Monthly Archives: April 2008

‘Jihad And Its Interpretations In Pre-Colonial Morocco’

Jihad and Its Interpretations in Pre-Colonial Morocco: State-Society Relations During the French Conquest of Algeria.
Amira K. Bennison.
London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

Amira Bennison, a senior lecturer at Cambridge, offers here an alternative to the makhzansiba model to explain state-society relations in Morocco. She argues that that model’s focus on conflict between a weak central government and unruly tribal elements misses the all-important religious context of jihad, against both an encroaching foreign presence in the Maghreb, and against “un-Islamic” (hence, illegitimate) authority. Her replacement takes seriously the jihadi rhetoric deployed both by the makhzan and its critics, and argues that these competing claims amounted to a “constant renegotiation of the principles of Moroccan statehood during the nineteenth century.” (13) That such debates took place within the Moroccan polity is amply demonstrated by her work here; whether those debates offer much interpretive value remains unanswered.

The text proceeds chronologically and thematically, with each chapter covering a different crisis point and moving the central argument through new terrain. After an introduction that sketches both her argument and some essential background to the region and to major concepts in Islamic social order, she races through a chapter on Morocco prior to 1830, pointing to earlier issues that complement her approach to Moroccan statehood. Most of the book following takes place during the reign of sultan Mawlay ‘Abd al-Rahman. Chapter three concerns his attempt to exploit the French invasion of Algeria in order to expand eastward, using jihadi rhetoric to secure support. The failure of this enterprise opened the way to the Algerian mujahid ‘Abd al-Qadir, who attempted to establish a state modelled on Morocco; chapter four documents his rise to power and influence. Chapters five and six then document the breakdown in relations between the makhzan and ‘Abd al-Qadir’s forces, culminating in a confrontation over legitimate rule of both the umma and the Moroccan sultanate.

Bennison is perhaps at her best when describing the pre-modern Islamic polity, with its emphasis on the sultan’s duty to defend Islam actively against infidels, and with its state structures and authority (e.g., taxation) predicated on religion: “this entailed interpreting the dynasty and the state it headed as vital to the maintenance of Islam as a faith through the preservation of societal order.” (6) The book’s principal innovation is its documentation of the ‘Alawi concept of jihad as being aimed, not only against European infidels, but also against “dissidence, rebellion and challenges for power, collectively described as ‘corruption’ (fasad)”. (12) This allowed the government, increasingly constrained in its foreign relations by the growing European threat, to defend political and military actions which the populace might have considered unacceptable, such as suing for peace with France and turning away from the resistance in western Algeria. Bennison argues that the dynasty effectively deployed sharifism and jihad as the “key concepts” allowing the makhzan to “extend central government out from the cities and plains” and into the tribal regions. (158) But she also notes that the makhzan‘s interpretation of jihad as against Muslim elements was widely unpopular, and that the sultan was increasingly at odds with his people. (98) Not only was active jihad against the French urged on the makhzan, but the fasad angle was rejected by increasing numbers of tribal elements whose sympathies with Algeria and with ‘Abd al-Qadir exceeded their understanding of the danger from France.

On the other hand, Bennison is able to show that opposition voices appropriated the counter-fasad notion of jihad and used it against the makhzan. (38) This at times went so far as to cast the sultan, and perhaps the entire dynasty, as having lost G-d’s favour and consequently unfit to rule faithful Muslims. (124) Propaganda by ‘Abd al-Qadir’s forces, even when completely false, had the effect of “making it impossible for the sultan to regain control”, and popular fitna (rebellion) and siba (dissidence) expanded. (111) Bennison takes all of these religious justifications at face value, and suggests that jihadi credentials were essential to the legitimation of sharifian rule. But she seems to skate right over the fact that ‘Alawi rule survived constant military and diplomatic failures, finally culminating in colonization by France. If popular legitimacy could only be guaranteed by jihad, and the application of jihad against dissidence was less effective when wielded by the makhzan, how are we to understand the development of a modern state and national identity in Morocco? As she has amply demonstrated, the state’s coöptation and use of jihad was riven with contradictions. Bennison presents these competing interpretations as contributing to the rise of nationalism, yet the positions staked out within each interpretation seldom accords with the facts. How, then, are they applicable to mainstream political identity, as opposed to that called for by Islamic revivalists? In fact, she has this partly right in her introduction, where she notes that Islamic political traditions were not replaced by Western models, only “submerged” for a time. (1) The colonial experience would render these models essentially unworkable, but their continued appeal is reflected in the rise of militant Salafi movements.

Bennison’s main sources appear to be private and political correspondence, along with memoirs and state documents. Given the way that contemporary comments did not, in the end, agree with what actually happened, one at times gets the impression that Bennison has given her sources too much credit. The text itself is rife with editorial gaffes — errors in spelling and punctuation (the latter pervasively), the lack of translations for many quotes — and these detract significantly from the book’s readability. But it is on the basis of her model for Islamic history in North Africa that the book should be judged, and it is here that this reader is most ambivalent. On the one hand, the introduction of jihadi imagery adds measurably to our understanding of Morocco’s political history, and the use of such imagery does present a useful supplement to the more generic conflict between makhzan and tribal siba. All the same, it is likely that these interpretations of jihad were but one influence amongst many, and far from decisive in defining the early modern Moroccan state.

‘Serving The Master’

Serving the Master: Slavery and Society in Nineteenth-Century Morocco.
Mohammed Ennaji. Translated by Seth Graebner.
New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998.

Mohammed Ennaji, an economist and anthropologist at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has produced a slim volume intended to open broader discussion of slavery in the Muslim world. Having commented on the paucity of previously-identified sources for North African slave history — primarily travel accounts and the records of Islamic jurists — Ennaji notes that “the very nature of this documentation has contributed to an artificially sweetened view of slavery in the Muslim world.” (xxi) Put simply, the legal texts are concerned with the principles and not the practice of slavery, and foreign travellers had limited exposure to the more abusive forms of servitude, and would doubtless tend to minimize the horrors of slavery by contrast with its implementation in the Americas. It is this comparison which underlies and informs both Ennaji’s text and its wider significance. He hopes, through creative use of Makhzan (central government) records and the private archives of leading families, to shatter any illusions about the supposedly benign version of slavery practised in the Arab world. With some reservations, Ennaji is generally successful.

Much has been made of the economic factors separating Arab-Islamic and Atlantic-American slavery; where the latter used slaves as a tool of production, the former made use of slaves primarily as luxury consumer goods. Ennaji does not deny that these made up the vast majority of slaves in Morocco, and most of his great anecdotes are drawn from them. The lives of female slaves were particularly fraught, as they had all of the liabilities common to women — such as the requirement that they be sexually available at any time — in addition to those exclusive to slavery, such as the spectre of sale and separation from loved ones. (32) But one of the book’s strengths lies in his revelations about the range of economic factors; “Moroccan slaves’ primary functions, swelling the armies and entourages of powerful men, did not prevent a significant number of them from working on farms.” (27) The use of slaves for simple manual labour was apparently much more widespread than hitherto imagined, especially in the oasis agricultural regions in the south. Other masters made more perverse demands on their property, as with the use of slaves for prostitution and professional street begging (the latter, incidentally, still practised in Saudi Arabia). (28)

More distinctive was the use of black slaves in the armies of the Makhzan and of the wealthy. In the former case, the Black Guard was powerful enough to have “enthroned and deposed kings at will”. (107) The slaves of the Makhzan were both the most numerous and the best-kept in the country, with all entitled to paid compensation, the protection of their family from sale, and access to training or formal education. (91) This is one of the most striking contrasts with slavery in the Atlantic system, where education was a liability and not a selling point. Ennaji even identifies a market for literate female musician-concubines! (13) The slaves of the wealthiest might well have been better off than much of the peasant population, but they also lived with certain marks of shame that we have come to see as abhorrent, such as an “enforced rootlessness” created by denying them proper surnames and the masters’ right to change a slave’s given name at will. (35-6) And while some slaves were clearly well cared-for, others were brutally abused and tortured. “With the distance of hindsight, slavery appears at once kind, compassionate, and violent.” (30)

