Monumentality and the Individual

Ariana Hajmiragha

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca can be seen for miles in each direction when not blocked by buildings. Built on the coast, jutting into the ocean with views of the beach from each side, the clean lines and intricate designs of the tower starkly contrast with the surrounding dingy buildings of the industrial city. I visited on a gorgeous spring day, warm enough to take off my jacket, with droves of people visiting on their Sunday off from work. Entering from the street, two flanking buildings and fountains block the sheer scope of the mosque, but after passing into the courtyard the area feels like it belongs to a time and city apart.

Finished in 1993, the mosque does not belong to the distant past, but is designed to link the past with the present in aesthetics and function. The architecture is indelibly Islamic, but reminiscent of artistic visions of the future, with sweeping lines, slight curves, and the impeccable juxtaposition of intimate spaces in the covered walkways along the perimeter with the sweeping open space of the courtyard and the monumentality of the main mosque.

Couples, families, friends, and individuals roamed the grounds, and sat along the edges with a view of the rocky coast and beach. The mosque is not only unique due to its incredible architecture, but also is one of the few mosques open in Morocco to non-Muslims, at certain appointed tour times. I was unable to take one of such tours, because I arrived just prior to the noon prayers and so the mosque was open only to practitioners. At about 12:30pm, the call to prayer rang out from the tower. Immediately people began moving from the sidelines to the enormous main gate to pray. Not all went to pray, and many remained outside in the sun, sitting, walking, and talking.

A constant presence in any Muslim country, the call to prayer at the Hassan II Mosque brought up issues of religiosity and spirituality previously only known in theory. Five times every day, with the first at around 5:45am and the last around 7:30pm, the muezzin’s voice rings in the streets from loudspeakers placed throughout the city. Even in the Morocco Mal. – the largest in Morocco, and a shining testament to the power of capitalism, boasting a 1,000,000 liter cylindrical aquarium with an elevator in the middle and hundreds of shops – in Casablanca, visited a day prior to the Hassan II Mosque, the call to prayer was broadcast in the middle of the day. Rarely have I seen anyone actually stop what they are doing and pray, although signs of the religion are virtually omnipresent.

The institutionalization of religion in Morocco creates an entirely alien atmosphere from anything I have previously experienced. As I have come to understand, however, this does not necessitate a corresponding religiosity from the population. The state says that almost every single citizen is Muslim, hence the ubiquitous call to prayer, the multitude of state-run religious resources (television channels, schools, conferences, etc.), and the encouragement of the wearing of the hijab (head scarf) by women. Yet, even with the constant religious presence, experiences and embodiments of religion remain individual. Sufism – the Islamic sect preaching individual experientialism of the religion and emphasizing love and tolerance over tradition and ritual – is a huge force in Morocco, almost opposite in nature to the hard-line Wahhabi Islamic tradition that most Americans associate with the Islamic state in the middle east – the state religion of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Religion is assumed, but because of that assumption the degree of religiosity is not. This is not the case in America, but the differences come down to a very subtle (but important) differentiation between belief and identity. The assumption in America seems to be that if you affiliate with a specific religion, then your belief and identification with all aspects of the religion must be strong. Obviously a distinction exists between orthodox members of a religion and more main-stream members, but the assumption is that if you identify as a member of a certain organization you necessarily believe in and prescribe to all aspects of that religion. For instance, the question most people will ask is not “What religion are you?” but “Are you religious?,” seemingly implying a dichotomy between belief and identity. I have heard many people answer that question of “Are you religious?” with “No, but I was raised _____.”

I think the entire assumption of this question is incorrect, and that it is impossible for a person to not be religious; the question is, to what degree. All people believe in something, that they are alive, that some reason exists for their continued ability to breathe and live on this planet. The reason may be that God has given us life and looks after us on an individual basis, or that because of scientific theories of particle physics and biology we – one big chemical reaction – keep chugging along, or because aliens gave us life thousands of years ago. For instance, I believe there is no god, and for whatever unknown reason our big chemical reaction of a planet keeps going.* But the degree to which this belief plays a role in our lives is simply assumed to be the same in America, whereas in Morocco it is much more of a subject of discussion.

Pluralism exists, but perhaps because of the more overwhelming issue of dealing with the multitude of religions within our country the diversity of religious experiences is ignored. Why and how people experience religion is equally as important as which religion people are, and is so often overlooked in discussions. I guess reflexivity just can’t be ignored, is the point of this rather ridiculously long post, and that the value of individual experience as the embodied and lived truth is un-ignorable.

* – Important clarification (just because it’s important to me to clarify this): to say that I do not believe in god is incorrect. I believe that there is no god. I do not think there is any way to know for sure, I just have faith that there is no god and that I am the only person responsible for my actions. I am not agnostic, although I do not believe there is a way to know for sure. I do not want to convert anyone, nor do I believe that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc. should convert to any religion they do not believe in. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *