Religion and Power Book Review – Alex Frumkin

Religion and Power in Morocco, by Henry Munson, Jr., at its core is a book dedicated to chronicling the political role of Islam throughout Morocco’s history. A daunting task, Munson largely relies on the analysis of previous texts such as Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed and Ernst Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas, many others in Western languages, and numerous Arabic sources to ensure a comprehensive understanding of religious and political history in Morocco (Munson also bases part of the book on personal experience in Morocco though this is largely undeveloped throughout the book). Throughout the book, Munson critically analyzes this history through the lenses of anthropology and also ethnography; he makes many arguments in regards to the ideas of past scholars and forms his own intellectual conclusions. Throughout this process, Munson creates a narrative that is difficult to follow in its entirety and one that is also inadequate when considering the full scope of the book’s title; despite this, Religion and Power in Morocco is still an important piece of literature for anyone interested in Islamic or Moroccan history and even still a somewhat entertaining read in respect to academia.


By utilizing specific examples in Moroccan history, Munson uses his vast knowledge to not only address both the actual history of Morocco as well as the perception of history from a folklore perspective but also expand these examples into broad concepts that reflect important truths of Morocco (similar to Geertz’s approach). Yet he does this at the cost of not constructing one logical, cohesive narrative by which Religion and Power in Morocco develops. Not including the first chapter addressing 17th-century scholar-cum-saint al-Yusi, the book does transition in chronological order, but because of an overload of various information and the inability to smoothly transition between examples and concepts, it is difficult to follow Munson’s train of thought and the book diminishes in quality despite how interesting the history is and how thoughtful Munson’s conclusions are. The first two chapters of the book jump back and forth between different concepts with seemingly no rhyme or reason. In the first chapter of the book, by addressing a mix of concepts, critiques of Geertz, and the story of al-Yusi, Munson eviscerates an interesting folktale by making it confusing to process and renders it almost unenjoyable. The second chapter does not help things make sense for the audience; an expository list of scholars without much order and essentially no context does nothing to lessen confusion. And this confusion is only worsened by the assumptive nature in how Munson addresses his audience. This book was clearly written within the scope of anthropology, and the works of many people are written from the presumptive stance that these people (including Westermarck and Combs-Schilling) and their works need no introduction. For the audience members who do not know these names (myself included), the overload of content – let alone expected background knowledge – is overwhelming and makes Religion and Power in Morocco even more difficult to analyze. The resulting difficulty in processing the vital information provided in the narrative is the single largest flaw of the book. It would be difficult to explain how exactly to reorganize the information within chapters one and two, but the remaining chapters all function well as individual readings rather than one extended narrative. Regardless, the book has a lot of room for organizational improvement that would make it much better overall.


The other major critique of the book is not necessarily any of the content within it but rather the scope of the literature itself. As difficult as it must be to acquire detailed sources on pre-Alaouite dynasty history, a book called Religion and Power in Morocco cannot simply address the nuance only within the Maliki Sunni Islam practiced by the vast majority of Moroccans and its relationship to a single dynasty that has only been in power for such a small segment of the country’s entire history. The book fails to touch any intricacies of the relationship between religion and government in Morocco pre-1600, which is arguably the more critical history and certainly the one I was more excited to learn more about before opening the book. Before the presence of Islam in Morocco, the Amazighs (Berbers) who lived in the present-day nation practiced traditional religion, Christianity, and Judaism, and faith most likely played a role in tribal political organizations. While this information has been understandably lost to history, there should be much more available information in regards to the intersection of religion and power in Morocco’s pre-Alaouite dynasties. However, all of Morocco’s non-Alaouite history is “covered” in two pages (Munson 40-41), despite the fact that this period of time had far more drastic political and religious changes. In particular, Munson fails to include the history of Judaism in Morocco, which has had an incredibly important presence in the country and undoubtedly an influence on its political institutions. Jewish individuals were often ambassadors or “ministers” of Morocco to foreign countries, and at one point, the vizier (akin to a prime minister) of Morocco was a Jewish man named Aaron ben Battas; the financial success of Moroccan Jews ensured that they had a role in government and economy for hundreds and hundreds of years. So while it is difficult to decipher the intersection of Judaism itself and Morocco’s institutions of power, simply omitting the kingdom’s Jewish history is an egregious error on the part of Munson. At the very least, the name of the book is certainly a misnomer – there’s a lot of elements concerning religion and power in Morocco not addressed in the book. Though less catchy, a much more accurate name for the book would be The Political Role of Islam under Morocco’s Alaouite Dynasty. This new name is indicative of the fact that the book only addresses one religion within one dynasty. It’s also a fair reflection of the fact that most of the book doesn’t address purely political or religious aspects of Moroccan society; even though these elements are recognized as important on the first page of the preface, they are not actually detailed until chapter five (Munson 115-148) of the book. By having a clash between the scope of the literature’s title and the scope of the actual literature, Munson further distracts the reader from the book’s high quality, and a more in-depth analysis of Morocco’s pre-1600s history would improve the context from which the literature is derived.


Nonetheless, despite these critiques, Munson’s Religion and Power in Morocco is still a comprehensive, intriguing, high-quality text that addresses *almost* all of the history necessary to understand Morocco today. Further, Munson’s meticulous analysis of historical examples such as al-Yusi and al-Kattani through the lens of anthropology and ethnography shed light on interesting truths about Morocco that make for an very informative read that also would have been fully entertaining if the book were organized differently or perhaps just split into separate readings by the chapter. The unique political role of Islam still shines through; Munson’s thorough analysis starting in chapter three and extending through the end of the literature more than makes up for organizational flaws in the first two chapters as well the later chapters (rather than being entirely separate, some of the Combs-Schilling section from 121-125 should be at the start of chapter five). Chapter four in particular when addressing the flaw in Gellner’s theory of the pendulum between popular and orthodox Moroccan Islam & the development of ideologized Islam is Henry Munson, Jr. at his strongest; he effectively displays the development of reformist ideology through several critical scholars in a logical order (something that would have been beneficial to chapter two) and both informs and entertains the reader simultaneously. If Munson were to reorganize the book in such a way that preserves all the information without sacrificing entertainment and also decently expand the literature’s pre-Alaouite history section, then Religion and Power in Morocco would be a perfect book. But for what it’s worth, the book is still pretty good as is and still deserves to be part of any collection concerning Moroccan history.



“Mauretania.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Aug. 2007.

“Morocco Virtual Jewish History Tour.”, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise

Munson, Henry. Religion and Power in Morocco. Yale University Press, 1993.

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