Al-Hiwar TV: I’m grateful to you for having offered us this series of “reviews;” we usually start by the beginning and the beginning of a person is their birth. You were born in the year 1928, and parents usually tell their children facts about the year they were born in, because people’s awareness of their lives comes a little bit later in life. So what were the main events of the year you were born?
Imam Yassine: I seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan. In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and peace, blessings and salutations be upon our Prophet, his family, companions, his brothers [those who will believe in me after my death] and his followers. Surely events preceded the birth of this indigent slave and came after it, but I do come from an illiterate family… my father was illiterate and my mother as well. Illiterate people before and today and at all times are rarely aware of what is happening in the world, even in their vicinity… especially that they were, back then, 82 years ago, living under a tyrannical, oppressive, suffocating rule, that left no opportunity or chance for the people to ponder their state of being nor the state of the world around them. Therefore, I have not been informed by my father or my mother about anything that happened that year except that they had been offered an infant that they loved very dearly. Especially since my father when he had me was 50 years old and… it’s a long story—do you want me to tell it?
Al-Hiwar TV: Of course, go ahead… so you weren’t the eldest child?
Imam Yassine: Yes, I was.
Al-Hiwar TV: So your father got married late in life?
Imam Yassine: Yes. Because of something that happened before I was born. We belong to a family called Ait-Beehi, in Moroccan Berber dialect. This family had a glorious history, and we find in our official documents, what is left of them—because this family has witnessed several setbacks due to the tribulations that Morocco was undergoing—so what was left of our documents tell us that this Ait-Beehi had a renowned man called Abdullah Ubeehi. This man had influence; he was a leader inside the ruling Alawi dynasty at the time. It is said that he was a clairvoyant man with great character. He was a good man, as they told us… and God knows best. So this man remained in power in his region for a long time, and the ruling power became afraid that he might instigate a revolution. They therefore set him up to get rid of him and antagonized his whole family and their descendants until the time of my father. At the time of my father, the head of the tribe that we call sayyid decided to kill him in keeping with this age-old hatred for the Ait-Beehi family, but my father was warned beforehand by a high-placed connection he had, and was advised to leave the country, especially since he was envied for being a privileged youth. By that was meant that he had a horse, and horses at that time were owned only by privileged youth, so he fled and joined the French army, specifically the horse cavalry, and fought alongside the French during WWI. When the war ended he returned to Morocco and settled in Marrakech, where I was born after he married one of his cousins in the blessed year of 1347AH/1928.
Al-Hiwar TV: So you are originally from south Morocco?
Imam Yassine: Yes.
Al-Hiwar TV: But you were born and raised in Marrakech?
Imam Yassine: Yes, I was born there, and I studied and learned there. However, some people contend that I said in the Islam or the Deluge missive that I was an Idrissi.
Al-Hiwar TV: Yes I read that.
Imam Yassine: They said, “how can you say that you are a noble descendent of the Prophet through the line of his great grandchild Idriss when you’re a Berber, how can you pretend that?” Our ancestor Idriss the Great fled from a battle called Fakh… this battle was a calamity for the descendants of the Prophet. Fakh is a village near Makkah… they fled after this battle—there were three of them Idriss, Yahya and Ibrahim. They competed with the Abbassids in leadership, so the power in place didn’t like them. Thus Idriss fled to Morocco and Yahya and Ibrahim went eastward, and all had progeny in their host countries. That is how Idriss came to Morocco. In it at that time was a tribe called Urabah, a Berber name…some people equate this appellation “Berber” with homophones in Latin-based languages which have a negative connotation.
Al-Hiwar TV: So what’s a better alternative, “Shelh?”
Imam Yassine: Yes, or Amazeeghi. Some say that they are actually barbarous people, but on the contrary they are people with a venerable history and have their own traditions and etiquette and so on…
Al-Hiwar TV: So he (your father) married an Amazeeghi woman?
Imam Yassine: Yes, one of his cousins, so I was born to this family of Amazeeghis.
Al-Hiwar TV: The circumstances of your raising—you said that both your parents, may God have mercy on their souls, were illiterate, so who influenced you on a scholarly educational level?
Imam Yassine: This I shall come to step by step. First it was thanks to my father, may God have mercy on his soul. He sent me to a zawiya, where they taught children and adults… it was a comprehensive scientific school where they taught children from the age of 4. I believe I joined this hdar as we call it in Moroccan dialect, at the age of 4 or 5. So the favor of education was bestowed upon me by a man named Mohammed Mokhtar Soussi… This man is a renowned Moroccan figure, even Islamic figure… He was a scholar, a historian, a jurist, a great poet and writer whose poetry is difficult for people like us to properly appreciate or imitate… so without going into details of his origins and his zawiya and how it transformed…
Al-Hiwar TV: When you say zawiya, you mean like a sufi zawiya?
