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Ethnic composition of Libya

Almost all Libyans speak Arabic, the country's official language, and adhere to the Sunnite branch of Islam. They claim descent from the Bedouin Arab tribes of the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym, who invaded the Maghrib in the 11th century.


In the eastern region the influence of the Sanusiyah, a 19th-century militant Islamic brotherhood, remains strong. Most of the Jewish and Italian minorities, long established in Tripolitania (the western region), left the country after the government seized their properties in 1970. Small numbers of Roman Catholic and Coptic Christians remain.

The government's embrace of Arab nationalism has reduced Western influences, although English is still widely used as a second language in international business and politics. Nearly one-fifth of Libya's total population in the late 20th century was composed of foreign workers temporarily residing in the country. The tribe (qabilah) was for long the basis of the social order in Libya, and eight out of every nine persons once resided in tribal domains.

The Berbers were the major original inhabitants of Libya. The main groups were the Luata, the Nefusa, and the Adassa. The Berbers lived in coastal oases and practiced sedentary agriculture. Most of them have been assimilated into Arab society except in the Nafusah Plateau region, Awjilah, Hun, Socra, and Zuwarah. The Berbers speak their own Hamitic language but have adopted the Arabic alphabet. Many are bilingual in Berber and Arabic; most are Muslims.

The Arab invasions began in the 7th century. The initial Arab incursions were essentially military and had little effect upon the composition of the population. The Banu Hilal invasion of 1049 and succeeding attacks of the Banu Sulaym later in the 11th century, however, brought migrations of large pastoral nomadic tribes from the eastern Arabian peninsula.

The Banu Sulaym were composed of four main groups—the Banu Hebib, the 'Awf, the Debbab, and the Zegb. The Hebib settled in Cyrenaica, while the others went into Tripolitania. After the establishment of tribal groups, Libya underwent a period of disorder and tribal feuding, which was augmented by the incursion of other Arab adventurers from Egypt.

Toward the close of the period of anarchy, the Debbab group took control of much of Tripolitania. By the 20th century about 97 percent of Libya's inhabitants were Arabic-speaking Muslims of mixed Arab and Berber descent.

Several other social groups exist alongside the tribal unit. They are the sharifs (holy tribes), who came originally from the Fezzan; the marabouts (dervishes who are credited with supernatural powers), who infiltrated from Saguia el Hamra in what is now Western Sahara; and the Koulouglis, who are descended from the Janissaries (elite Turkish soldiers) and the Berber and Christian slave women with whom they interbred.

The sharifs claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Their alleged blood relationship with the Prophet gives them a powerful standing in Muslim society, where they are looked upon as holy men with divine powers of foresight. Extensive tracts of land are found under sharif control in all the oases of western Libya.

Marabout tribes are descended from holy men who also claimed relation to Muhammad. They founded their religious devotions upon an ascetic life manifested in their existence as hermits. In areas where their teachings and way of life made them acceptable to the local inhabitants, they settled and founded tribes pledged to the pure way of life.

The Koulouglis have served since Turkish times as a secretarial class in several areas and are often concentrated in and around villages and towns. They speak Arabic and practice Islam.

The trans-Saharan slave trade, which continued during Turkish times, introduced black Africans and their cultures into many of the tribes, especially in the Fezzan and in Tripolitania. Their languages are those of the central Sahara and the eastern Sudan; most also speak Arabic and have adopted Islam.

Small groups of Tuareg tribes people are found in the southwest, especially at the Ghadamis and Ghat oases. Traditionally nomadic, they are gradually assuming a sedentary life-style. Isolated Teda (Tubu) communities of the southeast are slowly gravitating toward the north and the Al-Kufrah oasis in search of employment.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008