When Scientific Knowledge is not the Final Authority in Morocco

When Scientific Knowledge is not the Final Authority in Morocco



[symple_box] Mohammed MaaroufDr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box]

To respond to the strong comments made by the imam Yahya al-Mdaghri affiliated to Hamza mosque in Salé during a recent Friday sermon when he blamed the inhabitants of the Rif for the last earthquake that shook the region and scared the population, we would like to highlight the fact that what the sermonizer attested to his audience either regarding the earthquake or the drought as being divine forms of punishment sent to us as warnings for us to redress our moral conduct is not unfamiliar in Moroccan history.

The “imagined” reality of the intervention of providence in the cosmos and inflicted-on-us divine collective punishment are deep-rooted in our cultural worldview. In fact, these are not purely Moroccan or Islamic limited cultural perspectives; they are rather common in ‘less protected communities’ [where] there is no adequate scientific understanding of [the] … distressing and socially disruptive events…culture prescribes definite institutionalized ways of dealing with … them”(Beattie, 1964, p. 205).

In other words, in social contexts where scientific knowledge that may provide an empirical alternative is lacking, illness, death from disease, starvation, earthquake and drought may be dealt with in symbolic and expressive terms. This does not mean that ‘advanced societies’ operate only by scientific and empirical beliefs. They may also have at least some magical beliefs embodied in their religious or political rituals. But in less protected communities magical activity may have a more important function. Misfortune may be averted or alleviated by recourse to magico-relgious beliefs and rituals. As Beattie says:

“Magico-religious behavior may … provide a way of coping with situations of misfortune or danger with which there are no other means of dealing. It is commonplace that in the face of actual or threatened disaster to do something is psychologically satisfying and a way of relieving anxiety; anything is better than just remaining passive and waiting for it to happen. Where there is no body of empirical knowledge to turn for help, or where such knowledge is plainly inadequate, then ritual procedures, whose validity does not rest on experience, may provide an acceptable alternative.” (1964, p. 207)

Let us see how Moroccans, in the face of disaster and natural catastrophes, have delved in magical activities and sought the protection of saints. Up to the twentieth century, nature has severely threatened the survival, security and health of the population. Droughts, famines, epidemics, floods, storms, fire, earthquakes and other natural calamities have compelled the masses to be more preoccupied with the fight for survival and ascribe more value to the practical necessities of living. In their struggle for bread, water and shelter, they have drawn upon magical beliefs and rituals to help them overcome the burden of daily survival and mitigate their anxieties over an unknown future looming up before them.

Nature has been hostile for centuries in Morocco. Here, I will shed light on the Medieval times and beyond emphasizing three points. First, I don’t want to claim that this is the only periods nature was hostile; on the contrary it has always been so. Second, I don’t wish to maintain that the periods are the only available ones in historiography, or that they are the most illustrative in this respect. My aim is to exemplify, not to provide an exhaustive, or exclusive description. I have chosen the past to talk about for the purpose of showing the reader the taken-for-granted assumptions and attitudes the population has held in different historical periods, and thus inherited in popular collective imagination.

In the Middle Ages, especially during the Almohad epoch, the population endured a great deal of natural calamities due to the hostility of the climate. The religious elite, fuqaha, attributed the happenings to the wrath of Allah. They defined natural calamities as accidental events befalling people on account of their sins against Allah. They held the belief that to redeem the earth and purge it from sinners, Allah sent his fatal storms, devastating floods, rapacious birds and insects, freezing cold and hellish fire to the population. The majority of the ‘ulama explained these events in metaphysical terms. Apart from Ibn Khaldun and very few others, the rest resorted to metaphysical explanations. Even Ibn Zuhr, a great physician of his time, explained some difficult illnesses in religious terms. He said that the diseases without evident causes might result from the wrath of Allah, which was beyond the doctor’s specialty. (Boulqtib, 2002, p. 32)

In the same vein, Ibn Al-Banna’ Al-‘Adadi Al-Murakushi claimed that the cosmic movement of other planets in the universe might cause natural catastrophes. “If the sun or moon eclipses in January, a drought and famine will take place in the country of the Maghreb, causing the death of animals and the invasion of locusts” (cit. in Boulqtib, 2002, p. 32; Trans. mine).

