Reflecting on the legacy of ‘Allal al-Fassi

Developing Just Leadership

Zainab Cheema

Dhu al-Hijjah 27, 1434 2013-11-01

Special Reports

by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1434)

The story of a Moroccan anti-colonialist struggler, Allal al-Fassi is traced in exacting detail to remind Muslims of the rich legacy of Muslim heroes.

Remembrance often requires one to take a duster to the library of personal biographies; to revisit the lives of great men and women who struggled for Islam in the face of overwhelming odds. In this library, it is possible to find ‘Allal al-Fassi, the 20th-century Islamic scholar and Moroccan nationalist hero who helped bring down the curtain on French colonialism in Morocco.

‘Allal al-Fassi, as his name indicates, was born in 1910ce in the historic city of al-Fass (Fez) Morocco — his family was of Andalusian descent, his forefathers escaping from Spain when the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th and 17th centuries began its lethal process of ethnic cleansing. Fez, being an outpost of sorts for the Andalusian diaspora, burnished al-Qarawayeen University with their learning and intellectual traditions. ‘Allal’s family adopted Fez for their kunyah — Fassi meaning “of the city of Fez” — and went on to produce some of the city’s most well known jurists, lecturers and writers. Al-Qarawayeen, the oldest degree granting university in the world, came to epitomize the fusion of the Eastern and Western intellectual cultures of Islam.

The period in which ‘Allal was born was a particularly tumultuous one in Moroccan history — the French influence over the Maghrib coalesced in the form of a protectorate in 1912, reducing the reigning ‘Alawite dynasty to little more than a puppet subject to French economic and political interests.

The period in which ‘Allal was born was a particularly tumultuous one in Moroccan history — the French influence over the Maghrib coalesced in the form of a protectorate in 1912, reducing the reigning ‘Alawite dynasty to little more than a puppet subject to French economic and political interests. French infrastructure was designed to siphon resources off to the metropole leaving widespread poverty in its wake. The psychological, social, and moral confusions accelerated by colonialism, collided with colonial policies of “divide and rule” — French attempts to segregate Arabs and Berbers, and fan racial hatreds between them.

‘Allal’s family was part of the backbone of the underground movement to French colonialism, the religious scholars, literati, and intellectuals who centered around al-Qaraweyeen University and transformed it into a bastion of intellectual and social resistance to the French and their policies. After memorizing the Qur’an, ‘Allal’s family enrolled him in an independent Arabic school that was intended to educate children in a different model from the French lyceum, which was designed to produce obedient servants of empire. Al-Fassi studied Islamic sciences at al-Qarawayeen University, under the foremost religious scholars of early-20th-century Morocco. His education trained him to express political resistance to colonialism through an Islamic intellectual framework.

In his public du‘as at the close of lectures, he would pray for guidance for the people so that they would not fall for the Arab-Berber sectarian card and play into French hands. The French attempted to ban the salah, but to no avail.

‘Allal eventually became a lecturer in Islamic history and sciences at al-Qaraweyeen; known for his brilliant lectures, he actively directed his scholarship toward resisting French attempts to socially fragment Morocco. In his public du‘as at the close of lectures, he would pray for guidance for the people so that they would not fall for the Arab-Berber sectarian card and play into French hands. The French attempted to ban the salah, but to no avail. ‘Allal’s political activity seemed to augment his literary production rather than reduce it. His numerous books include Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique), in which his examination of intellectual approaches is used to critique armchair Islamis scholars; Maghrib al-‘Arabi min al-Harb al-‘Alimiyah al-‘Ula (A History of Morocco from the First World War to Today); Islam wa-Tahdiyat al-Hadith (Islam and Contemporary Challenges); ‘Aqidah wa-Jihad (Belief Foundations and Jihad); and Al-Siyasiyah al-Berberiyah fi al-Maghrib, (Morocco’s Berber Policy).

Organizing mass demonstrations against the French, ‘Allal was arrested and in 1937, sent into exile in Gabon. French authorities then transferred him to the Congo, where he stayed until he was released in 1946. ‘Allal would spend the next few years travelling between Europe and the Muslim world, including an extended stay in Egypt in which he formed relationships with many of the founding luminaries of the Ikhwan. ‘Allal was finally able to re-enter Morocco in 1949, staying in Tangiers, which was at that time under Spanish control (Spain and France having partitioned Morocco effectively between North and South).

‘Allal went on to found Morocco’s nationalist Istiqlal Party in the 1950s, which fused together Islamic sciences and postcolonial fervor in order to pose the first organized political rejection of the French protectorate.

‘Allal went on to found Morocco’s nationalist Istiqlal Party in the 1950s, which fused together Islamic sciences and postcolonial fervor in order to pose the first organized political rejection of the French protectorate. His long struggles against French colonialism seasoned his thought and approaches, which reflected in his writings. “Force can extract from the body of a Muslim, and it can take his wealth and his life; or compel him to leave his land and his people; but it cannot take from him his self respect or his firm belief in his din,” he said.

‘Allal followed the enlightened Salafi school of thought, which proliferated in late-19th- and early-20th-century Muslim world in response to the psychic shock of European colonialism. However, the diverse Salafi movements, which were searching for a genuine social renewal for the Muslims, were a far cry from the current Saudi-Wahhabi ideological abyss that has globally exported itself via oil wealth. While Saudi ideology supports neo-colonialism, for ‘Allal, Islamic renewal went hand in hand with political resistance. “Muslims need to return to their din as it was before; and they need to be free from their sense of inferiority,” he wrote. “Colonialism plants this sense of inferiority in them until they become and they no longer understand themselves except through the scales of the colonialists.”

‘Allal’s political savvy allowed him to build a powerful coalition on his return, where the urban intelligentsia, students, and workers that comprised his original base amplified their power by expanding into rural areas. Nor did he neglect the wider concerns of the Muslim world — in the Maghrib, he organized festivals and demonstrations for Ikhwan members imprisoned and killed in Egypt.

‘Allal’s political savvy allowed him to build a powerful coalition on his return, where the urban intelligentsia, students, and workers that comprised his original base amplified their power by expanding into rural areas. Nor did he neglect the wider concerns of the Muslim world — in the Maghrib, he organized festivals and demonstrations for Ikhwan members imprisoned and killed in Egypt. Eventually, as the Istiqlal movement gained steam, King Muhammad V and the Moroccan elites joined in a bid to oust the French and gain greater control over their country’s resources. Morocco gained independence in 1956.

‘Allal’s legacy is mostly a historical one — his contributions to the country’s political future are marked in road and random monuments named in his honor, but his aim to transform and Islamically invigorate Morocco and the broader Islamic world were not realized. The Moroccan monarchy took power, by and large preserving the French economic and administrative system that allowed France to wield enormous influence over the country. But his works and writing remain a sign post of the transformative power of the human spirit in the face of oppression.

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