‘Moroccan Islam’ is couched in Sufism

Friday 01/04/2016
A 2014 file picture shows members of the Tijaniyya Brotherhood praying, in the Moroccan city of Fes, during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tijani.

Rabat - In Morocco, as in other Arab countries, Islamism has taken root in poverty-stricken areas and the outskirts of major in­dustrial cities.

In 2003, Casablanca experienced terrorist attacks at a popular tourist restaurant and internet café. Sui­cide bombers, from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen, aimed an attack directly towards discouraging West­ern influence by literally ridding the place of its perpetrators — Western tourists in Morocco.

The second attack, at an inter­net café, perhaps more indirectly discouraged Western influence be­cause it was at a cyber venue. This could be seen as a statement against outside influences that could per­meate Moroccan society by way of the internet.

However, radical Islamism is seen as a threat to the stability of Moroc­co’s government because it invokes violence and destruction and chal­lenges the regime. In Morocco the radical Islamist narrative is a chal­lenge to the Moroccan king because it casts doubt about his legitimacy as amir al-mu’minin — the “command­er of the faithful” or head of religion.

As much as Islamism is concerned with permeating external areas of life, Sufism is focused on the inter­nal workings of each individual. It sees religion as stresseing personal enlightenment by encouraging peo­ple to look into themselves to find Allah.

Sufis are focused on their search for a way inside themselves that will lead them to God. They believe that the path to Him can be found through meditation and purifica­tion. Because Sufism is so internally focused, Sufis are seen as apolitical and uninvolved in political affairs.

Sufism encourages believers to disengage from the material world, which includes politics and govern­ment, to better align oneself with the spiritual world and learn the truth of God. Sufism teaches that the material world is all illusion and, because of its illusive nature, it is better to free oneself from the bounds of material life and search for reality and understanding in the divine.

Religion has always been impor­tant to Moroccans but it has been moderate and tolerant. Jews lived and thrived in Morocco for 2,000 years, thanks to this moderation. When the Sephardic Jews were kicked out of Spain in 1492, Moroc­co was one of the few countries that opened its doors to them.

Moroccan Islam — a term rejected by Islamists who believe there is only one Islam with no local col­ourations — is a mixture of Sufism and Maraboutism. The Sufis arrived from the east around the 15th cen­tury and spread across the country, preaching a moderate Islam to un­educated farmers.

On their death they were elevated to the rank of saint: marabout. Peo­ple built shrines on their tombs and gave them baraka — divine grace — attributes that allow healing pow­ers.

There are hundreds of shrines of saints around Morocco with a reputation of different healing pow­ers and whose baraka is celebrated every year at the end of the agricul­tural cycle with a festival organised by the entire tribe for days, reminis­cent of ancient pagan rites.

Since the “Arab spring” in 2011, the establishment, which had al­ways favoured Sufi Islam, increased its support of religious lodges, such as the powerful Boutchichiya lodge in Berkane, which boasts 2 million members worldwide, including civil servants, intellectuals and gov­ernment officials.

In Morocco, there are dozens of other Sufi lodges and orders that owe allegiance to the monarchy and give it its religious legitimacy and political strength.

Realising that the fragmenta­tion of religious representation will make the imarat al-mu’minin (com­mandership of the faithful) stronger and more legitimate, the king has even allowed the presence of Mo­roccan Shias in northern Morocco, under strict conditions of allegiance to the monarchy.

Morocco has gone through the Arab uprisings and the ensuing Is­lamist power takeover unscathed, thanks to the predominance of Sufi Islam in the majority of the Moroc­can territory, which is almost as old as the monarchy itself.

Moroccan Sufism, represented by Maraboutism, is tolerant, open and accepting of the other in his “oth­erness”, has earned the country worldwide respect. Today, many countries are approaching Morocco to benefit from its religious experi­ence, especially in imam training. Dozens of foreign students are reg­istered in the Imam Academy of Rabat. Moroccan Islam is couched in Sufism.

That has proved to be a successful antidote against religious extrem­ism and proof that the “Moroccan exception” is a tangible reality in the Muslim world.