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Henry Munson, Malika Zeghal
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The population of Morocco, about 31.1 million in 2004, is more than 99 percent Sunnī Muslim. There is a Jewish minority of fewer than eight thousand people (mostly in Casablanca and other coastal cities). There is no indigenous Christian minority. There are no significant religious differences between the Berbers, found primarily in the mountains, and the Arabic-speaking population. Islamic “fundamentalist” movements have challenged the regime of King Ḥasan II since the 1970s. Educated Moroccans unsympathetic to these movements generally refer to them by the Arabic equivalent of the term “fundamentalist”: uṣūlī. The members of these groups typically call themselves “Islamists” (Islāmīyīn). The strength of Islamist movements as well as their diversity and influence on Moroccan society became more visible in the 1990s, when Hassan II initiated a process of liberalization of the political system.

One influential model of the history of Islam in Morocco is that of Ernest Gellner (1969), who sees Moroccan Islam as having oscillated throughout history between the puritanical, scripturalist religion of the literate urban bourgeoisie and the ritualistic, anthropolatrous religion of the illiterate rural tribes. Orthodoxy, says Gellner, revolved around Holy Scripture and thus entailed literacy. It was strictly monotheistic and egalitarian (among believers). It emphasized moderation and sobriety and abstention from ritual excesses. In this form of Islam, there were no intermediaries between the believer and God. The more anthropolatrous popular Islam, by contrast, stressed hierarchy and mediation between the believer and God. The mediators were Ṣūfī shaykhs, saints, and shurafāʿ (sharīfs). This form of Islam was characterized by ritual indulgence, in contrast to the puritanism of urban orthodoxy.

Gellner concedes that popular Islam was not solely a rural phenomenon; it also existed among the urban poor. But whereas among the tribes it served as a kind of social lubricant making possible the resolution of conflicts, in the cities it provided ecstatic consolation for the poor. Orthodox Islam, by contrast, served to ratify the style of life of the urban bourgeoisie.

Although Gellner takes the latter contrast from Max Weber, he also finds inspiration in Ibn Khaldūn's historical model of dynastic cycles based on the transfer of power between town and rural tribes presented in his fourteenth-century Muqaddimah. In Gellner's model, the tribes of Morocco's mountains and deserts periodically revolted against the reigning dynasty in the name of the puritanical Islam normally associated with the towns. This was possible because the ideals of urban orthodoxy were always present among the rural tribes, although they were subordinate to the norms of popular belief. Once successful, the puritanical revivalist movements would eventually revert to the anthropolatrous popular religion, once more vulnerable to puritanical revolt. Gellner sees this “pendulum swing” as having been unhinged by “modernity.” The modern state monopolized violence whereas the precolonial one did not; as a result, the tribes atrophied, as did the saints who formerly mediated their conflicts.

Puritanical reformist movements, as Gellner points out, did periodically emerge to advocate a return to the pristine Islam of the Qurʿān and sunnah—Ibn Yāsīn's Almoravids and Ibn Tūmart's Almohads are the most obvious examples. But Gellner overlooks the fact that no such movements have managed to seize and retain control of the Moroccan state since the Almohads did in the middle of the twelfth century, although many have tried.

More important, Gellner attempts to impose on the whole of Moroccan history the relationship between popular and orthodox Islam that he observed in the 1950s and 1960s. On the basis of his fieldwork among the High Atlas Berbers, he sees Sufism as a distinctive component of popular religion; in fact, as shown by Vincent Cornell (1998), it pervaded both popular and orthodox Islam at least from the fifteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth. Most of the ʿulamāʿ whom Gellner sees as embodying orthodoxy were themselves Ṣūfī mystics. Some ʿulamāʿ periodically criticized certain ritual manifestations of Sufism, notably the cult of saints and the practices linked to intercession. The Ṣūfīs persecuted by ʿulamāʿ were typically renowned ʿulamāʿ themselves, often from the same urban elite as their persecutors. The contrast between high and low culture cannot, in Morocco, be superimposed on the contrast between Sūfīs and Salafī. This becomes obvious when one examines the principal attempts at Islamic reform from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century.

Forerunners of Twentieth-Century Reformism.

