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MAURITANIA. The place of Mauritania in the Islamic history of the Maghrib dates at least from the birth of the Almoravid dynasty, but it was the gradual southward migration of the Hilalian Banu Maghfar group, the Bani Hassan, that accounts for the arabization of nomadic populations in the territory by the sixteenth century. The traditional guardians and interpreters of Islamic culture in Mauritania are the zawiyah lineages (“marabouts” in French colonial literature). They are said by tradition to have become institutionalized in this role following the shurr bubba, an event (or more likely, a series of events now telescoped) between 1645 and 1675, which pitted more recently migrant Hassani warriors against a confederation of autochthonous peoples. The victorious Hassanis (from whom the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania today, Hassaniyah, derives its name) are said thereafter to have maintained temporal authority and lived by raiding. The zawiyah lineages (who also refer to themselves as Ahl al-Kitab) are largely of Berber origin and pursued a pastoral lifestyle as well as serving as the repositories of literacy and Islamic learning. This division of labor, analogous to broad distinctions between bellicose and pacific lifestyles in other nomadic societies in the Islamic world, is fundamental to the social charter for both Hassan! and zawiyah, who are collectively identified as baydan (in Hassaniyah, people of Arab descent; bidan in standard Arabic). Both further elaborated a strict hierarchy of nobles, tributaries, freed slaves (haratine/harratin), slaves, smiths, and musicians/praise-singers. However, the historic horizontal transfer and merging of groups between

Hassani and zawiyah traditions, the internal vertical movement of individuals and families, and the evident upward flow of servile laborers into higher status both belies and explains the rigid ideology of class distinctions.

By the nineteenth century the names of the eponymous ancestors of particular Hassani lineages had come to be identified with four major regions that they sought to dominate: Trarza in the southwest, bordering the Atlantic coast and the right bank of the Senegal River; Brakna, in the south and immediately east of Trarza; Tagant, also in the south on roughly the same longitude and east of Brakna; and Adrar, in the north and including the caravanserai Shinqiti, by which the entire territory was known in the Arab world. These were the Hassani “emirates,” so christened by French observers; but the cultural zone defined by the Hassaniyah dialect effectively extended from the mouth of the Senegal River eastward as far as Timbuktu on the Niger Bend, and from there northward in a gentle arc meeting the Atlantic near the southern border of Morocco. To the south of the Hassani nomadic populations, on both sides of the Senegal River, lived pastoral and sedentarized Pularspeaking Toucoulor or Fulbe peoples. Toucoulor populations had been islamized from the time of the eleventh-century state of Takrur (which many early Arab writers identified with several West African Sudanese Muslim lands). To the east of the Toucoulor populations, at roughly the same latitude, lived Sarakole peoples, also islamized from at least the time of the sixteenth-century Songhay empire. Both these populations had long served as labor reservoirs for the nomadic economy and may have accounted for up to one-half of the non-baydani lower classes in the nineteenth century. Tension between Arabic-speaking “Moors,” a name first applied to the nomads by European visitors and used by themselves today, and their southern, black African neighbors has long accounted for a major divide in Mauritanian ethnic politics which even today is only occasionally bridged by their shared Islamic heritage.

During the nineteenth century the Fulbe and other southern populations were engaged in two major Islamic reform movements, the first centered on the Futa Toro region on the left bank of the Senegal River, which succeeded in asserting its autonomy from Moorish control from the 1770s until the opening years of the nineteenth century. The second, inspired in part by the Futa Toro experiment, was led by al-Hajj `Umar Tal, who had grown up in Toro and, following his pilgrimage, returned briefly to his natal village in the 1840s to enlist forces to wage jihad and to spread the Tijaniyah tariqah. The subsequent movement led to a steady stream of recruits and material from western lands, including the Senegal basin. Northern, Moorish populations played only marginal roles in these events, although particular zawiyah camps appear in accounts of the education of Toucoulor reformers and holy men. [See the biography of `Umar Tal.]

The main mid-century zawiyah influence in the southern Sahara was a disciple of the Timbuktu Qadiri shaykhs, Sidiya al-Kabir (1774-1868). Sidiya’s twelve years of study in the Kunta camps (1811-1824) provided experience with an integrated economic and spiritual network, which he replicated in Trarza and Brakna after his return there in the mid-1820s until his death in 1868. In a society lacking institutionalized state political authority, Sidlya’s juridical skills combined with his studies in mysticism to capitalize on the labor of disciples who sought him out for protection and catapulted him into a position of regional spiritual leadership in southwestern Mauritania. Although Sidiya was associated with the Qadiriyah/al-Mukhtariyah of his Kunta teachers, there is no indication that adherence to Sufi orders held any political significance in Moorish society at the time. Sufism in the nineteenth-century Moorish zawiyah tradition generally constituted a final stage in intellectual formation and was regarded as a tool for gaining divine insight that might supplement advanced studies ranging from the Qur’an and fiqh to grammar. This was in contrast to the growing confrontation on the Niger Bend between the Kunta shaykh Ahmad alBakka’i, and the `Umarian state that was increasingly polarized around Qadiri and Tijani confessional lines by mid-century. [See the biography of Bakka’i al-Kunti.]

