Muslims in Marseille – France




The city of Marseille is located on France’s south coast with the Mediterranean Sea as its southern borders. To the west of Marseille are the Gulf of Lion and the Rhône Delta. To its north is the Mont Sainte Victoire mountain range. To the east is the small fishing village of Callelongue on the outskirts of Marseille. Farther east still are the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge rising from a forest of deciduous trees, the city of Toulon, and the French Riviera. The bay which Marseille overlooks and that carries the name of the city as well comprises some small islands.

Area and Population

Marseille covers an area of 241 km2  and had a population of 970 thousands in 2017. The main city of the historical province of Provence, today it is the capital of the department of Bouches-du Rhône and region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

The overwhelming majority of the city›s population is of Italian origin. There are also many Greeks, Russians, Spaniards, Comorians, and Corsicans.

Others are from North Africans as a considerable number of the city residents are of Maghrebi origin, mostly from Algeria, then Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey. As such the city of Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot that includes a mixture of various ethnicities and nationalities.

As per religion, some 50% of the population are Catholics. Muslims are the second largest religious sect following Christianity as some 20 to 25% of its citizens are Muslims, and it is considered the first French city on the European level as per the presence of Muslims. Jews are about 10% of the population, besides a little percentage of Buddhists and atheists.

French is the official Language of the city, and the Euro is the official currency.

It is worth mentioning that the number of Lebanese is estimated by 200 thousand and they make two groups: the group of seniors that includes the third generation and the group of juniors that include the Lebanese who immigrated in the last 20 years for several reasons including the economic factor. The Lebanese in Marseille work in several sectors. Among them are doctors and businessmen; others work in in the field of shipping and marine insurance.


Marseille has a hot Mediterranean climate with mild, humid winters and warm to hot, mostly dry summers.


The Old Port (Vieux Port) of Marseille

Marseille was originally founded circa 600 BC as the Greek colony of Massalia and populated by settlers from Phocaea. It was an independent state until the first Century BD. However, the city lost its independence following the Roman Siege of Massilia, and it witnessed a phase of deterioration. Marseille retained its prosperity in the middle Ages during the Crusades.

Provence – the region that includes Marseille – became a part of France in 1481 AD. The city lost a significant portion of its population during the Great Plague of Marseille and the time of the French Revolution by the end of the 18th Century.

Form of Government:

The city government consists of a popularly elected municipal council. The council keeps very much alive the historical tradition of local independence in spite of the intimate involvement of many national ministries in the financing and planning of projects throughout the area.

The  city  is divided into 16 arrondissements, which are themselves informally divided into 111 neighborhoods or quartiers. However, for the purposes of local government these arrondissements are grouped into eight secteurs, which elect mayors. Municipal elections are held every six years and are carried out by secteurs. There are 303 councilmembers in total, two-thirds sitting in the secteur councils and one third in the city council.

In addition to the eight city halls, one for each secteur, there are two “mini city halls” in each arrondissement. The city mayor is assisted by a local government of 27 adjoints, each with responsibility for a particular facet of government, such as town planning, culture, finance, employment, or transport…..


Marseille is a major French center for trade and industry, with excellent transportation infrastructure (roads, sea port and airport). Marseille Provence Airport, is the fourth largest in France. Marseille is also France’s second largest research center with 3,000 research scientists within Aix Marseille University. Furthermore, Marseille was named in 2005 as the most dynamic of France’s large cities.

Refining of petroleum (which is imported from various countries across the world) and shipbuilding are the principal industries of the city, but chemicals, soap, glass, sugar, building materials, plastics, textiles, olive oil, and processed foods are also important products.

Main Landmarks:

Notre-Dame de la Garde: It is a Catholic basilica built at the highest natural point in Marseille and the city’s best-known and most visited site.  It was constructed in 1214 AD, and it was later enlarged in 1477 AD. In 1515, Francis I of France entered Marseille in his way back to Paris, and he chose the hilltop and the cathedral as his haven. The basilica is best known for its monumental statue as well as its overview of the sea and the surrounding rural areas.

