Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tuareg of Libya: Language, Classes and Mythology

The Tuareg of Libya contribute to the country's diverse demographic structure and strive to obtain Libyan citizenship to secure their rights.

Tuareg of Libya
Tuareg tribesmen dance during a traditional ceremony in the Libyan desert in the western Awal region near the borders with Tunisia and Algeria on March 29, 2019. Imed LAMLOUM / AFP

Youssef M. Sharqawi

The Tuareg people are notable and influential in Libya’s demographic make-up. In European literature, the Tuareg are commonly called the Blue Men. However, they are also known by other names, including the Litham (mouth-veil) and Amaheg people.

The tribal element has historically played a significant role in shaping Libya‘s societal, economic, cultural and political landscape. With their distinct presence, the Tuareg people contribute to the country’s diverse demographic structure.

Libya’s demographic composition is characterised by a rich tapestry of ethnicities, encompassing Arabs, Amazighs, Phoenicians and Toubou. Furthermore, the mosaic includes substantial numbers of Africans, Turks, Greeks, Circassians, Italians and other groups.

Estimates on the Tuareg population in Libya fluctuate considerably, ranging from 17,000 to 560,000 individuals. Geographically, the Libyan Tuareg predominantly inhabit the country’s western and southwestern regions, with a notable concentration in urban centres such as Ghat, Ubari and Ghadames.

Unofficial statistics suggest that the population of all Tuareg tribes in Africa totals around 3.5 million people. The majority, approximately 85 per cent, are concentrated in Mali and Niger, with the remaining 15 per cent distributed among North African nations, notably in Algeria and Libya.

Disputed Origins

Due to numerous complexities, Arab and Western historians, both ancient and modern, hold different opinions regarding the origins of the Tuareg tribes.

A considerable body of literature has explored the Tuareg and their history. A noteworthy work is the publication by Libyan researcher Muhammad Saeed al-Qashat, titled The Tuareg: Arabs of the Sahara.

Additionally, the study conducted by French explorer Henri Duveyrier, titled ‘The Tuareg of the North,’ holds prominence in this domain. Furthermore, the list includes the renowned novel by Spanish novelist Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa, entitled Tuareg.

In his Muqaddimah, the historian Ibn Khaldun describes the Tuareg as “the most numerous among the Berber tribes, with scarcely any region lacking their presence, be it mountainous or plain.”

Aligning with Ibn Khaldun’s perspective, multiple studies assert that the Tuareg trace their lineage to the Saharan and Berber communities, who have inhabited the Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions since antiquity.

Nevertheless, despite initially alluding to the Berber roots of the Tuareg in his book, Ibn Khaldun later asserted that the Tuareg indeed have Arab origins. According to his account, the Tuareg belonged to the Arab tribes that migrated from the southern Arabian Peninsula before the Islamic conquest, eventually settling in the Maghreb.

Subsequently, these tribes established themselves in the southern Maghreb and became known as the Sanhaja Berber tribes, a lineage Ibn Khaldun identified as the ancestors of the Tuareg.

Researchers Othman Saadi, Ali Fahmi Khashim and Khalifa al-Talisi assert that the Tuareg communities in Algeria, Libya, Mali and across Sub-Saharan Africa are categorically recognised as “Qahtanite Arabs who have historically lived and are still living a pristine Bedouin lifestyle, inseparable from the lives of their counterparts in other Arab deserts.”

Disputed Name

Tuareg of Libya
A Touareg tribesman cuts bread in the Meggedat valley, north west of Libya’s Akakus mountain region, in the desert of the western Ghat District, on January 2, 2016. TAHA JAWASHI / AFP

Similar to the disparities in views regarding the Tuareg’s origins, researchers have divergent perspectives on the reasons behind the name “Tuareg.” Some historians posit that “Tuareg” originates from the Amazigh term “Tarja,” signifying a waterwheel or water source.

Some assert that the name is linked to the Islamic leader Tariq ibn Ziyad. Alternatively, certain historians contend that the accurate designation is “Twareg,” referring to the town of Targa in Libya, home to thousands of the group’s members.

Other historians propose that the name “Tuareg” may stem from an evolution of the Berber term “Tamasheq,” translating to “free men.”

In his study’ Glimpses from the History of the Tuareg tribes’, researcher Ibrahim Batqa suggests that the self-referential name for the Tuareg is “Imohar,” or “Imochar,” with its plural form being “Imajaghan.” “Imohar” is derived from a verb in the Tuareg language, meaning “to be free.” According to this study, the Tuareg have long employed the terms “Imohar” and “Imajaghan”. In contrast, the terms “Twareg” or “Tuareg” were ascribed to them by the Arabs, and the Tuareg themselves may not be fully acquainted with the true meaning of these names.

According to another study conducted by Algerian researcher Hafnawi Baali, some historians trace the origin of the name “Tuareg” to the term “Tawarek,” suggesting a connection to the abandonment of the worship of God. This association impliesa historical link to Zoroastrianism as the Tuareg’s former religious belief.


The Tuareg’s language is Tamasheq, and its script comprises 24 letters known as Tifinagh, dating back to approximately 3000 BC. This linguistic characteristic sets the Tuareg apart as one of the few African peoples with an alphabet.

Tamasheq encompasses three primary dialects: Tamasheq, Tamazheq, and Tamahaq. Additionally, the Tuareg communities in northern Mali and northern Niger use different dialects.

A study titled ‘The Tuareg People through the Explorers Henri Duveyrier and Charles de Foucauld‘ highlights that the French explorer Charles de Foucauld extensively gathered material concerning Tuareg culture and language. His collections comprised vocabulary, sayings and poems and reflected the diversity of his observations on the Tuareg.

Noteworthy among his contributions are works such as A Grammar of the Tifinagh Language and a comprehensive Tuareg-French and French-Tuareg Dictionary, published in two volumes. Additionally, he compiled Tuareg Texts Translated into French, presenting two volumes of Tuareg prose and poetry.

Following De Foucauld’s pioneering efforts, numerous dictionaries, books and studies on the Tuareg language and its dialects were written. New studies on the subject continue to be published to this day, many issued in Berber languages, and particulary in the Tuareg language.

In his work, The Tuareg: Origin and Homeland, Libyan researcher Muhammad al-Sheikh al-Ansari categorises the Tuareg society into different classes based on factors such as wealth and profession.

According to al-Ansari, the first class comprises the nobility, known as “Imohag” or “Imajeghen,” alternatively referred to as “Illalan,” or the singular form “Ellal,” connoting purity or nobility.

The second class is called “Imghad,” “Irajnaten,” or the black Tuareg.

The third class encompasses craftsmen, known as “Inadan,” whose origins remain unknown.

The fourth, denoted as “Iklan,” represents the class of enslaved people. Stemming from this fourth class is a subgroup called “Ederaven” or “Ezqaghen,” comprising individuals emancipated from slavery.

A study titled ‘Customs and Traditions of the Tuareg Community in the Sahara’ provides an alternative classification of the societal hierarchy. The nobility make up the first class.

The second class is called “Imghad,” which means goat owners. It encompasses individuals engaged in trade and warfare. If an Imghad man marries a noblewoman, their offspring form a hybrid group known as “Issekkemarn,” considered a middle class bridging the nobility and the Imghad.

Additionally, the study acknowledges a class of faqihs (scholars) referred to as “Ineslemen,” comprising religious individuals or adherents of Islam. Some categorise this group as nobility specialised in religion, as many reside near mosques and are colloquially termed “Kel Timisgida” or “Almoravids.”

The “Inadan” is the fourth class encompassing artisans responsible for crafting essential items for the Tuareg community.

Lastly, the fifth class is designated as the class of slaves known as “Iklan.”

Matriarchal Society

Tuareg of Libya
Girls from a Tuareg tribe dressed in traditional clothes attend the 16th International Ghat Festival, in the ancient city of Ghat in the heart of the southwestern Libyan desert on February 15, 2010. MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP

Some researchers categorise Tuareg society as matriarchal, a classification rooted in historical factors such as the pagan traditions prevalent in Berber societies before the advent of Islam.

In these societies, familial ties were primarily traced through the maternal line, and the husband often migrated to reside with his wife’s family. This practice contributed to the enduring influence of maternal figures within the social structure. This matriarchal nature of society bestowed significant status upon women, who were recognised for their elevated cultural and educational standing compared to men.

In Tuareg society, a woman’s prestige and that of her family are positively correlated with factors such as her frequency of marriage, childbirth and divorce. This unique cultural perspective arises from the belief that a woman’s source of pride lies in the warrior men she produces for the tribe.

The Litham Myth

The Tuareg believe that if one were to remove his litham (veil) it would be difficult to recognise him.

The Tuareg attribute the practice of veiling to mythical narratives.

According to the book The Tuareg: Arabs of the Sahara, “One day, the Tuareg were attacked by the enemy, so the women wore turbans and veils and went out chasing the enemy, defeated him and fled. Since that date, men began wearing veils to hide their faces from the shame of defeat, and women began to uncover their faces to celebrate the victory they had achieved.”

Literature and Music

The Tuareg literary tradition relies on the oral transmission of stories, poems and various literary expressions across generations. Women actively contribute to this heritage through the composition of poems.

Tuareg poetry and Arabic poetry have similarities. Prose emphasises heroic tales, historical narratives, and popular legends involving mythical entities such as goblins and jinns. The oral tradition also includes proverbs and numerous Tuareg riddles.

The Tuareg are renowned for their musical prowess. Among their notable musical instruments is the “imzad,” resembling a rababa or violin and known as the “kambari” among Libyan Arabs. Men are prohibited from playing this instrument, owing to a myth that predicts calamity for clans and tribes if a man were to play it.

Another instrument in the Tuareg’s musical repertoire is the “tazamat,” which comes in various forms, including a flute, pipe or reed instrument.

A variety of dances is found in Tuareg culture, with a distinction between those performed by men and those performed by women. Notable examples include the weapon dance and the spear dance. During the “Tam Tam” dance, which involves drumming and singing, men on camels encircle women. The “Mahari” dance is performed while riding on camels.

Recently, Tuareg musical bands have gained international recognition, with groups such as “al-Rimal” and “Tinariwen” – meaning deserts in the Tuareg language – embarking on global tours.

Complex Legal Status

The legal status of the Tuareg in Libya is complex. While not entirely stateless, they also do not hold absolute citizenship.

The state recognises an individual’s legal personality by assigning civic responsibilities and issuing certain limited documents. On the other hand, it fails to acknowledge the reciprocal aspect of legal personality as it deprives the Tuareg of those citizenship rights that would require the issuance of a national identification number or a citizenship document.

Libyan writer Muhammad al-Tayeb asserts that the Tuareg in Libya face a condition of statelessness, marked by their inability to acquire essential identity documents, passports and national identification numbers.

Consequently, “they encounter significant challenges in healthcare access and internal mobility, and are impeded from travelling abroad.” Al-Tayeb highlights their challenges in accessing education and essential public services, something the state typically guarantees its citizens.

The Tuareg are denied social security rights and the opportunity to work in the state’s civil sectors and its affiliated companies, as these require a national ID, a document not available to Libya’s Tuareg.

The Tuareg strive to obtain Libyan citizenship to secure political and social rights, aligning their aspirations with other tribes and groups in Libya, including the Toubou and Jaramna tribes, who experience similar challenges.