During the seventh century, Muslim conquerors reached North Africa,
and by the beginning of the eighth century the Berbers had been
for the most part converted to Islam. Orthodox Sunni
(see Glossary) Islam, the larger of the two great branches of the
faith, is the form practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims
in Algeria. Shia
(see Glossary) Islam is not represented apart from a few members
of the Ibadi sect, a Shia offshoot.
Before the Arab incursions, most of the Berber inhabitants of
the area's mountainous interior were pagan. Some had adopted Judaism,
and in the coastal plains many had accepted Christianity under
the Romans. A wave of Arab incursions into the Maghrib in the
latter half of the seventh century and the early eighth century
introduced Islam to parts of the area.
One of the dominant characteristics of Islam in North Africa
was the cult of holy men, or maraboutism. Marabouts were believed
to have baraka, or divine grace, as reflected in their
ability to perform miracles. Recognized as just and spiritual
men, marabouts often had extensive followings locally and regionally.
Muslims believed that baraka could be inherited, or that
a marabout could confer it on a follower.
The turuq (sing., tariqa, way or path), or
brotherhoods, were another feature of Islam in the Maghrib from
the Middle Ages onward. Each brotherhood had its own prescribed
path to salvation, its own rituals, signs, symbols, and mysteries.
The brotherhoods were prevalent in the rural and mountainous areas
of Algeria and other parts of North Africa. Their leaders were
often marabouts or shaykhs. The more orthodox Sunni Muslims dominated
the urban centers, where traditionally trained men of religion,
the ulama, conducted the religious and legal affairs of the Muslim
Data as of December 1993