A contemporary of Sidiya, Muhammad Fadil (c. 1797-1869), also a student of the Kunta camps, played a similar role in the Tagant, although he distanced himself from his Qadiri al-Mukhtari masters, who criticized his eclecticism in Sufi matters. The Fadiliyah was chiefly spread by two of Muhammad Fadil’s sons, Ma’ al-`Aynayn (1831-191o) and Sa`d Bfih (c. 1850-1917). From the time of his settlement in 1870 in the Saqiyat al-Hamra’, Ma’ al-`Aynayn was on good terms with the `Alawi sultans in Morocco, and he soon was recognized as the principal religious leader in the northern reaches of the Hassani region. By the 1890s he was charged by Hasan I with the security of the kingdom’s southern Atlantic coast against Christian intruders, and during the next two decades he became increasingly drawn into Moroccan politics as his natal lands were being occupied from the south by the French. His political career culminated in 1910 when he briefly claimed the throne in Marrakesh, was defeated by the French, and retreated to the Sus where he died. Ma’ al-`Aynayn’s voluminous writings range from grammar to ethics and from law to mysticism, but it is chiefly his resistance to infidel rule for which he is remembered today.

His half-brother Sa’d Buh also achieved a broad regional reputation in the southwest of the country (Trarza) as a Sufi and, during the French occupation, as one who counseled cooperation with the colonial forces. Like his brother, Sa’d Buh freely dispensed both Tijani and Qadiri wirds as well as Shadhili and Nasiri, but the significance of tariqah affiliations as political networks appears to have been greater in the minds of the incoming French administration than in the experience of Moorish adherents.

The French military and administrators began the “pacification” of Mauritania in 1902, bringing their North African experience that had sensitized them to the political danger of Sufi orders. Their efforts to contain such a threat in West Africa effectively heightened the prestige of Sufi shaykhs in many Muslim communities during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In Mauritania the Qadiriyah/al-Mukhtariyah was chiefly identified with Sidiya’s grandson Sidiya Baba (1862-1922). Like Sa’d Buh, Sidiya Baba cooperated with the French administration and thereby preserved and consolidated much of the spiritual influence he had inherited; but unlike his peers who were expanding the influence of the Sufi orders in the early colonial era, Baba criticized the ritual excesses of the turuq. In this he sought to distance himself from the traditional zdwiyah practice in the southern Sahara, and he thus marks a distinct departure from the nineteenth-century Sufi shaykhs.

More typical of the direction in which Sufi affiliation was moving in Mauritania during the interwar period was the confrontation between followers of a sharif from Tichitt, Shaykh Hamallah (1886-1943), and the French administration. The doctrinal issues that set Shaykh Hamallah apart focused on his practice of the Tijaniyah in the eastern Nioro region on the Mauritania/Mali frontier. Civil disturbances led to the arrest and exile of Shaykh Hamallah by French officials, first in 1925 and again soon after his return home in 1940, which effectively martyred him and led to the birth of a tarigah, the Hamalfyah, that survived the shaykh’s death in 1943.

The colonial experience in Mauritania was a relatively benign one. The major direct impact of French administration upon Islam was the sporadic encouragement given to a very few Franco-Arabic madrasahs, based on their experience in Algeria. Begun in Sidiya Baba’s village of Boutilimit in 1913, the first madrasah suffered from the low priority given to education in any form in the colony and was abandoned during World War I, reestablished in Mederdra, and then returned to Boutilimit in 1929. During the 1930s additional madrasahs were established at Timbera (1933), Atar (1936), and Kiffa (1939) largely with local scholars and a handful of instructors from Algeria; however, the total numbers enrolled in these schools (15o by the early 1940s) never compared favorably with those in other French schools along the river (780 in the early 1940s), nor with the several thousand students who remained in the hundreds of traditional mahadras for advanced studies in the Islamic sciences. In the 1950s the Ahl Shaykh Sidiya clan revived the madrasah in Boutilimit as a private venture, the Institut Musulman de Boutilimit, which became a government college in 1963, three years after independence, and remained the national center for advanced studies in the Islamic sciences until the early 1970s. In 1979 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs opened an Institut des Hautes Etudes Islamiques in Nouakchott in an effort to consolidate and formalize the mahad ra tradition. At the end of its first decade of activity the Institute enrolled nearly 500 students, and its staff of 25 included several non-Mauritanians.

