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At the beginning of the nineteenth century Algeria had been a province of the Ottoman Empirefor four centuries. Like other provinces it evolved through the cycles of Turkish imperial conquest, increasing administrative autonomy from Istanbul, and integration of the Turkish ruling class with the local Arab and Berber leadership. During the first two periods the country had acquired a heroic history of jihad against the Habsburg Empire and corsair exploits against Christian shipping. Ruling-class integration, however, was far from complete; local leaders, often claiming religious legitimation, periodically revolted, as in 1805-1808 when shaykhs of the Darqawiyah brotherhood rebelled against central government control. Although Algeria possessed a shared, heroic history and basic central administrative institutions before 1830, when the French conquest began, its ruling class remained divided, leaving it an imperial, not a national state.

Sparsely populated, primarily rural Algeria lacked the institutions of learning that in other Islamic areas undergirded political centralism. Legal scholarship (fiqh), the leading field of intellectual activity in the early modern age, was far less prominent in Algiers than it was, for example, in Fez,Tunis, or Cairo. (An exception was the Mzab, an oasis cluster in the Sahara that was the refuge of the Ibadi Khawarij, a minority branch distinct from the Maliki Sunni mainstream in North Africa[see Ibadiyah].) Given a comparatively low level of literacy and the absence of large libraries, Algerian popular Islam was a largely oral religion in which communal mnenomic practices tended to take the place of literary studies.

The central figure in this oral Islam was the saint (wah or, locally, marabout), a person endowed with charisma (barakah) and often descended (or claiming descent) from the Prophet or his companions. In his lodge (zdwiyah) the saint was the master (mawlay) who instructed his followers in sacred litanies. The recitation of these litanies, requiring repetitive breathing and prayer movements, induced a communal trance (wajd) in which the saint wrought miracles for his followers, such as exorcism or healing. Over the centuries Algeria acquired hundreds of saints whose tombs, administered either by descendants or by new saints, were often places of local pilgrimage and veneration. Some Sufi lodges established branch lodges; others, equipped with small libraries, engaged in a measure of scholarship. Saintly Islam was thus highly differentiated, ranging from the shaykh at the head of a large regional brotherhood to the local mystic (Sufi) with his handful of adepts. [See Sainthood; Barakah; Zawiyah; Mawlay; and Sufism, article on Sufi Shrine Culture.]

Among noteworthy recent shaykhs was the Fezeducated Arab Abu Hamid al-Darqawi (d. 1823) whose followers sided with the sultan of Morocco in the latter’s struggle with the dey of Algiers for control of western Algeria after Spainhad relinquished Oranin 1803. Another was `Abd al-Rahman al-Gushtuili (d. 1793), a Kabyle Berber who studied in Cairo and after his death became so famous that he manifested himself in two tombs, one in Algiers and the other for his following, the Rahmaniyah, in his native Kabylia. [See Kabylia.] A third notable saint was Ahmad al-Tijani (d. 1815), a scholarly mystic who taught in Tlemcen and Fez before returning to his native `Ayn Madi in the Sahara. [See the biography of Tijdni.] Saints could be well-traveled and highly educated but still strongly committed to the preaching of oral Islam. In sum, the Algeria the French invaded in 1830 was a centrally-if weakly-governed country with strong countervailing traditions of communal autonomy, both political and religious.

The conquest of Algiers occurred afterFrance had lost its old overseas empire and before it entered the European scramble for African territories. A minor dispute over French payments for Algerian wheat deliveries during the Napoleonic wars had escalated into a military confrontation, lost by a militarily inept dey. The French were initially reluctant to commit themselves to a costly conquest of the rest of the country, and their hesitancy enabled leaders-such as the Turkishdescended Ahmad Bey of Constantine or the Arab leader of the Qadiriyah in the Oranais, Emir `Abd alQadir Muhy! al-Din-to establish temporary regimes. [See Qadiriyah and the biography of `Abd al-Qddir.]

Even after being defeated in the north in 1857, the Algerians continued to resist the French, albeit sporadically. The most dangerous uprising occurred in 18711872 when a regional administrator, Muhammad al-Muqrani, together with Shaykh al-Haddad of the Rahmaniyah brotherhood, mobilized large areas of eastern Algeria against the French. In the south, the French conquest was completed only in 1882 with the retreat to Morocco of Bu `Amamah, a saintly leader of the Awlad Sidi Shaykh who traced his descent to Caliph Abu Bakr.

