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Alastair Sawday

Multi-faith Muslim Morocco

Morocco is a determinedly Muslim nation. It is also an example to the rest of the Muslim world in the tolerance and hospitality that is offered to other religions and cultures. There are still as many church spires as mosque minarets on the Tangier skyline, to baffle a traveller on that first approach into that famous port-city of Morocco. Just above the cities main square, tucked amongst tombs and trees stands an elegant Anglican church built in the Moorish style with the Lords prayer carved in arabic script on the chancel arch. On my last visit the linen-suited expatriate congregation was completely swamped by Nigerians, who on working their way up the continent (in an attempt to illegally enter Europe) and had stopped off in this home from home. Off from the grand boulevards and processional avenues of Rabat and Casablanca, it is still possible to attend a mass in a Roman Catholic cathedral while listening to the call of the muezzin echoing through the stark white-washed naves. Many thousands of Moroccan Jews continue to worship in their venerable synagogues, maintaining the old Hebrew cemeteries found in every ancient city as well as the shrine-tombs of saintly rabbi’s found scattered over the most inaccessible mountain-valleys of Morocco. Every year -especially during the ‘Jewish festival’ months of March and October- many thousands of Jews of Moroccan descent are welcomed back as pilgrim-tourists. They have an easy time at the immigration desk for even though they might now live in Tel Aviv or New York the Kingdom of Morocco has never withdrawn their passports, believing that sooner or later they will return ‘home’. This tolerance is a testament to the Muslim faith of Morocco and in strict conformity to the Prophet’s injunctions to honour the “people of the Book” – the Jews and Christians who like Muslims believed in one God, in honouring the scriptures, obeying the laws of the prophets and following an ethical life. There was a wise old sheikh from northern Morocco who –much to the scandal of his followers – had taken an Englishwoman to be his wife and never made any attempt to persuade her to convert to Islam. To explain his actions he would leave a cone of sugar in the centre of the room and bid his followers to silently watch. In a little while the ants would discover this nectar and orderly columns of insects would start marching towards the white rock. The sheikh would explain that just so are the peoples of the book, dutifully following their own paths and blissfully unaware of each other as they are ascending the mountain of sweetness.

Islam La ilaha ill'Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. : (There is no divinity but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet.)

With this short creed, all Muslims profess the basic tenets of their faith. Islam literally means 'submission', and implies the offering of total faith and trust upto God. The will of God was directly passed to the Prophet Mohammed through the medium of the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad’s principal task as Prophet was the recitation of this divine message. It is these recitations of the word of God that are collected in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam.

To Muhammad, Islam was not a new religion. Islam was intended to be a reformation of the ancient monotheistic tradition taught in the Old and New Testaments, the holy books of Jews and Christians. In both the Qu’ran and Muhammad’s private conversation there are repeated references to the various prophets who have bought the message of God to mankind before him. Muhammad was proud to be numbered in the long line of prophets which stretched back through Issa (Jesus), Yahya (John the Baptist), Sulaiman (Solomon), Davud (David), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Idris (Enoch), Yakub (Jacob), Yunus (Jonah), Noah and on right back to Abraham and to the first man, Adam. The Qu’ran was intended to present an opportunity for the various squabbling Christian and Jewish sects to unite beneath a new definitive revelation.

However, the task of converting all the Christians and Jews in central Arabia proved impossible, and towards the end of his life Muhammad realized that Islam must stand alone. Muslims began to pray facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem, and Friday became the Muslim holy day as opposed to the Saturday and Sunday celebrations of the Jews and Christains. Some festivals, such as Achoura (based on the Jewish Day of Atonement) remained like stranded bridges stretching between the faiths. The Prophet ordered all Muslims to respect the 'peoples of the book', as Christians and Jews are called. Muhammad’s tolerant attitude can be heard in his answer to a theological squabble with his neighbours, 'Will you dispute with us about God? When he is our Lord and your Lord! We have our words and you have your words but we are sincerely his.'

