Abdo Alaoui
21 January 2024

Islamic Brotherhoods’ Enduring Relevance in North Africa-Sub-Saharan Africa Relations

Islamic Brotherhoods’ Enduring Relevance in North Africa-Sub-Saharan Africa Relations
Islamic Brotherhoods’ Enduring Relevance in North Africa-Sub-Saharan Africa Relations

As political, economic, and social actors, different brotherhoods in North Africa have historically sought a balanced position with respect to dominant political powers.

History has recorded unfinished wars with religion as their main determinant and engine. These wars had existential motivations and political purposes. Used as a tool to ascend to and stay in power, religion helped the main actors internally shape people’s mindsets as well as their political culture. However, when it came to the Arab and Islamic worlds, the main dilemma was and remains how to sort out the difference and complementarity between religion as an expression of faith and religion as a means of power as well as a source of its legitimization.

Over the last forty years, the political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa has been characterized by dichotomous perceptions of Islam. Indeed, dichotomous perceptions have ignited the allegedly deep divide between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Lately, new expressions of Islam championed by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Algeria, to name but a few, keep confusing people and experts in theology and religious studies. Mostly new actors of their kind, some are keen to secure a place in culturally fragmented regional subsystems where the religious dimension is gaining space and influence.

More recently, the idea of an Abrahamic union based on the common shared roots of all monotheistic religions has started to draw people’s interest. Despite the fact that this idea is related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need for a new Middle Eastern geopolitical chessboard, religion has always been a fascinating subject to deal with. This seems to be some sort of race for religious ascendency, which most people think of as an absurd and fruitless endeavor in the long run.

Sociologists and political scientists are also intrigued by mainstream thinking about the crucial impact of this phenomenon on the new generations, who prove to be as shallow as they are unaware of its impact. Before 1979, the date of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the dichotomous perceptions of Islam were concentrated on the lasting fight between secularism and conservative Islam. This happened during a process aimed at paving the way for modernism as a paramount feature of the overwhelming Western civilization.

Nevertheless, there is another battle that is not in the limelight. It has been raging in North Africa, opposing Morocco to Algeria, Morocco to Mauritania, and Libya to the rest of the North African countries. Mainly political, this battle has taken different forms and exerted an impact on the ideological perception of relations between North Africa and Africa South of the Sahara.

Over the last forty years, Sub-Saharan Africa has been a theater for a steady geopolitical fight some outside actors have waged against each other to impact the region. They have engaged in a new race that shadowed the traditional significance of security and national interest in order to impose their exclusive views.

Some, as former colonial powers or newly emerging regional powers, have tried to perpetuate the political supremacy they had gained in the past or are aiming to achieve. In so doing, they were confronted with other actors from North Africa who had historical, cultural, and political bonds with Sub-Saharan Africa. These actors resorted to religious means to knit (or restore) ties with African societies.

Scholars dedicated to the study of Islam generally agree that Morocco has played a great role in spreading Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. This dates back to different dynasties, starting with the Almoravids.

The main tools were mostly the brotherhoods’ work and dedication, which combined proselytism, trade, and cultural enlightenment. The role of brotherhoods (Zawiyas and Turuq; sing: Zawiya or Tariqa) is a very interesting indication that shows that steady relations between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa have never been severed, despite the Sahara barrier and the colonial presence in the 19th and 20th centuries.

On the other hand, brotherhoods, with few exceptions, waged wars against colonial powers. In Morocco, for example, some brotherhoods participated in or initiated fights against Portugal, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and France. The Almoravids, Almohads, and Saadi dynasties were brotherhood organizations at their inception.

Resilience, not hegemonic temptations

As a result, brotherhoods were involved in political, economic, cultural, and social affairs. Some were so powerful that they enlisted the sultan’s sympathy, who eventually adopted their wird (litany and mystical invocation). In this respect, suffice it to mention Sultan Muhammed b. Abdullah’s affiliation to the Nasiriya brotherhood and Sultan Abdelaziz b. Hassan’s and Sultan Yusuf b. Hassan’s affiliation to the Darqawiyya brotherhood.

The rules of the game were set in such a way that each actor helped the other whenever needed. The two parties agreed on some sort of division of labor, which helped safeguard the state’s existence as well as its institutional viability.

