The advent of Islam and its spread into Amazigh societies remains a phenomenon that was critical to the increasing homogenization of Amazigh identity throughout Morocco.
Rabat – Though the exact date of the arrival of Islam to the Maghreb region remains in question, by the year 788 CE, the religion had spread to large areas of Morocco at the hands of the Shi’ite Idrisid dynasty, which had come to power and had begun to form “the nucleus of a petty state” with the aid of Amazigh tribes (Peyron, 82).
Islam spread and manifested itself in Amazigh societies following several waves of Arab invasions and power shifts through several Arab and Amazigh dynasties, meaning that Islam as it was practiced among the Amazigh people became unique to Morocco.
The subsequent dynasties promoted Islam among the tribes in such a way that allowed Islam to gain a stronger foothold among the Amazigh people more than the previous invaders. he Islam that came to be practiced in different Amazigh societies took on elements of heterodoxy and more mystical manifestations than had previously been allowed by more purist and orthodox Islamic caliphates.
It has historically been argued that one of the strongest factors which enabled Islam to gain a strong following among the native Amazigh population was its appeal as an austere and unadorned faith whose central tenets are easily accessible to the average person living with ordinary struggles.
This argument, however, fails to allow for the fact that Islam as it was conceived and practiced by dynasties such as the Almoravids, an Amazigh dynasty that ruled much of the region from around 1040-1147 CE, was often purist and strictly orthodox and often clashed with the traditional practices of the Amazigh population. Indeed, much of the early Muslim governance in North Africa espoused an Islam that appealed to the population centered in urban areas, many of whom were elite and learned.
This rendered the religion obscure to those who could neither read nor write in the tribal areas. Religion as it was manifested among these tribes was required “not as a form of scholarship and contemplation, but as an alleviation of suffering, as a more drastic alternative to ordinary life” (Gellner, 8).
This was because a strict and orthodox interpretation was satisfying to those with the education, time and patience for such practices, but to the lower classes, whose lives were defined by turbulent warfare, stronger bonds of kinship with their fellow tribesmen, and the harshness of life in isolated areas, the religion needed to manifest itself in a more emotional context.
To achieve this, Amazigh tribes often combined the traditional pillars of Islam with their heterodoxical, pre-Islamic practices and rituals. This meant that the Islam which emerged was more in the vein of Sufi mysticism than orthodox Sunnism.
In many villages and towns isolated from the urban areas, tribes established zawiyas, or brotherhood lodges, where they further promoted Islam while fostering a deep kinship among its adherents. Zawiyas were neither standardized nor always orthodox and each established its own doctrine typically centered around the vision of a founding member who, upon death, was often made a saint in Sufi tradition.
It was at these zawiyas that members learned Islamic theology and doctrine even while interpreting that doctrine in ways that were unique to them. In this way, members could take ownership of their faith and personalize an otherwise rigid and inaccessible belief system.
Even today, the Islam embraced by those in isolated and rural areas of Morocco is less rigid in practice and ideology than the Sunni Islam widely practiced across the Middle East (Norris, 54).
In a similar fashion, there are even many Amazigh people who have outright rejected the Islamic faith all together, choosing to hold onto their traditional roots, or to accept other religions such as Christianity, as a way to maintain an identity separate from their Arab conquerors.
Further complicating this identity crisis was the fact that during the period of French colonization, starting in 1912, the occupying French used Christianity as a means through which to drive a wedge between Arab and Amazigh populations in order to consolidate French power in the region (Redouane, 198).
Though a few pockets of the Amazigh people had embraced Christianity before the arrival of the French, the French colonial legacy—which was built on leveraging the power of certain ethnic groups and religions over others—gave way to a more complex, multi-faceted, and multi-religious society than the one which had previously existed before the onset of colonization.
Such rejection of Islamic doctrine in an Islamic state has not been without controversy and many Amazigh people have felt compelled to leave modern Morocco in order to freely practice their faith (or non-faith) without the restrictions imposed upon them by an Islamic government (Redouane, 199).
The vast majority of the modern Imazighen continue to consider themselves as followers of Islam, despite their multidimensional and sometimes unorthodox interpretations.
Between the austere doctrines of Islam as it was originally practiced by the early dynasties and the burdens of modern life in the era of globalization and modernity, the Moroccan Amazigh people have adopted and developed an Islam that is most adaptable and suited to the needs of their everyday life.
Though more rigidly ideological adherents to the faith as well as modern theological states may consider these adaptations to be heretical and antithetical to Islam, the fact remains that these interpretative manifestations of Islam allowed the religion to be dynamic, and to retain staying power in a turbulent and shifting society.
Without toleration of these interpretations, as well as an allowance of more heterodox practices, Islam might never have come to dominate the Maghreb region and might never have had such a lasting and strong influence on the people it touched.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission.