Rabat - I am a Muslim born Moroccan citizen. I was born in the early fifties to a family of devout parents and grand parents who were by all standards of the time particularly knowledgeable in scholarly religious matters. This is important to start with as it means that I have learnt the Koran and that I have been exposed to the founding texts of Islam as well as to the major issues related to interpretation and exegesis at a very early age. Furthermore, as far back as I can remember there was always a teacher of the Koran in my home whose sole responsibility was to teach the kids of the family the Holy Book. I grew up with teachers of the Koran living in my home and being highly respected. It was only when my family had to move to the inner city of Marrakech that teachers of the Koran stopped living in our house. I was about 12 years old. This, however, did not mean that my systematic contact with the Koran had also stopped. A tradition we had at home, was to read chapters of the Koran early in the morning before school and after supper before we went to bed. The evening reading was accompanied by readings from established ancient and contemporary scholars and often attended by relatives or friends of my father’s. This lasted to until I joined high school when I started working on different schedules and agendas.
Rabat – I am a Muslim born Moroccan citizen. I was born in the early fifties to a family of devout parents and grand parents who were by all standards of the time particularly knowledgeable in scholarly religious matters. This is important to start with as it means that I have learnt the Koran and that I have been exposed to the founding texts of Islam as well as to the major issues related to interpretation and exegesis at a very early age. Furthermore, as far back as I can remember there was always a teacher of the Koran in my home whose sole responsibility was to teach the kids of the family the Holy Book. I grew up with teachers of the Koran living in my home and being highly respected. It was only when my family had to move to the inner city of Marrakech that teachers of the Koran stopped living in our house. I was about 12 years old. This, however, did not mean that my systematic contact with the Koran had also stopped. A tradition we had at home, was to read chapters of the Koran early in the morning before school and after supper before we went to bed. The evening reading was accompanied by readings from established ancient and contemporary scholars and often attended by relatives or friends of my father’s. This lasted to until I joined high school when I started working on different schedules and agendas.
In addition to these Koranic sessions, to which some non Muslim friends and colleagues of my father’s took part on a few occasions, it was not rare for me to attend theological discussions especially when some priests and nuns visited the family. We addressed the priests and the nuns as “Mon père,” “Ma sœur” or “Ma mere”. I also remember discussions with a Jewish judge who used to visit my father. These discussions were not really theological. They were rather legal and were related to how Islamic and Hebraic laws compared especially in property laws, real estate tenure and family laws.
What Islam was for me
I remember mostly my parents warning me against injustice, pride and lack of humility, treachery, lying, hypocrisy, laziness, idleness, carelessness and selfishness more than remembering them warning me against what will happen to me if I missed a prayer. In fact, in my religious education, it was far more important to show solidarity to whoever was in need than to spend one’s whole life praying. Likewise, it was far more important to help whoever needed help, regardless of their religion, than to be idle. The most precious prayer, I was taught, was work and doing good deeds to and for the community.
Of most recommendations I remember and that still echo in my ears all day long, commandments in the Koran to Mohamed not to oppress the orphan, not to drive away or ward off the beggar and to talk of and share the bounties God has bestowed upon him.
This, of course, did not mean that praying, fasting during the month of Ramadan, abstaining from consumption of alcohol and from indulging in prostitution were not part of the teachings. This only means that even these commandments were explained in social and cultural terms. Praying, for example, was an opportunity to meet with people, to get to know them and to be sensitive to the conditions of the community and to remain affiliated to the actions that aimed at furthering the wellbeing of all. Prostitution was talked of not as a moral vice but as an aspect of the social misery that results from poverty, ignorance and social injustice which had to be seen as the responsibility of all.
Never in my whole life with my parents have I heard them talk in derogatory terms of Judaism or Christianity or of the prophets, the saints or holy books of these religions. They were referred to as believers. In some cases, individual Jews and Christians were referred to as true believers. Some Jewish saints were referred to as “Moulay”, a title reserved to descendents of the prophet and which meant literally “My lord”. Moreover, in the Islam we were taught at home as well as at school, you could not be a true Muslim unless your belief in God and his prophet Mohamed was part of your belief in the prophets and the books of Judaism and Christianity. Faith meant that you believed in God, His Books, His messengers and prophets and in the judgment’s day. Furthermore, Islam and the Koran, the revealed holy book for Muslims, were presented as a confirmation, a continuation and an extension of the teachings of these books and religions; at times a correction of what Muslims think may have been distorted in them. In many verses of the Koran (ayat), commandments are made to confirm the same ones that had been made to past prophets, messengers and peoples. One case is the fasting during the month of Ramadan which the Koran stipulates had been commanded formerly to others.
