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Story Publication logo December 4, 2022

Crafting Scholars in the Modern Islamic World



Instead of the typical Western embrace of an Arab country, this story examines how the youth asserts...


Mohammed V University in Rabat. This campus is home to much of the English studies graduate school work. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

Along with his students, Mohamed Meslouhi breaks class as the adhan, or call to prayer, begins to echo through narrow streets outside the window. As day loses sight of the distant setting sun, the students and their professor stand together in prayer, reciting lines they just beautifully laid out on paper or board, with reed pen or chalk. They return to the classroom with ihsan, the values of beauty and virtue, following the harmonic movements of letters with ink, and reaffirming revelatory phrases from the Holy Quran.

The students in this Arabic calligraphy class are mostly middle-aged to elderly learners. This timeless scene of Moroccan learning intertwines the Arabic language and the Islamic tradition into its foundations yet is currently challenged with the increase of the English language among the youth. 

So as the cultural language begins to shift, what becomes of Meslouhi’s class? What becomes of the historic importance of not only Arabic calligraphy but the Arabic language’s role in preserving Islam in modern Moroccan society?

Mohamed Meslouhi practices Arabic calligraphy in the Maghrebi (Moroccan) font. He writes: “Guide us to the straight path,” the sixth line of Surah al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Holy Quran. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

Religion in Morocco

Marked with both 14th century mosques and the scaffolding of skyscrapers, the skyline of Rabat is a reminder that modernity isn’t an “all or nothing” choice. 

Although in recent times Morocco has witnessed increasing questions on the role of religion within politics – most notably in the 2021 parliamentary upset of the Islamic Justice and Development Party –, Islam’s role within Moroccan cultural and social landscape has always been a source of pride and guidance against Western ideals of secularism.

The modern anglicization seeping into Morocco has posed some challenges. Earlier this summer, the Moroccan Cinematographic Center banned “Lady of Heaven'' from being screened or advertised within the country. 

The British film depicts Fatima al-Zahraa, the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, dismissing Islamic conventional thought of not depicting images of the Prophet or his family. The film also attacks the Prophet himself, his wife Aisha, and Abu Bakr and Omar, the first two caliphs in Islam.

In September, blogger Fatima Karim was sentenced to two years in jail for “undermining the Islamic religion” by sharing sarcastic comments on Quranic verses and Hadith of the Prophet.

“The verdict was very harsh,” said her lawyer, claiming that it contradicts her right to freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the Moroccan constitution.

The struggle of balance between modernizing and maintaining loyalty to religion in the public sphere remains an ambiguous effect of modernity. However, Moroccans are adapting and finding new ways to coexist with such perceived contradictions.

“I think the idea of modernizing Islam is like changing Islam,” says Fedoua Rahmaouy, graduate student of English linguistics at Mohammed V University. “Because it’s something written, it’s a rule. If we change the rule, we change everything.” 

“At the same time, I live with my religious background at the same time as modernizing with the world. There is nothing wrong with being modernized and being Muslim,” she concludes.

Moroccan Multiculturalism

The wooden smells of oud vaporize the surrounding architecture into the air of the foyer. Marble columns extend initially into a natural terrace and continue to reach upwards into the stained-glass spotlights above, all centered by the stone fountain in the middle of a monotone floor mosaic. Cats weave between the legs of students discussing a recent exam, and these soft murmurs echo within the garden courtyard, pour into the engraved hallways and patterned staircases and finally whistle out through the arched windows above.

Dar al Hadith. Portraits of King Hassan II (left) and current King Mohammed VI (right) hang within the foyer. The institute is funded by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

Hssein Khtou has been an English professor at Dar al Hadith Institute since 2007. Growing up in a Berber village in southeastern Morocco, Tamazight was his native language, then he went on to learn Modern Standard Arabic and finally Darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic). 

He became interested in English after not finding much fondness in French, and entirely self-studied the language along with a peer as they commuted to school every day. “You must create the context of the language outside the class,” he says, and informs his students as such.

The importance that students pay to language reflects Morocco’s multilingual background. Many Moroccans view learning a language as more than flipping through a textbook or memorizing vocabulary flashcards. Instead, it’s about submerging yourself into another culture, a simulated assimilation, and gaining connection to those different from your native environment.

With the help of the internet, the younger generation has almost entirely learned the English language on their own, as many have become fluent before they are taught in the national school system. Parents also proved little assistance in learning the language, as most in older generations communicate solely via Darija and French.  

The youth’s English-speaking capabilities are often comparable to a native English speaker, yet most children and young adults are also fluent in Darija, French, and ideally, Modern Standard Arabic. Thus, at an early age, a majority have found themselves multilingual. 

Abdelghani Zidan understands that the embracement of various languages is a necessary evolution of communication. Zidan is a research professor of the history of science and Arab-Islamic civilization at the Mohammedia League of Ulemas, an institute dedicated to teaching Sharia and Islamic values “with respect for the principles of the middle ground and moderation.”

However, Zidan carries the thread of necessary communication further, questioning the presence of modernity even within the increase of the English language. 

“Knowing people comes with knowing their languages,” Zidan thoughtfully explains. “And for someone else to know you, you must talk to him in his language, and the goal here is communication. In a traditional society, are there no ideas of communication?”

Ultimately, Zidan accepts the role of modern consciousness among current youth and its link with the English language. 

“Like it or not, countries impose their culture. Western modernization is like a river. For example, even in China and Japan, the English language has affected the economy,” Zidan says.

Still, he argues that the principle of knowledge is grounded in open-mindedness, the central tenet of Moroccan culture. Citing poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zidan concludes, “Unless one learns multiple languages, one does not know anything about his own.”

But as language learning proves to be an assimilating activity, how can the Moroccan youth be well-versed in at least four different languages while still remaining in touch with their authentic religio-cultural identity?

Graduate students of English linguistics at Mohammed V University do not view their multilingualism, including the introduction of English, as an agent of modernity. Instead, language and cultural assimilation functions as an addition to the Moroccan identity, which already includes a rich blend of various languages.

“In Morocco we speak Arabic, Tamazight, French, some do speak Spanish, so we have this multicultural setting,” Rahmaouy says. “This multilingual setting has made it easy for Morocco to grasp and be open to other cultures.”

Abdel Kader Elkhaoua, another graduate student at Mohammed V, states that despite some conservative notions, there is nothing preventing someone from pursuing knowledge of a different culture or language, so long as they “stay true to their identity, to their religious principles.”  

Some claim to be more in touch with the spiritual side of religion, like Hayat El Bani. She incorporates various Islamic principles into her life, and she claims that they “logically make sense,” referring to Islam’s advocacy of women’s rights and of having genuine character.

Wiam Zamzem also identifies as more spiritual than religious, although a part of her will always be connected to Islam. “It’s so nice in a way seeing people connected to their faith and praying and knowing their purpose spiritually,” she expressed. 

For many students, religion is not a concept that should be “updated,” however. 

“Islam is for all time and space,” claims Kawtar Essebani, who argues it can coexist with ideas of modern age development, implying that the rejection of religion in the public sphere does not qualify under such “progress.” 

Western culture and modernity may come with certain ideals, but flexibility in taking agency over cultural adoption and adaptation is a concept unique to Moroccan culture. 

Because of Morocco’s rich diversity of language and culture that is already ingrained in what it means to be “authentically Moroccan” (with note to the influence of the Amazigh communities in the South and Eastern regions, the Spanish influence in the North, and the pervasive French throughout the rest of the nation), a relaxed and open-minded outlook is inherent to Moroccan cultural society. 

“When you are bilingual you are bicultural,” summarizes Khtou, and such dualism extends into multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Photographer Ahmed Cherkaoui exhibits his work in the Mohammed V Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art in Rabat. A room within the exhibit featured Moroccans of various faiths all participating in an act of worship. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

Then, with the basis of open-mindedness inherent to Moroccan society in combination with modern ideals of the youth, English has become a source of better expressing identity. Zamzem notes her use of English in reflection of expressing a sense of masculinity in certain social settings.  

Staying true to their Islamic heritage and belief, the Moroccan youth are redefining modern consciousness; while culture and language are important parts of Moroccan society, the earth on which it is built is religion.

Islam is found to be a guiding framework necessary to navigate these complex changes in the modern world, but rather than idolize the package of Westernization, the younger generation is disassembling the totem of modernity by forging their new identity as modern Muslim Moroccans.

Moderating Religion through English 

“Many kingdoms have passed through Morocco, including a Jewish king; it was a changing culture,” Zidan recalls. Even under Islamic rule, there were various dynasties that ruled the region. “Morocco takes positive things from other cultures and leaves the other things. And [it] preserves Islamic culture despite all else, despite the openness to the West and the speaking of foreign languages.”

Furthermore, English can also be used as an agent of moderating religious extremism found in Morocco. Following the Casablanca bombings of 2003, (and some claim even predating the terrorist attacks in 2001), the Moroccan government developed a project to promote a more moderate view of Islam.

“Knowing a language is going to help you be open to other cultures, and of course, the students of various languages would be more open-minded,” Khtou says, in reference to the assimilating quality of language learning in Morocco. “When you’re exposed to other cultures and traditions, you become open-minded, which means you don’t believe you’re the only one who is right, you accept difference, and this is what we need.”

Utilizing the country’s Sufi (Islamic mystic) origins, the government focused on exporting “Moroccan Islam” to other sub-Saharan nations, namely Senegal, as they funded mosque building and the training network of imams.  Because many of the Moroccan based Tijani Sufi order are Senegelese natives, Morocco already had a connection to stimulating religious cooperation among the two countries, creating a concrete link of moderating Islam outside of Morocco.

A zawiya (Sufi lodge) of the Tijani Sufi order located in Rabat’s old medina. Originated from saint Ahmed Tijani of Fes. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

Zidan also discusses a bold and memorable indication of modern thought: secularism in Morocco, though not superimposable to its Western counterpart. There is a form of secularism endorsed by the monarchy. “It depends on balance, so its relationship with countries is open. This is the political motive for any king,” Zidan says. 

However, the secularism found here may be a signal of openness, not banishing God from the public sphere as Western thought may connote. 

“On the side of secularism, we want to benefit from political transformations, and Morocco must follow this vision,” he adds. “The goal is not to abolish the Islamic identity, but to benefit from the aspects that make Morocco open to the world.”

Remaining open to the “Other,” or in the case of English, embracing the culture of the secular West with remembrance to God is a thought common to the Moroccan state’s fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as adherents to the Maliki school of thought. 

Driving that point home, Zidan tells a story: “Imam Malik was walking with one of his friends in the place where there was a temple, and his friend said to him: ‘Did you know this place? One was in disbelief of God here.’ Imam Malik said: ‘Do not say this, say that people worshiped in this place.’”

Yet, more concretely, students in classrooms today have more exposure to the English language by use of the internet. In effect, Khtou notices an “imbalance in mastery of skill” at Dar al Hadith, as many can speak much better than they can read or write.

Excerpt from textbook “English for Islamic Studies,” 2013. Written by Amna Bedri and Fiona McGarry. This textbook is used in Khtou’s English for Religious Purposes course. Readers get an in depth account of both the English language and religious content material. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

Such a focus on language is then necessary not only for his English for general purpose courses, but even more so in his English for religious purposes higher level program. Yet, there seemed to be a slight inconsistency in learning about Islam, a religion which has scripture and practices largely conducted in Arabic, through modes of English.

Why is there a need amongst Moroccan scholars to learn about Islam in English? Khtou responds without hesitation. “There are people who would call English the language of Islam.”

English learning as an Islamic responsibility

Arabic is the language of Quranic revelation, and thus largely considered to be the only acceptable medium of study among Islamic scholars, as it was God’s mode of communication. Thus, a certain holiness is associated with Arabic. 

For example, an Arabic Quran is to be handled with greater care than one solely in English. But Khtou explains that with the wide variety of publications about religion throughout the Islamic world, English has undoubtedly become the common medium among religious scholars. 

“My students need to then be equipped with the tools of language to have access to those works,” he claims, and even more interestingly asserts that one who doesn’t know English would be considered a “lesser Islamic scholar.”

Students discuss a recent exam in the courtyard of Dar al Hadith el Hassania. Khtou recounts three students this past year attending an international conference of religious studies, and remarks that it’s the first time Dar al Hadith has offered students as public speakers in a foreign language. One student delivered a speech in English, and two in French. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

It was in 2005 when Dar al Hadith underwent a radical reform, introducing foreign languages and social sciences such as philosophy, psychology, history and economics, in an effort to produce “scholars who are knowledgeable and open to other cultures, not passive consumers of knowledge.” 

With the help of social sciences, “students can evaluate their knowledge on the basis that they are going to produce more knowledge, hence what we call ijtihad (independent reasoning) in Islam,” said director of Dar el Hadith when issuing the inclusion of the social science curriculum. 

Khtou explains that in fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, ijtihad is promoted. Although many areas within the religion are considered set in stone as revelations, scholarship is where Muslims should seek knowledge. 

“Being Muslim means being open,” Rahmaouy says. Learning English for her falls in line with her responsibility of being a good Muslim and remaining tolerant towards other cultures of the world.

Scholars at Dar al Hadith need to be capable of discussing specialties other than their own. Khtou cites philologist Max Müller, “He who knows one religion, knows none,” as an unforgettable quote on a t-shirt he saw while visiting a church in America.

“You cannot be limited to your specialty, because then you’ll be left with a scholar who comes up with narrow interpretations of religious texts,” Khtou details. “A good scholar is someone who knows everything about something and something about everything!”

“We believe that God created people who are different, and there is wisdom behind that.” Khtou explains that submitting to such revelation benefits us outwardly and inwardly, publicly and spiritually. “There is a beautiful verse in the Quran that says, ‘If Allah wishes to make people follow the same path, He would have done so,’ but there is wisdom behind this difference.”


teal halftone illustration of praying hands




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