Ibn Haidur is another intellectual of the period who combined the practical with the metaphysical in his explanation of the causes of epidemics. He stated that the stench of decaying flesh and rubbish might pollute the air and cause epidemics. He also associated the expensive cost of living and impact of famines resulting from wars with the prevalence of epidemics. Then he moved from these practical explanations to magical ones. He attributed the air pollution to the movement of planets and stars. He suggested two ways of dealing with plagues. One was medical and the other magico-religious based on prayers and the miracles of sacred letters. He advised people to be clean and follow a specific diet in order to escape contamination. He also suggested that they must reiterate the following prayers as a preventive measure: “ya hayun ya hannan ya hakim” (You the ever alive! You the ever merciful! You the ever wise). He pointed out that these prayers were reiterated in the Middle East during times of epidemics and were even carved on peoples’ rings (Al Bazaz, 1992, pp. 389-93). The following drawing exemplifies the design:

Fig.2 (Al Bazaz, 1992, p. 392)
Fig.2 (Al Bazaz, 1992, p. 392)

Those Beliefs and practices show that medicine at the time could not answer people’s questions about the mass destruction of the population by epidemics. So, society through its ‘ulamas and religious leaders evolved magical formulas and practices to alleviate the psychological and social impact of those diseases on the population. By being fortified with incantations and fumigations, people solicited the moral support of magical powers to face the invasion of disease. The poor segments of the population surrendered their fate to spiritual leaders, Sufis and marabouts to rescue them from the dungeon of despair. They withdrew to a miraculous world where charismatic powers, magic and cataclysmic changes were the vivid illusion that supplanted the deed. (Boulqtib, 2002)

While the population was struggling against the aftermaths of natural calamities, the Almohad regime and the maraboutic institution were competing for the attraction of as much adherents as possible to their respective camps. The regime blamed the disasters on people’s deviation from the formal precepts of Islam (Boulqtib, 2002, p. 34), an ideological construction that helped the ruling power to escape accountability, and instead reinforced its rule over the country.

Under the guise of Islam, Almohads created a sense of belonging to a community unified by the same faith. Youssef Al Muntasir sent a letter to the inhabitants of the Almohad Empire in 1220, advising them to command virtue and prohibit sin. Thus he evinced himself as the savior who sought the redemption of his own territory. The same ideological stance was adopted by marabouts who specialized in helping the poor segments of the population to survive political despotism, droughts, famines and epidemics, though their help was no more than a temporary relief. They set up religious lodges, shrines and zawiyas to instruct their adherents, teaching them the principles and rituals of the mystic doctrines, and give them protection and shelter.

Maraboutism thrived during the Almohad period and evolved a political expression to the extent that marabouts aimed at establishing maraboutic states in the regions where they were based. Saints proliferated everywhere, especially in barren areas that suffered from lack of water. Some saints specialized in evoking rains, others in digging wells. As for areas where water was existent, saints specialized in realizing other miracles like curing epidemics or evoking magical retribution on wrongdoers. It seemed that saintly baraka differed from one region to another in keeping with the clienteles’ needs in each region.

After the well-known vulture war in 609H/ 1212, Morocco lived a number of droughts and famines to the extent that the span between one famine and the other did not extend beyond one year. During thirty-seven years (from 614H/ 1217 to 651H/ 1253), the country lived ten famines three of which were local. The ratio of occurrence of famine during this span of time was one famine per three years. It seems obvious that the seventh century hegira was the century of famines par excellence.

