Last update: 2020-06-29 13:57:49
Taking a personal reading of the Qur’an and the Sunna as his starting point, ‘Abd al-Salām Yāsīn, the Moroccan thinker and founder of the Islamic “Justice and Beneficence” movement, has kindled a militancy founded on a rigorous form of training. The purpose of the latter is twofold: individual spiritual improvement and accomplishment of the community of believers’ mission to bring Islam’s message to fulfilment on earth.
The Moroccan movement al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsān is an atypical Islamist group. It has inherited certain intellectual and organizational features from the Muslim Brothers’ tradition of militancy but during the decades it has been active in the field of preaching it has also developed a theory and an educational praxis of its own. Its specificity is linked to its hostility towards both those holding power in Morocco and direct political participation through elections. Thus it remains a strong opposition organization that unites the repertoire of a Sufi training with the grammar of political protest.
Between Sufism and Islamist Militancy
As Mohamed Tozy has written, the group’s particular profile “can be explained by the biography of its founder,”[i] ‘Abd al-Salām Yāsīn. Born around 1928, Yāsīn had a long teaching career in the public sector, first as a teacher and then as an inspector. Between 1965 and 1973, he was a member of the Sufi Būdshīshiyya brotherhood and collaborated closely with its sheikh, Abbās Ibn Mukhtār. He left, however, as a result of differences with the latter’s successor, Hamza, whom he criticized for his abstention from political life and blamed for certain doctrinal aberrations introduced into the brotherhood. Yāsīn began reflecting on Islamic activism at the beginning of the 1970s but it was in 1973 that he hit the headlines due to his long tirade against King Hassan II, which he entitled Al-islām aw al-tūfān (“Islam or the Flood”). Such audacity earned him three and a half years’ detention, two of which were spent in a psychiatric hospital. After his release, his chief concern continued to be how to revitalize and unify Islamic activism: at the end of the 1970s, this appeared fragmented from both an intellectual and an organizational point of view, as he himself declared in an interview broadcast on the London channel al-Hiwar in 2008. Yāsīn did not initially intend to found an organization but, in 1979, he began publishing the journal al-Jamā‘a (“The Community”). In 1981, noting the impossibility of creating a unified form of Islamist activism, he decided to found an organizational platform for the journal, calling it Usrat al-jamā‘a (“The Community’s Family”). In order to justify this step, Yāsīn asserted the need to move from verbal jihad (which had proved incapable of uniting the various elements of Islamist militancy) to “organized action”. One of the factors influencing this decision was his conviction that his Sufi past was an obstacle to his competing with the ulama and other intellectuals, as these could claim an authorized interpretation of the literature on which the Islamist currents were drawing (e.g. the works of al-Shātibī, al-Ghazālī and Ibn Taymiyya). Subsequent developments were nevertheless to demonstrate the sheikh’s ability to overcome what initially seemed to be a limitation by transforming it into a strength.
One year later, seeking to move beyond the “fashion for secrecy” characterizing Islamist activism at that time, the organization tried to obtain legal recognition. The attempt failed, however. Throughout this period, Yāsīn organized meetings with his followers (first in his house in Marrakesh and then in Salé) and devoted himself to preaching and teaching in the mosque. The teaching centred on the need to reform a society threatened by ideologies alien to Islam, whether they took the form of Leftism of Liberalism. His lessons were actually summaries of his written works. They were recorded on audiocassettes and then circulated amongst activists. Yāsīn presented his thought as a “totalizing ideology” comparable to the hegemonic thinking of a particular class or historical period.[ii]
In 1987, Usrat al-jamā‘a assumed the name al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsān (“Justice and Beneficence”).[iii] Yāsīn was to be the organization’s Supreme Guide until his death in 2012. In the meantime, the sheikh was subjected to a fresh period of detention before being put under household arrest in his Salé residence in 1989.
A Mystical History
Yāsīn can be considered one of those modern Islamic intellectuals who dissociate themselves from the religious knowledge produced by the ulama during the course of Islamic history. Indeed, he most disparagingly calls the ulama “devout worms.”[iv] The sheikh has undoubtedly contributed to the development of a “lay” Islamic thought built principally upon individual interpretations and a modern reading of Muslim society.[v] His ideas fit into a revivalist religious trend according to which understanding of the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition cannot depend solely upon knowledge of the circumstances in which they were revealed. Indeed, in a process that can never be considered definitively closed, their meaning must also be rediscovered in the light of modern reality. As Ahmad Musallī has asserted, “this requires a rethinking of the foundations and constituent elements of legitimacy and the theories of knowledge; one achieved through new readings. Whilst they call the modern, western theories of knowledge into question, the revivalists also seek to make these cognitive bases their own in order to deconstruct Islam’s traditional intellectual structure and reconfigure it in light of the modern context.”[vi]
In his theoretical reflection, Sheikh Yāsīn drank at two great ideological springs: the positive disciplines encountered during his long professional experience in teaching and the Sufi knowledge he received from Sheikh ‘Abbās. Thus Yāsīn’s style of thinking[vii] combines an esoteric knowledge with a scientific knowledge founded on rational demonstration. These were the parameters within which the sheikh shaped the pillars of his intellectual project, namely, the concepts of education and the state (the “caliphate”). The latter were, in their turn, inserted into a transcendent vision of the cosmos and salvation in the afterlife.
Most of Yāsīn’s writings are, moreover, founded on a reading of Muslim society in the light of Islam’s sacred history. Believers are called to rediscover this history, as opposed to the Western reductions and distortions thereof. Indeed, the sheikh writes, “The teaching programmes imported from the pagan foreigners have exaggerated Muslim political history and internal Muslim conflict and have eliminated the history of the faith, Islam’s continuity, the religion’s righteousness and the victory of the successful ones. For a people that does not believe in God and the Last Day, the history of the faith, Islam and righteousness are only anecdotes and empty chatter. […] At the heart of this history lies the mission of the prophets, who were sent as guides for the world. A history in which God sent Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, prayer and peace be upon him and upon them.”[viii] The history is thus a mystical one, centred on the invisible realities, since the ends of human existence transcend the material conditions produced by historical realities, according to the sheikh.
Yāsīn attaches particular importance to the moment when Mu‘āwiya Ibn Abī Sufiyān, founder of the Umayyad dynasty, usurped governance of the Islamic state after Caliph ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib’s assassination in 657. As one can read at various points in his literary output, Yāsīn calls this critical juncture a historic rupture that inaugurates the phase of “coercive power”. For example, in his Al-khilāfa wa-l-mulk (“The Caliphate and the Monarchy”) he states, “If this rupture at the dawn of our history were a piece of news that is dead and buried, there would be no need to exhume it. The fire of discord was ignited and has continued to burn for many centuries. When it dies down, it does so only to blaze up afresh. Nowadays, Muslims are awaking at the dawn of a new history but their existence still contains cultural and doctrinal traces of this fire.”[ix]
Another of the movement’s thinkers, professor Ahmad Bū‘ūd, has adopted this reading. He highlights the need to reinterpret and renew Islamic thought, starting from the historic turning point when the “rightly guided” caliphate ended. Indeed, in an interview with the Bahraini newspaper al-Waqt (republished on the Justice and Beneficence website), he has asserted that “the lack of renewal efforts can be attributed to two factors. The first is the Islamic community’s straying from its historic path. Muslims lived for years in the shadow of prophecy and the rightly guided caliphate when it was the Qur’an that governed, when people followed the Prophet’s Sunna (peace and blessings be upon him) and when the state was at preaching’s service and was its custodian. Subsequently, however, there was a shock that had negative repercussions on their lives, both in this world and in the afterlife, since the fetter constraining government was removed and the caliphate turned into a harsh, coercive monarchy, the fire of which today harasses the Islamic movement and the ulama, who are the Prophet’s heirs (blessings and peace be upon him). […] The second factor is the separation of the law governing individuals from that governing the community. Those who look closely at the preaching of the prophets (peace be upon them) will note that it always comprises two parts: one concerns the Creator’s unity and oneness (tawhīd), and this is the individual dimension, and the other the need to remedy the corruption that has spread amongst people in the various contexts of life. And this concerns the community.”[x]
If Muslim societies are living in this state of decline, their reform and renewal are primarily a matter of education. And, indeed, Yāsīn has carved out an educational theory from his reading of the founding texts, developing a methodology capable of shaping an operative “religious personality” in which thought and action are closely linked.
The movement thus provides for educational institutions and courses that have played and are playing a primary part in the intellectual training of its activists. Within these, the fundamental elements making up the Muslim (worship, faith and spirituality) harmoniously interact with the material objectives characterizing society as a whole (study, work, neighbourly relations etc.). The puritanical system of values that the movement’s members have to interiorize rests on a reading according to which Moroccan society has fallen under a “spell” and has been afflicted with various forms of “deformity” and “monstrosity”. Responsibility for these afflictions is traceable, on the one hand, to the hegemony exercised by westernized elites and by a government that has replaced consultation with coercion and, on the other, to an abandoning of the goal of spiritual improvement, which is linked to a perpetual renewal of faith.
As far as recruitment is concerned, Justice and Beneficence has always paid great attention to the culture underpinning the primary institutions that aspiring members come from. Unlike other Islamist groups, this movement demands a high level of religiousness from its candidates and measures it, inter alia, by their assiduousness regarding dawn prayer. Most Justice and Beneficence members currently belong to socially stable, conservative families seeking to instruct their children in religious commitment. They are aided in this by an Islamization of the teaching in Moroccan schools that began in the 1970s.
Turning to specifics, the training envisaged for the group’s activists is outlined in what may be considered Yāsīn’s central work: Al-minhāj al-nabawī (“The Prophetic Method”).[xi] Published in 1989, this book proposes a method for attaining spiritual perfection (ihsān) by way of a “climb” towards God that is defined by ten “qualities”. These represent “ten milestones along the road, ten stages, ten categories summarizing the branches [of the faith]:”[xii] 1) suhba (“companionship”) and the jamā‘a (“the community”); 2) dhikr (remembering God); 3) honesty (sidq); 4) commitment (badhl); 5) knowledge (‘ilm); 6) work; 7) the right direction; 8) calm; 9) the economy; and 10) jihad.
Each of these has, in its turn, various sub-divisions that all contribute to the formulation of a genuine pedagogical programme. And adherence to this method not only allows spiritual perfection to be attained but also determines the position of members within the movement. The instructions may be applied with a certain indulgence during the passage from one position in the organization to another, however, since they “establish high standards and the majority of the movement’s members come from other groups, bringing intellectual remnants of the latter with them.”[xiii] In any event, the central and insurmountable element is “assimilation” i.e. the candidate’s ability to conform different visions and standpoints to the organization’s ethical and ideological stance. This means that if the historic legacy, with its legal and doctrinal elements, is the source used to justify a new member’s convictions, these cannot be accepted by the movement’s leaders and then its activists until they have been modelled and trimmed to fit Yāsīn’s thought. For example, the conception that the group’s leaders have of democracy or economics is drawn exclusively from the Supreme Guide’s writings. This produces an ideological self-reliance that helps to shelter the movement’s members from discordant ideas or points of view: this to avoid creating confusion during the activists’ education.
Achieved through precise psychological and educational groundwork, the assimilation of a unitary conception is, moreover, a prerequisite for occupying the highest posts. In the Supreme Guide’s writings, the criterion for receiving a political appointment is a state of relative “moral” or “spiritual” perfection, according to a vision that is rooted in an Islamic history of contesting power. As one of the movement’s leaders told me, “When we say that it is not legally permitted to place one’s trust in oppressors, it is enough to cite one or two examples from Islamic history.”
The method proposed by Yāsīn is, in short, a roadmap for changing humankind inspired by the Qur’an and the Sunna. One that defines the relationship between the individual and the invisible world and, at the same time, seeks to overcome the state of cultural and economic backwardness in which the community of believers finds itself. It therefore has a double objective: individual spiritual improvement and enabling the umma to undertake its mission as God’s lieutenant on earth. The individual objective regards personal salvation in the afterlife; the umma, on the other hand, is responsible for the earthly fulfilment of Islam’s message. This duality is emphasised by ‘Abd al-Karīm al-‘Alamī, a member of the General Guidance Council, which, along with the Secretary-General, is the highest-level executive organ within the movement today: “The education we receive in the movement does not separate the preparation for the encounter with God—preparation for the tomb and the afterlife—from the interests of the community founded by God’s Messenger.”[xiv]
Personal spiritual formation within the movement envisages an extremely rigorous rule of life that combines the acts of worship prescribed by Islam with a series of supererogatory practices that are defined in considerable detail: various types and moments of prayer throughout the day, evening examination of conscience, fasting twice a week and periodic visits to cemeteries. To this dimension there is added the genuine activism training, which centres on group activities such as meetings, night vigils and excursions. In addition, provision is made for extra-scholastic training dedicated to three kinds of knowledge: religious knowledge, historical knowledge and socio-economic knowledge. The more properly political training aims at preparing activists to act in the public space, face the provocations coming from the outside, interact with the other Islamist organizations and express themselves, if urged, regarding the movement’s nature and objectives.[xv]
Despite its rigour, the itinerary proposed by the prophetic method does not claim to be infallible since—as Yāsīn himself has said—it is a human initiative existing in time and space.[xvi] However, it may also be said that the training process for members of Justice and Beneficence meets two evenly balanced logical requirements: adherence to the Supreme Guide’s educational theory, on the one hand, and the activists’ psychological and intellectual predisposition and capability, on the other. Thus as long as the overall educational framework established by Yāsīn is maintained, the movement can renounce certain elements of it. The presence of a body of pragmatic values alongside the mystical tendency within the movement has thus resulted in two systems “co-existing” within the same culture.
Once the movement’s political project (the “Qur’anic state”) was brought to a halt, the educational theory it had developed distinguished itself for its effectiveness and flexibility in adapting to surrounding circumstances, whether they were negative ones (suppression, false accusations and marginalization) or positive ones (an openness to human rights, economic liberalization and the information revolution). The negative factors have generated politically intransigent stances and a culture of suspicion towards the actors in the political arena (the Makhzen[xvii], official parties and the administration), whilst the positive factors have helped the movement’s members to open up both to internationalization and to developing “attenuated” forms of activism (when compared to their habitual ones).
Yāsīn’s Legacy and the Movement’s Future
Sheikh Yāsīn died on 13 December 2012, at the age of 84. Predictably, thousands of his disciples and many personalities from the Moroccan political, cultural and religious world took part in his funeral, although this was deserted by the authorities. Considering the central role the sheikh had had both in defining Justice and Beneficence’s ideology and in guiding its actions, this was a crucial moment and one that raised the question of whether the movement was capable of surviving the death of its founder and leader. People also wondered which camp within the organization would emerge and whether Yāsīn’s successor would maintain an intransigent stance towards the regime or, instead, pursue a policy of normalization and reconciliation.
Yāsīn himself provided some indication. In his spiritual testament dated 25 Dhū-l-Hijja of 1422 in the Islamic calendar (corresponding to 10 March 2002 in the Gregorian calendar), the sheikh urged his followers to persevere in the “companionship of the community”, which cannot be separated “from justice and beneficence.”[xviii] Then, in his last book, printed a few months before his death and entitled Jamā‘at al-muslimīn wa rābitatuhum (“The Community of Muslims and Their Bond”),[xix] the sheikh returned once more to the same concept. Those studying the movement perceived a transition from the philosophy of an organization revolving around a sheikh/founder to one centred on the idea of community/institution.
The day following Yāsīn’s death, one of the principal experts on Justice and Beneficence, the political scientist Muhammad Darīf, proposed a reading that proved capable of anticipating events and developments that subsequently occurred in all reality. Indeed, according to the scholar, “no one can deny the central role that Sheikh ‘Abd al-Salām Yāsīn played within the movement, given that it was he who conceived its thought, willed the project, accompanied the organization and wrote its literature.” However, “all those who have reduced the Justice and Beneficence movement to its Supreme Guide and expect the organization to collapse after his death have drawn hasty conclusions. […] In fact, the movement has equipped itself with strong organizational structures and instruments capable of exercising a considerable attraction, despite everything that has been said about its problems.” Darīf then added that the sheikh’s death would not only not lead to the end of the movement—as many had predicted—but would even give it a new momentum, infusing it with a new spirit.[xx]
The sheikh’s death has certainly had a strong impact on the organization’s members and it is impossible to think that they will be able to do without his thought (which has, moreover, achieved world fame).[xxi] It should nevertheless be noted that the movement’s positions are not immutable. Rather, they adapt to changes in the political power-balance. As do the other opposition political organizations, for that matter, reviewing their own stance according to the changing national and international contexts.
The Succession Question
The other great question that Yāsīn’s death raised was that of his succession. Sufi literature and the hagiographies recounting saints’ miracles usually intimate the existence, within a brotherhood, of an heir appointed by its sheikh from amongst his descendants or followers.[xxii] Continuing an uninterrupted chain of initiation, such person inherits his predecessor’s charisma and authority. From this point of view, Justice and Beneficence constitutes an interesting case study: indeed, although it has an educational structure of Sufi origin, it prefers to present itself as a modern, militant activist movement in order to avoid the accusations of doctrinal aberration normally levelled against Sufism by Salafis.
In this context, the issue of the sheikh’s legacy has been at the centre of a debate involving the movement’s most senior intellectuals. Whilst some have sought to interpret Yāsīn’s methodological system by subordinating the concept of the leader’s authority to that of “community” (jamā‘a), others were of the opinion that the sheikh ought to have an heir capable of continuing the founder’s companionship and spiritual leadership and completing his project.
The solution found (which essentially sided with those advocating the movement’s institutional evolution) was to amend the organization’s constitution by substituting the role of “Secretary-General” for that of “Supreme Guide” and thus reserving the title of Guide to the movement’s founder. It may be noted that whilst the label of “Supreme Guide” is certainly more in keeping with the organization’s missionary and educational nature and clearly expresses its Sufi origins, the title of “Secretary-General” is typical of political organizations. If this choice may signal a change within the Justice and Beneficence movement, it is also confirmation of the uniqueness of Sheikh Yāsīn’s personality: his spiritual, intellectual and moral stature is considered so elevated that it cannot in any way be passed on to others.
To cite this article
Youssef Mounsif, “A prophetic method for educating the Umma”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 58-68.
Youssef Mounsif, “A prophetic method for educating the Umma”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/a-prophetic-method-for-educating-the-umma