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date: 30 September 2022

Islam and Politics in Postcolonial Mauritaniafree

Islam and Politics in Postcolonial Mauritaniafree

  • Alexander ThurstonAlexander ThurstonDepartment of Political Science, University of Cincinnati

Summary

Mauritania is an almost universally Muslim society in northwest Africa, with a deep history of Islamic scholarship but also painful legacies of slavery and, more recently, shifting permutations of political authoritarianism. Three main forces have affected the intersection of Islam and politics in Mauritania since independence in 1960: the growing diversity of Islamic identities and affiliations available to Muslims, the role of Islamic discourses within tense negotiations over socio-racial identity in Mauritania, and the state’s efforts to manage Islam and shape the religious field. Some of the diverse Islamic affiliations, postures, and movements in postcolonial Mauritania include loyalism, Islamism, Salafism, the missionary movement Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh, jihadism, and quietism. In terms of socio-racial tensions, there has been growing self-assertion on the part of the ḥarāṭīn (singular ḥarṭānī), an Arabic-speaking population of slave descendants who are classified as “black” within Mauritanian society, in distinction to Arabic-speaking “whites”—bīḍān (singular bīḍānī). Meanwhile, there have been variable and at-times tense relationships between the state and Islamists, as well as key moments when authorities sought to elaborate or modify structures relating to “official Islam” in the country. Amid these changes, there has been an ongoing construction and reconstruction of Islamic scholarly culture in Mauritania. The country has also had consequential exchanges with the wider Islamic world, with influence from Saudi Arabia and other states affecting dynamics of Islamic identity in Mauritania, but with Mauritania also making profound contributions to the trajectory of Islamic authority in the Gulf region through the transnational careers and media prominence of key scholars.

Subjects

  • West Africa

Introduction

Mauritania became independent from France in 1960. Politically, the country has passed through four main phases: (1) civilian rule from 1960–1978 under President Mokhtar Ould Daddah, with opposition parties banned for most of that period; (2) military rule from 1978–2005, with the two most significant rulers of that period being Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah (in power 1980–1984) and Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (hereafter Ould al-Taya; in power 1984–2005); (3) a phase of instability, a failed democratic experiment, and uncertainty from 2005–2009, with two coups and two presidential elections; and (4) rule by two retired generals in civilian garb—Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008–2009 as military ruler, and 2009–2019 as an elected leader) and Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (elected president in 2019).1 Although it has been an “Islamic Republic” since independence, Mauritanian politics has been dominated by career politicians, military officers, and businessmen, rather than by clerics. Nevertheless, Islamic actors, traditions, concepts, and messages have shaped politics and the state in powerful ways.

During Mauritania’s independent history, three basic dynamics have affected interactions between Islam and politics there. The first dynamic involves the transformations of the religious field itself—that is, the shifting relationships of contestation, borrowing, and influence between various Islamic tendencies in the society. The second dynamic concerns the impact of social-racial categories on constructions of Islamic leadership and Muslim identity, and vice versa. The third dynamic is the relationship between the state and Islam; or more precisely, the relationship between state actors and institutions on the one hand, and various Islamic leaders, tendencies, and cohorts on the other hand. All three of these dynamics—intra-Muslim debates, the dialectics of racial and religious constructions of self and other, and state-society relations—interact with one another as well.

Islamic discourses and institutions in postcolonial Mauritania have been profoundly marked not just by dynamics internal to Mauritania but also by translocal exchanges, particularly between Mauritania and the Arab Gulf states.2 Such exchanges are bi-directional, and do not merely represent an “export” of Gulf influences to Mauritania.3 Several Mauritanian scholars have acquired major platforms in Gulf countries: for example, Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Shinqīṭī (d. 1973) as a senior instructor in Saudi Arabia and, late in his life, as a member of the Kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars.4 Other, more recent examples include ʿAbd Allāh bin Bayyah (b. 1935) as head of the Fatwa Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Muḥammad al-Ḥasan Ould al-Dedew (b. 1963) as a fixture on Arab satellite television channels and as a frequent guest in Qatar. Mauritania’s reputation as a beacon of Islamic learning has also attracted Western students who subsequently became famous, most prominently the American scholar Hamza Yusuf (b. 1958), a student of Murābiṭ al-Ḥajj (d. 2018) and later a close pupil of and advisor to Bin Bayyah. These translocal exchanges have also affected the evolution of Islam and politics in Mauritania itself.

A Brief History of Islam in Precolonial and Colonial Mauritania

As in other parts of northwest Africa, the dominant interpretation of Islam in what became Mauritania came to center upon three core components: in jurisprudence, the Mālikī school of Sunni Islam; in creed, Ashʿarī theology; and in spirituality and social organization, Sufism and Sufi orders. Scholars in northwest Africa came to draw upon a widely shared canon of texts in these fields and in adjacent disciplines such as Qur’anic exegesis, Arabic grammar and literature, and Prophetic biography, as well as other sciences such as medicine and astronomy.5 Various forms of esoteric knowledge are also transmitted within parts of Mauritanian society.6

Much of the region’s rich literature exists only in manuscript form, although massive efforts to catalog and digitize that literature are underway. Several Mauritanian cities, particularly Chinguetti or Shinqīṭ, are not merely repositories of such manuscripts but also symbols of past and present identities. It is common to see Mauritanians, particularly in Islamic contexts, identified as “Shinqīṭī” (“of Shinqīṭ”) rather than “Mūrītānī” (“Mauritanian”), even if the individual in question is not from the actual city of Chinguetti. Alongside the textual canon of the region, orality and the oral transmission of knowledge are vital components of Islamic education in Mauritania.7

The dominant institution in Mauritania for transmitting Islamic knowledge and authority has been the maḥḍara (plural maḥāḍir), which students usually enter after having completed the memorization of the Qur’an. The maḥḍara is a school—sometimes mobile—centered on one or more shaykhs who teach in a tutorial format where students read through texts with their teachers.8 Students often memorize manuals such as the Maliki compendium the Mukhtaṣar (Abridgment) of Khalīl bin Isḥaq al-Jundī, a 14th-century Egyptian scholar. The influence of the Mukhtaṣar has been so pervasive in Mauritania that the country’s scholars have sometimes described themselves as “Khalīliyyūn,” or “Khalīl-ists.” This text looms large in multiple ways in postcolonial Mauritania, even as the Maliki school has been challenged by other interpretive currents; one continuing legacy of the Mukhtaṣar is as a contested symbol in debates over slavery and post-slavery, with the text invoked by some to justify slavery and castigated by others as the prop of a racist power structure. A traditionalist education in Mauritania frequently involves spending extended periods at more than one maḥḍara, especially if the student reaches the level of studying advanced texts; a maḥḍara education can thus be peripatetic and customized to the needs and interests of the student. Advanced students do not receive formal degrees, but rather complete readings, receive authorizations from individual shaykhs to teach specific books (authorizations called ijāzāt, singular ijāza), and gradually pass from the role of student to the role of teacher, perhaps eventually establishing their own maḥāḍir. Various efforts to reform and “rationalize” the maḥḍara institution are underway in Mauritania, and there are also parallel and competing institutions of higher Islamic education; as elsewhere in the Muslim world, in postcolonial Mauritania there is considerable debate about how and whether classical institutions set up their advanced students for success or failure in modern economies. For defenders of the classical institutions, the maḥāḍir are indispensable as vehicles for preserving Islam and Mauritanian culture; for critics, the maḥāḍir are outmoded both pedagogically and economically, and the system either needs to be reformed (for example, by introducing the granting of formal degrees) or discarded.

Islamic authority, as a source of legitimation, has been a powerful political force in what is now Mauritania for a millennium or more.9 Although the pre-colonial period is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that a substantial amount of scholarship has focused on Islamic life, intellectual developments, and social change in 18th- and 19th-century Mauritania.10 Precolonial Mauritania was the site of various Muslim-led polities and social units, which were then combined under French colonial rule from the first decade of the 20th century until 1960.11 Notably, contemporary Mauritanian intellectuals’ understandings of their Islamic past are not confined to the precise territory of present-day Mauritania, and constituent parts of Mauritanian society have profound connections to any or all of what is now Morocco, Mali, and Senegal. For example, many Mauritanian Muslim scholars and thinkers look to the 11th-/12th-century al-Murābiṭūn/Almoravid Dynasty, with its capital in Marrakesh in present-day Morocco, as a touchstone in the region’s political and religious history. Other pivotal figures from the precolonial era include Sīdī al-Mukhtār al-Kuntī (d. 1811) and his son Sīdī Muḥammad al-Kuntī (d. 1826), Sufi leaders who were based in what is now northern Mali but whose impact reached throughout parts of West Africa.12 Key Sufi orders in Mauritania include the Qādiriyya, the order to which the al-Kunti family belonged, and which is named after the 12th-century Baghdadi teacher ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (d. 1166); the Shādhiliyya, whose founder was the Moroccan spiritual master ʿAlī bin ʿAbd Allāh al-Shādhilī (d. 1258); and the Tijāniyya, named for the North African Shaykh Aḥmad al-Tijānī (d. 1815). Overall, Islamic authority in pre-colonial Mauritania often rested on one or more factors, especially in combination: charisma, scholarship, genealogy, and/or military and political power. Islamic authority has also typically been exercised by men, although female scholars and spiritual guides have also been highly influential, in private but also increasingly in public.13

The consolidation of French colonial rule depended on relationships with key Muslim leaders in the region, notably the Sufi clerics Saad Buh (d. 1917, of the Fāḍiliyya branch of the Qādiriyya), Sidiyya Baba (d. 1924, of the Sidiyya branch of the Qādiriyya), and the latter’s son Abdellahi (d. 1964).14 French colonial authorities also sought, to some extent, to control and reshape Muslim identities among the elite, notably through education, selected sponsorship for individuals to make the hajj, and other interventions.15 However, the French also faced armed resistance, along both religious and tribal lines; the most prominent armed opponent of French rule in the early colonial period was Saad Buh’s older brother Muḥammad Muṣṭafā bin Muḥammad Fāḍil, better known as Māʾ al-ʿAynayn (Water of the Eyes), who died in 1910.16 The question of which Muslim scholars and constituencies were close to the French, and which were not, has continued to reverberate in postcolonial Mauritanian history.

Intra-Muslim Debates and Interactions in Mauritania

Since the 1960s and especially since the 1970s, the dominant Mālikī-Ashʿarī-Sufi model of Islam has been faced with the rise of challengers, alternatives, and competitors. The context for this shift is both local and global. At the local level, forces such as rapid urbanization in Nouakchott, rising rates of literacy and educational enrollment, and greater self-assertion by the ḥarāṭīn and the Afro-Mauritanians have all contributed to making the religious field more competitive. At the global level, the rise of movements such as Islamism, contemporary Salafism, Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh, and others have all had impacts on Mauritania, as have inflows of Gulf funding, printed books, and more recently, internet materials. The impact of Gulf funding can be seen in the proliferation of mosques in the country, most prominently the “Saudi mosque” that became Nouakchott’s central mosque after its construction in the 1970s; at the same time, precise figures on Gulf funding are hard to pin down. Meanwhile, although the Brotherhood and Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh were both founded in the 1920s, and although the contemporary Salafi movement can also be traced to that decade, Salafism’s impact was relatively muted in Mauritania until the 1970s. Extensions and echoes of the global jihadist movement have also had an impact on Mauritania, especially in a serious but short-lived burst of terrorist violence from 2005–2011. Finally, some of the country’s most prominent scholars have held themselves relatively aloof from the state and from politics, preferring a quietist mode.

There have also been reassertions and reformulations of the Mālikī-Ashʿarī-Sufi model, or of individual components of it, even amid challenges to the model. Some scholarship on the 20th-century Muslim world has portrayed binary competitions between traditionalist ʿulamāʾ (Muslim scholars) and a given challenger: traditionalists versus Islamists, traditionalists versus Salafis, etc. While Islamists and Salafis have sometimes criticized and lambasted traditionalists, and vice versa, in Mauritania the sense of a corporate scholarly identity may have restrained both the severity of polemics and the willingness of senior, reformist scholars to depart from the Mālikī-Ashʿarī-Sufi paradigm, particularly the Mālikī portion of that paradigm. Thus, while the key postcolonial shaykhs Muhammad Salim Ould Addoud (1929–2009) and Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920–2009) could both be described as Salafi in creed, the Maliki canonical tradition remained a cornerstone of their scholarly identities.17 Ould Addoud completed a six-volume commentary on the Mukhtaṣar of Khalil, while the title of Ould al-Busayri’s most famous work, Asnā al-Masālik fī anna Man ʿAmila bi-l-Rājih Ma Kharaja ʿan Madhhab al-Imām Mālik (The Brightest of Paths: The One Who Works with the Preponderant Evidence Has Not Left the School of Imam Malik), makes his own argument clear. Polemics have certainly raged in Mauritania over issues pertaining to the Mālikī madhhab, yet such polemics have been less intense than those between, for example, the Salafi luminary Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999) and his debate partners Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti (d. 2013) and Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda (d. 1997).18 Particularly since the 1970s, there have arisen more confidently anti-madhhab articulations of Salafism and other Islamic identities, but the Maliki identity of many Mauritanian scholars remains very strong.

Loyalism

Alongside and interwoven with “official Islam” in Mauritania is a class of loyalist scholars. This group has included some of the most knowledgeable and respected figures in the country. Loyalists have included Ould Addoud, Bin Bayyah, and Hamdan Ould al-Tah. Such figures had long careers within institutions such as the judiciary, ministries (Islamic Affairs, but also elsewhere in the government), higher education, and in official councils.