The French exacted merciless retribution against the vanquished Algerians. By the end of the century the colonial government had settled some 200,000 immigrants fromFrance,Italy, and Spainon 2.3 million hectaresor nearly 40 percent of the agricultural land-after either expropriating or buying the land at nominal prices. The most fertile, irrigable lands were turned over to European commercial farming enterprises for the cultivation of grapes, vegetables, and citrus fruits. Around 400,000 other European immigrants settled in the newly founded urban network of about fifty towns and cities.

In spite of all colonial settlement efforts the indigenous population remained the majority; in fact, it more than tripled during 1830-1914, from 1.5 to 4.8 million, owing mostly to the decline of cholera and famine cycles after 1867. At first the traditionally extensive wheat and barley agriculture provided sufficient work and income to all, but since the land of rural Algerians could not be irrigated and they could not afford chemical fertilizers, eventually a large landless proletariat emerged (from 360,000 to 600,000 persons in 1901-1914). At the same time, rural-urban migration began to pick up (urban population increased 8 percent above that of the countryside in 1901-1914), as did labor migration toFrance(rising from 200 to 15,000 persons in 1906-1914). Thus the combination of indigenous population increase and French colonialism created the impoverishment of the traditional rural population as well as the emergence of a new urban society.

The elite of this urban society, highly literate and therefore at some remove from the enchanted world of oral religion, embraced the two typical forms of disenchantment-secularism and fundamentalism. Secularism gained its first recruits between 1900 and 1914 from among some 25 Muslim Algerian doctors, lawyers, engineers, and professors and Zoo high-school teachers who were fully assimilated to French culture, as well as perhaps another 1,000 intellectuals with some French education. Their political engagement was directed toward the abolition of the discriminatory penal laws, taxes, and voting rights to which the indigenous population was subjected, as well as toward the establishment of full equality with the European settlers. These demands acquired urgency in 1908 whenParisbegan to consider military conscription for Muslim Algerians (which became a reality during World War I). Although the metropole was willing to grant concessions in return for war service, the European settlers were not, even after the war. The Young Algerians, as the politically minded secularists called themselves, had minimal success.

At roughly the same time an even smaller handful of religious scholars, graduates of mosque schools in Al-giers, Constantine, and Tlemcen, were publishing ephemeral journals in Arabic. They were inspired by the visit to Algiersin 1903 of Muhammad `Abduh, the Egyptian representative of the Salafiyah movement that promoted a spiritual return to the foundations of Islam. Accordingly, they criticized the representatives of saintly Islam for indulging in what they called blameworthy doctrinal innovation (bid’ah) and un-Islamic practices, such as ecstatic union with God, saintly mediation between believers and God, and pilgrimages to saints’ tombs. In their opinion religion was determined by scripture and early Islamic practice alone-hence the fundamentalism of their faith.

During the interwar period Algeria’s secularists, led by the pharmacist Ferhat ‘Abbas (d. 1985), remained committed to a future for the country as an equal part of France, even after 1938 when a major reform bill proposing improved voting rights failed in Paris. By contrast, the fundamentalist Association of Algerian `Ulama’, founded by `Abd al-Hamid ibn Badis (d. 1940) in 1931, favored the early Islamic framework in which the status of believers and unbelievers, as well as that of men and women, was differentiated under the law. [See the biography of Ibn Badis.] By implication, no common future could exist for France and Algeria. The colonial authorities were quite aware of the radicalism hidden in  the `ulama’s position and severely restricted the latter’s efforts to disseminate their ideas in the mosques and private schools where they offered courses in Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), prophetic tradition (hadith), and legal scholarship. But given the fact that the colonial system provided schools for fewer than 9 percent of Muslim children of school age during the interwar period, neither secularists nor fundamentalists had much chance of finding mass audiences, even had the French been less repressive.

The great majority of new indigenous urban dwellers, with severely limited access to French or Arabic education, stayed in the enchanted world of oral Islam. They often had to practice it without much saintly guidance, especially if they were among the Algerian industrial workers in France(300,000 by 1936). Because they lacked extensive exposure to literary culture, secularism as well as fundamentalism passed them by. They remained at bottom the Dargawis or Rahmanis they had been in their villages before moving to town or across the Mediterranean, even though as emigrant workers in France many of them acquired the practical abilities to function in an industrial society well before independence.

