Saints and Brotherhoods

Americans sometimes regard the Muslims as if they all are cut from a common cloth. Of course, that is not the case. There is probably as much variability in Islam as in Christianity. Even in a single country like Morocco, a wide variety of beliefs and practices coexist and compete.

The city of Fes boasts one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world: the Qarawiyyin. A center for religious studies, the school teaches Islamic law and religion. The Qarawiyyin has been a center of orthodox Islam since the Middle Ages.

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The tomb of Moulay Idris is under the large green tiled building on the left. The Qarawiyyin mosque and university are in the center.

Leo Africanus, whom I mentioned in a post on architecture, lived and studied there after his family fled Granada.

Adjacent to the Qarawiyyin is the zawiyya of Moulay Idris, founder of Fes, which contains his tomb, and a center for devotions.

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An entrance to the shrine of Moulay Idris. Deep in the medina of Fes.

Like his father, Idris I, and like some of Morocco’s modern sovereigns, Idris II had baraka, acquired through piety or inheritance. A kind of blessing from God, baraka can cure illness or bring fertility.

The Islamic world, both Sunni and Shi’a, hosts tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tombs of men and women whose holiness confers benefits to those who venerate them. The Saudis and other Muslims practicing extreme forms of Salafism abhor this. ISIS in Iraq destroyed every tomb they could find. The Saudis consider some Moroccan practices as idolatry and witchcraft.

Folklore and superstition do mix with religion, however, and some of the Moroccan brotherhoods, attached to zawiyyas, do things that seem strange, not just to us, but to their fellow Muslims in Morocco. On the other hand, some Christian sects in America dance with snakes. Who am I, a non-Muslim, to judge? The people in my photographs were often friends, neighbors, students, and co-workers. They welcomed me to their country and took care of me. I will be grateful to them until I die.

The tombs of saints come in all sizes and shapes.

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Tombs near Beni Mellal
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Wood roofed tombs near Imouzzer des Marmoucha.
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The shrine of Sidi Ali Bouserghine. Sefrou.
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Shrine in the Sahara. If one circles it three times and leaves an offering, one’s journey will be blessed.
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Moulay Bouchta. Pre-Rif, north of Fes.

Whether in the wilderness of the Sahara, the middle of a great city, the empty countryside, or in a village, many tombs and brotherhoods have rituals and practices unique to themselves.

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Aissawa during the Miloud (the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday).
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On top of Jbel Alam, for the moussem of Sidi Abdeslam Ben Mechich. It took a convoy of trucks to get the crowds to the top of this mountain..
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Aissawa at the Cherry Festival. Sefrou. The snakes were not poisonous, but they bit the dancers, drawing blood.
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Moulay Bouchta. Gun play before entering the shrine.

None of the scenes above were staged for tourists. Those in them are not of the same ilk as the performers at the Jemaa el-fnaa in Marrakesh. They were taken at religious festivals, or moussems. Indeed, few non-Muslims have stood on top of Jbel Alam in the Jbala during the moussem dedicated to Sidi Abdeslam Ben Mechich. I consider myself fortunate.

I have many more pictures from these events. Perhaps I will do a separate post on each if there is any interest, and try to explain in more detail what is happening.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

One thought on “Saints and Brotherhoods”

  1. I once saw a documentary about people who handle snakes in churches in the Deep South, taking literally some words from the bible. But those were poisonous. But I still can’t understand why anyone would do this, poisonous or not. You obviously got right amongst life there in Morocco, Dave, and your posts are fascinating.

    Like

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