Loyalism has sometimes carried a reputational cost, but some loyalists—particularly Ould Addoud—had such formidable scholarly profiles that even government critics have tended to take them seriously. Since the deaths of Ould Addoud and Ould al-Busayri in 2009, however, it has been harder to find figures who command respect across the religious spectrum. The limited impact of even senior loyalists such as Ould al-Tah was evident in 2018–2019, as then-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz appeared to be exploring the possibility of changing the constitution and seeking a third term in office. Ould al-Tah and the Association of Mauritanian ʿUlamāʾ publicly urged a third term bid, but Ould Abdel Aziz ultimately decided to step aside in favor of a hand-picked (and ultimately very unbiddable) successor, Ould Ghazouani. This sequence of events may have sapped the public credibility of some of the loyalists who supported the third term.

As noted in the introduction to this article, Mauritanian scholars have had a major impact in the Gulf, and this is true for loyalists as well. In particular, Bin Bayyah has become a close ally of and a senior cleric within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), leading that country’s fatwa council and co-chairing the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. Bin Bayyah and his American colleague and student Hamza Yusuf have been described as promulgating a “theology of obedience,” especially since approximately 2013, when the coup in Egypt symbolized and accelerated counter-revolutionary trends in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.19

Islamism

Islamism refers to 20th- and 21st-century movements that seek state-led and society-wide Islamization in the context of ideological mass-movement politics; although the phrase “militant Islamism” is often applied to jihadist movements and although there are identifiable historical interconnections between Islamist and jihadist trends, the definition used here excludes jihadists from the category “Islamism” and instead considers willingness to preserve existing states as a constitutive feature of Islamism.

As elsewhere, Mauritanian Islamism has primarily been a movement of lay activists and popular preachers rather than clerics at the top of the scholarly hierarchy. Beginning in the 1970s, activists created quasi-underground associations such as the Islamic Movement of Mauritania. One extremely important actor in the Islamist milieu is the preacher Muhammad Ould Sidi Yahya, who has been compared to Egypt’s ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk (d. 1996). Born some time before 1960 and hailing from a scholarly family, Ould Sidi Yahya moved to Nouakchott in 1978. He became popular starting in the 1980s, because his preaching dealt with contemporary social and political issues, in contrast to the relative political silence of many older scholars.20 Following the formal proclamation of civilian multipartyism in 1991, Islamist activists, including Ould Sidi Yahya, sought recognition for a political party, Hizb al-Umma, but were denied.21

Islamists became key voices in criticizing Mauritania’s diplomatic opening with Israel from 1999–2009. A move undertaken by the Ould al-Taya regime in order to help rebuild relations with the United States, the recognition of Israel elicited a condemnatory fatwa from Ould al-Dedew as well as protests by Islamists. The subsequent suspension of diplomatic relations under Ould Abdel Aziz appears to have been calculated to deprive the Islamists of one of their major rallying cries.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, and particularly in 1994 and 2003, Islamists experienced alternating moments of repression followed by limited openings (see below). The career of another prominent Mauritanian Islamist, Jamil Ould Mansour, exemplifies this pattern: the regime tolerated Mansour’s election as mayor of the Arafat district of Nouakchott in 2001, but jailed Mansour and others following a 2003 coup attempt by officers accused of Islamist ties. In 2004–2005, the regime held a trial at the desert barracks of Wad Naga for some 181 military officers and opposition politicians accused of plotting coups. Although former head of state Ould Haidallah and opposition politician Ahmad Ould Daddah were acquitted, eighty-two of the accused received prison terms, in one of the final acts of Ould Taya’s regime. The trials included a strongly anti-Islamist component. It was not until 2007, amid the transition to civilian government in the immediate post-Ould Taya era, that an Islamist party, Tawassoul, achieved full legal recognition. In elections, Tawassoul has won some seats in parliament, and was the highest-scoring opposition party in the legislative elections of 2018, although still a distant second behind the ruling Union for the Republic. In presidential elections, the party’s performance has been inconsistent. In 2009, Mansour, as the party’s candidate, placed fourth, scoring around 5 percent. In 2014, Tawassoul and many other parties boycotted the elections, accusing the incumbent of tampering and unilateral decision-making.22 In the 2019 elections, Tawassoul backed the independent candidate Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, a former prime minister under Ould Taya, who placed third with approximately 18 percent of the vote.

The most prominent cleric associated with the Islamist tendency in Mauritania is Ould al-Dedew. The nephew of the above-mentioned loyalist scholar Ould Addoud, al-Dedew hails from an extremely well-respected family in the country, but took the path of dissent. A key critic of Mauritania’s diplomatic opening with Israel under Ould al-Taya in 1999, al-Dedew was imprisoned in the early 2000s along with Islamist activists such as Jamil Mansour. Since the overthrow of Ould al-Taya in 2005, al-Dedew has not been imprisoned, but his relations with the authorities have ebbed and flowed. In 2018, authorities closed al-Dedew’s Markaz Takwīn al- ʿUlamāʾ (Center for Training Muslim Scholars), one of his key institutional bases.

Islamists have worked to stress their commitment to democracy, including internal party democracy. In 2017, Mansour stepped down as president of Tawassoul due to term limits, and was succeeded by Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Seyidi, a bīḍānī journalist and veteran politician from the central Mauritanian town of Boumdeid.23 Tawassoul’s activists have also sought to build cross-racial coalitions, to elevate women within the party, and to develop national reach during and in between elections, including in rural areas. There has appeared to be a low ceiling for Islamists’ performance and potential in the electoral arena, however, and a Tawassoul candidate has never scored particularly highly in a presidential contest.

Salafism

Dating the beginning of the Salafi movement, globally or in any particular area, is a tricky endeavor, and that applies to Mauritania as well.24 Salafis view their approach and creed as coterminous with Islam itself, particularly the founding generations (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ or the pious predecessors, from whence the adjective Salafi derives). Yet other Muslims also claim to incarnate the legacy and values of the early community, which was itself far from homogeneous on major and minor points of creed, law, and politics. In Mauritania, Salafis have cited various precolonial Muslim leaders and thinkers as Salafis or at least as forerunners of contemporary Salafis; for example, an influential history of Salafism in Mauritania counts as Salafis various early North African Mālikīs, the Murābiṭūn, and the 18th-century thinker Muḥammad bin Ḥabīb Allāh Limjaydrī (d. 1789).25 Yet the contemporary Salafi movement in Mauritania, as in many other parts of the Muslim world, could be dated to the 20th century and even to the second half of the century.

One major Salafi-leaning figure, though difficult to decisively categorize, was the above-mentioned long-serving imam of Nouakchott, Buddah Ould al-Busayri. If Salafism is defined narrowly, as espousing a literalist reading of God’s attributes as described in Islamic source texts, then Ould al-Busayri was certainly Salafi; if Salafism is defined more broadly so as to include features such as anti-Sufism and anti-madhhabism, then Ould al-Busayri was not rigidly Salafi. However, among his students are figures who are clearly Salafi in this wider sense. Such scholars include his son-in-law and successor as the imam of Nouakchott, Ahmad Ould Lembrabott, as well as Ould al-Busayri’s young student Muhammad Salim al-Majlisi. Beyond the scholarly milieu, Salafi ideas have had a wide influence on the religiosity of many ordinary Muslims, particularly in Nouakchott; the influence of Salafism is visible in how people pray, what people read, and in a skepticism towards Sufism in some quarters.

Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh

Of contemporary Muslim activist movements in Mauritania, Tablīgh—or “Daʿwa,” as it is often termed in Mauritania and Mali—is the least well-researched. A global missionary and pietistic organization founded in India in 1926, the movement arrived to Mauritania in the 1970s. One Mauritanian scholar divides the movement’s history in the country into three phases: (1) an initial, activist phase in the 1970s and 1980s, where many other Muslims viewed some of Tablīgh’s practices, such as preaching tours of three days or more, as heterodox innovations (bidiʿ, singular bidʿa); (2) a phase of expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, marked by the construction of the Tawba mosque in Nouakchott; and (3) a phase of consolidation and institutionalization since the late 2000s.26 In the Mauritanian context, Tablīgh “occupies . . . a space between Sufism and political Islam.”27 As an activist movement operating outside the framework of “official Islam” in Mauritania, Tablīgh leaders and activists have sometimes been subject to arrests, notably during the 2003 crackdown on Islamists and other activists amid the waning years of Ould al-Taya’s rule.28 The post-Ould al-Taya period, however, has brought greater official acceptance of Tablīgh, and in 2011 a delegation from the movement met with a sitting Mauritanian president for the first time.29 There are also close connections between Tablīgh in Mauritania and Tablīgh in Mali, where the movement has sometimes also been viewed with suspicion by authorities; in 2012, Malian soldiers fired on a group of preachers from Tablīgh, killing eight Mauritanians and eight Malians and triggering a diplomatic row with Mauritania.30

Jihadism

Jihadist activity in Mauritania spiked in the late 2000s and then fizzled out for a combination of reasons discussed in this section. The jihadist violence began with a raid on a military outpost at Lemgheitty in northeastern Mauritania in June 2005, perpetrated by the Algeria-originated Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, which became the northwest African regional affiliate of al-Qaida in 2006 and renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. AQIM continued to perpetrate attacks in the country in the ensuing years, such as the kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers along the Nouakchott-Nouadhibou road in 2009. AQIM also sponsored, but may have only loosely controlled, a local cell that called itself Anṣār Allāh al-Murābiṭūn (The Supporters of God, Posted as Sentries). Local militants conducted attacks such as the killing of four French tourists at Aleg in 2007. By 2008, however, arrests were disrupting Anṣār Allāh al-Murābiṭūn’s operational capabilities within Nouakchott and elsewhere. In 2010, authorities backed a series of dialogues between Muslim scholars and imprisoned jihadist suspects, succeeding in convincing some of the suspects to accept conditional release from prison in exchange for dropping any militant activities and refraining from rhetorically supporting jihadism on Mauritanian soil.

Attacks faded after 2011, likely reflecting a combination of factors: improved counterterrorism capabilities; draconian military controls over northeastern Mauritania, potentially coexisting with some toleration for an “economy of uncertainty” in border areas; militants’ increasing focus on other Sahelian countries (especially Mali, but also Burkina Faso and Niger) as more permissive theaters for operations; and, finally, the emergence of what seems to be a kind of tacit non-aggression pact between the Mauritanian state and AQIM.31 Then-President Ould Abdel Aziz was the target of a clumsy assassination attempt by AQIM in early 2011, and was shot by a soldier at a checkpoint in a murky incident in 2012—both incidents that may have led the president to fear for his personal safety and to consider alternative approaches to confronting militancy. Since 2012, jihadist activity has appeared minimal within Mauritania, although border zones with Mali have remained subject to military controls and de facto media blackouts, and Mauritania appears to be “a locus of passive jihadist activity.”32 Mauritania may also be one site of an emerging “post-jihadist” trend in the wider Muslim world, where former militants conclude that jihadism is theologically and/or strategically incoherent, and therefore discard elements of jihadist thought and action; in Mauritania, the most prominent such figure is Abu Hafs al-Muritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid), who was a religious advisor to Osama bin Laden from the 1990s to 2001.33

Quietism

For the purposes of this article, quietism differs from loyalism in that quietists are aloof from politics, even loyalism. Many of the maḥḍara-based scholars are and have been quietists, including in the pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods. The rural and often mobile nature of the classical maḥḍara, the curricular focus on Islamic life as idealized in texts, and some scholars’ distaste for active political involvement have all meant that some of the maḥāḍir scholars prefer not to intervene in affairs of state. Some of the most learned and world-famous postcolonial scholars, such as Murabit al-Hajj (d. 2018), were often physically and politically distant from Nouakchott; in Murabit al-Hajj’s case, in the village of Tuwamarat, in the Tagant region of central Mauritania. There is a long tradition of political quietism within the Sunni scholarly tradition and within the Mālikī school specifically, dating back to Imam Malik’s own political stances under the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates.

Race and Islam in Mauritania

Analyses of Mauritanian society tend to speak in terms of three main social-racial categories: the bīḍān, indexed as white, who speak Ḥassāniyya, the local dialect of Arabic; the ḥarāṭīn, indexed as black, who also speak Ḥassāniyya and who are viewed as descendants of enslaved people; and the Afro-Mauritanians, who are indexed as black and do not speak Ḥassāniyya as a mother tongue. Each category can then be further subdivided; in particular, the bīḍān are subdivided into Ḥassān (“warrior”) and Zwāya (“clerical”) tribes, while the Afro-Mauritanians comprise ethnic groups such as Peul/Fulani, Wolof, Soninké, and Bambara.34 Estimating the relative demographic weight of each category is an exercise with heavily political ramifications, because the bīḍān are and have long been politically dominant; whether they constitute a plurality within the society, or a distinct minority, is a fraught issue. Within the bīḍān, meanwhile, competition and cooperation between tribes remains one key factor in politics, with successive heads of state accused of favoring their own tribes—for example, the Smassid of Ould al-Taya, the Awlad Bu Sbaa of Ould Abdel Aziz, and the Ideiboussat of Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (in power since 2019).35 As elsewhere, however, tribal affiliations are not blueprints for life pathways or political choices—the Ideiboussat is a Zwāya tribe, for example, yet Ould Ghazouani is a career military officer.

Clerics from the bīḍān have dominated the upper echelons of the scholarly hierarchy in Mauritania throughout the country’s independent history. As in the military and in politics, major posts—as imams of major mosques, as ministers of Islamic Affairs, as top judges—have almost exclusively gone to bīḍān scholars. Clerical authority can also have a strongly family-based and tribal component: for example, Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew’s profile owes much to his own learning and charisma, but also draws heavily on the fact that he is the nephew of Muhammad Salim Ould Addoud, and the grandson of the major scholar Muhammad ‘Ālī Ould ‘Abd al-Wadud (d. 1982). Within the wider Muslim and Arab worlds, the archetype of the Mauritanian scholar is also bīḍānī; the foremost representatives of Mauritania’s scholarly class on the regional and world stages are the above-mentioned Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti, Abd Allah bin Bayyah, and Ould al-Dedew, all of them bīḍān. Not just family but also tribal networks help to shape networks of knowledge transmission, with tribes such as the Tajakant (singular Jakani) and the Massuma playing central roles in both Mauritania and abroad; al-Shinqiti was Jakani, while Bin Bayyah and Ould al-Dedew are both Massumi. Clerical and tribal networks have, among other roles, played a critical part in linking Mauritania to global circuits of Islamic finance.36

Despite wide bīḍān influence in the religious arena, there are prominent scholars among other social-racial groups, especially among the Afro-Mauritanians. The Peul/Fulani, for example, are a major, Muslim-majority ethnic group across the Sahel and West Africa. The Peul have a centuries-long tradition of Islamic scholarship, and several influential jihad leaders in pre-colonial West Africa were Peul. In Mauritania, important Peul scholars include Abdoul Aziz Sy (d. 2012). Meanwhile, Sufi orders span borders and ethnic groups; For example, the pivotal Senegalese Sufi Shaykh Ibrahim Niass (1900–1975), who was ethnically Wolof, studied under shaykhs of the Idaw Ali tribe in Mauritania as a young man.37 The postcolonial period has also witnessed the emergence of a growing number of ḥarāṭīn imams and scholars, including in ways that have contributed to Islamist mobilization.38

Although virtually all Mauritanians are Muslims, tensions over racial and linguistic issues have recurred through postcolonial Mauritanian history. Major contention broke out over “Arabization” policies in education and other sectors in the 1960s. The 1980s featured the most severe internal violence of the country’s history, much of it targeting the Afro-Mauritanians. After the publication of the Manifesto of the Oppressed Black Mauritanian in 1986, there were numerous arrests of Afro-Mauritanian activists, and a further wave of arrests targeted Afro-Mauritanian officers after they were accused of attempting to stage a coup in 1987. In 1989, a border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal led to pogroms in both Nouakchott and Dakar, inter-communal violence in Mauritania, and the expulsion of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians. Related violence continued through the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, there are enduring tensions surrounding slavery in Mauritanian society; within the shifting phenomenon of slavery and post-slavery, coercion, Islamic discourses, and gender intersect in complex ways for both slave owners and enslaved persons.39 Mauritania formally abolished slavery in 1981, and the National Assembly passed legislation criminalizing slavery in 2007, yet forms of enslavement and coerced labor persist in parts of the country. Without minimizing the horrors of slavery within Mauritania, it is worth noting that the problem is not as unique to Mauritania as much Western journalistic coverage assumes, given slavery’s persistence in neighboring Mali as well, and legacies of post-slavery discrimination and trauma elsewhere in northwest Africa.40 In any event, there are deeply rooted forms of discrimination within Mauritania, and the roles of slave descendants and former slaves are being renegotiated at the individual and collective levels, again including in gendered ways.41 The postcolonial period has witnessed the persistence of socio-racial and tribal hierarchies even amid rapid social change and access to new forms of capital and social status for the ḥarāṭīn.42

Since the 1970s, there have been waves of abolitionist activism, primarily among the ḥarāṭīn.43 Key anti-slavery organizations include the Organization for the Liberation and Emancipation of Haratines (El HOR), SOS Esclaves, and the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). Ḥarāṭīn leaders, including anti-slavery activists, have slowly achieved greater representation within politics, holding posts such as President of the National Assembly (Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, 2007–2014) and Prime Minister (Mohamed Ould Bilal, since 2020). In the 2019 presidential election, the runner-up was Biram Dah Abeid, founder of IRA. Yet there remains a clear ceiling for ḥarāṭīn and Afro-Mauritanian politicians and demands, and challenges to the bīḍān elite—such as the protests that followed the 2019 election—are repressed with force.

Ḥarāṭīn activists have challenged bīḍān dominance not just at the societal level but also in the religious sphere. Most dramatically, in 2012 Dah Abeid publicly burned the Mukhtaṣar of Khalil in a gesture aimed at rebuking what he saw as the dominant classes’ appeals to Islamic law in justifying continued de facto slavery in the country. For context, the Mukhtaṣar and other Maliki manuals assume, as does much of the wider pre-modern Islamic tradition, that slavery is part of Muslim society—Maliki manuals often refer dispassionately to rulings associated with slavery, giving no sense that slavery itself is intrinsically wrong. Dah Abeid’s burning of the Mukhtaṣar appeared calculated, in part, to reject and provoke the scholarly establishment itself. From the vantage point of the establishment, however, Dah Abeid’s act appeared fundamentally anti-Islamic; not as severe as burning a copy of the Qur’an, but sacrilegious nonetheless. The book-burning itself, meanwhile, became a media spectacle not just for the IRA, but also for segments of the bīḍān scholarly establishment, which sought to use the event to silence ḥarāṭīn dissent and criticism of the social order.44 Another episode worth highlighting in the arena of socio-racial relations and Islam is the case of Mohamed Ould Mkhaitir. In a 2013 Facebook post, Ould Mkhaitir compared the position of the “blacksmith” caste in Mauritania to what he saw as the Prophet Muhammad’s unfavorable treatment of the Banū Qurayẓa Jewish tribe. The post triggered an outcry and resulted in Ould Mkhaitir’s imprisonment from 2014 to 2019 on blasphemy charges; after a death sentence was overturned, Ould Mkhaitir was eventually released, whereupon he left the country for Europe. The case became a rallying cry for many Muslim scholars in the country, some of whom denounced the state’s decision to cancel the death sentence.45

It remains rare for prominent bīḍān scholars to condemn slavery root and branch, perhaps reflecting entrenched systemic racism in Mauritania but perhaps also reflecting the deep-seated moral-intellectual dilemma for contemporary Muslim thinkers generally when it comes to slavery, a phenomenon now often considered morally repulsive but also a phenomenon practiced by no less than the Prophet Muhammad himself. One bīḍānī scholar who has issued a fatwa declaring all types of slavery invalid is Ahmad Jiddu/Jiddu Wuld Ahmad Bahi; the media coverage that this fatwa attracted is, in and of itself, an indication that many Mauritanian scholars remain reluctant to issue blanket condemnations of slavery.46

State-Islam Relations in Postcolonial Mauritania

At independence, the Mauritanian state was skeletal. For most of the colonial period, Saint-Louis (in Senegal) was Mauritania’s capital; at independence, Nouakchott had only a few thousand residents, and there were relatively few holders of university degrees in the new independent administration.47 Iron and fish resources enabled “a degree of relative prosperity,” but the state presence in sectors such as education remained thin through the 1970s.48 Enforcement of particular Islamic doctrines would have been a challenging undertaking for the new state.

Despite Mauritania’s long history of Islamic politics and scholarship, the country entered independence with some ambivalence about the place of Islam within the state. On the one hand, Mauritania was an “Islamic Republic,” a moniker that some leaders understood as a unifying platform in a country divided along racial, tribal, and linguistic lines. On the other hand, there were limits to the actual place of Islam within the state, especially amid the lingering influence of French political and legal models. The 1961 Constitution proclaimed that “the religion of the Mauritanian people is the Muslim religion” (Article 2) and that the president “is of the Muslim religion” (Article 10), but was silent on the question of sharīʿa. Meanwhile, what some Mauritanian Muslim actors regarded as symbols of Islam, others regarded as power grabs by one segment of society against another. For example, in the 1960s, the “Arabization” of education and other sectors became hugely contentious, including in religious terms. Ould Daddah, who enforced Arabization, later wrote in his memoir that colonial legacies of recruiting administrators primarily from the south, in other words from non-Arab communities, contributed to tensions about education and the civil service after independence. Voices in postcolonial Mauritania called for “resuscitating” the country’s “Islamo-Arabic cultural heritage, considerably stifled by colonization,” but also for “resuscitating” the country’s “specifically African cultural heritage.”49 In formal politics, meanwhile, the battle-lines in the 1960s and 1970s were more ideological (leftists, Nasserists, Baathists, etc.) and tribal than they were religio-political.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the waning single-party regime of Mokhtar Ould Daddah, as well as his military successors from 1978 on, began to show more interest in developing institutions of “official Islam” in the country. More research is needed to understand the precise driving forces behind these moves, but they likely reflected multiple factors: the search for new or strengthened sources of regime legitimacy, especially amid rapid urbanization and social change; the desire to counterbalance leftist opposition movements, such as the Kadihines, an underground political party founded in 1973; the impact of regional and global trends in Islamic activism; and the availability of new sources of funding, notably from Saudi Arabia. Three noteworthy institutional changes occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. First, in 1975, Ould Daddah’s government created a standalone Ministry of Islamic Affairs (headed by Hamdan Ould al-Tah). Second, in 1978, authorities established the state-backed Higher Institute of Islamic Studies and Research (Institut Supérieur d’Etudes et de Recherches Islamiques, ISERI) with support from Saudi Arabia. Third, under military ruler Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla (in power 1980–1984), the sharīʿa became—theoretically at least—enshrined in Mauritanian law with the promulgation of the July 1983 penal code, which outlined penalties relating to classical categories in the sharīʿa such as the hudud (crimes against God), qisas (crimes where the victim or the victim’s family have the option of retaliation), and the payment of diya (compensation for the victim or the victim’s family).50 None of Ould Haidalla’s successors have been as interested as he was in formal Islamization of the state; indeed, Ould al-Taya’s 1991 constitution was drafted with the help of French advisors and was closely modeled on the French political system.51 Yet institutions such as ISERI have remained influential, including sometimes as loci of Islamist dissent.

Under the regime of Ould al-Taya there were, as noted above, waves of serious repression against Islamists. The most severe repression came amid the US-led “Global War on Terror.” Ould al-Taya had spent much of the 1990s as something of an international pariah, out of favor with the United States due to his support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, as well as his role in mass human rights violations against the Afro-Mauritanian and ḥarāṭīn populations. Ould al-Taya began working his way back into Washington’s favor through 1991’s (partly cosmetic) liberalization of political space, by recognizing Israel in 1999, by embracing counterterrorism cooperation with the United States after 9/11, and by tacitly supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Islamists criticized the latter three policies, and after the occupation of Iraq began in March 2003 authorities arrested and tortured a number of Islamists, Islamist-leaning clerics, and other dissidents.52 In June of that year, tensions escalated further when former Major Saleh Ould Hanenna led a coup attempt. Following the coup, Islamists were accused of colluding with Ould Hanenna and further crackdowns occurred. Ould al-Taya won approximately 67% of the vote in the November 2003 elections, defeating former head of state Ould Haidalla and several other candidates. It was not until Ould al-Taya’s overthrow in 2005, and the subsequent partial opening of political and media space under the transitional military government of 2005–2007, that Islamists were able to operate more freely.

Ould Abdel Aziz had an ambivalent relationship with Islamists during his 2008–2019 tenure in power. On the one hand, Ould Abdel Aziz did not conflate mainstream Islamists and jihadists, as Ould al-Taya had done—although Ould Abdel Aziz justified the 2008 coup partly on the basis of the claim that his civilian predecessor, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, had been weak on terrorism. Even as Mauritanian authorities vigorously pursued jihadists in Nouakchott, in the country at large, and even into neighboring Mali, the Islamists’ party, Tawassoul, retained its legal status and could compete in elections. Starting in 2010, Ould Abdel Aziz’s administration began to turn from a counterterrorism-focused strategy to a more multi-pronged counter-jihadism effort. Here Ould Abdel Aziz even enlisted mainstream Islamists’ help, particularly that of Ould al-Dedew, who participated (alongside loyalist clerics) in a prison dialogue with convicted terrorists and suspected jihadists. On the other hand, Ould Abdel Aziz had tensions with Islamists, especially towards the end of his second elected term: In 2018, authorities closed Ould al-Dedew’s Markaz Takwīn al-ʿUlamāʾ, accusing the school of inculcating extremism in students.53 After Ould Abdel Aziz left office, tensions with Islamists seemed to subside a bit again—but the school was not reopened.

Although torture and imprisonment of Islamists and hardliners appears to have lessened in recent years, the Mauritanian state also appears to practice fairly broad surveillance measures against clerics who have been associated with jihadists. For example, Abu Hafs al-Muritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid), a former advisor to Osama bin Laden, returned to Mauritania in 2012 after spending much of the post-9/11 period under Iranian state supervision. Al-Muritani enjoys considerable freedom to appear in the national and international media, but also lives in a centrally located Nouakchott neighborhood where he may face surveillance. Another cleric, Muhammad Salim al-Majlisi, was accused of ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the late 2000s and was imprisoned until 2010, when he was freed as part of an amnesty following the prison dialogues. Al-Majlisi has been detained briefly several times since then, but also enjoys some freedom to speak in the media, as well as to preach and teach in mosques. One author has described the state’s approach to such clerics as “control and contain.”

