Pope Francis visited Morocco at the end of March, his first visit to the Maghreb and the first papal visit to the kingdom since 1985.
King Mohammed VI, who had invited the pontiff, sat next to his fellow religious leader at a welcoming event in Rabat. Speaking to a rain-soaked public, they delivered a shared message, espousing “interfaith dialogue, mutual understanding between the faithful of the two religions . . . [and] values of peace and tolerance.”
Several hours later, an arrangement of music reflecting passages from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions performed for the two leaders and a packed lecture hall stirred up a debate that highlighted the complexity of putting that message into musical practice.
Interfaith Dialogue in Song
The two leaders visited the Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates (Islamic counselors), which King Mohammed VI founded in 2014. Morocco’s minister of Islamic affairs and two foreign students spoke to a lecture hall filled with Islamic scholars and students, men and women, from across Africa, extolling the virtues of the institute.
Then, on stage, the curtain rose to reveal a full orchestra. A low, sustained drone of strings began in unison on a single note, building suspense. A few seconds later, a young man in ceremonial Moroccan dress of white djellaba overlaid by a vibrant green silham, walked slowly onto the stage, intoning the first words of the Muslim call to prayer.
He continued for some seconds, and when he had finished a woman in a green caftan, emerged from stage left, cantoring a Jewish prayer in Hebrew. After she had finished, a second woman dressed all in burgundy joined them, singing the Christian prayer “Ave Maria,” as the orchestra swelled.
When she had finished her solo, the three singers joined their voices together, weaving their respective melodies and words into a symbolic whole celebrating the unity of the three religions, clasping each others’ hands. Then a hundred choristers joined in. The effect was mesmerizing.
The orchestra’s conductor, Jean-Claude Casadesus, told Inside Arabia that the piece was intended to be a musical embodiment of the interfaith dialogue. Noted singer, Françoise Atlan, who sang the Jewish prayer, told Inside Arabia that the king had thanked her afterward and called the music “enchanting.”
Sacred or Profane?
Others, though, called it blasphemous. The Moroccan performer, Smahi El Hadni, is a muezzin, one who recites the Muslim call to prayer—the adhan—five times a day from the minaret of a mosque.
He began the performance by intoning the adhan, the melodiousness of which—like that of Qur’anic recitation—is not considered music, but chant, or the intonation of sacred words. Those who interpret Islam most extremely, though in the minority, believe that all music is forbidden. For them, blending Christian and Jewish devotional music with Islamic prayer is sacrilege and doubly offensive.
Video clips of excerpts of the performance later circulated on Arabic-language social media and pitted those who praised its message of unity against those who decried it as contradictory to Islamic principles.
Hamad al-Kabbaj, a Salafi preacher and a once-political candidate of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), condemned the performance as “pagan,” impermissible and antithetical to the unity of God. He called on the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (which runs the institute) to punish those responsible. The controversial International Union of Muslim Scholars contested that the performance contradicted Islamic “creeds and rituals.”
Mohamed Abdelwahhab Rafiqui, a former Salafi preacher and now an anti-extremism scholar, responded to the critics, calling the performance a “beautiful and innovative palette of music.” Other commentators lauded it as a symbol of Morocco’s religious tolerance, and denounced its critics as “Wahhabis” or “terrorists.”
The performance also made some mainstream Muslims uncomfortable. It is a norm across the Muslim world that all music should be silenced when the adhan is heard.
But many commentators clarified a key point that the edited videos muddled: El Hadni recited the adhan only accompanied by a bass drone. When Atlan and the Christian singer, Carlone Casadesus, joined their voices, the muezzin switched to classical Andaloussi music.
That style, from Morocco’s medieval al-Andalus period, sings praises of God and Muhammad, but it is music, not sacred recitation. Mixing it with other music does not violate religious norms.
Others questioned whether El Hadni had even recited the adhan at all. In fact, he intoned the first half of the call (“God is the greatest. I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God”) but left out the closing phrases (“Hasten to prayer, hasten to success,”) which some argued would make it a true call to prayer.
Without these words, El Hadni only recited an Islamic declaration of faith that regularly features in music across the Muslim world. These details complicate the accusations of “blasphemy.”
Morocco As a Defense Against Extremism
Critics also faced a dilemma: condemning the performance of the arrangement could also by extension signify condemnation of King Mohammed VI, who had approved of it. Morocco’s monarch holds the hereditary title “Commander of the Faithful” and traces his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, giving him a unique religious authority.
Pope Francis’ visit was a part of Morocco’s longstanding position as a haven of tolerance and a bulwark against religious extremism. The king oversees a comprehensive social, political, and religious strategy to combat radical ideology, largely by promoting the kingdom’s Maliki Islam and culture of Sufism as an alternative.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which monitors Islamic education, reverses the extremist narrative, proclaiming Morocco’s flexible religious identity as orthodox Islam, and the severity of Salafism as a dangerous deviation. The imam institute plays a key role, propagating this theology by training foreign imams (over half of the students are from the Maghreb, West Africa, and Europe) through a religious diplomacy that also doubles as a political strategy.
Pluralism in Morocco
In this light, the musical arrangement and performance reflected a clear statement of Morocco’s professed policies of tolerance. While the strongest accusations against it, in essence, were objections to religious pluralism more than complaints about theological impropriety, such interfaith musical intermingling proved too intimate for many observers.
The backlash highlights questions for Morocco and the world beyond: how closely can people of different faiths live together? And how much of our religious practice are we comfortable sharing?
Morocco’s constitution recognizes and protects Moroccan Jews, but few remain in the country. It also protects the rights of Christians to worship in its lands, but only if they are foreign (nearly all are). Moroccan Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity, and the state does not recognize converts. Christians in Morocco can be sentenced to three years in prison for proselytizing, and Pope Francis urged his followers not to do so.
At the same time, Muslims—many of them Moroccan—have experienced widespread discrimination in Italy, a mostly Catholic country with deep ties to the Vatican. Its deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, portrayed Muslim immigrants as invaders. In France, another mostly Catholic country, Muslims have faced marginalization, discrimination, and even demonization, especially from a rising far right in recent years.
Both King Mohammed VI and Pope Francis are known for their advocacy of interfaith dialogue, and the medley performed for them was symbolic on many levels. The performance was an effort to illustrate through the language of music the unity of the three Abrahamic religions. Yet it also put into stark relief that significant obstacles remain to achieving coexistence and understanding, both from the faithful and the institutions that guide them.