Literary Reflections

'Morocco' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article outlines Moroccan history as context for Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass and Amin Maalouf's Leo Africanus. The article is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


A North African country about the size of California, Morocco has existed as an Islamic region since the 700s. Its local name, al-Maghrib, means “sunset,” after the ancient Arabic name for North Africa, Bilad al-Maghrib (Lands of Sunset). Morocco's population consists mainly of Arabs and Berbers, a native, nomadic people. Nearly 99 percent of the population is Muslim; 1 percent is Christian; and less than half of 1 percent is Jewish. Morocco has around 30 million inhabitants.

Morocco occupies a strategic position on the northwest coast of Africa, directly south of Spain and Portugal. It borders the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, with Algeria to the west and the Western Sahara to the south. Morocco controls the Western Sahara region but faces opposition from a local movement seeking independence. The Moroccan economy relies on agriculture, rock mining, food processing, textiles, and tourism. Droughts plague the region, sometimes causing economic instability. With a rapidly growing population, Morocco strives to increase its educational and economic opportunities.

Islamic Conquerors and Western Invaders

Around 1100 B.C.E., Phoenician traders established settlements around North Africa as they made their way to Spain seeking silver and tin. The Romans conquered the area in 146 B.C.E., followed by the Byzantines in 533 C.E. In 705 the Islamic Umayyad empire expanded to include North Africa. With two large armies from Egypt, the Umayyads suppressed the fiercely independent Berber tribes. Once conquered, the Berbers readily converted to Islam. They adopted the religion and then worked within it to justify rebellion against rulers they considered corrupt. The concept of jihad inspired them in their struggles against caliphs.

Morocco Under Muslim Influence

Berbers and Arab Muslims clashed on many issues. Umayyad rulers promoted the Islamic doctrine of equality among believers, but often betrayed this ideal in daily life. When recruiting Berbers to aid them in their conquest of Spain, for example, they gave them less pay and lower status than Arab warriors. Caliphs also took Berbers as slaves, especially women. In 740 a rebellion broke out in Tangier, and a Berber dynasty began in southern Morocco. The Umayyads fought frequently with tribal groups but could not maintain a strong grip on the region.

In 1056 a group of Berber tribes united as the Almoravids (al-murabitun, meaning “those who stand together,” particularly in defense of Islam). The Almoravids linked themselves to the Qur'anic idea of a holy war. They conquered Morocco, taking over most of North Africa and Muslim Spain. They turned the region into a trading zone with thriving urban centers. In the mid-1100s, the Berber Almohads (al-muwahhidun, meaning “those who affirm the unity of God”) defeated the Almoravids, promoting a return to traditional Islamic values. Their leader viewed himself as Muhammad's heir and wanted to recreate the Islamic community as it had existed in the time of the Prophet.

The Almohad empire began to disintegrate in the mid-1200s, however. It no longer abided by the principles on which it had been founded, and the ruling class could not maintain power over the various tribes and religious groups. Other Berber tribes took over in North Africa. Cultural centers in Morocco flourished, and rulers financed the construction of elaborate mosques and schools. To the disapproval of the Almohads and other Islamic traditionalists, Sufi mystic practices and organizations gained popularity, especially in rural areas. Moroccan Sufis emphasized discipline, silence, charity, sorrow, and humility. They were devoted to saints—holy people who they believed could intercede between God and humans, interpret dreams, and perform miracles.

Morocco remained politically fragmented with small tribes spread across the region and a lack of a strong central government until the 1600s, when the Alawi (al-alawi, or descendants of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law) came to power. The Alawi dynasty unified Morocco and continue to reign in the region in the present day. They suffered internal chaos and economic instability but defended Morocco against the Ottomans, who took over neighboring Algeria and other North African states. The threat of invasion, however, did not end with the Ottomans. In the early 1900s, France and Spain took advantage of the Alawi's weakness and divided Morocco into protectorates.

Resistance to the French and Spanish

In European-controlled Morocco, the sultan appeared to be in control. A French general, however, ruled middle and southern Morocco, and the Spanish established a puppet government (local government controlled by an outside authority) in the north. After suppressing a five-year rebellion in the 1920s, the Spanish had a relatively peaceful reign. Spain maintained friendly relations with the Moroccans, allowing them to receive their education in Arabic and encouraging them to attend Islamic universities in Egypt. Many Moroccans, however, joined General Francisco Franco in his attack on the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939).

The French implemented harsher policies than the Spanish. They disarmed the Berber tribes, forced them to pay taxes, and seized their land. They also suppressed the ruling class, established a new court system, and allowed only a small number of Muslims to study at institutions of higher education. The French attempted to divide Moroccans by pitting the Berbers against the Arabs. Their plan backfired, however, meeting with resistance from both sides and leading to the creation of a unified nationalist movement.

Moroccan nationalists began a serious rebellion against France after it fell to the Germans during World War II (1939 – 1945). The Alawi sultan Muhammad V refused to approve anti-Jewish legislation imposed by the Nazis and pushed for Moroccan independence. When the French exiled him in 1953, he became an instant hero to his people. Faced with increasing opposition from resistance groups in Algeria and other North African countries, the French restored the Moroccan sultan to the throne in 1955. The country became a constitutional monarchy, and Morocco declared its independence in 1956.

Foreign and Domestic Concerns

After the withdrawal of France and Spain, Morocco had to rebuild itself. The French had improved agriculture and communications, expanded industry, and built a modern infrastructure. They had managed most of these activities, however, by taking land from native Moroccans and excluding them from the more rewarding endeavors. Once the Europeans left the region, the economy declined. Morocco went into debt and people rioted against the government. Moroccans worked hard to gain control of their economy. The French had secularized the school system in many areas and had introduced Western dress and customs. Many Muslims took measures to return to traditional Islamic values.

When the sultan died in 1961, his son Hasan II succeeded him. Hasan triumphed over dissenting parties and claimed victory in a 1977 election that many viewed as manipulated. He established a strong central government, exerting more control over rural and tribal areas than previous rulers. Hasan won the approval of most Moroccans when he sought to recover the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, a region dominated by Muslim Berbers in medieval times.

Struggle Over Western Sahara

Morocco continues to engage in a struggle for control over Western Sahara. In 1957, the year after it gained independence, Morocco made a claim on the region and battled with Spanish colonizers. The struggle grew more complicated after Mauritania declared that it, too, had rights to Saharan land. Meanwhile, native Saharans began to rebel. Spain withdrew from the region in 1976, leaving the issue for Morocco and Mauritania to resolve.

By an agreement between the two countries, Morocco received the northern region, an area rich in minerals. Both Morocco and Mauritania faced opposition from the native Polisario Front, however, which pushed for Saharan independence. Mauritania made a peace agreement with the organization in 1979, and Morocco promptly seized its share of the Sahara. In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario Front accepted a United Nations peace proposal allowing Saharans to vote on whether to become part of Morocco officially or to accept the leadership of the Polisario Front. As of 2003, however, the vote has still not occurred. Large numbers of Moroccan settlers have moved into Western Sahara, pushing tens of thousands of native Saharans into refugee camps in Algeria and increasing tensions between Morocco and Algeria.

Political and Religious Issues

Moroccan Muslims continue to debate the merits of their government and the best way to practice Islam. Conservative Muslims criticize Sufis for their festivals honoring the saints, which they believe take the focus away from God. They also frown on the use of music, dancing, and the mixing of men and women at religious gatherings. In the early 1900s, a Salafi movement arose in Morocco. Members of this movement denounce Sufism and urge for a return to traditional Islamic values. They believe that God enabled the first Muslims to conquer much of the world because they obeyed his laws. When Muslims deviated from God's laws, he allowed the unbelievers of Europe to conquer them. If Muslims returned to the roots of their religion, they would once again prevail over their enemies. Members of the Salafi sect worked to gain Moroccan independence and attracted many followers.

Sultan Hasan died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son Muhammad VI . Educated in the West, Muhammad seeks to modernize Morocco. He has expressed interest in such reforms as a literacy program for rural women and changes in divorce laws that would aid women and provide equal division of property between spouses. Many conservative Muslims oppose Muhammad's ideas, but Islamist groups remain too divided on the issues to pose a serious threat to the government.


"Morocco." In The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #192: 'Morocco' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024