However, in some cases Ennaji sets out to argue for reconsideration of one myth by substituting another in its place. One noteworthy example is his treatment of the racial element of slavery. He is particularly poetic when interrogating the supposedly non-racial character of Muslim slavery, by uncovering racial epithets and some horrific statements (as with one man’s claim that “animals are of two kinds: those that can speak: slaves; and those that cannot: beasts.”). (93-4) He can also demonstrate that efforts to abolish slavery often focussed on the “color prejudice”, “which treated blacks as a race condemned to enslavement.” (120-1) On the other hand, some of his associations seem a little strained (as when he reads a fixation with skin colour into an anecdote about slaves treating their skin with oils after exposure to lime). (62-3) Ennaji properly notes that social class — and not skin colour — were the primary determinants of status, and that governors and other high officials might be fully black. Further, he observes that black women were considered especially desirable for their beauty and sexual qualities. (34) When combined with the enslavement of Circassian and European ‘whites’, it becomes difficult to understand slavery in Morocco as a peculiarly racialized enterprise. Despite the indisputable presence of racially-charged opinions, Ennaji should take care not to leap from an association of slave status and skin colour (which may reflect only on the most common source of slaves) to an assumption that slavery in North Africa and in the Americas were equally racist.

There are other aspects of Ennaji’s analysis that are questionable, as when he argues against the notion that slaves might ever refuse to be freed. As he says, “nothing could be further from the truth… [Slaves] strove constantly to win [liberty]”. (54) Just a few pages later Ennaji notes that many newly-freed slaves were forced to sell themselves back into slavery to escape starvation, and much later he asserts that few slaves actively sought freedom on account of the economic hardships that would accompany liberty. (57-8, 115) The first point, then, seems to be a sentimental appraisal based on a supposed common yearning in all men to be free, whilst his later qualifications introduce factors that directly undermine his argument: they may have chosen from a range of bad options, but many slaves did choose to remain enslaved. But such quibbles aside, Ennaji has written a very important book which does much to broaden our understanding of slavery under Islam. Through concise — yet penetrating — discussion of social relations, economic rôles, family and sexual politics, and the daily lives of slaves in nineteenth century Morocco, Ennaji has greatly expanded the scope for studies of slavery. It is, as he admits, too early for any safe generalizations, but this book is a splendid first effort to redress a historiographic failure.

‘The Mellah Of Marrakesh’

The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco’s Red City.
Emily Gottreich.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

In setting out to define and contextualize the mellah (a walled Jewish district) of Marrakesh, Emily Gottreich has produced a book of multiple significances: historians of the modern Islamic world will gain insight into the substantially deteriorated relations between Jews and Arabs, students of Morocco will learn much about a community on the brink of extinction, and scholars of Jewish studies will appreciate many contrasts with the European ghetto experience. She describes the mellah as “fully invested with meaning as Jewish space and just as fully integrated into its urban setting”, and documents the highly complex interplay of social, economic, and religious interaction between these ostensibly-separated communities. (3) Gottreich is particularly effective at bringing out the inherently more urban and cosmopolitan leanings of both faiths, whilst simultaneously describing their often jealous struggles for sacred and physical space, in order to protect communal orthopraxy and control subordinated elements.

Beginning with a discussion of the evolution of the mellah as a feature of Moroccan urban architecture, Gottreich emphasizes the the mellah as process instead of product; she points to its slow development over several centuries, and to wildly divergent manifestations across Morocco. (19-21) Chapter two contains the spectacular discovery of a formal census, undertaken in a period when it has long been assumed that Morocco lacked the capacity to perform functions so characteristic of the modern state. This is followed by an impressive bit of detective work, in which she examines and explains convincingly the wide discrepancy between the figures in this census and European estimates of the local Jewish population. The next two chapters mirror one-another in approaching the constitution of Jewish and Muslim space, and recounting the daily transgression of these (largely artificial) boundaries. She then includes a discussion of the Jews living in the rural hinterlands before concluding with a brief excursus on the decline of the Moroccan Jewish community.

The Jews of Morocco claim to have settled there in the wake of the first Temple’s destruction, which pre-dates the Arab conquest by nearly a millennium. (5) Attempts to make the community more recognizable can thus be understood in the near-total absence of ethnic or cultural differences with the indigenous population. Gottreich also notes that North African Jews fell under a political and social régime (i.e., the dhimma, or protected status as fellow monotheists) that was far more accepting of them than that found under “Christian Europe’s formative theological bias against its Jewish subjects.” (12-3) Either way, the mellah was a relatively late development that was in part a response to the high visibility of Jewish immigrants from Andalusia, and Marrakesh’s dates only from the later sixteenth century. (24, 12) The move from mixed housing to a demarcated quarter of the city was doubtless traumatic, but “the new mellah almost immediately became sanctified as protected Jewish space.” (34-5) She suggests that Jews “felt most at home in the mellah”, and that they “felt sufficiently secure to defend this ‘citadel of their independence’ against intruders, even using physical force when it seemed necessary.” Significantly, she notes that “the mellah’s gates were locked from within, not from without.” (92)

