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MOROCCO. The population of Morocco, about 27 million (26,345,000 in mid-1991), is more than 99 percent Sunni Muslim. There is a small Jewish minority of fewer than 8,000 people (mostly in Casablanca and other coastal cities). There is no indigenous Christian minority. There are no significant religious differences between the Berbers, found primarily in the mountains, and the Arabic-speaking population. Islamic “fundamentalist” movements have challenged the regime of King Hasan II since the 1970s. Educated Moroccans unsympathetic to these movements generally refer to them by the Arabic equivalent of the term “fundamentalist”: usuli. The members of these groups typically call themselves “Islamists” (Islamlyin).

The most influential model of the history of Islam in Morocco is that of Ernest Gellner (1969), who sees Moroccan Islam as having oscillated throughout history between the puritanical, scripturalist religion of the literate urban bourgeoisie and the ritualistic, anthropolatrous religion of the illiterate rural tribes. He characterizes urban orthodox Islam as “Protestant” and the rural popular religion as “Catholic.” Orthodoxy, says Gellner, revolved around holy scripture and thus entailed literacy. It was strictly monotheistic and egalitarian (among believers). It emphasized moderation and sobriety and abstention from ritual excesses. In this form of Islam, there were no intermediaries between the believer and God. The more anthropolatrous popular Islam, on the other hand, stressed hierarchy and mediation between the believer and God. The mediators were Sufi shaykhs, saints, and shurafd’. This form of Islam was characterized by ritual indulgence, in contrast to the puritanism of urban orthodoxy.

Gellner concedes that popular Islam was not solely a rural phenomenon; it also existed among the urban poor. But whereas among the tribes it served as a kind of social lubricant making possible the resolution of conflicts, in the cities it provided ecstatic consolation for the poor. Orthodox Islam, on the other hand, served to ratify the style of life of the urban bourgeoisie. (This contrast is taken from Max Weber.)

The tribes of Morocco’s mountains and deserts periodically revolted against the reigning dynasty in the name of the puritanical Islam normally associated, in Gellner’s model, with the towns. This was possible because the ideals of urban orthodoxy were always present among the rural tribes, although they were subordinate to the norms of popular belief. Once successful, the puritanical revivalist movements would eventually revert to the anthropolatrous popular religion, once more vulnerable to puritanical revolt. Gellner sees this “pendulum swing” as having been unhinged by “modernity.” The modern state monopolized violence whereas the precolonial one did not; as a result, the tribes atrophied, as did the saints who formerly mediated their conflicts.

Puritanical reformist movements, as Gellner points out, did periodically emerge to advocate a return to the pristine Islam of the Qur’an and sunnah-Ibn Yasin’s Almoravids and Ibn Tumart’s Almohads are the most obvious examples. But Gellner overlooks the fact that no such movements have managed to seize and retain control of the Moroccan state since the Almohads did so in the middle of the twelfth century, although many have tried.

More importantly, Gellner attempts to impose on the whole of Moroccan history the relationship between popular and orthodox Islam that he observed in the 1950s and 1960s. On the basis of his fieldwork among the High Atlas Berbers, he sees Sufism as a distinctive component of popular religion; in fact, it pervaded both popular and orthodox Islam at least from the fifteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth. Most of the `ulama’ whom Gellner sees as embodying orthodoxy were themselves Sufi mystics. It is true that some `ulama’ periodically criticized Sufism in general, and that tension between orthodoxy and Sufism definitely existed. But the Sufis persecuted by `ulama’ were typically renowned `ulama’ themselves, often from the same urban elite as their persecutors. Gellner’s model works as an “ideal type” conception of a recurrent tension in Islamic theology, but not as a model of its social manifestations.

There has always been a distinction between popular and orthodox Islam in Morocco-as there inevitably is in all world religions encompassing people of various social strata; however, both learned scholars and illiterate peasants have always prayed the same prayers every day of their lives. While there is much that is different in the ways they have interpreted their religion, there is also much that is the same. Moreover, Islam’s “great” and “folk” traditions were even more intertwined in the past than they are in the late twentieth century. This becomes obvious when one examines the principal attempts at Islamic reform from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century.

Forerunners of Twentieth-century Reformism. The history of Islamic reformism in Morocco may be said to begin with the revivalism of the Almoravids in the eleventh century and the Almohads in the twelfth. Modern reformism, however, is usually thought of as beginning with Sultan Sidi Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah, who reigned from 1757 to 1790. Sidi Muhammad insisted on the strict application of Islamic law and the elimination of heretical innovations in both town and country. He condemned charlatans who used Sufism to exploit the gullible masses and “extremist Sufis” who did not conform to Islamic law; yet he was himself a member of the Nasirlyah Sufi order and regularly visited saints’ tombs and sent gifts to them. His attempts at reform did not constitute a fullfledged critique of Sufism and the veneration of saints.

