IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ABRAHAM. Faouzi Skali is a Moroccan anthropologist and Sufi scholar. The founder of the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music and the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture is a United Nations recognised contributor to the dialogue of civilisations. Skali was decorated as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French Republic in celebration of his career and his actions to promote cultural diversity.
I was brought up in an atmosphere of spirituality in our family. Both my grandfathers were scholars and erudites of religious affairs, and they were Sufis too, but back then I was not aware of what Sufism means. We said our prayers, but it was more a cultural atmosphere. I did some studies in the French school and we were reading contrary books, like Camus and Sartre and so on.
Yes, and I went to Paris and studied in different places, and I made my anthropology doctorate there. My interests were mathematics, then sociology and history, and in myself I was in an increasing enigma about the place of religion and spiritual values that I felt were lacking at this time in the student community. We talked a lot about Marxism which was very strong in the university.
Was this at the time of the French students’ revolution in 1968?
No, it was 1973, but those ideas were still very dominant, but I had the feeling that we needed something deeper. I became increasingly interested by spirituality, and the first book that I discovered was the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. I understood that the most essential things were something that we couldn’t really speak about. The important things were beyond words.
“I wanted to find a fellowship where there was spiritual teaching from a master to disciples, something like one can imagine Jesus Christ with his apostles, or Socrates with questioners around him.”
Festival attendees gatherd in the 14th Century Medersa Bou Inania, the most architecturally refined of Fez’s theological colleges built by the Marinid Sultan Bou Inan.
Faouzi Skali, is that why you then became close to music?
No, that came much later, but I did understand that it was a question of having the experience and the taste of things, not just thinking about them but feeling them, understanding at another level of intelligence. I began to discover a lot of books written in French about Sufism. One of them was a translation from Persian of discourses of Rumi by Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch, called Le Livre du Dedans (Fihi Ma Fihi). This was surprising, because I was wondering what her purpose was in making a translation of Rumi, who was raised in Persian culture and lived in Konya, Turkey, in the 13th century. We were living in another ideology.
Did you buy the book?
I bought the book, and I found that Rumi was one of the great masters of Sufism, who expressed his experience of spirituality through his poetry and wise sayings. It was exactly what I was looking for, about the journey the soul travels on towards the presence of God.
Did this book change your life?
Completely. From this time I understood that the knowledge I was looking for could be found. I understood that there is a kind of spiritual knowledge that we can really experience by ourselves. My main question became how I was going to do so.
What did you do?
I read a lot about Sufism in Morocco, and having understood that my family was Sufi too I made the link and came back to Morocco with the idea of going to the Sufi Centre (zawiya). I wanted to find a fellowship where there was spiritual teaching from a master to disciples, something like one can imagine Jesus Christ with his apostles, or Socrates with questioners around him.
What happened when you came back to Morocco?
I began to have very clear and symbolic dreams, and in one of them I saw the person who was going to be my master. I found him a few weeks after this dream. He was very famous in Morocco but at this time I didn’t know about him.
What was his name?
Sidi Hamza al Boutchichi al Qadiri, from the Qadiriyyah order. When I went to the Sufi centre, I was wondering what kind of people they were, whether they were ascetic, how they lived. I found they were very natural and Sidi Hamza was sitting in conversation with his disciples and from time to time some of the disciples were taken by what the Sufis call a ḥāl, a spiritual state. I thought that Sidi Hamza didn’t even notice my presence, but at one point he turned to me and asked who I was, and somebody said this young man is a student in Paris and he is very interested in Sufism. He said to me, “You want to return your soul to its original source? You have to know that it will take a lot of struggles, so get ready.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but he became my master for decades. I met him in 1977 and he died in 2017, and I still follow his teaching.
“I created the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. That was the spirit of Fez, with many people belonging to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian community living together for centuries.”
That was the first book that I wrote about Sufism in general, but before that I wrote a little book with Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch called Jesus in the Sufi Tradition which was later published by Albin Michel. Since then I wrote several other books, also with other publishers, and from the beginning I tried to make a link between my living experience of Sufism that could make meaningful sense for the scholarly world. I wanted to introduce this culture to academia in a way that was at the same time scholarly and spiritual.
Later you decided to try to find a new way to have links between different religions in Fez using sacred music?
I noticed that Sufis were at this time very popular in the Western world. When I was in Paris, I discovered there were a lot of books being translated, for example on Ibn ‘Arabi, and the poetry of Ibn Farid, and many others. People appreciated this very cultural and spiritual side of Islam, but when the Gulf War came I thought something was happening that would make dialogue and understanding between Islam and the western world very difficult. Islam was being described as a religion of political ideologies without any regard to its spiritual dimension, as in the case of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington in his very popular book the Clash of Civilizations. I wanted to do something in Morocco to help make people understand that Islam was far deeper than that.
What is the real ideology of Islam?
The real traditional Islam, the historic Islam, is about culture. Of course there are political issues like in any other culture, but the main part of Islam is about civilisation, and has been for centuries. In very modest response to what was happening with the Gulf War and the rising tensions created by extremism, I created the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. That was the spirit of Fez, with many people belonging to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian community living together for centuries. So I proposed this Festival, and it was welcomed by the King of Morocco.
Was it immediately a big success?
From the very beginning; and people were coming from all regions, cultures and spiritualities. Some years later we created a forum in this festival called Giving Soul to Globalisation. We wanted to explore how to engage spirituality with this economically and materialistically globalised world. I directed this Festival for 20 years, from 1994 to 2014, and it is a cultural patrimony that continues. At the same time I felt that I should encourage, here in Morocco but also outside, people to know more about the Sufi culture, not only in books but also in the agora, so I created another festival, the Festival of Sufi Culture, and this year we are preparing the 16th edition. Through this Festival, people who come to Fez from many different countries discover the very soul of the city.