Having relatively little contact with the Sephardim (who settled mostly in the north), the Jews of Marrakesh were more-or-less fully integrated into the Arab/Berber context, within which they often filled significant social lacunae. (6) For example, the lack of Jewish prohibitions on alcohol meant that it was freely available in the mellah, and the ease with which Jewish women could mix with men served to facilitate prostitution. (78-9, 79-81) Indeed, for Muslims the mellah could be “a ‘quartier infament’, the locus of all the city’s vices.” (107) On the other hand, for Jews the “humiliation associated with their status as dhimma combined with the threat of conversion gave an equally negative coloration to Muslim space. The two groups’ mutual suspicion was greatly mitigated, however, by the mutual interest in furthering Jews’ participation in the larger Marrakesh economy.” (107) In addition to work as financiers and specialized craftsmen, Jews worked as tradesmen and merchants both within the city and across the region (often trading surpluses from one city’s mellah to another for re-sale under better conditions). Jews and Muslims were also pulled together by a wide range of shared traditions, from the veneration of common saints, to the practices of polygamy and slavery, to participation in similar folk-ways (such as warding off the ‘evil eye’, the appeasement of djinn, etc.) (74-5, 106)

Whilst I admire the text’s concision and commendable lack of jargon, it might have been interesting to see a more conscious use of urban theory in her argumentation. On the social creation of space, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space came to mind. Also, she might have been able to use work on similar phenomena, like the demarcation of sacred space in Shia Islam as in Juan Cole’s book Sacred Space and Holy War. Finally, her use of the term “legibility” (44) immediately put me in mind of James Scott (e.g., in his magisterial work Seeing Like a State) and Michel Foucault (especially his notion of governmentality). Again, however, as much as I might have liked to see Gottreich work through more of the issues surrounding municipal planning and the creation of civic and religious space, I think her text stands up quite well in their absence, and any lack of theoretical sophistication is more than amply compensated by solid analysis and persuasive argumentation.

Gottreich’s work is important for its complication of the common view of Jews as supportive of the colonial enterprise, and is thus equally suited to undergraduate and professional use. As she notes, resistance to the “de-Orientalizing” mission of the Alliance Israélite Universelle “is in part traceable to the durability of traditional spatial and social arrangements”, but more fundamentally, “anti-Jewish biases and missionary zeal in the case of gentiles, and a short-sighted vision of a Jewish mission civilisatrice in the case of the A.I.U., served to harden the mellah’s resistance to external efforts at Westernization.” (10, 90) However, this internal “wrangling was… all but lost on the local Muslim population. For them, the association between Jewish space and the intruding Europeans was a well-established fact, to the detriment of both the image of the mellah and eventually Jewish-Muslim relations as a whole.” (91) Gottreich has tried throughout to avoid “seeing European agency… as the defining factor in the history of the mellah.” Instead, by focussing on “the evolution of the cityscape itself”, she shows that the “Jews in Marrakesh were in fact subject to many of the same influences and shared many of the same reactions as their Muslim neighbors, and that these elements, rather than a unilateral, accelerated entry into a world-system, were primarily responsible for shaping their daily lives and destinies.” (137) In doing so, she has almost certainly produced a study that is closer to the spirit of this now-lost cultural formation than one might reasonably have expected.

‘The Forgotten Frontier…’

The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier.
Andrew C. Hess.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

In a work both intensely frustrating and historically significant, Andrew Hess has produced a systematic account of a specific epoch, in which he argues that Europe and the Islamic world definitively parted ways. Hess is surely right is noting that North Africa has gotten far less attention than it has deserved in the formation both of modern European and Ottoman-Islamic cultural identities, but The Forgotten Frontier is highly problematic — and utterly unconvincing — as a rejoinder to history over the longue durée. Though Fernand Braudel’s 1949 landmark [1] (which, probably not coincidentally, appeared in Engligh only a few years before Hess’s book) has its own manifold limitations, not least of which being a severe downplay of cultural difference, it is equally misleading to overstate those differences as Hess has done. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss his effort as classic “Orientalism” (in Said’s parlance), but the accusation is not far from the mark. In particular, the essentialism with which he deploys the term “civilization” positively cries out for theoretical justification or dispute (depending on your position). Hess for the most part eschews anything that might serve to detract from — or support — his characterization of European and Islamic “civilizations”, and in so doing has produced a study that historians to-day, looking back, can only perceive as unfortunately dated and analytically weak.

