A Conversation with Dr. Ahmad Abaddi, Secretary General of Rabita Mohammedia, the Moroccan League of Religious Scholars
June 15, 2022
Background: This is an unusual interview in that it draws on conversations between Dr. Abaddi and Katherine Marshall over several years, most recently in June 2022 in Tangier and Rabat. Courtney Erwin also contributed to the discussions. It forms part of a Berkley Center series of explorations of the roles that practitioners and leaders play in the development world and particularly where religious institutions and beliefs intersect with development agendas, writ large. Dr. Abaddi is a man with a bold mission, a man of many parts. A theologian and religious leader, he dresses one day in an elegant suit, the next in a djellabah, slippers, and fez. He believes deeply in scholarship, and immerses himself in complex reflections on what the Quranic texts tell us about life. But he also spent two years as a young man bumming across the United States, including a spell shucking oysters in Mississippi. He deals with the daily challenges of education in a dynamic society but also with the urgent dangers that both extremist religious teachings and terrorist organizations present to his country and the world. He is widely sought after in global forums as a “moderate”, well informed voice for Muslim societies.
Can you describe how the Rabita fits in Morocco’s institutional structures? What is its role and yours?
I was working at the Ministry of Habbous Religious Affairs when His Majesty appointed me (in 2006) to lead and revive the Rabita; he thus entrusted me with an important institution and mandate, and his command was that I make it viable, with a central role in the critical institutional structure governing Islam in Morocco.
The Rabita had been founded in 1960, by a group of distinguished scholars, essentially as a scholarly enterprise. Then King Hassan II was the patron though at a distance. But the institution had fallen into what amounted to a deep sleep, a hibernation. The scholars involved grew old and several had died and the mandate was unclear. The current king, His Majesty Mohammed VI, felt it was an important institution that should have resources and prestige, and he marked his interest by giving it his name. When I took on what was a heavy burden of leadership, there were few resources but my mandate was to sculpt it, under the royal command. And I have to say that everything I have asked for (realistically, of course) I have received. The goal has been to deliver tangible, verifiable outputs and outcomes, responding to an urgent need for such deliverables.
So what does the Rabita do? Is it a think tank for religious matters?
It is a think and do tank! It is active in many areas. We put out 15 printed reviews and have published more than 400 books, some of them are over seventy volumes. These scholarly products are sought after in many places including Saudi Arabia. They sell well. We produce materials for schools and for children, including comic books and cartoons. We also have produced video games. There are 30 centers, each with a specific mission.
One of the centers focuses on solidarity and tolerance. Solidarity rights are a way to combat risky behaviors. Authenticity and sustainability are two guiding objectives and principles.
We are also actively working in the areas of education and training and support for religious leaders. We are part of the government’s efforts to respond to the threats of extremism. That includes, for example, work in prisons, including a UNDP supported project to that end which we have implemented over several years. And, we have operated an independent project called “Mousalaha” with jihadi returnees as well. We have been making a shift toward immunization rather than just prevention. That is the focus of our new initiative, “Iqtidar,” (again in cooperation with UNDP) to work in high schools across the country to help build critical capacities across 7 domains: existential, intellectual, emotional, physical, social, international, and cosmic.
How does this form part of the overall structure of administration related to religion in Morocco?
The Rabita is one of six critical parts or pathways of the system:
- The Central Commanding of the Faithful (set out in the Constitution). This applies to Jews and, increasingly, to Christians as well as Muslims. The King as the Commander of the Faithful oversees the whole.
- The Supreme Council of Scholars (Conseil Superior des Oulema) and its 80 local arms. It guarantees the role of religion within the overall system. The King presides. They alone have the authority to propose fatwas, which must be solely issued by the High Authority of Fatwa.
- The Rabita Mohmmedia, which provides intellectual leadership and its application.
- The University Al Qarawayyin, which focuses on education and training.
- The Sufi orders, which fill the vacuum left by the decline of the extended family. The King communicates with the shaykhs of the orders by letter, a deeply respectful relationship.
- The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Habbous, which has overall administrative responsibility.
Very briefly, just as context, what are special features of Islam in Morocco?
There are three main choices that have been operated by Moroccans many centuries ago: Asharism in belief, which makes the junction between reason and text; Malikism in law, which makes the junction between text and context; and, Junaidism in Sufism, which makes the junction between spirituality and text. The three together are meant to help assist each individual and the society as a whole in moving toward clarity, functionality, and beauty in religiosity.
