There’s a Moroccan expression similar to the English expression “the apple never falls far from the tree.” In Morocco, it’s phrased as a rhetorical question: “Where does wood come from? From the tree.” A year and a half after King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne, many Moroccans are wondering just how much the wood will be like the tree.

With a deft combination of faint gestures and substantive action in the first year of his rule, Mohammed VI has sought to differentiate the tenor of his reign from that of his father Hassan II. Notably, he has not been as anxious as his father was to cultivate a pious Islamic image. Perhaps unintentionally, Mohammed VI’s signals over the last year have lifted the sense of fear that came to characterize the later years of Hassan II’s reign — and hobbled the population at so many levels. In its place is a buoyant attitude and an openness which was rarely seen and even less frequently heard during the last five years of Hassan II’s regime. This openness sheds a revealing light on Mohammed VI’s uneasy waltzes with an Islam for himself, for his regime and for the nation. As he awkwardly fumbles with components of a cohesive national image, other individuals from the private sector selectively sift through the pieces of Morocco’s past and quickly compose their own sleek (and profitable) images of the nation and its heritage.

Commander of the Faithful

Beginning in the last two decades of his rule, the late Hassan II actively cultivated an Islamic image for himself and the built environment of the country. Not only was the king himself a sanctified figure, but he sought to project this image beyond his physical person onto the cityscapes and structures of the nation. Morocco, like its king, was to be a bastion of Islamic learning and principles. To this end, Hassan II embarked upon a series of architectural and social programs designed to bolster the country’s image as a place bound to Islam, its practice and intellectual development.

Hassan II created opportunities to enact highly visible public performances of his role as amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful). [1] The monarch was the preeminent Islamic figure. As the first Moroccan man (or maybe the First Moroccan Man) to ritually slaughter a ram on ‘id al-adha — the most important Islamic feast — and the only Moroccan to slaughter rams in times of drought when yearling rams were scarce, the king embodied all Moroccans’ adherence to Islam. Each Ramadan evening just before the meal breaking the fast, state-run television broadcast images of the king attentively listening to the durus hasaniyya — lessons on a range of Islamic subjects from Muslim scholars. The king was transmitted to the nation, rolling his prayer beads in his right hand, and murmuring pious formulas after each mention of the name of God, the names of His prophets and the names of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Hassan II was the conduit through which scholarly Islamic knowledge would filter to the people, guiding them, inspiring them and edifying them.

Hassan II literally edified Moroccan Islam as well: he built buildings. The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca is perhaps his most impressive and undoubtedly most visible endeavor. The enormous mosque, boasting the tallest minaret of any mosque in the world, is just one part of a proposed complex which will include Internet-ready madrasas, an Islamic studies center and a branch of the National Archives. That the mosque bears the monarch’s name speaks for itself.

In addition to building for Morocco’s Islamic future, Hassan II safeguarded the country’s Islamic past. He endorsed and sometimes funded the preservation of Islamic monuments throughout the country: the old Muwahid fortress at Talat-n-Yacoub, the Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh and numerous madrasas and mosques in Fez’s medina.

The entire old city (medina) of Fez — often labeled the Islamic city par excellence — has been listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a site encapsulating the intellectual, architectural and artistic genius of Morocco’s Islamic past. The late king invested personally in the preservation of several madrasas linked to the famous ninth-century Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, in particular the fourteenth-century Madrasa al-Masbahiya and the seventeenth-century Madrasa Ras al-Sharatin. He also expedited the preservation of the Andalus mosque, the Qarawiyyin archives, Madrasa al-Saffarin and Madrasa al-Sahrij. These latter preservation projects drew on private, state and international funds, but the king’s support was critical for the projects’ success.

Invoking Tradition

The 1988 reopening of the Qarawiyyin mosque’s Traditional Education System (nizam al-ta‘lim al-taqlidi), defunct since the late 1950s, was another of Hassan II’s efforts to reinforce his image as the single most important guardian of Sunni Maliki Islam in Morocco. Discussions regarding the reopening began in the early 1980s, when Hassan II’s role as amir al-mu’minin
was being challenged within the country and abroad. From abroad, the Ayatollah Khomeini cast doubt on Hassan II’s piety after he welcomed the fleeing Shah. Internally, Sheikh Abdeslam Yassine, leader of the salafi [2] group al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan, openly questioned the king’s claims to be a legitimate Islamic leader. Needing to polish his tarnished international image and to parry attacks on his piety and the Islamicness of his rule, Hassan II decided to create a loyal cadre of local religious scholars. The reopened Traditional Education System was “neo-traditional.” The system’s curriculum was largely prescribed by French colonial officials in the 1930s, and is markedly devoid of any contemporary salafi texts. The program’s students attend lesson circles (halqas) in the Qarawiyyin mosque, sitting on reed mats, and live in sparsely furnished chambers in three restored medieval madrasas in Fez’s medina, Madrasa Bab al-Giza, Madrasa al-Saffarin and Madrasa al-Sahrij.

In 1997 and 1998, I interviewed ‘ulama’ and administrators associated with the restoration of the madrasas and the Traditional Education System. A clear line emerged and administrators and ‘ulama’ toed it closely: Hassan II undertook the restoration of the madrasas and revived the Traditional Education System because he was dedicated to maintaining Sunni Maliki Islam in Morocco. The future of Islam in Morocco could be ensured by reviving those institutions which had earned Morocco such an esteemed reputation as an Islamic country in the past. The Qarawiyyin’s educational program and the madrasas were key components of Morocco’s Islamic heritage and their revival would realize this past in the present and future. The scholars and administrators never referred to the political conditions under which the restorations were begun and the educational program revived.

Blurring the Lines

When I returned to Morocco in the spring of 2000 to do follow-up interviews, many scholars and administrators told different stories. The old line had blurred.

Topics once discussed in hushed voices in tight huddles in clandestine cafes are now discussed freely walking down promenades. Inspired by Mohammed VI’s relaxation of censorship of political satirists and cancellation of Sheikh Yassine’s house arrest, Moroccans seem to anticipate an era of free political expression, however limited and transitory. Fear is gone — or perhaps it has been overwhelmed by an urgency to influence the direction of the new regime while it is still susceptible to influence.

Even so, the seeming new tolerance does have its limits. The informers of Hassan II’s day are still present, but they seem not to know what is worthy of informing. What is valuable information when 200,000 people march in Casablanca for the maintenance of Islamic personal status laws, and the same day over 35,000 people march in Rabat for their abolition? What should informers tell their superiors when once-banned cassettes of Sheikh Kishk [3] are openly for sale, when police inspectors are found guilty of corruption, when prostitution rackets are busted? Dissent, discord, graft, crime and AIDS are on dis- play, and as of yet, there is little self-censorship.

In this climate, in spring 2000 many administrators and scholars spoke freely about Hassan II’s difficulties in maintaining an Islamic image. They acknowledged his need to combat contrary interpretations of Islam arising from reformist quarters during the 1980s. They pointed out that other Islamic education programs in the country, particularly in the university system, often sidestepped the king’s tight control of Islamic scholastic activity. Students from different academic departments, and only rarely from Departments of Islamic Studies (shu‘ab al-dirasat al-islamiyya), had formed Islamic student groups. They held lesson circles in university libraries, cafeterias and their rented rooms, debating how to reform Islamic practice in Morocco. They staged conspicuous and sometimes violent strikes on university campuses in Tetouan, Fez and Meknes.

The Qarawiyyin’s administrators and ‘ulama’ openly commented that the Traditional Education System was Hassan II’s program, administered by the Ministry of Pious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and not by the Ministry of Research and Higher Education. All appointments as religious functionaries and hires to the Islamic educational system were made by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Pious Endowments and, as one of the five Ministries of Sovereignty, [4] Hassan II exercised more control within this ministry than the other. The administrators and scholars in the Qarawiyyin speculated about the questionable future of the restoration of the madrasas and the educational program under Mohammed VI. The rote answers of my 1997 and 1998 interviews were nowhere to be heard.

A Cadre Forsaken

Since Hassan II’s death, several restoration projects have halted. The forbidding doors of the Madrasa al-Masbahiya are closed with a heavy chain and padlock — through the cracked wood one can make out an old poster of Hassan II hanging askew from its nail in the vestibule wall. The doors to Madrasa Ras al-Sharratin are occasionally open, but the shaky scaffolding is empty, a jumble of cardboard templates for carving plaster lies on a table covered with dust and the bricks in the walls are exposed, their plaster coating having been removed but yet to be replaced. A lone teenage guard has set up a small cooking stove and sleeping pallet in one of the empty madrasa chambers.

Traditional Education System students still live in Madrasa al-Saffarin, Madrasa al-Sahrij and Madrasa Bab al-Giza. But they are skeptical about the future of the educational program. The first class of fifteen graduates received certificates this summer, but even as late as the spring of 2000, they did not know if they would be receiving any official recognition at all. The granting of degrees last summer, however, has done little to assuage the anxiety of those students who anticipate graduating in the coming years. One student used the physical state of Madrasa al-Saffarin as a metaphor for the future of the educational program, saying that after the initial superficial restoration of the building, it had once again fallen into disarray. Officials seemed to have lost interest in the state of the building and in its inhabitants. Lacking a clear directive, both the restoration projects for the madrasas and the revival of the Traditional Education System stagnate in administrative ambiguity.

