antiquity, such as Altava, Aurès, Ouarsenis, and Hodna. (3)

The many challenges that surround the study of Libyco-Berber scripts (4) have led to a complex crossroads of terms, chronologies and theories which sometimes are contradictory and confusing. For the Rock Art Image Project, a decision had to be made to define the painted or engraved scripts in the collection and the chosen term was Libyco-Berber, as most of the images are associated with paintings of the Horse and Camel periods and thus considered to be up to 3,000 years old. (5)

On the nature of these inscriptions on rocks, Eric Anglade writes in Southeast Morocco: (6)

“Inscribed on the rock nearly 3000 years ago alongside figurines representing riders and wild animals, these few geometric signs are the oldest traces of what is now called the Tifinagh alphabet, which is used to write Tamazight, the language spoken by Berber populations in North Africa. From the origins of this language, the act of writing was expressed by the verb “ara,” whose etymology links the meaning to the idea of opening or incising.

It is one of humanity’s earliest writings, but its origin is subject to various explanations that draw on Egyptian, South Arabian, Greek, Iberian, or Phoenician roots. To date, and just like the exact origin of the Berber people, no thesis has conclusively settled these debates, which in themselves illustrate the dimension of mystery carried by the Berber world.”

Descended from Stone Age tribes of North Africa, accounts of the Imazighen were first mentioned in Egyptian writings. (7)  Traditionally, most ancient Amazigh tribes were believed to have been nomadic within the Sahara Desert; the Amazigh nomads are named “Tuaregs.” Amazigh nomads would travel via camels, caravans, and on foot over the Northern Sahara Desert regions. Tuaregs learned to navigate by the stars, just as early sea navigators did. They learned of watering hole locations throughout desert crossings and sang songs and told stories about them so others would find water. The Amazigh desert nomads often wore traditional blue robes, as many still do in modern times. Other Amazigh nomads often had herds of livestock to travel with and needed new grazing lands, which was why they often moved locations. Housing for Amazigh nomads included easy to assemble tents made of animal skins and/or wool.(8) 

World Map of Herodotus (Public Domain)
World Map of Herodotus (Public Domain)

The presence of proto-Berber peoples from prehistoric times is evident in Saharan caves, where rock paintings depicting diverse megafaunal life point to evidence that before the desertification of the Sahara, North Africa was a lush and resource-rich region populated by hunter-gatherer societies. The basal two deities of Berber cosmology – a solar figure and a lunar one – are loosely analogous to those of the Egyptians, suggesting a common cultural origin. According to Herodotus, who in his Histories wrote of the Berbers in 430 BCE. (9)

In the Egypt of the Pharaohs, (10) the Libyans (ancient Amazigh people) bore a lot of influence on the kingdom of the Nile through their recurrent invasions as stated by A.H.S. El-Mosallamy: (11) 

“The second Libyan war of Ramses III took place in the eleventh year of his reign. The Temehu came together in Libya and assembled with the Rebu, Meshwesh and Seped. They all, together with these people, united with the Libyans already settled in the delta, and began plundering by land and sea. Some of the invaders remained on their ships trying to go southwards through the Canopic branch of the Nile, and began sacking the towns of the western delta from Kerben, south of Memphis onwards. The invaders seem to have considered that their objective was accomplished and began settling in Egypt like the colonists. They were, nevertheless, finally defeated by Ramses III, who is reported to have boasted: ‘Iover threw those who invaded my boundary, prostrated in their place…. I laid low the land of the Temeh….The Meshwesh, they crouch down for fear of me.’ It seems that Ramses III did not permit even the remnants of the invaders to live in peace on their lands.”

Sheshonq I or Chechonq or Chechanq, depending on the transliteration of his name, was a Libyan Berber prince from Meshwesh founder of the 22nd Dynasty. He is called Sesonchôsisby Manetho, who reckons that he reigned for twenty-one years from 945 BC to 924 BC. He is also the Sesaq or Shishak of the Bible. (12)

