Review: Eickelman's "Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable"

Eickelman, Dale F. Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1985.

To complete this dated but still quite "current" study, Eickelman, an anthropologist now teaching at Dartmouth with an interest in the role of intellectuals in Islam as well as in the relationship between orality and literacy (both of his interests are treated in the study) traveled to Morocco on several occasions during the 1960s, 1970s, and finally 1980s. Initially rooming with the Qadi of Boujad, Hajj 'Abd 'ar-Rahman, a Berber from Bzu, Eickelman decided to write a biography of his landlord. (Boujad is a town slightly north of the Atlas range, seated between Marrakesh and Fez; it's somewhat to the northeast of Marrakesh.) Begun thus in the 1960s, this study was finally published in 1985, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.

"Downplay" of Traditional Learning

Eickelman argues that, as modernization became central in the Islamic world prior to the Iranian Revolution, many stories of traditional learning tended to be ignored, and the role of traditional learned men in politics likewise was ignored, rather unfairly. Eickelman adds that traditional knowledge, based first on religious studies but later on more general studies that could include the study of a variety of literature, often was more tuned to popular values.

Eickelman's Subject: Hajj 'Abd 'Ar-Rahman

Ar-Rahman's father hailed from the high Atlas (from which the father apparently had had to flee because of a dispute), but may have also had ties to the town he moved to, Bzu. Such ties actually seem to be quite important in governing in traditional Berber society.

Ar-Rahman's mother left the family when ar-Rahman was still rather young, angered by ar-Rahman's father's choice of a second wife. From that point, ar-Rahman's older brother and also a maternal uncle became important in helping ar-Rahman secure his education. Ar-Rahman's recollection of his father's new wife is that of a "wicked stepmother."

Transition From Q'uranic Schooling in Morocco

In the 1920s, with the French occupation of Morocco, traditional learning began to be replaced, and most Q'uranic schooling ended circa 1930 (some Q'uranic schooling has since been revived, beginning in the 1960s, according to Eickelman, but not in its original form), although some things such as the "Feast of Students" continued until much later. Ar-Rahman was educated just prior to the end of Q'uranic schooling. His children all received modern schooling.

Traditional Education: Stages

Eickelman describes ar-Rahman's learning beginning with his memorization of the Q'uran, followed by his attendance at a rural tent-housed "madrasa" ("madrasah" is Arabic for "school") just south of Bzu, an "intermediate" school where ar-Rahman memorized rhymed Arabic grammars, then finally his attendance at the university-like "Yusifiya" in Marrakesh, cut short when ar-Rahman returned to his older brother, to assist him in the role of Deputy Qadi (the brother was the Qadi at the time; when the brother was exiled briefly just before Moroccan independence, ar-Rahman became Qadi). In Morocco, says Eickelman, students are of various ages, depending on when they can study, and schooling is always unfinished; that is, there is always more to study but study is cut short by necessity.

Practical Learning

Perhaps because ar-Rahman is a land holder and notary judge, not a cleric, his learning, after he memorizes the Q'uran, is focused on learning what is needed by a judge. It's for ar-Rahman a very fluid tradition, Eickelman points out: the Q'uran of course delineates inheritance laws in great detail, helping to prevent argument, and ar-Rahman is able to make use of his knowledge of various laws as he keeps track of local kinship ties and their relationships to property boundaries. He seems to enjoy tracking and researching these. It is this knowledge which enables him to settle disputes.

Moroccan-Style Learning

Eickelman details the importance of memorization in Moroccan learning traditions, contrasting these with other Islamic learning traditions, and noting that while teacher-student dialogue plays a major role in the Iranian tradition, this plays little role in the Moroccan tradition. In Morocco, memorization is chiefly what allows "possession" of a text. Only after memorization does a student enlist the aid of another student, in order to make more sense of a text. Eickelman notes that the latter is especially important beause these texts are in classical Arabic, which is close to "al-fus.haa," which is the standard Arabic and a bit distant from the local dialect and still more distant from ar-Rahman's (and many other Moroccan students of the time's) native Berber.

