Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah (1710-1790), also known as Mohamed III, is widely known for his pacifist diplomacy and solid international relations. This reputation is attributed to his diplomatic overtures and ratification of numerous friendship, peace, and cooperation treaties with Europe and America. He is particularly known for his recognition of the independence of the United States in 1777, making Morocco the first country to officialize such an acknowledgment.

When Mohamed III officially came to power in 1757, Morocco was ravaged by tribal and political conflicts and was easy prey for colonial ambitions, especially those of Portugal and Spain. Yet, just a few years after his succession to the throne, the sultan re-unified Morocco, thwarted colonial desires, fortified Moroccan ports, and rehabilitated the navy and other armed services. In 1769, he besieged Mazagan (known as Al-Jadida today), which was under Portuguese sway, and expelled the Christians.

The sultan prompted a novel human rights debate with his European partners.

The sultan’s achievements on various political, social, economic, and military levels earned him enormous respect, not only by his subjects but also by foreign powers. What most people do not know, however, is that the voice of this exceptional leader arose from a land then called “barbary” to prompt a novel human rights debate with his European partners. This was during a time when European merchants were in a frenzied race to dominate the slave trade in Africa. Their ships routinely transported millions of caged and tortured Africans to work in American plantations.

Declaration Manuscript

Declaration Manuscript

As a devout Muslim and Commander of the Faithful, Mohamed III was imbued with the humanitarian values derived from a myriad of core Islamic principles. The most important of these values are mercy and kindness toward the elderly, prisoners of war, children, and women.

Sultan Moulay Ismail (1645-1727), Mohamed III’s grandfather, had already started the slavery abolition initiative by banning private possession of slaves and restricting slave-owning to the state under stringent regulations. This anti-slavery legacy was sustained by Mohamed III, who then launched his famous proposal of liberating any enslaved human being irrespective of whether they were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.[1]

Before his enthronement in 1757, he signed multiple treaties with Denmark (1753, 1754, and 1756). And later, as Sultan, he ratifies accords with Britain (1760), Sweden (1763), Venice (1765), France (1765), Spain (1767), Portugal (1773), and the Netherlands (1777).

All these agreements included theories on the law and ethics of war and human rights, as well as provisions relating to these rights, reflecting the Sultan’s avant-gardist humanitarian vision. The sultan would have surely been awarded an international human rights prize if the system to recognize him had already been set up.

Agreements signed with European countries included theories on the law and ethics of war and human rights.

On September 10, 1777, Sultan Sidi Mohamed wrote what could be considered a human rights declaration. He had proposed it to all the Christian powers[2] and, had they accepted it, the declaration would have become a rule of international law. The so-called Declaration of Meknes, although little known due to the lack of references, was an important and unprecedented pronouncement in the history of humanitarian thought.

The manuscript of the declaration featured in Abdelhadi Tazi’s Diplomatic History of Morocco from Ancient Times to the Present contains five articles. The first three were devoted to the redemption of slaves and captives regardless of whether they were Muslim or Christian.

The sense of egalitarianism in all the manuscript’s articles is evident. The sultan does not favor his Muslim subjects over the Christian ones in any of his proclamations. Instead, he treats all human subjects on equal footing. This indicates the extent of his adherence to justice and profound humanity. In fact, Mohammed III had always dealt with benevolence towards individuals of different faiths living under his rule. He was determined to facilitate the reciprocal deliverance of Muslim slaves in Europe and Christian captives in Morocco.

[Morocco’s Approach to Modernity is Unique in the Arab World]

In article four of the manuscript, he suggests that “men over seventy years and women, irrespective of their age, should never, under any circumstances, be held [as] captives or slaves.” As far as children are concerned, the Sultan was keen on outlawing the enslavement of children under the age of ten, which was stipulated in article 12 of the treaty he ratified with Tuscany on February 6, 1778.

The last article of the Declaration of Meknes stipulates that “a ship carrying food such as wheat, barley, rice, and all grains […] from the land of Muslims or from the land of Christians should never be pirated because it may be on the way to starving people who will perish if they do not receive the food, causing the destruction of God’s creatures.” This article alone speaks volumes of the Sultan’s morality, compassion, and mercy for all humans, regardless of their race and religion.

The Moroccan state treasury during the reign of Mohamed III allocated one-third of its budget to slave liberation.

According to the Moroccan Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs, the Moroccan state treasury during the reign of Mohamed III allocated one-third of its budget to slave liberation. This greatly impacted consular corps in Morocco, who then transmitted the news to their countries, confirming Morocco’s determination to put an end to human subjugation.

Today, as new forms of enslavement, persecution, discrimination, and inequalities continue to thrive, and as many disadvantaged and underprivileged minority groups struggle for recognition and inclusion, we should be careful not to downplay and obscure the role played by visionary leaders such as Sultan Sidi Mohamed in the promotion and advancement of human rights.

Not to mention that the vast achievements of different cultures and traditions should be researched and fully acknowledged to expand the rich history of humanity and avoid the current Eurocentric bias predominant in modern history books.

[1] Jacques Caillé, Les accords internationaux du Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah (Rabat: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1969), p. 221.

[2] Abdulhadi Tazi, Diplomatic History of Morocco from Ancient Times to the Present, Vol. 1 (Mohammadia: Matabi’a Fdala: 1986), pp. 287-292.