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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Adventures in the First Person

The class proceeded courteously, but with a sober and serious air. One student, with a booming, jovial voice, commented that when Muslims study other religions they look “at the religions themselves,” whereas when Westerners study Islam they look at the actions of people who call themselves Muslims and seek explanations in the religion. His comment struck me as a fair reprimand. For me, religion has always been instantiated by what religious people do—it is the intersection of what they believe and how they act. But maybe I didn’t study the sacred texts enough. For this guy, the reason to learn about religion is to understand the universe—to make some sense of it and to attain a better life in paradise. Why study religions if you’re not interested in the Truths within them?

It seemed I had missed the point. I sank into my chair and tried, meekly, to say I was interested in religions because understanding people from diverse faiths might lead toward a better life here on earth. This did not quite satisfy. After all, my audience held that peaceful existence comes from religion in general and Islam in particular. I took it for granted that the best way to study religions is with a dispassionate remove. The Moroccan students were questioning the validity, worth, and even the possibility of my approach. The more time I spend in Morocco, the more I understand their argument. To get there, however, I went the only way I know: I studied history.

When the French came to Morocco to set up the Protectorate in 1912, they promised to “safeguard” religion. They drew a circle around it. It was a circle scribed by the French scholarly compass and contained all that they called “Moroccan Islam”: Sufi brotherhoods, holiday rituals, scholars, and Morocco’s illustrious mosque-universities. These schools—the Qarawiyin in Fez and the Yusufiya in Marrakesh—were the only institutions of higher education in Morocco prior to the French Protectorate. They were the homes of knowledge and the knowledgeable. With time, resistance to the French occupation began to emanate from these mosque-universities. To put down the unrest, the Protectorate instituted a series of “reforms,” which brought the schools under augmented state control. The mosque-universities and the knowledge they represented were increasingly quarantined as representing specifically “religious” learning. It was a sleight of hand: the promise to safeguard the religion did not specify where that religion stopped and started, so the French began trying to systematically isolate religion as a category apart from other cultural institutions. The scholarly compass turned out to be a knife. As I pieced together this history, I began to see why the university students viewed my intention to study their religion with skepticism.

In the face of the erosion of these powerful Islamic institutions, Moroccans turned to the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam was marshaled as a powerful force for justice, which leaders deftly applied to the colonial situation. They staged peaceful protests and massive public prayers against the French. The protests led to the nationalist movement and, with time, independence. The inexorable justice of the afterworld weighed heavily on the oppression of the day. Deeply felt religious beliefs moved people to action. Far from an excuse for apathy, paradise was a rallying cry, the embodiment of all that is right and all that should be. I began to hear this cry in people’s everyday speech.

When I disappointed my friend in Fez by saying that I wasn’t Muslim, he did not mean to build a barrier. Instead he only wanted me to experience what he called the “sweetness of the faith.” Since coming to Morocco, I have caught tastes of that sweetness. Through talking to people about religion and studying their history, I’ve seen what it might be like to pursue and find the Truth in religion. I am amazed and inspired by people who do. I maintained my distance but I no longer feel estranged. I am better able to exist here.

Of course, coexistence on Earth is the goal for many Moroccan Muslims, too. One hot summer night I was visiting a neighbor I’ll call Mustapha. Mustapha’s a jolly man, a local character; his laugh can be heard from blocks away. He’s in his mid-50s but has two young children. That night we were drinking sweet coffee and listening to the crickets, when inevitably, conversation turned to religion. Mustapha said that the most important part of Islam is to be good and moral because, he said, we must be mindful of “the next world.”

“And there will be another world!” he said, bringing his palm down, hard on the table. His eyes softened and he gestured to his young son, who was standing, bouncing at the edge of the coffee table. “It’s his.”

Samuel Kigar recently returned to Portland after spending a year in Morocco on a Fulbright grant.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009