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Master and Disciple: Fancy Rhetoric, Simple Autocracy

Abdellah Hammoudi’s Master and Disciple is a sweeping analysis of Moroccan cultural structures that provides support for a paradigm of Moroccan authoritarians as the singular, supreme master in a political system filled with ostensible disciples. He asserts that in such a system, individuals subjugate their own wills, desires, and rationality to those of the Moroccan king in order to gain increasing proximity to him so that one day, they might be close enough to play a role in shaping his decisions. The king arbitrates between their interests, and his decisions are final; at the same time, he is expected to shower benefits on the disciples as a guarantee and recognition of their loyalty. Hammoudi’s theoretical description of such a paradigm is uncontroversial; however, his assertions that Morocco’s political system is defined by the model and, more importantly, that the model explains Morocco’s condition, are more debatable.

Hammoudi does a phenomenal job conveying the history of the Moroccan king and his political context, starting with a precolonial era that seems very feudalistic. The “state” is defined by the king and his network of loyal servants, kept in line by two-fold mutual obligations: temporal, with pecuniary and power-related benefits bestowed upon tribal chiefs, advisors, and wealthy urban elites that have been loyal, as well as increasing control and prestige associated with those who have dutifully and unflinchingly followed the sultan’s whims. The king is legitimized periodically by Islamic scholars’ declarations that he, as a descendant of the Prophet, is the elect of God and thus his arbitration is executed with supreme knowledge of God’s ways. Without him, the sultanate fails to exist. Meanwhile, servants, on their path to power, must endure often unfair punishments and bear harsh taxation, property confiscation, and the periodic stripping of their prestige because the sultan wills it. This experience mirrors the experience of disciples on the path to mastery in the Sufi orders so prevalent in Moroccan Islam.

The French colonizers upset the order by establishing a system of harsh oppression, not legitimized by any sort of religious supremacy, Sufi or otherwise. Their governance structure focused on extraction of resources using local collaborators, but the ultimate enforcement mechanism was a powerful state bureaucracy, not a set of feudal-type obligations. As groups like the nationalist party Istiqlal of individuals rose up to support the sultan, still considered the commander of the faithful, in his struggle against the protectorate, the sultan regained immense prestige but of a more centralized variety.

In the post-independence Morocco, the king has successfully disrupted parties and religious brotherhoods alike, ostensibly by pressuring groups like Istiqlal in the 1950s to split apart into multiple parties based on their different economic agendas. If they were able to pursue power independently, they might have united against the king, but the opportunity was precluded by the movement’s deferral to their “commander” and “master.”

While the paradigm of master-and-disciple is interesting, it also seems an underwhelming explanation for Moroccan authoritarianism. The dynamic contains broad explanatory power for the authoritarian situation in Morocco, masterfully comparing the path of the courtier to power described above to the struggles of the Sufi disciple. In Sufism, the master frequently demands his disciple forsake his old life, exemplified the Darqawi brotherhood’s extreme case in which al-Hijb Ali gave up the lucrative life of a traditional scholar to roam the country in tattered clothing, begging for food, for years, even in the midst of his parents’ home. The power dynamic not only matches the feudalistic system of pre-colonial days, but also for the modern Moroccan nation-state. The same scheme of relationships inhabits a new government structure: parliamentary factions fight each other for the king’s favor rather than against the king himself so that they might implement their policy agendas; in fact the king infrequently intends to allow any party to gain enough power to truly exercise it, a similar balancing act to that of pre-colonial sultans despite a different political landscape. Compared to other Arab and Islamic countries that have successfully evaded mainstream democratic urges, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco’s evasion seems both more systemically-rooted and stable; it does not rely on shows of force and buying off the people to the same extent because of the master-and-disciple dynamic.

However, the paradigm of a master and disciple ultimately seems more like a rhetorical flourish that could in reality describe any highly personalized authoritarian regime (hence why these are named “sultanistic” regimes by political scientists). When this is accounted for, the whole book’s thesis seems more an extended historical dissection to support a broad theory of how “sultanistic” regimes succeed than it does explain Morocco’s specific scenario. While this may seem a success, seeing that Hammoudi’s objective was to find a pattern that could be extrapolated, it is a failure because in its rhetorical breadth the book fails to prove its truth in the specific case of Morocco. Hammoudi fails to show that Sufism’s paradigm is pervasive, nor how its power dynamics nearly certainly cause authoritarianism. Indeed, much of the book focuses on nationalistic and religious groups, often anti-Sufi, upholding the king’s status despite incongruities with his status as ruling according to revealed law or holy principles. The king himself repressed the Sufi orders for causing rebellion. Meanwhile, there is no comparative work to the other obvious historical case of divine right feudalism: Europe, which managed to avoid confinement to authoritarianism and progressed into bureaucratic nation-state democracy.

