The Muhammad VI Institute not only aims to counter the extremist readings of Islam, but also presents itself as a strategic instrument of Moroccan foreign policy

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:44

Beginning in 2005, the Maghrebi kingdom launched a programme for training religious guides. This then evolved into the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt, which has been active since 2015. Its main objective is to fight extremist readings of Islam but, over time, it has also become a strategic instrument for furthering the country’s foreign policy, which aims at presenting the country as a cutting-edge spiritual hub.


In order to treat the subject of religious training in the Moroccan context we must first of all draw a distinction between religious training (al-takwīn al-dīnī) and religious teaching (al-ta‘līm al-dīnī), since the latter has its own separate framework and specific features. Indeed, religious teaching is a lengthy process and aims at instilling a solid, in-depth theoretical knowledge of the Islamic and sharia sciences. The primary and intermediate levels of this type of teaching (carried out in the Qur’anic schools and traditional madrasas) are based on memorization of the Qur’an and the classical religious texts and on the teaching of the sharia sciences and their foundations. The subsequent phases of specialization and in-depth study take place in the higher educational institutions, namely, the departments of Islamic studies and the sharia faculties in the universities.[i] Religious training, on the other hand, is a short process that does not exceed a year, or two years at the most. It is by its nature interactive and is directed at the acquisition of practical knowledge and the development of the technical-operational skills needed to lead prayer, give sermons and carry out other religious functions.


Religious training can be seen as a bridge between the academic teaching carried out in the universities and specialist training: it has the aim of offering a practical preparation for performing the functions of imam and religious guide. If higher religious teaching seeks to produce ulama and experts in Islamic law, religious training has the aim of preparing figures qualified to fill religious posts in the mosques, namely, those that in Morocco are technically referred to as “religious agents.”


This article intends to present the circumstances, strategic objectives and interests that have not only inspired the creation of a training programme for imams and murshidāt (female religious guides) in Morocco but have also contributed to its institutional evolution from 2005 to date. Through a rapid reading of the study plans and textbooks that have been adopted, it will additionally outline the official outlook permeating this programme.


The Context and the Objectives


In order to understand the factors and vested interests that led to the institutionalization of the training programme for imams in Morocco, it is necessary to identify two distinct phases. The first is linked to the birth, in 2005, of a local training programme for imams and murshidāt. Some time later, this project evolved into a broader institutional framework that found its expression in the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt (male and female religious guides). This became operative in 2015.


The first phase falls within the context of the “combined, inclusive” strategy of restructuring the religious field that was announced by the King of Morocco on 30 April 2004.[ii] This established, as its third pillar, the need to guarantee a “modern scientific training” for religious functionaries, starting with the imams. Indeed, the latter, together with the ulama, provide citizens with appropriate religious care that may foster the “correct understanding of religion, the spread of the umma’s values and their preservation from forms of impurity.”[iii] This type of training had become necessary in order to remedy inadequacies in the religious sphere, which lacked people qualified to respond in a manner fully in line with the new religious policy and achieve its objectives. The latter were, essentially, to reinforce Moroccan religious identity as a means of fighting sectarian infiltration and extremist forms of ideological discourse, which had been held directly responsible for the terrorist attacks that shook Morocco on 16 May 2003.


This “immunizing” approach is based on a preventive and overarching vision for management of the religious sphere. One that assigns a particular function to the religious leadership, which includes the imams in the mosques as well as the ulama. Indeed, through their direct daily contact with people during the moments of prayer, the Friday sermon and on other occasions, they play a prominent part in the religious care of society and the meeting of its spiritual needs. The minister of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs set this vision out very clearly during an international conference of Muslim leaders held in Kazakhstan in June 2015:


            When one talks of religious leadership, our thoughts turn to those in charge of the religious institutions, the various groups’ sheikhs and the ulama i.e. those who are operating and deciding at the highest levels. The imams in the mosques, however, are present in every quarter in the cities and also in the villages and they have a direct impact on people’s lives. The religious leaders should therefore bear them in mind if they wish to mobilize religion’s inherent energies in favour of peace and the spread of ethical values and to remedy the many imbalances from which the world is suffering.[iv]


