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Catherine Manhardt – Religion and Legitimacy: Amazigh challenges to the central government in Morocco in the 16th-19th centuries

Posté par Michael Peyron le 2 juillet 2010

Catherine Manhardt 

Amazigh History and Culture 

Professor Michael Peyron 

Final Paper 

Religion and Legitimacy:  Amazigh Challenges to the Central Government in Morocco in the 16th- 19th Centuries 

One of the most striking features of the Moroccan political system has, and continues to be, the interaction between religion and politics.  From the King whose legitimacy rests in his role as Commander of the Faithful to the local marabout who serves as an arbiter in tribal politics, political legitimacy and action in Morocco is deeply entwined with religious belief and practice.  This paper will focus on the appropriation of religious institutions as a tool for challenging the central government by Morocco’s Amazigh populations.  It shall endeavor to explain the social and political context which made this action possible and then outline specific key instances where Amazigh populations used religious institutions as a vehicle for achieving political objectives. 

For Morocco’s rural, Berber speaking populations, religion has consistently played a key role in ordering social, political, and economic life.  In these Amazigh societies saints, also called murabitin or igurramen, helped to maintain a level of political stability in what is conventionally understood to be an inherently anarchic tribal system of social ordering.  These men (and occasional women), are defined by Ernest Gellner in his seminal work, Saints of the Atlas, as: 

“one who is descended from the Prophet…and is thus a sharif, is visibly a recipient of divine blessing, baraka, mediates between men and God and arbitrates between men and men, dispenses blessing, possesses magical powers, is a good and pious man, observes Koranic precepts…is uncalculatingly generous and hospitable and rich, does not fight or engage in feuds… [2]” 

While certain parts of this description are not terribly helpful to this analysis, it is important to note that these saints do derive their legitimacy from religious grounds.  As Gellner states, the saint possesses a sort of divine blessing, or baraka.  Baraka, however, is not a static personal characteristic or attribute.  The saint has the ability to transmit this baraka to others.  This phenomenon places saints in a position where they are uniquely suited to serve as an intermediary between God and the people of their community, passing divine blessing along to their clients.  The possession and ability to transmit baraka, personal characteristics, such as generosity and hospitality, and the neutrality lent to their position by the inability of saints to engage in feuding, are all factors that helped saints rise to occupy positions of political importance within their communities.    It is also necessary to briefly touch on the issue of descent from the Prophet Mohammed, or being a sharif.  This lineage could act as a powerful source of legitimacy for saints, but being a sharif was not strictly necessary to qualify a person as a saint.  This issue will be explored in greater depth later in this analysis.   

Once a person achieved the status of saint, they could fulfill a number of roles within their society, some of them decidedly political.  One action consistently associated with saints is that of arbitration.  Because of their inherent neutrality, saints were seen as a occupying a position whereby they could serve as intermediaries and help the disputing parties come to a mutually beneficial resolution.  On a more specific level, Gellner describes the activities of the saints in the village of Zaouia Ahansal.  In this community the local marabouts also supervised the elections of chiefs from amongst the lay tribes, provided a type of political continuity as tribal offices did not have permanent occupants, and played an important role in the main legal decision procedure of trial by oath.

These saints could also serve as leaders if more than one tribe needed to band together against outside aggression, a trait that will play a large role in this analysis.  Morocco’s political system throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries lent itself extraordinarily well to the proliferation of these local saint leaders.  The central authority of the Sultanate was not nearly as well ordered or strong as it had been during the previous centuries, under the rule of the Almoravid and Almohad Dynasties.  The Marinid Dynasty was in definite decline and under serious threat from Spanish and Portuguese invaders looking to Morocco to expand their commercial interests. When the Marinid Dynasty finally collapsed, the Wattasids that succeeded them were unable to keep the same level of centralized control over the country.  The Wattasids ruled with a more tribally oriented strategy.  The Wattasid Sultan was not an absolute ruler by any stretch of the imagination.  He was much more like a patron and protector of the tribes that supported him, gaining their allegiance through marriage and the granting of land use rights.

In practicing politics this way, the Wattasid Dynasty established the foundation for the political system that would define Morocco until the advent of the protectorate period.  This system is that of the bled-makhzen and the bled-siba.  In this system the Sultanate was not the absolute center of power and legitimacy in the country.  Instead it was one of many competing centers of power in the Moroccan political field.  Tribes who swore allegiance to the Sultan, paid taxes, and/or provided troops for the Sultan’s armed forces were considered to be part of the makhzen. Tribes that refused to pay taxes and recognize the administrative authority of the Sultan made up the siba.  These tribes could still recognize the religious authority held by the Sultan as the Commander of the Faithful, but remained outside the central government as they would not submit to the Sultan’s fiscal authority.   