In the second dynasty, the Meshwesh (or Mashawash), Berbers who had settled in the Nile delta around Bubastis since the 20th dynasty and who, around 1000 BC, had gradually extended their territory as far as the Fayum, held the kingdom’s armed forces. Their chiefs became very powerful and gradually rose through the ranks of the royal court, bearing the title of Great Chiefs of the Ma(shawash). The son of one of these chiefs, Sheshonq, took power on the death of his father-in-law Psusannes II of Tanis. He established himself as pharaoh and founded the 22nd dynasty, which held power until around 715 BC. He resumed the policy of cordial understanding with his neighbours that his predecessors had initiated. Thus, following Solomon’s difficult succession, he gave refuge to Jeroboam I (first king of Israel), who had been forced into exile by Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (first king of Judah from 931 BC to 914 BC). (13)

As for the domestic situation, from the beginning of his reign Sheshonq I (14) initiated a policy of taking back the main keys to power in Egypt from the Tannite pharaohs and the high priests of Amun in Thebes. He is also known for inscribing the Amazigh customary law azref in tablets by Egyptian scribes.

Engraving of a relief of Sheshonq I found at Karnak

Berber kingdoms were eventually suppressed by the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE. This started a process of cultural and linguistic assimilation known as Arabization, which influenced the Berber population. Arabization involved the spread of Arabic language and Arab culture among the Berbers, leading to the adoption of Arabic as the primary language and conversion to Islam. Notably, the Arab migrations to the Maghreb from the 7th century to the 17th century accelerated this process.

While local Arab dynasties came to rule parts of the Maghreb after the 7th century, Berber tribes remained powerful political forces and founded new ruling dynasties in the 10th and 11th centuries, such as the Zirids, Hammadids, various Zenata principalities in the western Maghreb, and several Taifa kingdoms in al-Andalus.

Islam later provided the ideological stimulus for the rise of fresh Berber empires, the Almoravids and Almohads in the 11th to 13th centuries. Their Berber successors – the Marinids, the Zayyanids, and the Hafsids – continued to rule until the 16th century. From the 16th century onward, the process continued in the absence of Berber dynasties; in Morocco, they were replaced by Arabs claiming descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Given the long existence of the Amazigh people in North Africa and the Sahel continuously in spite of external invasions of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottomans, The French, The Spanish, The Italians, etc. who have taken control of the North African soil where they lived since the 10th century BC. And given that the Amazigh have rode out these multiple aggressions because of their great sense of resilience, the Amazigh way of life should not be considered only as culture but mostly as a civilization that is undoubtedly a test to time. The Phoenicians, The Romans, the Ottomans are all great civilizations that have gone extinct but the Amazigh have remained, there is a lesson to learn from their way of life and flexible laws izerfen as well as their proverbial tolerance.

Bilingual Punic-Libyan inscription from Dougga. Source: Encyclopédie berbère

Amazigh customary law azref

Sometimes, the harshness of the geographical and climatic environment creates such group cohesion that it’s hard to believe it without seeing it. In Amazigh communities, this community mutual aid has been organised and perpetuated in local customary law, al-‘urf in Arabic, azref in Tamazight, which is a perfect illustration of the profound interplay between space and social organisation. (15)

The region has always been marked by population movements: mountain nomads, desert nomads and large caravans have passed through the village of Aït Ben Haddou for centuries. In addition to these migrations, there have been those due to insufficient harvests as a result of drought, those resulting from inter-tribal wars and sometimes epidemics. (16) 

From the outset, Amazigh local governance faced a major challenge: organising the stable cohabitation of different tribes in a relatively harsh natural environment and customary law was the answer.

On the importance and relevance of the customary law among Imazighen, Katherine E. Hoffman argues: (17)

“Among the Imazighen (‘Berbers’) of Morocco, before the French Protectorate (1912-1956), as was the case with other Muslim populations, the use of oaths (taggalit) to support one’s claims and to deny accusations played an important role in legal and spiritual life. It was a form of ordeal particularly practised in situations where it was impossible to verify the plaintiff’s complainants. Co-purgation determined the outcome; there was no longer possible to doubt the truth after an oath. Professor Marcy, connoisseur of the practice and and theory of law in Morocco, ‘‘insisted on the religious character of Berber procedure with the co-purgation oath as an essential method of evidence, a procedure that is undoubtedly found throughout North Africa but only exceptionally in Arabic-speaking countries’‘. There were at least three aspects of co-purgation that distinguished it from other forms of justice at the time: the performance of solidarity between members of a group, the definitive establishment of the swearer’s innocence and the restoration of social order. its possible links with Islam, co-purgation and the oath – generally in holy places – are practices more generally associated with the Imazighen than with the Arabs, practices that delegitimised the Imazighen in the eyes of the orthodox until the present day. This practice complemented the justice of the customary court held under the control of the commissioner, despite the absence of the Protectorate authorities and despite an increasing weakening of the control over this system of justice.”

Amazigh communities have developed a profoundly human form of law based on solidarity: it emanates from the community and is different from Muslim law. Justice and unanimous decision-making are at the heart of Amazigh philosophy. In many respects, this law is extremely modern. Prison, confinement and any form of corporal punishment, let alone capital punishment, are outlawed. Penalties for offences are purely material. For minors, penalties are moral and educational. The ultimate sanction was exclusion from the community, reflecting the importance of collective identity.

Even today, the vast majority of legal, economic, administrative and religious matters are handled at village level. Major works, such as canal or street maintenance, are carried out collectively two or three times a year; when film shoots are involved, the work is distributed equally among the different families in the village; in legal terms, amicable settlement of disputes is the rule as mentioned above. This form of social organisation has its origins in what is known as twiza, or ‘’mutual aid’’. (18)

In Aït Ben Haddou, for example, all local governance is based on the first five families of the village: Aït Bahaddou, Aït Ali, Aït Lahssein, Aït Ali Ouhmad and Aït Hmad. They are known as the ‘’bones’’ (ikhsan) of the village. The image speaks for itself: it is not the individual but the family that forms the skeleton of Berber society, a fundamental departure from liberal democracies. Every year, each family chooses two representatives from among their descendants to represent them on the village council (Jmâ’ath or Aghrad). There are also two representatives of central government (the sheikh or amghâr and the moqaddem), as well as the person in charge of water distribution (Lamine n’touga), underlining the local roots of this form of governance, which responds above all to the day-to-day needs of the people.

Yet another feature that is hard to fathom for lovers of democracy is that the members of the village council are neither elected nor appointed by the residents. It is by tacit consent of their peers that the members who are most listened to, and whose opinions are most sought after, become representatives. Control is therefore exercised not by the institutions, which are supposed to represent the people, but by public opinion, which is supposed to reflect the ideas, judgements and moral and social attitudes prevailing in the community. At the same time, with a view to the direct participation of all citizens, a general assembly agraw bringing together all the men in the village (one man per family) meets annually to review the situation with the members of the village council aith rab’îne. (19)

Local Amazigh governance is therefore a skilful blend of direct participation by the male members of the tribe in political affairs and their almost total trust in their founding families, their ‘’skeleton’’. For an outsider, it is impressive to see how this customary law has adapted to modern forms of governance. While the villagers have retained their customary law, they have also taken advantage of the legal status of the association by creating a village association, Aït Aïssa, to give greater visibility to all their projects with the central authorities.

Amazigh homegrown law azref in the High Atlas

The Amazigh are the indigenous people of North Africa, with their own language, culture and history. ‘’Amazigh’’ is the name given to themselves which means ‘’free man’’. The word Berber comes from the Latin ‘’barbarus’’, used by the Romans to designate populations that did not speak their language. The Arabs took it and transformed it into ‘’barbarian’’ before the French translated it into ‘’Berber’’. (20)

The Amazigh were the first people to settle in North Africa. The Amazigh originally occupied an immense territory, known as Tamazgha, stretching from Egypt to the Canary Islands and from the shores of the Mediterranean to those of the River Niger.

The Amazigh language has existed since ancient times. It has an original writing system Tifinagh, used and preserved to this day. In terms of religious beliefs, the Amazigh have successively known animism, paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (21) However, whatever religion they adopt, it is always adapted to the values of the indigenous people and their ancestral law system azref. (22)

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) defines customary law in the following terms: (23)

“Customary law consists of a body of customs, usages and beliefs that are accepted as binding rules of conduct by indigenous peoples and local communities. It is an integral part of their socio-economic and way of life.

What characterises customary law is precisely the fact that it is made up of a set of recognised and shared collectively by a community, a people, a tribe, an ethnic or religious group, as opposed to written law emanating from a constituted political authority, the application of which is in the hands of this authority, usually the State.”

