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Moroccan saints and their shrines

POSTED: January 7, 2017 11:11 a.m.
Deseret Connect/

Many Muslims ornament the tombs of saints and create gems of art and architecture, such as Sidi Bel Abbas near Marakesh, Morocco.

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A nearly universal characteristic of religion is pilgrimage to tombs of holy men and women. Jews have venerated Abraham’s tomb for nearly 4,000 years — the location of the tomb of Moses is said to be unknown (Deuteronomy 34:5). For nearly 2,000 years, Christians from around the world have flocked to the traditional tombs of Jesus in Jerusalem and Peter in Rome. Muslims likewise make regular pilgrimage to the tomb of Muhammad in Medina.

But veneration of the shrines of holy men and women extends far beyond the tombs of great religious founders. In Islam, pilgrimage and celebrations at tombs of famous Muslims — such as Jalal al-Din Rumi in Turkey, or Husain, the grandson of Muhammad, at Kerbala in Iraq — is found wherever Muslims live. Nowhere is this more evident than in Morocco.

Islam was first introduced into Morocco during the Muslim Arab conquests and migrations in the early eighth century, but took root slowly among the native Berber population. In 788, a great-great-great-grandson of Muhammad named Idris arrived in Morocco. His brother had been killed in a rebellion against the newly established Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, forcing Idris to flee.

Upon arrival in Morocco, Idris began preaching Islam among the Berbers and anti-Abbasid propaganda among Muslims, quickly establishing an independent Muslim kingdom. So great was the fear of Idris’ preaching that the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid sent agents to assassinate him in 791. Nonetheless, Idris’ descendants ruled much of Morocco for the next century, founding the city of Fes (Fez) as their capital.

As a descendant of Muhammad through his grandson Hasan, Idris claimed a special spiritual nobility among Muslims — known in Morocco as “sharif.” In principle, this descent granted the right to rule the Muslim community. Shi‘ites made a similar claim that the leadership of Muslims should pass to the descendants of Muhammad’s grandson Husain. Moroccan “sharifs,” on the other hand, are Sunni Muslims, claiming the right of leadership through descent, like Idris, from Muhammad’s grandson Hasan. The current king of Morocco, Muhammad VI, claims such descent.

As a descendant of the prophet, a great Muslim preacher and the founder of the Moroccan state, Idris is honored both as the father of his country and as a great holy man. His tomb in the city of Moulay (“master”) Idris is the greatest center of Muslim pilgrimage in Morocco. But it’s only the most important of many saints’ tombs scattered throughout Morocco.

Along with their language, many Berber beliefs and practices were molded into Islam in Morocco, including pilgrimage to holy ancestral tombs. In Islamized forms, these customs still play a foundational role in Moroccan folk religion, often bordering on magic.

Holy men or women — broadly “saints” — were known by many different titles in medieval Morocco — “moulay" (master), “sidi" (lord) and “marabout” (one who lives in a “rabat,” or mystical Muslim community). The lives of all such saints were imbued with the “barakah” (blessing, holiness, power) of God, conceived as a real power manifesting itself in healing and other miracles.

Upon a saint’s death, this barakah remained in the saint’s body and, thus, saints’ tombs became sites of perpetual barakah to all who visited and prayed there for intervention. Healing and other miracles are widely associated with such holy tombs. Pilgrimage festivals with music, dancing, preaching and feasting occur each year at the major shrines.

Some of these saints’ tombs are small local affairs, associated with a particular village or tribe, and might be abandoned with migration or political upheaval. Many people desire to be buried near the barakah of the saint, creating cemeteries around their tombs. Some tombs become places where the disciples gather to pass on the saint’s traditions and teachings, ultimately transforming the tomb into a “zawiya” or center of Sufi Muslim learning and mysticism.

Some of these can become great centers of scholarship, such as the Zawiya Nasiriya in Tamegroute. A small village on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert’s caravan routes, this shrine has a major manuscript library numbering 4,000 volumes.

Mosques were inevitably built near these major tombs, creating religious schools whose teachings are sometimes used to express political dissent. Moreover, desiring to honor their saints, many Muslims ornament these tombs, creating gems of art and architecture.

Thus, saints’ tombs in Morocco continue to play a fundamental role in all aspects of the nation’s culture.
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