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  Updated: July 27, 2006

"Shi'ism in Morocco"

By: Yasin 'Abd al-Salam

The fact that there are followers of Ahl al-Bayt in Morocco should come as no surprise considering the fact that wherever there are Muslims, there are Shi'ites. The history of Islam in Morocco traces back to the year 683 when Uqba ibn Nafi, the commander of the 'Ummayad dynasty in Damascus conquered the region. While many Berbers were quick to embrace Islam, this did not guarantee their support for their Arab conquerors who taxed them heavily, treated converts as second-class Muslims, and, in the worst cases, even enslaved them. As a result, many Berbers became inclined to the teachings of Kharijism, as well as Isma'ili and Imami Shi'ism.

It was only in 788, with the arrival of Idris ibn Abd Allah, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty, that Imami Shi'ism spread throughout the country. Moulay Idris, as he was respectfully known, traced his ancestry back to 'Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatimah al-Zahra. As an Imami Shi'ite, he was persecuted by the Abbassids. As one of the few survivors of the battle of Fakhkh, in which many 'Alids were slain by the Abbassids, Idris fled to the Maghreb. There, he was embraced by Muslim Berbers as their Imam, converted the remaining Berber tribes to Shi'ite Islam, and created the first autonomous Islamic state in Morocco. Moulay Idris established the sharifian tradition in Morocco, by which the claim of descent from the Prophet was the basic requirement for monarchic rule. His dynasty was also the first to incorporate both Berbers and Arabs.

The Idrisids would rule Morocco until 985, losing power for short periods (922-25 and 927-37) to the Miknasa who were Fatimid allies, and thus Isma'ili Muslims. In the 10 th century, the Idrisid dynasty fell apart and Morocco was divided into smaller kingdoms. The entire country was re-united once again by the Almoravides (1062-1145), who were followed by the Almohades (1145-1248), the Merinides (1248-1554), the Saadians (1554-1660), and, finally, the Alaouites (1660-present).

Every dynasty which has ruled Morocco--with the exception of the Almoravides and the Almohades--has claimed descent from the Prophet and followed a Shi'ite political model. With regards to theology, philosophy and jurisprudence, Moroccan rulers have traditionally espoused the Maliki madhhab, officially and obligatorily imposed by the Almoravides. Much like the Wahhabis, the Almoravides, sought to "purify" religious practice. Their goal was the conversion of the pagans or semi-pagans of the Sahara , as well as the struggle against Christians and "heretical" Muslims. The spread of Malikism commenced around the year 1040 with the help of 'Abd Allah ibn Yasin, a zealous Maliki missionary from Tunisia brought to the country by Almoravid leader Yahya ibn Ibrahim. The conversions, however, were not without compulsion and by 1054, the Moroccan Shi'ites who failed to practice taqiyyah had all been exterminated. Due to perpetual persecution, Moroccan Shi'ites were forced to go underground until the 21st century.

The situation for Shi'ites in Morocco has improved sufficiently for them to present themselves timidly in the public sphere. In April of 2003, the daily Assabah revealed the existence of a strong Shi'ite presence at the core of the PJD, al-Yaqadha wa al-fadhila, a Muslim political party. According to the article, more than fifty Shi'ites participated in the first assembly of the movement. The report was quickly denied by Sad Bouaachrine, one of the founders of the movement. His denial seemed odd, indeed, since for more than one year the movement's official publication, al-Asr, had devoted a column to Driss Hani, the head of the Moroccan Shi'ite community, titled "Tahta' chams."

Besides participating in political debate, Shi'ite Moroccans have also established religious organizations like Attawassoul in al-Hoceima, al-Inbiaat in Tangiers, and al-Ghadir in Meknes. This latter group, whose founding members include Mohsinne Hani, was cited in the 2002 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, published in March 31, 2003, by the American Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The report mentions that in May of 2002, the organization al-Ghadir asked for official status. It was the first time an association of Shi'ite citizens asked for official recognition. As of 2006, no response has been received from the authorities. While the Shi'ite community awaits official recognition from the Moroccan government, other associations are being organized discreetly in Agadir, Marrakesh, and Tetouan, without revealing their religious affiliation. If the Moroccan government, which is known for its omnipresence and omniscience, can confirm the existence of some 300 Bahais in the country, the Shi'ites in the country have lived in such deep dissimulation that no number exists for them.

The majority of Shi'ites of Morocco are highly educated and young, rarely reaching forty years of age. They are engineers, medical doctors, lawyers, business men, teachers, and students. It is the latter who form the core of the Shi'ite movement in Morocco. Some of them come from Shi'ite families which have been deep in taqiyyah for over one millennium. Others are converts who studied abroad in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran, and returned with the faith of Ahl al-Bayt. And yet others embraced Shi'ism thanks to the inspiration of Imam Khomeini, as well as Hizbullah's al-Manar television network. This station is finding more and more viewers in Morocco, an audience which continues to steadily increase with its new broadcasts in French aimed at the Francophone intelligentsia in the Maghreb. Last but not least, we must also mention the important role of Shi'ite literature in the spread of Shi'ism in Morocco.

