Islam means “flight towards God” and Allah is the only God. Morocco’s Muslims are Sunnis, of the Maliki tradition (founded by Imam Malik). The Maliki school teaches a somewhat less dogmatic or literal interpretation of the Koran than the other schools; it permits traditions to be modified when they no longer serve the common good. In Morocco, Islam is the state religion and King Mohammed VI, descendant of the Prophet, is the Leader of the Faith (Amir al-Mouminine). Nearly all Moroccans are Muslim (99.95 %) and are united in their membership of a community of believers, the Umma.
Muhammad was born around 570 in Mecca in Arabia. After being orphaned at a very young age, he started work organising trading caravans, before he was employed by a rich widow, Khadija, whom he married when he was 25. It was in the cave of Hira, where he would go from time to time to meditate, that he had his first revelations (towards 610): the archangel Gabriel (Jibrail) appeared before him and told him that he was the messenger of God (rasûl). In 613, Muhammad began his prophetic mission. Persecuted by the Meccan polytheists, Muhammad and his disciples were forced to flee to Medina in 622. This migration, the hijrah (from hijra: exile in Arabic), marks year one of the Muslim calendar. The Islamic state (Dar al-Islâm), established in the town by the Prophet became a model for all Muslim cities in the future (medinas). In 624, the victory of the Medinians over the Meccans at the battle of Badr, led to the spread of Islam throughout the whole of the Arab peninsula. In year 10 of the hijrah, Muhammad undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and then returned to Medina where he died in the 13th rabi of year 11 of the hijrah (8 June 1632).
The holy book
Islam is based on the revealed book, the Koran. This word comes from qur’an, the infinitive of qara’a, which means “to recite” in Arabic. During the 20 years of the revelation, at each Ramadan Muhammad recited the totality of all he had learnt up until then; which is why the Koran is still recited during the nights of this holy month. The revelations are presented in the form of verses (ayats) grouped into 114 chapters or surats. Next in importance after the Koran is sunna or tradition on which Islam is also founded (asl). Contained in the hadiths (tales of Muhammad’s life), it recounts the Prophet’s words as a community leader and not as messenger of the divine word. Muslims believe that these tales are eyewitness reports and therefore guarantee their authenticity.
The five pillars
Islam is founded on five major duties, of which the shahadah, profession of faith, is by far the most important. It affirms that “there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”. Anyone who pronounces these words commits him or herself to become a Muslim and to be a member of the Umma.
After the ritual purifying ablutions, the believer prays (salat) five times a day: at dawn, midday, around 4pm, dusk and two hours after sunset. Facing Mecca, the worshipper prostrates him or herself once or several times while reciting verses of the Koran. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer (salat) from the top of the minaret. The Friday prayer (salet al-jumu’a) is congregational. The Muslim goes to the mosque where the imam (religious leader) leads the prayers and preaches a sermon from his pulpit (minbar). On this day the faithful are also required to show charity to the poor and needy, to whom they offer alms and food, often couscous which is a holy dish. In some regions, families leave candles in a mosque or in a marabout’s mausoleum the day before.
Ramadan is observed in the ninth month of the lunar year. From puberty, all Muslims fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadam, with the exception of the sick, pregnant women and those on a long journey. They must refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex. In the evening, family and friends gather together to dine on a vast choice of dishes in a relaxed, cheerful spirit. The night of the 26/27 of this month, known as the “Night of fate”, commemorates the revelation to the prophet of the first surat.
The believer must show him or herself to be generous, essentially by giving legal alms (zakat), either in kind or in money towards charities or other welfare bodies. In two verses of one of the last surats are the lines: “But men became rebels, once they became wealthy”. Greed estranges the believer from God and is frowned upon, but so is unnecessary waste, because it leads to the community’s general economic impoverishment.
All believers must carry out a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in their lives, if they have the physical and financial means to do so. The pilgrimage enables the faithful to earn forgiveness of their sins. Many rituals and prayers accompany the pilgrimage, the most important of which are the seven tours of the Kaaba, the cubic sacred shrine in the heart of the mosque, within which is the Black Stone given to Abraham by the archangel Gabriel. Once a believer has carried out the pilgrimage he can add the title of hajji to his name.
In addition to the five pillars, Islam also has a certain number of bans: alcohol, pork and animals which have not been bled. Although common practice, gambling and usury are also forbidden.
