After the Casablanca attacks in 2003, the Moroccan monarchy has promoted an updated version of traditional Maliki Islam. The attempt has had to reckon with much resistance and many red lines. But it is pressing ahead

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:53


The neo-Moorish façade of the Muhammad VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat is dominated by the banner advertising an exhibition on Ahmed Cherkaoui, a Moroccan painter who has spent his life re-working the motifs he saw tattooed on women’s faces and in the weaves of carpets when he was a child.  The exhibition’s subtitle “Between Rootedness and Modernity” could serve as Morocco’s national motto, were the country not already officially identified in the triad “God, Homeland, King”. Indeed, the slogan captures the character of a state that perpetuates the traditional architectural styles in its mosque-building while it invests massively in infrastructure and solar energy. And not by chance, the main opposition party – born in 2008 to counter the rise of the “Justice and Development” Islamist Party – has chosen to call itself “Authenticity and Modernity.”


The tension between past and present naturally runs also through Islam and it is on the possibility of finding a balance between these two elements that the current king has bet, in order both to fight fundamentalist readings at a domestic level and promote the image of a moderate religion abroad.


The first brick of this religious policy was laid in 2002, when ‘Abd al-Kabīr ‘Alawī Mdaghrī (known for his indulgence towards Wahhabism) left his position of Minister of Religious Affairs to Ahmad Toufiq, a historian, writer, director of the National Library of Morocco and, above all, a member of the Qādiriyya Budshīshiyya, a brotherhood epitomizing the Sufi revival in the country.


At the time, Morocco still believed it was safe from the jihadist drift. In September 2001, a celebration in the Catholic cathedral in Rabat to commemorate the victims of the Twin Tower attacks showed the face of an open and tolerant country. And in 2002, a reportage in the French daily Libération stated that “there is no room for fanaticism in Morocco.” The Casablanca attacks in 2003 put an end to the illusion and the involvement of Moroccan terrorists in the Madrid attacks in 2004 confirmed that the Kingdom, too, was in the eye of the storm.


Since then, the initiatives seeking to re-organize the religious sphere and signal a clear distancing from terrorist jihadism have multiplied. This commitment reached its culmination in 2016 when Morocco promoted and hosted a conference in Marrakech on the rights of religious minorities, which ended with a daring declaration. “It is a discourse clearly addressed to the outside world, because the problem of minorities is not very relevant to the domestic situation,” comments Salim Hmimnat, professor of Political Science at the Mohammed V University of Rabat.


“This is an expression of state Islam that, inter alia, pursues geopolitical goals relating to the monarchy’s positioning. However, understanding what is happening at the level of society is more complex. In any case, there has been a re-organization of the religious field over the last ten years. Morocco is no longer in a defensive position and can now export its model.”


Toufiq (who has been supervising the network of religious institutions in the country for sixteen years) describes this model as an “updated” version of traditional Islam. Pinpointing what the traditional dimension consists of is not difficult: it is the trio of the Maliki legal school, the Ash‘arite theological doctrine and Sufi spirituality. Explaining how the updating to which the Minister is referring works in practice is more complex, however.



The Ulama of the Future

To understand it, it is necessary to go to Fes, the religious heart of the country and home to one of the Sunni world’s most prestigious centres of higher education, the Qarawiyyin University. Founded in 859, this institution boasts the title of the oldest university in the world, enjoying UNESCO recognition and a place in Guinness World Records to boot. In actual fact, the date of the University’s establishment is controversial, however. According to some scholars, the mosque’s construction coincides with the founding of the university, whereas for others the teaching centre only developed a few centuries later. What is beyond doubt, in any case, is that, at its height, the university hosted giants of human thought (Averroes, Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun, to name but the most illustrious) as well as important figures of the Moroccan religious tradition. Generally, the Qarawiyyin was for centuries the place where Morocco’s intellectual, religious and administrative elite received its training until this task was transferred to other institutions in the modern era. To no avail were the reforms attempted by both the colonial and the post-colonial administrators as they proved incapable of solving a crucial dilemma: either confirm the Qarawiyyin in its role as custodian of the religious tradition or open it up to modern culture.


IMG_7697.JPGEntrance to the old city of Fes, near Bab Bou Jeloud [Photo Oasis]


The past failures have not discouraged King Muhammad VI. In 2015, he launched an ambitious project for the physical, organizational and curricular re-structuring of this temple of religious knowledge.  Amāl Jalāl – whose appointment as rector of the university coincides, temporally, with the new direction called for by the Moroccan sovereign – talks to us about this. His bright, spacious office is not that far from the Borj Nord, the fort from which one’s gaze can embrace the old town’s harmonious profile, with its walls, roof terraces, minarets and the typical green roofs of the two mosques, Mūlāy Idrīs and the Qarawiyyin, that dominate the fascinating criss-crossing of alleyways from the centre. A jurist, former governor of the Fes region and rector of the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University before taking up his new post, Jalāl retraces the Qarawiyyin’s ancient splendours: from the episode involving Gerbert of Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, who allegedly ventured as far as Morocco to study mathematics, to the first diploma in medicine awarded in 1207. He then moves on to outline the reform. “Up until 2015, the Qarawiyyin was under the authority of the Ministry of Higher Education. It comprised five Faculties spread out over the national territory and it had 15,000 students,” a number out of all proportion for the country’s religious structures.


