Hairy Sun Goddess

There has been an interesting ding-dong in the last few days over the supposed destruction of an ancient Amazigh rock-carving in the Toubkal National Park. The carving depicts the sun “as a divinity” and reports, which seem to come originally from Amazigh activists, imply that local Salafists have destroyed it. Except that they don’t seem to have destroyed it at all: Mustapha Khalfi, the PJD (Islamist) Minister of Communications, presumably rather exasperated by the need to do so, took a group of journalists down there last weekend to show them the intact rock-carving.

A couple of things about this are intriguing. The first, and less important, is the rock-glyph itself. Photographs show a large, round, hairy circle which presumably represents the sun; and archaeologists refer to it (and the dozen or so other sun-figures on the Yagour plateau) in this way. But nothing in any of the press reports actually bothers to give even the slightest historical background to these remarkable images, beyond the fact that they are “8,000 years old.”

So why do commentators leap to the conclusion that it was destroyed by Salafis because it represented a pre-Islamic divinity? There’s a clue in its immediate pick-up by websites like Jihadwatch: it’s a wonderfully easy part of the story that right-wing, anti-Islamic commentators are always busy constructing. It’s a story that depends on depicting Islamists (or Salafis, or Wahhabis – most commentators struggle a little with the distinctions) as vandals whose one joy in life is blowing up Buddhas, sun-goddesses, Sufi shrines and other historic monuments.

And indeed there are distressing examples, including the ideologically driven destruction of Sufi tombs and shrines in Mali, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere – a terribly sad article in the Guardian yesterday describes attempts by the new rulers of northern Mali to eliminate music, Western (“the music of Satan”) and Malian, by burning musical instruments and chopping the fingers off musicians. There are also examples that distress commentators in the West rather less, but distress many Muslims at least as much, like the state-sponsored destruction of every trace of building in Mecca that represents any link with the time of the Prophet, including his own and his mother’s houses.

Why are people apparently trying idly to evoke this kind of idiocy in Morocco, where a very different and very deep-rooted expression of Islam tolerates a wide range of religious expression, including, when peacefully expressed, Salafism? Morocco has hitherto managed a slightly messy but generally effective balance between its religious tendencies, the traditional Islam of the last fourteen centuries, periodically recharged by new and puritan blood from the south, on the one hand; and the Arabian neo-puritanism of recent decades, on the other. The capstone of this delicately wrought but robust arch is the Commander of the Faithful who has just (I write on the morning of the ‘Eid al-Adha) symbolized his place as Sultan and Caliph by sacrificing a ram; and who, by reserving the dominant religious role to himself, manages to shape the tensions of faith in ways that for the present limit the possibilities of major discord.

To state the obvious, what is agitating the Muslim world at the moment is a huge wave of change. Confidence in the ancient institutions of Islamic societies is under threat; acceptance of the traditional religious authorities is weakening; and a much greater emphasis is placed on a personal, unmediated relationship with God than at almost any time in the past. There is in some quarters impatience with the ‘cultural’ accretions of traditional Islam, and a determination to get back to the simplest beginning, the first decades of the faith. In places where political oppression has been great, secular forces demanding change have been adopted by religious movements, grafting religious onto political agendas.

Now, if you took the word Islam out of the last paragraph and replaced it with Christianity, you’d be describing the Reformation, that long period of religious struggle and change in Europe between 1517 and 1648.

Many people who should know better talk blithely about Islam ‘not having had its Reformation.’ There is the implicit assumption that the Reformation in Europe was a gently downhill piste from oppressive Catholicism to pragmatic, fluffy and semi-secular Anglicanism. It wasn’t. Many thousands of people died across the continent. Huge amounts of energy and venom went into destroying images: crucifixes, paintings, tombs, statues, vestments, books, rood-screens and much more were burned in the search for a simplicity of worship that seemed important to reformers at that time. Monasteries, the organs of Europe’s collective memory and culture in the Middle Ages, were in several countries abolished. Doctrines changed radically. There was a century of war that almost destroyed Germany and deeply damaged much of the rest of Europe. Out of it came the beginnings of our modernity, and the beginnings of an exhausted understanding that religion was not a useful basis for political life.

Erasmus, that (fairly) gentle humanist, wrote, of protestants returning from church services, “I have seen them return from hearing the sermon, as if inspired by an evil spirit, the faces of all showing a curious wrath and ferocity.” Many Muslims see the same thing in the curious wrath and ferocity of the finger-chopping music critics of Mali, the Buddha-exploders of Bamyan and the marabout-burners of Tunis. But the world is changing, and religion is everywhere contested, whether we like it or not. I find it difficult to make hard-and-fast distinctions between Christian Quran-burners in the US and Muslim shrine-burners (or hypothetical Sun Goddess destroyers) in North Africa. An Iranian diplomat said recently, in a comment that is very much worth pondering: “I love America, such a wonderful country – such a shame to see it taken over by religious fundamentalists.”

Back, then, to the Sun Goddess who is, as far as we can tell today, still intact and incised into the stone she has occupied for 8,000 years. To me what is important about her is that when the Minister of Communication got to Toubkal, rumours of her demolition turned out to be wildly exaggerated, and the hairy old deity still smiles out across the Yagour plateau.


In passing, another piece in the British press, this time about Hassan Hajjar, the London and Marrakech based photographer who grew up in Larache, and started photographing in London in the 1990s. His exuberant, blissfully coloured portraits of musicians, many taken in Marrakech and more dressed in clothes designed by Hajjaj himself, were shown at this year’s Marrakech Biennale as well as in London.

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