Yet it happened that the brotherhoods’ unorthodox teaching nagged the sultans, who were themselves good erudites. They resolved to temporarily ban them. Given the circumstances, this was a sort of combination of faith and political influence that both actors sought.

However, the main characteristic of the relations between the central political power and the brotherhoods (including those that established dynasties later) was that they both endeavored to make the bonds of relations stronger. They faced plots and schemes, which outside powers tried to implement. In this respect, we may mention three examples.

The first one consists of the Ottoman Regents of Algiers’ willingness to send a military expedition to Sudan (West Africa) in the late 15th century. The Deys feared that the growing influence of Moroccans in Sub-Saharan Africa would jeopardize their presence in the whole region. Morocco was indeed the only Arab country that confronted the Ottoman Empire and forced it to accept a long-lasting negotiated peace.

The Saadi’s Sultan, Ahmad Al-Mansur, resolved to send his own army in 1590 to prevent such a plan from being implemented. Of course, there is a serious debate among historians about whether the Moroccan expedition was justified or not. Some argue that Al-Mansour had no choice but to intervene to stop the Ottomans as well as the Portuguese from attempting to weaken Morocco’s influence in its vital strategic space back then.

The Ottomans used the Qadiria brotherhoods as an advanced team to make the plan work. They could not understand that the Qadiria Branch in Morocco was powerful and that Morocco’s influence was important and dated back to the kingdom’s domination of most of the North African region (the Almoravids, 1050–1147; the Almohads, 1121–1269; the Saadis, 1510–1659; the Alawis, (since 1631). 

Besides, the Darqawiyya (a branch of traditional Qadiria) in Morocco played a crucial role in keeping under control the dichotomous issues between local Qadiria’ affiliates and the Deys. It is worth mentioning Darqawiyya’s mediation to put an end to Ben Shari Darqawiyya’s revolt against the Regents of Algiers in the early 19th century.

The second example consists of French colonization, whose main objective was to spoil the relationships between Morocco’s Alawi dynasty and a few brotherhoods both in Morocco and in Sub-Saharan Africa. The military ethnologists were intelligent enough and succeeded, to some extent, in pushing some alleged heirs of former dynasties to claim their questionable right to get their power back. They also tried to ignite powerful brotherhoods’ flames to challenge the power in place. Both attempts wore political and messianic hats.

At the same time, the colonial powers endeavored to undermine the brotherhoods’ legitimacy in West Africa (French Sudan). Needless to recall El Hajj Umar Tall’s epic battles against the French army in what is now Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Indeed, during his epic, Al Haj Umar (1796–1864), urged Morocco’s Alawi Sultans to send their army for the sake of defending Islam against the new crusaders.

In the same framework, it is worth mentioning Muhammed Mokhtar El Kounti, who, a few years later, urged Mulay Abdelaziz bin Hassan (1881–1943), Sultan of Morocco, to send his army to push the French army back. The latter was invading Mauritania, which was then part of Morocco.

It is equally worth noting that France’s main concern back then was to cut ties between Moroccan brotherhoods and their West-African allies and branches. This scheme is still in place, and it is being implemented by other countries in the region.

The third example consists of Algeria’s tireless attempts to claim a role in the virtual battle against Morocco with respect to the propagation of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. This battle started vehemently in 1986, when Morocco hosted the first transnational gathering of the Tijaniyya brotherhoods in Fez.

Read also: A Tale of 300 Ulemas: Is Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy the Future of Muslim Communities Worldwide?

Algeria, whose decision-makers claim rightly that Sidi Ahmed Tijani was born in the Algerian town of Ain Madi, responded by hosting a similar gathering a few months later. This happened amid another fierce battle Algerian decision-makers were waging against Morocco. Three years earlier, Algeria had imposed the fait accompli with respect to borders in line with the principle of the inviolability of borders inherited from colonization in 1963. Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Tunisia signed new agreements on borders with Algeria in 1983. Only Libya refused to do so – and still does.

This also happened two months after Algeria succeeded in imposing the separatist Polisario movement as a new member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The Algerian decision-makers thought time had arrived to take over Morocco’s position in the religious field, mainly in the brotherhoods’ spheres of influence. In the early 2000s, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was born in Oujda in Morocco, made the decision to build in Algiers a  bigger mosque than the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca as a matter of challenging the Moroccan King. The mosque is built but has not yet been officially inaugurated.

In the meantime, another battle was raging. It opposed the proponents of Sunni Islam, in its Wahhabi version, to Shia Islam, in its Persian version. The main actors involved were obviously Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet other actors had their share in this matter. This was the case in Kuwait, Libya, and Turkey. The common denominator of all these actors was their alleged need to fight Christian proselytism, mainly the one the Norwegian and Danish churches were promoting.

In the early 1990s, after the aborted Islamic experience in Algeria and the ascendance of some sectarian religious movements in the Middle East and East Africa, things evolved in such a way that Islam, in its different presentations, was steadily scrutinized. The above-mentioned examples proved to be failures, but the Moroccan brotherhoods’ version did not vanish.

The reason was that Moroccan brotherhoods respected the institutional ascendency of the King of Morocco as the Commander of the Faithful. The precedent recorded in the early 1920s, when some Sufi leaders sided with the French colonization to claim dynastical legitimacy to challenge the Alawi dynasty, belonged henceforth to the past.

All Arab leaders who came to power in the post-colonization era opted for different methods, either to ignore religion or praise it, to stay in power. Jamal Abdenasser used the Ikhwan al-Muslimine movement to gain power and fought them later. Anouar al-Sadat did the same, and it was believed that he was assassinated because of his enmity toward them. 

Jamal Abdenasser proved not to be very fervent about religious beliefs; however, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he resorted to religion to explain the Arab defeat. At the same time, the traditional brotherhoods personified in the Shadilia Tariqa, originally established in Morocco in the 13th century, were tolerated and even promoted.

Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi, for his part, got rid of the Sanusia dynasty in 1969 and, by the same token, momentarily destroyed the Sanusia Tariqa, which was the main source of legitimacy for this dynasty. The Sanusia Tariqa goes back to Sidi Ahmed b. Idriss, a contemporary religious intellectual to Sidi Armed Tidjani; both were important religious figures in Morocco in the 19th century.

In Tunisia, in the early 1960s, President Habib Bourguiba was among the first Arab and Islamic leaders to champion secularism. He did not hesitate to break some sacred rules pertaining to fasting in Ramadan or to the rules of heritage. The confusion Tunisia is now suffering from is rooted in Bourguiba’s iron-handed policy to transform Tunisian society at any cost. He ignored the fact that Tunisia has a long dynastic and brotherhood tradition. This explains why, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, things turned upside down in the country.

In Mauritania, during the 1960s, political actors worked hard to break the mystical and spiritual bonds with Morocco. This attempt became harsher in the 1970s, even after the latter recognized the independence of the former. New attempts are undertaken nowadays. This happens because the mystical ties between the brotherhoods go back to shared precepts elaborated by the founding fathers, and they, under specific conditions, are meant as symbols of allegiance.

In Syria, the Shia ruling minority used secularism as a means to stay in power while advocating the Alawi religious dimension as an argument to strengthen its hold on power and society. The regime was and remains at the center of unfinished cultural and political cleavages in the whole Middle East.

Transparent Discourse, Outdated Narrative

What makes religious ties between Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa genuine, strong, and viable?

First, the Moroccan brotherhoods played a substantial role in maintaining strong links with Sub-Saharan Africa. The Tidjaniya Tariqa, the Qadiria Tariqa, the Shadilia-Jazulia Tariqa, the Taibia Tariqa, and the Sanusia Tariqa were the main engines for strengthening relations between Morocco and its African cultural retreat and deep roots.

Second, setting aside the Saadi’s invasion of Sudan in 1596, which some historians describe as an isolated incident, relations between the Moroccan dynasties and the Sudanese dynasties (Mali Empire, Songhai Empire, etc.) were for the most part peaceful and based on trade and cultural bonds. Islam’s penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa was globally consensual.

Third, the Moroccan brotherhoods played an important mediating role in narrowing the gap of misunderstanding between the Sub-Saharan brotherhoods. This happened, for example, in the issue of leadership succession within the Tijaniyya brotherhood.

It was also the case between the Tijaniyya branch in Senegal and its newly-reformed branch, the Hammaliyya. The latter performed practices a little different from the main ones highlighted in Tivaouane in Senegal but closer to the traditional ones performed in Fez.

Every time this happened, an emissary from Fez, where Sidi Ahmed Tidjani was buried, was sent to mediate and resolve the pending issues. This was also the case with respect to the Qadiria in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger and with respect to the Muridiya in Senegal. This steady tradition happened despite the fact that this brotherhood was established to distance itself from the Tijaniyya, Hammaliyya, and Nyasia brotherhoods.

Fourth, the Moroccan brotherhoods do not mingle in Sub-Saharan Islam unless they are requested to play the role of facilitator and mediator. While they do have a tradition of participating in the annual gathering of the Sub-Saharan brotherhoods, they do it by taking into account the ascendance of the institution of the Commander of the Faithful in Morocco. They also make sure their intervention is not misused or wrongly interpreted.

Indeed, the Moroccan Sultans and Kings have a long-established tradition of offering financial assistance and substantial gifts to the brotherhoods both in Morocco, North Africa, and West and Sub-Saharan Africa. This tradition has been raised to its highest level over the past forty years.

Fifth, the mystical chains that characterize the bonds of affiliation to a specific brotherhood, are clearly established and verified when it comes to Morocco and Sub-Saharan religious relationships. And there is an abundance of manuscripts and archives to prove it. This includes, among other things, the exchange of letters and the Ijaza (a document certifying that a disciple (Murid) has completed his mystical formation and is entitled to teach the brotherhood’s methods and even open his own branch if it suits him).

Sixth, effective and genuine transnational relations based on Sufism exist indeed between Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, there were attempts relatively successful during the Ottoman presence in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The Ottomans worked to promote Qadiria and barely succeeded. This was one of the reasons Sidi Ahmed Tidjani fled Temacin in Algeria and sought shelter in Fez, where he launched his own Tariqa.

Seventh, although Sub-Saharan brotherhoods are independent and rooted in their societies, they maintain strong relationships with their founding fathers. This is very important because it is the main source of their religious legitimacy.

Eighth, Morocco, as a multi-faith country and multi-cultural society, has proven over the years that it could be the perfect safe haven for inter-faith dialogue and cross-cultural debate for better understanding between people, societies, and even political decision-makers.

Morocco has over the past five decades hosted conferences and colloquia dedicated to this end. The country even proposed hosting a dialogue between adepts of Sunni Islam and Shia Islam in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Ninth, the failure of political Islam to implement the main principles of this religion, which are din wa dawla (religion and state), proves that religious matters are hard to assess if the actors are shortsighted. Political parties with an Islamic label in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, Jordan, and Kuwait did not seize the opportunity in the aftermath of the Arab Spring to offer a better alternative to their people’s expectations.

Even the once touted Turkish model can no longer be mentioned as a success story, given the numerous contradictions that one could notice in Turkey’s foreign policy, for example, mainly with respect to the Palestine and Israel conflict. Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party could not do better either, as it was somehow tempted to play Islam as a bargaining power with respect to the monarchy’s overwhelming influence in society. This did not work as planned.

Tenth, Morocco represents the moderate face of Islam. This is the reason why the country has managed to defeat religious extremism, which started to flourish in the early 2000s. The parenthesis of tolerating the religious movements that lasted for a few years in the 1970s for political domestic purposes can no longer be an option.

Eleventh, in the early 2000s, Morocco engaged in an ambitious program aimed at reforming the religious field. It tackled issues pertaining to the Mudawana (the Family Code) and is working on other bigger issues such as abortion, heritage, etc. Making the principle of Shura (consultation and deliberation) its main driver, Morocco, under the King’s guidance, succeeded in introducing bold reforms.

Read also: Mourchidat: Female Islamic Clerics Lead a Quiet Revolution in Morocco

In order to fight religious extremism, Morocco initiated programs to facilitate the socio-economic reintegration of former extremist elements (or terrorists) upon completing their terms in prison and revising their dogmatic ideology. It also implemented a training program for the Murshidât (women religious guides) in the aftermath of the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca. This program is designated to teach Islam as a tolerant and balanced religion in the mosque and other public spaces. The program has been extended to some countries in Africa and even in Europe.

