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The Ruins of Traditional Islam

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I recently spent a few weeks in Fez, Morocco–an icon of what many call “traditional Islam.” Fez is often described as a fully preserved medieval city, a sanctuary where premodern rhythms of life still reign.

For those unfamiliar with this construct, “traditional Islam” is posited as the authentic alternative to the various modern reform movements–those that reject classical sources of knowledge altogether, those that simplify and codify core Islamic texts into a false universal, those well funded by Saudi oil money, and those who mix Islam with modern political ideologies. In short, traditional Islam is the organic cotton thobe, not the polyester one made in China. It is a masjid made of stone, not concrete. It is the Islam of beautiful piety, rather than ugly, intolerant austerity.

Most modern Muslim cities are a reflection of colonialism and the secular nationalist movements of the twentieth century. It is easy for Muslims to feel displaced and exiled from their own civilization, never sure what influences are defining their lives. For traditional Muslims, these cities are symbolic of deeper maladies. They reflect a change in education systems, land use, and social organization. In this respect, Fez promises a more authentic experience. After living in Cairo, which artfully combines the pollution and traffic of Los Angeles with the bleak congestion of New York, it is refreshing to imagine a pure, enduring Islamic alternative…but what I found was something quite different.

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I first visited the old medina of Fez with a tour group (a sign, in itself, of how things have changed) and was immediately taken aback by the aggressive, ill-mannered salesmen lining the streets. Also troubling was their almost universal tendency to address me as “Ali Baba”, apparently linking my full beard with the old Arab legend (are there not other texts that might inspire one to grow a beard?). The first bit of relief came when we entered one of the city’s old madrassas. The architecture was exquisite, with layered levels of marble masonry, mosaics, plaster engraving, and carved wood decorating the structure. It also showed a brilliant functional design–a central fountain for purification, a forward prayer hall, classrooms with intricate acoustic designs, and semi-private residences ringing the courtyard. We were informed that the pillars are set on metal plates to dampen the shockwaves of earthquakes. The madrassa once functioned as a complete learning environment. Those sciences we now distinguish as either “Islamic” and “secular” were taught together.

So Fez was once a seat of learning, with impressive levels of knowledge and sophistication. But now this madrassa, and many others like it, have become part of the tourist spectacle. Even the small, active (and much less spectacular) madrassas along the main streets of Fez double as tourist attractions. The teachers invite in passers-by with the same enthusiasm as shopkeepers. Everything is for sale.

Another interesting aspect of urban design in old Fez is the internal spaces. Streets are kept narrow, sometimes shoulder width, to leave room for large interiors. Many old homes include open courtyards, providing the residents with a private, outdoor space. This obviously reflects Islamic sensibilities, incorporating into architectural design the virtue of modesty and the primacy of family life. The stacks of concrete apartments in modern cities cannot compete with this distinctive feature. But what goes on in those personal spaces has changed. The rooftops of Fez are much like those in any Middle Eastern city. They are saturated with satellite dishes. And while a few people may watch the sparse selection of religious channels, most are completely immersed in soap operas, pop music, and even pornography. I was traveling with a group of American teachers, all of whom stayed with Moroccan host families, and I heard many stories of families not praying at all, or the older generations praying while the youth remained glued to the television.

Another disturbing aspect of Fez is the minions of young men who chase and harass Western women all over the city. One cannot imagine this sort of behavior being tolerated in centuries past, even if droves of non-Muslim women had walked through the streets. Wild delusions about Western women’s promiscuity (and the desire for green cards) drive these sleazy parasites. And they somehow mistake gayish European fashions and hair gel for masculinity. This is the “Islam” that many women experience in Fez, a confirmation of all their worst suspicions.

There is one aspect of traditional religious life that still thrives in Fez. In the old center lies the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the city’s founder. Unlike the madrassa, non-Muslims are not permitted inside, so our tour group stopped at the door as others filed in and out. Our tour leader cheerfully explained how locals will come to visit the tomb, light a candle, and ask to be granted a male child, an easy childbirth, or other small blessings. There is even a “drive-through” window outside the tomb where you can deposit money before beseeching the long dead city father. And without the casuistry of scholars to claim otherwise, I can only think to describe this as grave worship, as blatant shirk.

I have to ask, is this the substance and message of traditional Islam? Does the beauty, wisdom, and past glory of Fez excuse or outweigh such a heinous practice? After all, as much as I admire the city’s historical legacy, it is only an ornament of this fleeting worldly life.

Ironically, I have always found the most appealing aspect of “traditional” American scholars to be their insights and wisdom concerning contemporary, MODERN issues.  I also agree that we should not simply paint an Islamic face on modernity while ignoring or despising our own rich history (and further, using it as a basis to critique modernity).  But I have always perceived one major flaw with traditional Islam, and for me, Fez confirms it…how can we raise the precolonial, premodern Muslim world as an ideal, when it is that very world that collapsed in the face of European ascendancy.  In other words, the “modern reformers” of Islam are right to have asked, “Where did we go astray?”  Rather than glorifying a beautiful old city like Fez, we should be asking, “How did the past greatness of this place evolve into such a bitter present?”  In seeking an answer, the grave worship seems like an obvious place to start.

Fez is still home to the Qarawiyyin Mosque and University, a living center of classical learning. The adhan is still called from the minarets, and worshippers still respond. But without doubt, it is a city in steep decline. As an added humiliation, many Europeans are now buying property in Fez, further transforming the city into an exotic vacation resort. Allah has decreed the decadence of Fez just as he once permitted its glory, and we must reflect on both when charting our way forward. Traditional Islam is attractive because it draws lessons, inspiration, and wisdom from the full breadth of Muslim history.  But we cannot market a frozen, precolonial past as the solution to our woes, when it is that very past that failed us. An Islamic Renaissance requires more than gentrification.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Musa Maguire is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and accepted Islam after graduating from college. In 2004-2005, he received a Fulbright grant to study in Egypt, and then spent the following year working at Huda TV, an English-language Islamic satellite channel that broadcasts from Cairo.

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