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 makhzan–siba 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.