What kinds of terrorism and religiously linked violence has Morocco experienced?
Morocco has had serious brushes with Muslim extremists and terrorism, notably suicide bombings in 2003, 2004 and 2011. It is not far from the Maghrebian and Saharan terrorist networks. Perhaps more important, restless youth, especially, in the teeming cities, are attracted to the teachings of Salafists, easily available through the ubiquitous satellite networks.
So what’s needed is a rigorous, engaged, transparent and modern approach to religion, one that honors traditions and elders but that responds quickly to changing times and reaches out to young people quickly and originally.
I participated in the conference you organized in 2014 on “The Holy Quran and World Views.” What was your objective?
I wanted to encourage my colleagues to build relationships with scholars of theology from Egypt, Indonesia, Sudan, Mauritania, the United States, and other countries. But above all to launch discussions about the changes taking place in the world, and to explore different “world views”. The priority of education, to put it mildly a work in progress, needed a far sharper focus.
My ambitions for the conference went far beyond the formal agenda. Such events are the core of the mission: to push beyond a nudging support for moderation and moderates to an urgent call to come to terms with the fact that our world is changing, fast, and before our eyes and religious institutions must respond. Responding is a matter of both survival and any prospect for a successful society, for Morocco, for Muslims, and for humankind. The path ahead will not be easy.
During that meeting, one memorable focus was on women’s rights. I remember that when a scholar gave a presentation on the topic you stepped into the interpreter’s booth to give a lucid English tradition. But in the discussion, one scholar argued passionately that equality is impossible. “A man is a man, a woman is a woman,” he asserted. Violence against women, a searing issue in the region, was not mentioned. What is your view of the road ahead?
The Islamic vision about complex issues is granular, it is composed just like a puzzle by a multitude of components that we need to track in the Quran, in the Prophetic tradition, and in the founding texts. The re-composition of those components needs to take place in relation with a conscious assimilation of what we call “the engineering of religion” as it is laid out in the previously cited sources. This engineering/architecture has revealed itself to be functional for its ultimate finality--which is, by the way, shared by all religions: to guarantee happiness for human beings here and in the hereafter (for those who belief in a hereafter).
“Women in Islam” is one of those complex issues that is to be analyzed through this perspective and thus we have been working through a dedicated center at the Rabita for fourteen years to re-compose all the data entities related to that complex issue. We have already published an extensive study about the position of men and women in the Islamic texts while talking about a corpus that exceeds 1,000 pages that we will be sharing very soon.
How many imams are there in Morocco and what is their relationship with the government?
About 70,000. The Ministry of Habbous and Islamic Affairs is responsible for certification, and they are paid by the government. Imams can be fired if their preaching is viewed as dangerous. The Ministry provides guidance in that regard.
Following discussions with governments around the world, Morocco also provides training for imams preaching in a multitude of other countries.
How do you approach the challenge of religious freedom?
In Islam, religious freedom is a given, but to have it realized is a long term process and objective. It must be approached with caution and wisdom. As I have explained to many who have asked about the topic, the cornerstone of that very freedom is respect and mutual recognition, which must be built on values of solidarity and sustainable partnership. The functionality of dialogue is sine qua non for that process.
How is the program of women religious figures progressing?
Very well. In Morocco, we train about 200 mourchidat (women religious guides) a year, and they are now an integral, functioning part of the system. And, yes, they also are paid a salary for their work. In the last four years, we have launched a new body of women notaries, who document marriages, divorces, and other fiduciary matters. It is a new entity in the Muslim world and it is functioning very well.
I was asked the question whether the threat of terrorism and extremism is growing or declining. How would you respond, with your finger on the pulse?
The seeds of extremism are clearly there. They are there in the grievances that many young people harbor. They are also there when those with appealing messages speak to their dreams. And the fundamentalists draw on aspects of the Sharia (Islamic law) that, often based on false premises, speak to them. So, even as one must control weeds in a garden by removing them, prevention--better yet, immunization--is most critical, but this takes the building of multiple capacities that for many countries are quite in oblivion. We have started working on those in public schools, universities, and civil society. Education and authority (from the religious perspective) are both vital.
We must provide more beautiful dreams.
You have a fascinating life story. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Settat. I came from an established family, but one that was not particularly rich. My father was well respected in the city. He had a business trading in horses. I remember his grace and advice to keep a low profile in order to survive. My maternal grandfather served there as a Grand Caid, or “governor,” and was also a highly distinguished person, who had served as Ambassador to Italy for the late King Hassan I.
My father married my mother in his late 50s. He had dedicated his life to charity and to his teaching, and had had no children before my birth. He married my mother who had been abruptly widowed with five children to raise. I arrived five years later and then my sister after me and we became a quite a large family of 5 sisters and 2 brothers. My father had great joy in his family and I remember him, though he was growing old, playing with me and telling me stories.
But my father died quite suddenly when I was eleven years old.
We left Settat a year before my father died, and moved to Casablanca. My older brother stayed in Settat, so I became the man of the house. This was a large move and a great change, which came as serendipity. It was not an easy community or transition. Over time, I became quite intrepid. I met many very new and different people. In school and the neighborhood I made Jewish friends for the first time. My neighbors were often small merchants, who strived to put me in my place. I learned to fight and defend myself. My mother warned me that there were good and bad types, and I had to learn to deal with each.
I became excited about books and ideas, and without too much effort became an excellent student. My studies opened new windows to me. We spoke Arabic and French at home, and I had studied French from year four in primary school. Then at age 13, I made a friend and together we joined a film club. This gave me a fantastic new window on the world, a whole new concept of different countries and of how to think about life and the future. I also read a lot. It was the period after 1968 and many new ideas were out there. I was exposed to them. At the lycée, more and more windows opened up. I became interested in surrealism in literature and read more and more. I began to go to the theater.
But slowly issues of poverty and social justice came onto my horizon. We lived on the Boulevard des F.A.R., and there it was possible not to see or be much aware of the poor people who lived in Casablanca. Even so, I became conscious of racism. We had a maid who was black, and, with my understanding of her as a great human being, I was appalled at the way she was sometimes treated. At school, I began to meet socialist militants and became aware of political parties. We went to coffee clubs and debated politics.
At age 17, I found a mentor who was a banker and businessman in Casablanca. He saw me as a foster son and gave me much good advice. But I did not want to be dependent on him. I valued independence and wanted adventure, all over the world. From the age of 11, I had worked on weekends and became largely self sufficient.
So when my mother died, and I was 18, it gave me an opening. Instead of following the general advice and expectation that I would go directly to the university, I decided to travel and see the world. I had no money but a great sense of confidence and curiosity.
How did you travel and where did you start?
I set out without a specific plan and with almost no money in my pocket. My goal was to experience, and to learn. I first came to Belgium. Even in that first moment of tourism, I did not like what I encountered there, though I made a close friend, Alain. From there I went to Amsterdam. There were many young people in that city, coming from all parts of the world. I found work in a hotel cluster. I had my first contact with Christians there. Then I worked for a time in a restaurant. I met people from many different nationalities and styles. It opened my eyes. I had thought I would go to Africa next but changed my mind. I applied for a visa to the US and got one. I had an interview with an American at the visa office in Brussels. It was remarkably easy. Talking to me for a few minutes, he simply said, “I will give it to you”.
So I set out for the United States by plane, with a rucksack and my guitar, at the age of 20. I arrived in New York, and went to the Prince George Hotel at 7th Avenue and 126th Street. I was so tired that I slept for many hours. But I had very little money so I had to figure out what to do next. I had one friend and wanted to find him but did not know my way around the city. I asked the way and someone (a doorman) advised me to walk, so walk I did.
My philosophy, which I learned and developed as I went along, was just to go and do it, and independence was the key. The whole process was a great paradigm shift, a change in my very membranes. I also set out to study people, to learn how they ticked. I was amazed at the diversity I saw in the streets. I found the apartment of my friend but there was no one there at first. I walked for two days, and then found him. But his place was tiny.
I had a friend and address in Washington, so I hitchhiked a ride in a convertible. They took me a way and dropped me. Several rides later I got to Philadelphia. A man who had given me a ride took me there to a fancy hotel but it soon became clear that all was not right. I learned that life in the big city could be dangerous; he was ready to lead me far astray. I moved on quickly and, this time, met a decent guy who picked me up, went 30 miles out of his way to help me. And so I got to Washington in the end.
After a short time in Washington DC, I was restless and wanted to move on. I travelled by Greyhound bus to Louisiana. My first idea was to study at Tulane University and there was an Algerian student there, who I had met in Amsterdam. He was studying mechanical engineering. When I came to his apartment, I was stunned by how little care was taken of it, and I set about to clean it. I made myself so useful that I stayed there for a month. Then I met a genius, a young American, 17 years old Peter. He was so confident of everything that he conveyed that sense to me – “I’m gonna fix it man, piece of cake”. A wonderful attitude. A challenge for Morocco is to overcome the lack of confidence that can paralyze people.
After a month, I ended up in the French Quarter. I had 67 cents exactly, and for several days ate only carrots. I needed to find work. I was so poor that I was desperate. I remember that an old woman passed me and I looked at her purse. For a fleeting second I was even tempted to take it. I was so poor that I came to understand temptation. Happily though I have never been confronted by it in the same way and have never given in to it. I understood the dark sides of human nature, and what it means to speak of a slippery slope. I felt deep relief even at that moment that I did not take the purse.
And then I walked into a restaurant. I got work there, and they said I could eat anything I wanted. The Italian owner’s name was Salvador, “Sal.” He had come from Italy and he became my closest ally and friend in the United States. My job was to shuck oysters and I ate and shucked. I fixed things for Sal, something I have always liked to do: to make things right. I found an apartment and lived happily there for a time. I was making $100 a day and life seemed good.
But one day a woman came into the restaurant, watched me carefully as I shucked oysters, looked me up and down, and said, “Young man, are you going to shuck oysters all your life?” I realized that in fact that was not what I wanted, so I moved on. I went to California.
California was a new chapter. I worked in many places, hotels and so on. I met many people, rich and poor, of many races. I came to love America, even as I saw its dark sides. I earned my living. I worked at Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco and many other places. I knew a lot about many businesses. Then I got into business myself, trading antiques and jewelry in Mexico. I learned how to survive in the desert, with cactus and not much else. I crossed the border many times, at Laredo and other places. I dealt with gangs and criminals, and had to contend with drug dealers. Through it all my dreams became sharper, almost to the point of hallucinations. I learned to live with my dreams, good as well as bad.
And then one day I had a long night of reflection and decided it was time to go back home. I had a sudden and deep sense that that was where I belonged.
I had learned a great deal, including what I did not know. I went back to Louisiana to say goodbye to Sal. I had spent seven months there and met many people including Mafioso. Sal, himself, was like a godfather to me. Among the many gifts I had from him was the gift of knowing how to look someone in the eye.
When I returned to Morocco, I had changed fundamentally. My two years were like twenty in terms of life. So I was ready for the next step, and set out to study philosophy at the university.
Why philosophy and how did you come to be interested in religion?
I met a Sufi master, Moulay Mustapha, shortly after I came home to Morocco. Working with him was like a long pilgrimage. He adopted me almost like a son. Sadly, he is now dead. He taught me above all how the soul can be revealing and can teach. I chose eleven or so books at a time, and spent 7-8 months just reading. I did spiritual exercises with him. I had the experience of the opening of a third eye. But dimensions of this spiritual work also sent me to economics, which I also set out to study. There were things of the earth to learn: accounting, the teachings of Marx, Riccardo, about profit and loss.
After one year I began formal studies at the university. I did several subjects at once: philosophy, Islamic studies, as well as economics. In 1986, I finished my degree in Islamic Studies from Hassan II University in Casablanca. From 1986-1988, I was then selected for a special course to train professors. There were 1000 applicants and 10 were selected. I graduated as an assistant professor and was appointed to teach in the Islamic Studies department at Cadi Ayyad University of Marrakesh.
Then, in 1991, I completed my PhD at Cadi Ayyad University.
In 1996, I began my post-doctoral studies in comparative religions at the Sorbonne University in France. Simultaneously, I initiated, with Dr. Amina Beverly McCloud, a course of North African sociology that I taught in partnership with DePaul University.
The students and professors from DePaul proposed that I apply for a Fulbright Resident Scholar position, which they endorsed. So, I moved to DePaul University, where I taught as a Fulbright Scholar from 1999-2000. During this period I gave a few conferences at the University of Chicago which were well received and so they proposed that I transfer from DePaul to the University of Chicago to teach an accelerated course for doctoral students to build capacities to explore Muslim cultures, five hours a day, five days a week for three months (the equivalent of a year of study). The doors of the University’s libraries and archives were opened to me. It was so thrilling.
After my second stay in the US, it was again time to return to Morocco and in 2002 I completed my Doctorat d’Etat in Islamic Studies from Cadi Ayyad University.
And, then, as was written at the beginning of this wonderful interview, I began working with the Ministry of Habbous and Religious Affairs.
Thank you, dear Katherine, for the pleasure of talking with you during these past few years. I have greatly enjoyed our extended discussion.