Orientalism’s Cash Value

Mohammed VI’s reluctance to definitively take hold of the mantle hoisted, or perhaps wielded, by his father has left those entangled in Hassan II’s legacy, working for the preservation projects, teaching or administering the education program, to interpret the futures and pasts of their programs for themselves. While the actors involved speak of a future full of doubt, they confidently speak about the past in a way that they wouldn’t two years earlier.

As the restoration and preservation of Islamic monuments in the medina founders, other restoration projects funded by private individuals have flourished. The new king’s disinterest in the medina may be interpreted as a deliberate willingness to foster private sector initiatives, as an intentional downplaying of his regime’s Islamicness or simply as an indication of the looming enormity of his other priorities. Whichever the case, the emergence of private sector preservation in the void left by Mohammed VI’s hesitancy reveals how the preservation of a single site can sustain multiple invented histories.

The private sector’s interpretation of what the medina is, or rather what it was, differs considerably from the old king’s. Private sector projects, funded by wealthy businessmen, doctors, bankers, architects and hoteliers, do not deal with Islamic monuments, and the characteristics and sentimental associations of the city that they want to promote are not Islamic. Rather, they are vaguely cultural. There is talk of Fez’s decisive role in shaping Morocco’s aesthetic taste, of its contributions to Moroccan cuisine and of its influence on interior design and the decorative arts. According to the private sector interests, the heritage of Fez’s medina is humanitarian, cosmopolitan and only incidentally associated with Islam. The now annual Sacred Music Festival in Fez is warmly ecumenical — all religions are rep- resented and the emphasis is on a general sacredness rather than the ultimate truth of Islam.

For the most part, private developers are motivated by the desire to draw tourists and their hard currency to Fez. Cultural heritage is a big tourist draw, but Islamic cultural heritage is decidedly less so. The individuals running the private sector projects are savvy enough to be sensitive to European and American tourists’ tenuous relationship with Islam, and their projects tend to steer clear of things Islamic.

Developers cater to European and American desires in other ways. Many of the new, restored maisons d’hôtes that have sprouted up in the medina are an interesting blend of “Moroccan traditional” and French colonial architecture. The private sector restores former homes of the Moroccan elite to their pre-colonial grandeur. The spacious tiled courtyards, delicately carved plaster and subtle stained glass windows are all accented with remnants of France’s colonial occupation of the country — cumbersome RCA Victor gramophones with enormous flared trumpets, sleek framed posters from the recently reissued poster series initially published by the colonial Syndicat d’initiative de Fès, art deco divans of cream-colored leather and polished chrome. The effect returns the contemporary visitor to an imagined heritage of opulence, luxury and exoticism, all glossed with a sweet allusion to depravity.

In the new narrative of historic Fez, no more is the austere dedication to Islamic intellectual pursuits, the nostalgic evocation of the ascetic hardships of Islamic scholarly life. Liquor flows freely at the dinner meetings of the Association des Amis de Fès Medina, a newly formed private preservation-oriented group. The evenings revolve around talk of artistic sensibilities, museums for traditional costumes and how to bring more tourists into the medina. There is nary a mention of an Islamic monument or of safeguarding Fez’s Islamic past.


[1] Monarchs of the Alawi dynasty have assumed the title amir al-mu’minin, placing them at the head of Morocco’s Muslims but obliging them to maintain a certain standard of piety. See M.E. Combs-Schilling, Sacred Perfomances: Islam, Sexuality and Sacrifice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) and Abdallah Hammoudi, Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
[2] Salafi interpretations of Islam encompass a wide range of views, yet they are commonly joined by the belief that true Islam can be found only in the Qur’an, the Sunna and the comportment of members of the early Muslim community. Scholars like Abdeslam Yassine contend that later interpretive works are misleading accretions that need to be done away with.
[3] Sheikh Kishk is a popular Egyptian preacher who was banned in Morocco for refusing to attend Hassan II’s durus hasaniya after he was invited by the king. His recorded sermons are extremely popular among people who believe that the proper implementation of Islam would eradicate social inequalities and perceived injustices.
[4] In addition to the Ministry of Pious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the ministres de souveraineté include the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, Foreign Affairs and Defense. These are opposed to the ministres de gestion whose heads are chosen by the prime minister.

How to cite this article:

Geoffrey D. Porter "From Madrasa to Maison d’hote," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).

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