Islam was first brought to Algeria by the Umayyad dynasty following the invasion of Uqba ibn Nafi, in a drawn-out process of conquest and conversion stretching from 670 to 711. The native Berbers were rapidly converted in large numbers, although some Christian and probably pagan communities would remain at least until Almoravid times.
However, as in the Middle East itself, they sought to combine their new Islam with resistance to the Caliphate’s foreign rule – a niche which the Kharijite and Shiite “heresies” filled perfectly.
By the late 8th century, most of Algeria was ruled by the Rustamids, who professed the strictly puritanical but politically moderate Ibadhi sect and saw the Caliphs as immoral usurpers. They were destroyed by the Shia Fatimids in 909, but their doctrine was reestablished further south by refugees whose descendants would ultimately found the towns of the Mzab valley in the Algerian Sahara, where Ibadhism still dominates.
Though it convinced the Kutama of Kabylie, the Fatimids’ Ismaili doctrine remained unpopular in most of North Africa, and the Fatimids themselves abandoned Algeria for Egypt as soon as they could, leaving North Africa to a dynasty only nominally subject to them, the Zirids.
With the political threat of the Abbasid Caliphate gone, these soon reverted to Sunni Islam – specifically, the Maliki branch, whose popularity had spread widely in the Maghreb. The Fatimids took their revenge by sending the Bedouin Banu Hilal to wreak havoc on the region, but were incapable of controlling it; Shiism rapidly dwindled, and became virtually nonexistent in the area.
The Almoravids and Almohads were zealously orthodox, and under their rule Algeria gradually acquired its notable religious homogeneity. Sunni Islam and the Maliki madhhab became virtually universal, apart from the Ibadhis of the Mzab and small Jewish communities.
When the Ottomans ruled Algeria, they brought the Hanafi madhhab with them; however, they accepted the local custom of Maliki law, and used Hanafi law only in cases involving Turks. During these centuries Sufi brotherhoods were widespread, and marabouts and saint cults – still testified to by the many Algerian towns named “Sidi (St.) …” – enjoyed great popularity.
In anarchic mountain areas, marabouts and saints (and their tombs) served a political function, aiding in the negotiation of truces, while in the cities they provided a focus for the religious brotherhoods; everywhere they were looked to for intercession and baraka, holy power, except among the learned minority.
Islam took longer to spread to the far south of Algeria, whose history is to a large extent separate: only in the 15th century were the Tuareg finally converted to Islam.
In 1830, the French conquered Algiers. Their attempts to rule the rest of the country met stiff opposition, often religiously inspired: the Sufi warrior Amir Abd al-Qadir was particularly notable for his campaign to keep the French out. Even after his defeat, rebellions continued to be mounted until at least 1870, notably that of Cheikh Mokrani; again, a religious motivation was notable in most, though not all, of these.
Soon after arriving in Algeria, the French colonial regime set about undermining traditional Muslim Algerian culture. By French law Muslims could not hold public meetings, carry firearms, or leave their homes or villages without permission. Legally, they were French subjects, but to become French citizens, with full rights, they had to renounce Islamic law. Few did so.
The land of Islamic charitable trusts (habus) was regarded as government property and confiscated. Much of the network of traditional Qur’anic schools and zaouias – regarded with suspicion as centers of potential resistance – collapsed, and the literacy rate fell.
However, the emergence of the religious scholar and reformer Abdelhamid Ben Badis would go some way to reversing these trends. Beginning in the 1910’s, he preached against the traditional marabouts and the saint cults, and urged the importance of Arabic and Islamic education; his disciples founded an extensive network of schools, and rapidly brought the saint cults into widespread disrepute, making Algerian Islam substantially more orthodox.
According to Islam, a Muslim society permanently subject to non-Muslim rulers is unacceptable. Muslims believe that non-Muslim rule must be ended as quickly as possible and Muslim rulers restored to power. For this reason, Islam became a strong element of the resistance movement to the French in the Algerian War of Independence.
The independence fighters were termed moudjahidine – practicers of jihad – and its fallen are called chouhada, martyrs, despite the revolution’s avowed socialism; even during the revolution, the FLN made symbolic efforts to impose Islamic principles, such as banning wine and prostitution.
After independence the Algerian government asserted state control over religious activities for purposes of national consolidation and political control. Islam became the religion of the state in the new constitution (Article 2), and was the religion of its leaders. The state monopolized the building of mosques, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs controlled an estimated 5,000 public mosques by the mid-1980s. Imams were trained, appointed, and paid by the state, and the Friday khutba, or sermon, was issued to them by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
That ministry also administered religious property (the habus), provided for religious education and training in schools, and created special institutes for Islamic learning. Islamic law (sharia) principles were introduced into family law in particular, while remaining absent from most of the legal code; thus, for example, while Muslim women were banned from marrying non-Muslims (by the Algerian Family Code of 1984), wine remained legal.
Those measures, however, did not satisfy everyone. As early as 1964 a militant Islamic movement, called Al Qiyam (values), emerged and became the precursor of the Islamic Salvation Front (Islamist party) of the 1990s. Al Qiyam called for a more dominant role for Islam in Algeria’s legal and political systems and opposed what it saw as Western practices in the social and cultural life of Algerians.
Although militant Islamism was suppressed, it reappeared in the 1970s under a different name and with a new organization. The movement began spreading to university campuses, where it was encouraged by the state as a counterbalance to left-wing student movements. By the 1980s, the movement had become even stronger, and bloody clashes erupted at the Ben Aknoun campus of the University of Algiers in November 1982. The violence resulted in the state’s cracking down on the movement, a confrontation that would intensify throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
The rise of Islamism had a significant impact on Algerian society. More women began wearing the veil, some because they had become more conservative religiously and others because the veil kept them from being harassed on the streets, on campuses, or at work. Islamists also prevented the enactment of a more liberal family code despite pressure from feminist groups and associations.
After the Islamic Salvation Front won the 1991 elections, and was then banned after the elections’ cancellation by the military, the tensions between Islamists and the government erupted into open fighting, which lasted some 10 years in the course of which some 100,000 people were killed. (See also: History of Algeria since 1962.) However, some Islamist parties remained aboveground – notably the Movement of Society for Peace and Islamic Renaissance Movement – and were allowed by the government to contest later elections.
Almost all Algerians are traditionally Muslim; resident Christians, numbering less than 1% of the population, are mainly foreigners. It is more difficult to determine the incidence of atheism/agnosticism, but there are some non-believers, notably in the larger cities. Sunni Islam is universal apart from the small Mozabite community, concentrated in five Saharan oases, which instead follows Ibadhism.
The dominant madhhab is Maliki, although, at least until the last century, some families of Turkish descent followed the Hanafi madhhab. Sufi brotherhoods have retreated considerably, but remain in some areas. Saint cults are widely disapproved of as un-Islamic, but continue, as a visit to the shrine of Sidi Abderrahmane in Algiers quickly demonstrates.
The popularity of Islamism fluctuates according to circumstance; in the 2002 elections, legal Islamist parties received some 20% of the seats in the National Assembly, way down from the FIS’s 60% in 1991. Conversely, strong anti-Islamist sentiment (typified politically by the RCD, which received 8%) is not unknown, although it appears to be rather less widespread.