Shi'ite literature is now readily available in many bookstores throughout in Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. During the past two years, the International Book Fair in Casablanca was marked by exceptional fanfare around the stands of two Iranian and Lebanese publishers who offered a wide selection of books on Shi'ite Islam at rock bottom prices. Since 1999, there is even a bookstore specializing in Shi'ite scholarship in downtown Casablanca. The founder of the library is a convert to Shi'ism in his forties. He has a degree in business management and has become a fervent defender of Shi'ite philosophy. He openly discusses religious matters but insists on remaining anonymous, possibly fearing "problems" with the authorities.

If Moroccan Shi'ites remain discreet about their faith, they have plenty of reasons to do so. Many of them remember the late 70s and early 80s when the Moroccan government sought support from Saudi Arabia to counter the influence of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. As a result, Wahhabism, which had merely been a marginal movement introduced in Morocco in the 19 th century, found state-support. By accepting Saudi oil money, which helped counter Iranian efforts to export the revolution as well as finance the war against the Polisario in the south, the Moroccans were obliged to accept Saudi scholars. With the help of the Saudis, a full-scale propaganda campaign against Shi'ism was launched on the country's state-controlled media. The situation reached a critical point in 1984 with the "pro-Khomeini" manifestations which resulted in many arrest. It was at this time that the Moroccan court- 'ulama passed a fatwah declaring that Imam Khomeini was an infidel. Rather than speaking in Modern Standard Arabic as is the norm in Arabic countries, broadcasters spoke in colloquial Arabic to ensure the message would reach the masses.

With the help of the Saudis, Wahhabi religious schools spread throughout Morocco, extremist literature was distributed to thousands of students, and scholarships were given to study in Saudi-supported universities. Morroco, which in modern times was known for its moderation, was soon confronted with the surrogate prodigal sons of the Saudis: Wahhabi-trained preachers who returned home to spread their theories. These Wahhabi theorists rejected the modern open Malikism of Morocco and denounced Shi'ites as apostates. As a result, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, many Moroccan Shi'ites, men, women, and children, have simply left the country and moved to Iran where they could practice their religion freely.

It was only in the late 1990s, with the process of democratization initiated by King Hassan II, that Shi'ites found a degree of religious freedom. The Moroccan Constitution of 1996 establishes Islam as the state religion and guarantees freedom of religion to all of its citizens (Article 6). It also guarantees its citizens freedom of expression and association (Article 9). Despite these newly-acquired constitutional rights, Shi'ite Muslims still felt obliged to meet semi-secretly to discuss and debate the future of their faith in the Maghreb. It was only after the tragedy of 9/11 that the Moroccan state started to shift its policy, officially breaking from Wahhabism as a result of the Casablanca bombings in 2003. While the real culprits were soon caught, all members of the Salafia Jihadia, the government initially suggested that Shi'ites were responsible for the attacks, subjecting 6 Shi'ites from the PDJ to investigations according to the Minister of Justice himself.

It was only in November 2002 that the continued existence of Moroccan Shi'ites came to light through an interview with Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Dris Hani, the spiritual leader of the Moroccan Shi'ites, which appeared in Maroc Hebdo. Now in his mid-thirties, and living peacefully in Sale with his wife and well-to-do family, Dris Hani discovered Shi'ism as a teen and moved to Syria at the age of 18 to study in the Hawzah. Upon his return to Morocco, he felt invested with a mission: to struggle for the recognition and respect of the minority Shi'ite community. In his interview with Maroc Hebdo, he stated that "Morocco was a Shi'ite country;" that Shi'ism was the rule and that Sunnism was the exception. He explained that there was no need to make Morocco a Shi'ite country, because it already was one. He also hoped that the community could create a political party like the Hizbullah, but adapted to Moroccan reality. Due to pressures placed on him by the Moroccan authorities, always eager to ensure national unity through uniformity--Allah, King, and Country, one religion, one language, and one madhhab--he was "requested" to retract his statements. In subsequent interviews, he took back many of the statements which had been attributed to him, even his titled of "Hujjat al-Islam," made a vow of silence, and then returned to the scene speaking of Islamic ecumenism and the need to unite the Muslim 'Ummah. In his words, Sunnism and Shi'ism are two complementary currents, and all Muslims, be they Sunni or Shi'i share, the same fundamental beliefs.

Despite the fact that Moroccans were forced to embrace Sunni Islam, they always retained many aspects of Shi'ite Islam: the love for the Prophet and his Family; the respect for descendants of the Prophets, known in Morocco as the shurafa; the celebration of 'Id al-Mawlid, a Shi'ite custom commenced in the country by the Merinides; the common invocations of intercession made to the Prophet and Fatimah; the reverence of saints; the rich Shi'ite-inspired spirituality of the Sufis; and the commemoration of 'Ashura. In Morocco, these mourning ceremonies are observed mainly by women and children. They were commenced by the Shi'i communities which existed in the country between the 9 th and 12th centuries and were perpetuated by the Sharifs, the descendants of the Prophet. As Hujjat al-Islam Dris Hani explains, "Even countries which claim to be Sunni are in fact Shi'ite, since they all share the same respect for Ahl al-Bayt. It is just a question of their degree of Shi'ism." As many Moroccans say, "We are Sunnis in practice, but Shi'ites at heart."

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