The first problem that the strategy for reforming the religious field had to reckon with was therefore the problem of religious and intellectual circles that either were unqualified or embodied a culture or points of reference that did not conform to the big political and religious choices made by the state. The intellectual level of the imams in Morocco is extremely heterogeneous. The religious thinking of some of them remains very elementary and is inadequate in the face of the many changes the country is undergoing at a social, political and cultural level. That made urgent intervention regarding this category necessary, in order to train it from a cognitive point of view and make it aware of the facts and the problems produced by the reality in which it is immersed at both a national and an international level.


In the light of this need to bring in new religious personnel, the state launched a training programme for Moroccan imams in 2005. This had the objective of “rejuvenating” the mosques’ intellectual resources by selecting younger religious guides and equipping them with skills and qualifications that were appropriate for the times. The medium and long-term goal was to create a reserve of human resources that were dependent on the state from a financial, administrative and ideological point of view and could act as a counterbalance to the Islamist circles to which the state was, at that time, forced to resort in order to make up for the lack of personnel in the religious field.


This programme took its inspiration from European experiences, moreover, and particularly from the Turkish, French and British ones that, with their securitarian perspective, had dominated in the context of the international war on terrorism following 11 September. These countries have produced élites composed of imams who believe in the civil values and secular nature of the state in which they reside and can oppose extremist discourses that contradict them. It is in this turbulent context that the “good imam/bad imam”[v] split emerged to distinguish the imams constituting a divisive element spreading extremist thought within society from the imams embodying a balance between traditional religious values and the civil choices made by modern states.[vi] The imams belonging to the second group stand out for their enlightened vision and their awareness of the role they have in fostering national unity and the harmonization of identities. Furthermore, they have an intellectual ability and orientation that enable them to oppose the extremist trends that are spreading through the societies in which they live. In their attempt to produce exemplary imams with certain particular characteristics, various European countries have launched institutions and training programmes that are adopting modern pedagogical visions and methods based on the concept of a “radical middle way.”[vii]


A Model of Excellence


Today, the training programme for Moroccan imams constitutes a model of excellence for the initiatives drawing inspiration from this approach. The underlying official vision is simple: the mosque, where people unite daily to perform Islam’s most important religious ritual (i.e. prayer), is “God’s house”, a sacred space that must symbolise the unity both of the umma and of the word and not a place of conflict and division. It must therefore remain a neutral place, far removed from the ideological and political debates that are, by their very nature, divisive and conflictual. The imam is considered the “person primarily and directly in charge” of the mosque. Both in religious and political terms, he constitutes the fundamental figure for the protection of its inviolability and its safeguarding from everything that could disrupt its elevated mission. The imam assumes this securitarian-spiritual function through his daily presence, guaranteeing that the five prayers are led, holding courses on preaching and religious guidance and giving the weekly sermon on Fridays. But he remains, first and foremost, a permanent point of reference for people by answering their questions about issues related to religion and life.


The imam’s mission is thus no ordinary one but, rather, a delicate responsibility involving the education of society and the spiritual values in which individuals believe. This task assumes a decisive importance when the state decides to fight the influence of external religious currents. Whilst in certain Arab and even European countries many imams have become a problem and a source of embarrassment, in the Moroccan experience imams have, on the contrary, established themselves as a positive element and an effective tool for consolidating the state’s authority and preventing manifestations of extremism:


Insofar as he represents the Commander of the Faithful [amīr al-mu’minīn, the King of Morocco, Ed.], the imam represents the umma in the mosque. For this reason, the education inside the mosque must be consistent with the umma’s doctrinal and political choices, which in their turn express the Commander of the Faithful’s orientation. For this reason, it is not licit to use the mosques to contest such choices.[viii]


A comprehensive examination of all the most significant academic literature produced over the last ten years regarding the training of imams in Morocco shows that this experience has predominantly been approached from three functional perspectives.


The first is purely politico-securitarian. It considers the imams’ training programme merely to be a tool at the state’s disposal. Thus the state controls the actors involved in the official religious field by producing “open-minded” state imams to whom it can appeal in order to oppose the discourse put out by the Islamist movements and the extremist religious groups. According to this strain of literature, the imams’ training programme is only one of the ways in which the Moroccan state is putting part of its overall strategy for preventing violent extremism into effect.[ix] Furthermore, it is aiming at including the religious elites, thereby reinforcing the religious bureaucratic establishment, which is used to support the system of government and legitimate its authoritarian policies.[x]


The second, gender-based or liberal perspective concentrates on the part of the programme relating to the training of female religious guides, the murshidāt. Holding it to be the only one of its kind, it calls it a “pioneering” and “unprecedented” experience in the Arab-Islamic world. Indeed, it would be aiming at integrating the feminine element into the religious sphere traditionally monopolized by men in most of the Muslim-majority countries. That would constitute a qualitative leap in terms of the distribution and democratization of religious authority, thereby helping to break the hegemony of male, conservative interpretations (ta’wilāt).[xi]


The third perspective is based on a modernizing paradigm. It reads this institutionalized training as the political regime’s official attempt to move towards what some are calling “Moroccan modernism.”[xii] This through the production of a new generation of imams capable of “rethinking the Muslim’s relationship with the contemporary world, […] and adapting to the globalization era […]; imams who are able to speak the language of a religious modernity within the reach of ordinary Muslims.”[xiii]


From the Local Programme to the International One


The institutional evolution of the imams’ training cannot only be explained in the light of the national sphere and its international expansion in the context of the war on terrorism that is also involving Morocco. The regional context has also played an important part.


Initially, the programme was limited to the local level and was hosted on the modest premises of the High Scientific Council of Ulama’s Rabat section, which had a capacity stretching to no more than 200 people. In 2013, it developed into an equivalent programme but one specifically directed at the imams in Mali, following an agreement between the latter country and Morocco that provided for the training of approximately 500 imams. Many other African and European countries subsequently expressed the desire to be able to benefit from the same experience. This encouraged the state to insert the experience into an internationally-geared institutional structure that could aim at providing a “modern and constantly renewed” scientific training.[xiv] The Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt opened for business in March 2015. In June of the same year, it was administratively annexed (along with other religious institutes) to the Qarawiyyin University, in accordance with the royal decree establishing the latter’s reorganization.[xv] For Morocco, such expansion was a clear qualitative leap from national objectives (which were decisive in the first version of the programme) to the pursuit of regional strategic ambitions and interests.


On the one hand, this development can be read as the Kingdom’s attempt to point out the uniqueness and excellence of the Moroccan experience in managing the religious sphere (something that can at least partly explain the security and stability Morocco enjoys in a turbulent regional environment threatened by various forms of tension and conflict). This with the intention of disseminating it at an international level as a successful model. Indeed, by developing this programme into an international training institute, the Kingdom is aspiring to establish itself as an avant-garde regional spiritual hub. With the decline of prestigious institutions such as al-Azhar and al-Zaytuna, Morocco has begun to present itself as a flexible regional force: “a bastion of moderation and religious co-existence” capable, by virtue of its experience in training religious leaders, of helping and supporting neighbouring countries (particularly the African ones) in activities preventing and fighting the transnational dangers threatening security and stability.


On the other hand, this institutional development accompanies and reinforces the new approach in Morocco’s African policy, which has made great efforts over the last fifteen years to open up to a certain number of countries in the Sahel, West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. In this sense, the imams’ training programme is a particular articulation of this “South-South” co-operation centred on intensifying bilateral co-operation relations and diversifying partnerships and strategic relations in the sectors of common interest such as, precisely, religious training.[xvi]


To date, more than ten countries have actively subscribed to the programme including, in particular, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Guinea, The Gambia and Senegal, as well as Tunisia, Gabon, Chad and France. Other countries have made requests or concluded agreements that have nevertheless not yet become operative, as in the case of Libya, the Maldives and Somalia. As will be noted, what these countries have in common is the fact that many of them are experiencing political and securitarian disorder linked to growing religious extremism (Mali, Libya and Tunisia); are riddled with ethnic or sectarian conflicts involving minority groups (Nigeria); are experiencing a worrying void in terms of spiritual care or are characterised by religious illiteracy and a fragility in models of religiosity (the Maldives and Guinea Conakry, for example). This co-operation is therefore a way of protecting and preserving their religious fabric from the spectre of the extremist infiltration coming from bordering countries and generated by the regional situation.


Morocco hopes that the foreign imams and murshidāt coming out of the training institute may, once they return to their own countries, constitute a “hard core” that passes on the experiences and the theoretical and practical skills acquired whilst following this programme so as to reproduce them at the level of local religious-care networks. Above all, however, Morocco hopes that these alumni may become the Kingdom’s “ambassadors” in their own countries and may be able to promote the Moroccan religious model, having been imbued with its essence and spirit after two years’ intensive training at the Institute.


In this sense, the programme can be read as an initiative deployed by Morocco to integrate its efforts to develop a coherent, flexible and intelligent regional political strategy; one that must, in its turn, complete the international community’s securitarian and military initiatives directed at fighting the phenomenon of religious radicalism in the region of the Sahel and Sahara[xvii]. In parallel with that, Morocco is, with this programme, aspiring to support its strategic vision as an emerging regional power in Africa by consolidating its bilateral political and economic partnerships with the sub-Saharan African countries on a cultural and spiritual footing.


The Structure and the Candidates


The Mohammed VI Institute is the only institutional structure in Morocco that is authorized to carry out religious training. Its premises are situated in the ‘Irfān university quarter of Rabat, in a modern building comprising three wings: a teaching wing composed of auditorium, study halls, computer halls, a multifunctional room and a library; a wing dedicated to catering and accommodation and a social-recreational wing with playing fields, an infirmary and a mosque for prayer. The latter is also used daily as a space for teaching and putting into practice some of the skills acquired during training. In 2016 and 2017, the Institute underwent two consecutive sets of extension works in order to increase its accommodation capacity and meet the growing number of requests coming from African and European countries. It currently has over 1,200 places. The Institute’s construction, fitting-out and extension costs came to approximately 400 million dirhams. The substantial financial investment needed to complete this project and its subsequent extensions, as well as the sums allocated annually to render it operative—from the salaries for the teaching and administrative staff to the scholarships for the students—reflect its long-term political and strategic nature and the ambitious goals that Morocco is seeking to achieve at a national and international level through it.


The Institute is run by an administrative structure overseen by a director. The latter is appointed by royal decree (dahīr) and operates under the direct supervision of the Minister of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, who is the competent governmental authority for this institution. Although the Institute is theoretically annexed to the Qarawiyyin University and, as such, ought to enjoy relative “scientific and pedagogical independence,”[xviii] it is actually subjected to the rigid control and influence of the central machinery of the Ministry of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, in addition to that of the High Scientific Council of Ulama.


Its foundation crowns the experience developed over ten years by the training programme as set up in its first version in 2005. In this sense, the Institute is nothing other than the continuation and realization of the initial local programme; with some additions directed at improving its quality in order to serve new national and international political interests better, naturally.


It should be noted that it was Ahmad ‘Abbādī, former director of Islamic Affairs at the Ministry of the Awqāf and current secretary-general of the Moroccan Muhammadan League of Religious Scholars (Rābita Muhammadiyya li-l-‘ulamā’), who had the idea of setting up this programme. He presided over the project’s preparatory scientific committee but then abandoned this appointment owing to differences with the Minister of the Awqāf. In 2006, the latter appointed a technical committee, composed of three experts, to rethink the training programme.


The training is open to young men and women under 45 years of age who hold a degree in any subject from a Moroccan university or an equivalent or higher institution. Candidates for this course have to meet certain conditions: know the whole of the Qur’an by heart, in the case of the imams, or at least half of the Qur’an in the case of the murshidāt,[xix] enjoy civil rights, have appropriate personal attitudes and be physically fit.


Until a few years ago, the selection process was rather simple: almost all the candidates who met the qualification criteria described above were called to the oral exam. Initially, given the limited number of candidates interested in this training, students who had not memorized all of the Qur’an or even candidates with religious affiliations not conforming to the official orientations were accepted with a certain indulgence. Some murshidīn and murshidāt from the first intake were widely known to be affiliated to the group Justice and Beneficence,[xx] which fact was confirmed by a famous statement made to a national newspaper in 2006 by Nadia Yassine, an Islamic activist and daughter of Justice and Beneficence’s leader. This was one of the problems that the committee appointed to revise the training programme had to tackle and this was the reason why, from 2006 onwards, the selection process was subjected to more rigorous procedures. Thus a system founded on a double selection committee was implemented and the criteria governing admission and verification of the qualifications declared by students when presenting their applications are now more intransigently observed. Moreover, inquiries concerning successful candidates have become more thorough.


The Training Offered


For Moroccans, the basic training lasts one year (divided into two semesters), whereas it lasts two years for imams of other African nationalities and can extend to three years for French imams. The first semester begins the first week in January and the second in June. In addition to the ordinary, basic training directed at both Moroccans and foreigners, the Institute offers supplementary courses such as continuing training programmes or specialization courses, practical courses and practical exercises.[xxi] The first is a sort of special short programme which can be distinguished from the ordinary basic training in terms of its detail and the time that it requires: between three and six months. So far, groups of ulama, sheikhs and adult imams coming from Guinea, Chad and Nigeria have made use of it. It can also take the form of a one or two-day course, like the one in which some Moroccan imams at Temara (Rabat) participated in 2018.


The Institute’s study system provides for boarding facilities for the foreign students, whereas the Moroccans attend the courses as day-pupils. All students, regardless of nationality, receive a monthly stipend of 2,000 dirhams, in addition to which foreigners receive a return plane ticket to their country every year. The programme ends with written and oral exams that cannot be re-taken for any reason whatsoever.[xxii]Similarly, repeated absences or failure to take part in the exams without a valid justification are considered grounds for being failed.


Foreign students undergo a form of training that is, for the most part, similar to that envisaged for the Moroccan imams although small adjustments are agreed with the authorities of the relevant foreign state so as to adapt the teaching they receive to the reality of their country of provenance and bring them in line with the general student level. The Moroccans’ training programme is nevertheless more advanced, more variegated and fuller than the one followed by foreign students, particularly the Africans. Indeed, the level of the latter is extremely variable, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of diplomas acquired and mastery of Arabic (the principal language in which the training is offered). Such widely differing levels existing within individual groups have begun to constitute a serious problem for both the teachers and the students because they have a negative impact on the training’s progress and quality. To remedy this, in 2018 the Institute’s management established a new method for forming the groups. This system is based on the distribution of foreign first-year students (particularly the Africans) over three groups, on the basis of a written and oral exam aiming to assess the individual student’s level in the legal sciences, his/her knowledge of Arabic and the wealth of his/her initial knowledge of doctrine. The students with a good level go into the first group, the second group takes the intermediate students and the third comprises those with a lower level.


The Study Programme


The Institute follows an intensive training programme that includes various subjects and combines theoretical lessons with practical exercises. Looking at the programmes, it seems appropriate to distinguish three groups of disciplines: the sharia ones, the linguistic and communications-linked ones and the human and social ones. The sharia sciences prevail, accounting for more than 50% of the approximately 1,250 annual hours provided for in this training. The sharia subjects include the Qur’an and its related sciences, the Sunna and its related sciences, Islamic law, the life of the Prophet, the Maliki School of Law’s first principles, the jurisprudence governing the office of imam (which is replaced by the “jurisprudence governing women” for the murshidāt), creed (‘aqīda) and Sufism. These subjects are taught over the year to all the groups, both Moroccan and foreign, and can be considered “basic” subjects by virtue of the number of hours allocated to them and the value attributed to them when calculating the final, overall exam average. Of the 26 weekly training hours, 14 are dedicated to the sharia subjects, whereas the remaining total is distributed between the human and social sciences and the linguistic ones. The humanities include Moroccan history, the Jewish tradition, psychology, Islamic philosophy, logic, contemporary intellectual currents and national institutions. Furthermore, there are applied subjects such as Arabic, sermons and preaching, communications and media studies, as well as the hours dedicated to the Qur’an and memorization of certain texts that constitute a fixed part of the weekly programme for the majority of students.


During the second semester, the International Institutions and Human Rights course replaces the one on national institutions and the course on the History of Islamic Legislation or the History of Islam replaces (for the foreigners) the one on Moroccan history. Two new subjects are added to these: Research Methodology and Geography and Astronomy. It is interesting to note that the training programme for Moroccans does not include the teaching of any foreign language.


The increase in the number of enrolments at the Institute over the last few years (the numbers have swelled to 14 classes) has raised the issue of the range of subjects for study and the content differentiation between classes. In order to remedy this problem, in 2016 the Institute began to consider the idea of unifying the syllabuses. It tasked certain teachers with drawing up lecture material according to specific instructions, which material was to be adopted as textbooks. Two and a half years later, the Institute has published approximately 20 sets of lecture material (all in Arabic, except one in French) and these have been distributed to the Moroccan and foreign students as of May 2018.


In parallel with the theoretical lessons and practical exercises, the Institute’s management schedules a series of collateral activities of an intellectual, recreational or sporting kind to support the training that the Moroccan and foreign students receive. These take the form of a series of seminars, study days and conferences on religious and scientific themes organized, for example, by the ulama participating in the lectures held in the King’s presence during the month of Ramadan. Furthermore, the three-month training programme includes optional courses in physical education that take place in the gymn attached to the Institute’s building. Lastly, the Institute organizes a series of recreational activities every year. These include, for example, arts evenings, cultural competitions and visits to certain historic, religious and tourist sites in the Kingdom, with the educational aim of fostering “openness and integration, and promoting both a spirit of tolerance and constructive dialogue”[xxiii] between the students and the Institute’s management.


If one analyses the content of the subjects provided for in the training programme, one can essentially draw three conclusions. The first concerns the nature of this training and its guiding principles. The programme’s initial version came into being in a context of political pressure and it focused on training rather than higher education. The Institute can, for this reason, be considered a specialized training academy rather than an educational institution. Those in charge of it did their best to make the practical aspect prevail, concentrating in particular on the operational skills that new imams need in order to carry out the religious duties assigned them in the societies where they will be employed.


The training programme nevertheless aims at increasing the students’ level of grounding in the sharia and human sciences and this is the second conclusion. The sharia disciplines constitute the main part of the teaching, both in terms of hours taught and in terms of teachers in charge of their teaching. A rapid analysis of the syllabuses allows one to note that, generally, they are not different from those provided for in traditional higher education or in the faculties teaching sharia, Islamic studies and the Religion’s principles. At the Institute, however, the studies concentrate on the introductory aspects and the fundamental concepts underpinning them. Such a pedagogical approach seems to take account of the fact that many students (male and female alike) have graduated in scientific and arts disciplines that have no nexus with Islamic studies and the religious sciences. In this way, the imams and murshidāt of the future are helped to become familiar with those sciences, without which it is difficult to perform the function of religious guide. Conversely, the attention paid to this aspect constitutes a real problem for the students coming from a degree in sharia and Islamic Studies and those who have also obtained a master’s degree or doctorate, in particular: some of those with whom we were able to talk did not hide their disappointment at having been forced to “chew over” notions from the sharia sciences that added nothing to what they already knew.