Islamic theology aimed at bringing these religions closer to each other and not to set them further apart. Theological discrepancies are reduced through interpretations and readings of the Koran. Jesus Christ, for instance, is considered to be the word of God. To have him, a virgin, Mary his mother, had received a breath from the soul of God. All the prophets and the kings celebrated in the Torah and in the Bible are celebrated in the Koran and Muslims are ordered to believe in their messages.
We were taught that the values, the teachings and the principles on which Christianity and Islam were founded had more in them to bring Christians and Muslims closer to each other than to set them apart. The most frequent illustrations to support this argument included (i) the worship of the same God that is almighty, merciful and compassionate, (ii) God is the creator of all the Universe including humans, animals, heaven and earth as well as a netherworld, (iii) God has spoken to men, (iv) Christians and Muslims believe in and honor the same prophets and messengers including Jesus Christ, who although Muslims do not acknowledge he partakes in deity they refer to as the word of God and describe his nativity as the result of God blowing of his soul into Mary, his mother, (v) the respect for life, which encompasses rejection of abortion and homicide, (vi) both Christians and Muslims submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as had done Abraham to whose faith Muslims adhere, (vii) both Muslims and Christians believe in the day of judgement and the resurrection of the dead, (viii) both religions denounce vanity and pride and (ix) both profess charity, pardon, conciliation, peace and love.
So many values in common could not be allowed to let politics and modern ideologies set the two religions apart. On many occasions, both religions were used to implement colonial plans and to alienate populations in the framework of global economic and strategic agendas. On each of these occasions, populations were set against each other on the basis of distorted religious designs and interpretations.
Likewise, the Islamic law I grew up with does not include the stoning of anyone nor does it give the father or the brother any extraordinary rights over their wives and their sisters. A girl is free to marry the man of her choice and should her father not agree to that, she can have a judge witness to her marriage provided the man she has elected can provide for her, is able to protect her, to honor her and is known to be just and honorable. A man can take only one wife because there is in the Koran a verse that stipulates that no man can meet all the conditions to take more than one wife. One of the conditions that no one can meet is that of justice and equality. A case frequently evoked in relation to this condition is that no man can have the same and equal feelings for two different women or look at them in the same and equal manner. This fact makes it impossible to take more than one wife. As far as I am concerned, the stipulation is direct and unequivocal.
While some women wore veils, many did not. In Moroccan mountains, women and men dance and sing together in chorus. Fathers, daughters, brothers and sisters as well as complete foreigners used to dance and sing during various celebrations. They also work in the fields side by side. Veils were worn neither while singing and dancing nor while working. The veil seemed to be more of a city – urban tradition than a religious one. Among my female schoolmates, none wore a veil. Very few covered their hair. The tradition grew much later starting the late eighties and early nineties. During the fifties and through the late eighties, the idea of women having to cover their hair or to wear a veil was alien in schools and at universities.
Many examples of what is taken to be Islamic law in the world have been for me, and for my generation and that of my parents and grand-parents as well as to all the teachers I can remember, but local adaptations of the Koran and other texts to specific cultural, economic, social and political conjunctures to comfort the interests of particular groups of the population. Recently, and under the pressure of the development of double standard values in international relations, the abundance of petrodollars and the sudden surge of new communication technologies, such local adaptations of Islamic laws to particular social and historical conditions started being exported as alternative responses to political, cultural and economic alienation of Arab countries and of countries of an Islamic tradition.
In my own Islamic culture, the Koran and the Hadith are sources of teachings of peaceful coexistence between all men and women regardless of their social or economic status, their race, their religion or political choices. In our family, meals were shared at the same table by all people present including helps, maids, chauffeurs, etc. I remember a Jew who came to our home from time to time. He made and repaired saddles. In his religious tradition, kosher food had to be cooked by Jews and in kitchenware used only by Jews. He lit his own fire and cooked his own food. But when it came to eating, we all ate at the same table whenever it was possible. We could eat his food but he could not eat ours. His tradition was not only respected, it was just taken for granted. His did not create any problem to anyone; neither to him and nor to my family. Furthermore, he used to bring to my mother dishes his wife knew she liked and my mother, who could not send her cooked food, returned the kindness by sending her eggs, hens, fruit or perfume. We were forbidden to use the Jew’s kitchenware and if by mistake anyone did, the Jew was told so as not to use them.
