The Cultural Representation of the Sultan in Morocco, part 1

Dr. Mohammed MaaroufIt seems that the sultanic institution is an historical and ideological constant in Morocco, containing archetypal means of subjectivation of the masses. In the same vein, Hammoudi (1997) states that: “God ordains that the community never remains without leader (imam) and indicates to everyone through the consent of the community which candidate is his elect.” The relationship between the ruler and the ruled is thus sacralized by the Will of God. Historically, the ritual of sanctification of the duty of the sultan has been sustained by the ritual of al-bay‘a (ceremony of allegiance).

The bay‘a to the sultan echoes the “allegiance of benediction (bay‘a ridwan) granted by God to the Prophet when he was sent by the former as a messenger, thus the ritual of allegiance forges a link between the accession of the sultan to the throne and the archetypal events of bay‘a ridwan” (Bourqia, 1999). Generally, in Moroccan popular imagination, Sultans like saints are believed to be endowed with the hereditary powers of their holy lineage. The authority of sultanic rulers is culturally aureoled with supernatural attributes. Deep-rooted in cultural imagination is the belief that sultans have inherited a spiritual force (baraka), and are endowed with saintly attributes thanks to their descent from sharifian lineages.

The Sultanic ruling institution is also considered in the popular mind as a distributing centre of charity and protection to its loyal subjects. The benevolent work of the sultan in the form of alms-giving (sadaqat) and gifts (hibat) mandate donees’ utter obedience and surrender to his Will. Historically, the tribes and saint lineages who benefited from the Sultan’s donations supported his policy and battled on his side in times of stress.

The gift-exchange model (in‘am (donation) vs. loyalty) endows the sultanic institution with a benevolent veneer and obscures the violent facet of its rule. Through the charitable model, the masses may see in the Sultan a source of prosperity and dispensation of baraka. Let me explain that this cultural representation does not stem from an isolated act of charity the sultan may engage in as an individual, it rather has a whole cultural legacy behind it that legitimates the act of charity and parcels it in an aura of sacredness. In other words, the sharifian sultan, the grandson of the Prophet, is regarded as an inherent almoner.

As an Islamic authoritarian ruler, the sultan is characterized by an autocracy incarnated in the divine king. Obedience to the Emir is not chartered by a binding contract or mediated by delegatory institutions. Tozy (1999) maintains that Moroccan subjects are not supposed to give up their loyalty to the sultan and live in dissidence, which was the case in the history of Morocco for some Berber tribes living in ssiba—beyond the pale—, a political stance that derived its social origins from the Berber tribal segmentary structures. Yet, tribes in blad ssiba still held communal links with the sultan, especially in times of tribal conflicts or menace from without though contesting sultanic power to levy taxes (see Ayache, 1979).

Utter submission to God requires utter submission to the Imam. This has ranked as a moral obligation for the Muslim. Historically, it was said that a despotic sultan was far better than anarchy (sultanun ghashum khairun min fitanatin tadum). The texts of allegiance publicized in 1979 reinforced this idea of blind allegiance to the ruler. They affirmed that “We are witness to the fact that our Lord and messenger Sidna Mohammed, Allah’s servant and Prophet, came to us with the obligation and normative conduct (Sunnah). He said: ‘if you travel by a community and you don’t find a sultan in it, do not go inside! The sultan is the shadow of God and his arrow on earth.” He also said: “he who died and was not bound with a yoke of allegiance, he died a death of al-Jahiliyyah (Ignorance of Divine Guidance)” (as cited in Tozy, 1999).

The texts summed up a historical conviction that Moroccan ulema had always been worried that Moroccan people should keep unified around a symbolic leader from the lineage of the Prophet. Abdellah Gannoun, the head of the ulema League between 1956 and 1992, said that the ulema were the last to give up their loyalty to the monarchy even if its legitimacy happens to be abnormally challenged. They were, and still are, so much concerned about the unity of the umma than about the legitimacy of the rule. They fear the occurrence of fitna.

The Moroccan sultan also derives its legitimacy from its holy lineage and saintly attributes. The political idioms used in bestowing legitimacy on the sultan are borrowed from the maraboutic discourse. As heir to the throne, the prince is named “Inheritor of his Secret” (waritu sirrih), secret in the sense of saintliness (see also Bourqia, 1999). The constitutional text of 1908 includes article 7 which states that “it is an obligation that each of the sons of the sultanate must obey the sharifian imam and respect him for his person because he is the inheritor of his blessed baraka” (Tozy, 1999; 2003). The sacred attribute of the monarch will be insisted on in ensuing constitutions but once again with modern formulations. Baraka of sultans has also been recorded in the royal history of Morocco. As Bourqia reports:

In listing the accomplishments of Muwlay Isma‘il, Ibn Zaydan [royal historian] emphasizes the generosity of the sultan and the prosperity people enjoyed during his reign because of his baraka. The historian al-Nasiri also states that when ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Hisham became sultan and the people offered their allegiance to him (which the author refers to as bay‘a mubaraka), the country enjoyed peace and prosperity; the rains came and prices fell, proving his blessedness to the people. The baraka of the sultan brings rain, a highly significant belief in a semiarid culture. Writing about Mawlay Hassan I, the same author says: ‘when he came to the throne, people were happy because of his auspicious person’ (Bourqia, 1999).

Thus, the figure of the sultan has been surrounded with benediction and represented in the popular mind as a distributing centre of prosperity and providence. Up to now, cultural representations of the monarch as a source of prosperity still survive even with the appearance of modern state institutions. Moroccans long for the King’s propitious visits, inaugurations, openings and business launches. The rest of governmental officials are reduced to opportunists and mercenaries in popular imagination. Though this may have bad repercussions on the social representation of democracy in that it may conduce to people’s distrust in state institutions such as governmental offices and parliament houses, it still reinforces in another way the benevolent image of the King.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco