E. Ann McDougall
The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.”
However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire.
The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel.
Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.
The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.