The man was Jewish and apparently poor. None of these qualities, however, made him live at the margin when he visited us.
When we moved to the inner city, we lived in an area in which Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in the same apartment buildings or in neighboring town houses. We lived with the impression that everyone had to celebrate everyone’s holy days. Kids from all religions played football in the same teams. Cases of Jewish women breastfeeding Muslim born babies they were babysitting were not rare. The worst threat a Muslim kid could make to a Jewish kid was to report on him eating Muslim food. Muslim food was “haram” for them and everyone made sure Jewish kids did not break the laws of their own religion.
Respect of difference was at the core of Islamic teachings. A verse from the Koran that stipulates that God has created people different for the explicit purpose that they know and learn about each other was repeated to us perhaps more than any other one. In fact, this verse does not only teach and require respect of difference, but requires that men and women seek the knowledge of other people with different cultures, languages, etc. It is part of Islam to seek the knowledge of people of different habits, mores and traditions. In other words, we were taught not to expect everyone else to be like us or to have the same values as we do. Multiplicity of opinion, of beliefs and of religions was something we were taught not only to expect but seek to learn about, to understand and to live with peacefully.
These events attest to the kind of peaceful coexistence and mutual solidarity and good neighbor relationships that both Islamic and Jewish traditions allowed for in Morocco.
I can understand that this view of Islamic culture may not be shared by all Muslims everywhere in the world, perhaps not even in by all Moroccans. It is, however, a culture that is deeply rooted in Koranic teachings and in the Hadith. It is a socially intelligent and diversity sensitive culture that respects difference and accepts divergence of opinion.
What kids saw their parents and neighbors do was coherent with what they heard the Imams teach at the mosque and in conformity with what they were taught in Islamic studies classes. They all insisted on behavior. They insisted so much on the notion of religion being behavior to others as the prophet was reported saying, that you could not tell where religion started and where it ended. Very specific recommendations of what good behavior meant were taught with many illustrations from the Koran and the Hadith.
Among these behaviors the following seem to have marked the culture of my generation mostly:
- good manners,
- politeness towards all,
- courtesy to all,
- being gentle especially to kids,
- respect for the elderly,
- respect for teachers,
- solidarity with the needy,
- maintaining relations with relatives alive,
- caring for others,
- awareness of your community and of its needs,
- commitment and involvement in community work,
- acceptance of difference through the control of passion and subjectivity
- accountability and excellence
Bad behavior was identified as:
- lack of humility,
- lack of solidarity when it was needed,
- lack of respect for the least powerful,
- fear of the mighty,
- breaching promises,
- betrayal of trust,
- hypocrisy and double standards,
- all forms of cheating,
- lack of awareness of what had to be done when it had to be done.
- failure to do what you had to do when you had to do it whatever the cost to you as an individual was a major case of misbehavior,
- reckless behavior towards others and the environment.
These teachings were taught as the true values of Islam. Later, we were taught they were also the values of good citizenship. We had to abide by them regardless of the gender, age, religion or race of others. Every member of the community was responsible for the implementation of these values. Sin was evoked much more frequently to condemn inappropriate social behavior than to refer to breaches of commandments relating to religious rituals. A person you did not know would intervene to stop you doing anything that went against these values. Likewise, as you were expected to help anyone who needed your assistance, you were assisted with what you were doing without having to ask. It was a normal thing to ask – or to be asked – to help carry something heavy, for instance. It was also a normal thing for your neighbors to ask you to go on errands for them. A woman would open the door of her house and call on the first kid she laid eyes on and ask her/him to run errands for her. You just could not say no. It was part of being Muslim. The phrase that would be opposed to anyone who refused such assistance was inevitably “What kind of a Muslim are you?” or “What kind of Islam are you a follower of?”
Some traditions which I grew up with and which I have always taken to be teachings of Islam made it an obligation for you to offer help to your neighbors, relatives, friends and the needy in some specific occasions.
In funerals, the first thing you did as soon as you heard about the death of a person was to make sure that meals, coffee and some special kind of dishes would be fixed in your own home and delivered to the house in which the funeral was taking place because you knew the family would be too grievous to take care of themselves and of the mourners. Next, you offered to take care of the undertakers and coordinate with them. Next you offered to go inform the family and the friends – mobiles and cell phones are but a recent invention. You, of course, attended the burial and took any initiative you judged would help. Everybody wanted to help laying the dead person to his/her last resting place and to cover the tomb. You gave alms to the poor and to the readers of the Koran so that God received the dead person in his mercy.
Another tradition consisted of having the first two or three meals fixed for the family of new neighbors. Knowing that moving into a new house was always a burden to families, you always helped by offering the first meals so that the family could take care of unpacking and arranging the house. You did not care to know what color or what religion the neighbors were. I remember my mother asking me to take a dinner she had fixed to some new neighbors who were a couple of middle aged French teachers who did not happen to have heard of the tradition. The woman told me she thought there was a mistake somewhere as it was the third time someone had delivered meals. I explained what the tradition was about and she started practicing it, too.
Another tradition consisted of removing any hazardous object from the street and to make sure passersby noticed holes, trenches or any such danger in the streets. A tradition I have always loved consisted of houses having either faucets or clay water containers of water or water fountains in their front doors so as travelers and passersby could drink.
These were of course the values and the principles. These were the ideals which everyone had to endeavor to achieve and live by. Obviously, there were liars, hypocrites, misers, corrupt and selfish people. Obviously, there was cheating, cowardice, treachery and betrayal. Obviously not all rich people were generous and not all Muslims were as tolerant of cultural and religious diversity as it was thought they had to be. But these were considered to be devious behaviors and no one accepted or wanted to be taxed by any of them.
In this Islamic culture, we heard “the Soul is dear to God”. This meant that no soul, that is, no life, could be fiddled with. Life is a gift of God and only God can take it away. No person can take the life of another one unlawfully, un-rightly. One cannot take one’s own life and be a Muslim. Furthermore, the life and the physical integrity and wellbeing of animals were also to be respected. No hunting could be done unless it was to satisfy the immediate needs for food. Hospitals were set up for animals and they were funded by donations of Muslims.
Under the law of this Islamic culture, no one can take the life of another person, be unjust to others, tell falsehoods, cheat, betray and breach the trust of others and be a Muslim. Likewise, no one can deny the truth of the messages and the teachings brought by Jesus Christ and laid down in the Torah and the Bible and pretend to be a Muslim.
What Islam is, just like what Christianity or Judaism are, is not necessarily what marginal clerics or self declared gatekeepers of religion say it is. It is certainly not to be taken from those whose agendas are essentially political and who use it to attain power. Islam is to be found in the Koran and in the Hadith which should not be taken in isolated chunks but as a whole in which each part finds its sense and its meaning in other parts. Furthermore, Islam is not the word or exclusive exegesis of a person whatever the degree of his/her scholarship or piety. Any person who can read, think soundly, meet the academic and linguistic competencies to approach ancient documents, take the necessary time to survey the founding texts and to understand them, whose ethical probity is beyond doubt and who does not have any hidden devious agenda is entitled to suggest interpretations of the texts.
The moment an interpretation is presented as the unique possible one, sound thinking is denied, ethical probity is sacrificed, pride takes over, hidden agendas are revealed, intolerance settles, fundamentalism takes place and the realm of Islam is left to that of politics and from there to violence and to terrorism. It is, however, not enough to acknowledge the difference between two versions of Islam, the one I have grown up in and that which is used to justify the use of violence for political purposes or as a protest strategy, one has, in fact, to stand against any form of abusive use of religion, be it that of Islam, Judaism or Christianity, to justify hatred and violence.
The religious education I have received, in which the eschatological and the theological dimensions are considered to be the personal responsibility of the individual, may not be identical to that which every other Moroccan youth of my generation had received. I know for sure, however, that youth of my generation longed for such an education to be given to their offspring. I also know for sure that because Islam is more about regulating the relationships among individuals, communities and the global environment, there is a lot of room in it for the practice of human intelligence, reason and thinking.