A characteristic example is Messali al-Hajj (Messali Had), d. 1974), founding father in 1926 of Algerian nationalism. Messali was the son of a Turkish-descended laborer and later guardian of the tomb of Sid! Bu Madyan (Shu’ayb Abu Madyan) in Tlemcen. He graduated from both the local Dargawi lodge and French primary school, did his army service in France, and stayed on as an unskilled worker. Although he took evening courses in French and Islamic cultural topics and married a French labor militant, he did not abandon his rootsnor did he later repudiate his acquired French culture. Because his Islamic oral culture and modest Islamic and French literary acquisitions were of such vastly different natures and hence in no serious competition, he experienced no cultural conflicts. Only people divorced from oral culture and brought up in the two competing universes of written Arabic and French letters were apt to suffer the cultural Manichaeism of which Frantz Fanon speaks in his books onAlgeria. Like many other nationalists prior to Algerian independence, Messali al-Hajj (according to his autobiography) was thoroughly at ease with his eclectic cultural makeup.

In spite of having attracted some io,ooo party members by 1940, Messali al-Hajj’s Party of the Algerian People was just as powerless as the assimilationists and `ulama’ in bringing about political reforms-not to mention independence-for the country: the European settlers considered the colony an irrevocable part of France. During World War II nationalists began envisaging violence as a means to attain independence. On 8 May 1945, Messali al-Hajj was apparently ready to step forward as the liberator of the country when nationalists turned the victory celebrations in Setif into riots. Savage French repressions resulting in the death of at least fifteen thousand Muslims ended the dream of independence through spontaneous mass uprisings. [See the biography of Messali al-Hajj.]

In the postwar years a serious split between a secret military underground and a central committee that considered any further violence suicidal immobilized nationalist action. It was only on 1 November 1954 that the underground cut the Gordian knot by reconstituting itself as a National Liberation Front (known by its French initials FLN) separate from Messali al-Hajj and the nationalists, launching a carefully prepared guerilla war for independence. Initially the FLN was able to exploit serious weaknesses in a French army demoralized from the loss of Vietnam, but in the long run it was no military match. The FLN survived politically only because French president Charles de Gaulle realized that France would benefit more from an independent Algeria, paying its own bills, than from continued colonialism.

When Algeria became independent on 18 March 1962 it was an impoverished, overwhelmingly rural country. Two-thirds of the population still depended on subsistence agriculture, which only one-quarter of it was able to do without resorting to part-time urban labor or depending on remittances from relatives working in cities or abroad. One million Muslim Algerians, of a population of nine million, had died in the struggle, and two million had lost their homes. Three-quarters of urban Algerians were jobless because nearly all settlers, including most professionals and administrators, had left the country. The FLN faced a hopeless task; it was three years before Colonel Houari Boumedienne was able to establish the first stable government.

The nationalists of the FLN were largely (77 percent) primary-school graduates from small towns and villages whose vocational or university careers had been interrupted by the war. As such they formed the vanguard of the new urban population, a sizable but nevertheless minority group in a mass of farmers. However, they did not hesitate to regard themselves as representatives of rural Algerians, assuming the role of preceptors of the nation. On the basis of ample oil and gas revenues an ambitious program of state-controlled heavy industrialization was adopted to provide the basis for a modern consumer society.

The cultural underpinnings for the achievement of industrialization were to be provided by an educational system that borrowed from the fundamentalist `ulama’ of a generation earlier as well as from the French secular system once supported by the assimilationists. Accordingly, children were educated in the literary Islam of the religious scholars (constitutionally sanctioned as the state religion), the heroic history of Muslim North Africa, and also the modern languages and scientifictechnical fields inherited from France. An ambitious plan to arabize the entire administrative and educational structures was set in motion. Saintly Islam was officially vilified in the National Charter of 1976 as archaic and tainted by collaboration with colonialism, destined to die away under the onslaught of modernity.

By the 1990s the mission of national reeducation had been largely accomplished. The initial successes of the industrialization program resulted in a rapid urbanization that shrank the percentage of the population depending on agriculture from two-thirds to one-quarter. This shrinkage is all the more impressive if one takes into account the high birthrate (rising from 2 percent to over 3 percent from 1962-1992), which nearly tripled the overall population in the thirty years of independence (about 27 million in 1992). Nearly all these new urbanites, and 84 percent of all those between the ages of six and fifteen, received at least a primary-school education. By the mid-1980s the majority of the population born since independence was acculturated into the new Arabic culture officially decreed by the nationalists and possessed little emotional attachment to the oral culture of saintly Islam. Literary Islam has become the new popular religion ofAlgeria-the large numbers of secularists excepted.

