Historical Overview

Settlement by Homo sapiens (Neanderthal) in the western Maghrib goes back several hundred thousand years (a recent claim suggests 400,000 years; Hublin 1992), but scholars know very little about social organization in the region even during the Roman period only 2,000 years ago, outside of a few centers and their immediate hinterland. Reasonable assumptions would include that the period of Saharan desiccation between 20,000 B.C. and 9,000 B.C. was followed by the first beginnings of cultivation in North Africa (documented earliest for the Nile valley). The earliest animal husbandry in the western Maghrib seems to date to between the 7th millennium B.C. and the 5th millennium B.C. These dates would then represent the origin for what might be called the classic pre-Islamic culture in the western Maghrib. Little is known of this period, though it is a safe assumption that Berber and Haratine culture continued to develop and change throughout this pre-Islamic period.
Important figures appear in the historical record, but these tend, during the Roman period, to be from the area that is now Tunisia or Algeria. It is primarily during the Islamic conquest that historians begin to have significant details but the concerns of the Muslim conquerors precluded much interest in reconstructing pre-Islamic history. As a consequence, scholars have only archaeology and unsubstantiated legend to go on. The former overwhelmingly has been preoccupied with urban centers while the latter, which has been left to fill in for the bulk of the region, by its nature is unreliable. Legend would have it that in the millennia before the Islamic conquest there were both Berber confederations and several states in southern Morocco on the Atlas-Saharan fringe and that these may have included both Jewish and later Christian states. Even if true, and there is no contemporary or even reliable posterior evidence, the states would have been fairly small and would have had their primary influence south and east of the Atlas.

Morocco' KingOn the urban front, excavations of Phoenician (from 12 c. B.C.), Carthaginian (especially from 5th c. B.C.) and Roman sites along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts all confirm that the region was of even more interest to merchants than to empire builders. The degree of settlement, including the site of Volubilis, which was inland and west of Fès, suggests that the region provided a steady and reliable supply of trade goods (largely cereals) to the ancient Mediterranean. By the same evidence, not only were such goods not supplied in enormous quantities, but the inhabitants were independent of and potentially dangerous to the “civilized” elements scattered along the edges of the region. Rome at the height of its control in western North Africa (between the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C., and the Vandal conquests in 429 A.D.) only held a few coastal cities plus Volubilis and needed an army of 10,000 to maintain these few possessions. This was surprisingly little to show for almost six centuries of occupation and was far different than farther east in Tunisia.

In the Roman period there were also indigenous African states, based in the cities that dotted the Mediterranean, which alternated between independence and vassal status. These, however, tended primarily to be centered farther east between present-day Algeria and Libya. Records for the western Maghrib mention only Mauretania Tingitana, based in Tanger and extending to Volubilis, as significant. It was briefly given independence as a personal fiefdom to Juba II in 25 B.C., giving rise to an independent African state that lasted only until it was annexed by Rome in 40 A.D. Additional polities, such as tribal confederations and small urban centers, certainly existed, but they probably did not qualify as urban-based states complete with a significant bureaucracy and other types of specialization.
Initially the Arab conquest led to few converts, but the establishment of the Idrisid dynasty in Fès at the end of the 8th and the beginning of the ninth century brought Islam in a definitive way to al-maghrib al-aqSâ. Within two centuries of this event, Islam could be said to have been established throughout the western Maghrib. Each succeeding dynasty, external incursion, Muslim immigrant, and returning pilgrim enriched the Islamic culture of the region until, with the arrival of sharifan dynasties in the 16th and 17th centuries and the concomitant blossoming of a variety of sufi orders in the western Maghrib, the region began to take on the religious complexity found today.
The political configuration of the region generally included a centralized state with, over time, a variable control of all but the most central areas. To most European scholars or visitors this lack of definitive boundaries on the state was terribly confusing. In the classical Islamic state, the central state held a moral power over the community of believers, and hence a geographical frontier drawn on the ground made little or no sense. While it might be reasonable to delimit the major urban areas recognizing the authority of a sultan, it made little sense to draw a line on the ground and pretend it could accurately represent the acknowledgment of authority by the community of believers. To focus on the line in the sand would be to demote the voluntary acknowledgment of religious authority to a consequence of crossing the line, and this would make the act of acknowledgment both morally meaningless and an individual rather than a community matter. Islam’s focus on the community of believers pretty much precluded such an idea, particularly since much of the rural area was occupied by nomadic groups.
In consequence, Moroccan history is rife with areas going in and out of explicit obedience to the central authority. This meant less that the state was incompetent than that it was explicitly seen as representative of the people and therefore not the people’s state whenever they concurred that it was failing their needs. Obviously, to the extent that a state commands the fanatical allegiance of the many it is in some sense strong just as the disaffection of many weakens it. Nevertheless, disaffection can occur for a variety of reasons, each of which has rather different implications. Disaffection due to administrative corruption or perceived heresy is clearly a failure of some sort, while disaffection due to the need to make necessary but unpopular decisions may reflect positively on the state in the present and even contribute to greater popular support in the future. Alternately, disaffection due to losses suffered from external aggression may, even when not viewed as a positive outcome, represent the best that a vigorous and well-thought-out state can do: being the strongest state in the region is possible for only one state at a time.
The classic Islamic state thus imposed less hegemonic notions of nationalism on its population than did the modern European nation-states. No doubt premodern Europe was similar, but Islamic North Africa was less quick to adopt the new model, and Europeans with little sense of their own history and even less knowledge of Islam were both puzzled and disdainful.
Sedition or fitna, the challenging of legitimacy, was thus a regular phenomenon in Moroccan history, but regular as well was the expansion of central authority or its replacement by a new dynasty with a new source of legitimacy. The dynamics of legitimacy and authority both made it something that had to be continuously maintained or reinvented and something that could be easily expanded. When authority is based on territory rather than God’s will and people’s consent it is much harder to argue logically that an expanded territory is legitimate. The regular contraction of the area under Moroccan central control has to be seen as the other side of the regular expansion of empires begun in al-maghrib al-aqSâ and then spread over a much wider area. Pastoralism and the broad extent of Islamic civilization with its encouragement and facilitation of pilgrimage, trade, and travel undoubtedly also helped delay the development of a modern European attitude toward territorial boundaries.
Moroccan technical and military power fell behind that of the Spanish and the French in the 18th century, but this gap was neither obvious nor overwhelming until the mid-19th century. After the Battle of Three Kings (at wâdî al-makhâzin) in 1578 in which King Sebastian of Portugal and both a current and former sultan died but Morocco won a resounding victory, Morocco’s military prowess was largely untested by Europeans until the Battle of Isly (1844) where Morocco was soundly defeated. The second half of the 19th century thus was seized by France and Spain as an opportunity to bully and take advantage of Morocco. Despite, in retrospect, completely unscrupulous and self-aggrandizing behavior by both of these European powers, Morocco managed to implement significant industrial, military, and financial reforms in the latter part of the 19th century. These reforms did not prevent the French and Spanish conquests but they did keep Morocco independent until mawlây ‘abd al-HafiZ signed the treaty establishing a protectorate on 30 March 1912 (Algeria was progressively taken over in the 1830s, and the Tunisian bey was persuaded to sign the papers of the almarsa convention establishing a protectorate on 8 June 1883).
In the independence period (after 2 March 1956), Morocco quickly established a governmental system, which it called a constitutional monarchy, in which an elected parliament was delegated a rather modest role in decision making. From the outset, those elements of the opposition to the regime, which have advocated violence, have been systematically repressed. A series of constitutions have responded to discontent by reducing the parliament’s role and powers. On 10 July 1971 and again on 10 August 1972, abortive coup attempts were mounted against Hasan II. Although each attempt failed, they called into question Hasan II’s legitimacy and suggested the depths of disaffection that prevailed. Hasan II’s response was classic. A 1972 constitution reworked the institutional guarantees of the king’s legitimacy and foreign policy initiatives reaffirmed the king’s role as legitimate leader. From 6-10 November 1975, Hasan II organized the Green March in which Moroccans walked about ten kilometers into the Spanish Sahara and formally claimed the territory for Morocco. This led to a long desert war between Morocco and Sahraoui troops supported by Algeria and Libya as well as to a sizable enlargement of Moroccan territory.
The war is, at the time of writing, only tentatively resolved by promises of a referendum because there is disagreement over who will get to vote. Moroccan citizens have been virtually unanimous in supporting this expansion of territory, and the king’s prestige and perceived legitimacy rose astronomically after the annexation. This unanimity in favor of Moroccan imperialistic expansion has rarely been seen as problematic despite Moroccan rejection of European or American imperialistic actions.
Although the Moroccan proverb that suggests that a Tunisian is a woman, an Algerian is a man, and a Moroccan is a lion is intentionally chauvinistic and objectionable on multiple counts, it does metaphorically capture an element of history. This is that while numerous Moroccan dynasties have managed to conquer the greater part of the Maghrib (from the Atlantic to Libya), the entire maghrib al-aqSâ has never been even briefly ruled by a dynasty centered outside of the current boundaries of Morocco. Although many dynasties were founded by relative strangers, they had to relocate to and center themselves in Morocco to accomplish much. The Umayyads held pieces of Northern Morocco for a while and the Fatimids similarly captured bits of eastern and Northern Morocco but there they foundered. Even the Ottomans were forced to be content with swallowing North Africa only as far as Algeria.
Why, until the French protectorate, the best that outside states generally managed was to conquer small bits of Morocco is unclear. The Umayyads, with their base in Andalusia, briefly managed to control through proxies a substantial portion, usually in the north and east, but for brief periods parts of the south as well. Topography has something to do with it, but it cannot entirely explain this extraordinary resistance to external rule nor this long record of successful military conquest. There are other regions as regionally dominant as Morocco (Andalusia, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Turkey come to mind), yet the Maghrib’s extraordinary range of cultures and environmental adaptations plus its long imbrication in the affairs of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East lend it a special interest.
In the 20th century, Morocco, like most of the world, fell prey to the industrial juggernaut and was turned at least in part into an appendage of France. Today a part of its culture is French, but this part is diminishing even as its economic dependency on Europe is increasing. Despite promising signs, whether one day France’s economic hold on Morocco will significantly diminish and whether Morocco will develop in a way more likely to stimulate its own cultural and intellectual development are both still open questions.
The current monarch, Mohammed VI, has begun an ambitious modernization program that blends elements from tradition and the globalization paradigm. Thus, while following some structural adjustment recommendations, Morocco is also modernizing and has rewritten the code of personal status, turning it into a code of family law based on Islamic principles but largely conforming to international standards for women’s rights.
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