Twelve, one of many reasons why misunderstandings between Morocco and Iran are growing is the long-standing presence of Morocco’s theological school of thought in West Africa. Malikism and classical Fiqh are strong walls that have historically halted the Iranian radical Shia’s thought in this region. Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania, even though already penetrated by Iranian proselytism and used by Teheran, cannot help stop Morocco’s influence.

Taking into account the above-mentioned evidence, could the brotherhoods be suspicious? Could they be manipulated? Could they be parts of worldwide extremism and terrorism, as some might point out? Not sure. If, throughout history, the brotherhoods behaved as political actors, they also made sure to take the stick in the middle.

The brotherhoods we talk about are those that have always distanced themselves from being too fanatical or populist. They practiced Sufism in its intellectual and spiritual dimensions. They were different from other forms of Sufism, which promoted charlatanism and heresy (bida’). They were also not involved in the struggle between urban Sufism and rural Sufism.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the authentically established brotherhoods have connections with organized crime networks in the Sahel-Saharan region. The Islamic terrorist groups in this vast region are politically motivated and have a wrong understanding of Islam. Besides, it is proven that they depend on some states’ intelligence agencies, which have established and funded them in the first place.

Why have other countries, which claim to have played a potential role in spreading Sufism in Sub-Saharan Africa, partly failed to neutralize Morocco? The answer is simple: They have underestimated three particular variables. The first variable is that the brotherhoods in Morocco have either dynastic roots or have cooperated with or fought against some Sultans to make their cases. 

The Alawi dynasty, which was not a brotherhood at its inception but claimed Sharifism links going back to Prophet Muhammed, worked with the Dilai’ya brotherhood to defeat the last Saadi’s Sultan; yet when the latter showed an unequivocal ambition to challenge the Alawi dynasty’s founding father’s legitimacy, it was fought, defeated, and ousted out of the region.

The dynastical dimension and Sharifism are very important if one aims to understand the secular and religious history of Morocco. Both are sources of legitimacy and power. That is the reason why Kaddafi used his seniority as “King of the Kings” to make his project of the United States of Africa work. He failed. The Algerian President, Abdelmajid Tebboune, tried the same recipe. He promoted the image of a charismatic descendant who would have Idrisid roots. He exhibited his affiliation with Emir Abd-el-Kader, who claimed such ancestors. He also argued that he had Sufi roots linked to the Tijaniyya brotherhood.

The second variable is that, as political, economic, and social actors, the brotherhoods have typically sought a balanced position with respect to dominant political powers. Even when they were forced to use their mediating hats or chair meetings dedicated to the signature of pacts of peace and reconciliation between political opponents, they made sure to respect the sacrosanct division of labor so they would not lose ground or disappear.

The third variable is that the brotherhoods shared different intellectual and doctrinal roots with each other. So, for example, a brotherhood’s leader (Cheick at-Tariqa) became such after studying other brotherhoods’ doctrines and resolving to start his own Tariqa. The new brotherhood would not operate an epistemological break, so to speak. This explains why extremist movements and terrorist groups rarely succeed in enrolling brotherhood adepts.

In sum, there is no evidence that the authentically established brotherhoods have connections with organized crime networks in the Sahel-Saharan region. The Islamic terrorist groups in this vast region are politically motivated and have the wrong interpretation of Islam. Besides, as argued above, there is ample indication they depend on the intelligence organizations of the countries that sponsor them financially.

Religion is gaining force around the world. Despite the triumph of rationality-worshiping and faith-bashing progressivism in most intellectual circles across the world, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are growing. Islamic brotherhoods as part of this reality that cannot be airbrushed. 

At root, the brotherhoods are some sort of soft power that could shape the people’s beliefs at a time when humanity is divided between surviving waves of alterity and hatred and looking optimistically into the future. Religion, with all its symbols, would be a shelter against uncontrolled scientific progress and the new prophecies that artificial intelligence and other means of taming people are promoting nowadays.

source : moroccoworldnews

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