The Sanhaja (Berber languages: Aẓnag, pl. Iẓnagen, and also Aẓnaj, pl. Iẓnajen; Arabic: صنهاجة, Ṣanhaja or زناگة Znaga) were once one of the largest Berber tribal confederations, along with the Zanata and Masmuda confederations.[1] Many tribes in Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania bore and still carry this ethnonym, especially in its Berber form. Other names for the population include Zenaga, Znaga, Sanhája, Sanhâdja and Senhaja.

Distribution of Berber-speaking groups (including Berber Sanhaja, and the Zenatan Mozabites and Siwis)


Dance group of Sanhaja from the western Sahara at the National Folklore Festival at Marrakech

After the arrival of Islam, the Sanhaja spread out to the borders of the Sudan as far as the Senegal River and the Niger.[1]

Sanhaja Berbers were a large part of the Berber population. From the 9th century, Sanhaja tribes were established in the Middle Atlas range, in the Rif Mountains and on the Atlantic coast of Morocco as well as large parts of the Sanhaja, such as the Kutâma, were settled in central and eastern parts Algeria (Kabylia, Setif, Algiers, Msila) and also in northern Niger. They played an important part in the rise of the Fatimids. The Sanhaja dynasties of the Zirids and Hammâdids controlled Ifriqiya until the 12th century.

In the mid-11th century, a group of Sanhaja chieftains returning from the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) invited the theologian Ibn Yasin to preach among their tribes. Ibn Yasin united the tribes in the alliance of the Almoravids in the middle of the 11th century. This confederacy subsequently established Morocco, and conquered western Algeria and Al-Andalus (part of present-day Spain).[2]

The Zenata or Sanhaja tribes would remain in roles as either exploited semi-sedentary agriculturalists and fishermen (Zenaga or Znaga tribes), or, higher up on the social ladder, as religious (Marabout or Zawiya) tribes. Though often Arabized in culture and language, they are believed to be descended from the Zenata or Sanhaja Berber population present in the area before the arrival of the Arab Maqil tribes in the 12th century, which was finally subjected to domination by Arab-descended warrior castes in the 17th century Char Bouba war.[3]

According to Mercer, the words Zenaga or Znaga (from the Berber root ẓnag or ẓnaj, giving the noun Aẓnag or Aẓnaj with the additional masculine singular prefix a-, or Taẓnagt or Taẓnajt with the additional feminine singular circumfix ta--t, or Iẓnagen or Iẓnajen with the additional masculine plural circumfix i--en, or Tiẓnagen or Tiẓnajen with the additional feminine plural circumfix ti--en) are thought to be a romanized distortion of Zenata and Sanhaja from Arabic.

Present day

Map of the Sanhaja de Srayr tribes and their respective territories in the Rif

The descendants of the Sanhaja and their languages are still found today in the Middle Atlas mountains, eastern Morocco, Northern Morocco (Rif), Western Algeria, Kabylia and Kabyle territories.

The Zenaga, a group believed to be of Gudala (the southernmost Sanhaja tribe) origin, inhabit southwestern Mauritania and parts of northern Senegal. However, they are a small population.[4]

See also


  1. Nelson, Harold D. (1985). Morocco, a country study. Washington, D.C.: The American University. p. 14.
  2. Nelson 15-16
  4. "Sanhaja tribe", Library of Congress

Further reading

  • John O. Hunwick (ed.), West Africa, Islam and the Arab World: Studies in Honor of Basil Davidson Paperback
  • John Mercer (1976), Spanish Sahara, George Allen & Unwin Ltd (ISBN 0-04-966013-6)
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita (2006), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, Scarecrow Press
  • Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff (1980), The Western Saharans. Background to Conflict, Barnes & Noble Books (ISBN 0-389-20148-0)
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