“As a result of the reform in 2015, the University has come under the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and new institutions have been affiliated: the Dār al-Hadīth al-Hasaniyya, a centre of Islamic studies particularly dedicated to hadīth, the Institute of Moroccan History, the Institute for Qur’anic Studies, the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams and Religious Guides and the School for Islamic Science in Casablanca.”


The real novelty, however, lies in the number of candidates admitted to the university and their study programme: 1,800 students selected by competitive examination who, in addition to learning the Islamic sciences, also attend six hours of French, six hours of English, two hours of philosophy and two hours of computing every week. After the third year, lectures in the social sciences, three hours of Latin, three hours of Greek and three hours of Hebrew are added to these disciplines. The aim of the new curriculum, Jalāl explains, is to “train a new kind of religious scholar,” well rooted in the Maliki and Ash‘arite tradition but capable of navigating the modern forms of knowledge.


The aspiring ulama can work in ideal conditions: those studying in Fes are lodged in the city’s old, now completely restructured, madrasas whilst the Imams’ Training Institute that stands not far from the campus of the Mohammed V University in Rabat (and welcomes most of the students enrolled at the Qarawiyyin) offers accommodation to 1,000 of its students.


The reform has only recently become fully operational and it will be necessary to wait a few years to see the ulama of the future. Nevertheless, a figure who probably already embodies the profile of the new experts in religious science is Ahmad al-‘Abbādī, secretary-general of the Rābita Muhammadiyya li-l-‘Ulamā’ (“The Muhammadan League of Ulama”), a sort of think-tank of the Ministry of Religious Affairs tasked with studying religion-related issues and promoting a moderate, tolerant Islam. ‘Abbādī was trained in the Moroccan University system and completed his studies in France. He is regularly invited to lecture in various American universities. As much at ease in the white jellaba worn by the Moroccan ulama as he is in a suit and tie, he mixes Qur’anic quotations with references to the social and natural sciences. When ISIS arose between 2014 and 2015 claiming to act in the name of Islam, ‘Abbādī’s Rābita responded with a series of digital publications designed to deconstruct the jihadist ideological architecture.


IMG_20180406_133205.jpgThe Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams and Religious Guides, Rabat [Photo Oasis]


If the Supply Exists but There’s no Demand

Muhammad Saghir Janjar, director of the Al Saoud Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences, is more sceptical about the future of Moroccan Islam. With its premises in a fine building on the Casablancan Corniche, a few hundred metres from the ocean, the Foundation is a venue for scholars from all over the world, primarily thanks to its very well stocked library. According to Janjar, “the official religious discourse has serious limitations; it is basically expressed through slogans and it is too dependent on political power. Throughout the Sunni world, traditional Islam is generally very closed, unlike what happens in the Iranian reformist circles, for example. Developing new readings of the Qur’an is the decisive issue. But nowadays, it is the tradition or ideologies that are being re-proposed instead of these new readings. I saw to it that the Foundation’s library was equipped with one of the most complete collections of modern Qur’anic studies in the world, but this resource is not being consulted. A library can offer the tools for study and in-depth analysis but there must be a demand and it is the university’s task to create it. In Morocco, this demand does not exist. People limit themselves to a practical, culturally weak religiosity and this goes for the middle classes as well.” If the rector of the Qarawiyyin calculated that between five and ten years was the time needed to bring forth a new generation of ulama, culturally equipped to reckon with the contemporary world’s challenges, Janjar thinks it will take decades because reformist discourses are struggling to catch on and all the more so if they are produced in the West in a language other than Arabic. Nevertheless, something is beginning to stir in Morocco as well, “for example, with the new thinkers who express themselves in Arabic, like the ones gravitating around Mu’minūn bilā hudūd.”


Mu’minūn bilā hudūd (“Believers without Borders”) is a Foundation established in 2013. Its headquarters are situated on the fourth floor of a building in Agdal, one of Rabat’s modern quarters. Its purpose is to help create a space for free debate around the issue of reform and religious renewal in Arab-Islamic societies. To this end, the Foundation promotes an impressive number of publications and events: four journals, various book series (including the Complete Works of the famous Egyptian reformist Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd), Arabic translations of foreign works, an internet site that is constantly updated with new research and articles and, last but not least, international meetings and conferences. But it is enough to visit the room where the Foundation’s weekly seminars are held, with its portraits of Habermas, Nietzsche, Ibn Khaldun and Descartes hanging on the walls, to understand the spirit animating this institute’s cultural work.



