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The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco

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The sacred calls that summon believers are the focus of this study of religion and power in Fez, Morocco. Focusing on how dissemination of the call through mass media has transformed understandings of piety and authority, Emilio Spadola details the new importance of once–marginal Sufi practices such as spirit trance and exorcism for ordinary believers, the state, and Islamist movements. The Calls of Islam offers new ethnographic perspectives on ritual, performance, and media in the Muslim world.

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1 Competing Calls in Urban Morocco

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They see you, he [Shaytan] and his tribe, from where you do not see them.

—Quran 7:27

MUCH COLONIAL AND postcolonial scholarship on Islam in Morocco emphasizes “Moroccan Islam,” a national veneration of Sufi authorities and pious exemplars (Geertz 1968; Michaux-Bellaire 1926; Eickelman 1976). Historically, Sufi “saints” or “friends of God” (awliya, sing. wali; in colonial literature, marabouts) have ranged from urban and rural bearers of divine blessing (baraka), juridical science (ilm), or mystical knowledge (marifa) to holy warriors and wise fools. But from the late fifteenth century to present, the dominant political culture now figured as “Moroccan” has been a “sharifian” tradition of Sufism, in which sacred inviolability and sovereignty are attributed to the prophet Mohammed’s descendants, shurafa (sing. sharif) (Cornell 1998; Kugle 2006).1 In this tradition, the city of Fez marks the axis mundi. Established in the late eighth and early ninth centuries and by shurafa Idris I and his son Idris II, Fez remained a regional economic, religious, and political capital of Muslim dynasties in North Africa and al-Andalus for the next millennium. The fifteenth-century discovery of Idriss II’s tomb, in particular, marked the regional rise of sharifian dominance in the Muslim world’s “Far West” (al-Maghrib al-aqsa) (Kugle 2006, 85–89). From the subsequent sharifian revolution in 1465, to the sharifian Sadian dynasty’s control of Fez in 1549, and through the twenty-first century Alawite monarchy, shurafa have formed every ruling dynasty of what is now modern-day Morocco.

 

2 Nationalizing the Call: Trance, Technology, and Control

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The Aïssaoua depart for Meknes three days before the Mouloud. All the Fassi teams follow one another up the Talaa to reach the Sais plain. They pass by in a slow procession, one behind the other—and a favorite yearly spectacle it is for Fassis, who crowd the streets as the foqara [Sufis, lit.: poor men] pass, while women line the terraces. . . . First to come are the ferocious members of each team, those who received the names of animals at their initiation, and who abandon themselves to all the excesses of their calling. It is utterly repugnant to see them devour a raw sheep thrown to them—its throat cut the moment before—from a neighboring house. In a moment they rush on the gasping animal, fiercely tearing up its flesh, disembowel it, and the pack of human hounds divides the strips of meat beneath blows of the leader’s stick. These madmen precede the ordinary foqara, who form a circle, howling and dancing as the musicians urge them on with the din of their crude instruments.

 

3 Our Master’s Call: The Apotheosis of Moroccan Islam

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COLONIAL-ERA MOROCCAN NATIONALISTS reinterpreted the powers of popular Sufi (sharifian) rituals to foreground their material properties as media. More precisely, placed in the context of mass-mediated communications by which national subjects could be summoned, Sufi rites appeared in new light as the call of competing media, generating demonstrably different forms of piety and society: on the one hand, exploited masses; on the other hand, a coherent public, “the Moroccan People.” Yet the distinction between these two has remained tenuous, both for postcolonial nationalists, such as al-Wazzani, who sought a democratic alternative to the authoritarian monarchy, and for postcolonial theorists of “Moroccan Islam.” What scholars have described as “Moroccan Islam” explicitly evokes a mass public unified—enthralled, or indeed, entranced—by a culture of saint veneration, and expanded to a national scale.1

But if theorists have acknowledged the ritual and communicative power of saints by which a public forms—Clifford Geertz describes baraka as “spiritual electricity” (1983, 136)—they have neglected to describe precisely how technologically mediated rituals have summoned such a public into being.2 I do so in this chapter by examining a watershed event in postcolonial Moroccan politics: the Green March (al-masira al-khadra) of 1975, when King Hassan II summoned 350,000 men and women to walk en masse and unarmed into then-Spanish occupied Western Sahara to reclaim the territory for the Moroccan nation-state. Hassan II’s command, which marchers describe as “nida sidna” (“the King’s Call,” literally “Our Master’s Call”), succeeded in reclaiming the territory, though not without continuing conflict. More importantly, his call provoked mass enthusiasm and at least temporary national unity across social and political differences; it remains a critical current reference point in the state’s assertion and enforcement of national unity and “spiritual security” (Arif 2008; Kaitouni 2010).

 

4 Summoning in Secret: Mute Letters and Veiled Writing

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The occult “science” which enables the magician to call up jinn and make them do his bidding by invoking them by name and by writing down mysteriously arranged letters, figures, words, and numbers, is widespread in the East, but the Maghrebins are reputed the most learned and skillful in it.

