The Moussem of Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa

Abdou
4 min readApr 11, 2020

The pilgrimage site or Moussem called Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa is named after the Muslim saint and spiritual leader Ahmed Ou Moussa (d. 1563). He is considered as a descendant of the prophet of Islam (Muhammad), and led a remarkable mystical life in Tazerwalt, a small Berber town in the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

The town of Tazerwalt and its zawiya. Lucyin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Locally called “Hajj of the poor”, the pilgrimage of Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa is one of the most known and frequented religious gatherings in Southern Morocco. The pilgrimage site is located in Tazerwalt which is a geographically strategic as it is between the desert and the Maghreb, it is on the western trans-Saharan trade route connecting Morocco to sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., to and from Timbuktu with slaves, gold and salt). This, among other factors, made the pilgrimage an important religious, commercial and cultural occasion that is known to Muslims and non-Muslims of the Maghreb and surrounding sub-Saharan Africa.

The history of the pilgrimage started before the death of the saint when he returned from a long and extensive trip to the Orient (Baghdad and Mecca for Hajj) in 1521. He settled and founded the small village of Tazerwalt (in the middle of a mountainous region) where he established an Islamic religious monastery (i.e., zawiya) and started preaching Islamic mysticism which attracted hundreds of followers receiving his religious teachings and baraka. Given his high and important local and regional influence, the site was made into a mausoleum after his death. His children and grandchildren established a short-lived dynasty (i.e., The House of Iligh), and initiated a yearly religious ceremony for their saint father. This ceremony continued since then even after the fall of the dynasty to currently ruling Alaouites.

The pilgrimage is attended by thousands of pilgrims ranging from poor and sick people to those looking only for baraka, singles willing to marry, merchants and traditional doctors, musical artists, story-tellers and people reciting Quran and prayer. The site became popular thanks to various factors. For instance, there has been several accounts of the saint (descendant of Muhammad) and his miracles . Also, the important of the location on the trade route. The site is also considered as one of the oldest Sufi monasteries, religious schools and mausoleums in the region. Besides, the specific group of Sufi followers of the tarika that is initiated by the saint, there are several religious and non-religious groups that attend. For instance, Sufi followers of other tarikas and ordinary people (e.g., sick or poor looking for baraka). Non-religious groups include for instance merchants and artists.

The pilgrimage is conducted once per year in August for 3 days starting from Wednesday and ending with large religious ceremonies on Friday. The pilgrims arrive during the first day and start the religious rituals. The main rituals take place in the the mausoleum next to the saint’s tomb. Pilgrims kiss and circle the tomb while pronouncing specific Sufi prayers. A special place is dedicated for sacrifices where slaughter of sheep and cows takes place under recitations of prayers invoking Allah, Muhammad, the saint himself and the king. The second day is mainly for non-religious rituals, e.g., business, medicine, weddings and art/music. Meat from the sacrifice is also distributed to the visitors, mostly the poor ones. The largest religious events take place during the last day (Friday). This includes a preach from the fqih of the mosque and large gatherings for prayers. By the end of the day, people leave to their homes.

Tomb of the saint. Lucyin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

No specific supporting infrastructure exists to support the pilgrims except that the transport infrastructure from and to the site was one of the first roads to be paved in the region. As part of Sufism, officially recognised within Morocco — a dominantly Sunni Muslim country with a Maliki school of law and an Ash’ari doctrine, the pilgrimage is allowed to flourish especially with financial help from the Ministry of Islamic affairs and other official religious structures and institutions. This in part due to the less spiritual and more economic aspect of development it has on the region.

Respecting and visiting saints are common practices within the local Sufi communities and even within the less Sufi families. However, the limits of such respect are not well-defined. Some practices are considered mere respect for certain groups whereas others despise them as they go beyond respect to veneration and association with God (shirk). Some practices and beliefs are highly criticised and are considered as innovations (bidaa) or unorthodox seen by the less Sufi Muslims in the region. An example of such practices consists at rolling from a hill all the way to down hill in order to clean one’s sins. This practice is highly criticised, and other controversial practices also include kissing the tombs and walls in the mausoleum as well as some secret sorcery rituals.

References
- La maison d’iligh et l’histoire sociale du Tazerwalt from 1986
- Archive Marocaines from 1933
- Testimony of people who attended

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Abdou

Transport, economics, history and linguistics (among others) feed my interest!