Fundamentally, the book provides interesting support for how the Moroccan system of authoritarianism is structured, but not as much for why it is stable or why any of the components involved are crucial factors to Arab autocracy in general. The explanation may, however, come from future analysis of the experience that most significantly separates the Moroccan transition to from divinely-guided feudalism to nation-statehood from the European transition: for Morocco, nation-statehood was an external idea with no cultural foundation and thus the nation-state bureaucracy could be molded by the Moroccan political culture’s master (the king) after the completion of the protectorate. Unfortunately, this specific aspect of the articulation between protectorate and sultanate is not explained in Master and Disciple, which leaves much to be desired in the book.

Master and Disciple Book Review

Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism is Abdellah Hammoudi’s endeavor to describe the development of Moroccan authoritarianism as it has evolved from a cultural standard of authority and submission. Such an ambitious subject involves a thorough overview of Morocco’s political and cultural history and as such, this book is not a quick and easy read. In just 150 pages, Hammoudi provides a comprehensive understanding of all relevant background information and asserts his claim that the master and disciple power dynamic in a religious context laid the foundation for Moroccan authoritarianism under which citizens are meant to treat the governing bodies with near absolute submission.

Morocco has long been a majority Muslim population leaning toward Sufism. Sufism is a form of practicing Islam which encourages its members to undergo spiritual journeys under the guidance of a religious leader, or Sheikh. To participate in this process of Islamic mysticism, the seeker of faith is meant to place unconditional trust and obedience in his or her master. This relationship of authority and submission became the foundation of Moroccan culture which easily translated into a political dynamic. In a monarchical system, the King becomes not just a political leader, but the commander of the faithful. To stand against or criticize the King is to betray Islam, leading to unquestionable loyalty to the monarch. Thus, it becomes easy to understand why Morocco has an authoritarian political institution. Further, Moroccan culture was one of institutionalized social statuses which created a hierarchy in everyday interaction but Hammoudi also makes the assertion that today, there is more room for social mobility.

It is important to note, as Hammoudi does, that Moroccans enjoy more freedoms and rights than many of their Arab neighbors with authoritarian regimes. Today, many of these societies are experiencing conflict which may cause some to wonder why some places with the same fundamental authoritarian dynamic are more unsteady than others. Hammoudi describes the master and disciple relationship as “ambivalent,” claiming that without stable institutions and formal regulations, the dynamic can shift from total submission and obedience to resentment and murder (153). He goes on to say that this tension between master and disciple, father-son, chief-subordinate is central to Arab societies, which makes sense contextualized in an Islamic mystical understanding. Therefore, in transitional stages of society, this shift in attitude is understandable.

Yesterday, our guest lecturer, Professor Sadik Raddad from Sidi Muhammad Bin Abdullah University described Morocco as “a secular nation with a religious rhetoric” as opposed to many Western countries in which there is a secular public sphere and religious private spheres. Hammoudi’s book cannot be subject to much criticism considering its detailed and comprehensive nature, but this is one limitation to his work. As Professor Raddad asserts, Hammoudi never explains why other nations, like Britain, which had once been an authoritarian monarchy with the King as the head of the Church, progressed to  functioning democratic systems and Arab societies have not. Such a discussion would have provided more credibility and support for Hammoudi’s narrative.

Something I struggled with understanding after reading the book was why men are still in a domineering role in Moroccan society. My readings and understandings of Sufism had often placed women positions of strength and power. Dr. Sa’diyya Shaikh’s work had always influenced my understanding that not only does Islam in general allow women to have a platform of power, Sufism also advocated for female empowerment. Further, Morocco is a nation of Almazigh (or Berber) people and after a lecture on women in Morocco as well as a discussion with the director of the American Language Center, it is my understanding that Almazigh women are tough and the opposite of submissive. Hammoudi explains that the political structure of Morocco privileges men in decision making capacities based on the model of authority that has institutionally led Morocco. Hammoudi’s reasoning makes sense, but I feel that with Morocco’s Sufi and Almazigh background, there is so much fuel for women to unite and make societal change.

I cannot say this was an enjoyable read for me, as it was dense and required a lot of my time and energy to comprehend. However, despite its few limitations, I will say Hammoudi’s work is incredibly well written (even though I did read an English translation from its original French), well researched, and well-rounded. Hammoudi asserts his claim clearly that the Sufi dynamic of master and disciple has lead to the development of an authoritarian Morocco. His work also provides context for an understanding of today’s political climate throughout the region, and while this was not an easy or casual read, I really appreciate all the knowledge I’ve gained from it anyway. Throughout upcoming experiences with local students or interviews with other locals, I feel like I now have a stronger foundation on which to have those discussions.


