Category Archives: Religion

Aspects of Islam or comparisons between Islam and other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.)

Eid el Adha

Early in the morning of Eid el Adha, I am listening to the sheep in the neighbor’s garden, waiting for the slaughter.  For days, we have been watching the sheep go by, strapped onto the top of busses, lashed onto the backs of bicycles, driven in herds to the edges of towns.
I find myself braced, physically tense, as I listen to the children squealing, the noise increasing in pitch and intensity.  Still the sheep bleats: I am waiting for it to bleat its last.

Ignorant as I am, the first details I learned of Eid el Adha came in discussion of Eid el f’tur at the end of Ramadan.  Eid el f’tur (breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan) is  also known as the “little Eid” (eid el sghir) versus the “big Eid” (eid el kbir) which is Eid el Adha.  “So what happens during the Eid el Adha?” I asked Youssef.  “What makes it the big celebration?”

“It’s the festival of the sheep,” he told me, which left me even more befuddled.  What’s so special about sheep?  This is a religion opposed to idols, right?  Surely they’re not worshipping sheep.

“What happens, exactly?” I asked Youssef, and his face lit up. “My family all gathers.  My father has bought a sheep.  My brothers and I hold it by the legs, with the head up (miming a tussle), and my father cuts its throat.  Then we hang it up and we pull the skin down and off.”  Youssef’s Darija was punctuated by vivid explanatory gestures.  I held up my hand to stop him: this was perhaps more than I wanted to know.  But after Youssef left that day, I looked online and found multiple photos and descriptions of travelers encountering piles of sheep corpses on street corners.  It occurred to me then that Spain might be an appealing destination for my vegetarian family over the Eid holiday.

But Eid has come and here we are.  It’s almost 10 a.m.  The children are still squealing in the garden behind our house.  At the front, on our left, adult voices build, peak, recede.  I hear the scraping of a shovel on the ground, the click of a bucket handle as the bucket is picked up and set down.  I hear running water.  I can’t seem to turn off my imagination’s visual accompaniment to this particular soundtrack.  Inside our house, Jeremy is listening to the story of Mozart’s musical childhood.  Outside, there are more sweeping and scraping and popping sounds.  Are they chopping the sheep—separating the joints?

Another man stops by next door.  “La bas?”  (“What’s up?”) There is a guttural satisfaction to the exchange: I’m not sure of the exact words that follow, but I’d swear they translate to something like, “Now that’s the way to kill a sheep.”

James and I go out on the balcony and look over into the courtyard next door, where a sheep carcass hangs by its back legs, all pink and white.
I rethink “popping” as a description for the noises I heard: it must have been the sound of the skin being peeled off the body of the sheep, inch by little inch.  Ripping, snapping, perhaps.  On the wall across the road, the skin hangs, like a pair of footy pajamas turned inside out.  It waits, as a gift, for whoever may need it.
Meanwhile, the sheep’s head is roasting on a fire the neighbors have built in a metal wheelbarrow: it looks both unreal and a little too lifelike.

James goes over to greet the neighbors: they welcome him in, past the hanging carcass.  They encourage him to take photos; they force-feed him sweet tea and cookies.  They urge him to bring me over as well, but he demurs on my behalf, pleading a combination of illness and vegetarianism. I wave from the balcony, feeling like an old-style Moroccan housewife, happy to keep my Eid a vicarious experience.

11 a.m.  Around the neighborhood, smoke is rising from a dozen courtyards or more.  The smoke and smell of roasting flesh drift into the house and I close the doors and windows.  The noise of bleating sheep has diminished but not disappeared. Zoë swears she hears the sheep screaming; my hearing is not so finely discriminated, but the bleating is sometimes more frantic in quality, and sometimes abruptly interrupted.

There are thudding sounds from next door and I wonder again if they’re quartering the sheep.  The family eats one quarter, gives a quarter to the poor, preserves a quarter, and gives a quarter to a second cousin or similarly distant relative.  But no: still the pink and white carcass hangs, complete.  James reports that the noise is the removal of the ram’s horns, before the head is returned to the roasting wheelbarrow.  Eventually, they’ll crack open the skull and eat the roasted brain: a delicacy.
IMG_1393 IMG_1392

Noon: James takes Jeremy off to visit our friend Said, at Said’s father’s house, carrying a cake we bought to contribute to their festivities.  On the way, James and Jem watch a sheep being skinned; near the entrance to the house, they pick their way through pools of watery blood.  Said apologizes for what he names the unsanitary conditions—James responds honestly that he’s very taken with everyone’s openness and communal celebration.

Still the sheep in back of our house continues to bleat.  I’m starting to feel grumpy with that slow-moving family.  For the sheep’s sake, get on with it, people!  A small child’s squalling blends with the more distant bleats.  Online, the Huffington Post presents photos of Eid el Adha from around the Muslim world in 2012.  Each photo includes the explanation that the holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’al.  How did I manage to ignore this for so many years?
I prefer the Muslim version of the story, really: Isma’al acceding to the sacrifice, unlike poor innocent, ignorant Isaac.  The Muslim Ibrahim, like his God, asks more than a father should dream of asking—but the Judeo-Christian Abraham seems to me to betray both the duty of a father to protect his offspring and the truthful relationship of a father with his son.

In both cases, the readiness is all: Allah and Yahweh both permit the substitution of a ram for a son, right at the brink of destruction.  In the Muslim version of the story, Ibrahim is rewarded for his obedience with a second son, Isaac.  What does Isma’al receive?  A lifetime of sibling rivalry?  Does it take a ritual sacrifice of a first child in order to have a second?
Finally, all the sheep—even the one behind our house—are silent.  James returns home, impressed at the number of people so very competent at managing the slaughter that that undergirds carnivorous consumption. This is more honest, he insists, than a lifestyle in which killing is rampant but almost totally denied.

We bake a chocolate cake and make lentil soup for a gathering of Americans abroad.  “The Al Akhawayn Christmas party!” one of our guests quips.

The day after our party, a man comes down the street on a bike with a cart hooked to the back to collect the hanging sheep skins.

“Why don’t they shear the sheep first?” asks Zoë.  “It seems so wasteful.  All that wool gone to waste.”

I gesture at the stuffed wool cushions that make up the banquettes on which we sit.  “They don’t go to waste.”

Zoë makes a face.  “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

Zâwiyas: saints, economics, and politics

Still guided by John Shoup and Eric Ross, we are driving through a dramatic sunset to the zâwiya Sidi Al-Ghâzî to enjoy an evening of Sufi recitation.

The evening will be focused on the religious aspects of the zâwiya or the Sufi brotherhood, but I’m also thinking about the political history of the zâwiya in this region.

In the century after the fall of Sijilmassa (1393), the lack of a strong central government meant that local conflicts proliferated and escalated.  In that power vacuum, saints (also called marabouts) and the zâwiyas they founded became an important source of stability: the zâwiyas often provided a physical space in which warring parties could meet to negotiate, and the saints or holy men running the zâwiyas had a powerful influence over local politics.  Religiously-motivated donations to the zâwiyas also made them powerful land- and slave-owning institutions.

In a land of uncertain production, spiritual power (baraka) carries a lot of influence.  Water is everything–but water comes from God. “Rain or no rain is the realm of God” (Tafilalt villager quoted by Ilahiane).

The Alawite, the royal dynasty that came to power in the seventeenth century and still rules today, rose out of the Tafilalt and derived their political and economic power from their spiritual force (baraka).  Back in the 1200s, the citizens of Sijilmassa invited some 1,200 descendents of Muhammed to settle in the city; tradition states that they brought with them the cloak of Muhammed.  The Alawite trace their descent from Muhammed through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali: one of their mottos, visible in calligraphy throughout the country, is “Baraka Muhammed.”

Tradition also tells us that the Tafilalt region was plagued with a crippling drought and the inhabitants asked for help.  According to one version of the story, the oasis-dwellers sent a message to the governor of Mecca himself, who replied by sending one of his sons to break the drought and rule the oasis, launching the Alawite dynasty.  A different version of the story (quoted in Ilahiane) claims that the inhabitants asked the help of an Alawite Sharif or holy man who was headed to Mecca on pilgrimage.  He promised to pray for the recovery of the palms and the oasis in exchange for the best stem of dates from each palm.  When he returned, the drought was broken and the palms recovered, but the inhabitants refused to give him the agreed-upon reward.  The Sharif proclaimed the entire oasis promise-breakers.  He told them “tafi bi l’ahd” (honor your promise!) and they replied “la, la, la” (no, no, no): Tafilala or Tafilalet.  This version of the story provides a semi-mythical explanation for the difficulties of the region: as promise-breakers, the inhabitants of the oasis and their descendants have been cursed to live in hardship and misery.

The zâwiyas too have fallen on hard times–or perhaps times were always hard.  As we drive through the gathering dusk, John tells us that the particular zâwiya we are visiting is grounded in the baraka of the saint Sidi Al-Ghâzî.  But three separate villages, all at war with one another, all claimed the saint as their own.  The resolution was to divide the body of the saint: one third to each village.