Imam Yassine: Yes, his father, Haj Ali, may God have mercy on his soul, was a sufi master and he too was sufi, but what does sufi mean… this word has been loaded with so much baggage that people now reject it… Sufi in their minds automatically conjures up all kinds of negative attributes, and this is due to their ignorance of the Sufism following the tradition of the Prophet, which means abstemiousness and yearning for the Hereafter and preparation to the meeting with God, Glorious and Exalted is He, doing a lot of remembrance of God and reciting the Quran a lot and learning it…
Al-Hiwar TV: Going back to Soussi…
Imam Yassine: His father built a zawiya in a neighborhood called Rmila, and the man composed poems that he called the Ramilyat, referring to this neighborhood we used to live in. I remember that I once attended the recitation of some of these Ramilyat. My Quran teachers along with Al Mokhtar took me to a party that was held in one of the parks near the Kutubiya (famous mosque in Marrakech). He used to get together with the most brilliant of his students on such occasions and they took turns reciting poetry; he later compiled it into a diwan that he called the Ramilyat. I attended that… I was a youngster at the time, 5 or 6 years old.
Al-Hiwar TV: Is this diwan printed now—can one find it in bookshops?
Imam Yassine: I believe it is, because the man has an outstanding legacy—he wrote history books that are very thorough and comprehensive; one of his works is a history book that spreads over many volumes and he called it the “Ma’sul” (honey coated), and the choice of the title was deliberate, for the man was a real poet, very learned in the Arabic language. He called it that because all his writings were done in an elegant literary style. Going back… his father owned a zawiya in the Rmila that he later converted into a school where he taught people, young and old, the Quran. There was where I learned at the hands of people to whom I’m greatly indebted for their patience and discipline and teaching, and the best provision is the awareness of God, and it’s something one could obtain only from the Quran, through its memorization, conservation, implementation, pondering and taking example from.
Al-Hiwar TV: From what I read it was suggested that the year 1965 was the beginning of your sufi orientation, but I see that your relationship with Sufism came much earlier than that.
Imam Yassine: My affiliation to the zawiya of Mokhtar Soussi, for whom I have great love and whom I respect very much and pray for very often, was not of sufi nature. It was a mere learning of the Quran.
Al-Hiwar TV: A regular Quran learning.
Imam Yassine: The distinctive feature of this zawiya, however, was that the brilliant among his students who had taken their knowledge from him, the sciences of the Quran and its exegesis, and the Prophetic tradition, and the Arabic language, and so on, they used to teach us, youngsters, the principles of these sciences, and this is a provision from which I still draw and to which I always go back, especially in times when I felt overtaken by the love of the foreign languages that I tried to learn subsequently… we will discuss that later.
Al-Hiwar TV: So you continued to primary education and so on until you joined the school of teachers?
Imam Yassine: full name is Ali Ibn Yusuf Ibn Tachfeen. His father Yusuf was one of the greatest men and Muslims ever. He was a chivalrous man and a great mujahed, and he had quite a few victories in Andalusia, where he flew to the rescue of the Tawa’if that were in trouble there. His son was a good man as well… He was a king… a king among kings, but he was still righteous.
Al-Hiwar TV: The mosque was named after him.
Imam Yassine: Yes, and it still exists, and this mosque was made into an affiliate of the Qarawiyyin.
Al-Hiwar TV: The one that’s in Fez?
Imam Yassine: Yes, and it (Ibn Yusuf) actually competed with it (Qarawiyyin) because of all the great scholars that it contained, may God have mercy on their souls. So I joined that school at the age of 19, and I had at that time gathered a good deal of academic baggage from my school at home. I had an uncle—the only literate brother of the 4 uncles I had from my father’s side. Uncle Said had learned the Quran and had acquired knowledge. He used to visit us from time to time during his travels to Marrakech, and one time he visited us and noticed that I had reached the age of 19, so he suggested that I join Ibn Yusuf school. I said that I’d love to, “but how?”
Al-Hiwar TV: He was the one who encouraged you?