Sidi Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah’s son Mawlay Sulayman (r. 1792-1822) is also cited as a forerunner of twentieth-century reformism. He too condemned heretical innovations (bid’ah) and stressed the need to conform to the Qur’an and sunnah. He criticized the popular Sufi orders and banned their festivals in honor of saints on the grounds that the rhythmic dancing, clapping, and mixing of men and women at such gatherings were all contrary to the Qur’an and sunnah.

Although Mawlay Sulayman was more sympathetic to the Wahhabis than most of the Moroccan `ulama’ of his time, he insisted that visiting the shrines of saints to ask for their intercession was not only permitted but recommended by Islamic law, as long as people remembered that saints could not grant requests themselves but could only ask God to do so. Mawlay Sulayman never banned the visitation of saints in Morocco but rather specified the rules concerning such practices. Although he condemned many aspects of popular Sufism (including the use of musical instruments), he, like his father, belonged to the relatively orthodox Nasirlyah. Mawlay Sulayman’s reformism was considerably less radical than that of the Wahhabis or of Morocco’s twentieth-century Salafi reformists. Yet even his relatively moderate demands for a return to the Islam of the Prophet disturbed many Moroccan `ulama’.

Hassan (II) Mosque in Casablanca – Morocco

Hassan (II) Mosque in Casablanca – Morocco

Salafi Reformism. The Salafiyah reformist movement spread to Morocco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There is a widespread tendency to equate Salafi reformism in Morocco with nationalism. While it is true that reformism did become intertwined with nationalism in the 1930s, it is a mistake to assume, as many scholars do, that early Salafis like Abu Shu’ayb al-Dukkali (d. 1937) were nationalist heroes. On the contrary, al-Dukkali never opposed the French Protectorate imposed in 1912; in fact, he amassed considerable wealth serving as an administrator in the colonial regime. Salafi `ulama’ like al-Dukkali did not enjoy seeing unbelievers control the Islamic world, and their country in particular, but they generally did nothing to stop the European onslaught. Even al-Dukkali’s student

Muhammad ibn al-`Arabi al -`Alawi (d. 1964) did not openly oppose the French until 1944

In contrast, Sufi shaykhs such as Sidi Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Kabir al-Kattani (d. 1909) and Ahmad al-Hibah (d. 1919) died trying to lead resistance to colonial rule. The conventional generalization that Sufi shaykhs collaborated with the French and the Spanish (in the far north and the south) against the Salafi nationalists reflects the situation in the 1940s rather than that of the early decades of anticolonial resistance.

The inadequacy of much discussion of early twentieth-century Islam in Morocco is illustrated by the case of Sidi Muhammad ibn Ja’far al-Kattani, best known for two books, Salwat al-anfas (Solace of the Souls), published in 1899, and Nasihat ahl al-Islam (Frank Counsel to the People of Islam), first published in 1908. The first work celebrates the saints, Sufis, shurafa’, and `ulama’ buried in Fez; the second calls for a return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet. Like most `ulama’ of his day, Muhammad ibn Ja`far al-Kattani saw no contradiction between the two.

Very few `ulama’ of the late twentieth century would still speak of saints as Muhammad ibn Ja`far al-Kattani did in 1899. But much of al-Kattani’s Nasihat ahl alIsldm has a decidedly “modern” ring-at least in that much of its rhetoric and virtually all its reasoning remain commonplace among some Salafi reformists and most “Islamists” or “fundamentalists.” This text is in fact a milestone in the evolution of the Islam of the precolonial `ulama’ toward later, more ideological forms of reformism and fundamentalism. Its basic argument is that God enabled the first Muslims, “the righteous ancestors” (al-salaf al-salih), to thrive and conquer much of the world because they conformed to his laws. Then the believers deviated from those laws, and the unbelievers of Europe were therefore able to subjugate them. If believers return to “the straight path,” they will once again thrive, and God will liberate them from the domination of the infidels and eliminate all social injustice. This argument has been the central theme of twentiethcentury Muslim reformism and fundamentalism.

The Salafi movement did eventually merge with Moroccan nationalism, as embodied by the Istiqlal party and its most famous leader, Muhammad `Allal al-Fasi. Once Morocco regained its independence in 1956, King Muhammad V (d. 1961) and his successor Hasan II managed to curb the political influence of this party. But as public education spread, so too did the Salafi conception of Islam. [See Salafiyah; Istiqlal; and the biography of Fasi.]