Here, thanks again to Eric and John, are a photo (John) and satellite image (Eric) of the zâwiya Sidi Al-Ghâzî:
zawiyah-sidi-al-ghazi zc3a2wiya-sidi-al-ghc3a2zc3ae-satThe photo is out of date: the minaret has since collapsed.  Of the satellite image, Eric notes “The actual shrine (mosque, mausolea, cemetery) in the north part of complex was destroyed by a flood in the late 1960s and is now completely ruined. Members of the Sufi order meet in the Guest House, next to the Shaykh’s house, in the complex’s eastern village. Half of this village too is ruined. The village at the west of the complex contains the shrine of Sidi al-’Arbi al-Ghâzî.”

We almost didn’t make it to the zâwiya: the piste was suddenly blocked by a pile of gravel, but the off-road edges were firm enough to take the busses.
Once there, we were welcomed with cushioned seats, ritual hand-washing, cups of tea and peanuts.  Zoë sat in the place once occupied by Hassan II.

As we spoke with Sidi Mustafa al-Ghâzî, the muqqadam or leader of the zâwiya, about Sufi practices, he (and later his son) came around sprinkling us with orange-blossom water from this container.  That felt an unmistakeable blessing: such a lovely scent!SONY DSC

“Can women be Sufis?” we wanted to know.   (John had told us that for the purposes of this evening, we would all be considered “honorary men.”  No women would appear though they would have cooked the dinner for us; if the women of the community wanted a look at us, they would peek in through the opening in the roof–and it would be rude to stare at any woman who was looking in at the roof.)
“Oh, yes!  A very important early Sufi was a woman,” Sidi Mustafa replied.  (Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, 717-801 A.D.)  Eric confirms the existence of women Sufis: “In fact, I was once honored to be included as an honorary woman at a gathering of women Sufis in Senegal.”

I don’t quite have the chutzpah to ask how one would cross the gap between the invisible cooking women and these female Sufis.  If a daughter of this community wanted to follow the Sufi way, how would that desire be accomodated?  Or would it?

The best question of the night: “What’s the hardest thing about following the Sufi way?”
Reply: “Doing what the master tells you to do.  Accepting that guidance.”


After several refills of tea and a dinner consisting of medfouna (a savory stuffed bread), bread and heaping platters of chicken for non-vegetarians, we move from discussion to recitation of the Qu’ran and of Sufi poetry.  After the recitation (which to uneducated ears sounds very musical) comes songs, accompanied by drumming.

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We loved the joy on the face of the muqaddam’s son, holding the hand drum in the photo above.  The young man below, a teacher in the local schools, did a soulful solo and eventually stood up to “dance”–this was a bouncing straight up and down, arms swinging out to the sides in a relaxed way, with some turning in a circular motion.
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As John had stressed before our arrival, the entire evening was carefully controlled by the muqaddam, whose drumming, voice, and non-verbal cues set the pace for every step of the evening.

Sufism in Morocco is sometimes associated with extreme ritual action, such as the self-mutilation of the Hamadsha, as detailed by Edith Wharton with a mix of gory fascination and cynicism:

At first these stripes and stains suggested only a gaudy ritual ornament like the pattern on the drums; then one saw that the paint, or whatever it was, kept dripping down from the whirling caftans and forming fresh pools among the stones; that as one of the pools dried up another formed, redder and more glistening, and that these pools were fed from great gashes which the dancers hacked in their own skulls and breasts with hatchets and sharpened stones.  […]  Gradually, however, it became evident that many of the dancers simply rocked and howled, without hacking themselves, and that most of the bleeding skulls and breasts belonged to negroes. […] Hamadch, it appears, had a faithful slave, who, when his master died, killed himself in despair, and the self-inflicted wounds of the brotherhood are supposed to symbolize the slave’s suicide. [… This account] enables the devotees to divide their ritual duties into two classes, the devotions of the free men being addressed to the saint who died in his bed, which the slaves belong to the slave, and must therefore simulate his horrid end.

Vincent Crapanzano offered a more nuanced psychological (or psychiatric) analysis of these rites of self-mutilation in the 1980s (The Hamadsha: a Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry), but in any case, it’s hard to imagine anything further from the delightful devotions so graciously shared with us this evening.  We felt tremendously honored to be included in the evening, allowed a glimpse of faith in action.

Sijilmassa’s rise and fall

Sijilmassa might have been founded by Kharijites and their supporters, but the rich city, repeatedly conquered by reforming dynasties such as the Almoravids (1055-1146 in Sijilmassa) and the Almohads (1146-1269), soon had the heterodoxy beaten out of it.  The Almoravids smashed musical instruments and closed down wine shops throughout the city; Almohads massacred many of the Jews of Sijilmassa.  Yet the city as a whole expanded after the Almoravid conquest (1054) and “retained its enlarged importance through the Almohad period” as a result of improved water resources: the redirection of Ziz to the center of the Tafilalt. [Lightfoot & Miller]

So what did Sijilmassa look like, back in the day?

Here’s Lightfoot and Miller’s conceptual map of the city, drawn from oral histories of the area as recorded in the mid-1990s:Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.33.43 PM

A long, thin city, bordered by a canal on one side, surrounded by a walled oasis.

Medieval historian Al-Bakri, drawing on the chronicles of Ibn Hawqal, records that in 814-5, an early ruler of Sijilmassa, Al-Yasa’, built a wall surrounding the town: the wall had twelve gates, eight built out of iron.  Under Al-Yasa’, Sijilmassa also acquired a royal palace, an “excellent” mosque, “lofty” mansions, “splendid” buildings, and many gardens.  Field and photo reconnaissance confirms that both the city and the oasis were once walled. [Lightfoot and Miller]

The famous traveller Ibn Battuta came to Sijilmassa in 1352-3 on his way to the Mali empire. Comparing Sijilmassa to cities in China, Ibn Battuta described Sijilmassa as including “orchards and fields and their houses in the middle,” making the city as a whole very large.  These houses were undoubtedly different from the fortress-villages of the qsour, but this description shows an established pattern that the later qsur may have built on.

Ibn Battuta spent four months in Sijilmassa, preparing for a two-month Saharan caravan crossing.  Camels were traditionally fattened for several months in the area around Sijilmassa to prepare them for the arduous journey.
Ibn Battuta also noted that the average trans-Saharan caravan included 1000 camels; large caravans might include as many as 12,000 camels.  Miles and miles of camels.
Mindboggling.  You wouldn’t want to be at the back of the queue.

According to medieval geographer Leo L’Africain, the city fell in 1393, when the inhabitants rebelled against the Marinid governor (renowned in oral tradition as the “Black Sultan,” as recorded by Lightfoot and Miller), broke down the walls of the city, quarreled among themselves, and distributed themselves amid the qsur (fortified villages) of the oasis.  Writing of his two visits between 1510 and 1515, L’Africain praised the ruins of the city:

The city was built in a plain, on the Ziz, and was encircled by a high wall of which one can still see some parts…. Sijilmassa had fine temples and colleges supplied with numerous fountains whose water came from the river.  Great wheels took this water from the Ziz and projected it into conduits bringing it into the city.

Mostly, though, L’Africain saw the fate of Sijilmassa as something like an object lesson in the importance of cooperation:

Back when the people were all agreed, they built…walls to stop the incursion of Arab horsemen.  While the people were united, with a common will, they remained free.  But factions arose, and they demolished these walls and each [group] called upon the Arabs to protect them.  So it is that these people have become the subjects and almost the slaves of the Arabs… always fighting each other, doing as much harm as they can, which is to say damaging the irrigation canals which come from the river, [or even cutting] off palm trees at their trunk and steal[ing] from each other, which the Arabs abet.

You could almost say that when, in the early twentieth century, the French and their Moroccan collaborators destroyed irrigation canals and sabotaged water resources, “manufacturing a fifteen-year-long drought, followed by the 1944-5 famine” (Ilahiane), they were following something of a time-honored tradition.

Now, the al-bayud fungus is one of the greatest threats to the palmerie.  Kind of a relief–or maybe not, depending on how seriously your palm tree is infected.

SONY DSCWhat remains of Sijilmassa today are actually the ruins of a mosque built in the 1600s and 1700s by the Alawite dynasty.  These are atmospheric if somewhat misleading: I spent ages imagining (incorrectly) thousands of camels parading through these walls.


For a Romanticist, of course, it’s also easy to think of Shelley’s “Ozymandias:”

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

*****Quotes drawn from from Dale Lightfoot and James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Southern Morocco.”  Photos from Tafilalt visit with John Shoup and Eric Ross.

The Kharijites and the founding of Sijilmassa

Before the Tafilalt became known as the Tafilalt in something like its current configuration, the oasis was the  ground of a glorious medieval city: Sijilmassa.

Sijilmassa was founded in 757 by people following the Kharijite vision of Islam: a vision of radical egalitarianism, in which any devout person could become the leader of the community, and all Kharijites were called to fight against unjust leaders.  Yet by 956, Sijilmassa was the epicenter of the Trans-Saharan trade: a trade based on the exchange of salt for gold and slaves.  Surely this central irony ranks right up there with the life of American founding father Thomas Jefferson .

The roots of Sijilmassa–and thus a large portion of Moroccan history–lie in both the success of and the fractures within the early Islamic empire.  Here’s the shortish version of the story: in the ten years after Mohammed moved to Medina, the entire Arabian peninsula became part of the early Islamic empire (622-32; brown on the map below); in the subsequent 30 years, under the Caliphate (the early successors to Mohammed), it spread both east and west (632-661; orange territory); under the Ummayid dynasty, it expanded through Morocco, Spain and Portugal (661-750; tan on the map).  That is an impressively rapid imperial expansion:
220px-Map_of_expansion_of_Caliphate-1.svg (image from Wikipedia)

As you may remember, the fourth caliph (successor) was Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, and his rule was marked by a struggle over power.  Those backing Ali and refusing to recognize the first three caliphs became known as Shi’a (the party of Ali); those backing the other three caliphs became the majority Sunni power.

The less-known part of this story takes place on a battlefield during Ali’s rule, when the opposing army tied copies of the Qur’an to their lances.  A significant portion of Ali’s troops (traditionally 12,000) refused to fight on these terms; negotiations ensued, in which Ali’s negotiator somehow agreed that Ali should abandon his claim to the caliphate altogether (!).  The dissenting troops withdrew in disgust from the battlefield and from Ali’s army, rejecting both the negotiations and the negotiators: they came to be known as kharijites (those who left).

Kharijites believed that any pious Muslim could be a leader of the Muslim community (membership in Mohammed’s tribe or family was not required); kharijites were also quick to name as unbelievers any leaders who acted against the principles of the Qur’an–such fallen leaders should be deposed or even killed.  Kharijites insisted more emphatically than other Muslims on the radical egalitarianism enshrined in the Qur’an; the Haruriyya, an early kharijite group, even believed women as well as men could serve as imams.  (It was also a Haruriyya who assassinated Ali, five years into his reign.)

By the 720s, small groups of Kharijite refugees, persecuted by the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad and Kairouan, had arrived in the western Atlas mountains.  Imazighen (Berber) inhabitants of the area were themselves in search of religious legitimation—a way to practice Islam without acceding to the Arab elites controlling more established urban centers of the Maghreb. Kharijite insistence on egalitarianism, an Islam open to non-Arabs, was popular in this context.

By 740, Kharijite agitators were associated with a massive “Berber revolt” across the Maghreb; in 757, Kharijite-inspired Zenata Berbers founded the city of Sijilmassa by the banks of the river Ziz.  Benefiting from the support provided by the oasis there, Sijilmassa was also perfectly placed to profit from the West African gold trade: by 956, some sources said that Sijilmassa minted all the gold coming north from the Sudan.
Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 1.07.03 PM  (Image from Lightfoot & Miller, 1996)

But of course the gold trade was never only a trade in gold and salt: according to some estimates, from the tenth century on, roughly 6000 slaves were sent north each year along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. So how did a city founded on a belief in radical egalitarianism come to be the center of a slave trade persisting for many centuries?

Replicating and generating patterns of Islamic art…

is a whole lot harder than you might think–but also kind of obsessively compelling.bV90jY4TdgxKR9EQ32sl5tPrKBkHQk9MdCQS8rgczvM
Here, Adam is trying to teach me how to see the patterns, the grids, underlying biomorphic designs in the Al-Attarine, but really, it’s a bit of a hopeless task.  Take this panel, for instance:
I thought this little creature with eyes should be the repeating motif.  So adorable!
Oops.  Probably that’s not meant to be a creature at all.  The double loop at the center of the image below (and placed in the four corners of the design as well) is a better unit to focus on for tracking the extension and tessellation of the image.  See the grid that comes into focus around that repeated double loop?  You’re looking for a rhomb, a dynamic (or diagonal) square shape that repeats both vertically and horizontally.
And now can you see why some of us might find this process challenging?

The plaster carvers would have created a cardboard (in medieval times, stiff paper or vellum) template to draw the design grid on the fresh, damp plaster.  Then they would have “pumiced” the shape through the template, leaving black pigment on the plaster–and then they would have used fine, sharp tools to carve out the plaster into these shapes.

Adam has carefully parsed pattern after pattern for us.  Here’s just one example: the stunning door and knocker at the Al-Attarine.  The knocker itself is a khatam (static square plus diagonal square extended out from it), extended further into an eight-pointed star…P1000939
What about the door behind the knocker?  It’s almost like a variation on my beloved “breath of the compassionate” pattern: khatams, some surrounded by four dynamic squares, diagonal crosses, plus safts (or petals) to fill out the pattern.

Adam takes the analysis one step further, drawing out the incredibly fine (and faint) biomorphic design traced within each of those large safts:P1000941
Isn’t this amazing?  First, the painstaking detail of the design–and then the painstaking, even meditative recreation of that design.
Not to mention the painstaking correction of student errors in attempts to further replicate those designs…

Geometry and generation:
On the geometrical side, meanwhile, Richard (having walked us through the many stages of creating a 12-fold rosette among other patterns), asks us to think about the shapes that can be generated from a khatam.  Some of us understand the question well enough to sketch some possible shapes.  (Tip: think about cutting pieces out of a khatam or possibly extending corners out to make a new shape.)

Richard chooses the most useful propositions and has us cut out templates for creating watercolor zellij–paper versions of the cut tiles used in Maghrebi mosaics.
We paint and cut out the shapes, and then we play with different arrangements, from small to large:
CY1zwAqhmw_G1YkuvYv8ml4c2eEhCagJ6e76rsLvTuY   SONY DSC

Some principles for productive play: 1) think about the white space; 2) join shapes point to point, not side to side; 3) follow straight lines to extend patterns; 4) be intentional about color patterns; 5) share your pieces; 6) have fun!

Breath of compassion

If you’re like me, all that beauty is still too much.  So let’s concentrate on geometry alone for the moment–geometry in the form of zellij:


I’m still overwhelmed.  Five-pointed stars, ten-pointed stars, safts (petals) of many different varieties.  How do I make sense of unity and variation here?

According to Critchlow,“Islam’s concentration on geometric patterns draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions, and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.”

I need a little help translating that structural insight.

Critchlow and his students, including Richard and Adam, work to articulate those structural insights by reconstructing the geometrical forms one step at a time.  Implicit in this workshop is the sense of a spiritual discipline in following, re-enacting the construction of a pattern, as if those of us laboriously following the model before us could also abstract ourselves from three dimensions to two or even one, from embodiment to spirit.  Certainly the room is full of concentration, and amusement at our struggles.
BbAileQRyw5Cmsh_c0y7NvBparVQvXWVH83ZKr4JR50,yczdbh7v_akZCgyFX1PA5EGU7W8U18QUyvUsL9yNo7MSama straightening out one of my many confusions…

Geometric patterns in the Maghreb are most consistently based on four-fold symmetry, Richard tells us.

Richard begins with first principles: the point as abstract concept and its material embodiment; the line coming from the point, defining the horizon; the circle, drawn from a point on that horizon, representing unity: the heavenly circle.
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He draws two departing circles, with the same radius, centered where the circumference of the original circle meets the horizon:
Centering the compass on the top and then the bottom of each vesica (intersecting shapes–see handwritten note above), we draw intersecting arcs to define a vertical line.

Next, we place the point of the compass at the intersection of the vertical line with the original circle and draw semi-circles touching the line of the horizon: this produces four petals.
If we draw diagonal lines out from the center, passing through the outer intersection point of each petal, we will have marked eight points on the original circle: these eight points define the shape of the khatam or seal of Solomon, a static square with a dynamic or diagonal square intersecting.
Richard speeds through this introduction and goes on to develop the basic relationships sketched here into a pattern with four- and twelve-fold symmetry.  But I’m lost, still stuck back on a phrase lightly tossed off: a pattern of khatams touching at the points of the dynamic squares creates a pattern known as the breath of compassion (or breath of the compassionate), after the work of medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Arabi, who spent time in Fez.

After class, I ask Richard to explain the pattern and the reason for its name more fully, then I go back to my hotel room with its functioning internet and look up Ibn Arabi.  Here’s what I find:

“Ibn al-‘Arabî looks at God’s creativity as an analogue of human speech. Just as we create words and sentences in the substratum of breath, so God creates the universe by articulating words in the Breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-rahmân), which is the deployment of existence (inbisât al-wujûd); indeed, existence itself is synonymous with mercy (rahma).” [“Ibn Arabi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online, first published 2008]

I’m reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where one works to breathe in suffering, and breathe out compassion.  To think of existence as synonymous with compassion offers a wonderful (if sometimes distant) ideal.  This month (September 2013) a Pakistani Christian church will be bombed and a Kenyan mall violently occupied by terrorists.  Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion.