The Prophet Muhammad

The Prophet Muhammad was born in AD 570. The young Muhammad was to be thrice orphaned before the age of eight by the death of father Abdallah (before he was born), mother Amina and grandfather Abdul Muttalib. He grew up in the household of his paternal uncle, Abu Talib, who was the sheikh of one of the most prestigious clans within the Quraysh tribe which dominated the oasis city of Mecca. Although of noble blood, Muhammad was not rich and had to earn his keep as a shepherd-boy, before being trained up to work on the camel caravans that plied the caravan routes that crossed the Arabian desert from Yemen to Syria. As a young man he was known as Amin, ‘the trusty one', for his honesty and dignified bearing. This led him to be trusted with the goods of Khadijah, a wealthy widow, whom he later married. Mecca was the centre of pagan Arab spiritual life, and Mohammed and his wife joined the circle of Hanif, who sought enlightenment through some form of monotheism and were familiar with Jewish, Christian and Persian doctrines.

Muhammad received his first revelation in AD 610, when he was 40 years old. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a cave, which he frequently used for prayer and meditation, outside Mecca. Doubtful at first about these revelations, but encouraged by his wife, he risked ridicule and shared the word of God. His ardent monotheism and criticism of the pagan worship that centred on Mecca won him some followers but even more enemies. Eventually the protection of his clan proved inadequate, and to avoid assassination, he moved to the oasis of Yathrib (renamed Medina) where he was welcomed and honoured as the Prophet of God on 15 June AD 622.

This date marks the beginning of the Muslim era, known as the Hegira. Muhammad refused any royal or military power and accepted only an official role as mediator. From these modest foundations he established a theocratic state and perfected the daily ritual of prayer and the annual festivals which still dominate the life of a Muslim. He also developed a body of moral and legal codes to cover the practical problems that a Muslim might face. His personal example; his innate modesty, easy approachability and hospitality set an additional example to his followers alongside his teaching. From Medina he waged war on the Meccan caravans, and having survived a number of testing battles and sieges his authority was gradually accepted by all the surrounding Arab tribes, which included those of Jewish and Christian faith alongside the pagan majority. By AD 630, two years before his death, his authority extended over all Arabia and the first Arab cavalry armies had been sent into Syria.

The question of Muhammad's successor, the Caliph, has rent the Muslim world to the present day. The first four successors contributed important aspects to the developing body of Muslim faith and are accepted as the 'Rightly Guided' by the majority of Muslims, who are known as Sunni. Most of North Africa and practically all Tunisians are Sunni. However, an important minority, the Shiites, believe that Ali, who was Mohammed's cousin, his most devoted disciple, son-in-law and spiritual confidant, should have been the first Caliph. Lesser sects like the Ismaiks, Druze and Kharijites are divided by their own interpretations of the rightful succession.

Religious Life

The Qu’ran sets out the five pillars of Islam, the pre-requisites of Muslim life. These are the profession of faith, prayer five times a day, the giving of alms, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Muslim profession of faith, “La ilaha ill'Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah (There is no divinity but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet) is a simple enough matter. Though the Prophet himself recognized that there was an enormous difference between submission and real faith. He also recognized that even among that first community of believers in Medina there were hypocrites motivated by fame, wealth and ambition.

The first prayer of the day is known as Moghreb, and is held four minutes after sunset, Eshe when it is quite dark, Soobh Fegr at dawn, Dooh at noon (or just after the sun has passed its zenith), and Asr at the end of the siesta, but officially calculated as halfway between noon and sunset. At each mosque the muezzin announces prayers by calling 'God is great. I testify that there is no God but God. I testify that Mohammed is his prophet. Come to prayer, come to security. God is great.' Before the morning prayer an extra inducement, 'Prayer is better than sleep', is added. Before prayer all believers ritually purify themselves by washing with water or in arid areas with clean sand. Facing Mecca they stand with hands held up and open to proclaim God's greatness. With hands by their sides they recite the opening verse of the Qu’ran, the fatiha, before bowing with hands on knees and then fully prostrating themselves, Kneeling again, the chahada, a prayer for the prophet, is recited. The three positions of prayer, standing, bowing and prostrate, symbolize the superiority of man's rational rather than his animal nature, a servant before his master and submission to the sovereign will of God. Friday is the chief day of prayer, when the community gathers for noon prayers at the most important local mosque, followed by a sermon, khutha.

