ISSN 2330-717X

Amazigh Jews, Who Are They? – Analysis


The first Jews arrived in Morocco in the Vth century BC. A certain amount of interbreeding occurred with the exchanges with the Berber communities, which led to a “Judaization of the Berbers” and conversely a “Berberization of the Jews”. (1)


Settlement of Jews in North Africa and particularly in Morocco

Berber Jews or Jewish Berbers (in Tamazight: Udayen imaziɣen), are the Jewish communities of the Maghreb that historically spoke Berber languages and/or are of Berber origin. (2)

The acceptance of Judaism as a religion by the Berbers, and its adoption by a number of tribes, may have taken some time. (3) Historians believe, based on the writings of Ibn Khaldun and other accounts, that some of the ancient Judaic Berber tribes later adopted Christianity and then Islam, and it is not known whether they are part of the contemporary Berber-speaking Jewish ancestry. (4)

According to the thesis of Nahum Slouschz, the Jews of North Africa are descended from Berber tribes who converted to Judaism in antiquity. Paul Monceaux also argues that at the arrival of the Arabs, many Berber tribes were more or less Judaized, especially in Tripolitania, in the Aurès and in the ksours (fortified villages) of the Sahara. For him, it is, also, probable that there was a Jewish community in Punic Carthage. (5) But the evidence of this presence only becomes numerous and significant in Roman times and Carthage seems to be the center of this Jewish presence, particularly the Jewish necropolis of Gammarth. (6)

The great rabbi Maurice Eisenbeth largely takes up the hypothesis of the Judaized Berbers; he is followed by many more recent authors: André Chouraqui, Henri Chemouilli, etc. 

The tradition wants that the Jews of North Africa, like all those of the diaspora, descend from the Jews of Judea exiled after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD by Titus. Julien Cohen-Lacassagne’s book overturns this preconceived idea. He argues that it is not a wandering people who crossed the seas, but an idea, driven by a powerful missionary dynamic: that of monotheism. (7)


The progressive arrival of the first wave of Jews in Morocco corresponds to the two major historical events: the expansion of Phoenician navigation in the Xth century BC and the destruction of the First Temple which will lead to the deportation of the populations by the Assyrians in the VIth century BC.

It was with the Phoenicians that Judaism reached Carthage, before being adopted by Berber tribes and spreading in the hinterland. Resisting the Christian expansion, then that of Islam, these Jewish Maghrebis have left a lasting mark on North African societies and contributed to an authentic Judeo-Muslim civilization sharing language, culture, and the same religious substratum (8) and also cultural. (9)

The first traces of a Jewish presence can be found in Carthage (today’s suburb of Tunis), a city founded by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC. Four centuries later, this flourishing port city became a rival to Rome in terms of trade, wealth, and population. Not far from Carthage, the Jews of Djerba arrived in the VIth century BC, fleeing Judea after the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. It was in 586 BC in Djerba, where a few thousand Jews found refuge, that the construction of the oldest synagogue on the African continent (the Ghriba) began.

Mosaics representing seven-branched candlesticks (symbol of Judaism) were also discovered in a villa (during road works) 110 km south of Tunis. According to archaeologists, these remains are further evidence of a Jewish presence in the region of Cap Bon between the fourth and fifth centuries BC.

The first historical account of the presence of Jews in a region west of Egypt appears in the work of Flavius Josephus. The Roman historiographer writes in The Jewish War (10) that in the third century BC, 100,000 Jews were deported from Israel to Egypt. From there they went to Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and probably further west.

The Jewish communities of southern Morocco would be the oldest. The establishment of these communities in the Phoenician colonies of “Vadene” and “Vakka” would even precede the arrival of Christianity in the south of the country. (11)

The settlement of Jews in Morocco is, indeed, very old. The legends seem to make their arrival in Morocco at the time of King Solomon, but there is no archaeological evidence to support these theories. However, it is generally accepted that the first Jewish settlements in North Africa, of any significance, are posterior to the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. (12)

The ethnic origin and settlement of Moroccan Jewish communities are rooted more in collective legends than in the concrete history of the facts. In spite of the extreme scarcity of historical (13) and archaeological sources concerning the early history of Morocco, the arrival and establishment of the Jews on Moroccan soil can be traced back to two major historical events the expansion of Phoenician navigation in the Xth century BC and the destruction of the First Temple (14) which will lead to the deportation of the populations by the Assyrians in the VIth century. (15)

In these regions, they “rubbed shoulders” for several centuries with Berber populations, which, they sometimes, even judaized. This “Judeo-Berber” (16) population followed the Saharan Atlas (17) to finally split up and settle in the Mzab, Touat, Tafilalet, Draa and Sous (today’s Algerian and Moroccan south). (18)

This inter-community mixing was possible thanks to a long and complex process in which the community borders were permeable. This fluidity was combined with social mobility, the waves of internal and external migrations as well as the conversions and trans-ethnic confessional conversions. 