The Old Port (Vieux Port) of Marseille: In 600 BC, the Greek settlers from Phocaea set up a trading post or emporion. The port which became mainly pedestrian in 2013 is dotted with coffee shops and restaurants. The port also is known for its handcrafts market.

The Massif des Calanques: The Calanque of Cassis are a must-do attraction of the city which you can experience by land or sea. It is a wild and rugged terrain stretching from Marseille to Cassis. It includes several destinations such as Restaurant le Chateau Sormiou and the Corniche. It is the seat of several hiking shows.

View of the historic palace Longchamp of Marseille in South France

Jardin de la Magalone It is a 1.4 hectares public park that surrounds an 18th-century bastide, or Provençal manor house. It is listed by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.

The Palais Longchamp: It is a monument in the 4th arrondissement of Marseille. It houses the Musée des beaux-arts and Museum d’histoire naturelle de Marseille.


History of Islam in Marseille

Muslims settled in France at two stages through history. The first stage has to do with immigration and then the displacement of the neighbouring Muslims in Andalusia, and it stretched from the 8th Century to the 15th Century AD. As for the second stage, it started with World War I at the onset of the 20th Century and is still ongoing to our day.

The first stage: The first Islamic invasions of the French lands began in 96 AH in the days of Islamic conquest of Andalusia. Tariq Ibn Ziyad sent an expedition to Tartousa, Barcelona, Arbona and arrived in the town of Abnayoun on the Radehna River (Rhone River currently). Then a campaign headed by Sameh bin Malek Khawlani was dispatched. It came out of Barcelona and headed towards Tallousha. The commander was killed, and the army returned to Barcelona. ​​Later, another campaign came to France, arrived in the city of (NIM), then continued the march to the city of (Lyon) and then the city (Otan), and arrived in (Sans), 150 kilometres from Paris, and this is the farthest point reached by Muslims in France.

Later, Abdurrahman El Gafaki led a campaign through the Pyrenees to the city of Bardel (Bordeaux), defeated the Franks army, and then went to Poitiers. The Muslim army was defeated in the famous Battle of the Court of Martyrs in the Holy Month of Ramadan in 114 AH. in which Al-Gafaki was martyred. Again a campaign was launched to the Rhone valley, and the cities of Arles, Saint-Remy, and then Abnayoun were seized. It continued its march to the Alps. However, the Franks restored many of these cities.

In the 3rd Century AH, the sailors of Andalusia took control of Nice and settled the southern France. An Andalusi state was founded under the name of Fraxinet in southern France. It stretched until Switzerland, and it was not defeated until after 82 years.

The seized territories could not remain in the hands of Muslims for long because of their small number and because of the continuous attacks of the Franks.

In the 16th Century AD, Catholic Spain expelled most of the Moriscos to southern France; their number was about 150,000 and they cohabitated with the French society.

Then the French got in contact with Muslims in the Orient during the Crusades which continued for a long time, and they took from them many cultural features.

The Second Stage: The presence of Muslims in France has several historical reasons, and it was a result of various colonial and economic policies France itself adopted. With the onset of the 20th Century, French employers began to attract hand labour from the Algerian colony in an attempt to make up for its industrial retardation as compared with England and its Industrial Revolution.

Pursuit to this policy, France managed to bring along some 30,000 Algerians, mostly Berbers. At first, they were not subject to racism because of their small number and lack of interaction with the French society, which called them «turcos» (ie, the Turks) or the sellers of carpets.

At the peak of World War I, France recruited compulsorily a large number of Muslims from its colonies in Algiers, Morocco, and western Africa. The overall number of Muslim recruits of the war mounted to 175,000.

In the wake of World War I, France issued an exceptional law which enabled it to build the Great Mosque of Paris and an Islamic institute in its capital, as a token of gratitude from the French Republic to the Muslims who were martyred while defending it. This religious institution was inaugurated in the 5th arrondissement of Paris in a public ceremony in 1926.

To rebuild what was destroyed by the war, France decided in 1920 to bring more workers. The number of Muslim immigrants was 70,000 Algerians and about the same number of Moroccans.
Between 1940  and 1945,  the French government wrote to each of the governors of Algiers, Oran and Constantine and ordered them to send 10,000 workers every month. However, the Allied Forces’ takeover of North Africa suspended this order.

