Since 2011, when the wind of the revolution spread in many North African and Middle East countries, the MENA region has been experiencing the aftermaths of what is labelled the “Arab Spring”.

The collapse of the old authoritarian regimes has caused a precarious transition, which seemed to lead towards the establishment of new governs more inclined to rule according to liberal rules. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in this circumstance, the harsh economic and political instability has heavily affected both the domestic and foreign policies of this area. The adverse socio – economic conditions have constituted an authentic obstacle to the implementation of the democratization process and respect of human rights as well as the crucial presence of the religious component. Although the considerable attempts to secularization, Islam plays a permeating role in the political life of many North African States and it will remain the core of most Muslim countries. However, the focus of the contemporary debate is no longer if Islamic principles and democracy values are compatible with each other, but how they can be combined with one another to undertake an actual democratization process. Khaled Abou El Fadl[1] argues that “for Islam, democracy poses a formidable challenge. Muslim jurists argued that law made by a sovereign monarch is illegitimate because it substitutes human authority for God’s sovereignty. But law made by sovereign citizens faces the same problem of legitimacy. In Islam, God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How, then, can a democratic conception of the people’s authority be reconciled with an Islamic understanding of God’s authority?”  Morocco’s attempt to develop a model of moderate Islam, associated with modern secular state values and institutions, could probably offer an answer to this question.

An introductory outline: The Shari’a law system in Morocco

The Moroccan state system is a mixture of customary and Islamic law. Since its independence (1956), Morocco has developed a sort of political hybrid system in which the political changes have always received a high degree of legitimization from Islam. The overall collection of ethical and legal principles that believers are expected to follow is the “Shari’a”, which literally means “path”. The authoritative legal scholars formulated Islamic legal norms in accordance with their own visions of shari’a. It is grounded on Sunna (all the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings verbally transmitted) Qu’ran and the hadith (words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) and its elaboration as definitive comprehensive legal and ethical code hail from the third century of Islam. It is a sort of collection of the jurists’ way of thinking and interpretations of the Qu’ran and of the Sunna. For these reasons, it is not a code of legal norms as secularized societies traditionally conceive it. It mainly concerns the conscience of each Muslim believer, disciplining his or her behaviour and moral conduct. Indeed, more than legal sanctions, there are a sorts of religious punishments or admonitions in order to condemn who acts contrary to traditional Islam. Because of its pervasive character, Shari’a deeply influences every sphere of a Muslim’s life. Not surprisingly, the Shari’a system is very different from the liberal conception of law, approximately for two main reasons: first of all, the scope of the Shari’a is much wider because it aims to regulate the individual’s relationships with the state, with God and with their own conscience. Hence, secondly, it disciplines both the public and private spheres of each believer.[2]The mixture of religion and law is a contradictory challenge: it promotes the protection of the individual rights without permitting an openness towards a social, legal and economic development which that guarantees equal opportunity for everyone.

The predominant interpretation of this legal code, which belongs to almost the third century, inevitably contrasts with the current standard of the international law system. Applying it in a very strict way, such as it occurs in some Muslim States implies, principally, that human rights are not always respected. During the middle of the 20th century, the traditional Shari’a system was subjected to some very fervent critics due to its strong opposition to progress. It is a code which belongs to its own historical context which is, in an evident manner, diametrically different from today. The traditional perspective of Shari’a does not include the principle of equality between men and women, in particular in matters such as marriage, divorce, family life and inheritance. Moreover, religious minorities are victims of discrimination and the ban on apostasy still exists.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im[3], an internationally known Islamic scholar, has devoted much of his writings to showing how Islamic law could and should be adapted to modern conditions and compatibilized with international human rights standard. Given the importance and the influence that certain politicised versions of Islam have nowadays in the world, the existence of some opposite projects in which the central issue is the protection of human rights and that are rooted in truly universal values is crucial. An-Naim takes the view that “despite their apparent peculiarities and diversity, human beings and societies share certain fundamental interests, concerns, qualities, traits and values that can be identified” and he proposes a “new understanding” of the Qu’ran and of the Sunna, a sort of modern interpretation compatible with the respect of human rights. In any case, in order to give cultural legitimacy to this indispensable prospective transition, it must be grounded on Islam. Only in this way, in this peculiar context, it is really possible to implement enduring structural changes.