Every new Sultan would have to renegotiate alliances with tribal leaders once he came into power, regardless of the relationships these same tribes held with his predecessor.  Then, once these relationships were reconstructed, there was no real guarantee that the tribes would stay within the makhzen fold for the Sultan’s full reign.  A good example is the case of Massa, a city in the Sous region of Morocco.  In the year 1835 Massa rebelled against the Sultan after an attempt to dramatically raise the annual taxes paid.  The people of Massa won a decisive victory against the forces that the Sultan Moulay Abd al-Rahman sent to collect the taxes owed, with the end result being that for the short term, at least, Massa no longer had to pay taxes.   

This situation of outside threats from Christian European powers and lack of strong central authority created an environment where local saints and religious brotherhoods were able to flourish.  For this reason, the period in Moroccan history from the 15th century to the 17th century has been termed by some as the “Maraboutic Crisis”. As mentioned earlier, local saints had the ability to draw together people from various tribes in times of trouble.  Throughout this era, the Sultanate was unable to face the threat of Portuguese and Spanish invasion on their own, and the local murabitin were the ones to organize the resistance movements needed to push the Europeans back.  Men who distinguished themselves in the jihad against the Christian forces also sometimes gained the standing needed to become a marabout after successful campaigns.   

In addition to local saints, trans-tribal religious brotherhoods, or zawiya-s also began to expand their political role during this period.  While not exclusive to Berber speaking areas, these brotherhoods certainly did include a number of Amazigh peoples in their membership.  Sufism gained prominence in the Moroccan religious scene from the 13th century onwards,  and increasing numbers of Sufi shaykh-s began creating their own religious practice and establishing zawiya-s through the collection of members. Some of these brotherhoods, such as the Nasiriyya based out of southern Morocco, were primarily concerned with economic interests.  These types of brotherhoods generally maintained, if not friendly, neutral relationships with the central governing power and did not try to mobilize their substantial membership for the purposes of directly challenging the rule of the Sultanate.  They limited their political activities to arbitration in economic issues such as water disputes.  Other zawiya-s did take on more political roles and in some cases acted as arbiters between the makhzen and other local political or economic groups.  These zawiya-s tended to be conceived as more of a threat to the makhzen powers, as they had the potential to become dissident and challenge the central government.   

Zawiya-s or murabitin were seen especially threatening to the Sultanate because of the fact that they drew their source of legitimacy from a primarily religious base.  When the Sa’adi Dynasty rose to power in the 16th century, one of their greatest claims for legitimacy in ruling was their status as sharif-s or descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.  Although conventional history shows that the Sa’adians were actually members of a Berber tribe, their claim to the Sultanate on the basis of religious lineage was strong enough to assist them in winning the throne.  This success, in turn, ushered in a new trend of Arab lineage as a justification for ruling power.  This tradition has continued though Morocco’s current rulers, the ‘Alawi Dynasty who derive much of their legitimacy from their status as sharif-s.  In fact, the King in today’s monarchy is still considered to command a substantial amount of Baraka, resulting from his sharif-ian heritage, which helps legitimate his claim to the position of Commander of the Faithful.

            This emphasis on religion as a source of legitimacy provided something of a conundrum for the makhzen powers in their dealings with saints and zawiya-s.  No small number of saints or shaykh-s claimed sharif-ian descent of their own.  All of these actors, regardless of their status as Amazigh or sharif claimed the same legitimacy on the basis of possession of divine grace, or Baraka.  Thus, it was difficult for the Sultan to attack the ideological basis for marabout-ism, even though saints and zawiya-s could potentially command the influence, political legitimacy, and sheer numbers necessary to present a serious challenge to the ruling power.  As such, tensions remained high between the makhzen and popular religious institutions, particularly those considered powerful enough to serve as a viable threat. 

              So, to briefly summarize, by the ascension of the Sa’adian Dynasty to the Sultanate in the 16th century, the political system in Morocco was one based on the interaction between the bled-makhzen and the bled-siba, in which the central governing body drew its legitimacy from the fundamentally Arab concept of descent from the Prophet Mohammed.  The weak control of the central state apparatus as personified by the makhzen, as well as the influx of Christian European invaders created a situation that lent itself well to the proliferation of trans-tribal religious brotherhoods and local saints who already held political power according to the social traditions of Morocco’s Amazigh population.  It is in this political environment, which defined the rule of the Sa’adian Dynasty and the sharif-ian ‘Alawite Dynasty that succeeded them that Morocco’s Amazigh populations began turning to these traditional religious institutions as tools to challenge the makhzen authority.  The remainder of the paper will focus on two specific instances where this phenomenon occurred, namely the rise and fall of the Dila Zawiya in the 17th century and the so called “Berber Revolts” of the 19th century. 