Hess opens by acknowledging “themes of unity” and “common cultural traits”, but argues that for all of these the civilizations of the Mediterranean have rejected unity and adopted mutually-antagonistic characters. (1) In objecting to Braudel’s work, he asserts that it is still possible to make sharp distinctions between such civilizations, and that these distinctions easily transcend the particularities of geography and shared contact. He spends several chapters laying out a basic exposition of North African society in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and broaches the matter of Spain’s evolving Reconquista on the Iberian peninsula. This is followed by a strong presentation of Ottoman expansion across the Maghreb, and by a (less impressive) sketch of Morocco under the Sa’adian sultanate. This middle includes long passages on military manoeuvres and on the rise and decline of dynasties, and the shadow of Ibn Khaldun lies heavily over them. Fundamental to his thesis is a chapter devoted to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims (including converts) from Iberia, and it is here that he goes farthest in defining civilization in terms of religious unity. He concludes with a nice discussion of Maghrebi responses to both Ottoman and Iberian penetration, and is particularly effective in presenting the Maghreb as a distinct entity.

Throughout his study Hess presupposes a strong sense of identity that explicitly rejects “alien” notions; he argues that “the relatively high ability of each civilization to organize its populations” would tend to “make the task of assimilation either impossible or extremely difficult”. (5) But borrowing, changing, and adapting are just as important as innovating and inventing in the formation of complex societies, and the assimilation and conversion of individuals has been the norm whenever populations or power structures have shifted location. Bald essentialism of this kind is repeated again and again through the text, leading one to question how Hess conceives of social change historically. He describes the rôle of Muslim cavalry, for example, as having “dominated the sociology of warfare. To descend from a horse, to fight in serried ranks, to give up tribal freedoms for the disciplined life of a professional soldier as an urban ruler might wish was not only unthinkable, it was unmanly.” (21) Yet he forgets that Western Europe experienced a similar transition, where mounted knights once dominated the field only to be supplanted by longbows and other later developments in military technology. One problem appears to lie in Hess’s conception of tribal cultures, which he sees as dominating western Islamic societies. He returns many times to the conflict between urban and rural populations, e.g., by positioning tribal raids and loyalties as the key factor weakening the post-Almohad sultanates (46), and attributing the “swift rise and fall of urban society” on “the influence of tribalism”. (178) In highlighting the rôle of extended families on social relations, he entirely elides similarities with European norms prior to the nineteenth century. (137) Hess sees a “revolution” at the start of the seventeenth century, which divided two civilizations that were previously “moving along compatible lines of development” and led to the “mutual rejection of cultural pluralism”. (187) Henceforth: “Loyalty to kin and attachment to village, religious community, and status group were to be downgraded in favor of membership in a more universal social order.” (210) In other words, he divines anachronistically a form of modern nationalism long before it had any popular expression, and downplays the local identities of Europeans.

What is perhaps most striking is the ease with which Hess aligns Spain and Western Europe. He argues that after the sixteenth century “the two civilizations followed distinctly different paths: the Ottoman was conservative and the Iberian radical”, which is hardly how I would describe Spain in this period. (210) He makes no distinction, for example, between the feudal social order utilized in Spain’s American colonies and the capitalist ethos guiding Britain’s much later settlements. Spain retroactively gains all of the features characteristic of modern Western society, and no mention is made of the severe decline of the Iberian states relative to their northern neighbours — a decline whose periodization and essential features appear to bear closer resemblance to Ottoman fortunes than Hess would admit. More fundamentally, Hess seems to identity scientific rationality with Christian civilization, despite the obvious restriction of the naturalistic Weltanschauung to a tiny minority in the West. In a supremely reductionist turn, Hess suggests that the “extensive technological innovation” and “social mobility of early modern Europe exceeded the limits of the Islamic social order.” (208-9) This Orientalist canard speaks to the heart of his model, which cleverly brings culture back into focus in long-term historical change, but uncritically accepts Western self-definition and manages thereby to over-define the frontier metaphor as a solid boundary.

[1] La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen a l’époque de Philippe II.