Unfortunately, by the mid-1980s the industrialization process had also gone sour. The worldwide decline of oil prices forced drastic reductions in the program of heavy industrialization that was still an integral part of the state socialism proclaimed in the 1976 Charter. In the absence of private light industries geared toward satisfying urban consumer demand, unemployment and inflation were rampant. After widespread riots in October 1988, Colonel Benjedid Chadli, a former FLN fighter who had succeeded Boumediene in the presidency after the latter’s death in 1978, decided to replace the singleparty rule of the FLN with a multiparty system.

Almost overnight the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (known by its French initials FIS; Ar., Jabhat al-Inqadh al-Islami) became the strongest challenger of the FLN, demanding the establishment of an Islamic state and the privatization of the economy. However, Chadli continued to cling to state socialism; his only concession was the transfer of industrial management from the state ministries to a complicated system of trusts staffed by the ministries. Only in March 1990, with the passing of a first set of laws, did the government finally bow to the inevitability of a private industrial sector if economic collapse was to be avoided. [See Islamic Salvation Front.]

The crisis that began in 1988 highlighted the grave danger of a major split in present Algerian society. Since a majority of Algerians have left the enchanted culture of the spoken word for that of the written word or scientific formula, the inescapable disenchantment seems to impose a necessary choice between secularism or fundamentalism. The entrenched technocrats of the bureaucracies, state industries, and army, as well as the FLN functionaries born after independence, are faced by angry Islamists without jobs but in possession of the true word of the Qur’an. Cultural reconciliation is essential but a saint-led reenchantment no longer seems possible.


Religion and religious practices of the Ottoman period are covered by J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (London, 1971). Jamil M. Abun-Nasr studied one of these “orders,” which rose concomitantly with the French conquest, in The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World (London, 1965). A comprehensive bibliography on the topic of modern Islam inAlgeriais PessahShinar, Essai de bibliography selective et annotee sur l’Islam maghrebin contemporain: Maroc, Algerie, Tunisie, Libye (1830-1978) (Paris, 1983).

The history of modernAlgeriais authoritatively studied by John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation (Bloomington, 1992). Alternatively, see also Mahfoud Bennoune, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987 (Cambridge, 1988). Two classics on the nineteenth century are Charles-Andre Julien, Histoire de l’Algerie contemporaine, vol. i, La conquese et les debuts de la colonisation, 1827-71 (Paris, 1979), and Charles-Robert Ageron, Histoire de l’Algerie contemporaine, 1871-IgIg, 2 vols. (Paris, 1964). For an extension of the latter, see Histoire de l’Algerie contemporaine, 1871-1954, vol. 2, De rinsurrection de 1871 au declenchement de la guerre de liberation (Paris, 1979).

The classic works on the history of the first half of the twentieth century (nationalism, Islamic reform) are Andre Nouschi, Les origines du nationalisme algerien (Paris, 1979) and Ali Merad, Le reformisme musulman en Algerie de 1925 a 1940 (Paris, 1967). The best biography on the founder of Algerian nationalism is by Benjamin Stora, Messali Hadj, 1898-197¢: Pionnier du nationalisme algerien (Paris, 1986). On Algerian society during the interwar period, see Germaine Tillion, The Republic of Cousins: Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (London, 1983), and Pierre Bourdieu and Sayad Abdelmalek, Le deracinement: La crise de l’agriculture traditionelle en Algerie (Paris, 1977).

The most detailed study in English of the war of independence is Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York, 1987). The definitive work on Algeria’s political institutions after independence is Jean Leca and Jean-Claude Vatin, L’Algerie politique, institutions et regimes, vol. 2 (Paris, 1975). The social evolution of the country after 1962 is expertly discussed by Bruno Etienne, Algerie: Cultures et revolution (Paris, 1977). The outstanding critic of Islamic religion, and one of the few thinkers outside the Islamist current, is the Algerian (teaching in Paris) Mohammed Arkoun, best known for his Pour une critique de la raison islamique (Paris, 1984).


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/algeria/

  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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