Nevertheless we are now in the midst of other ideas that people may have of Islam. How does Morocco and the King himself feel about this?
Many current ideologies of Islam are very new, they emerged at the beginning of the 20th century when, because of specific historical circumstances, those currents became more political than spiritual. Now many people talk about political ideology but don’t talk about spirituality at all, but I understand from my studies in anthropology that the great majority of muslim countries are connected with Sufi culture. This is not something new. I remember at the first edition of the Festival, Jon Pareles, a journalist from the New York Times, attended a traditional concert given by Muslim and Jewish artists, and he was so surprised that this was not only possible but belonged to the traditional culture of Fez. The cultural roots of Morocco are inclusive, mystical and essentially Sufi, and the present King of Morocco highly values the spiritual patrimony of Morocco, like all the kings before him.
People are observably more religious in Morocco than in the Western world. They go to the mosque to pray five times a day, but what does the future hold?
Even though he was a resistance fighter, the Emir Abdelkader – a poet and humanist from Algeria – was known for his chivalry. He was one of the great commentators on Ibn Arabi and at the same time was fighting for the freedom of his country. He said to the French colonists of his time that we can create a common civilisation with universal spiritual values, but he added also that they probably would not understand and that they would have a lot of suffering to come. The dialogue between East and West was then even stronger than it is now but only in a small elite that was exemplified on the western side by the studies of orientalists like Louis Massignon, Henry Corbin, Reynold Nicholson and Arthur Arberry. Today the work of organisations like the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society continues this tradition of discovering the spiritual dimension that offers an important bridge between West and East.
George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, with Faouzi Skali. They both belong to a group of dialogue between Islam and the Western world created at Davos.
Here performing at the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture that Faouzi Skali created, the Al Firdaus Ensemble is a Sufi musical group based in Granada, Spain.
Indian symphony and ballet at the Mughal court of the Sufi Prince Dara Shikoh performing at the Festival – Traditions of Hinduism and Sufi Islam
“The King of Morocco was deeply involved in the Abraham Accords, and a lot of countries participated.”
Faouzi Skali, sadly, in our day, the Middle East situation seems very far from being the utopic ideal that you have in mind. What is your solution?
This vision is not utopic. The aim of the recent Abraham Accords Declaration was to encourage people to live in the same region in peace. It was an optimistic vision, but at the end something was missing. At the end of the 1980s, Hassan II, the father of the present king, was saying that if Jewish and Islamic genius could be connected in a positive way they could make the Middle East the most wonderful place in the world. It is not so impossible. We did it in Andalucia for 8 centuries. Of course, it was not a paradise but it worked to create a common civilisation with very high shared cultural projects including literature, art, translation, philosophy, spiritual humanism and so on.
We can see how political context can change everything. Just before the 7th October we thought we were on the right track for peace. And then, just after, we had exactly the reverse. So we can see that this is not something that exists as an absolute reality, things could change from our capacity of making proposals to go forward in the right way. If we stay on the hands of extremist people from both sides we will be enemies forever, but we must understand that we can change things with ideas, and with the proposal of another vision of reconciliation and peace. This is the real way of making politics.
At this moment are there politicians of a level capable of that vision?
Not many. The King of Morocco is one of those who think in this way, and it is something connected to the civilisation of Morocco itself, which is rooted, like I said before, in the Sufi culture. Even in the Arab countries, a lot of people are convinced that there’s no way of just carrying on staying in a situation with no solution. It is not just a question of States. It is also about peace in daily life, and people in their deepest minds – where they are not under the influence of the extremists – are realising that it is criminal to continue like this.
Do you not listen to the words of some of the leaders of these terror organisations and countries like Iran, who just want to eradicate Israel?
The Sunni world is by far the majority globally and in the Middle East, and everybody has to live together and this idea of an eternal war between Shia and Sunni doesn’t make sense. We are not going to build our future world on this kind of consideration, so we need a new geopolitical approach for this region.
Do people attack you for your views?
There are a lot of people who think like this, and we must develop more and more forums and meetings all around the world. In Morocco we are creating a regular platform to talk about these things. We must build a vision which is very realistic, because the alternative is not realistic at all. It makes no sense and offers no solution. The King of Morocco was deeply involved in the Abraham Accords, and a lot of countries participated. We can find inspiration for our time from political thinkers such as Martin Buber, Emir Abdulkader, and Mandela. We need people with a vision that can meld politics with spirituality and humanity.
In any event, the Gaza war will finish one day.
That’s why the extremists from both sides are not thinking realistically and it is even not their purpose to do so. They think that because they have ‘God on their side’ they will destroy the others and this will all be finished. That is the worst way to do politics, and needs to be addressed on several levels. So we must put it on another track, and perhaps that is the only little light that we can see from what is happening – that we understand that no peace will come from extremists. Rabin and Sadat and others understood in the past, but they were overwhelmed by the extremists… Nevertheless we still need to figure out another future.
At the end of the day are you optimistic?
Yes, also because there is no alternative. We are in a new era where nobody can assume that he will lead the world with just brutal power. We have seen what’s happened in Afghanistan, the exact reverse of what was expected from many years of war. What’s happened in Iraq and many other places. We must have a new understanding of what power is. The real victory is for the soul and heart of people, at least the majority of them, and there are ways to obtain that. On other hand, if you seek to destroy your enemy you may even succeed, but it doesn’t really do you any good.
What will succeed?
A new approach of spiritual humanism and cooperation can do a lot to change the situation. It is not so much a dream, sharing some universal values to create a common civilisation. That can save us, because we can begin to work with what we have in our hands and the spirituality of religions is a great part of that.
Faouzi Skali, thank you very much for this conversation.
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