Imam Yassine: He said “alright then, wait…” He had connections inside the Ibn Yusuf university; you can call it a university as it used to compete with the Qarawiyyin university. It provided primary, secondary and higher education; it provided a comprehensive education cycle, so a student who graduated from it would be a scholar who had spent 3 years in primary school, 4 in higher secondary school, and another 4 in upper secondary school, a long course of study—a university basically! So he told me to wait, and he went to one of his friends in said university and told him that he had a relative who wanted to join the university. The friend introduced him to the head of the university, and at the time the chancellor was a great scholar named Ibn Uthman, may God have mercy on him. So I was summoned for an interview with him and seated beside him was a great man who died a martyr—they murdered him—his name was Bu-Ragba.
Al-Hiwar TV: Not the Tunisian one!
Imam Yassine: No this one was a scholar. So the two took turns questioning me and evaluating my knowledge, and they concluded that my level was quite good, so they said this one should be joined directly to secondary school. So I did, and spent 4 years there, and then came the teachers’ school.
Al-Hiwar TV: It was separate from the main university?
Imam Yassine: No that was later. It is located in Rabat.
Al-Hiwar TV: So you moved to Rabat.
Imam Yassine: I did.
Al-Hiwar TV: Was it a private or a public school?
Imam Yassine: It was a government school, and was run by a Frenchman named Telier… yes a Frenchman… and it was supervised by a famous orientalist… So I joined the school, and it was a totally different environment… Marrakech was a peripheral town; Rabat on the other hand was the capital and had many things that Marrakech didn’t have. This was a boarding school and I had to live there, in the teachers’ school, and for the first time I got to meet all kinds of students coming from the four corners of Morocco and even from Algeria. There were two study orientations. One they called Mudarris which is an Arabic word they wrote in Latin letters and they used to call those graduates “literate Moroccans,” and there was the other branch where you could find French language teachers, and those were highly respected and were called “instructors.” I rubbed shoulders with both categories.
Al-Hiwar TV: Could you speak French at the time?
Imam Yassine: That’s another story; I’ll get back to it shortly. Yes, yes… I could, so I was close to both peoples and, coming to your question, the French language… I woke up to it when I was 19 and I was a pupil at Ibn Yusuf, sitting on a rug, being read to by the professors from textbooks, may God reward them with the best rewards. This seemed very little to me at the time, especially since I was a keen reader of Arrisala Magazine by Muhammad Hassan, from Egypt.
Al-Hiwar TV: Azzayat.
Imam Yassine: Yes, I used to read this magazine with passion, and it helped broaden my horizons and introduced me to the wider world around, so I felt as if I was wasting my time in Ibn Yusuf… I felt I had to learn the French language as it was the only option, being a resident of a former French colony, not a British one with access to English.
Al-Hiwar TV: It was basically the major language in Morocco almost.
Imam Yassine: Yes, and it still is the official language, unfortunately, in our administrations and ruling facilities – there is no power or strength except through God.
Al-Hiwar TV: Allow me to take a short break then resume our conversation.
Al-Hiwar TV: So sheikh, you were saying that your reading of the magazine Arrisala opened new vistas for you and drove you to learn French.
Imam Yassine: Yes I was saying that I felt that I was wasting my time on the floor of the Ibn Yusuf school and that I needed to learn French… but instead of attending a school for that purpose—and God protected me from doing that—since I was then a 19 year-old teenager, and had I joined a French school the whole course of my life would have taken another turn altogether… Where I lived, I had friends who were initially learning French but who, on Sundays, sat with us to learn the Quran.
Al-Hiwar TV: In Ibn Yusuf?
Imam Yassine: No, somewhere else. So I went to one of them and said, “teach me French!” He started teaching me, may God have mercy on him… he is probably dead now—he was my age—so he started by teaching me the alphabet: a, b, c, d. At age 19 I was being taught the French alphabet! So I quickly learned the alphabet, and he started teaching me what they were being taught in the French school, whole texts and poetry and so on, and I used to struggle with them and clawed my way through… I used to read his assignments and homework and the literary texts they were supposed to study, and that’s how it was until I joined the teachers’ school. So in there, we had the favored and respected category by the French which were the “instructors” and we were the pathetic “Moroccan literate.” So I drew closer and closer to the best-loved group, and tried to learn from them and compete with them, and did my best so that among the 20 students in the school I was ranked 2nd, not the first, but second. I was very busy learning languages; I used to accost some of the French students who had some rudiments of other languages. Aziz, may God have mercy on him… I asked him to teach me English, another to teach me Spanish… On Sundays I paid visits to the flea market and bought every book I could get my hands on… I bought a French-Arabic dictionary and an English-Arabic one, and I remember one time going back home with a Webster dictionary, you know, it is the big heavy one, 5kg or something.
