Shilha people

The Shilha people, or Ishelhien, are a major Berber subgroup primarily inhabiting the Anti-Atlas, High Atlas, Sous Valley, and southern coastal regions of Morocco.[1][2]

Shilha people, Ishelhien
ⵉⵛⵍⵃⵉⵢⵏ (ishelhien)
Total population
~9 million (~25% of the moroccan population)
Regions with significant populations
Morocco-Atlas Mountains, Sous Valley
Predominantly Muslim
Related ethnic groups


The Shilha people traditionally call themselves ishelhien. This endonym is rendered as les Chleuh in French.[3] The Ishelhien are also known as Shluh and Schlöh.[1] Among Arabic speakers, Chleuh serves as an appellation for Berbers generally, although Imazighen is the proper Berber self-name for Berbers as a whole.[4]

The Shilha people should not be confused with Sous people, which are a Shilha community alongside Ihahan and other Shilha communities.

A Shilha woman from Tafraout, Morocco

The Shilha people live mainly in Morocco's southern Atlantic coast, the High Atlas Mountains, the Anti Atlas mountains, and the Sous Valley.[1] They are of Berber origin, which along with the Berber people, includes other ethnic subgroups such as the Tuareg, Rif, Kabyle, Shawia and Beraber.[5] The Shilha people are a part of Morocco's Berber-speaking community, and the southernmost residing Berber population.[6][7]


A traditional Shilha dowry item

In antiquity, Berbers traded with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in commercial entrepots and colonies along the northwestern littoral. They established the ancient kingdom of Mauretania, which fell under Roman rule in 33 CE, before eventually being reunited under Berber sovereignty.[8] During the 7th century, the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate invaded the Berber and Byzantine strongholds in the Northwest Africa, seizing Carthage in 698 AD. Although the Umayyads nominally controlled Morocco over the following years, their rule was tenuous due to Berber resistance. Shortly in 739 AD, Umayyad Arabs were defeated by the Berbers at the battle of Nobles and Bagdoura. Morocco remained under the rule of Berber kingdoms such as Barghawata and Midrar... etc. In 789 AD, with the approval of the locals, a former Umayyad courtier established the Idrisid dynasty that ruled in Fez. It lasted until 970 AD, as various petty states vied for control over the ensuing centuries. After 1053, Morocco was ruled by a succession of Muslim dynasties founded by Berber tribes. Among these were the Almoravid dynasty (1053-1147) who spread Islam in Morocco, the Almohad dynasty (1147-1275), and the Marinid dynasty (1213-1524). In 1668, a sharifan family from the east assumed control and established the incumbent Alawite dynasty.[9]

Although the Ishelhien gradually adopted Islam, they and other Berbers in the mountains have held on to their traditional language, culture and religious customs to varying degrees.[10][11] A small minority of the Shilha people are Christians and Jewish.[8]

The French and Spanish colonial empires partitioned Morocco in 1904, and the southern part of the territory was declared a French protectorate in 1912. Arabization remained an official state policy under both the colonial and succeeding post-independence governments. With the spread of the Berber Spring to Berber territory during the 1980s, the Berbers sought to reaffirm their Berber roots. This culminated with a proposal by Berber nationalists in 2013 to establish an autonomous Shilha state within a greater Moroccan federation.[8]


A Shilha family

The Ishelhien mainly live in Morocco's Atlas Mountains and Sous Valley. Traditionally, they are farmers who also keep herds.[12] Some are semi-nomadic, growing crops during the season when water is available, and moving with their herds during the dry season.[1]

The Ishelhien communities in the southwestern mountains of Morocco cooperated with each other in terms of providing reciprocal grazing rights as seasons changed, as well as during periods of war. These alliances were re-affirmed by annual festive gatherings, where one Shilha community would invite nearby and distant Shilha communities.[13]


The Ishelhien speak the Shilha language, a Berber dialect. It belongs to the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.[4][14] Their language is sometimes referred to as Sous-Berber.[15][16]

As of 2014, there were around 5 million Shilha speakers, constituting 14.1% of the Moroccan population.[17]

The Shilha language differs considerably from certain Berber varieties, such as those spoken by the Tuareg.[18]

People of Shilha descent

See also

Further reading


  1. Wolfgang Weissleder (1978). The Nomadic Alternative: Modes and Models of Interaction in the African-Asian Deserts and Steppes. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-3-11-081023-3.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica 2008, Shluh.
  3. Dalby, Andrew (2015). Dictionary of Languages: The definitive reference to more than 400 languages. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 614. ISBN 978-1408102145. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  4. John A. Shoup (2011). Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-1-59884-362-0.
  5. Marian Aguiar (2010). Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates (ed.). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  6. James Stuart Olson (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  7. Marian Aguiar (2010). Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates (ed.). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press. pp. 106–107. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  8. James B. Minahan (2016). Encyclopedia of Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups around the World, 2nd Edition. ABC-CLIO. pp. 378–379. ISBN 978-1-61069-954-9.
  9. Syed Farid Alatas (2005). Applying Ibn Khaldūn: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology. Routledge. p. 82. ISBN 1317594002.
  10. Douglas Porch (2005). The Conquest of Morocco. Macmillan. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-4299-9885-7.
  11. Robert Montagne (1963). Les Berbères et le makhzen dans le sud du Maroc; essai sur la transformation politique des Berbères sédentaires (groupe chleuh) (in French). Paris: F. Alcan. OCLC 1949564.
  12. James Stuart Olson (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. p. 523. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  13. George Peter Murdock (15 October 1965). Culture and Society: Twenty-Four Essays. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 343–344. ISBN 978-0-8229-7406-2.
  14. Tachelhit, Ethnologue (2007)
  15. Maarten Kossmann (2013). The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber. BRILL Academic. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-90-04-25309-4.
  16. MG Kossmann; HJ Stroomer (1997). Alan S Kaye (ed.). Phonologies of Asia and Africa: Including the Caucasus. Eisenbrauns. pp. 461–462. ISBN 978-1-57506-019-4.
  17. Haut commissariat au Plan, Moroccan Kingdom, Haut commissariat au Plan. "Recensement général de la Maroc". HCP (in French). Haut commissariat du Plan. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  18. Joseph R. Applegate (1957), Berber Studies I: Shilha, Middle East Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer, 1957), pages 324-327
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