The breath of compassion pattern expands into khatams, then compresses back into a cross or x form as each point of the khatam folds in.  This visual, from, makes it easy to see the relationship between the two forms:


The pattern can be elegantly simple, or marvelously complex:
images from and

Daud Sutton says that the naming of this pattern after Ibn Arabi is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the pattern itself is clearly of long standing.  I like connecting this pattern to a sense of divine creativity, and to the central prayer of Islam: Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim.  In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful.

Monumental art and contemplation

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The problem with entering a space like the courtyard of the Bou Inania or Al-Attarine is that the design is overwhelming: it feels impossible to process all the wealth of visual detail and beauty.  (Rather than focusing on a single place in this post, I’ll be using images from both medersas [Islamic schools]  as I wrestle with the kinds and inter-relationships of Islamic patterns.)

Perhaps if one were a student here, living and studying and praying in this space every day, the pattern would work on you at a subliminal level—or perhaps each day you might pick out a different element, a different image or detail, as a kind of meditative practice, focusing your mind.

But for those of us merely passing through, how can we receive the gift of this place more deeply than a superficial, dizzying glance?

Does analysis help?  Isolating specific elements to try to understand their meaning, before reconsidering them in context?



Maybe if you’re Adam or Richard, it helps significantly.  But even for me, slowing the eye, forcing it to rest and register, is a useful exercise.


How do we learn to look in this kind of a space?  Let’s start with the architectural layering:
geometric patterns on the floor
speaking to the zellij on the lowest level of the walls,
with calligraphy at eye level,
then biomorphic plaster carving
leading up to intricately carved cedar wood,
which leads the eye still higher, to the heavens.  The cedar may be the only original component here: the plaster has certainly been renewed, and some of the zellij shows its age.

According to Daud Sutton, “The visual structure of Islamic design has two key aspects: calligraphy using Arabic script—one of the world’s great scribal traditions—and abstract ornamentation using a varied but remarkably integrated visual language.” (Islamic design: a genius for geometry, 2007, 1)

Calligraphy tends to be placed at eye level or slightly above—never below the head—and it turns the oral tradition of the Qu’ran (which, as you may know, is the recitation of the visions granted to Mohammed, and only belatedly a written text) into luxuriant visual beauty.  For anyone struggling to read Arabic script, the beauty quickly overwhelms the meaning, but for students writing and memorizing different verses of the Qu’ran on a daily basis, the beauty presumably extends the meaning of the verse.


Geometry and biomorphic design
The ornamentation surrounding this calligraphy “revolves around two poles: geometric pattern, the harmonic and symmetrical subdivision of the plane giving rise to intricately interwoven designs that speak of infinity and the omnipresent center; and idealized plant form or arabesque, spiraling tendrils, leaves, buds and flowers embodying organic life and rhythm” (Sutton, 1).  Infinity and the omnipresent center: Allah is the center of all things, of the infinitely varied development of the universe.  For Keith Critchlow, geometry “reflects the facets of a jewel, the purity of the snowflake and the frozen flowers of radial symmetry” while biomorphic design registers “the glistening flank of a perspiring horse, the silent motion of a fish winding its way through the water, the unfolding and unfurling of the leaves of the vine and rose.” (Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, 1976, 8)  All three aspects of Islamic pattern inter-relate: biomorphic pattern relies on geometrical relationships for its tessellation and expansion;

and different modes of Islamic calligraphy may lean toward biomorphic flowing lines on the one hand

or more fixed geometric shapes on the other.


Biomorphic design
Adam stresses the logic inherent in the biomorphic elements of Islamic design: spirals are curves that look back to their points of origin.  Biomorphic designs flow out, then back, bowing in humility to the creator.  Balance is central to biomorphic design: nothing should stand out.  All is humility and peace.


And well-nigh impossible beauty:


Imperial cities: Fès in context

OK, this is a geeky post, with maps and dates.  But where else are you going to find these kinds of details, right?  [Correction: now you can find a much fuller introduction to Fès on my friend Eric Ross’s blog at] Still, I have to get this out of my system before I move onto all the photos of the highly photogenic Fez medina….

Morocco’s four imperial cities—Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat—survive with one foot in the present and one in the past in part because they shared the status of “imperial city” with one another for many years.

Fez was founded as Morocco’s first imperial city by the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids.      Actually, it was founded as two separate cities.  First, Idris I founded “Medinat Fas” in 789; then, Idriss II founded Al-Aliyah twenty years later (809).

SONY DSCNotice the important rivers (wadis or oueds) running between and around the two towns

The two towns remained distinct, separately walled, for centuries.  In a bid to gain greater independence from his local Berber protectors,  Idriss II, identifying as an Arab, welcomed two waves of Arab immigration into the city of Fez: first, 800 refugee families from Cordoba settled in Medinat Fas in 818; second, 2000 refugee families from Kairouan settled in Al-Aliyah in 824.  (You can find both cities on the second map below, the one with trade routes: Cordoba in Al-Andalus [modern day Spain], and Kairouan below Tunis, near Sousse.)

SONY DSCImagine, if you can, 2000 families moving across the top of Africa en masse–or 800 families crossing the Straits of Gibraltar.  What chaos that must have been!  Imagine 2800 families–maybe 10,000 people? more?–settling into two tiny towns of mud buildings and trying to build a city big enough to hold them.  The pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock look like pretty small potatoes in comparison.)


Both groups (from Kairouan and from Cordoba) were displaced by conflicts within the Islamic empire, but they arrived in Fez with different cultural assumptions and expectations–and they seem to have maintained those distinct cultures as they maintained the walls of their separate villages (and mosques).  Jama’a means gathering–in the context of the map above, it means the gathering of the faithful in a congregational mosque.  Fatima el Fihri, daughter of a wealthy businessman from Kairouan, founded the Qarawiyine mosque in 859, just 35 years after the refugees arrived in the city.  The medersa, or Islamic school associated with the mosque, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.
Photo by Hans Munk Hansen, in the David Collection, Copenhagen

Now if all that that wasn’t complicated enough, let’s add in another factor: shortly before the founding of Fez, another important Moroccan city was founded: Sijilmassa,  gateway to the Sahara and to the lucrative gold trade with Western Africa.  Fez and Sijilmassa were cities in competition with one another, but their fortunes were also closely linked by the trade routes that fed them both.  (Sijilmassa is in the midst of the palm tree symbols below Fez.)


Fez enjoyed the status of (contested) imperial capital for a couple of hundred years before being displaced by Marrakesh, a capital founded by the new dynasty of rulers, the Almoravids.  The next dynasty, the Almohads, founded Rabat in their turn.  But Fez continued to grow and thrive, becoming by some accounts the largest city in the world at that period (1170-1180).  And the next dynasty, the Merenids, turned back to Fez, creating a new capital in Fez Jdid, effectively building a new city beside the old medina of Fes elBali, just as the French would do many centuries later with the “villes nouvelles” of the protectorate era.

Despite its imperial vicissitudes, then, Fez grew and prospered throughout the medieval period, thriving on the trade routes that brought wealth and culture to its many doors.  And the Alouite dynasty, reigning from the seventeenth century to the present day, made a practice of ruling as a kind of circuit court, visiting each imperial city (and potentially troublesome region) of the kingdom in turn.  This practice meant that each of the major cities shared in the royal attention and resources.   As a result, the modern city of Fez–like the other imperial cities, only more so– is a kind of living palimpsest, with layers of history piling one on top of another.


F’tur and Ramadan

It seems a long time ago, now, but our first meal in Morocco, the day we arrived, was f’tur or if’tar, the traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast.  Kevin Smith, the  generous colleague who  loaned us his house while he and his family were away, walked us through the process.  First we waited for the magic hour of the Isha prayer to arrive (the 5th prayer of the day, 7:38 p.m. or thereabouts); then we wandered into town and found a table at a restaurant where we sat and waited some more, this time in company with everyone at the surrounding tables, for the actual call to prayer.  A waiter brought us a platter of dates, candied pastries,


and boiled eggs to sprinkle with cumin and salt, even before the call to prayer sounded. IMG_0108

We stared at the waiting food, talking but also listening hard through the talk.  With the call to prayer, dates began to vanish at tables all around the restaurant; egg-shells were cracked and peeled almost in unison.


After this kind of first course, the waiter brought us fried flatbread (rghaif or milhoui) and a kind of spongy bread (bghrir) to drizzle with honey, and harira (spicy lentil soup with a mutton base, so we had vegetarian “potage” instead).SONY DSC   SONY DSC


Even this first meal emphasized for me the communal aspect of Ramadan in Morocco.  How different it must feel to be Muslim in the United States, fasting in community, surely, with other Muslims, but not with an entire country behind you.  So here’s a geeky thought for you: Canadian Benedict Anderson famously claimed that nations are imagined communities constructed by (for instance) being able to imagine everyone else reading the same newspaper at the same moment.  But how much more powerful a communal experience this simultaneous meal creates!  Ramadan seems to me to be defined by both fasting and f’tur; both the fast and its conclusion incorporate—communally embody—a kind of social unanimity.  I can’t imagine having this same experience of communal identity in the United States.  Except maybe at Thanksgiving!