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Two Major Religions, Islam and Judaism in Morocco, Shared Spiritual and Cultural Practices and Continue To Do So

By Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

September 24, 2019

Morocco is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world due to its extensive history; one major reason for its rich cultural heritage is due to the fact that numerous empires controlled the country over the centuries, and each ruler established different policies toward the foreign communities occupying the territory.

Because of this history, Morocco today is an infusion of numerous different peoples, religions, cultures, and traditions from throughout the world, and these diverse cultures are still evident in the culture today. These cultures include the native North African Amazigh/Berber people, the Gnawa people who came from Sub-Saharan Africa, Arabs, Europeans, and until recently a large Jewish population.

Plural Morocco

This unusual cultural infusion which is at the origin of the Moroccan proverbial sense of tolerance, communion and togetherness is reflected in the Moroccan hospitality concept mrahba and acceptance of the other in his otherness.

Over 5,000 years of its known history, the country has always been the crossroad of many cultures and religions that it has adapted in its millennial civilization with a great sense of pride. In the northeastern part of Morocco, in the village of Tatoft, there lives a music “rock” band: The Master Musicians of Jajouka, considered to be 4,000 years old and the infusion result of Greek and Roman deities, pagan in nature, Judeo-Amazigh mystic trance music and Islamic Sufi influence. Today, Jajouka, an icon of world music reflects faithfully the plural aspect of Moroccan culture.

But that is not all, this multiculturalism has been inscribed in gold in the post-Arab Spring constitution of 2011 through the integration of ethnic communities:(1)

The Moroccan cultural pluralism is reflected faithfully more in the religious attributes of the monarch. He is and has been, since the Idrissid dynasty of the 9th century, amir al-mu’minin “Commander of the Faithful” and not the “Commander of Muslims: exclusively, as one would probably expect (2):

Accompanying this diverse population of people were the religions of Islam, Judaism, and to some extent repercussions of Christianity from Europe. Because these cultures and religions coexisted in close proximity for such a long period of time, in the long run they came to share mutual practices that all sects claimed to own; one major area which shared commonalities among the different religions and peoples are Morocco’s saints and spirits (3).

When the Megorashim Jews were kicked out of Spain after the Reconquista, they were received with open arms by the Amazigh dynasty of the Wattasid bearing in mind that Morocco was already the home of the Tovashim Jews that came in the year 70 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.

These early migrant Jews were welcomed by the Amazigh/Berber native inhabitants with whom they shared such social traits as tribalism and matriarchy. The Jews soon “melted” into the Moroccan culture and, as a result, of their tolerance and togetherness, they are responsible with the Amazigh/Berber people for the inception of values of tolerance, still strong today, thanks to the Judeo-Amazigh Cultural Substratum, a cultural concept unique to Morocco in the region.

On the Moroccan religious tolerance and the endeavors of the country to rehabilitate its Jewish legacy, The Economist writes (4):

Shared Mysticism

Two major religions that shared spiritual and cultural practices and still continue to do so today are Islam and Judaism. Although in the 20th century many of the Moroccan Jews moved out of the country to either Israel to Europe, they still maintain rich cultural traditions that date back to ancient times in Morocco (5). According to Moroccan Muslim collective memory, Moroccan Jews are native to the country, pre-dating the arrival of Islam, and essentially going back to the beginning of recorded history, a status rarely enjoyed by Jews elsewhere. The ancient history of Jews of North Africa, in general, and Morocco, in particular, is underpinned by a corpus of legends drawing on very old and rich oral traditions (6).

One major area in which Judaism and Islam shared commonalities and still do today is in the arena of spirituality and sainthood. These common attributes are visible in numerous ways, including mystical practices, the worshipping of saints, as well as Moroccan folklore; they are all evident amongst the Arab, Amazigh/Berber, Gnawa and Jewish populations. The analogous mental structures of the Jewish and Muslim (Arab and Amazigh/Berber) populations have given rise, in the Maghreb, to a literature and a folklore in which the Jewish cultural substratum and the Arab-Amazigh/Berber heritage combine together in an original creation (7).

Today, saints are still a popular part of Moroccan culture, and many saints are shared in both the Islamic and Jewish traditions; presently, Moroccans worship over 100 saints that are considered holy in Islam and Judaism and whose origins can be traced from Jewish tradition (8).

One great example of this phenomenon that still exists today is a Rabbi of Moroccan origin that is credited with founding the Chavrei Babakuk community, which transformed into a Jewish religious sect called Moroccan Hassidism; this group is still present in Israel today (9). This Rabbi is considered a saint in the Moroccan Hassidic tradition, and Jews as well as many Muslims consider him as holy, for he “embodies simultaneously images of Moroccan saints and Ashkenazi Hassidic rabbis” (10).

One interesting aspect of this saint in particular is the culture of pilgrimage that surrounds his followers both in Morocco and Israel.

Although it is not explicitly stated that this rabbi is a declared saint in the Islamic tradition, many aspects of worship that surround him in the Muslim community are common to the worship of other Muslim Moroccan saints.

Additionally, the concept of the veneration of saints is common to both Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and the way the practice is carried out is explicit and unique to North Africa. In order to fully understand this concept of saints and veneration, it is important to define what a saint is in Moroccan culture, in order to not confuse this conception with other interpretations of sainthood in different religious traditions:

An example of the good interfaith dialogue and understanding in Morocco can be witnessed in the city of Sefrou (13), situated thirty kilometers south of Fes (14). In Sefrou, Muslims and Jews lived side by side in harmony for centuries, and often practiced their religious rituals in such harmony with each other that it was difficult to tell what was Islamic and what was Jewish (15).

They even venerated the same man, whom many considered a saint, buried in a grotto in a neighboring mountain. The site was tactfully called Kaf al-moumen (the grotto of the faithful) because it was a religious sanctuary for both Muslims and Jews, and times for worshipping in this area were equally divided, the year around. However, many local people believe that it is the same saint and not two different saints and this examplifies beautifully the sense of togetherness and communion among the two religious communities As such, the Amazigh/Berbers, Arabs and Jews of this mythical city and capital of religious coexistence are the forfathers of the Judeo-Amazigh/Berber cultural substratum, which is origin and inspiration of the Moroccan tolerance.

The example of Sefrou is not unique (16); it is found in other places such as Debdou, Azrou, Fes, Rabat, Meknes, and Marrakesh, among others. Communities of Jews lived and practiced their faith in all these places in complete peace and harmony. They were, in principle, full Moroccans, and as such enjoyed the full rights and obligations like their Muslim brethren.

In what regards such aspects of tolerance and coexistence Hind Al-Subai Al-Idrisi writes in Qantara (17):

Relevance Of Saint Reverence: Maraboutism

In his article regarding saint shrines throughout Morocco, Paul Freeman from the University of California names this culture of sainthood as “The Marabout Cult in Morocco.” (19) He further explains in his essay that Marabout shrines are common sights when traveling in Morocco, and are located in cities, mountains, villages, and along rivers that lead down towards the Sahara. These shrines are identifiable due to their uniform appearance, which is that of a small and windowless white dome that often is surrounded by a wall (20).

“They are… sacred spots, where a holy man has spent time or is buried… [people] go there to pray and make offerings in hope of receiving baraka, the power of grace from God.” (21)

People travel to these sights to visit for days or weeks at a time, and often many of these visitors suffer from physical or mental disease; these calamities are thought to be caused by evil forces, so the afflicted visit these shrines in hopes of gaining the grace needed to ward off the evil spirits and therefore become healthy (22). Today, many of the saints that are worshiped by both Jews and Muslims are located in cities that historically had large Jewish populations, like Fez and Marrakesh. However, the tombs of many deceased saints can be seen in numerous cities throughout Morocco, including Rabat.

In addition to pilgrimage being a unique aspect of spirituality in Morocco, the veneration of saints also plays a large role in Moroccan sainthood.

In his article about saint veneration among the Jews in Morocco, Issachar Ben-Ami states that he has found 25 female saints throughout the country that are mutually celebrated by both Muslims and Jews (23).

One thing that both Judaism and Islam share in common regarding Moroccan saints is the categorization of said saints into three groups. The first are saints that are declared as saints only after they have died; the second are saints who were canonized while still living, and the third are saints who appeared to people in dreams and other forms after death and were therefore declared holy (24).

Other than this categorization, there is also a hierarchy of saints regarding their locations within the country. There are local saints, who are worshipped by small villages that historically hold a special connection and affinity for this person; after this there are regional saints who are worshipped by a number of villages or an entire city, and finally there are national saints that are venerated uniformly by all Jews and a large number of Moroccan Muslims, and many people from all around the country go on pilgrimages to venerate their graves (25).

Because of this shared hierarchy and types of saints, the concept of sainthood has been crucial to both Muslims and Jews living within the region; due to this fact, both religions tend to claim ownership of the saints in their respective religious traditions.

Importance of Gnawa Culture And Trance Music

Another party that plays a large role in the belief of spirits and thus has influenced Jewish and Muslim culture in Morocco is that of the Gnawa (26) people. Although they do not have much influence in regards to sainthood in Morocco, they have heavily influenced the spiritual culture that exists among different religions and cultures in the region. These people are indigenous to Africa and were forcibly brought to Northern Africa from Timbuktu in the sixteenth century as slaves; thus many of them settled in Morocco (27). This ethnic group of people did not adhere to Islam, although once living and assimilating to Morocco many of them did convert. Despite this fact, the Gnawa people did not abandon many of the cultural practices and beliefs they had held for centuries, including that of spirits.

The Gnawa people often expressed their belief in spirits through their infamous musical genre of “Gnawa music”. This music is characterized by its rhythmic and repetitive beat and is often referred to as trance music because listeners have been known to enter into a transient state while listening to it. The trance begins as a type of invasion, like an unwelcome visitor that violates and takes over the person’s body. (29)

In her article about Gnawa trance music, Margaret A. Mills explains that this spirit possession “invokes the historical affliction of slavery”, this affliction being the slavery and emasculation of the Gnawa people. (30) However, after this initial affliction the person begins to understand how to master the spirit successfully in order to enter into a transient joy instead of spiritual torment. (31)

Gnawa music and spiritual traditions not only had an influence on Jewish mystical practices, but they, also, had a profound impact on Sufi practices within the region; in fact, many of the people that adhere to Sufism listen to Gnawa music for its trance effects. Considered the mystical side of Islam, Sufism is known for its many ritual practices that have affected the spiritual landscape of Morocco for centuries.

Infusion Of Mysticism

A perfect example of the infusion of Sufi mystical practices, Gnawa music, Jewish tradition, and Islamic practices all into one entity can be found in the historic city of Fez. Every year Fez holds an annual Sufi music festival called “The Festival of World Sacred Music” in which numerous musical talents from around the world perform (33). The festival is in honor of Moulay Idriss who founded Fez in 809 (34).

There is a traditional Moroccan gravesite to commemorate the sainthood of Moulay Idriss in Fez, and this is particularly interesting because Fez was a historically Jewish city. Among the groups who perform include specialists in Gnawa music, and additionally Sufi recitations of the Quran called “dhikr” are among the music selection; this process of recitation is strikingly similar to Gnawa trance music, for the participants are known to enter into a state of ecstasy as the music and chant increases in time, tempo and rhythm (35).

In addition to Fez, each year there is a similar music festival that is held in Essaouira, however the main attraction of the event is Gnawa music. Many Sufis attend this, as well, and the festival is widely known for its infamous trance music in which the audience gradually enters into a trance state while listening to the rhythmic beat of the music. Many people are unable to explain how this happens and attribute this occurrence to an unexplainable phenomenon, as stated previously, here above, by Margaret A. Mills in her article on Gnawa music.

Morocco’s immense cultural history is evident in the Jewish, Gnawa, and Islamic population. Despite the diversity of the region however, all three groups share similar practices regarding spirituality that they have developed over the centuries as a result of coexisting together. Both Judaism and Islam share the same conception of sainthood, and even share many saints whose tombs can be seen throughout the country; both religions, also, share the concept of veneration and pilgrimage to these holy sites, as well as a belief in baraka. The best infusion of the different cultures and religions is evident in the Sufi music festival in Fez, a Jewish city, with Gnawa Music as one of its main attractions. History may never know where many of the saints and spirit beliefs originated, however they are fully aware that they have, equally, impacted all the cultures and religions of Morocco, a plural country, par excellence.

To Conclude

Morocco, which has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance, is known and recognized for the harmonious coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians. The freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and religion embraces all cults and all races in a framework of fraternity, love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, human rights and freedom, values that the Kingdom has been appropriating for ages and continues to promote today.

Very much like Islam, Judaism has left an undeniable and indelible imprint on the subconscious and conscious cultures and way of life of all Moroccans. Jews have left Morocco in the 20th century, but their cuisine, music, embroidery, celebrations, beliefs, monuments are part of the Moroccan spirit known as tamaghrabit, for life. The Jews have moved physically to others lands but their spiritual presence remains very strong in Morocco and part and parcel of Morocco for eternity and that is the best example of religious infusion and coexistence.

Endnotes: P. 3 P. 13

Cf. Chtatou, M; “Saints and spirits and their significance in Moroccan cultural beliefs and practices: an analysis of Westermarck’s work” in Morocco: the journal of the Society for Moroccan studies. – N. 1, 1996, p. 62-84.

Bruce Maddy- Weitzman and Samir Ben- Layashi, “Myth, History and RealPolitik: Morocco and its Jewish Community,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies (2010): 90

Haim Zafrani, “The Judeo- Muslim Cultural World in Morocco: Written and Spoken,” Diogenes (1999): 73- 74

Ben Ami, Issach, “Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco,” Wayne State University Press (1998): 2

Gil Daryn, “The Chavrei Habkuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints,” Ethnology, Vol. 37 Number 4 (1998): 351

“The Chavrei Habkuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints” (1998): 352

“The Chavrei Habkuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints” (1998): 352

“The Chavrei Habkuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints” (1998): 353

Geertz, C. ; Geertz, H. ; Rosen, L . ; & Hyman, P . 1979. Meaning and order in Moroccan society : three essays in cultural analysis. Cambridge : Cambridge university press. It is a collective anthropological work that deals with : social identity and points of attachment: approaches to social organization ( Rosen, Lawrence,) Suq: the bazaar economy in Sefrou ( Geertz, Clifford,) the meanings of family ties ( Geertz, Hildred) and a photographic essay by Paul Hayman (510 pages ).

Norman A. Stillman, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1973), pp. 255-263

Stillman, . 1988. The language and culture of the Jews of Sefrou, Morocco: an ethnolinguistic study. University of Manchester, – History – 172 pages

Maraboutisme is a French word meaning “veneration of saints” that originated from the Arab word mourabit “ a religious man living in a secluded lodge.”

Paul Freeman, “The Marabout Cult in Morocco,” Transcultural Psychiatry (1999) Vol. 36 Number 4: 531

“The Marabout Cult in Morocco,” (1999): 351

“The Marabout Cult in Morocco,” (1999): 352

“The Marabout Cult in Morocco” (1991): 351

Issachar Ben- Ami, “Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco.” Wayne State University Press (1998): 388

“Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco,” (1991): 312

“Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco,” (1991): 313

The work on the cult of Maghreb saints attempted to identify the origin of this community and its ritual practices by exploring the origin of the word Gnawa. The explanation provided by Maurice Delafosse in 1924 remained for a long time the only etymological reference of the word and was adopted by generations of researchers. According to Delafosse, the Berber expression akal-n-iguinaouen which means country of the Blacks, would have given birth to the words Guinea and Ghana and subsequently to the word gnawa by phonetic resemblance. Gnawa, therefore, would mean, by extension, a black man or from the country of black men, that is, sub-Saharan Africa.

Tom McIntyre, “Music from the Middle East- Gnawa Music of Marrakesh/ Night Spirit Masters,” The Whole Earth Review (1995): 35

Chouki El Hamel, “Constructing a Diasporic Identity: Tracing the Origins of the Gnawa Spiritual Group in Morocco,” The Journal of African History, Vol. 49 Number 2 (2008): 249

Margaret A. Mills, “Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace,” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 27 Number 503 (2014): 1

“Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace,” (2014): 1

“Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace,” (2014): 2

Jamal J. Elias, “Sufism” Iranian Studies, Vol. 31 Number ¾ “A Review of the Encyclopedia Iranica” (1998): 595

Dr. Bruce Cook, “The 2001 Festival of World Sacred Music: An Annual Musical Event in Morocco Embodies and Reflects Sufi Traditions and Spirit,” International Journal of Humanities and Peace (2001): 54

“The 2001 Festival of World Sacred Music: An Annual Musical Event in Morocco Embodies and Reflects Sufi Traditions and Spirit” (2001): 55

“The 2001 Festival of World Sacred Music: An Annual Musical Event in Morocco Embodies and Reflects Sufi Traditions and Spirit” (2001): 54


Original Headline: Islam And Judaism In Morocco: A History Of Cultural Communion

Source:  The Eurasia Review