One of the most important aspects of azref is undoubtedly taggalit/dhjajith, the collective oath taken at the shrine of amrabedh (local saint) by the clan. The use of oaths (taggalit/dhjajith) to support claims and deny accusations played an important role in legal and spiritual life. (24) It was a form of trial by ordeal, particularly practised in situations where it was impossible to verify the complainants’ statements. (25) Co-purgation determined the outcome; there was no longer any way of questioning the truth after an oath had been taken. (26) 

There were at least three aspects to co-purgation that distinguished it from other forms of justice at the time: 

  1. The performance of solidarity between members of a group
  2. The definitive establishment of the swearer’s innocence; and 
  3. The restoration of social order. 

Despite its possible links with Islam, co-purgation and swearing – generally in holy places – are practices more generally associated with the Imazighen than with the Arabs, practices that have delegitimised the Imazighen in the eyes of the orthodox. (27)

The azref law in Amazigh areas concerned every aspect of daily life in minute details and even if these laws were not written yet they were learned by heart by the amghar and the fqih. David Hart in his interesting study of the izerfen of Ait Atta (28) informs us of the following funny but serious situation: (29)

“Amongst the Ait Y’azza of Alnif (Qsar s-Sûq Province), if a cow is stolen, the distance from the point where the theft occurred to the house of the thief is measured by the animal’s hoof prints; and for each hoofprint spotted, the thief is fined 10 Hasani duros. Over and above this, he is fined 100 Hasani duros for every night that the animal spends in his house. For this reason, Ait ‘Attâ say that it is better for a thief to slaughter a stolen cow at once rather than to keep it in his house, for he thus as less to lose.”

He introduces another azref pertaining to homicide or physical attack on a fellow member of the community and states the nature of fines to pay, by Amazigh law of Ait Atta, to repay the damage: (30)

“If anyone kills someone else, God will send him to the Fire (Ar. aâfya, « fire » or « Hell »). Should one man kill another, his people, that is, up to 10 agnates of the murderer, flee with him. If the agnates of the victim accept the bloodwit (Ar. d-diya) among them, they take 300 iguryân (one-year-old sheep) and 600 mithqâl». If one man blinds another or cuts the hand off another, that is to say, cuts off or breaks his hand, he must pay more or less half of the aforementioned bloodwit (i.e., 150 iguryân and 300 mithqâl-s). If someone breaks another’s tooth, of the upper teeth in the front of the mouth (i.e., an upper canine or incisor tooth), he must pay a female camel. If someone breaks another’s tooth, of the lower teeth in the front of the mouth (i.e., a lower canine or incisor tooth), he must pay a cow. If one man breaks another’s two hands or feet (i.e., arms or legs), he must pay 75 iguryân (one-year-old sheep), that is, as fine (Berber izmâzy, here) to the chief. Should one man enter the house of another in order to commit a shameful act (Ar. ‘aib), he must pay 32 iguryân (one-year-old sheep) for each door of the house, if there is a witness (Ar. ‘iyân) to this (i.e., or if it is clearly demonstrable).”

Besides the existence of a lower court, lmahkama tamzwarut (in Arabic lmahkama ibtida’iyyah) David Hart makes reference to the existence of mahkamat listi’nâf among the Ait Atta in the following qânûn (azref): (31)

“(Ar. Shurût) of the Ait ‘Attâ. The taqqîn (i.e., members of the Supreme Court) of Ait Aisa (i.e., the localized group of three clans to which the members of the Supreme Court belong) in the Lower village (i.e. ( Igharm Amazdâr, rendered in Arabie as Qsar t-Tahtânî) in the land of the Sâghrû will write amongst themselves all the things which have happened that God has commanded to each person in the whole tribe of the Ait ‘Attâ. Whoever commits a crime or misdemeanor shall be sent to the Sâghrû to be judged by them (i.e., by the members of the Supreme Court). The clans-chief shall collect (designate) two men from each of the three constituent clans (Ar. tulut) until they are all agreed (literally, « until they all say Na’m! ‘Yes’! »). If they are not in agreement with this, the chief shall designate, once again, two men from each clan (tulut, again), until the third time, after which the matter is finished and no more changes can be made (i.e., as the third judgment is final). If they are still in disagreement the third time, they shall have a vote, in which the majority shall rule over the minority. « Praise be to the only God. »”

In his anthropological analysis of this azref David Hart David Hart brushes over the sociopolitical situation among the powerful Amazigh confederation of Ait Atta. In his translation of this qânûn, he has tried to remain as’ faithful as possible to it both in the spirit and in the letter of the Ait Atta Custom (or « Way of the Ait Atta ») which it so eloquently expressed. In this document we have indeed a synopsis of most of the major features of Ait Atta sociopolitical structure (save the notion of « five fifhs », and the system of electing chief). The qânûn comments on their relations with their shurfâ (saints), on their collective oaths, on the sanctuary of the region of the Tafrawt n-Ait ‘Attâ and the sanctions for infractions of rules of conduct within this area, of the role of the clans-chief of the Ait ‘Aisa n-Igharm Amazdâr and his representatives, of inheritance regulations, of treatment of women, of theft, of homicide, and of the role of the Supreme Court. He has not broken these materials up into itemized sections, but has rather retained the spirit of the pages as they appear in the copy which was made. (32)

This shows clearly that the azref law system in the Ait Atta confederation was in full use until the independence in 1956 where one of the initial laws of the Moroccan government was the total Arabization of the Amazigh traditional law system. (33) However, this does not mean, in the least, that the Amazigh law system is dead. No, it is still alive in the sense that it is used internally and the only time tribesmen will resort to the government judiciary system when the tribal sages are unable to reach a compromise in their mediation process, and it is considered a great shame. (34)

Colonel Emilio Izaga Blanco (1892-1949) and the azref in the Rif

In the decades prior to the establishment of the Protectorate, the Rifis practised a self-subsistence economy tempered by temporary emigration to Algeria known as ashâreq (going east to French Algeria for work and dignity) and some parts of Morocco. The entry into force of the new Spanish colonial order brought about important changes in the economy and society of the Rif. (35) The enlistment of Moroccans in the military and police forces in the service of the Khalifa (representative of the Sultan) and in the colonial troops (Regulars), as well as the employment of thousands of North African workers in the various mining operations and public works, (36) contributed to a modest but irreversible monetarisation of the Rif economy and, especially, to the emergence of a modern proletariat. 

Colonel Emilio Izaga Blanco graduated from the infantry academy in 1913 and was posted to Larache, in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, in 1914. A military colonial representative of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1927 to 1945, he was delegate for indigenous affairs from 1944 to 1945. (38)

Blanco was associated with Africanism, and according to Alfonso Iglesias Amorín, he better matched the profile of 19th century Spanish Africanists, underpinned by a greater respect for the local population, a greater awareness of the social and cultural fabric of the Protectorate and a preference for peaceful solutions, rather than the subset of African militarism embodied by Francisco Franco, José Sanjurjo, Emilio Mola, José Millán-Astray and Juan Yagüe, characterised by a desire for rapid military advancement, less cultural awareness and the adoption of anti-democratic positions. (39)

1920 map depicting the northern part of the “Spanish zone in Morocco”, with the effigies of González Tablas, Berenguer and Silvestre

Tired of Arab and French influences on the Amazigh, he rejected Western and Arab influences on the region’s architecture. In search of an ideal style for the Rifis, he designed a series of small buildings in the protectorate, based on a mixture of southern Moroccan ksar, neo-Pharaonic Egyptian architecture and pre-Columbian models. (40)

A great connoisseur of Rif customary law, (41) he extolled the advantages of maintaining local assemblies over the influence dictated by the Makhzen, going so far as to claim that “the ridiculous thing (on the part of the Spanish colonial administration) is not to have protected the Rif from the contamination of Sharia law”. (42)

Emilio Blanco Izaga was sent to Morocco as an interventores (intervener) but because of his deep love and respect he indulged in ethnographic and anthropological work. 

The work of interventores (intervener) in Spanish Morocco was introduced by José Luis Villanova and Luis Urteaga in the following terms: (43)

“The interveners were the key piece of Spanish colonial policy in the Protectorate of Morocco (1912-1956). Organized in 1923, their main function was to supervise and guide the actions of the Moroccan authorities of the cities and the seventy tribes in which the population of the area was grouped. The system of Interventions and the role played by the interveners in the Protectorate have been analyzed in recent years from various disciplines, notably anthropology, history and geography. But most of these works, with the exception of those dedicated to the figure of Emilio Blanco Izaga, have addressed the topic from an overall perspective, and there is a lack of precise contributions of a biographical nature that would allow drawing a more accurate profile of the interveners and, by extension, of the colonial administration.”

The work, written by Vicente Moga, shows the evolution of the Rif area thanks to the figure of Emilio Blanco Izaga, a soldier whom the author of the book has described as “the best Spanish anthropologist.” (44)

La Ley Rifeña, which was written when Blanco was the regional administrator of the Rif, and then published in 1939 is book that was originally intended to have been the second part of a two-volume study of Rifi customary law. The first part of this proposed treatise on Rifi law and jural procedure was never published by Blanco. Most of the information is concerned with the Aigh Waryaghar tribe: its sociopolitical organization; law; and the tradition of the local communities. One section, however, contains notes on the Gzennaya tribe of the Rif (pp. 139-152), and a law of the Aith Siddarth tribe (Senhaja MX4) is discussed on pp. 329-336. (45)

Hart has supplied many footnotes which are quite useful, not only because of the additional information they contain, but also because of their critical nature, which serves to place Blanco’s remarks in proper perspective. Hart criticizes Blanco for his many factual errors in the notes on the Rif as well as his irresponsible statements and value judgments. It is for these reasons that Hart has called Blanco an “amateur ethnologist.” Another of Hart’s criticisms of Blanco is concerned not with the content of the work but with the way in which the author has presented the information. Anyone who reads this source must agree with Hart that Blanco was quite adept in constructing “tortuously meandering sentences.” (p.194). (46) 

In all fairness, however, it must be noted that not all of Hart’s comments about Blanco were negative. Hart recognized the contributions that Blanco made to an understanding of the Rif. For example, Hart states that, “The concept of the relative autonomy or independence of the tribal clan…is, as far as we know, an original contribution by Blanco to the overall study of Berber social structure.” (p. 156). Also, Hart thinks that one of Blanco’s most significant contributions was his recognition of the Rif concept of “turn” (p. 161), “doing things in or by turn” (p. 102). (47)

Another recognized contribution, or rather “original discovery,” was that of the staggered irrigation rotation (p. 411). (48) Blanco has used many Arabic and Rif terms without always stating which ones were Arabic and which were Rifi. A glossary has been prepared for this source and will be found in Category. Where possible, it has been indicated whether a word in the glossary is in Arabic or Rifi. It should also be noted that there are spelling or typographical errors, and misused words (Hart usually points these out) are not rare. With imagination, however, the reader should not have difficulty discovering their true meaning. (49)

Emilio Blanco Izaga (1892-1949)

During his work as interventores Emilio Blanco Izaga collected a great body of Amazigh Rifi Izerfen Ley Rifeña that dealt with various aspects of the daily life of the Rifi individual:

Land disputes and inheritance;

  • Territorial disputes between clans;
  • Marriage disputes;

Water and irrigation rights;

  • Thefts;


  • Vendetta;


  • Land dispossession;  
  • Physical aggression, etc.
  • Among the Gzennaya tribe the customary law system azref comprised different categories of tribunals:
  • The souk tribunal: it took place every weekly market day and is chaired by the clan amghâr and 5 jurors and dealt with petty disputes between clan members which are settled by payment of damages or/and fines as well as physical barring from attending the souk for a number of weeks;
  • The tribal primary tribunal: it ischaired by the amghâr of the tribe and some of the elected council of asht âb’ine that dealt with homicide, payment of blood money diyyath; water and land disputes;
  • The tribal high tribunal: it ischaired by the amghâr of the tribe and all the members of the elected council of asht âb’ine. It dealts with such political issues as entering into alliance with another tribe (leff), declaring war on a tribe, declaring Jihad on the Christians and banning clans from tribal boundaries for wrong deeds and insurgency.

Throughout the history of the Gzennaya tribe many clans were banned, in the 17th century, a clan was banned to the region of Fes (they live today in the Lamta mountainous area), for land disputes, another to Zerhoun. In the 19th century a clan was banned to the region of Tangier for reasons of banditry, there is today a small town called Gzennaya, outside of Tangier. In 1905, a clan was banned to the Mitidja region in Algeria for insubordination.

Conclusion: preserving customary law to safeguard traditional knowledge

Customary laws are an essential aspect of the very identity of indigenous peoples and local communities. They define the rights, obligations and responsibilities of their members; important aspects of their lives, their culture and worldview: use of and access to natural resources rights and obligations relating to land, inheritance and property spiritual life; maintenance of cultural heritage and knowledge systems; and many other issues.

The preservation of customary laws can be vital to the intellectual, cultural and spiritual life and heritage of indigenous peoples and local communities. 

What makes knowledge ‘’traditional’’ may be the very fact that it is developed, preserved and disseminated in a customary intergenerational context, which will often be defined and shaped by customary law. This partly explains why indigenous peoples and local communities have consistently argued that for the protection of traditional knowledge against misuse and misappropriation. (50)

The customary law azref is very old in Morocco and well-preserved in Amazigh societies, (51) in this regard, El Khatir Boulkacem writes: (52)

‘’Thanks to a few indications from chroniclers, legal scholars and customary collections or legal acts, the roots of this law in rural practices of North African rural societies. Apart from the consecration of certain customary institutions, such as Ahl al jamaàa and ahl al khmsin, Ayt rbàin and ayt àchra by the power of the power of the Almohads, made famous by the chroniclers of the dynasty (Lévi Provençal, 1928), other authors have pointed to certain customary institutions or procedural measures relating to the development or application of this law. For example, the Kitab al-Ansab [Book of Genealogies], probably written by ‘Abdallah Ben salih Ben ‘Abderrahmane, in recounting the episode of the conquest of the Haskura (a confederation of the High Atlas) by Uqba Ibn Nafi, mentions the pact concluded between this Muslim general and Hurma ben Tutis, the chief of the Haskura.’’

La Ley Rifeña, azref n-ârif

In the past, customary law essentially governed the rural regions of Morocco; it played a more important role in the mountains than in the plains and its influence increased the further one moved away from the imperial cities, centres of power and places of a flourishing Muslim culture which exerted their influence on their immediate environment. Called azref in the north, central and south-eastern Morocco, alwâh in the High Atlas and the Sous, tiaqqidin among the Aït Atta, or simply shurût or ‘urf elsewhere, it constituted the law of deep Morocco, secreted by the ancient society of North Africa within the constraints of the surrounding environment. 

Azref is a body of law, of great interest in modern times, it had a deep-seated humanistic and philosophical connotation. It rejects outright death penalty and cultivates tremendously intermediation, crisis management and dialogue. Indeed, modern judiciary systems can learn a lot from the Amazigh customary law azref today.

La Ley Rifeña, azref n-ârif

# A paper read at the forum on “Amazigh Customary Law” organized by Le Monde Amazigh, L’Assemblée Mondiale Amazighe and La Fondation Friedrich Naumann in Rabat, MOROCCO on May 31, 2024

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on X: @Ayurinu

End notes:

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  9.  Herodotus (l. c. 484 – 425/413 BCE) was a Greek historian famous for his work Histories. He was called The Father of History by the Roman writer Cicero, who admired him, but has also been rejected as The Father of Lies by critics, ancient and modern, who claim his work is little more than tall tales.
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  16.  Morand, Marcel. (1918). Études de droit musulman et de droit coutumier berbère. Alger : Jourdan.
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  19.  RAMÍREZ RODRÍGUEZ, F. T. A. U. (2016). Traditional Architecture and Socio-Political Organization at Figuig, Oasis, Morocco. Monumental Earthen Architecture in Early Societies Technology and power display. Oxford: Archaeopress, 53-64.
  20.  Tozy, M. et Mahdi, M. (1990). Aspects du droit communautaire dans l’atlas marocain. Droit et Société, 15, 219-227.
  21.  Hart, D.-H. (1966). A customary law document from the Ait Atta of Djebel Saghro. Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée, 1, 94-101.
  22.  Gélard, M.-L. (1998). Le droit coutumier, l’Honneur et la tribu. Awal, 17, 65-81.
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  25.  Bousquet, G.-H. (1952). Pour l’étude des droits berbères. Hespéris, XXXIX, 501-508. 
  26.  Hoffman, K. E. (2013). Op. cit.
  27.  Hoffman, K. E. (2010). Berber Law By French Means: Islam and Language in the Moroccan Hinterlands, 1930-1954. Contemporary Studies in Society and History, 52(4), 851-880.
  28.  Ahda, M. (2001). Le droit coutumier des Ait Atta d’Aoufous (sud-est marocain). Awal, 24, 87-117.
  29.  Hart, David. (1966). A customary law document from the Ait ‘Atta of the Jbil Saghru.
  30.  Ibid., p. 110.
  31.  Ibid., p. 115.
  32.  Berque, J. (1955). Structures sociales du haut-Atlas. Paris: PUF.
  33.  Hart, D.-M. (1981). Dadda Atta and his forty grandsons: the socio-political organization of the Ait Atta of southern Morocco. Cambridge: Middle East and North African Studies Press.
  34.  Aspinion, R. (1954). Un Louh du Souss, règlement coutumier de Souk el Jemâa des Ida Ou Gnidif. Hespéris, XLI, 395-409.
  35.  Hart, D.M. (1976). The Aith Waryaghar of the Moroccan Rif. An Ethnography and History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology.
  36.  Hart, D. M. & Raha, Rachid (Eds.). (1999). La sociedad bereber del Rif marroquí. Sobre la teoría de la segmentariedad en el Magreb. Granada. Universidad de Granada & Diputación Provincial .
  37.  Aziza, Mimoun. (2003). LA SOCIEDAD RIFEÑA FRENTE AL PROTECTORADO ESPAÑOL DE MARRUECOS 1912-1956. Barcelona: Bellaterra.
  38.  Romero, Vicente Moga. (2009). El Rif De Emilio Blanco Izaga: Trayectoria Militar, Arquitectonic A Y Etnografica En El Protectorado De España En Marruecos. Barcelona : Bellaterra.
  39.  Blanco Izaga, Emilio. (1995). Coronel en el Rif: una selección de su obra, publicada e inédita, sobre la estructura sociopolítica de los rifeños del Norte de Marruecos. Melilla: Ayuntamiento de Melilla, Fundación Municipal Sociocultural, Archivo Municipal, UNED-Centro Asociado de Melilla.
  40.  Blanco Izaga, Emilio. (2013). “El perro de kábila” y otros registros etnográficos del Protectorado de España en Marruecos. Melilla: Consejería de Cultura y Festejos, Servicio de Publicaciones, [etc.]
  41.  Blanco Izaga, Emilio. (1939). El Rif. La ley rifeña: los cánones rifeños comentados. Tetuan: Centro de Estudios Marroquíes, Imp. Imperio.
  42.  Fleming, S. E. (1983). Spanish Morocco and the Alzamiento Nacional, 1936-1939: The Military, Economic and Political Mobilization of a Protectorate. Journal of Contemporary History18(1), 27-42. Retrieved from
  43.  Villanova, José Luis, & Urtega, Luis. (2009). Jesús Jiménez Ortoneda, Interventor Militar En El Rif (1911-1936). LUIS URTEAGA. Hispania. Revista Española de Historia, LXIX (232), 423-448. Retrieved from 
  44.  Romero, Vincent Moga. (2009). Trayectoria militar, arquitectónica y etnográfica en el Protectorado de España en Marruecos. Madrid : Ministerio de Defensa y Secretaría General Técnica. Centro de Publicaciones.
  45.  Blanco Izaga, Emilio, Hart, David M. (1975). Emilio Blanco Izaga: colonel in the Rif. New Haven, Conn.: USA, Human Relations Area Files.
  46. Ibid
  47. Ibid
  48. Ibid
  49.  Jamous, R. (1981). Honneur et Baraka. Les structures sociales traditionnelles dans le Rif. Paris: MSH.
  50.  Ayache, G. (1975). Société rifaine et pouvoir central marocain (1850-1920). Revue Historique, 254(2 (516)), 345–370. Retrieved from 
  51.  Mezzine, L. (1980). Ta’qqit des Ayt Atman : le recueil des règles de coutume d’un groupe de qsur de la moyenne vallée de l’oeud Ziz.  Hesperis-Tamuda, 1.
  52.  Aboulkacem, El Khatir. (1987). Droit coutumier amazigh face aux processus d’institution et d’imposition de la législation nationale au Maroc. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labor Organization -ILO-. Retrieved from 

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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