The Jews of Tafilalet do not belong to any caste among the inhabitants. History and tradition agree on giving them a large place among the Filalian population. Knowing that the Jews began to immigrate to Morocco very early and settle in the valleys of Ziz and Draa as early as the VIth century BC. This would mean, in principle, that this immigration coincided, indeed, with the development of the Phoenician colonization of the VIth to IVth century BC. (19)

Very anciently settled in these regions of pre-Saharan Morocco, they would have once created a Judeo-Berber kingdom. The tradition says that these Jews or these Judaized Berbers formed this powerful kingdom which would have been shaken by its fights against the Christians at that time in history. In fact, in the Todgha region of south-eastern Morocco, Jewish communities still preserve traditions that go back to the centuries when there was a sort of Jewish kingdom in the region. The Jewish colonies established between the IInd and Vth centuries in the struggle against the Christians and certain Judaized Berber tribes retained some authority until the Arab conquest in the VIIth and VIIIth centuries.

On the presence of Jews in Berber areas, Abdeljalil Didi and Eric Anglade write: (20)

“The first waves of Jewish immigrant communities probably arrived on board Phoenician ships along the Atlantic coast near the mouth of the Oued (River) Noun, close to Guelmim in southern Morocco. Different groups would have gradually moved further inland, in particular towards the Drâa and Dades valleys, Tafilalet and the High Atlas. Legend has it that King Solomon sent Jewish explorers to the Drâa region to look for gold around the 10th century BC. Some groups would have reached South East Morocco directly from the interior of the continent after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC and following the deportation of surviving Jews to Babylon.

Historically, concrete evidence of their presence in Morocco dates back only to the 2nd century BC. This is from funerary objects found in the Roman ruins of Volubilis with inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek.”

Judaization of the Berbers

Whatever their true origin, some of these Berber tribes were probably Judaized during the multiple Jewish emigrations to North Africa. (21) As early as 814 BC, Jews would have followed the Phoenicians who founded Carthage. After the destruction of the First Temple and especially that of the Second Temple by Titus in 7O, tens of thousands of Jews were deported or emigrated to Cyrenaica and then to the western Maghreb. More than 30,000 Jewish settlers were installed in Carthage by Titus. 

Finally, a new wave of Jewish immigrants followed the failure of the Jewish revolt in Cyrenaica (115-116 AD) and the defeat of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132-135). The Jews would then have practiced certain proselytism, converting the Berber tribes that welcomed them (and in particular the nomadic tribes driven back to the Saharan desert by the Roman colonization). One finds evidence of this in the writings of Tertullian in the IIIrd century and of Saint Augustine in the Vth century, who are indignant about these Berber conversions to Judaism. (22)

Young Amazigh Jew from Debdou, eastern Morocco

Among the works devoted to the history and culture of Moroccan Jews, those relating to Berber regions occupy a small place. This gap is undoubtedly due to the fragmentary nature of the historical sources from the rural areas of the country but also to the specificity of Berber culture, which is essentially based on orality. The historical data on the life of the Berber Jews, are very scattered and are based frequently on myths and legends. (23)

The rare contemporary evidence of the existence of Jewish communities in North Africa in the pre-Islamic period does not allow us to assert the demographic and cultural importance of Judaism among the Berbers. The first historical source mentioning Berber Jewish tribes dates from the XIVth century. It is the Kitâb al-cibar (24) by Ibn Khaldun. Indeed, in his History of the Berbers, (25) the latter points out that:

[“Part of the Berbers professed Judaism… Among the Jewish Berbers were the Djeraoua, a tribe … to which belonged the Kahena, a woman who was killed by the Arab (conquerors) … The Jewish Berber tribes were the Nefousa of Ifriquiya, the Fendelaoua, Mediouna, Bahloula, Ghiata of the Moghreb el Aksa “.]

“Une partie des Berbères professait le judaïsme … Parmi les berbères juifs on distinguait les Djeraoua, tribu …à laquelle appartenait la Kahena, femme qui fut tuée par les (conquérants) Arabes …Les tribus berbères juives étaient les Nefousa de l’Ifriquiya, les Fendelaoua, Mediouna, Bahloula, Ghialta du Moghreb el Aksa’’.

Integration of Jews into the cultural fabric of Morocco

Jews were integrated into the cultural fabric of rural Morocco, sharing customs with their Muslim neighbors: clothing, food, veneration of male saints and, on occasion, female saints, and the rhythms and patterns of daily life. The social and economic ties between Jews and Muslims in areas of Berber culture were very close, although each group also retained distinct cultural traits and strict religious boundaries. While in all these areas Jews spoke Berber, for as long as people can remember, they also spoke vernacular Arabic (with specifically Jewish turns of phrase) in most mellahs as their native language. They wrote in Judeo-Arabic, (26) using Hebrew characters to transcribe their Moroccan speech. (27) 

Although the food eaten by Jews was very similar to that of Muslims, yet their dietary laws prohibited them from eating meals prepared in non-Jewish homes. On the other hand, they could eat eggs, olives, honey, oil, or dairy products from their neighbors. While the costumes of Jews and Muslims appeared to be very similar, close examination almost always revealed distinctive features of the Jews, whether it was the color of the upper garment or the kind of headdress worn by women and men. Islamic law required dhimmis to wear clothing that distinguished them from Muslims (and prohibited them from wearing turbans, for example), but in Berber country, the distinguishing features that made Jews identifiable were more a matter of custom than of legal requirement.

In Morocco, the Jew occupied a well-defined place in the socio-economic system of the Berber village: he generally fulfilled the function of either craftsman (goldsmith, shoemaker, tinsmith) or merchant, either occupation being ambulant. Even today, after thirty or forty years after their departure, the villagers of the Atlas and Saharan valleys remember with nostalgia the time when the Jews were part of their lives. 

While Muslim law establishes the status of the Jew (and the Christian) as a “protected” dhimmî, subject to certain obligations and prohibitions, Berber society seems to have been one of the few that did not experience antisemitism. Berber law, azref, known as “customary”, unlike Muslim and Jewish law, was completely independent of the religious sphere. It was, in essence, secular and egalitarian, and did not impose any particular status on the Jew.

The Berbers and Jews are people with a common past, they were separated by time but culturally very close by their common millenary history, they lived together on the shores of the Mediterranean. 

The Berber tribes were settled for a very long time in North Africa. Arab writers trace their origin to Goliath the Philistine and mention the emigration of the Canaanites. Talmudic and rabbinic accounts, whose sources go back to the first century of our era, mention, in fact, a voluntary migration of the inhabitants of Canaan towards North Africa after Joshua’s conquest. Procopius (500-565 AD), a Byzantine historian of the VIth century, cites a Phoenician inscription in Tigisis (today, Aïn-El-Bordj, 50 km south-east of Constantine) stating: “We are the ones who fled before this bandit Joshua“. 

Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century, takes up this assertion: “The Berbers are the children of Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah“. These are probably legends that were maintained throughout the Carthaginian domination and made plausible by the proximity of the Punic language and Hebrew. Sallust speaks of the Numidians (nomadic Berbers) and the Moors (sedentary Berbers). They are probably Ethiopian tribes of Semitic origin, who arrived in North Africa in successive waves: first the Louata and the Haouara, then the Nefoussas and Djeraoua, and finally the Zenata, who pushed back the other tribes.

The trades

The Jews practiced various trades in the Berber environment: farmers, saddle makers, goldsmiths, manufacturers of slippers embroidered with silk thread, carpets, and blankets makers, quilters, seamstresses, and merchants. Goldsmithing was practiced almost exclusively by Jews, they practiced this trade in lieu of Muslims because it was assimilated to usury in the Islamic doctrine for the latter.

Haim Zafrani, recalls: (28)

[“…certain trades are traditionally reserved for Jews, particularly those involving the handling of valuable materials such as gold, silver, precious stones and pearls.”]

‘’…certains métiers sont traditionnellement réservés aux juifs, particulièrement ceux où l’on manipule le plus de matière de valeur : or, argent, pierres précieuses et perles fines’’.

As for Yedida Stillman, she mentions in her article: (29)

[‘’sociological and historical reasons for this situation, but also for the applied ideology (of custom) which equated the creation of gold or silver objects intended for sale and whose price exceeds the real value of the object, is considered as a loan with interest’’]

‘’des raisons sociologiques et historiques à cette situation, mais aussi à l’idéologie appliquée (de coutume) qui assimilait la création d’objets d’or ou d’argent destinés à la vente et dont le prix dépasse la valeur réelle de l’objet, est considéré comme prêt avec intérêt’’.

This is why she concludes that this trade was not considered for a Muslim believer as a correct job.

The Berbers work with silver, essentially, and the production concerns both women’s jewelry as well as objects of worship (ornaments of Torah scrolls, hand of reading) or still accessories (snuffboxes) and weapons (daggers, swords).

While in the cities the goldsmiths are mainly men, in rural areas both men and women make jewelry. The women go to work on necklaces, where coins and pearls are strung, as well as head ornaments that are decorated with coins and beads. Let us also recall that the clothing is indissociable from the jewel, the sheet requiring the association of fibulae to hold.

The status of the woman in the Berber environment is different from that of the woman in the urban environment. While in the city women work in their homes, (30) Berber women, work the land, weave carpets and blankets that they sell, make jewelry and participate in trade. They have a certain independence and autonomy. They sing in ahwash music groups, play the tambourine, and dance at village festivals.

In the Rif mountains, the Jews were also responsible for weighing instruments, ishiyaren, by a government decree, because they were considered to be trustworthy according to David M. Hart. (31)

Berber Jews of Ait Bouguemmaz, Morocco

The synagogue

The synagogue in the Berber regions is, like the houses, rather precarious. Given the materials used in the construction: pisé, and straw. Work is done after the harsh winters of the Atlas to restore them, which explains the rapid disappearance of these places of worship. The framework is made up of beams that rest on the walls, for the roof it is made of reeds. For the walls, two techniques are mainly used, the adobe wall or the stone wall. The architecture itself is articulated around two central poles which are, in the east, the courtyard and the prayer room. The courtyard or reception area, which is the space needed to prepare for the transition from the outside world to a place dedicated to prayer, is a reminder of the courtyards that the people passed through in the Solomon’s Temple before entering the courtyard reserved for them. In these southern regions where people live outdoors, there is no shortage of space.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, (32) the synagogue was to be located in the upper part of the city. It is also established that the Jews must turn to Jerusalem for prayers. It, therefore, became customary for the wall that housed the holy cupboard or Hekhal in the name of the most sacred place in Solomon’s Temple (Isaiah 44:28; (33) Daniel 5:2 (34)), where the Torah scrolls are stored, is the wall facing the east.