Colonial jurisprudence essentially followed an indirect rule system by which the entire territory was administered, with the greater part of civil law dispensed by locally appointed qadis under the supervision of regional French authorities. Their charge was to administer “customary law” (under which the shari`ah was categorized); penal law along with an appeals process was regulated by the French code. One effect of the imposition of the French code was to undermine the qadis’ former responsibility for adjudicating economic matters (inheritance, contract law, and slavery), which led to their increased preoccupation with religious matters. Not until some years after independence was the shad `ah reexamined as a system for adjudication in civil cases.

Education policy after independence, and in particular the language of instruction and bureaucracy, was one of the central issues in ethnic conflicts. Prior to the coup that brought the military to power in 1978, roughly onequarter of the (mainly Moorish) schoolchildren followed an Arabic program in their studies, and three-quarters followed a francophone course (favoring riverine populations). Fifteen years later those ratios were reversed, the result of a concerted arabization plan under the military government and of increasing numbers of the majority, Arabic-speaking students entering the system.


At independence in 1960 the founders of the Republique Islamique de Mauritanie sought a common cultural ground in Islam. The intent was not so much to create an Islamic state as to serve the pragmatic objective of enshrining in the new republic’s name a common ideology that might supplant ethnic constructions of national identity. The colonial judicial system was largely transferred to the independent state; the francophone educational system was little changed; and the external relations of the state were initially formulated to maintain a delicate balance between Mauritania’s southern neighbors, Senegal and Mali, upon whom the country was economically dependent for labor and access to virtually all imports, and her Maghribi antagonist at the time, Morocco.

The combined effects of the Sahrawi war, twenty years of drought, and the resulting urbanization beginning in the early 1970s provide the context in which internal tensions have been heightened. Changes in the educational system since the late 1970s and the increasing use of Arabic as the language of government and the local media have led to a latter-day Arabist movement in Mauritania that shares many of the implications and contradictions associated with the phenomenon seventy years earlier in the former Ottoman provinces. Although Mauritania is still heavily beholden to France for economic aid, it has increasingly turned to Arab (mainly Gulf state) financing. This and an acceptance by Maghribi governments of Mauritania’s military rulers as poor cousins have given new weight to the country’s Arab heritage and a new meaning to Islam in the national life of the country. The only internal ideological common ground has also become a bridge to legitimate external relations to offset postcolonial dependence on France, but at the cost of heightened internal ethnic tension. Embedded in this process has been a new meaning for Islam, which is no longer simply a set of local expressions of an abstract ummah presided over by noble guardians of orthopraxy, but a dynamic and accessible ideology that ties individuals to the marketplace of ideas throughout the Muslim world. Thus, thirty years after independence, the main streams of Islamic activity in the central lands are also to be found in Mauritania, mainly in the urban centers, alongside an aging but still highly influential traditional Islamic authority that is attempting to maintain a role in the dramatically changed economic and social circumstances since the 1970s.

[See also Qadiriyah; Tijaniyah; Zawiyah.]


Baduel, Pierre R. “Mauritanie entre arabite et africanite.” Special issue of Revue des Etudes du Monde Mediterrane Musulman 54.4 (1989). Series of scholarly essays that examine contemporary ethnic problems and ties to the Arab world.

Brenner, Louis. “Concepts of tariqa in West Africa. The Case of the Qadiriyya.” In Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, edited by Donal B. Cruise O’Brien and Christian Coulon, pp. 33-52. Oxford, 1988. While not touching directly on Mauritania, Brenner deals with the Kunta influence in Qadiri practice and describes the role of Sufism in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century West Africa.

Chassey, Francis de. Mauritanie, 1900-1975. Paris, 1984. Although not explicitly concerned with Islam, this may be the best overview of Mauritanian society and economy in the twentieth century, for which no comparable English-language work is available.

Martin, B. G. Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge, 1976. Surveys the careers of al-Hajj `Umar and Ma’ al`Aynayn.

Norris, H. T. Shinqiti Folk Literature and Song. Oxford, 1968. Excellent survey of literary traditions in the Hasaniyah world.

Stewart, C. C. Islam and Social Order in Mauritania. Oxford, 1973. Life and times of Sidlya al-Kabir, and politics in nineteenth-century southern Mauritania.




The country is nearly 100% Muslim, most of whom are Sunnis. The minority Sufi brotherhood, the Tijaniyah, has had great influence not only in the country, but in Senegal and Morocco as well. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nouakchott, founded in 1965, serves the 4,500 Catholics in Mauritania

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/mauritania/

  • writerPosted On: August 3, 2014
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