The history of Islamic reformism in Morocco may be said to begin with the revivalism of the Almoravids in the eleventh century and the Almohads in the twelfth. Modern reformism, however, is usually thought of as beginning with Sultan Sīdī Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh, who reigned from 1757 to 1790. Sīdī Muḥammad insisted on the strict application of Islamic law and the elimination of heretical innovations in both town and country. He condemned charlatans who used Sufism to exploit the gullible masses and “extremist Ṣūfīs” who did not conform to Islamic law; yet he was himself a member of the Nāṣirīyah Ṣūfī order and regularly visited saints’ tombs and sent gifts to them. His attempts at reform did not constitute a full-fledged critique of Sufism and the veneration of saints, but helped him eliminate tribal leaders who threatened his power.

Sīdī Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh's son Mawlāy Sulaymān (r. 1792–1822) is also cited as a forerunner of twentieth-century reformism. He, too, condemned heretical innovations (bidḥah) and stressed the need to conform to the Qurʿān and sunnah. He criticized the popular Ṣūfī orders and banned their festivals in honor of saints on the grounds that the rhythmic dancing, clapping, and mixing of men and women at such gatherings were all contrary to the Qurʿān and sunnah.

Although Mawlāy Sulaymān was more sympathetic to the Wahhābīs than most of the Moroccan ʿulamāʿ of his time, he insisted that visiting the shrines of saints to ask for their intercession was not only permitted but recommended by Islamic law, as long as people remembered that saints could not grant requests themselves but could only ask God to do so. Mawlāy Sulaymān never banned the visitation of saints in Morocco but, rather, specified the rules concerning such practices. Although he condemned many aspects of popular Sufism (including the use of musical instruments), he, like his father, belonged to the relatively orthodox Nāṣirīyah. Mawlāy Sulaymān's reformism was considerably less radical than that of the Wahhābīs or of Morocco's twentieth-century Salafī reformists. Yet even his relatively moderate demands for a return to the Islam of the Prophet disturbed many Moroccan ʿulamāʿ.

Salafī Reformism.

The Salafīyah reformist movement spread to Morocco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is the result of the convergence of Eastern Arab trends imported and reinterpreted within the Moroccan context and internal Moroccan reform movements. The most important feature of reformist salafīyah is the critique of the cult of saints, desiring to rationalize the interpretation of Islam through a return to the sources and their explanation without mediation. This trend also insisted on ḥadīth, rather than fiqh, which was seen at that time as a rigid set of rules with no connection to the revealed sources or to the reality of Moroccan society. For the members of the early trend, adherence to nationalism was not systematic, but salafī reformism became intertwined with nationalism in the 1930s. Abū Shuḥayb al-Dukkālī (d. 1937) never opposed the French Protectorate imposed in 1912; in fact, he amassed considerable wealth serving as an administrator in the colonial regime. Salafī ʿulamāʿ like al-Dukkālī did not enjoy seeing unbelievers control the Islamic world, and their country in particular, but they generally did nothing to stop the European onslaught. Even al-Dukkālī's student Muḥammad ibn al-ʿArabī al-ʿAlawī (d. 1964) did not openly oppose the French until 1944.

In contrast, Ṣūfī shaykhs such as Sīdī Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Kabīr al-Kattānī (d. 1909) and Aḥmad al-Hībah (d. 1919) died trying to lead resistance to colonial rule. The conventional generalization that Ṣūfī shaykhs collaborated with the French and the Spanish (in the far north and the south) against the Salafī nationalists reflects the situation in the 1940s rather than that of the early decades of anticolonial resistance.

The convergence of Sufism and resistance against foreign occupiers is illustrated by the case of Sīdī Muḥammad ibn Jaʿfar al-Kattānī, best known for two books, Salwat al-anfās (Solace of the Souls), published in 1899, and NaṣīḤat ahl al-Islām (Frank Counsel to the People of Islam), first published in 1908. The first work celebrates the saints, Ṣūfīs, shurafāʿ, and ʿulamāʿ buried in Fez; the second calls for a return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet. Like most ʿulamāʿ of his day, Muḥammad ibn Jaḥfar al-Kattānī saw no contradiction between the two.

Very few ʿulamāʿ of the late twentieth century would still speak of saints as Muḥammad ibn Jaḥfar al-Kattānī did in 1899. But much of al-Kattānī's Naṣīḥat ahl al-Islām has a decidedly “modern” ring. This text is in fact a milestone in the evolution of the Islam of the precolonial ʿulamāʿ toward later, more politicized forms of fundamentalism. Its basic argument is that God enabled the first Muslims, “the righteous ancestors” (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ), to thrive and conquer much of the world because they conformed to his laws. Then the believers deviated from those laws, and the unbelievers of Europe were therefore able to subjugate them. If believers return to “the straight path,” they will once again thrive, and God will liberate them from the domination of the infidels and eliminate all social injustice. This argument and much of al-Kattānī's rhetoric and reasoning have been central to twentieth-century politicized Islamist movements.

The Salafī movement did eventually merge with Moroccan nationalism, as embodied by the Istiqlāl party and its most famous leader, Muḥammad ʿAllāl al-Fāsī. Once Morocco regained its independence in 1956, King Muḥammad V (d. 1961) and his successor Ḥasan II (d. 1999) managed to curb the political influence of this party. But as public education spread, so did the Salafī conception of Islam. See FāSī, MUHAMMAD ʿALLāL AL-; ISTIQLāL; and SALAFīYAH.

Fundamentalist Movements.

In 1969, Abd al-Karīm Mutiʿ founded the “Islamic Youth” (shabībah islāmīyah), an underground political movement that defined itself against atheism, more particularly leftist groups on university campuses. The group was influenced ideologically by the writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. It had a military arm as well as an association, the association of the Islamic Youth that was authorized by the monarchy in 1972. The Shabībah mobilized mainly on university campuses and became influential among Moroccan students. The assassination of trade unionist ʿUmar ibn Jallūn in 1975 by some of its members led to the exile of Mutīʿ and to the disbanding of the movement. Over time, some of the former members of the Shabībah abandoned the strategy of political violence and attempted to form a legal political party. It is only in 1996 that they were authorized to form a new political party, which took the name of Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in 1998. Since then, they have participated in legislative and municipal elections. Today they hold 44 seats (out of 325) in the parliament, and they manage 17 municipalities. Their members are graduates from the Arabized educational system. The PJD is tightly linked to a network of at least two hundred Islamic associations united in the Movement of Unity and Renewal, which works as a recruiting tool and an instrument for campaigning. The PJD's ideology is very close to that of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. They want to work within the legal framework and under the authority of the Commander of the Faithful. They insist on moralizing public life, creating a citizenry of believers and implementing sharīʿah, even if they do not all agree on what such an implementation means.

Another important Islamist is Abdessalam Yasin In 1965, at the age of thirty-eight, Yasin had what he called a “spiritual crisis.” After reading a wide range of mystical texts, Yasin joined the Ṣūfī brotherhood of the Būtshishīyah, becoming a follower of Shaykh al-Ḥājj al-ʿAbbās, who died six years later. It has been alleged that Yasin left the order in 1971 because he wanted to turn it into a political movement and was unable to do so. Yasin never renounced Sufism and refers to it repeatedly in his writings, in sharp contrast to the antipathy toward Sufism characteristic of most twentieth-century Muslim fundamentalists.

Yasin's attitude toward Islam was politicized in the early 1970s, in part as a result of reading the Egyptian writers Ḥasan al-Bannā and Sayyid Quṭb. In 1974 he decided to write a risālah (epistle or letter) to King Ḥasan II entitled Al-Islām, aw, al-ūfān: Risālah maftūḥah ilā malik al-maghrib (Islam, or, the Deluge: An Open Epistle to the King of Morocco). Its basic message is simple and familiar. The Muslims’ problems are a result of their having deviated from Islam. If they return to the laws of God and stop imitating the West, the oppression of the poor by the rich will vanish, as will the domination of Morocco by the West, the state of terror in which Moroccans live, and the squatter settlements ringing Morocco's cities. The caliph will be a man of the people instead of a potentate living indolently in his palaces. Everything that is bad will be good.

Yasin spent three and a half years (1974–1977) in an insane asylum because of his epistle. Once released, he resumed his campaign for a strictly Islamic polity in Morocco, but he no longer criticized the king directly. In 1979 he began publishing an Islamic review entitled Al-jamāḥah (The Group); no more than three thousand copies were ever published, and it was banned after the eleventh issue appeared in 1983. The government also forbade Yasin from preaching in mosques. In December 1983, he tried to publish another newspaper entitled Al-ṣubḥ (The Dawn), but this, too, was immediately banned, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released in January 1986.

The movement, now known as “Justice and Benevolence” (al-ʿAdl wa-al-Iḥsān) was itself reminiscent of a Ṣūfī order. Like a Ṣūfī shaykh, Yasin is regularly referred to as a murshid or “guide” by his followers. Like a shaykh, he stresses the importance of prayers involving “the remembrance of God” (dhikr Allāh).This Ṣūfī aspect of Yasin's movement is unusual and is condemned by some fundamentalists.

In December 1989, the police stopped allowing visits to Yasin's house, where he remained under house arrest. In 2000, Muḥammad VI, who acceded to the throne in July 1999, freed Yasin. Although extremely successful at street mobilization in the 1990s, Yasin's movement has recently shown its weakness, as a result of the electoral successes of the PJD. Because Yasin does not recognize the legitimacy of the monarchy or the status of the Commander of the Faithful, he has refused to participate in elections, even as his movement has tried in vain to be authorized as a political party. The integration of the PJD in the electoral arena has isolated “Justice and Benevolence,” which has publicly demonstrated the messianic and revolutionary aspects of its ideology, marginalizing it even more in the eyes of the Moroccan Islamist and non-Islamist political and religious elites.

The development of a diversity of Islamist movements and the integration of the PJD in electoral politics has deeply transformed religious life and Islamic discourses in Morocco. Most of all, the status of the Commander of the Faithful has lately been transformed. Early in the twentieth century, the Sultan was venerated for his barakah (blessing; spiritual power) and although this is in part still true today, the king of Morocco is respected more now as the guarantor of the unity of the nation. Moreover, religious authorities—ʿulamāʿ and Islamists—carry on discussions on the definition and implementation of Islam in public life. The May 16, 2003, suicide attacks in Casablanca also have revealed the existence of local radical Islamist trends that extend transnationally. After independence and through the end of the 1960s the king managed to regulate the religious sphere through a flexible apparatus of control, but, today, the Commander of the Faithful is no longer the central public religious authority.



  • Agnouche, Abdellatif. Histoire politique du Maroc: Pouvoir-légitimités-institutions. Casablanca, 1987. Good history of the political role of Islam.
  • Brown, Kenneth L.People of Salé: Tradition and Change in a Moroccan City, 1830–1930. Manchester, 1976.
  • Burke, Edmund, III. Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco: Precolonial Protest and Resistance, 1860–1912. Chicago, 1976.
  • Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin, Tex., 1998. A work on 15th and 16th century Sufism and its social influence, particularly through the study of the Jazūlīyah.
  • Eickelman, Dale F.Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, Tex., 1976. Classic ethnography of the Sharqāwah zāwiyah.
  • El Mansour, Mohamed. Morocco in the Reign of Mawlay Sulayman. Wisbech, U.K., 1990. Good on early-nineteenth-century Islam.
  • Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. New Haven, Conn., 1968. Good discussion of the “ideologization” of religion.
  • Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. Chicago, 1969. Contains Gellner's “pendulum-swing” model of Islam.
  • Hammoudi, Abdellah. Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan authoritarianism. Chicago, 1997. A theoretical study of authoritarianism and Sufism.
  • Laroui, Abdallah. Les origines sociales et culturelles du nationalisme marocain, 1830–1912. Paris, 1977. Classic portrait of the precolonial social and political roles of Islam.
  • Munson, Henry, Jr.Religion and Power in Morocco. New Haven, Conn., 1993. Political role of Islam from the twelfth century through the early 1990s.
  • Tozy, Mohamed. Monarchie et Islam politique au Maroc. Paris, 1999. Islamist movements from the 1960s to the 1990s.
  • Zeghal, Malika. Les Islamistes marocains: Le défi à la monarchie. Paris, 2005. A study of state Islam, ʿulamāʿ and Islamists from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
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