In the post-World War II era, the number of Muslims soared. To ensure reconstruction and the development of the industrial sector, Monnet Plan stipulated the recruitment of 200,000 nationals of the colonies in a period not exceeding four years. In 1952, the number of Muslims reached about 500,000 – an unprecedented record which seemed a sceptical figure to some specialists.

The Initiation of Islam in Marseille:

In August 1944, Marseille was liberated from the Germans by the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, supported by Moroccan Goumiers. The 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, under the command of General de Monsabert, was made up of about 60% North African Muslims (mostly Algerian pilots).

Immigration to Marseille:

Muslim immigration from the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) started to increase in the 1970’s. Marseille’s population of Algerian descent is the highest followed by Tunisians and then the Moroccans. Moreover, a large number of Turks live in it. Over the last 30 years, the city has also become the main destination for Comorian immigrants.


Muslims in Marseille:

France is an irreligious country since 1905. It does not recognise any religion and does not antagonize with any religion as well. The second clause in its Constitution stipulates that it is a secular state but it respects all religions. Thus theoretically and legally, Islam is regarded and dealt with as all other religions including Catholics. However, the status quo is different according to the successive policies and the flux of events concerning Islam locally and internationally.

As official data on religion are generally not collected in France on the principle of secularism, the precise number of Muslims in Marseille is not available. Various sources estimate Muslims to constitute 20% to 25% of the city›s population.  The Guardian reported that there are 250,000 Muslims in Marseille, and their number is multiplying.

There are in Marseille seven halal slaughterhouse. National Geographic Magazine mentioned that there are some 73 mosques and praying rooms in Marseille – 10 of which are in the city center. Muslims are particularly concentrated in the North districts (quartiers Nord), in the working-class districts of the city.

Aspects of Islam in Marseille:

According to the Mayor of Marseille Jean-Claude Gaudin, the Islamic aspects and rituals are growing. Gaudin also asserted that the number of Muslims and immigrants from North Africa is growing, and the shops selling djellabas and Islamic veils and travel agencies specialized in Hajj and Omra are numerous.

Furthermore, the Muslims of the city decided to organize an open seminar on Islam to choose Marseille the Capital of Culture back in 2013 and to spread the legacy of Islam among the largest number of people. 

For ten years, it was the ambitions of the “INSTITUT MEDITERRANEEN D’ETUDES MUSULMANES” to spread the cultural and religious knowledge concerning Islam among the citizens of Marseille and among the surrounding area to provide an opportunity for discovering the richness of the cultures related to Islam.


Islamic Associations:

The Islamic Center in Marseille: The Head of the Islamic Center in Marseilles, Dr. Jamal Zakri, and the vice president and foreign relations official Ghassan Saif confirmed that Ibn Khaldoun School is the first school and a unique one in southern France, adding that there are some 250,000 Muslims in Marseille who lack much educational needs.

They highlighted that mosques are unable to accommodate the increasing number of Muslims who find themselves obliged to pray in the streets on Fridays, during the Holy Month of Ramadan and on Muslim Eids. They further stressed that the Muslim community suffers from marginalization in some sensitive positions.

One third of a project that includes a mosque for men, a praying room for women, classes, a science laboratory, and administrative offices has so far been achieved. This project is being autonomously funded by the believers who regularly visit the Islamic Center in Marseille.

However, the challenge remains in raising supporting funds to complete the construction of the project, taking into consideration that the secular French government does not fund religious institutions.


Q: Is the area of ​​the center sufficient to accommodate the new students?

A: The capacity of accommodation reached its peak with the enrolment of 135 students, and we are not able to receive any new applications, due to the lack of space. Should we be able to complete building the center, the capacity will be raised to 450 students.

Thus many of our sisters and daughters who wear hijab and do not have a seat to study here are reluctant to go to other schools because they do not want to take off their headscarves.

Q: Does this mean that Muslim women in France are subject to problems because of their hijab?

A: Yes, there are challenges faced by the Muslim community, the most important of which is the law that prevents our sisters from wearing headscarves in educational institutions. This makes many of them think fully before making the decision either to leave education or to continue education while removing the hijab.

Q: Why does not the Muslim community build its own schools?

A: True the presence of Muslims is great in Marseille, but it is a modern presence compared with other communities, as the first migration began in the early sixties when workers were brought along for executing hard labour in building and digging tunnels and other activities.
No soon their wives and children joined them to form the first generation and begot the second and third generations without securing building mosques and Islamic schools where from children receive Islamic values, learn their Arabic language, and know their Arabic identity.

However, the situation now is better than before. The community has become more organized. It now has institutions that represent it before the government. Moreover, the last decade has witnessed the inauguration of several private schools and the establishment of a federation that gathers the community.

Q: How many mosques are there in Marseille?

A: There are five large mosques in Marseille, and more than 60 praying rooms of various guises; some are small, and some of them are underground.

Q: Why did you choose to establish an Islamic school?

A: Following extensive study of the project, we reached a firm conviction that a private Islamic school is a must to embrace our sons and daughters and prepare them for a better future. You are well aware

of the sufferings of Muslims in Europe in general and in France in particular from deteriorating educational conditions, which unfortunately end up with a large number of them flopping on the social and academic levels. This may further drop to moral perversion.
For that, we want to protect them and help them to pass the stage of adolescence and early manhood in peace in the light of the values ​​and ethics of Islam. What increases our insistence and determination is the growing interest and demand on Islam and its teachings.

Q: Aren’t there private schools for teaching Muslims?

A: The French law allows the establishment of private schools. However, the percentage of Christian and Jewish schools mounts up to 99%, unlike the private Islamic schools, which do not exceed 10, or less than 1%.

It is worth mentioning here that our school is the first of its kind, not only on the level of our city, but also at the level of the South, the fourth at the level of France.

Q: Have Muslims reached sensitive and prestigious positions in society?

A: There are third-generation competencies that have reached high levels and prestigious positions in medicine, engineering and other fields, but they have not been able to reach such positions in the domains of justice, media, politics and parliament.

The Islamic Center

Q: What does the Islamic Center in Marseille consist of?

A: The center includes: Dar Al-Maarifah Institute for Islamic Studies, where adults receive the sciences of the Holy Quran, the Arabic language and Islamic studies. The first batch of memorizers of the Holy Quran at the level of the south of France graduated from this institute, and it included 10 memorizers. The second batch included 8 memorizers and 3 graduates.

The Social Solidarity Society: It is an association that distributes 300 hot meals to beggars and homeless people on the streets of Marseille. This is a humanitarian work that is open to all. The society also distributes food parcels to poor and needy families. That is in addition to the project of offering Iftar meals during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Low-income university students and elderly people benefit from this project.

The Introduction of Islam: This section aims to call non-Muslims to Islam through holding seminars and lectures. It is supervised by a group of French converts who have received intensive courses in ways and means of calling to Islam.

Write Me a Book: “Please write me a book” is a society interested in teaching our children and youngsters the values of Islam, the Holy Quran, and supplications.   Muslim sisters volunteer to this society to teach these children who are aged between between 3 and 7 years old.

Al Sanabel School: it targets children between the ages of 7 and 15. In this school, they learn to read, write and speak the Arabic Language. The students – who are about 250 – also receive lessons in Islamic education.

Q: What do you offer the youth?

A: Our center attaches great importance to young people as they are the hope of the future that we seek to build through activating their role and educating them to be responsible, effective, and distinguished. For this end, the center organizes trips, camps, and educational courses.

Ibn Khaldun School

Q: When was Ibn Khaldun School founded?

A: Ibn Khaldun School was established in 2009. It is an intermediate and secondary school. The first and second batches graduated from the intermediate stage with a success rate of 93%. Its students participated in the national competition held by the Ministry of Education in Biology and Earth Sciences, and we gained the first and fourth ranks at the level of the south of France and the fourth and the tenth at the level of France.

A group of inspectors from the Ministry of Education visited our school, which is supervised by the Marseille Academy. The delegation acclaimed the level of pupils and the great care and close attention given by the school administration to our students.

Q: As the school is already built, why do you collect donations to build it?