The Tarjama

Eickelman notes however that such peer learning is "downplayed" in the student's "tarjama," which is something like a curriculum vitae. The tarjama was interesting to me for another reason: perhaps a similar documentation of the genealogy of local rulers together with shrines and events of local religious significance is found in the Miztec codices. These codices may be posted in mayor's offices in towns even today. In the tarjama, a "Man of Learning," in addition to listing teachers studied under as well as subjects and books studied, listed his genealogy, sometimes tracing it to the Prophet. However ar-Rahman, being concerned with getting facts exactly as they are, is careful to only trace his origins as far as he can actually verify, to his grandfather.

Economic Class and Learning

Eickelman examines the role of class differences in learning opportunities: although minimal food for students was generally provided through donations, and although there was no fee for studying, poor youth might not be able to take time out from labor to pursue studies, and in addition might not have things like money for extra food or "key money" (dormitory space for students was rent-free, but a sort of "key deposit" had to be paid by a student initially, before he could occupy a room).

Poor youth who wished to study nevertheless benefited from a sort of financial aid: ar-Rahman's brother, after leaving his own studies, provided the key to his room to other youth from his village. Eickelman notes also that, as in the West, scholarly pursuits might on occasion provide a poor youth with some hope for social mobility. Nevertheless no doubt, class differences were probably more pronounced in early twentieth-century Morocco than in the modern West, although Eickelman does not compare the two.

Rural-Urban Gap

Eickelman also looks at the rural-urban gap, which was apparently wide. For one thing, rural students were more likely to need dormitories than students from Marrakesh. The rural students also had adopted different dress styles than their urban counterparts, and, although there was a "brotherly" atmosphere within the Yusifiya, outside its walls rural students were made great fun of.

Community Support for Education

Eickelman notes interestingly that there was great community support for both traditional (Islamic) learning until its demise, and for the new public schools. Eickelman adds that support for the new public education system however began to wane when it ceased to lead to any great difference in economic opportunities. This may have been especially true in rural areas, and Eickelman's hypothesis here seems to be confirmed by Khandker, Lavy,and Filmer's (1994) study of census data on Moroccan educational attainment (World Bank Discussion Paper, No. 264). Khandker, Lavy, and Filmer's analysis of the data suggests that rural children were more likely to progress further in school when there were nearby jobs in utilities companies and agricultural research.

Khandker, Lavy, and Filmer also observe that attrition seems to be a major factor in contemporary Moroccan educational attainment. Eickelman observes attrition to be similarly a major factor in Moroccan traditional education. Modern-day attrition may thus be the result of a blend of economic needs and traditional habits. The traditional student's "tarjama" however apparently allowed him to create a sort of certifying document, however far he had progressed.

Recitation Literacy

Finally Eickelman notes that recitation literacy is not peculiar to Morocco; it's a form that's been used in literacy acquisition in other places including Europe and the U.S. (Miles Myers describes the role of recitation literacy in U.S. education in his Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy; 1996), although Moroccan recitation literacy does have unique features, including recitation with little or no discussion. One feature of ar-Rahman's learning was the memorization of rhyming grammars and the composition of rhymed texts. Composing texts with lines that are syntactically and rhythmically parallel, I note, has been important in rhetoric throughout the Arab world.

Joint Scholarship

Eickelman calls this a work of joint scholarship and "collaboration" entered into by himself and the Qadi, and so it is, and a very lively one too. The joint project benefited from both Eickelman's knowledge of Arabic and the Qadi's knowledge of classical texts.

Eickelman alas omits discussing whether his being American, rather than European (and thus at the time of this biography at least exempt from some post-colonial stigma) may have helped him to establish a relationship with ar-Rahman. Nevetheless this is a thoughtful portrait of Moroccan traditional learning and the so-called traditional university in Morocco's South against the backdrop of Morocco as it moved from French occupation to Independence. Eickelman presents a balanced view of the roles of "Men of Learning," both in support of and in opposition to the French, during the French occupation.

Interestingly the traditional and established teachers in the religious schools did not question the French rule; it was the "reformers" who did so, and they gave classes in the evening, making these seem less important or worthy of note, whether deliberately so or not.


Women of course tended not to go past memorization of the Q'uran, although women might nevertheless play some role in helping a young man to secure an Islamic education. Fatimah Mernissi's autobiography, Dreams of Trespass, written initially in English, looks at women's learning.