Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bou Inania Medersa - Fez, Morocco

[The Minaret of the Bou Inania Medersa rises above its courtyard in Fes, Morocco]

Morocco is one of the few majority-Muslim countries in the world where non-Muslims are consistently not allowed into mosques. Folks there will tell you this is an Islamic religious stricture, and they genuinely believe it. However, the historical reality is that the restriction stems from the French colonial period. The French came in and built Ville Nouvelles (new cities) alongside the existing Moroccan towns and then generally kept French and Moroccan populations separate. Part of that separation was to codify a rule that non-Muslims could not enter mosques. The rule has lasted until the present day. [UPDATE: Commentor taamarbuuta states that I am incorrect and that this is actually a religious prohibition under the Maliki school of law. Given that I am pretty unfamiliar with this school of law which predominates in the Maghrib, I could well be off on this. If anyone would like to chime in with further details, please do.]

Because of the restriction, non-Muslim foreigners are generally not able to see a great deal of the wonderful Islamic art, architecture and scholarly history of the country (the inability to enter the millenium-old Karaouyine mosque and university stands in marked contrast to the ability to go see the similarly-aged and resplendent Al-Azhar in Cairo for example).

There are a few exceptions though. One is the modern Hasan II Mosque in Casablanca: a giant, ridiculously expensive project which every citizen got a pound of financial flesh extracted to build, but which is nonetheless a point of national pride -- expensive yes, but also the largest mosque in the Islamic west (and one of the largest in the world) and a display case for some of the finest modern examples of Islamic craftsmanship (especially in tilework and geometry) in the world. Another example are the Riad's, generally older upper middle class homes centered around an open courtyard which have been restored to their artistic and architectural glory and often serve as bed and breakfast type guesthouses. The other main examples are the Medersa's (francophone transliteration - Madrasa's in an anglicized version) or Islamic religious schools. Most are no longer in use, many had fallen into a dilapidated state, but the government has stepped in to restore some major ones and has done a beautiful job in some cases. My recent trip to Fes was my first time in Morocco and we were on a very tight schedule, so I was only able to go see one Medersa, but it is reportedly one of the best: The Bou Inania Medersa.

So, the following description of this Medersa is taken from the Morocco Blue Guide (Fourth Edition, 2002, pp. 204-205), with my corresponding pictures taken last year. Bracketed [] comments are my own additions. Click on any picture to see a larger version.

You will soon come to an impressive entrance (on your right), which is the way into the Bou Inania Medersa. This was built as a lodging-house for students of the Karaouyine by the Merinide sultan Abou Inan in 1355. Generally considered to be the finest of all Moroccan medersas, this beautifully restored example of Islamic architecture at its best should not be missed. You go through a small entrance-hall, with its own splended stalactitic (muqarnas) dome, into the glory of the building, which is the court. The walls are quite breathtaking; it seems that not a centimetre has been left undecorated, and yet because the colours are so muted and the proportions so near perfect the overall effect is not confusing. The whole is framed from above by a layer of finely carved cedarwood, while below is a terrace of delicate stucco. Stuccowork like fine threads of lace outlines the simple openings of the tiny, cell-like students' rooms. These were still in use by students until 1956, but are now seriously decayed. (It is worth climbing one of the flights of stairs, which ascend from the entrance hall to the terrace, for an exceptional view of the court and nearby buildings.) Below the stucco on three sides of the court is a horizontal band of black Kufic script painted on wood. The columns beneath it are covered with minutely worked zelliges, which form the only point of colour, other than browns and creams, in the whole complex structure. Between the columns are elegant wooden grilles, and behind these are the rooms which would have served as lecture halls.

In the centre of the court is the small ablutions fountain, fed by waters from the river Fes, a spot of perfect peace in its natural surround of plain flagstones, an acceptable contrast to the contrived perfection around it. At the far end of the court, opposite the finely proportioned dor through which you entered, is the oratory, with its delicately sculpted mihrab, where the imam stands facing Mecca to lead the prayers. This part of the medersa is still in use and, depending on the good nature of your guide, it may or may not be possible to peer in. The green-tiled minaret is one of the most elegant in Fes.

[Entrance to the Medersa including large brass doors]

[Detail of Zellige tilework from the medersa's courtyard.]

[The Bouinania's minaret is one of the most beautiful and distinctive in Fes.]

[Courtyard of the Medersa, showing the ablution fountain and in the background the oratory area which is still used as a mosque.]

[The Mihrab - prayer niche pointing towards Mecca - within the oratory.]

[Detail of stuccowork from walls of the medersa's courtyard.]

[Medieval graffiti? :) The name of the Sultan who had the Medersa built, "Sultan Abi Annan"]

[Archway stucco Muqarnas work.]

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At 10:20 AM, Blogger taamarbuuta said...

Beautiful pictures.

Morocco is one of the few majority-Muslim countries in the world where non-Muslims are consistently not allowed into mosques. Folks there will tell you this is an Islamic religious stricture, and they genuinely believe it.

Actually, it is a religious stricture - I assume you know quite a bit about Islam judging from your profile, so I'll spare you the dumbed-down version I usually give.

The Maliki school of Fiqh maintains that non-Muslims cannot enter mosques (without permission of Muslims, or of the imam of a particular mosque) because they are unclean spiritually:

O ye who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when ye are drunken, till ye know that which ye utter, nor when ye are polluted, save when journeying upon the road, till ye have bathed.) (An-Nisaa’ 4: 43)

Because of that particular Qur'anic verse, only a non-Muslim who requests permission and performs wudu would be allowed to enter a mosque - meaning that tourists could not do so freely.

The idea that this comes from colonial times is a myth. If you were to ask ANY Moroccan, they would tell you that.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Thanks for the comment, I will just count myself as confused on the point then :) I had read in a couple places and been told by other individuals I generally consider well-informed that it was a colonial leftover. But I am no expert on the schools of law and will have to count your point as just as likely, especially given the geographic predominance of Maliki in the west and my generally weak knowledge of the Maghrib compared to the Mashriq.

Tangent: couldn't help but chuckle when you quoted Surat an-Nisaa. A joke I heard in Cairo years ago (I'm guessing a long-running joke that probably runs across generations) for justifying the lazy would quote only the first part of verse 42: "Ya ayyuha alladheena aamanu la taqrabu as-salat"...conveniently leaving out the "wantum sukara" :) Sacreligious I know, but I can't help but chuckle a bit everytime I hear the verse now.

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Amatullah said...

I was in Cairo two months ago. I was surprised finding these facts:

1. There are some mosque where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.
2. Most of the mosques (and also Al Azhar) charges entrance fee for non-Muslim visitors.

So, it's not only in Marocco..

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Lameen Souag said...

Mosques in Mali have a similar prohibition, and if Mark Twain is to be believed, it definitely predates the colonial period in Morocco (read The Innocents Abroad.)

At 6:40 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Ok, ok, I'm being a bit humbled here :) Well first of all, Mali is I believe predominantly Maliki as well, and yes Mark Twain in Morocco much earlier suggests this is a Maliki prohibition that goes back further than the colonial era in the Maghreb. As for Cairo and other non-Maliki areas: on occasion I've been to mosques outside the Maghreb where they didn't want non-Muslims in, though that was fairly limited in my experience, others may have experienced otherwise. As for admission fees to places like Al-Azhar (and many of the Cairo monuments), that's primarily a tourism and economic issue.

Thanks for the comments here, that's what I get for typing without thinking first :) Oh, and Lameen, love your blog!

At 7:02 AM, Anonymous MoRocco said...

i was also surprised that i couldnt enter some mosques! honestly, i expected the fees but not this.. still, when i thought about it, it was quite logical.. :s

At 2:43 PM, Blogger HemelExpat said...

It makes sense that this would have been a formal proscription in precolonial days that perhaps was not closely enforced, but that the French tightened it up as part of their "bargain" with the king when they established their "protectorate" over Morocco. This would, of course, also allow Moroccans some limited sanctuary from colonial interference, as well as allowing the king to claim he had not given the French control of the things that really mattered!

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Ibn Kafka said...

Interesting question. I also thought that the prohibition was due to Lyautey, not to an interpretation of the Qoran. I however remember having read (I think in Charles de Foucauld's travel description of Morocco in the 1880's, when he posed as a Jew) that Jews were allowed to enter mosques. Well, allah ou alem...

At 7:13 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Well, I shall (1) count myself honored that the great Ibn Kafka stopped by my blog! Love your stuff over on Aqoul, just wish I knew french to read your main writings. Loved that link to Moulay Rachid's blog though - I left a snarky remark on it and they not only deleted it, they removed anonymous commenting :) And (2) I'll count myself not feeling quite so dumb for having apparently gotten this wrong if it's never been totally clear to even someone as knowledgeable as you.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Saeed Uri said...

I am sure i should know this, being an arab and also a muslim but what do they make you do to prove you are muslim? Shahadatan or something? seems pretty ridiculous, kind of like the saudis making french and american soldiers convert so they could fight the insurgents (what were they called?) in the grand mosque in mecca.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Saeed Uri said...

by the way, this is not an issue in occupied palestine. so must be a madhab issue.

At 4:02 AM, Anonymous Roy said...

I am inquiring about the non-muslim policy as far as mosque entrance. What does that mean and how can someone enforce it? I mean are all tourists with cameras non-muslims by default? Is it based on their complexion? I mean there are blonde blue eyed muslims, there are arab speaking non-muslims (myself)...If I speak to the guardian in perfect arabic will they let me in?


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