The View from Josh of “A House in Fez”–Josh Curtis

A House in Fez, by Suzanna Clarke, illuminated for me a perspective of Fassi culture (and through it, Moroccan) that really cannot be obtained by reading any Wikipedia article. Away from the common tourist destinations of Marrakech, Tangier, and even the Ville Nouvelle, Clarke’s narrative of life in the Madina offers a microcosmic vision of Morocco: just like the nation as a whole, the Madina is struggling with how to modernize for the sake of, rather than to replace, the cultural and historic past. Her rich, first-person tale of the renovations of the Riad Zany convey how, even amidst intense efforts to modernize and liberalize, wide cultural and gaps separate Moroccans from the West in terms of business and personal relationships.

The book uses extensive detail to create an image of the Madina as a city both in transition and frozen in time. Modern appliances and innovations lie beside ancient architecture designed and built long before drywall, electricity, and internet wiring. It is a testament to human ingenuity that Clarke’s builders were able to connect modern stoves and toilets to ancient sewer lines, without destroying the beautiful zellij mosaics that decorate the houses of the Madina as they have for hundreds of years. One of the most significant moments to demonstrate the fascinating way that the anachronistic, seemingly competing modes of life in the Madina coexist was Abdul’s digging out the ancient sewer. The sewer is nothing like the Western type, full of complicated piping, insulation, junctions, and fastenings that require years of training to repair. It was simply a ditch, kept open by tiled walls. This simple sewer line was more than adequate for Riad Zany’s modern toilet to flush. On another occasion, Clarke walks through the souks to pick out produce and meat, both charmed and somewhat alarmed by how fresh everything is—in the case of chickens, still wriggling when you purchase it. She uses both experiences to highlight what Clarke portrays as an important part of Morocco: how close the locals are to every facet of life. There is nothing fancy or magical really about the sewer system—a little bit of training is required to understand what needs fixing for sure, but nothing is truly incomprehensible to the lay person. There is nothing mystical about how animals are raised, slaughtered, and butchered. As a result, on the one hand, things might not work as reliably or be as easy, but on the other, one becomes better grounded and can set his or her priorities straight.

Similarly, the community is much more down to earth than most Western ones. Clarke states numerous times that everyone knows everyone else’s business, an obvious but important observation considering the nature of Madina architecture. The place was not designed from the top down, with a utopian vision for how to control people’s behaviors, but rather developed organically through interactions, both friendly and less so, between neighbors. Moreover, residents of the Madina seem to consider their neighbors’ usiness their own, as there is little sense of division between private and public space. This makes the community an interesting and charming contrast to the West, where interactions between servicers and clientele, while often friendly, is strictly business. In contrast, it appears that individuals’ employment and social lives are closely intertwined. Khadija, Clarke’s one-time neighbor, frequently blurred this line. In Clarke’s eyes, she was a close friend for whom she would buy gifts in Australia, yet the relationship was always tense and perhaps ultimately broken by Khadija’s desire to leverage their friendship for employment. Whether it was to clean Riad Zany or for Suzanna to hire Khadija’s husband Abdul as a laborer in the renovation project, requests that seemed to Khadija to be mutual favors—useful work for Suzanna and money to help Khadija’s family—seemed to Clarke to breach a border that would make things awkward when something went wrong, such as Abdul’s possible theft of towels from Clark’s riad. This distinction was an intriguing one, helping to highlight how countries with similar government bureaucracies, political systems, and commercial laws can reach different levels of modernity and retain different societal features.

Taken together, Clarke’s writing illustrates the most relevant concepts about life in the Madina. The ancient city is not simply a tourist attraction or a sight to see; it is more than just interesting architecture. It is a breathing city whose aura offers a case study in how different facets of society can be changed and what the effect is. Clarke’s immense contextual analysis and (sometimes overbearingly) elaborate details clearly convey these concepts to the reader. However, the books is not without flaws in its accounting. She never really answers the nagging problem that she may fail to capture a full picture of how Madina society operates differently from the West precisely because her and the locals’ norms are different. It is unclear to what extent her being foreign affects workers’ behavior around her, or her attitude towards locals. While Clarke makes note of these problems frequently, she never provides even a provisional explanation of how this affected her experience. Unfortunately, this fact may point to an unsavory truth that ultimately, colonial philosophies can never truly be removed from interactions with foreign cultures perceived as in greater desperation or a lower status.