In Morocco, religion is a very integral part of daily life, and may appear complicated to Western visitors. During its history, Morocco has been home to numerous ethnic and religious groups that have each contributed to the culture and heritage of this modern country. Today, the majority of Moroccans are Sunni Muslim, though there are still around 100,000 Christian and approximately 7,000 to 10,000 Jewish members within Moroccan society.
‘Islam’ means ‘to submit,’ and for Muslims, this means submission to the will of God, whom they call Allah. According to the faith, God revealed His eternal truths in Arabic through the Prophet Mohammed during the seventh century. Mohammed lived in the city of Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is believed that he was transported in a miraculous journey from Mecca, first to Jerusalem, then Heaven, and returning again to Mecca. During this journey, Mohammed was shown certain truths for which God commanded him to be a messenger and spread to the world. These revelations were collected as the Koran. This book is considered the direct word of God and contains spiritual rules to govern the conduct of Muslims.
Mohammed was shown certain truths for which God commanded him to be a messenger and spread to the world. These revelations were collected as the Koran.
Most important of these rules are the Five Pillars of Islam. The first is shahaada, or confirmation, that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is His messenger. The second is salaa, or prayer, which is the proscription for Muslims to pray facing towards Mecca five times each day. Soum, or fasting, is honored by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. Zakaat, or charity, is revered by giving alms to the poor. The last Pillar, hajj, is pilgrimage, a task that requires all Muslims to travel at least once in their lifetime to the city of Mecca if they are able.
Islam follows a lunar calendar, called Hijira, of 12 months a year, which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar that Americans and other Westerners use. This variation means that calendar dates of Ramadan and other religious events change from year to year in our calendar. The word ‘hijira’ describes the Prophet Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 BCE, making it the first year of the Hijira calendar.
Before the Arabs brought Islam to Morocco in the 7th century, many other religions were practiced throughout the Maghreb, including Christianity, Judaism, and various forms of Paganism. The native Berbers embraced Islam, but being strongly independent of culture, they also retained elements of their earlier faiths. This eventually created a less-than-orthodox form of Islam in Morocco. An example of some older customs still being revered today is the following of saints. Conservative Islam insists that there should be no intermediary between man and Allah, yet Moroccan saints and holy men called marabouts are integral to the spiritual life of many Moroccans. There are various brotherhoods that have formed around some of these saints or their teachings. Most notable for this are the Sufi, who seek an even closer relationship to God through mysticism.
Members of brotherhoods and religious pilgrims consider a saint to be a wise man or woman. Such holy people are revered and respected while living, often being sought out to dispense advice, offer remedies for specific ailments through prayer and practical knowledge of natural medicines, or simply for baraka (blessing). When such a holy person dies, often his or her tomb is called a kouba, or, in the case of Sufi saints, a zaouia. These tombs often become the sites of pilgrimage. These tombs are usually whitewashed, square mausoleums with domes found in both cities and countryside alike. The birthday of a saint is typically honored with a festival called a moussem that may involved several days of prayer, feasting, and celebrations.
Breaking the fast [during Ramadan] occurs at the time of day when one ‘cannot distinguish a white thread from a black thread.’
The call to prayer is one of the most often heard motifs in any Muslim country, and Morocco is no exception. Five times a day, the chanted call is sounded from minarets by men known as muezzin. The call reminds the faithful to fulfill their religious obligation of prayer. Some may go to a nearby mosque, others may pray in shops, along the roadside, or wherever they may be. On Friday, most men tend to go to a mosque for noon prayers, so it is not uncommon to find businesses and some attractions closed during that time.
The most important event in the Islamic year is the holy month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan commemorates the revealing of the Koran to Mohammed. Muslims fast during the hours between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan and eat between sunset and daybreak. During the fast, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, or smoking during daylight hours. Breaking the fast occurs at the time of day when one ‘cannot distinguish a white thread from a black thread,’ but often a cannon or a trumpet is sounded at the appropriate time. The fast is observed by everyone except children, travelers, the sick, the elderly, and women who are pregnant. Non-Muslims are not expected to observe the fast, but in consideration for Moroccans who do, visitors should refrain from eating or smoking in public during the day.
Islam is so entwined in everyday culture in Morocco, it is difficult for some visitors to understand that there is no difference between religious and merely cultural customs; they are one and the same. From the calls to prayer that resound through the town and cities numerous times a day, to the overhearing of ‘inshallah’ (‘God willing,’) that is spoken countless times a day, to the sharing of food and provisions with those who are less fortunate during the holy days, it is evident that the Pillars of Islam are alive and well in Morocco.
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