A Very Cautious Updating

How far the religious tradition’s updating advocated by Minister Toufiq can go emerged quite clearly in the matter involving Asma Lamrabet in March 2018. A doctor by profession and an activist by vocation, Lamrabet published in 2017 Islam and Women. Annoying Questions (Islam et femmes. Les questions qui fâchent). The book takes aim at the forms of discrimination against women in the name of religion: polygamy, inequality in inheritance, male guardianship, obligation to wear the veil etc. The volume does not accuse Islam in itself but, rather, the theologico-legal elaboration that has, over the centuries, acted as the vehicle for a “misogynist” and “patriarchal” vision of religion and that, today, forces women into the role of “the last guardians of the tradition’s temple.” The re-reading of the Qur’an that this doctor-theologian hopes for received official recognition as early as 2011, when Lamrabet became director of the Centre for Studies and Research on Women’s Issues at ‘Abbādī’s Rābita. Co-existence with the ulama in this institution was not easy, however. It became impossible when Lamrabet spoke at the presentation of a book on the issue of gender inequality in inheritance and, along with another hundred Moroccan personalities, signed a petition asking for amendments in the inheritance regime envisaged by traditional Islamic jurisprudence. The Salafis rose up, accusing her of “deviancy” and “ignorance.” The most conservative wing of the Moroccan ulama also reacted with irritation. Inundated with insults and threats on the social networks and probably subjected to heavy pressure, Lamrabet tendered her resignation from the Rābita: a resignation that her superiors accepted with alacrity.


In April 2018, the progressive francophone weekly TelQuel dedicated its front cover to her, choosing the evocative title, “Résiste!” In the meantime, however, at the Rābita they had already proceeded to replace her with Farīda Zumurrud, an expert in the Islamic sciences and member of the League’s executive committee and, and above all, far more attuned with the positions of the ulama.


In reality, openings in favour of women have not been lacking in Morocco. Only a couple of months before the Lamrabet case exploded, the Supreme Council of Ulama had expressed a favourable opinion regarding the reform that, breaking with a centuries-old practice, was to allow women to practise the profession of ‘adūl, the officer charged with drawing up legal documents related to sharia matters. Before that, the door on preaching in the mosques as murshidāt (religious guides) had been opened to women: a role that they also perform in the Moroccan diaspora communities and for which they are trained in the institute attached to the Qarawiyyin. The inheritance case is different, however, because it has a deeper impact on societal relations and hits those “constants” in Islam of which the ulama claim to be the guardians.



The Arbiter of the Debate

For the time being, the monarchy is witnessing the debate without intervening. It is allowing the various positions and cultural balances existing in a rather conservative society to emerge. Plurality in the country’s religious sphere serves the sovereign’s role as arbiter, moreover, and this guarantees a certain freedom of discussion between different leanings and sensitivities, on condition that two rules are respected: identification with the three pillars of Moroccan Islamic identity and abstention from contesting the king’s primacy as “Commander of the Faithful.” Thus two organizations with similar ideology and forms of militancy, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the Justice and Charity movement, find themselves in opposite situations: the former is governing, whereas the latter – for which the dynastic principle underpinning the monarchy is contrary to Islam – is barely tolerated and kept under strict surveillance. In the same way, the Salafi ideologues who have renounced jihadist militancy and accepted the monarchy’s centrality have been guaranteed an amnesty and a presence in the public space. One of them, Muhammad al-Fizāzī, who had previously been sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for terrorist activities, even gave the Friday sermon in Muhammad VI’s presence in 2014.


This is one of the secrets of the ruling family’s stability: deactivate the potentially destabilizing forces by integrating them into the system. It is a process that involves not only Islam. To give an example, up until the 1980s, the country’s Berber identity was taboo, sacrificed on the altar of the nation’s Arabness until a civil society movement began to assert its cultural and political legitimacy. The current king has not only listened to these claims but has also made them his own, creating the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in 2001. The 2011 Constitution recognised Tamazight as the Kingdom’s co-official language. Nowadays, all the country’s public buildings bear their names in two languages and two different alphabets: Arabic and Berber (and often French as well). Nevertheless, the teaching of Tamazight in schools (provided for by the Constitution) has generally remained a dead letter due to the lack of adequately trained teachers. By analogy, it may be said that the project of “moderate Islam” finds itself in a similar phase today: a big signboard, proudly exhibited at the entrance to a building still under construction.