If, in the past, very few voices rose in Morocco and other Arab countries against the abusive use of Islam for political purposes, it was essentially, on the one hand, because no voices were allowed to express any political opinion at all, and on the other hand, because the political establishment in most Arab countries was too weak to oppose intellectual or ideological resistance to fundamentalism. In other words, the lack of resistance and of alternative propositions and interpretations of Islam was a consequence of the lack of democracy and of the limited freedom of speech that has characterized many Islamic countries, essentially Arab countries. In fact, the debate of which role religion should have in public life being a political debate that touches on the foundations of power and of political rule in these countries, it could not have thrived among the political and intellectual elite as no real political debate was tolerated at all. It is only with the strengthening of the recent evolutions in the political scene towards democracy and freedom of speech in some countries, Morocco for one, that it is hoped that alternative voices will find the courage to make themselves heard. A coherent and credible discourse that can be opposed to the discourse of fundamentalism is yet to be constructed.
 My father had friends from all confessions. The priests of a mountain church were good friends of his. He visited them and they visited him whenever they were close to one another’s place. He was also a friend of the nuns who run schools in Marrakech whom he invited home several times. He also knew many Jews and kept with them rather cordial relationships. My father’s mastery of the French language and his rather exceptional familiarity with Western literature, philosophy and history and his great tolerance were critical assets that made these encounters as interesting as pleasant to all. As to my mother, she also knew some nuns who looked after a women’s centre and whom she assisted by organizing donation pools for them and/or by providing them with host families. These nuns visited our house when I was young and all I remember is that everyone respected them and appreciated their work.
 One adage we were frequently reminded of was “Help a non-Muslim but do not stay idle.”
 I have heard many people talk of the nuns in Tazert in such high esteem and deference that are traditionally reserved only to saints.
 This attitude of Islam towards Christianity and Judaism was much later adopted by the Church itself. In fact, in the introduction to the” Conciliar Document N° 4 on the revelation – Chapter IV, P 53, one can read “. . . the Books of the Old Testament enable everybody to know who is God and who is man, and also the way in which God, in his justice and mercy, behaves towards men. These books, even though they contain material which is imperfect and obsolete, nevertheless bear witness to truly divine teachings.” This judgment of the Vatican corresponds to the only reservation of Islam which was that some imperfections, whatever their origin, had affected the sacred teachings and texts.
Earlier, St Augustine had made the same reservations as to the authenticity of all the teachings in the Holy Scriptures. He had put forward the principle that “it was not possible for an affirmation contrary to the truth to be of a divine origin, and was prepared to exclude from all the sacred texts anything that appeared to him to merit exclusion on these grounds”. (Cf. Maurice Bucaille. 1979. The Bible, The Qur’an and Science. North American Trust Publications. Indianapolis ”
 Both the Christian and the Muslim readers will identify in these illustrations passages from their Holy books or religious teachings they grew up with.
 Among the many teachings concerning the respect of animals, kids are always told the Hadith reporting the story of the woman who was punished because she mistreated a cat. The Hadith goes as follows: “A woman was punished because she imprisoned a cat until it died. Because of this, she was doomed to Hell. While she imprisoned the cat, she did not give it food or drink, nor did she free it to find its food for itself” (literally to eat the insects of the earth).
Another Hadith “There is a reward for kindness to every living animal or human”.
 It is important to highlight the role of the USA in supporting undemocratic regimes in the area. It seems that democratic governments would not have preserved the interests of the USA at the expense of the interests of the peoples of the region. A few weeks before the fall of the Shah, President Carter referred to Iran as “an Island of democracy.”
The book, Reflections on the formation of Western opinions, stereotypes and attitudes about Islam and Arabs, published in 2005 is based on a series of reports on Cross Culture seminars the author had conducted at LangCom during academic year 2004-2005. Over two hundred participants from various American universities and many Moroccan university students and English language teacher trainees from ENS Rabat took part in these seminars.
The seminars were a rare opportunity for both Moroccan and American participants to exchange ideas, opinions and attitudes about Islam, Arabism, and the various stereotypes that have come to be associated with them especially after the 9/11 aftermath and the two Gulf wars. They have also been an exceptional occasion for the participants to share thoughts and feelings about the various concepts associated with globalization, westernization and the new challenges of the communication era. The chapters are thus to be read as reports of these seminars.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy