Muslim Countries of the World: Tunisia

Mosquée Okba (Uqba), Kairouan, Tunisie
La grande mosquée de Kairouan, Mosquée d'Okba. Site UNESCO

The Tunisian Republic is a state in northern Africa, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, located in the middle of its coastline. On its left is Algeria, on its right Libya, opposite it is Sicily. The state with an ancient history, known during the Roman Empire as Carthage, has the Islam of the Maliki madhhab as its state religion. The government, according to the Constitution, is the ‘guardian of Islam’, the country’s President must be a Muslim. Despite this, Tunisia is a unique state in the entire Muslim world.

In 670, the Umayyad Caliphate subjugated the territory of North Africa and built on the site of the former Carthage the city of Kairouan and the Uqba Mosque (both the city and the mosque are included in the UNESCO World Heritage). Since then, Islam has firmly established itself on North African soil. Until the 10th century, a dynasty of governors of the Caliphate the Aglabids ruled the territory of Tunisia, it was replaced by the rulers of Egypt, first the Fatimids, then the Ayyubids. In 1534, Tunisia was conquered by the admiral of the Ottoman Empire Hayruddin Barbarossa, then recaptured by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, then again captured by the Turks and recaptured by the Christians. This went on for 40 years until Tunisia finally became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1574. The power of the Sublime Port became purely nominal. In fact, since 1705, Tunisia was ruled by independent beys from the Husseinid dynasty, who recognized the Ottoman Sultan only as their spiritual leader.

Since 1881, the country has been a French protectorate. After gaining independence in 1957, Tunisians overthrew the monarchy and established a republic. Habib Bourguiba became the head of state for the next 30 years. Tunisia owes him its radical reforms in the field of Islam. Habib Bourguiba advocated the maximum secularization of society, an orientation towards a Western lifestyle, a greater degree of freedom in understanding the duties of a Muslim. Bourguiba legislatively equalized the rights of men and women in full with regard to such Muslim legal norms as divorce and inheritance. He publicly condemned the wearing of the hijab, legally prohibited having more than one wife, significantly limited the practice of waqf (transferring property for the needs of religious organizations), and allowed the sale of alcohol.

The fruits of Habab Bourguiba’s thirty years’ industriousness have led to the fact that the Muslims of Tunisia nowadays feel much at liberty in what concerns the regulations of Islam, do not always observe namaz and abstaining from alcohol, wear European clothes (both men and women), can hardly answer the question, which madhhab or branch of Islam they belong to (for example, when asked whether they are Sunnis or Shiites, 94% of the respondents said that they were “just Muslims”).

At the same time, Islam as a state religion is professed by all residents of Tunisia. The state maintains all mosques and religious organizations, pays salaries to all imams and other spiritual and administrative officials of Muslim institutions, provides compulsory instruction in Islam in schools and applies sharia law in limited cases.

The spiritual leader of the Muslims of Tunisia is the country’s Supreme Mufti. Since 2008, this post has been held by Sheikh Othman Battikh, a member of the Supreme Islamic Council and a former member of the government.