—Edward Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco

A TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT FOR Morocco’s state-owned telecommunications network, Maroc Telecom, during the month of Ramadan, 1424, centered on the familiar Muslim scholar and authority figure, the fqih (Ar. faqih), in his local role as a Quranic schoolteacher. The advertisement opened with the fqih, plump and avuncular in white robe and red fez, strolling through a luminous nighttime suq, gathering wooden writing tablets and reed pens—those nostalgic technologies of premodern elementary education based on recitation and repetition—and then entering the little schoolroom where his bright and shiny pupils, boys and girls, await him, seated on mats in the old style. As he begins his lesson, one boy with a cell phone texts another; the second, receiving the message, turns to the first and winks—their secret communication confirmed. But the fqih at the front of the room catches the exchange and beckons the boys to show him this novel instrument. In classical education fuqaha were strict disciplinarians who meted out beatings for inattention, but here he eyes the boys with pleasant curiosity, and all the children, obedient but familiar, now gather round him, sit in his lap and drape over his shoulders in affectionate intimacy. The fqih holds the cell phone, reading the screen with a smile. The commercial fades to an image of the cell phone resting atop the wooden board inscribed with ink—the displacement of the old technology by the new complete.

 

5 Rites of Reception

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THE EXORCISM RITES of the fqih, his talismanic writing and acts of summoning, had done nothing to quell Zuhur’s pain, but rather provoked the jinns’ ire. Her turn toward another solution was imminent, but seeing another fqih for more writing and more exorcism was out of the question. As Janice Boddy describes a Zar initiate’s journey from a faki’s talismans to trance, Zuhur’s turn away from the writing cures involved a turn toward a different set of techniques, a different ethical relation, and a different kind of subjectivity and social life (Boddy 1989, 222–24). She would submit to their call, accepting, as Aisha commanded her, the burden of spirit mediumship or “seeing” with the jinns. To become a seer meant acquiescing to Aisha’s desires—for particular colors of cloth, varieties of incense, a sacrificed rooster, and most pressing, a lila, or nightlong trance ceremony of the Gnawa.

Sitting in Fatima and Abdelqader’s house, drinking mint tea and eating Fatima’s cookies with Sanae and me, Zuhur pointed to her bandaged leg. “Here, right here, you could see to the bone. Four days now I have no peace. Only when I trance [jdeb] will I relax.” Sanae turned to me to emphasize the point. “She must trance. Aisha told her, ‘Here’s what I want: I want this, this, and this.’ At the lila, she’ll trance, trance, trance! [Jdeb! Jdeb! Jdeb!]” There was much to do before the lila: Zuhur had to provide Aisha with henna in designs inscribed on her own hands, wrists, feet, and ankles. She needed to purchase and prepare incense and herbs (bkhur) and rosewater for the entire pantheon of jinns. She had to make Aisha bread without salt and buy her a pair of pants, a caftan of black with yellow, red, brown and blue spots, and a headscarf (because “my Aisha is pious by nature”). She needed to provide dinner as well—a couscous and meat platter, cookies and coffee and tea—for the Gnawa musicians and guests.

 

6 Trance-Nationalism, or, the Call of Moroccan Islam

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Yasmine, twenty-four years old, and her boyfriend Aziz, both university students from Casablanca, display the tranquil assurance of children of the upper middle classes at the head of the country. “The King protects us. He won’t let the Islamists impose their moral order,” she says, dancing to Gnawa music, the genre imported to Morocco by descendants of African slaves.

—Hassane Zerrouky, “Les islamistes à l’assaut de Casablanca”

FOLLOWING THE MAY 16 terror attacks in Casablanca, the 2003 Moroccan summer of sacred music, dance, and cultural heritage festivals promised a return to normalcy. State-sponsored press and high-society magazines celebrated the Essaouira Festival of Gnawa and Trance Music in particular for demonstrating Morocco’s “modernity” and rejection of “barbarism” (Alaoui 2003). The monarchy’s main press organ Le Matin wrote:

To those tempted by doubt [after May 16], the Festival . . . belies it. Morocco will always be haven and meeting place, faithful to its traditional blending of cultures and confessions. When each year, in a quasi-sacred ritual, almost 400,000 domestic and foreign visitors attend the Festival of Essaouira, Morocco vibrates in unison with the motley, colorful and rich trappings of its plural identity. (Alaoui 2003)

 

7 “To Eliminate the Ghostly Element Between People”: The Call as Exorcism

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Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. . . . In order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and create natural communication, the peace of souls, [humanity] has invented the railway, the motorcar, the aeroplane.

—Kafka, Letters to Milena

LET US RETURN to the Islamic exorcisms with which I opened this book and to the cultural politics of communication and piety it embodies. I began with Islamic exorcisms, with one of Aisha in particular, because the practice vividly captures the social currents and political conflicts around the competing calls of Islam, from the dominant national influences of sharifian Sufism, to an opposing Islamist call. While this book has focused largely on dominant forms of Sufism, Islamic exorcism, grounded in the logics of globally circulating Islamic revivalism, shifts our perspective away from older popular Sufi authorities—the scholars and seers—of Fez, away from the struggling middle classes drawn to their informal economy and occult cures, and away from privileged middle classes who receive and transmit the nation’s call in new mass-mediated trance rites. Instead, we see Fez and urban Morocco more broadly from the different marginal perspective of young, educated, and struggling men who neither benefit from sharifian logics, nor explicitly aspire to sharifian authority, small or large. Seeking a pious community grounded in (for them) pious norms of responsibility to God’s call, they give voice to it through a practice of exorcism meant to cure not only individual bodies but also, explicitly, the body social and body politic.

 

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