Is Morocco a model of modern moderate Islam?

Morocco mainly began its modern “Islamic reform” after the 2003 Casablanca suicide bomb attack, when independent preachers linked to Salafiya Jihadiya, an affiliate of al-Qa‘ida, were believed to have inspired the terrorist act. Hence, a series of measures were launched for controlling and limiting the dangerousness of the Islamist influence. King Mohammed VI gave impulse to an official religious infrastructure, to train male and female preachers with the goal of re-interpreting Islam dogmas and discuss particular social issues, including the rights of religious minorities in Islamic countries. Moreover, the government encouraged the moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam (practiced in Morocco and most of North Africa) to improve and spread its religious tolerance precepts also into Moroccan society, in sharp contrast with the “takfirist” ideology that brands non-practicing Muslims “infidels.” Despite the difficulties of the social and economic conditions, following the 2011 Arab Spring, Morocco succeeded in maintaining its internal stability and, at same time, it continued its process towards reforms and liberalization of its political system.

In essence, Morocco has historically been considered as a country of religious tolerance and in this sense, its case is recurrently reported to demonstrate how democracy and Islam can coexist. Although this path towards modernization, Islamic identity is still unquestionably strong and for this reason Morocco is a fascinating case and an interesting model of moderate Islamic state to analyse. During the past years, the Moroccan law system, which is politically inspired by the interpretations of Islamic law, has been subjected to an intense public debate. Even if several reforms aiming at modernization and democratization have been implemented, Morocco is still truly attached to its religious identity and Islam continues to play a central role.  As the Article 41 of the new constitution (that King Mohammed VI decided to adopt after the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011) states, “the King is the Commander of the Faithful and he is mandated to ensure the respect of Islam”. He presides over the Superior Council of the “Ulemas” (the highest religious authority), which is the sole official instance entitled issue “religious consultations” (Fatwas). Substantially, what defines a Moroccan citizen is above all his belonging to the Islamic Ummah (Islamic nation). Currently Morocco is trying to balance the rule of law with the rule of God in order to reach a harmonisation of these two complementary spheres of the Moroccan identity.

This long preamble was fundamental for comprehending how significant was the very recent decision of the Moroccan highest legislative authority. As a matter of fact, a signal that Morocco seems truly able to propagate a modern moderate Islam was given by the recent decision of the Superior Court of Ulema. On February 6, 2017, it opened the possibility for conversion to other religions and it retracted the Islamic ruling conception, which was based on the punishment of apostasy by death. As a result, it allowed Muslims to change religion. Considering that almost the entire population is Muslim (98.7%), (while there are small Christian (1.1%) and Jewish (0.2%) minorities) this act represents a turning point in both Morocco’s history and in the Muslim world. After taking into account that in 2013, the High Religious (Ulema) Council issued a fatwa asserting that any Muslim who abandons Islam should be executed and considering that the rules in force of all Muslim countries condemn the apostate to death, it is an impressive attempt to re-interpret the Islamic law in a modern sense. This fatwa of Moroccan Ulema entitled “The way of the Erudite” exceeds one of the crucial point of Islam. The new position is reviewed in the light of an analysis of the teachings in Sufyan al-Tahawri: he explained that killings occurred during times of religious wars, when apostasy was the equivalent of a high political betrayal. In that occasion, the death penalty was a political decision not based on religious principles.  Therefore, Morocco presents several hopeful insights of socio-cultural modernity and it is firmly contributing to slowly change the community’s beliefs, granting a valuable rate of social legitimacy.


Morocco continues to confirm its historical diplomatic position of  tolerant Islam supporter, increasing its possibility to be a potential reliable mediator between the Arab-Islamic world and the Western society. Today this long-term strategy of developing its moderate version of Islam represents even more a meaningful and effective counterweight to the widespread jihadist threat. It is true that the fragile global equilibrium (marked by the presence of numerous destabilised actors, such as Da’esh) makes troublesome the coexistence of different religions and the implementation of democratic principles. This path is not obviously exempt from difficulties. Yet, at least, it is demonstrating that Islamic law is not static and immutable, and with a high degree of moderation, it can guarantee a sort of socio-political stability during periods of deep changes. Lastly, to conclude, it is definitely noteworthy that a Muslim country, as Morocco, chose to fight against terrorism and radicalism, offering at the same time, concrete instruments to stem the jihadism and a real alternative point of view of conceiving the religion-law relation, aspiring to build up a bridge which could reduce the long-established distance between secularism and  religion.

Claudia Zappulla

MA in Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations

Cover photo taken by Chris Ford (CC BY-NC 2.0)


An-Na`im, Abdullahi Ahmed (2008) Islam and the Secular State. Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.

An-Na`im, Abdullahi Ahmed (1990)Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law, Syracuse University Press.

Aomar Boum, (2016, March 18), Morocco’s Program for Securing Religious Toleration: A Model for the Region?, The University of Chicago.

Dilshod Achilov, (2016), Got political Islam? Are politically moderate Muslims really different from radicals?, International Political Science Review 1–17, DOI: 10.1177/0192512116641940

Driss Maghraoui, (2009, July 14) Introduction: Interpreting Reform in Morocco, Mediterranean Politics, 14:2, 143-149, DOI: 10.1080/13629390902983674.

Ezzoubeir Jabrane, (2017, February 6) Morocco’s High Religious Committee Says Apostates Should Not Be Killed, Morocco World News.

Freedom House Report on Morocco (2016).

Khaled Abou El Fadl (2003, April/May) Islam and the Challenge of Democracy  Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith? , Boston Review.

Morocco allows faiths other than Islam: Apostasy in Muslim countries is punished with death penalty, (2017, February 8) ANSA.

Morocco’s Constitution of 2011 (English translation).

Tim Milosch, (2016, December 13) Morocco: Modelling Stability in Turbulent Waters, Journal of Arts & Humanities, Volume 05, Issue 12, 2016, 67-79, ISSN: 2167-9045 (Print), 2167-9053 (Online).


[1] Khaled Abou El Fadl is one of the world’s leading authorities in Islamic law and Islam, and a prominent scholar in the field of human rights.  He is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor in Islamic Law at UCLA School of Law where he teaches International Human Rights, Islamic Jurisprudence, National Security Law, Law and Terrorism, Islam and Human Rights, Political Asylum and Political Crimes and Legal Systems.  He is also the Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA.

[2] “The private/public dichotomy, however, is an artificial distinction. The two spheres of life overlap and interact. The socialization and treatment of both men and women at home affect their role in public life and vice versa. While this clarification can be used for analysis in the Muslim context, its limitation should be noted. It is advisable to look for both the private and public dimension of a given Shari’a principle or rule rather than assume that it has only private and public implications”. An – Na’im Abdullahi Ahmed, Human Rights in the Muslim World: Socio – Political Conditions and Scriptural imperatives, Harvard Human Rights Journal, Volume Three, 1990.

[3] A scholar who is in favour of a right re – interpretation of the sources, the Qu’ ran and the Sunna, in order to start a path towards human dignity, respect and equal opportunity for everybody. He believes that real reforms are possible in the Muslim culture only if they are based on Islam, which means on its primary sources. He  is one of the  followers of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha who was an influential Sudanese political leader executed in 1985 on grounds of apostasy and heresy fiercely opposed to the programme of Islamization that had been initiated when President Ja’far Nimeiry came to power in 1983.