Al-Hiwar TV: The famous American dictionary.
Imam Yassine: Very heavy… so, long story short, I was hungry for knowledge of other languages, and this was, in fact, one of the mistakes I made. Instead of focusing my energy on two languages—I was not proficient in French yet—I wanted to learn this and that language.
Al-Hiwar TV: You were scattered between them all.
Imam Yassine: Yes, it is a big mistake, and I found no one to teach me the right way to do it. I should have focused on one language at a time and then moved to another. But this was God’s decree. I then graduated from the teachers’ school…
Al-Hiwar TV: You majored in Arabic?
Imam Yassine: Yes, they were preparing us to teach it. We were mere ‘Moroccan literates,’ especially since the supreme supervisor who was also in charge of the biggest high school in Rabat was an orientalist, which means he hated Arabs and Muslims…
Al-Hiwar TV: So this period you spent at the teachers’ school since 1947… many major events were taking place in the East—the establishment of the Zionist state in Palestine—were you aware of the news from there?
Imam Yassine: I was totally oblivious of all that. I didn’t read newspapers and had no interest in politics whatsoever. I was totally absorbed in my quest for a better mastery of languages and Arabic and so on… This kind of awareness came later.
Al-Hiwar TV: So you graduated and became a teacher?
Imam Yassine: Yes. I was first appointed in Al-Jadida and spent a year there, then I was transferred to Marrakech and stayed in a school there a year or two, then I moved to a combined junior-senior high school run by a Frenchman named De Verda.
Al-Hiwar TV: The French were in control of education!
Imam Yassine: Of everything… and in French parlance “De” denoted noble lineage, like De Gaulle… this man used to reduce the number of my teaching hours to use me for something else. He was writing his thesis about the city of Marrakech—it has now been printed and published—so he used to give me manuscripts in Arabic and ask me to translate them for him.
Al-Hiwar TV: He used you for translation rather than teaching?
Imam Yassine: Yes, and he would lighten my teaching burden for that, and this was treacherous of him. And even in the primary school I was in before, a principal named Romaze would also use me for such ends… He would give me newspaper clips to sort and classify. It was colonization in due form, or as some scholars would say, in a play of words, since the word for colonization in Arabic means “building and development,” they would refer to the act of colonizing as “istikhrab” meaning “ruination and destruction…” so I was one of the “ruined,” but God protected me from them.
Al-Hiwar TV: What happened between that time and the year 1965? Were there any major events in your life before turning to Sufism in that year?
Imam Yassine: What happened is that while working at the primary school that was annexed to the Mohammed V middle school, I started looking forward to being promoted and to earning more diplomas… This started even earlier when I was in the teachers’ school, and I do thank God for this bounty. One of the education inspectors we used to work with was studying to take an exam at the end of the year to earn a “Classical Arabic certificate” and he used to consult me and seek my help. I then thought, “why not apply myself…?”
Al-Hiwar TV: Since you were being sought for help on the matter!
Imam Yassine: So I applied and I passed and he failed… Then after graduation and while working in Al-Jadida in a school run by… I’m really not so sure but he was probably a Jew called Polly… He used to teach 5th grade, and I taught Arabic to all five grades. I had 2 classes a day. At the end of the year, I asked for leave to take the exam for a higher diploma in Classical Arabic called brevet. He was surprised but granted my leave, and I took the exam and passed. And at that time, what is now called the School of Letters and Human Sciences in Rabat was called the Higher Studies Institute, so I applied and passed. And I used to study by correspondence… When I went back to the principal, he asked me how I did, and I said I passed, and he said, and I still remember his exact words in French: “I spent 25 years of good and loyal services to the state, and I never earned this diploma, and you did,” in undisguised rancor and hatred… Then when I moved to Marrakech, I wanted to earn the even higher degree called “Classical Arabic diploma.” I studied for that exam and failed miserably the first year, which hurt me but stimulated me to do better. The second year I applied and passed, thanks to God, and this deeply surprised my French teaching colleagues from Moroccan and French origins both. And there was a French inspector who was full of malice… but this belongs to the past. Anyway, this allowed me to be promoted, in one stroke, to a professor of classical Arabic in secondary education.
Al-Hiwar TV: In Marrakech?
Imam Yassine: Yes, in the same institution. So the people around me were stupefied… I taught there for a few more years and some of my students have become ministers and authors and so on.
Al-Hiwar TV: You still hadn’t developed any interest in politics?
Imam Yassine: None whatsoever! I was a khubzee, meaning one interested only in earning his daily bread.
Al-Hiwar TV: When did it start then?
Imam Yassine: It came later.
Al-Hiwar TV: But it was preceded by Sufism?
Imam Yassine: Yes… it was preceded by what is called a spiritual crisis in 1965.
Al-Hiwar TV: So you were subject to a spiritual crisis?!
Imam Yassine: Well, that is how it is commonly referred to, but I would call it a yearning for God, a desire to draw closer to God, a desire for spiritual purification… They call it crisis, but a crisis would typically happen to unbelievers, Jews and…
Al-Hiwar TV: It is not a crisis for the true believer.
Imam Yassine: Yes, it is a longing for God, an awakening of the heart… This happened to me in the year 1965… and I had then been promoted from a teacher to an education inspector. After becoming an Arabic professor in secondary school I heard of an entrance exam to become a primary education inspector. I therefore applied and failed the first time and then passed the second time, and became an inspector. I was dispatched to Casablanca, and this town was at that time replete with advocates for the freedom of Morocco from colonial rule. So I was appointed there, and I was in charge of primary education in Casablanca. While I held office there, a group of teachers rose against me.
Al-Hiwar TV: Why is that?
Imam Yassine: I’m coming to the reason why… they used to call me Umar Ibn Al-Khattab.
Al-Hiwar TV: They did? That’s a great honor!
Imam Yassine: Praise be to God… why… because they were used to buying their way up the education echelons and there was no question of that with me… God protected me from taking part in that… I forgot a little detail that may be of use… I was informed that I succeeded in the inspectors exam and that I was being sent to Casablanca, and I had never been out of Marrakech before except when I attended the teachers’ school, and I knew nothing about Casablanca or Morocco even. In the state hierarchy at that time there was an education minister in charge of education over the whole Moroccan territory, and immediately below him was the supervisor of the Arabic language education. So my condition for going to Casablanca was to be given a residence there, since I knew absolutely nothing about the town. They wouldn’t accept, so I declined going several times. I had then been ordered to have a telephone conversation with the Moroccan national supervisor of Arabic language education at such and such time, on such and such date, so come “D-day” I went to the office of the current education inspector in Marrakech to speak to him on the phone… People were extremely fearful of him as though he was a wild beast…
Al-Hiwar TV: Was he French?
Imam Yassine: Yes he was… So that was the first time I held a telephone handset in my hand… He handed it to me in a perfunctory manner—for him it was a banal daily thing—and I held it upside down, and he taught me how to hold it properly… The national supervisor told me I was appointed in Casablanca. I told him I wasn’t going unless he secures a residence for me; I was categorical. The house I was later given was meant for a highly ranked official that they moved to another one in order to accommodate my request. That is how I came to live in Casablanca as an education inspector. And there was where I had bouts of conflict with local instructors because of my intransigence in matters of integrity. I never favored anyone… on one occasion, I remember, one of them came to me carrying a live chicken as a sop so I kicked him out.
Al-Hiwar TV: He wanted to bribe you with a chicken!
Imam Yassine: I actually had a revivalist mission… I tried to have instructors to teach singing and music properly. At that time I was deeply immersed, not in politics but in music… Beethoven and Mozart and the likes… I used to play violin.
Al-Hiwar TV: You did?
Imam Yassine: Yes.
Al-Hiwar TV: When did you take up playing music?
Imam Yassine: Around that age approximately.
Al-Hiwar TV: And you were…?
Imam Yassine: In my late 20’s.
Al-Hiwar TV: And you used to listen to Mozart and…
Imam Yassine: I did, and I used to gather teachers in a school called Ballande… another French name… and play music and sing to them, and I had a massive collection of classical recordings.
Al-Hiwar TV: But at the same time you were observant of Islamic teachings, prayer and so on….?
Imam Yassine: Absolutely, that’s been a given since I was 7 and even younger, may God reward my parents for that and all my teachers who planted that in me, especially Al Mokhtar Soussi.
Al-Hiwar TV: Who taught you how to play violin… by yourself?
Yassine: I was an autodidact, I taught myself…
Al-Hiwar TV: By God’s will, you were an avid learner.
Imam Yassine: Yes, I wanted to learn it all. I also learned how to play chess and became expert in it, and only one (person) in Marrakech could defeat me in a chess match—his name was Sharif…
Al-Hiwar TV: Our time has run out for this episode, so we’ll stop here and continue in the next one.
Imam Yassine: God willing.