In the Berber environment, the arch is in stone, and the doors are in the wood, painted or decorated with patterns. The size of the synagogue is reasonable; it adapts to the surface. The prayer room is mostly hypostyle with central pillars. The benches are generally made of stone and run along the walls, recalling the ancient synagogues of Galilee. In Taroudant and Demnat the benches are made of wood.

The Talmud indicates that one should not pray in a place without windows. (35) Therefore, synagogues are equipped, apart from skylights or small openings in the walls which also serve as a source of ventilation, small niches are dug into the walls where kendils – small oil lamps – are placed. Very often, because of the lack of light, thesynagogues are equipped with a central square or rectangular elevation, pierced by skylights whose number varies. These allow the introduction of light that illuminates the lectern, in order to facilitate the reading of the sacred texts by the officiant. Indeed, the oil lamps that were lit on Friday, for the entire duration of the Sabbath, were likely to go out before Saturday evening, so the lanterns were indispensable.

The synagogue is the preferred place for prayer, but many rituals may take place in the family home, or in any room where the holy scrolls are even temporarily housed.

Traditional education consists of teaching young boys the biblical text in schools called heder (comparable to Koranic schools) and older students attend yeshiva (comparable to madrassa) where they learn a method of studying the texts of the tradition.

The word rabbi (from the Hebrew rabbi, “my teacher”) refers to an authoritative religious leader or teacher. Some of them attain a reputation that borders on sanctity and earns them the respect of the faithful over several generations. The tombs of some of these rabbis are venerated, in Morocco as elsewhere, by both Jewish and Muslim populations. 

Thus, in Sefrou, a Berber city in the Middle Atlas, a natural cavity on the flank of Jbel Bina is located at the entrance to the city. The cave of believers, Kâf al-Mumen (the grotto of the faithful), keeps many legends. It is revered by Jews and Muslims.It is believed to house the tomb of a saint celebrated by both Muslims and Jews. The Berber Jews of Sefrou believed this grotto to be the burial site of the Prophet Daniel. (36)

The clothing

According to Jean Besancenot, in his book Costumes du Maroc: (37)

“The Jewish population was integrated into Moroccan life in a multitude of ways, in all places and each with its own variations.” 

The clothing common to the Jewish woman and the Berber woman in southern Morocco was the sheet, Izâr, the note establishing the difference will be mainly the hairstyle, which was, specifically Jewish and gave its character to the silhouette. Indeed, the religious prescriptions forbid married women to show their hair but allowed them to wear a scarf or a wig as long as it did not contain human hair. From there all these ingenious finds where one resorts to wool, silk, goat hair, bovine tails, feather of an ostrich, the whole surmounted of scarves of diadems, silver ornaments, giving birth to very graceful “jewel headdresses” but also to some downright burlesque. Each headdress has a particularity, and this, according to the region.

Berber Jewish Dress

The women wear the Izâr, a kind of rectangular sheet of cotton cloth of 4 to 5 meters in length and of a height of 1m50 to 1m80. The woman would fold the upper edge to a height varying according to the taste of each one; she would wrap herself, letting the fabric hang to the feet.

The fabric was fixed in front of the shoulders by two Khelalat fibulas. Enough room was left for the arms to have their freedom of movement. Only very poor women replaced the fibulas with nouettes consisting of small pebbles covered by the two layers of cloth and tied underneath with a small scoop. The remainder of the cloth was brought back and the whole tightened with the size by a small belt or a scarf. The part of the cloth covering the back kept a fullness that could be used to cover the shoulders but also sometimes to form a large pocket to carry a baby or various objects.

The women of the Todgha valley used to roll themselves in the sheet but in a particular way. Combined in such a way as to the front and the back, it conferred a lot of grace to the woman, and this, in spite of the simplicity of the fabric which was worn and sometimes torn. The sheet of the Berber was often worn without a belt, the panels floating freely. (38)

The Jewish women put on a belt which was in fact the blue scarf with polka dots that the men wear on the head. On the head, she wears a headdress composed of two parts. The first one, the upper one – swalf – is formed of intertwined cow’s tails; the lower part is made on both sides of the wool and looks like horns- tachqin – wrapped in a red or brown cloth. 

Indeed, this woman from Tahala wears Berber jewellery on the “big dress” or keswa l-kbira, a dress imported from Spain by the expelled Jews and which is composed of a corselet – gombaz – and a large Zeltita skirt. The sleeves are of velvet, embroidered with braces following the example of the Spanish infants. (39)

Language and literature

The Berber-speaking Jews of the Chleuh and Tamazight countries had their lively dialects and folklore that had nothing to envy to that of their Muslim neighbors, (40) a traditional and religious oral literature of which unfortunately only a few vestiges remain. (41)

In the valley of the Atlas, in the Sous, and in the Saharan confines (as also, it seems, in certain Algerian and Tunisian regions), they constituted formerly small communities grouped in mellahs and established there for centuries if not one or two millennia. Today, there is hardly any trace of them; since Morocco’s independence, they have immigrated en masse to Israel.

It is important to know that Berber was, until recent years, one of the vernacular languages of the Jewish communities living in the Moroccan mountains and the south of the country. Most of them were bilingual (Berber-Arabic speaking); others seem to have been exclusively Berber-speaking, as in Tifnut. (42)

In the Todgha valley (Tinghir), in the region of Tiznit (Wijjan, Asaka), in Ouarzazate (Imini), in Ifran of the Anti-Atlas, in Illigh, and elsewhere, not only was Berber the Jewish language of communication in the family, social and economic environment and in contacts with other ethnic and religious groups, but it also constituted, next to Hebrew, the language of culture and traditional teaching which used it for the explanation and translation of the sacred texts like the Judeo-Arabic or the old Castilian in the communities of Arab language or of Hispanic origin. Some prayers, the blessings of the Torah among others, were said only in Berber. 

Written and audio documentation on the folklore and intellectual life of these Berber-speaking communities has been gathered: some biblical texts in their Hebrew and Berber versions, liturgical hymns, and songs for the feasts that mark the great moments of Jewish life (circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, etc.) and in particular the Haggada. The Haggada of Pesah (43) is the most important and it is of great interest for the knowledge of the linguistic and cultural traditions of a world that was too little explored when there was still time to do so, belonging to a diaspora that has long been ignored and has now irrevocably disappeared.

Tombstone, Jews of the Western Anti-Atlas. Translation: “Tombstone of the honorable woman Hanina, daughter of Isaac the Sephardic. She died a saint on Friday the 30th of the month of Sivan in the year 5635 (1875), … May her soul…” Photo: Royal Museum for Central Africa (Belgium)

Nature of North African Jews

On the question of the nature of North African Jews, Julien Cohen-Lacassagne argues (44) that they are not Berberized and Arabized Jews, but Berbers and Judaized Arabs and he goes on to say: (45)

[“an obvious fact that is often hidden or even rejected: Jews and Muslims of the Maghreb share the same origins, confused in an Arab-Berber universe where the bonds of solidarity are sometimes based on religious affiliation, but not exclusively.”]

“une évidence souvent tue voire repoussée : juifs et musulmans du Maghreb partagent les mêmes origines, confondues dans un univers arabo-berbère où les liens de solidarités reposent parfois sur l’appartenance religieuse, mais non exclusivement.’’

In fact, Tertullian, then Saint Augustine, testify on several occasions to the Jewish presence in the Maghreb, in great theological and liturgical discussions which oppose them to Judaism in the south of the Mediterranean (but which also bring them closer together in the face of “the pagans”).

In their writings, they evoke in particular “the Jewish proselytism” towards the Berbers “whom Judaized en masse“. These Judeo-Berbers and these Christians will oppose thereafter a fierce resistance to the Arab invader. Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historian of the fifteenth century, relates that when the armies from Arabia penetrated into Berber country, many Berber tribes were influenced by Judaism (…) Part of the Berbers practiced Judaism, a religion they had received from their powerful neighbors, the Israelites of Syria. Among the Jewish Berbers were the Djeroua, a tribe that lived in the Aures and to which belonged the Kahina, a woman who was killed by the Arabs at the time of the first invasions (VIIth century). (46)

The Berber-speaking Jewish person, settled and mixed with the local “indigenous” populations since antiquity and is well-rooted in its cultural and linguistic environment. This two-thousand-year-old culture, if not more, has remained for several centuries an exclusively oral culture. (47)

The origin of Berber-speaking Jews can be linked to three different sources:

– Protohistoric immigration;

– Conversion of Berber populations; and

– The arrival of expelled people from Spain and Portugal in the XVth century.

The Berber-speaking Jewish population is far from being homogeneous and its linguistic and social status reflects the national sociolinguistic reality. The Berber-speaking Jewish oral culture remained marginalized for a long time, thanks to the relevant work of Haim Zafrani (48) that some fragments of this oral heritage could be saved. This work gave birth to the famous Judeo-Berber haggaddah of Tinghir.

The Almohads, a Berber dynasty that ostracized Berber Jews

In 1147, the Almohads took over the Maghreb and Andalusia and showed no mercy to those who refused to convert to Islam. They left them the choice between conversion to Islam and death, which, after a century of persecution, led to the disappearance of many Jewish communities. Large cities such as Kairouan were then forbidden to the Jews, who took refuge in isolated regions. (49)

At the beginning of the eleventh century, a charismatic figure appeared in the Berber tribes, mountain dwellers and sedentary people settled in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas, who imposed a rigorous and puritanical morality as well a fiercely monotheistic theology favoring a return to the primordial sources of Islam. 

Using the Berber language to spread his ideas and relying on a small circle of followers, the one who became the “Mahdi” Ibn Toumert was to permanently revolutionize the Berbers’ relationship to religion. After his death around 1128, his closest follower, Abd al-Mumin, took the title of Caliph in reference to the first companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, five centuries earlier.