Almsgiving was enshrined in the ascetic example of the Prophet throughout his life who scorned the accumulation of possessions. It later became a pivotal definition of membership of the Muslim community which the Prophet Mohammed led from Mecca. All who professed to be Muslim were to bring in an annual tithe from their crops and herds which were offered to the head of the Muslim community, who distributed them to the needy, the deserving poor, widows and orphans as well as feeding travellers, ransoming captives, freeing slaves and relieving debtors . It became enshrined as the zakat, the only legitimate tax an orthodox Muslim leader could collect, which was often assessed at a fortieth of wealth. Nowadays tax and alms are usually separate, and the practice is purely voluntary.

The fast of Ramadan proscribes sex, smoking, drinking and eating during the daylight hours of the ninth month of the Muslim year. Only children, the sick nursing or pregnant mothers, old people and travelers are exempt. The fast commemorates the month in which Muhammad received his first revelation but is also based on pre-existing Christian and Jewish spiritual practices.

Pilgrimage to the Kaaba at Mecca, revered as the altar of Abraham, takes place between the seventh and tenth days of the last month of the Islamic year (Dhu al-Hajja). It is governed by a set of rules which begin six miles the Holy City and fast for the three days’ observances. For a poor man it may be the journey of a lifetime, partly paid for by friends who will receive merit by their contribution. He will return to his community with the proud title of 'Haj'. The distance of Mecca from Morocco, and the dangers of the route ( from both bedouin tribes or Christain corsairs) made it especially arduous. This gave rise to the hope that seven visits to such local pilgrimage centres as Moulay Idris and Moulay Brahim might equal the journey to Arabia, a pious hope without any doctrinal backing.

The Qu’ran

The Qu’ran means 'recitation', for the Prophet Muhammad was enjoined by the Archangel Gabriel to recite the word of God as it was dictated to him. It was verbally delivered by Muhammed to his followers between AD 610 and 632, memorized and often recited. It was first collected into a definitive written version 18 years after his death, in AD 650. The Qu’ran is divided into 114 unequal chapters or suras, which are arranged in order of length starting with the longest. Each sura is known by a name, such as the cow, the bee, the ant, which is generally believed to have no other significance than as a memory aid, for Muslims are themselves taught to recite the Qu’ran by heart. The very beauty of the language of the Koran is taken as proof of its divine inspiration: 'you will never understand ... until you can feel in your heart the poetry and music of the noble Qu’ran'. No passionate Muslim can accept that a translation from Arabic is adequate as a holy text, though translations are accepted as a useful commentary for non-Arabs if placed side by side with the Arabic text.

In content, theQu’ran divides roughly into four themes: the worship of Allah, the Day of Judgement, stories of earlier prophets, and social laws. Though it is a feature of the Qu’ran that each sura can stand alone, like a miniature summary of the faith. It is also, at times, like receiving only one half of a dialogue. As if the Qu’ran is a collection of divine answers to Muhammad’s prayers, though these original petitions have been lost. Although some sura can be identified to a given incident in the Prophet’s life the Qu’ran can not be read as a consistent narrative (like the Gospels) but is rather a series of exhortations that develop and embroider the same themes of calling mankind to God. Western critics who talk disparagingly of repetition, have merely ‘read’ a book that was designed to be lived. Sura17:22-39 contains a set of commands similar to the Ten Commandments, encouraging kindness, charity, sobriety and humility, and prohibiting murder, adultery, idolatry and meanness. A secondary source, known as the hadith, is also available to Muslims. This is a collection of the memorized sayings, actions, judgements and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. It is the Hadith (but never the Qu’ran) which is open to interpretation and to arguments about the validity of the source. A single authoritative edition has never been agreed upon, although Al-Bukhari's multi-volume collection has become the most respected single source.

From theQu’ran and the Hadith a legal system, known as sharia, was created. Traditional Islamic countries have no civil code, and criminal acts as well as spiritual sins are judged according to sharia. In Morocco and a handful of the more progressive states, such as Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, civil codes have also been introduced in the 20th century. The difference in legal systems is not as large as may be thought, for most of the so-called secular codes are merely an addition not a substitution of sharia. At the forefront of most fundamentalist campaigns is an official recognition of sharia as the foundation of all law. Although this might seem mere window-dressing, it is acutely relevant as to where sovereignty lies: with a secular assembly, by royal decree or with the scholars of religious law?

Sufism The spread of Islam was greatly assisted by the Sufi brotherhoods, who set up religious centres, known as zaouia, throughout the Muslim world. The term Sufi derives from 'suf’, meaning wool and, by inference, the coarse woollen cloth worn by ascetics. Sufis are not satisfied merely to worship God by obeying Islamic law, but aspire to a direct spiritual experience through additional devotions. The Prophet Mohammed's celebrated night journey to Jerusalem serves as the orthodox role model for such aspirations. In addition it is believed by many Muslims that, aside from his public declarations on faith, the Prophet Mohammed taught Ali and Fatima various private practices of prayer and meditation which were too confusing and physically demanding for the main body of believers. it is these verbal traditions that Ali taught to his own followers, who passed the spiritual heritage on down the generations of believers. Each Sufi brotherhood can trace this spiritual line of descent in the same manner in which the Pope looks back, across the centuries to his apostolic succession from St Peter. The various Sufi brotherhoods (who are often compared with Christian monastic orders) each established a set of rituals and prayers to achieve the desired union with God. Most Sufi regimes are simple and ascetic, and include outward features, such as charity, and teaching, as well as the inner search for wajd, the, ecstatic experience of the divine. They often prescribe a repetitive physical action, such as recitation, music or dancing, as a tool in their quest (for instance, the whirling dervishes). To outsiders, the best-known Sufi trait is indifference to worldly concerns, which sometimes led to the practice of self-mutilation to show indifference to pain.

Christianity and Islam

Muslims see their religion as a reformation of Christianity, which, with the evidence of the cult of the Virgin, the sacrifice of the Cross, odd doctrines on celibacy and confusing doctrines about the Trinity, they see as a corrupted version of monotheism. Christianity for its part has always found it difficult to venerate Mohammed, whose long life, many wives and battles seem to be in sharp contrast with the poor, miracle-working Jesus nailed up on a cross aged 33. In part this contrast is about the availability of source material. We know an enormous amount about Muhammad from a number of near contemporary biographies, aside from thousands and thousands of hadith. For the life of Jesus, the chief sources are the four gospels and the epistles, which were written down thirty years after his death, while all rival accounts and the trivial human details of his existence were lost during the Roman suppression of the Judaean revolt followed by the destruction of Jerusalem.

The alarming antagonism between these two religions, however, sterns as much from their proximity and continual history of conflict as from actual doctrine. Early struggles in the Middle East between Byzantium and Islam were institutionalized by the Crusades, which continued seamlessly into the Hapsburg-Ottoman War, prolonged by the Corsair Wars of the 16th-18th centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the political dominance of Christian European nations over every Muslim country (except Saudi Arabia and Turkey) has compounded the mutual mistrust. Just when the post-war independence movement and oil discoveries seemed to be establishing a new equality of relationship, the creation of the state of Israel, fostered by the USA, prolongs the annual tension. Daily, the newspapers carry proof that the age-old ignorance and antagonism that exists between the two faiths continues largely unabated.

Islamic Celebrations

The main religious event of the Muslim year is the fast of Ramadan, which is still adhered to, in public at least, by the whole population. For the entire ,month, productivity drops and a sense of lassitude descends during the day. When Ramadan falls in the summer, tempers are notoriously frayed, but everything is forgotten at the setting of the sun, when cafés fill with hungry customers who traditionally break the fast with a bowl of steaming soup. Deep into the night towns reverberate to the sound of revelling as families take to the streets after their communal meal. Musicians, storytellers and puppet-shows monopolise the pavements. Fter a few hours’ sleep and a nourishing breakfast before sunrise, the fast begins again. The feast of Aid es Seghir ad the end of Ramadan is a time for new clothes and sumptuous banquets.

Most of the popular rites of passage that are celebrated by Christians in a church (such as baptism, confirmation and marriage) do not take place within a mosque in Morocco. The mosque is just for prayer and the study and recitation of the Qu’ran and does not act as a ceremonial stage. The Moroccan equivalent of baptism usually occurs on the seventh day after birth, when children are named and presented to the family, adorned with amulets for good luck and to chase away the ‘evil eye’. Following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, the name of the child is formally announced by the eldest male member of family (normally the grandfather) who may also whisper the call to prayer in the ear of the newborn. The mother will be the hero of the day and showered with presents and congragulations from her family and neighbours.

Circumcision is an ancient Semitic rite that predates the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad by thousands of years. It is believed to have been institituted by the Prophet Abraham as a substitite sacrifice after the intended sacrifice of his child Ishmael (the ancestor of the Arabs and half-brother to Jewish Isaac) was halted by angels. A popular tale recounts that the Prophet Abraham was about to use an axe on himself for the ‘operation’ though once again an angel interceded and suggested a sharpened razor blade. It is now usually performed between the ages of five and seven, begins with the young boy’s first visit to the mosque, accompanied by his male relations. He will be dressed up in the finest traditional robes (including a fez) and possibly allowed to ride a horse hired for the day and in general much will be made of him and his bravery. The surgery is now usually performed by doctors, but the local barber still plays his traditional role in country areas. At the moment of circumcision, other older children may break a jar of sweets on the ground, to distract the jinn, the spirits, from entering the child through the wound and to add a distracting element of fun and laughter to drown any moans of pain.

Weddings are often signaled by a cavalcade of hooting, decorated cars or in the countryside by a hired lorry or two complete with young drummers. Preparations begin some weeks before with a visit to the lawyer’s office, where the marriage contract, concerned with dowries and the terms of both marriage and divorce, is drawn up and signed by bride and groom. The old week-long festivities are nowadays often packed into a couple of days. The bride’s bodily hair is all waxed off and the palms of her hands and soles of her feet covered with temporary henna tattoo. Sumptuously dressed, she is shown off to family and friends sitting on a dais, before men and women separate to eat the marriage dinner. Traditionally the bride then walks seven times around her home, bidding farewell, before being taken to her marriage bed. The husband returns from the town with a group of friends who leave him at the door. The last to bless him as he enters the bedroom is his mother. Though it is rare for the bloody sheet to be displayed ( as graphic proof that the bride came to marriageas a virgin) the concept is still a very valid expectation.

Death is greeted with frenzied ululations from female relatives and friends though men are traditionally supposed to hold back from passionate expressions of grief. In the words of the Prophet, “what comes from the heart and eye – that is from God”, “what cometh from the hand and tongue – that is from Satan”. Muslims are buried quickly (normally within a day or two of death – though the requirements of state funerals over-ride these traditions). The body is washed and scented before being wrapped in the simple white clothing of a pilgrim. It is carried to the cemetery on a bier, supported by male friends and relatives and followed by a cortège of male mourners often headed by a man reciting the Qu’ran. There is no solemn funeral march in Islam, in fact the more pious believe that the dead should be carried in a slow trot, to speed them on their way to meet their maker. The body is often buried on its side, facing towards Mecca. The most pious believe that the grave should be decorated with no stone memorial though it is common to plant a pair of stones so that the ground is not inadvertently dug up. On the first night two terrifying angels, Munkar and Nakir, are believed to descend into the tomb to question the dead and chastise the wicked. After this severe night, the long sleep of the grave will only be broken by the calling together of the last great Assembly. A time when all mortals shall stand dumb-founded before the divine presence and watch the publishing of the pages of their past life while their very limbs will stand witness against them. They will have to cross the bridge over the fires of Hell to reach the gardens of paradise, filled with “ what the eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, nor hath ever been thought of by mankind”.

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