            The Dila Zawiya was founded in the 16th century by a shaykh named Abu Bakr ibn Mohammed.  The Dila Zawiya quickly rose to prominence, in part, because of their vast pool of human resources.  The Dila initially enjoyed the support of the Sanhaja Berbers of the Middle Atlas and gained more followers as it spread beyond the Middle Atlas region.  As the zawiya grew it began to expand its economic interests far beyond the homelands of the Sanhaja.  At the pinnacle of their economic power, the Dila controlled important commercial such as Salé, Fez, and Tetuan, as well as the rich agricultural grounds of the Sais plain and the Gharb.  It was under the leadership of Mohammed al-Hajj in the period of 1640- 1660 that the Dila Zawiya achieved the height of their political and economic power.   

            The decaying Sa’adian Dynasty was not best pleased with the amount of political power that Mohammed al-Hajj was beginning to amass, and felt particularly threatened by his efforts to raise a regular army.  When confronted by the central government, al-Hajj, realizing the political weakness of the Sa’adian Dynasty professed his respect for the Sultan’s status as a sharif but refused to recognize their right to rule on the basis of their failure to establish a stable government. He used the position of the zawiya as the strongest political actor in the region to unify the Sanhaja Berbers and in 1638 the Dila forces defeated the army of the Sa’adian Sultan in the battle of Abu Aqaba. Instead of pursuing a total victory over the Sa’adian forces, al-Hajj backed down out of respect for the Sultan’s religious authority, thus giving up the best chance that the zawiya ever had of challenging the state authority.  

            Although the economic power of the Dila continued to expand throughout the next two decades, the military and moral base of the zawiya remained strongly tied to its Sanhaja Berber origins.  This alienated the Arab tribes that came under Dila control, and ultimately weakened their political power. By the 1660s the zawiya was experiencing a decline in its political and economic power after the loss of important cities, such as Fez and Salé.

            At this point, Moulay Rachid of the ‘Alawi family from the region of Tafilalt decided to step into the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Sa’adian Dynasty and establish himself as ruler of Morocco.  In 1668 he met the Dila forces and achieved a decisive military victory against the zawiya.  Rachid then razed the zawiya to the ground, effectively destroyed their political base, and continued to unify Morocco under his new dynasty.  

The Dila Zawiya holds an important place in Morocco’s Amazigh history as it represents a time when a largely Amazigh based institution was almost able to gain control of the Moroccan central government.  Unfortunately the Dila Zawiya relied too heavily on their Sanhaja origins and was not able to overcome the status held by the Sa’adian Sultan as a sharif, even while the dynasty was clearly in the midst of collapse.  Instead it was another family claiming descent from the Prophet that was able to step into the power vacuum and establish control after the Sa’adians. 

            The second instance of Amazigh peoples appropriating religious institutions as a means of achieving political goals that will be examined in this analysis took place in the 19th century under the rule of the ‘Alawi Sultan Moualy Sliman.  Moulay Sliman, under the influence of Moroccan pilgrims and ambassadors returning from ecca, decided to embrace the Wahhabite doctrine of Islam. This particular brand of Islamic ideology calls for a return to pure Islamic principles and is opposed to institutions such as saint worship.  In the ensuing years Moulay Sliman began a campaign against orocco’s traditional religious institutions of saints and brotherhoods.    

         Needless to say this did not go over terrifically well with the Amazigh tribes who still relied heavily on their local murabitin for political and social stability or the murabatin themselves who saw this as threat to their authority.  In 1818 Boubker Amhaoush, a marabout from the Middle Atlas and the zawiya of Ayt Sid ‘Ali gathered the Ayt Oumalou and the tribes of Ayt Seghoushen n-Sidi ‘Ali and Marmousha to defend their institution of saint worship from the threat put to their zawiya by Moulay Sliman.  Several other tribes, the Idrassen and the Gerwan, who had been co-opted into the imperial army, defected as they were unable to fight against the marabout.  It is interesting to note briefly that Amhaoush’s zawiya was established in area once controlled by the Dila.  It is even possible to say that given the geographic proximity of the Dila Zawiya and the seat of Amhaoush’s rebellion, Amhaoush considered himself to be the spiritual heir of the Dila and viewed his actions as following in the Zawiya’s erstwhile footsteps.

The culmination of this rebellion was a battle near the village of Lenda, a locality that, once again, can claim a close proximity to the original site of the Dila Zawiya.  In the battle of Lenda Moulay Sliman was captured and many of his close companions, including his son were killed.  Strangely enough, the Sultan’s status as a sherif was enough to guarantee him gentle treatment at the hands of the Amhaoush supporters and was released a few days later in respect to his role as Morocco’s primary religious leader.   