One may also make a further observation regarding the purpose of and ideological background to the teaching of the sharia subjects, which is not limited to providing the imams and murshidāt with the basic knowledge of the Qur’an, the Sunna and the hadīth needed to operate in the religious field. Such teaching also aims at giving a doctrinal and historical foundation for the so-called “religious constants” (al-thawābit al-dīniyya) i.e. the great choices on which the Moroccan religious identity is based: the Maliki School of Law, the Ash‘ari doctrine and Sunni Sufism, in addition to Morocco’s system of government, centred on the shariatic pledge of allegiance and command of the faithful (imārat al-mu’minīn). Indeed, it is these constants that guarantee the nation’s unity and the “spiritual security” of Moroccans.


The third and final conclusion regards the status of the human sciences. The 19 subjects taught when the programme was introduced in 2005 then decreased to 9 subjects between 2006 and 2014, only to increase again to 11 subjects when the Institute was founded in 2015. It is important to note that, with the exception of “the History of Morocco” and “the History of Islam” (which take up a significant number of hours both for the Moroccans and the foreign students), the other subjects have certainly increased quantitatively but the time dedicated to teaching them remains very limited, since it does not exceed 20 hours per annum. Furthermore, many of these subjects are taught with a vision and pedagogical tools that take no account of the specific nature of this training directed at preparing religious figures who, once qualified, will have the task of making known and applying sharia’s rules in highly complex cultural, social and intellectual contexts. When one examines the topics covered in these subjects, one does not find any attempt to understand the relationship between Islamic law and the issues linked to the evolution of today’s Muslim societies, particularly those marked by intellectual pluralism and public debates on delicate socio-religious issues. Here, I am particularly thinking of the status of women, the demand for individual freedoms, the relationship between religion and the state and certain cultural activities taking place in the public space, for example art exhibitions and the other recreational activities organized with official support and the patronage of bodies linked to the state. These are complex, sensitive issues regarding which the imams trained at the Institute do not seem to have clear, convincing answers. Nor do they have the intellectual tools for tackling them from a position that is logical and balanced and at the same time capable of honouring the principles of sharia as the fundamental point of reference for their reflection. Thus they limit themselves to re-proposing the religious constants and the Moroccan state’s political choices.


