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Tobacco’s history in Morocco… when Muslim scholars prohibited smoking

Tobacco made its way to Morocco by the end of the sixteenth century, years after its consumption became a trend in Europe. In the Kingdom, however, smoking was considered a «sin» by Muslim scholars.

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Way before it spread in Europe and Africa, smoking was a common practice in the Americas, where it was mainly associated with shamanism. The «ritual» caught the attention of Italian explorer, navigator, and colonist Christopher Columbus, who led the first European expedition to the Caribbean and Central America in the fifteenth century.

Tobacco consumption, cultivation and trading then found its way to Europe and quickly spread by the middle of the sixteenth century. In France, in particular, tobacco stole the show after French diplomat and scholar Jean Nicot offered it to the Queen of France Catherine de Medici.

Tobacco consumption was not just a European thing as it invaded other parts of the world, namely the Middle East and North Africa. History accounts reveal that tobacco appeared in Morocco in the 1500s.

Tobacco, elephants and Morocco

According to Moroccan scholar and writer Mohamed Sghir Al Ifrani, who lived in Marrakech in the eighteenth century and wrote several books on the history of the Saadi dynasty, smoking tobacco was imported to the Kingdom by the end of the sixteenth century.

«Between 1592 and 1593, an elephant’s caravan from Mali was sent to sultan Ahmed Al Mansour. The day this caravan made it to Morocco was historic. Men, women and children rushed to the streets to watch the elephants pass by», he recalled.

The same caravan reached Fez in 1599. The inhabitants of the city noticed that members of this caravan smoked tobacco. «They claimed that this plant was highly beneficial», the scholar wrote, adding that later on «tobacco spread in Draa, Marrakech and other parts of Morocco».

Other scholars, including Sheikh Chihab Eddine Abu Al Abbas Ahmed Ben Khalid Naciri who referred to the same story in his famous book «Al Istiqsa fi Akhbar Al Maghrib Al Aqsa», backed Imam Sghir’s account.

Prohibition

But having Moroccans smoke tobacco, this new, exotic and unusual plant, was not well received by Muslim scholars in the country. «While some of them banned its consumption, others did not talk about it», Moroccan historians Abdelahad Sebti and Abderrahmane Lakhssassi wrote in their book «From Tea to Atay : History and Habits» (1999), quoting Mohamed Sghir Al Ifrani.

The opinion Moroccan scholars had of tobacco was highly influenced by other Muslim empires. In fact, the Ottoman Empire was very skeptical about tobacco and its fatwas on smoking affected the ones issued in the Kingdom. «Moroccan ulema were informed by their counterparts in the Middle East that Ottoman sultan Morad IV had banned alcohol, coffee and tobacco consumption», historian Taieb Kadiri, who lived during the seventeenth century, reported.

In his book «Nachr Al Matani Li Ahl A Qarn Al Hadi Ahar Wa Thani», he recalled that four years later, a part the city of Fez «followed in the Ottoman Empire’s footsteps, prohibiting tobacco consumption».

Fatwas prohibiting tobacco consumption did not stop there, and a big debate was launched among Moroccan scholars who had contradicting assumptions about the «controversial» plant. Indeed, Fez-based judge Mohamed Ben Abdellah Ben Mohamed El Yerfani adopted a neutral position when it came to smoking, Chihab Eddine Naciri said.

The latter, however, refused the practice and fought against it for years. In «Al Istiqsa fi Akhbar Al Maghrib Al Aqsa», he concluded that, «according to Sharia laws, smoking this plant is forbidden because it is one of the malicious things God warned against».

Divorcing and tobacco in Morocco

Chihab Eddine Naciri went far with his conclusions, stressing that «smoking tobacco is a sin», adding that wives are «allowed to divorce their smoker husbands because of their bad breath».

The author of «Al Istiqsa fi Akhbar Al Maghrib Al Aqsa» cited the «multiple consequences» of tobacco consumption, claiming that this plant «messes with the brain of its consumers who become insane when they do not smoke it».

But these fatwas and prohibitions fell on deaf ears. According to historian Mohamed Eddoif, who died circa 1818, reported in his book «Tarikh Addaoula Assida», that Alaouite sultan Moulay Slimane smoked tobacco.

Centuries later, scientists rather confirmed the arguments of these Moroccan ulema who saw harm in tobacco consumption. It was scientifically proven that smoking kills and that its consumption can lead to deadly diseases.

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