The main dates of the religious calendar
Civil life is organised around the Gregorian calendar, but religious life follows the Muslim calendar. This is calculated according to the 12 months of the lunar year. Each month begins with a new moon and lasts 29 or 30 days. A lunar year only has 355 days and is thus ten days ahead of the solar year. Year one of the hijrah began on 16 July 622.
Moharram 1st is the Muslim calendar’s new year.
Achoura is celebrated on the 10th day of the month of moharram, in memory of the death of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson.
Mawlid commemorates the Prophet’s birth date.
Aïd al-Fitr (or Aïd es-Seghir), the end of the fasting, falls on the 1st of Chaoual, the day after the last day of Ramadan.
Aïd al-Kabeer, the “Grand Feast”, commemorates the event mentioned in the Koran and in the Bible, according to which Isaac, son of Abraham, escaped being burnt alive thanks to a ram. In celebration of this act, on the 10th day of the month of Dhû al-hijja each Muslim family ritually slaughters a lamb.
A sacred monarchy
The king is the Leader of the Faith, a title which legitimises his function as monarch. He is the descendant of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, hence the name of Alawite given to the last dynasty. Monarchical power is only granted to direct descendants of the Prophet (sharif). Although all Muslims are equal before God, the title of sharif brings with it a divine blessing (baraka). This sacred gift has created an allegiance between the Moroccan people and their king.
Even if Islam does not allow spiritual power to be held by any type of hierarchical organisation, Muslim law does have a body of doctors, jurists and theologians who control the orthodoxy and application of religious law in relation to the State. The oulemas’ function can be likened to that of clerics. Traditionally their role is to interpret the sacred texts, legitimise established power and protect the country from religious extremism. In today’s Morocco their role is limited and peripheral but the oulemas still hold some of the most important positions of the state. The imam is the prayer leader and by extension a political leader; he represents the community’s unity just as local judges (qadi), jurists and theologians do.
Mysticism and superstition
A legacy of pre-Islamic Berber culture, superstition and magic continue to play a part in many people’s fates and lives. Many Moroccans believe that evil spirits, djinns, exist. This prevents some from indulging in showy parades of their wealth, wary of attracting the “evil eye”, a spell cast by a jealous onlooker. In the medinas, fortune tellers (shouaf) concoct recipes and magic potions intended to heal all types of ills: impotent husbands, sterility, adultery, celibacy and so on.
Although frowned on by orthodox Islam, these customs have become associated with the worship of saints on which is based popular religious practice. Marabouts (or wali: friend of God) are venerated as intermediaries between God and the faithful. For their wishes to be granted, the faithful meditate before a saint’s tomb (koubba) and go on pilgrimages (moussem). Morocco has several thousand local, regional and national saints, some of whom attract crowds from all over the Maghreb and Black Africa, such as Moulay Abdallah Acharif at Ouezzane and Sidi Ahmed Tijani at Fès. The most famous saint of all is Moulay Idris – buried in the town of the same name – who founded Fès in 789, the country’s first Islamic city.
This respect and devotion shown to religious personages can also be found in the mystical brotherhoods, of which there are many in Fès. Such gatherings take place in a sanctuary or zawiyah, which can be a school, a mosque or a saint’s tomb. Each brotherhood is led by a master (sheikh). Directly inspired by Sufi precepts, according to this spiritual path (tariqa), the after-life takes precedence over earthly goods and man must submit to God. It is an approach which demands spiritual exercises founded on the dhikr (reminders and messages from God). These exercises take place in groups and can be combined with dances, whose repetitive, jerky beat can induce trances.
Morocco’s Jews are equal citizens with electoral rights identical to those of other citizens. The state has however set up a legal framework in conformity with Jewish law. On a personal level, Jews are governed by “Mosaic Law” and their legal affairs associated with marriage, inheritance and minors are dealt with in Rabbinical courts. Kosher foods (meat and wine) come under the jurisdiction of religious and community authorities who, in exchange, pay the state specific taxes. Morocco’s Jewish population now only numbers some 5 000, most of whom live in Casablanca. Most of Morocco’s Jews emigrated to Israel, where 800 000 live, but also to France, Spain and Canada. Once a year, expatriates from all over the world return to worship at the tombs of saints – in Ouezzane, Essaouira, Taroudant, for example – and to celebrate “hilloula”, a Jewish version of moussem, a reminder of past feasts and a commemoration of their attachment to the land of their ancestors.