A New Religious Bureaucracy


On the basis of what has been said so far, it would appear that the inclusion of the social and human sciences in the training programme expresses a desire to offer imams cognitive tools that are part of the “jurisprudence of reality”: this so as to help them fit in positively in the societies where they will be operating and help to resolve the issues that they could find themselves facing. However, both the content and the method used to insert these sciences into the training’s general architecture do not reveal any intellectual effort that might foster a constructive interaction with the sharia subjects. On the contrary, the concern to make the new imams understand the institutional framework and the legal rules underpinning the modern state is all too perceptible. It thus appears evident that the inclusion in the syllabuses of subjects such as an introduction to law, national and international institutions and contemporary currents in Islam has the goal of integrating imams and murshidāt within the institutional machinery of a religious bureaucracy that has been significantly developed and reinforced during the last fifteen years.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[i] For a closer examination of the way religious teaching has evolved in Morocco, see Mohamed El Ayadi, “De l’enseignement religieux,” Prologues: Revue Maghrébine du Livre, no. 21 (2001), pp. 32–44.
[ii] See the speech given by King Muhammad VI to the Higher Scientific Council and the local Scientific Councils.
[iii] Ministry of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, 2007. See the Official Journal for the year 2006, p. 43.
[iv] The imams’ religious and political role in the mosques as presented in Ahmed Toufiq’s speech on the occasion of the fifth religious leaders’ conference in Kazakhstan.
[v] Jonathan Birt, “Good Imam, Bad Imam: Civic Religion and National Integration in Britain post 9/11,” The Muslim World, vol. 96, no. 4 (2006), pp. 687–705.
[vi] Ahmed Toufiq, “Le fait religieux : Débat autour d’une constante de l’identité marocaine,” Diplomatica Magazine, no. 68 (2015), pp. 41–47.
[vii] Jonathan Birt, “Good Imam, Bad Imam,” p. 701.
[viii] Dalīl al-imām wa-l-khatīb wa-l-wā‘iz [Handbook for imams, orators and preachers], published by the Ministry of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, Dār al-Baydā’, 2007.
[ix] Mohammed Errihani, “Managing religious discourse in the mosque: the end of extremist rhetoric during the Friday sermon,” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 16, no. 3 (2011), pp. 381–394.
[x] Ann Marie Wainscott, Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 158–206.
[xi] Karima Dirèche, “Les Murchidât au Maroc. Entre islam d’état et islam au féminin,” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, no. 128 (2010), pp. 99–111; Meriem El Haitami, “Restructuring Female Religious Authority: State-Sponsored Women Religious Guides (Murshidat) and Scholars (’Alimat) in Contemporary Morocco,” Mediterranean Studies, vol. 20, no. 2 (2012), pp. 227–240; Driss Maghraoui, “The Strengths and Limits of Religious Reforms in Morocco,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 14, no. 2 (2009), pp. 195–211; Margaret Rausch, “Women Mosque Preachers and Spiritual Guides: Publicizing and Negotiating Women’s Religious Authority in Morocco”, in Massoda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach (eds.), Women, leadership, and mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
[xii] Mohammed El-Katiri, “The institutionalisation of religious affairs: religious reform in Morocco,” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (2013), pp. 53–69.
[xiii] Mohsine Elahmadi, “La formation des nouveaux imams au Maroc,” Afkar/Idées, no. 12 (2007), pp. 28–33.
[xiv] Ministry of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, 2016. Official Journal for the year 2015, p. 246.
[xv] This decree provides for the reorganization of the Qarawiyyin University, turning it into “a scientific institution of reference for specialist training in the religious sciences and the history of Islamic thought and civilization”. The royal decree establishes the university’s “pedagogical and scientific autonomy” but at the same time places it under the King’s “supreme patronage”, thereby effectively putting it under the protection of the Minister of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs. The latter presides over the University’s Council, in accordance with section 8. See Royal Decree no. 1.15.71 (promulgated on 24 June 2015), which establishes the Qarawiyyin University’s reorganization. See Official Journal no. 6372, 25 June 2015, pp. 5991–5996.
[xvi] Salim Hmimnat, “‘Spiritual security’ as a (meta-)political strategy to compete over regional leadership: formation of Morocco’s transnational religious policy towards Africa,” The Journal of North African Studies (2018)
[xvii] Ibid., p. 23.
[xviii] Section 5 of Royal Decree no. 1.15.71 (promulgated on 24 June 2015), which establishes the Qarawiyyin University’s reorganization. See Official Journal no. 6372, 25 June 2015, pp. 5991–5996.
[xix] The training programme initially had places for only fifty murshidāt. As of 2014, their number has doubled, by order of the King.
[xx] Sally Williams, “Mourchidat – Morocco’s female Muslim clerics,” The Telegraph, 26 April 2008,
[xxi] Section 4 of Royal Decree no. 1.14.103 (promulgated 20 May 2014), on the renewal of the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Murshidīn and Murshidāt. See Official Journal no. 6268, 26 June 2014, pp. 5470–5473.
[xxii] Decree no. 2203.06 issued by the minister of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs and promulgated on 5 July 2006. See Official Journal no. 5464, 12 October 2006.
[xxiii] Ministry of the Awqāf and Islamic Affairs, 2016. Official Journal for the year 2015, p. 250.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Salim Hmimnat, “A new generation of Imams in Morocco”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 16-31.

Online version:
Salim Hmimnat, “A new generation of Imams in Morocco”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/a-new-generation-of-imams-in-morocco