Beyond the authorities’ relationships with dissidents and potential dissidents, one of the most important recent reforms to official Islamic institutions was the 2017–2018 reorganization of the High Council for Islamic Legal Rulings and Recourse (al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li-l-Fatwā wa-l-Maẓālim, where “maẓālim” literally means “injustices” but here refers to the structures charged with addressing injustices). The new High Council replaced and merged two earlier structures, the High Islamic Council and the Mediator of the Republic (charged with improving government-citizen relations). This change was one element of a 2017 constitutional referendum that passed with over 85 percent of the vote as opposition parties denounced what they saw as presidential overreach. In terms of socio-racial composition, the membership of the new High Council was overwhelmingly bīḍānī.54 The High Council remains one site of negotiation over Mauritanian identity, both in intra-Islamic terms and in socio-racial terms.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on Islam in postcolonial Mauritania is relatively underdeveloped, especially in comparison with the more voluminous literatures on neighboring Senegal, Morocco, and Mali. However, a number of scholars have written illuminating accounts of contemporary Islamic activism in Mauritania. In European languages, the most comprehensive such work on that topic is Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem’s Prêcher dans le desert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie. Other authors have addressed topics such as Islamists’ electoral strategies, narratives of political moderation among Islamists, the impact of Islamism on public religiosity, and the continuities between late colonial policies and post-liberalization policies in terms of surveilling and targeting Muslim dissidents.55 The most wide-ranging work on the mainstream Salafi movement in Mauritania is Al-Ṭayyib bin ʿUmar bin al-Ḥusayn’s Al-Salafiyya wa-Aʿlāmuhā fī Mūrītāniyā, published in 1995, although the author’s application of the term “Salafi” is arguably too wide. A more recent contribution, focusing on the contemporary period, is Frederic Wehrey’s chapter on Mauritania in the comparative regional volume Salafism in the Maghreb, co-authored with Anouar Boukhars.56 Contemporary Sufism in Mauritania remains understudied, although Rahal Boubrik, Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, Britta Frede, Joseph Hill, and others have made vital contributions in that area.57 Tellingly, there are more studies of Sufism in 19th-century and colonial-era Mauritania than there are studies of postcolonial developments in the Sufi milieu.58 Major contemporary Sufi figures such as Muhammad al-Hafiz al-Nahwi have not received sufficient attention.59

There are several compelling treatments and reference works treating Islamic scholars in Mauritania, including works spanning the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods. Such works include the fifth volume of Brill’s Arabic Literature of Africa, as well as studies focused on particular themes, such as Mauritanian scholars’ approaches to hadith literature.60 The most massive published reference works are the volumes of Yahya Ould al-Bara’s Al-Majmūʿa al-Kubrā al-Shāmila li-Fatāwā wa-Nawāzil wa-Aḥkām Ahl Gharb wa-Janūb Gharb al-Ṣaḥrāʾ (The Greater, Comprehensive Collection of Islamic Legal Opinions, Novel Issues, and Rulings of the People of the Western and Southwestern Sahara).61

Primary Sources

Major scholarly works by postcolonial Mauritanian thinkers are slowly becoming more widely available in print and online, after a long period where even some of the most prominent scholars’ works existed only in manuscript form or in limited print runs. For example, in 2012 the Nouakchott-based publishing house Dār al-Riḍwān published Ould Addoud’s massive commentary on the Mukhtaṣar of Khalīl, entitled Al-Tashīl wa-l-Takmīl (Facilitating and Completing).62 The Saudi Arabia-based Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti’s output, especially his Qur’an commentary Aḍwāʾ al-Bayān fī Īḍāḥ al-Qurʾān bi-l-Qurʾān (Lights of Explanation in Clarifying the Qur’an through the Qur’an), has been widely printed and distributed, including online—in keeping with a broader trend where innumerable works relating to Islamic thought have been uploaded to sites such as waqfeya.net as PDF files.63

Meanwhile, many scholars’ sermons and lectures are now available on YouTube and other platforms, and some of the country’s best-known scholars—such as Ould al-Dedew and Abu Hafs al-Muritani—are prolific users of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Some of these media projects are in turn rendered in print form; for example, selected episodes of Ould al-Dedew’s program Fiqh al-ʿAṣr (Jurisprudence of the Age) have been published as a book.64 A number of prominent scholars also operate their own websites. Major Islamic associations, parties, and institutions also run websites, including the Tawassoul party and the High Council for Islamic Legal Rulings and Recourse.

Manuscript collections remain indispensable sources for accessing a significant swath of Islamic scholarly production in Mauritania, including postcolonial thinkers’ output. One key archive is the state-run Al-Maʿhad al-Mūrītānī li-l-Baḥth wa-l-Takwīn fī Majāl al-Turāth (the Mauritanian Institute for Research and Training in the Field of Heritage).65 As noted above, many manuscript collections remain in private hands. One key collection is the Ahl Sidiyya library in Boutilimit, whose contents are available on-site, and also in microfilm and digital form through the University of Illinois.66

Memoirs and novels are also vital primary sources. For example, La Mauritanie contre vents et marées, by Mauritania’s first president Moktar Ould Daddah, focuses only intermittently on issues directly pertinent to Islam and politics, but nevertheless reflects some of Ould Daddah’s thinking on vital events, including his own decision not to pursue a life of full-time Islamic scholarship.67 Mauritanian novels such as Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Et le ciel a oublié de pleuvoir do not focus on Islam per se, but highlight themes such as slavery, social inequality, gender relations, and military rule. Finally, ethnographic and interview-based fieldwork remains the main avenue for accessing the perspectives of many actors, especially lay Muslims, women, and youth.

Further Reading

  • Buehler, Matt. Why Alliances Fail: Islamist and Leftist Coalitions in North Africa. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018.
  • Cavatorta, Francesco, and Raquel Ojeda Garcia. “Islamism in Mauritania and the Narrative of Political Moderation.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 55, no. 2 (June 2017): 301–325.
  • Jourde, Cédric. “Betrayal, Heresy, Exile and Mystical Attacks: The Cost of Changing Islamic Affiliation in an Ethnicized Society (Mauritania and Senegal).” Mediterranean Politics 22, no. 1 (2017): 135–154.
  • McDougall, E. Ann. “‘But I Am Confident: God Will Not Leave Us This Way’: From Slavery to Post-Slavery in Nouakchott’s bidonvilles, Mauritania.” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 10, no. 1–2 (2021): 161–190.
  • Ould Ahmed Salem, Zekeria. Prêcher dans le desert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie. Paris: Karthala, 2013.
  • Ould Mohamed Baba Moustapha, Elemine. “Negotiating Islamic Revival: Public Religiosity in Nouakchott City.” Islamic Africa 5, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 45–82.
  • Wehrey, Frederic, and Anouar Boukhars. Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Notes

  • 1. Key works on postcolonial Mauritanian political history include Philippe Marchesin, Tribus, ethnies et pouvoir en Mauritanie (Paris: Karthala, 2010); Noel Foster, Mauritania: The Struggle for Democracy (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011); Sidi A‘mar Ould Cheikhna, Muritāniya al-Muʿāṣira: Shahādāt wa-Wathāʾiq, Al-Juzʾ al-Awwal, 1957–1984 (Nouakchott: Dar al-Qawafil, 2018); and Boubacar N’Diaye, Mauritania’s Colonels: Political Leadership, Civil-Military Relations and Democratization (New York: Routledge, 2018).