The social effects of these famines on the population were disastrous. Merchants hoarded grains to sell them at high prices, which enriched the rich and deprived the poor. Cities locked their fences at night so that hungry people could not trespass inside. Women left to cities in search for bread and exposed themselves to the least offer from begging to prostitution. Facing this dearth of food, some of the population attempted to discover new ways of fighting for survival. They ate cooked and fried locusts, wild plants, decaying flesh, and human dead corpses. Some traded themselves in exchange for food to the Nazarenes at anchor by Moroccan coasts. Others thieved their bread from religious lodges like shrines and zawiyas (Boulqtib,  2002).

The aristocratic saints gained more and more popularity during these times of stress. They opened their lodges to accommodate the poor and the homeless. They distributed grain in miserable regions to alleviate the hunger of the poor. In Fez, Ibn ‘Ajuz reserved an acre of cultivated land for the poor. Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn ‘Abd Rahman Tadili offered in charity about two rooms of corn to the needy in Fez during the famine of 571H/ 1175 to the extent that he did not leave enough provisions for his blind son.

The examples of saints’ generosity towards the wretched population abounded during medieval famines and droughts. In fact, the saints’ local help was much more effective than that of the Almohad regime that was poorly dispersed throughout the country. In these times of stress, the wretched population conjured up metaphor-saints responding to their own needs. They endowed them with all the powers they could not afford in their hostile environment. Saints were imagined as capable of invoking food from nowhere during times of famine, of bursting forth water-courses during times of drought, of healing illnesses during times of epidemics, and of releasing people from the yoke of oppression during times of tyranny. All these charismatic powers were categorized as the baraka of saints.

Not only droughts and famines but also plagues and leprosy mass-massacred the population of the Middle Ages in Morocco. They deeply affected the demographic infrastructure of the country. The most lethal plague that infested the country in the Middle Ages was the plague of 571H/ 1175. It seemed that this plague lasted more than one year for historians differed on the exact date of its occurrence. Some asserted that it took place in 571H/ 1175, others in 572H/ 1176. It resulted in more than 160 deaths per day among a population already at ebb on account of droughts and famines. An outbreak of the Black Death from 1347 to 1351 entailed the depopulation or total disappearance of about 1,000 villages throughout the whole medieval world including Morocco (“Black Death,” 1997).

To face the spread of these diseases and remedy the higher toll of deaths resulting from wars, famines and epidemics, the Almohads launched a policy of building hospitals. The Caliph Al Mansur built an unparalleled asylum in Marrakech that fascinated even western historians. The services given by the hospital were paid for by the regime. Both the mad and the sick were treated there. As Akhmisse remarks,

“Yacoub El Mansour construisit un hôpital à Marrakech qu’il appela “La maison de la miséricorde” “Dar El Faraj”. Cet établissement est évoqué par l’auteur de l’Istibsar…cet hôpital était doté d’eau courante, chaude et froide. Il disposait de bains, de cuisines et de buanderies. Les patients disposaient d’habits de jour et de nuit. Ils pouvaient choisir leur menu et rentrant chez eux ils recevaient un pécule en attendant d’être complètement rétablis … le plan assurait la séparation des sexes et permettait la spécialisation des locaux. Chaque sexe avait à sa disposition une salle pour les maladies internes, une pour les affections oculaires et une autre pour la réduction des fractures et des luxations. (1991, p. 40)”

The Almohads, according to many historical sources, made a fascinating progress in the medical sphere. But aware of the fact that their medical services could not meet the needs of all populations in different parts of the country, they promoted traditional healing, especially in the rural zones that were very far from such medical centers. As usual, the rural population found their asylum in religious lodges like shrines and zawiyas. In these regions, saints’ therapy had the final authority.

In fact, during the Almohad period, there was a fierce competition between doctors and saint healers. The doctors of this epoch were largely influenced by the Greek-Latin classical books of medicine. Their practical and eclectic worldview prompted them to rebuff all types of traditional healing. They focused their attention upon « l’observation au lit du malade et l’essai des drogues végétales nouvelles ou créés par les alchimistes. En grands cliniciens, les médecins ont donné aux maladies infectieuses éruptives la part qui leur revenait : rougeole, varicelle et variole» (Akhmisse, 1991, p. 31). However, saints acquired a mythic reputation among the population. One of the notorious saints at the time was Abu Madian l-Ghawt who was regarded by the fuqaha of Tilimsan as a threat to the Almohad dynasty.