A: The building is now only one-third of the general project, and we are raising funds to complete building the school, which will include twelve classrooms, three scientific laboratories, and an administrative complex beside other facilities. When completed, the school would comprise 450 students.

Note that the program adopted by the school is the program developed by the Ministry of Education, in addition to the Arabic language, Islamic education, and Islamic values.

As for female students wearing the hijab, we do not oblige or prevent anyone from wearing the hijab; we rather assert respecting Islamic morals.

Here I would like to say that five year after its establishment, the French Law grants the school the right to be publically financed as other private educational institutions, and the school has been established for five years already.

However, things do not move easily always, and funding remains the primary obstacle before establishing elementary and secondary schools for Muslims and its continuity in France. Anyway, the mayor of Marseille asserted that Ibn Khaldoun Educational Institution has become an official Islamic institution in cooperation with the state from now on.

Q: Do you organize Islamic activities?

A: The Islamic Center in Marseille is interested in organizing cultural and intellectual forums, through which we seek to educate the Muslim community and to direct the Islamic Call work by adopting the principle of moderation and rejecting extremism and exaggeration.

The Center organized the 12th Conference for the Muslims of Southern France, which was held at the “Palais des Congrès” in Marseille under the theme “Islamic Values: A Gain and a Hope for the Reform of the Community”.  The event included lectures, seminars, and an Islamic exhibition with a special wing dedicated for Al-Quds Al-Sharif.

Moreover, a reception was held, and it was attended by senior civil and political figures. This event was covered by French channels and newspapers, and it comes in the framework of strengthening the principle of openness to the French society and to give the true and bright image of Muslims.

Q: What are your ambitions?

A: We aspire that the dreams of our sons and daughters would become true, and the day will come when they, like their peers from other religions, would have a school from which they would learn science, derive knowledge, and be proud of.

ASSOCIATION MUSLIM HANDS – MARSEILLE: It is a charity that aims to offer help to every Muslim and every man in need, and it does not discriminate between Arabs or foreigners, or westerners, or Muslims, or non-Muslim, as any beneficiary act is to be offered to any one in need. The society has several branches.

UNION DES FAMILLES MUSULMANES: The members of this union share the same intentions: representing the tolerant humanitarian face of Muslims, stressing that the idea that Islam meets with art in all its forms including culinary, learning the Arabic Language….

ASSOCIATION CULTURELLE BADR: It was established some 10 years ago, and it was categorized by the “Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques” as a voluntary association.


Among its main aims are:

  • Developing and executing religious training programs for youth and for Muslims through welcoming the persons who are qualified in the various Islamic sciences fields.
  • Reserving and developing interreligious relations.

- INSTITUT CULTUREL ISLAMIQUE FOI ET LUMIÈRE: Among its main activities are organizing practicing Islamic worship and organizing learning the Islamic religion teachings.

ASSOCIATION MARSEILLAISE POUR LA JEUNESSE FRANCOPHONE: It has a clear goal which is preventing youth from falling in the trap of perversion. To this end, youth are taught the main pillars of the Islamic religion while observing respect, fraternity, and equality. Moreover, it aims to enable the youth to achieve social integration via giving them the opportunity to express themselves through recreational activities.

INSTITUT MEDITERRANEEN D’ÉTUDES MUSULMANES: Its goal is to hold training sessions and carrying researches in Islamic sciences. That is in addition to organizing various cultural events.


  • Guarding Islam and guarding its general rituals.
  • Renting and leasing and building properties and buildings that may serve religious ends.
  • Carrying any movable or immovable transactions for worshipping ends.


It aims to:

  • Unite the Muslims in Marseille to achieve a better integration in the city.
  • Follow up the project of completing building Marseille Great Mosque.
  • Defend the materialistic and moral interests of Muslims.
  • Seek to boost interreligious relations.




The Holy Month of Ramadan: The month of returning to traditions

During this month, Iftar meals are distributed on many societies which are active among the Islamic communities’ milieus. Usually representatives of other religions are invited to attend, and words that encourage tolerance and renounce sectarian violence are delivered.

Furthermore, Islamic societies issue calendars that specify the exact timings of Iftar, Imsak (abstaining from eating), and the five prayers according to the local time of the city. These societies also create websites for the same end.

Immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Senegal are concentrated in some neighbourhoods in the center of the city and precisely in Cannebiere. Though other French cities such as Lyon, Lille and Paris comprise major Islamic communities, they remain incomparable to the community in Marseille. In this city, every corner bears a mark of the presence of Arabs whether the names of restaurants, the accent, or the minarets of mosques, and since these mosques cannot accommodate the large number of believers who come to perform prayers, in some quarters, worshipers spill onto the streets and sidewalks on Fridays and on religions occasions – a scene that has become normal.

During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the neighbourhoods and popular markets in the city center become a hive of robust activity among the members of the community. Even if the visitor does not head to the Arab neighbourhoods around the port, the aspects of the holy month are clear in Capucins Market – one of the vibrant centers of the city.

Nowadays, consuls and embassies organize Iftar feasts especially for students, bachelors, and the needy besides. The nights of the Holy Month of Ramadan are spent with religious activities and talks in mosques and public halls.

The Muslims of Marseille and the Great Mosque:

The cornerstone of Marseille Great Mosque was laid back in 2010, but to this day that is the only part of the building that exists. Mohamed Musawi, Head of the French Mosques Union said that the agreement for building the mosque had already been signed between the municipality of Marseille and the regional council of the Islamic Religion. Accordingly, an association was formed with the aim of obtaining from the municipality a piece of land with a specific rental contract. It was agreed that the duration of the contract be 50 years – meaning that the mosque be constructed on that land, even if it was rented and not the property of the association or community. With the end of the set duration, the renewal of the agreement shall be reconsidered. In case, the agreement was not renewed, the land and construction shall become the property of the municipality.

Complexities of building the mosque

After years of giving and taking, the association could not start building the mosque because it does own the sufficient funding. Noting that the construction of the mosque was not initiated even after about five years – as stipulated in the contract – the municipality put an end to the project as a clause in the contract was not observed. However, the association found a gap in the law – the five-year-duration did not pass fully yet, as there were courts and cases filed against the mosque project by the far-right National Front in the city.

Musawi adds: “I shared in setting the parameters of this project back in 2005. We estimated its costs as only about 5 million euros; however, changes and adjustments were made, and many things were added until the cost of the project reached 22 million. I think this is a very large sum for the Muslims of Marseille.

Internal challenges:

It refers to the challenges that arise from Muslims themselves, such as:

  • – Mixed marriages, which caused the loss of the first generation of Muslim immigrants, and it is still pervasive.
  • – Divisions – sometimes bitter – among the many different Muslim ethnicities and historic nationalities what weaken Muslims and shatters their efforts.
  • – Failing to unite the word of Muslims and to reach a consensus on someone to represent them before the French government. This dilemma is still ongoing.
  • – The ignorance of some Muslims of the pillars and values ​​of Islam.
  • – Education of Muslim children on the basis of a uniform approach.
  • – Loathsome ethnic and racial chauvinism among some Islamic nationalities at a time Islam detests racism.
  • – Lack of Muslim cemeteries.
  • – Continuous change in the names of some associations.

Main Requirements of Muslims:

– The establishment of regular Islamic schools in the areas of Muslim concentration.

– Addressing the problem of Halal food in the areas of Islamic concentration.

– Spreading the Islamic culture and developing religious awareness.

– Confronting the internal elements that claim Islam and the counterfeit societies.

– Boosting the activity of the Islamic Call among young people through organizing camps and holding seminars.

Shia in Marseille

Muslim Shia entered Marseille since the immigration to this city began. They are about 7% of the Muslim population. As other Muslim sects, the Shia have their own activities such as marking Ashura and holding feasts for the love of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them).

That is in addition to the spending the nights of the Holy Month of Ramadan in performing mass prayers besides asserting on reciting the Holy Quran, worship, and supplication in this blessed month. Moreover, family Iftar dinners are held in houses and Husseiniyas especially for the poor.

Shia Muslims in Marseille lack the sufficient number of mosques and Husseinyas as well as Islamic Centers that facilitate the daily and seasonal work and activities of the Islamic Call.


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