Divisions include the Manga, Tumari, and Bilma dialects of Central Kanuri, and the more distinct Kanembu language.

Inheriting the religious and cultural traditions of the Kanem-Bornu state, Kanuri peoples are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

In Chad, Kanembu speakers differentiate themselves from the large Kanuri ethnicity.

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Within Chad, many Kanembu of Lac and Kanem prefectures identify with the Alifa of Mao, the governor of the region in precolonial times. It was formed from a confederation of nomadic peoples who spoke languages of the Teda- Daza (Toubou) group.

Originally a pastoral people, the Kanuri were one of many Nilo-Saharan groups indigenous to the Central South Sahara, beginning their expansion in the area of Lake Chad in the late 7th century, and absorbing both indigenous Nilo-Saharan and Chadic (Afro-Asiatic) speakers. The Kanem Empire originated in the ninth century A. One theory, based on early Arabic sources, suggests that the dominance of the Zaghawa people bound the confederation together.

In the Kaour escarpment oasis of eastern Niger, the Kanuri are further divided into the Bla Bla subgroup, numbering some 27,000, and are the dominat ethnic group in the salt evaporation and trade industry of Bilma.

Language Kanuri speak the Kanuri language, or one of its related languages a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family.

(Some historians believe that it was Humai rather than Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan who established the Sayfawa lineage as the ruling dynasty of Kanem.) Islam offered the Sayfawa rulers the advantages of new ideas from Arabia and the Mediterranean world, as well as literacy in administration.

But many people resisted the new religion in favor of traditional beliefs and practices.The 550,000 Kanuri population in Niger includes the Manga or Mangari subgroup, numbering some 300,000 in the area east of Zinder, who regard themselves as distinct from the Beri Beri.Around 60,000 members of the Tumari subgroup, sometimes called Kanembu in Niger, are a distinct Kanuri subgroup living in the N'guigmi area, and are distinct from the Chadian Kanembu people.When Humai converted, for example, it is believed that the Zaghawa broke from the empire and moved east.This pattern of conflict and compromise with Islam occurs repeatedly in Chadian history.Evidence of indigenous state formation in the Lake Chad area dates back to the early first century B. The leaders adopted the title mai, or king, and their subjects regarded them as divine.