The Amazigh forces rose again, however in 1820, and this time Amhaoush was aided by two powerful zawiya-s, the Derkawiya and the Wazzaniya, who had been formerly allied with the makhzen but cut off ties due to Moulay Sliman’s hostility towards religious brotherhoods.   This insurrection attempted to place a new Sultan on the throne, but ultimately failed due to the capture of the Derkawi shaykh.  The brotherhood members refused to do anything that could endanger their leader’s life, and as such Moulay Sliman held onto the man as his bargaining chip until his death.  This story ends rather anti climactically with the death of Moulay Sliman.  His successor, Moulay Abderahman freed the sheikh and backed down from the Wahhabite doctrines, thus reestablishing the status quo. 

A clear historical continuum can be seen between the events surrounding the Dila Zawiya in the mid 1600s and the rebellions of Amhaoush in the early 1800s.  In both cases, religious institutions with a primarily Amazigh base, and origins in the very same geographic location, rose up to challenge the authority of the central government.  In the case of Dila, a political opportunity to step in and fill the power vacuum left by the weakening Sa’adian Dynasty was presented, and the Dila tried to take advantage.  In the case of Amhaoush, the Sultan’s new policy of adherence Wahhabite doctrine presented a serious threat to the traditional institution of saint worship in Morocco, and the marabout was not about to let the Sultan take away his position of political and social authority.  In both cases the Amazigh groups almost met with success.  The Dila actually managed to defeat the Sa’adian military forces and Amhaoush had the Sultan Moulay Sliman as a prisoner for a few days.  Why then were these two attempts at seizing control from the central government unsuccessful? 

The answer to this question lies in the issue of political legitimacy and descent from the Prophet.  After the Sa’adian Dynasty used the fundamentally Arab idea of tracing their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed as a source of political legitimacy, it became next to impossible for anyone not claiming this same lineage to challenge the central governing power.  Although the Dila Zawiya was stronger than the decaying Sa’adian Dynasty and the forces of Boubker Amhaoush actually managed to capture the Sultan himself at the battle of Lenda, neither group was able to overcome the respect and authority inherent in their opponents’ position as a sharif.   

Thus, given these historical instances, it is possible to say that even though Amazigh peoples were able to rise to positions of great political and economic power through the use of traditional religious institutions, in the new political system achieved through the success of the Sa’adian Dynasty, it became almost impossible for any Amazigh group to make a successful challenge to the central government because of their lack of sharif-ian lineage.    


Anonymous, “Massa, Tazerwalt, and Tamgrout,” in The Amazigh Studies Reader, ed. Michael Peyron, 137- 142. Rabat: Imprimerie el Maarif al-Jadida, 2006.  Originally published in “The Personal Narrative of the Taleb Sidi Brahim Ben Muhammed al-Massi of the Province of Suss”, (transl. W.B. Hodgson), Journal of the Royal Atlantic Society. London, March 1837. 

Chiapuris, John. “The Dila zawiya and ‘The Berber Revolt,’” in The Amazigh Studies Reader, ed. Michael Peyron, 124-131. Rabat: Imprimerie el Maarif al-Jadida, 2006.  Originally published in The Ayt Ayash of the High Moulouya Plain, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979). 

Cornell, Vincent J, “The Logic of Analogy and the Role of the Sufi Shaykh in Post-Marinid Morocco,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15, no. 1 (Feb 1983): 67-93. Eikelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin:University of Texas Press, 1976. Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969. 

Gutelius, David P. V., “The Path is Easy and the Benefits Large: The Nasiriyya, Social Networks, and Economic Change in Morocco,” The Journal of African History 43, no. 1 (2002): 27-49. 

Hagopian, Elaine C, “The Status and Role of the Marabout in Pre-Protectorate Morocco,” Ethnology 3, no.1 (Jan 1964): 42-52.  Mojueta, B.A., “Legitimacy in a Power State: Moroccan Politics in the Seventeenth Century during the Interregnum,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, no. 3 (Aug 1981): 347-360. 

Peyron, Michael.  Class Lecture. AMDEAST Rabat, Morocco. 25 February, 2010. 

Rabinow, Paul. Symbolic Domination: Cultural Form and Historical Change in Morocco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. 

Vidal, F. S., “Religious Brotherhoods in Moroccan Politics,”
Middle East Journal 4, no. 4 (Oct 1950). 427-446. 

Vinogradov, Amal and Waterbury, John, “Situations of Contested Legitimacy in
Morocco: An Alternative Framework,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13, no. 1 (Jan 1971): 32-59. 

Waterbury, John. Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite, A Study in Segmented Politics

N.B. For technical reasons, the end-notes originally accompanying this piece have not been included. I am greatly indebted to Miss Catherine Manhardt, one of 15 US students attending my Amazigh History & Culture lectures in Rabat, spring of 2010, to have accepted that I include her final paper here.

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