Fundamentalist Movements. During the 1970s a number of fundamentalist movements emerged in Morocco. The most important of these was led by `Abd alSalam Yasin. In 1965, at the age of thirty-eight, Yasin had what he called a “spiritual crisis.” After reading a wide range of mystical texts, Yasin joined the Sufi brotherhood of the Butshishiyah, becoming a follower of Shaykh al-Hajj al-`Abbas, who died six years later. It has been alleged that Yasin left the order in 1971 because he wanted to turn it into a political movement and was unable to do so. Yasin never renounced Sufism and refers to it repeatedly in his writings, in sharp contrast to the antipathy toward Sufism characteristic of most twentieth-century Muslim fundamentalists.

Yasin’s attitude toward Islam was politicized in the early 1970s, in part as a result of reading the Egyptian writers Hasan al-Banna’ and Sayyid Qutb. In 1974 he decided to write a risdlah (epistle or letter) to King Hasan II entitled Al-Islam, aw, al-tufan: Risalah maftuhah ild malik al-Maghrib (Islam, or, the Deluge: An Open Epistle to the King of Morocco). Its basic message is simple and familiar. The Muslims’ problems are due to their having deviated from Islam. If they return to the laws of God and stop imitating the West, the oppression of the poor by the rich will vanish, as will the domination of Morocco by the West, the state of terror in which Moroccans live, and the squatter settlements ringing Morocco’s cities. The caliph will be a man of the people instead of a potentate living indolently in his palaces. Everything that is bad will be good.

Hasan II was outraged by Yasin’s epistle and asked the late `Abdallah Gannun, head of the league of Moroccan `ulama’, how he should respond to it. Gannun told the king that Yasin should be put in a psychiatric hospital, since only a lunatic could address the king as Yasin had.

Yasin spent three and a half years (1974-1977) in an insane asylum because of his epistle. Once released, he resumed his campaign for a strictly Islamic polity in Morocco, but he no longer criticized the king directly. In 1979 he began publishing an Islamic review entitled Al -jama’ah (The Group); no more than three thousand copies were ever published, and it was banned after the eleventh issue appeared in 1983. The government also forbade Yasin from preaching in mosques. In December 1983, he tried to publish another newspaper entitled Al-subh (The Dawn), but this too was immediately banned, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released in January 1986.

From 1986 until 1989, Yasin’s home in Sald became the center of his movement, even though policemen always guarded it and often questioned visitors. The movement, now known as “Justice and Benevolence” (al-`Adl wa-al-Ihsan) was itself reminiscent of a Sufi order. Like a Sufi shaykh, Yasin is regularly referred to as a murshid or “guide” by his followers. Like a shaykh, he stresses the importance of prayers involving “the remembrance of God” (dhikr Allah); like some Sufis, Yasin’s followers are allegedly expected to chant “There is no god but God” three thousand times a day and “God bless our Lord Muhammad” three hundred times. This Sufi aspect of Yasin’s movement is unusual and is condemned by some fundamentalists.

In December 1989 the police stopped allowing visits to YAsin’s house, where he remained under house arrest. The following month, six leaders of Justice and Benevolence were arrested. Their trial in May 1990 sparked a demonstration by some two thousand people; the center of Rabat was paralyzed for about three hours before the police finally dispersed the protestors, most of them university students. The fact that this demonstration was Yasin’s most dramatic political success indicates just how unsuccessful his movement has been, at least through 1992.

One reason given for the weakness of Yasin’s movement is the popular belief in the holiness of the Moroccan king. This belief, however, has ceased to exist among educated Moroccans, whose numbers have grown rapidly since independence.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in the Middle East and North Africa; Popular Religion, article on Popular Religion in the Middle East and North Africa.]


Agnouche, Abdellatif. Histoire politique du Maroc: Pouvoir-ligitimitisinstitutions. Casablanca, 1987. Good history of the political role of Islam.

Brown, Kenneth L. People of Sale: Tradition and Change in a Moroccan City, 130-1930. Manchester, 1976.

Burke, Edmund, III. Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco: Precolonial Protest and Resistance, 1860-1912. Chicago, 1976.

Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, 1976. Classic ethnography of the Sharqawa zdwiyah.

El Mansour, Mohamed. Morocco in the Reign of Mawlay Sulayman.

Cambridgeshire, 1990. Good on early nineteenth-century Islam. Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. New Haven, 1968. Good discussion of the “ideologization” of religion.

Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. Chicago, 1969. Contains Gellner’s “pendulum swing” model of Islam.

Laroui, Abdallah. Les origines sociales et culturelles du nationalisme marocain, 1830-1912. Paris, 1977. Classic portrait of the precolonial social and political roles of Islam.

Munson, Henry, Jr. Religion and Power in Morocco. New Haven, 1993 Political role of Islam from the twelfth century through the early 1990s.

Westermarck, Edward A. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols. London, 1926. Encyclopedia of popular Islam.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/morocco-2/

  • writerPosted On: August 14, 2014
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