On 28 April 2006, 50 women pioneers graduated from an “imam” academy in the Moroccan capital Rabat, having completed a 12-month multidisciplinary programme in which they studied the Koran, Hadith and sharia, alongside computing, business management, economics, sociology, psychology and law. These Murshidat or religious guides are university graduates; they have BA degrees in Islamic or Arabic Studies from Moroccan universities and have mastered classical Arabic.
The Moroccan programme is the first of its kind and clearly signals a policy shift, the aim of which is the modernization of the religious order and, in the face of mounting fears over extremism, the promotion of a moderate, particularly female, interpretation of Islam. A new group of women is trained by the Ministry of Religious Affairs each year. By 2015, more than 500 Murshidat had been trained.
The idea of the Murshidat, spearheaded by King Mohammed VI and the government, took off following the terrorist attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003, which claimed 45 lives and left dozens more wounded. The king had already started reshaping religious structures to rein in any extremist drift from neighbouring Algeria where violence between government forces and armed Islamists has caused more than 150,000 deaths since 1992. He appointed an educated Sufi (spiritual rather than doctrinal) Muslim to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs and issued a decree forbidding imams in mosques from talking about politics. But the synchronized suicide bombings that hit Jewish and foreign targets gave new urgency to the initiative.
More than 2,000 people were arrested in massive police sweeps following the attacks, as the king pledged that the attacks would be the last to rock Morocco. Investigators concluded that those behind the incident had sought recruits in Sidi Moumen and other overcrowded slums around Casablanca, the kingdom’s largest city.
The government subsequently initiated a vast operation to reform religious affairs and the structure of mosques. Before May 2003, more than a third of mosques fell outside government control and new mosques could be built with little regulation or planning permission. In 2015, all mosques are now overseen by the authorities and imams are screened before being allowed to serve. Sermons also have to be approved and religious activities in mosques are monitored by government representatives.
Within the framework of this increased government involvement in the religious lives of its citizens, the Murshidat have a number of functions and duties. They provide religious advice to women and children in mosques, schools, hospitals, prisons and other public institutions. Those in need of counsel are often mothers with questions about communicating with their children, or wives wanting to know how to be part of a couple without contravening the precepts of the Koran. There are also young women who seek advice about whether or not to wear the hijab, or headscarf, or want to know how to perform ablutions properly.
The Murshidat also provide moral support and advise women and teachers on how to prevent youth from being drawn to extremism by openly discussing these matters and by encouraging youth to challenge extremist ideas and take responsibility for their actions. They urge schools to help students become critical recipients of media messages and to prevent them from accessing illegal or inappropriate material.
The guides are “deployed as a vanguard in the fight against any slide towards Islamic extremism”, trumpeted Muhammad Mahfudh, director of the centre attached to the ministry that trained the first class, in 2006. Despite their extensive training, however, the Murshidat are not authorized to lead prayers or to hold the post of imam, Morocco’s official religious authority has ruled, on the grounds that there is no historical precedent. At present, there is no serious pressure from women to change this.
The majority of Moroccans see in the Murshidat another laudable step towards tolerance, equality and modernity. In fact, the initiative has been so successful that other Muslim countries, notably Egypt and Turkey, have since followed suit, training hundreds of their own female religious guides.