When his reputation spread out and his disciples increased, the fuqaha complained about him to Ya‘qub Al Mansur affirming: “we are concerned about the future of the nation since Abu Madian Al Ghawt begins to resemble Al Mahdi (a promised messianic figure) having followers in every region” (Harakat, 1984, p. 309; Trans. mine). Regarding the miracles he performed, it was said that he cured a little child suffering from the pain of stones (in the kidneys). He put his hand on the child’s chest, turned him upside down and blew on him thrice. Then he clutched the child’s buttocks violently and squeezed them. On the spot, the child defecated five little stones covered with blood. His pain remitted then. There was another healer called Abu Ya‘za whose reputation was almost equivalent to the Caliph’s doctor Ibn Zuhr. This healer was specialized in jinn eviction. He used to evict jinn out of possessed people from the commoners and notables alike.

Like the Middle Ages, The 18th and 19th centuries were fraught with catastrophes. Morocco suffered a lot of famines and epidemics during this period. Famines led to a disastrous social deterioration of the population. They decimated them everywhere. During the famine of 1724, some people in ‘Abda and Doukkala traded themselves, their wives and children to the Portuguese and Spanish for a loaf of bread. Others converted themselves to Christianity inspired in their conversion by the mortal pains of their empty bellies. During the famine of 1737, people could not bury the huge number of dead corpses that increased day after day and so they left them thrown in the streets and junkyards (Al Bazaz, 1992, p. 47). During the Great Famine, parents rent off their children and abandoned them in the custody of charitable persons. Husbands bid farewell to their wives and quitted the land for the unknown.

People tended to vary their diet in order to survive. They ate wild plants and decaying flesh. Miserable Jews embraced Islam to satiate their hunger. In short, famines refashioned the demographic map of the country. Peasants escaped to the city in search for food. The tribal structure was devastated via the unequal distribution of resources. Usurers thrived on confiscating the fellahs’ land so far as these could not reimburse their due loans. Homelessness and death in the wilderness lurked in wait for a great deal of miserable peasants who lost their land in famines. To crown it all, epidemics hardly slackened their assault on the population.

In addition to the small pox, typhoid and syphilis that were common diseases among the population, the cholera invaded Morocco on several occasions. These epidemics came via European commerce that flourished through Moroccan ports. Germs reached the population through contaminated merchants who entered the country despite the preventive measure of the quarantine. Germs also came via the Eastern road from Egypt and beyond. Moroccan pilgrims, for instance, returned from Mecca contaminated. The case of the pilgrims’ arrival in Tangier in 1818 was a clear-cut example. The Sultan Mulay Sliman objected to the formality of submitting his pilgrim sons to the measure of the quarantine and thus jeopardized the security of the country.

On May 22, 1818, there arrived the taj-ship at Tangiers’ port coming from Alexandria. There were two princes aboard and 60 other pilgrims, 17 of whom were women. The ambassador committee responsible for deploying the measure of the quarantine was pressurized into turning a blind eye on the ship. The Moroccan customs high officer and the mayor of Tangier convinced the committee that any decision to submit the ship to the law of the quarantine would be taken as an offensive measure against the Sultan. The committee, therefore, decided not to impede the ship’s way and let the Sultanate abide by the consequences. As a matter of fact, it was not the Sultanate but the wretched population that abode by the consequences. The ship was contaminated and spread plague all over the country. Most historical sources agreed that the taj-ship was responsible for plaguing Morocco in 1818 (Al Bazaz, 1992, p. 106-7).