Under the leadership of Abd al-Mumin, the Almohad tribes overthrew the Almoravid Empire in about twenty years, extending their power over the whole of the Maghreb and southern Spain and imposing a rigorous, intolerant, and extremist Islam that lasted long after their fall at the beginning of the XIIIth century. The doctrine of the Mahdi could only reinforce intolerance towards the other religions of the Book. 

As André Chouraqui notes, the Almohads emphasized the fact that five hundred years after the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad, it was clear that the Messiah of Israel had not yet come and that, no less certainly, Christ had not returned. Jews and Christians could no longer persevere in their error and were left with the choice between Islam and death. The application of this policy as the Moroccan conquests progressed brought about a profound terror and provoked numerous forced conversions but also executions: a document mentions the execution of 150 Jews in Sijilmassa, the head of the Jewish community of Fez, Rabbi Juda Hacohen ibn Shoushan was executed in 1165. Some Jewish families managed to escape, however, notably that of Maimonides. (50)

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) from Cordoba, after a long journey across North Africa, lists the extent of the disaster that befell the Jews of Kairouan, Sfax, Gabes, and Meknes, who were massacred just before those of Fes and Marrakech. Before the destruction of its Jewish community by the Almohads around 1150, Sijilmassa, located in Tafilalet at the crossroads of the caravans, was an important center of Jewish civilization. A city of sages and Talmudic studies which maintained a correspondence with the Yeshivas of the whole Mediterranean relates the Andalusian rabbi. Thus, in the twelfth century, as the result of Almohad religious intolerance and extremism, Maghrebi Judaism almost disappeared, if it were not for the solidarity of the Berbers who opened their homes to city Jews. 

In addition to the ancient Jewish settlements in the Atlas Mountains and the Berber interior of Morocco, periodic heavy persecution by the Almohads probably increased the Jewish presence there. This hypothesis is reinforced by the pogroms that occurred in Fez, Meknes, and Taza at the end of the fifteenth century, which would have brought another wave of Jews, among them Spanish families descended from Jews like the Peretz, and this wave would have even reached the Sahara as well as Figuig and Errachidia to flee Muslim religious extremism of the time.

Hassan el-Wazzan, known as Léon l’Africain, (51) passing through the “Algerian south”, announced that the adventure of the small Saharan Jewish kingdom of Touat had been brutally interrupted in 1492 by a Muslim preacher from Tlemcen, scandalized to see in Tamentit “arrogant Jews” to whom, as in the rest of the Maghreb, the (infamous) statute of the dhimmis (minorities of the Book subject to vexations and tithing) was not applied. This preacher ordered the destruction of the synagogues of Tamentit and the massacre of the Jews, promising 7 mithqals of gold per head of murdered Jew. The few survivors were divided between adherence to Islam and a massive exodus across the Sahara, both to the North and to the South. Some, including persecuted Christians, took refuge in Castile and Aragon, in Sicily, and others undoubtedly in the region of Timbuktu (now Mali).

Judaism revived in North Africa thanks to the massive arrival of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, driven out by the persecutions of the Inquisition of XVth and XVIth centuries. Thus Jewish communities in the Maghreb were swollen by these expellees and families bearing the names Toledano, Cordoba, and Berdugo testify to these Iberian roots.

The trans-faith notion of baraka

The establishment of a systematic typology of holiness is essentially based on the baraka. In the Moroccan context of the nineteenth century, the baraka is a notion that is strongly shared by both communities. Thus, in the multi-ethnic Moroccan society, the baraka, while retaining its sacred “mystical” aspect, takes on relative independence from “orthodox” dogma and becomes an object of socially shared convergence. (52)

Baraka is a notion that designates above all the type of relationship existing between the believer and any sacred object (saints, shrines, blessed objects, springs, trees, etc.). It should be specified that this notion, sometimes religious and sometimes magical, is of a “non-confessional” nature, in other words, it is socially shared, lent, and consumed by the whole society without any confessional or ethnic discrimination. In this regard, it will suffice to attend a ziyārah that is crowned by a sacrifice tagharst and a ritual dish “macrouf” consumed in common, to see that denominational boundaries are often non-existent in front of the baraka. (53)

It has often been thought that the cult of the saints was a veneration of the person. However, the phenomenon of veneration is above all a quest for the baraka. This blessing is supposed to be the manifestation of the divine in the rational world (objects, people, etc.). Thus, when the saint is mentioned, it is really for the quality of his baraka. (54) The ” wali” thus becomes the privileged mediator of this religious-magical force; he is thus solicited to intervene in order to accomplish a beneficial action.

“Khamsa” reflects faithfully the Judeo-Amazigh Cultural Substratum

Among Jews as well as Muslims in Morocco, access to holiness often follows the same itineraries. It is, first of all, a quest for piety, devotion, and charity, but also for the social role that the saint occupies in his own community and beyond its borders.

However, E. Dermenghem (55) distinguishes in this respect two categories of saints. The first category includes the so-called “serious” orthodox saints, who can be described as universal saints and national patrons. In Morocco, Moulay Idriss falls into this category, the example of the national patron saint par excellence. Moulay Abdelkader al-Jilani (1078-1166) (56) and Rabbi S. Bar Yohay  (71-161) (57) are considered universal saints, recognized and venerated in the country and far beyond its borders. The second category could be grouped under the label of “local popular” saints. These are generally anonymous saints who very often lack an established scholarly biography. In Sefrou, Kaf lihūd / Kâf al-mūman illustrates this very Moroccan particularity very well. They are often linked to a local context, a community, a village, a tribe, and a place. In context, this type of anonymous saint replaces the doctor, the social worker, and the psychologist.

The anonymous saints carry very often, in addition to their proper names, the names of the sites which shelter them. They are often claimed by Jews and Muslims and thus venerated in common. Thus, the hagiographic tradition often locates forms of sanctity in caves, springs trees, and rocks. The sacred geography of sanctity is rich in examples. Sidi Moul Lkbir (master of the great mountain) in Sefrou, also named Kâf lihūd / Kâf lmūman, Sidi Moul as-Sadra (master of jujube tree) in Tafilalet, Sidi Moul Nakhla (master of the palm tree), Sidi Lmakhfi (hidden saint) or (foreign saint).

In his book Pèlerinages judéo-musulmans du Maroc, L. Voinot does not fail to allude to the category of anonymous saints. He draws up an important inventory of the phenomenon of pilgrimages and proposes a reading based on two types of veneration. He thus evokes the pilgrimages intended for historically identified saints, established through a scholarly biography and a recognized chain, “silsilah“. In this first category, he mentions the pilgrimage where the identity of the saint is unknown; this last veneration generally occurs in the pre-monotheistic places of worship in Morocco. (58)

Thus, Voinot’s veneration of the common saints consists of three major subcategories:

– The first encompasses forty Jewish saints venerated by both communities;

– The second includes fourteen Muslim saints venerated by both Muslims and

Muslims and Jews; and

– The third consists of thirty-one saints who are disputed by Jews and Muslims. This category is largely related to anonymous saints.

The region of Sefrou is home to these three types of saints. On the one hand, there are the hereditary saints, represented by the Elbaz family and venerated only by Jews and on the other hand, the saints historically recognized as Jews, but who are venerated by Jews and Muslims with the example of R. Yahya Lahlou. Among the saints commonly recognized as Muslims, we have for example Sidi Ali Bouserghin. Finally, we have the anonymous saints commonly venerated by Jews and Muslims such as Kâf lihūd / Kâf al-mūman.

The baraka of the saint is not a saving force, but rather a remedy against the worries of earthly life. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that, in the Moroccan imagination, salvation cannot come from a saint but only from God. The saint is therefore venerated above all for his baraka and for the functions he occupies. (59)

The tasks of social order are concretized in the social role of the patron saint, who is at the same time arbitrator and protector. Very often, both communities in distress seek the services of the same Jewish (or Muslim) saint to judge a dispute and give his opinion in a case. Thus, for example, the judgment of a Jewish saint is never revoked, for he is as feared and respected as the Muslim saint. The stories and legends of southern Morocco are rich in anecdotes that confirm this example. Even in conflicts between Muslims, the Jewish saint is sometimes called upon to arbitrate. In Tarkelli, the Arabs swear by the name of Bayo – designation of R. Makhluf Ben Yousef Abihasira and in Tabia, they lay their hands on the tomb of Moul Timhdart to take an oath. (60)

On the shared religious legacy of Moroccans (Arab, Berber, and Jews), Gabriel Abderrahmane El Kheli writes: (61)

[‘’The beliefs and practices related to the veneration of saints in Morocco are considered a complex phenomenon that has its roots in antiquity. The “Ziyārah” is indeed above all a quest for identity. In a Judeo-Muslim context, access to sanctity has often followed similar paths; it is, in fact, a quest for piety, devotion and charity. Popular sanctity, one of the most striking characteristics of the Moroccan personality, regardless of denomination is fundamentally linked to the notion of Baraka.”]

‘’Les croyances et les pratiques liées à la vénération des saints au Maroc sont considérées comme un phénomène complexe qui trouve ses racines dans l’Antiquité. La « Ziyārah» est en effet avant tout une quête identitaire. Dans un contexte judéo-musulman, l’accès à la sainteté a souvent emprunté des voies analogues ; il s’agit, en effet, d’une quête de piété, de dévotion et de charité. La sainteté populaire, caractéristique des plus marquantes de la personnalité marocaine toutes confessions confondues- est fondamentalement liée à la notion de Baraka.’’

Throughout the Middle Ages, North Africa and Spain formed a single cultural domain, and Jewish scholars at the time traveled easily from one community to the other. This intermingling of populations no longer allowed for an ethnic distinction between the Jews of Spain and those of North Africa. However, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal after 1492, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, which had become Christian, emigrated in part to North Africa and formed a community distinct in its origins and particularism. They were called megorashim, the expelled, as opposed to toshavim, the indigenous, a term found mainly in marriage certificates, the ketubot. Thanks to these newcomers who constituted a local aristocracy, the Moroccan Judeo-Arabic dialect, in all its diversity, is still full of Spanish in the lexical field. Until the nineteenth century, certain Hebrew terms continued to be translated into Spanish in Meknes in the responsa (she’elot u-teshubot) of Jewish law texts, so that they could be better understood by the reader.


Morocco’s history is one of cultural and ethnic intermingling between various communities (Muslim, Jewish, Berber, Arab, Christian). The cohabitation and permanent interaction between Jews and Muslims have given rise to cultural interference in various areas of daily life such as food, clothing, music, folk tales, proverbs, anecdotes, beliefs, and magical practices or the common veneration of saints. (62)

Regional influences permeate the Berber Jews in many areas: linguistic, cultural, clothing, musical… They also practice jobs similar to those of their neighbors, and their places of worship blend into the local landscape of the South. Thus, women and men sing and dance Berber music Ahwash.  As for the languages practiced by these Berber Jews, one finds Berber or tashelhit, Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Arabic, and Hebrew for prayer. (63) They are very different from their Jewish co-religionists settled in the city. (64)

A heritage threatened with extinction, the Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Berber languages and haketía (Judeo-Spanish from the north of Morocco) were once transmitted within the family and the community. Today, as languages of intimacy, they are mainly taught at universities and cultural centers in France and elsewhere in the world and are also the subject of scientific research.

On the subject of comparison between Berber Jews and Arab Jews, Daniel Schroeter writes: (65)

[‘’L’affirmation selon laquelle les relations judéo-berbères étaient complètement différentes des relations arabo-juives est liée de très près à cette vision d’une dichotomie entre makhzen et siba. On cite en exemple la protection efficace des commerçants juifs par les chefs tribaux, ou les patrons berbères, au point de les rendre intouchables. ” Tout juif de bilad al-siba appartient corps et biens à son seigneur, son sid “, écrit Charles de Foucauld, dont les relations avec les communautés juives du Maroc font partie du corpus historique sur le judaïsme marocain. Bien que le Juif soit protégé, Foucauld le décrit comme un être servile, exploité sans merci par son maître. Comme les régions berbères appartiennent au bilad al-siba, les Juifs se doivent d’obtenir la protection de chefs locaux et indépendants du Sultan. Slouschz considère la situation des Juifs du bilad al-siba à la manière de Foucauld : ” à Tililit commence, pour les Juifs, le pays du servage, on pourrait même dire de l’esclavage. Tout ce que les Juifs possèdent appartient au Qaid, qui a droit de vie et de mort sur ses sujets. Il peut les tuer en toute impunité, il peut les vendre si tel est son désir… En échange de la perte de tous ses droits, le juif jouit de la sécurité, que le maître lui assure au risque de sa propre vie… Un Juif qui veut se marier doit acheter sa future femme au sid auquel appartient le père de la fille et qui est l’unique maître de son destin. “]

‘’L’affirmation selon laquelle les relations judéo-berbères étaient complètement différentes des relations arabo-juives est liée de très près à cette vision d’une dichotomie entre makhzen et siba. On cite en exemple la protection efficace des commerçants juifs par les chefs tribaux, ou les patrons berbères, au point de les rendre intouchables. ” Tout juif de bilad al-siba appartient corps et biens à son seigneur, son sid “, écrit Charles de Foucauld, dont les relations avec les communautés juives du Maroc font partie du corpus historique sur le judaïsme marocain. Bien que le Juif soit protégé, Foucauld le décrit comme un être servile, exploité sans merci par son maître. Comme les régions berbères appartiennent au bilad al-siba, les Juifs se doivent d’obtenir la protection de chefs locaux et indépendants du Sultan. Slouschz considère la situation des Juifs du bilad al-siba à la manière de Foucauld : ” à Tililit commence, pour les Juifs, le pays du servage, on pourrait même dire de l’esclavage. Tout ce que les Juifs possèdent appartient au Qaid, qui a droit de vie et de mort sur ses sujets. Il peut les tuer en toute impunité, il peut les vendre si tel est son désir… En échange de la perte de tous ses droits, le juif jouit de la sécurité, que le maître lui assure au risque de sa propre vie… Un Juif qui veut se marier doit acheter sa future femme au sid auquel appartient le père de la fille et qui est l’unique maître de son destin“.’’

The religious dimension in Morocco is particular since it is a monarchy of divine right. It is therefore a non-secular country, placed under the authority of a King, who is the Commander of the Faithful amîr al-mu’minîn and guardian of sacred places. He is respected and even adored by a large majority of Moroccans. (66) It is impossible to contradict him both on a political and religious level. 

King Mohammed VI, wants to give Morocco the image of a tolerant country advocating a moderate Islam that allows the Jewish minority to be well integrated into a country open to other religions. (67) One can therefore be Jewish and Moroccan. (68) The preamble of the Moroccan supreme law (constitution) specifies in this sense that: (69)

‘’A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its ArabIslamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]. The preeminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with [va de pair] the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialog for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world.’’

A heritage assumed, preserved, and safeguarded through all the vicissitudes of history. (70)

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu


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  33.  New International Version who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’
  34. King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.
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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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