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Abd El‐krim

By:
Edmund Burke
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Abd El‐krim

(1882–1963), more fully, Muḥammad ibn ῾Abd al‐Karīm al‐Khaṭṭābī, Moroccan leader of the Rif Rebellion (1921–1926) and Islamic reformer.

Abd el‐Krim was the eldest son of ῾Abd al‐Karīm ibn Muḥammad al‐Khaṭṭābī, a notable of the Ait Warayaghar, a Tamazight‐speaking Berber tribe of the Rif Mountains in northeastern Morocco. In 1921, Rifian troops under Abd el‐Krim's command defeated Spanish forces under General Silvestre at the battle of Anual. The Spanish losses may have numbered as many as nineteen thousand killed, making this battle the greatest defeat suffered by a European force in one battle in the colonial history of North Africa. Thus began the Rif Rebellion, a major insurrection against the Spanish and French protectorate authorities in Morocco.

The Rif Rebellion was the most important anticolonial uprising in Morocco until the emergence of the Istiqlāl party and modern mass nationalism in 1943 [see Istiqlāl]. In retrospect it can be seen as a transitional political phenomenon, at once the last jihād and the first modern political movement. The Rif Rebellion and the ripublik established by Abd el‐Krim was a major political and strategic challenge to colonial rule. To understand its significance, the history of the family of Abd el‐Krim and of Morocco from 1900 to 1925 must be examined.

Between 1900 and 1912, when the French and Spanish protectorates were established, large areas of Morocco, including the Rif Mountains, escaped the rule of the makhzan (the central government). In the early twentieth century makhzan control of northern Morocco was shaken by a series of rebellions, culminating in the uprising of Abū Ḥimārah (1902–1909) in northern Morocco. In 1907 and 1908 a popular insurgency overthrew ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz, the French‐supported sultan, and brought to power his brother, ῾Abd al‐Ḥafīẓ. From 1909 until the establishment of the French and Spanish protectorates in 1912, Morocco was in many respects already a colonized territory. This was especially the case in the Moroccan Rif area around the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which became the center for ambitious mining schemes by Spanish and German capitalists. By 1912, the Spanish presidio of Melilla had become one of the largest port cities in Morocco. For Rifians, these changes created enormous risks as well as opportunities.

The family of Abd el‐Krim was well placed to take advantage of this rapidly changing situation. Abd el‐Krim himself was the scion of a successful a῾yān (notable) family based in Ajdir, a community on the Mediterranean near the Spanish base at Alhuecemas. Around 1902 both Abd el‐Krim and his brother studied for several years at the Qarawiyin mosque university in Fez, where they received a thorough grounding in Islamic law. After his return to the Rif around 1906 Abd el‐Krim was employed by the Spanish government in Melilla as a teacher and subsequently as editor of the Arabic‐language page in the Spanish newspaper, El Telegrama del Rif. While his father served as Moroccan‐government‐appointed amīn (customs agent) and (after 1912) as representative of the Spanish protectorate authorities in the district around Melilla, Abd el‐Krim held an appointment from the Moroccan sultan as qāḋī (religious judge) for the same district, and his brother was studying to be a mining engineer in Spain. By playing off the makhzan, the local tribes, and the Spanish and French imperialists in the preceding decade, Abd el‐Krim and his family were well positioned by 1912 to gain from the gradual collapse of the Moroccan state.

Abd el‐Krim was able to increase his power and influence after 1912, following the simultaneous establishment of Spanish and French protectorates in northern Morocco. After the outbreak of World War I, his balancing act became more difficult to sustain. Although Abd el‐Krim secretly supported the efforts of the Ottomans to foment a rebellion, he was denounced by some Moroccans as a collaborator because of his public role as a Spanish functionary. By 1921, in response to the increasing harshness of Spanish policy, Abd el‐Krim launched his rebellion.

The Rif Rebellion was accompanied by the proclamation of a ripublik in 1923 by Abd el‐Krim. It sought a far‐reaching transformation of Rifian society based on the suppression of the feud, which was endemic, and the application of sharī῾ah in place of Berber customary law. Religiously, Abd el‐Krim sought to introduce the ideas of the Salafīyah movement and opposed the Ṣūfī brotherhoods, whom he regarded as the source of internal division and backwardness [see Salafīyah]. Refusing the label of rebel, Abd el‐Krim sought to present his rebellion as a modern state, a Dawlat al‐Jumhūrīyah al‐Rifīyah, or Rifian Republic. The ripublik invoked the language of national self‐determination and human rights in an effort to win support among European liberals. Headed by Abd el‐Krim as president, it had a national assembly composed of the heads of the Berber tribal councils.

At its height, the Rifian state embraced most of the Spanish protectorate zone, excluding the cities of Melilla, Alhuecemas, and Tetouan, and a portion of the French protectorate zone north of Fez. New methods of military organization, added to exceptional fighting qualities, made the Ait Warayaghar a formidable opponent even to modern European armies. Only in 1926, after the full military might of France and Spain was brought to bear (including massive artillery and aerial bombardments), was Abd el‐Krim defeated.

The legacy of Abd el‐Krim is an ambiguous one. His brave and resourceful struggle served as an inspiration to Moroccan contemporaries, notably the young nationalists, but the idea of a Rifian republic has also been seen as a potentially divisive one in independent Morocco. Perhaps because of this, Abd el‐Krim played no role in the nationalist movement that overthrew the Spanish and French protectorates in 1956. Abd el‐Krim himself died in exile in Cairo in 1963.

See also Morocco.

Bibliography

  • Fāsī, ῾Allāl al‐. Independence Movements of Arab North Africa. Translated by Hazem Zaki Nuseibeh. Washington, D.C., 1954.
  • Hart, David Montgomery. The Aith Warayaghar of the Moroccan Rif: An Ethnography and History. 2 vols. Tucson, 1976.
  • Pennell, C. R. A Country with a Government and a Flag: The Rif War in Morocco, 1921–1926. Wisbech, England, 1986.
  • Roger‐Mathieu, J. Mémoires d'Abd‐el‐Krim. Paris, 1927.
  • Shinar, Pessah. ῾Abd al‐Qadir and ῾Abd al‐Krim: Religious Influences on Their Thought and Action. Asian and African Studies 1 (1965): 139–174.
  • Woolman, David S. Rebels in the Rif: Abdel Krim and the Rif Rebellion. Stanford, Calif., 1968.
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