These calamities were so terrible that the contemporaries considered them a divine punishment inflicted on Moroccans, who went astray from the right path. Some people blamed those occurrences on the misrule of the Sultan. Others blamed them on the tribes’ revolt against the legitimate authority of the Sultan. Still, others blamed them on the other’s heretic behavior. During the famine of 1737-38, the inhabitants of Fez l-‘Tiq (Ancient Fez) blamed the occurrence of famine upon the Jews who have always represented one of the archetypal figures of the other in Moroccan society. It was said that Jews fabricated mahya, committed perjury and did not conform to their orthodox religious traditions. The inhabitants decided to send a messenger to tell them to abstain from sinning against God (see Al Bazaz, 1992, pp. 66-67). During the same period, the Mahdawi movement appeared in Sous in the South of the country. People thought it the end of the world because of the successive calamities they suffered. They could not benefit from a moment of respite. Hence they hoped that Al Mahdi (a promised messianic figure) would return and release them from the dungeon of misery and destitution, redeeming the earth from all sins.

This was also the time when sainthood reached its apogee. Each region had its saints who upheld it spiritually during times of stress. Mulay Taybi Al-Wazani was a good case in point. The folk of Wazan requested him to lead their rain prayers (salat l-istisqa’) during a period of dryness. When he did so, it was said that God sent his rain that fertilized the whole country. Another example was what Mohammed Ben Ja‘far l-Katani said about one of the saints in Fez:

When the rains got scanty and the Moslems were anxious about their harvest, they would gather and head for the sheix Sidi Mohammed. They would tell him to come out with them for rain prayers. He would conduce them to the shrine of Sidi l-Haj Budarham, his favorite one. Then, he would tell them: “give me some water to drink!” when they gave him water, he would drink from it and throw the rest into the air. Then they would return home. The following night, the rains would fall heavily. (Al Bazaz, 1992, p.350; Trans. mine)

In addition to the practice of rain prayers in mosques that used to be preceded by a three-day fast, people used to go out in modesty and humbleness to supplicate Allah to bestow his mercy upon them. They would reiterate prayer formulas and march towards shrines in search for baraka. When Tetwan was struck by drought in 1858, the population went out led by the Qadi, students and notables, circumambulating the shrines and imploring Allah to send his rain. Their wishes were fulfilled all at once for they returned home with drenched clothes.

The French ambassador in Rabat related that during a period of drought in 1850, the Qadi of the city went out every day barefooted, holding the Koran on his head and leading some of the population in their march around the shrines to implore for rain. In Tangier, the Qadi used to go out accompanied by notaries (‘udul) and groups of student-scribes lifting their slates on their heads. Barefooted as they were, they went to the msalla to pray for rains, reiterating on their way the ‘official’ prayer formulae: “Allahumma sqi ‘ibadaka wa bahimatak / wa nshur rahmatak / wa hyyi baladak l-mayyet / Allaumma arithna/ Allaumma arithna” (May Allah water his worshippers, his animals! May He spread his mercy, and resurrect his dead country! May Allah Rescue us! May Allah Rescue us!). After prayers at the open-air mosque near the cemetery (msalla), they slaughtered a sacrifice, fed the poor and distributed bread and figs to the needy.

That Qadis and other notables participated in the ritualistic pilgrimage round shrines seems to be an ideological practice that aims to legitimize the masses’ opiate belief in the baraka of saints. By touring saints, Qadis seem to naturalize the practice and reinforce in the wretched masses the faith (niya) in the distributing centers of baraka. As Qadis, their conduct may be held as a model behavior for people to follow. This practice may also reinforce the masses’ hope for a miraculous change despite their regular frustrations and set the political system the Qadis represent free from any responsibility for the decline of the standard of living of the population. If saints are believed to answer people’s supplications, social prosperity therefore becomes a hit-and-miss affair of Fate beyond the regime’s control. Poverty and richness as social inequalities are in this sense believed to be incurred by the charisma of saints or the will of Allah rather than due to the regime’s political and economic choices.