Moroccan Islam and Judaism: A Lesson in Hospitality? – Jordana Merran

Jordana Merran, MAC
October 4, 2013

In his introductory remarks at a roundtable discussion last Tuesday of his latest draft paper on Moroccan Islam, University of Georgia professor and renowned scholar of Arabic and Islamic law Dr. Kenneth Honerkamp shared his personal experience studying first in Pakistan for ten years, and then for twenty years in Morocco, where he eventually became a professor at a public university.

“These two extended periods of living in two separated parts of the Muslim world gave me a deep feeling for how Moroccan Islam contrasts somewhat from Islam as I had experienced it [in Pakistan],” he explained to an audience of more than twenty foreign policy professionals, academics, and students gathered at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “I found that in Morocco, there was a kind of inclusiveness and a kind of openness to other people, other cultures, other languages, other interpretations of Quran and matters of jurisprudence that I hadn’t noticed in Pakistan.”

Dr. Honerkamp’s point resonated with me because of a recent interview I did with Rabbi Joshua Maroof of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, as part of a MOTM series exploring Morocco’s Jewish heritage. Though Rabbi Maroof is not Moroccan himself, a large proportion of his congregation is, and over the years he has learned a great deal about Moroccan Judaism, and has been able to compare it with Ashkenazi traditions of Europe.

He described the Rabbinate of Morocco, as “extraordinarily creative in dealing with Jewish law and application to modern times…. It really reflects their desire for unity and for a beautiful Judaism, for a Judaism that is attractive and inviting and welcoming and a Judaism that is going to speak to the greatest number of people at the deepest level possible.”

In his paper, which was distributed at the event, Dr. Honerkamp cites the work of Dr. Muhammad Tawil, a professor at Mohammed V University, who characterizes Maliki Madhab (the school of Muslim jurisprudence followed in Morocco) as having “an openness that permits it to evolve and renew itself in an atmosphere of resilience, liberality and facility, moderation and temperance, within a logical and rational nature and realism.” Dr. Honerkamp goes on to say that “this characteristic tolerance is also rooted in the Maliki school adherence to the Creed of Imam al-Ash’ari,” described as “the most inclusive of the creeds as it defines the Muslim community as all those that pray in the direction of Mecca.”

Is it possible that Moroccan Muslim and Jewish scholars came to similarly tolerant ideologies independently—suggesting, perhaps, that there is something inherently Moroccan in their openness? Or did they influence one another? It makes you wonder, at what point does religion influence culture, or is it vice versa?

One thing is for sure (and does not require much religious study or background): Moroccans—Muslim, Jewish or otherwise—are known for their hospitality. Dr. Honerkamp told the roundtable that as an American living in Morocco and watching news of Middle East unrest, he was “constantly reminded by the people I would meet in the streets and in the buses and in the taxis, ‘Don’t worry, this is your second home.’” Rabbi Maroof echoed this when he concluded his interview saying, “You go to any Moroccan event and anybody who walks in is welcome, and they’re hugged and they’re embraced, and they’re brought into the fold. That’s just the nature of the community.”

There’s no doubt that when it comes to openness and hospitality, there is a lesson to be learned from this North African country.

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