  • 2. Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, “The Importance of Mauritanian Scholars in Global Islam,” Middle East Research and Information Project no. 298, April 13, 2021.

  • 3. Michael Farquhar and Alex Thurston, “How Mauritania Exports Religion to Saudi Arabia – And Not Just the Other Way Around,” Brookings Institution, December 13, 2018.

  • 4. Chanfi Ahmed, “The Ulama of the Third Generation: Teachers and Administrators in the First Islamic Universities of Saudi Arabia,” in West African ʿulamāʾ and Salafism in Mecca and Medina: Jawāb al-Ifr‎q‎—The Response of the African (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), Chapter 5.

  • 5. Bruce Hall and Charles Stewart, “The Historic ‘Core Curriculum’ and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa,” in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, ed. Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 109–174.

  • 6. Erin Pettigrew, “Muslim Healing, Magic, and Amulets in the Twentieth-Century History of the Southern Sahara” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2014).

  • 7. Corinne Fortier, “Orality and the Transmission of Qur’anic Knowledge in Mauritania,” in Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards, ed. Robert Launay (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), 61–78.

  • 8. For a history of the maḥāḍir, see Al-Khalīl al-Naḥwī, Bilād Shinqīṭ: Al-Manāra..wa-l-Ribāṭ (Tunis: Al-Munaẓẓama al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Tarbiya wa-l-Thaqāfa wa-l-ʿUlūm, 1987).

  • 9. For an overview of the emergence of Muslim clerical networks dating from the time of the Al-Murābiṭūn/Almoravids, see Ousmane Kane, “The Rise of Clerical Lineages in the Sahara and the Bilad al-Sudan,” in Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Chapter 3, 60–74.

  • 10. See Charles C. Stewart with E. K. Stewart, Islam and Social Order in Mauritania: A Case Study from the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973); Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century West Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and ‘Abd al-Wadud Wuld ‘Abd Allah, Al-Ḥaraka al-Fikriyya fī Bilād Shinqīṭ Ḥatta Nihāyat al-Qarn al-Thānī ʿAshar (18 m) (Rabat, Morocco: Centre d’Études Sahariennes, 2015).

  • 11. See, for example, Pierre Bonte, L’émirat de l’Adrar mauritanien: harîm, compétition et protection dans une société tribale saharienne (Paris: Karthala, 2008).

  • 12. Yahya Ould el-Bara, “The Life of Shaykh Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti,” in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HRSC Press, 2008), 192–212.

  • 13. Britta Frede, “Following in the Steps of ʿĀʾisha: Ḥassāniyya-Speaking Tijānī Women as Spiritual Guides (Muqaddamāt) and Teaching Islamic Scholars (Limrābuṭāt) in Mauritania,” Islamic Africa 5, no. 2 (June 2014): 225–273.

  • 14. David Robinson, Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880–1920 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000), especially chapters eight and nine.

  • 15. On French efforts to transform and surveil Islamic education in colonial West Africa, see Louis Brenner, Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); and Samuel Anderson, “The French Médersa in West Africa: Modernizing Islamic Education and Institutionalizing Colonial Racism, 1890s–1920s,” Islamic Africa 11, no. 1 (December 2020): 42–70.

  • 16. For an interesting treatment, see July Blalack, “Al-Shaikh Māʾ al-ʿAynayn: Maghrebi-Saharan Literary Geographies on the Eve of Colonization,” Journal of the African Literature Association 14, no. 3 (2020): 407–419.

  • 17. Ishām al-ʿAllāma Muḥammad Sālim bin ʿAddūd fī Nuṣrat al-Minhaj al-Salafī fī Bilād Shinqīṭ,” Markaz Salaf li-l-Buḥūth wa-l-Dirāsāt.

  • 18. See, for example, Muḥammadin bin Muḥammadhun Fāl’s responses to Ould al-Busayri, as referenced in Charles Stewart, comp., Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 5: The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 1384.

  • 19. Walaa Quisay and Thomas Parker, “On the Theology of Obedience: An Analysis of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Political Thought,” The Maydan, January 8, 2019. See also David Warren, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis (London: Routledge, 2021).

  • 20. Al-Dāʿiya Muḥammad Wuld Sīdī Yaḥyā..Kishk Mūrītaniyā,” Al-Raʾy al-Mustanīr, September 27, 2018.

  • 21. Rahal Boubrik, “Pouvoir et hommes de religion en Mauritanie,” Politique Africaine 70 (1998): 135–143, especially 136–139.

  • 22. Reuters, “Mauritanian Opposition Announces Boycott of Presidential Poll,” May 4, 2014.

  • 23. Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Seyidi, nouveau président du parti Tawassoul,” Essirage, December 25, 2017.

  • 24. See, for example, Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

  • 25. Al-Ṭayyib bin ʿUmar, Al-Salafiyya wa-Aʿlāmuhā fī Mūrītāniyā “Shinqīṭ” (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 1995), especially 188–199.

  • 26. Muḥammadin Wuld Ajdūd (or Ujdūd), “Jamāʿat al-Daʿwa wa-l-Tablīgh fī Mūrītaniyā,” Rim Afric, April 6, 2018.

  • 27. Jamāʿat al-Daʿwa wa-l-Tablīgh Taʿqid Tajammuʿahā al-Sanawī al-Akbar fī Nuwakshūṭ,” Al-Quds, December 28, 2015.

  • 28. Mūrītāniyā: Iʿtiqāl Zaʿīm al-Jamāʿa al-Salafiyya wa-Amīr Jamāʿat al-Daʿwa wa-l-Tablīgh,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 20, 2003.

  • 29. Amīn Muḥammad, “Al-Niẓām al-Mūrītānī Yakhṭub Wa[f]d al-Tablīgh,” Al Jazeera, December 26, 2011.

  • 30. Reuters, “Mauritania Calls Killing of Preachers by Mali Army ‘Barbaric’,” September 10, 2012.

  • 31. Michael Phillips, “Inside a No-Go Zone for Terror,” Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2020. Cédric Jourde, “Sifting Through the Layers of Insecurity in the Sahel: The Case of Mauritania,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, September 30, 2011.

  • 32. Geoff Porter, “The Renewed Jihadi Terror Threat to Mauritania,” CTC Sentinel 11, no. 7 (August 2018): 18.

  • 33. Alexander Thurston, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020), Chapter 7.

  • 34. For more on how these categories operated historically, see Stewart and Stewart, Islam and Social Order. For a related discussion about constructions of racial identity in the Sahara-Sahel region during the precolonial and colonial periods, see Bruce Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • 35. For one example of the political ramifications of such ties, see Reuters, “Mauritania Holds Top Businessmen in Bank Fraud Case,” December 10, 2009.

  • 36. Mohamed Fall Ould Bah and Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, “Entrepreneurs moraux et réseaux financiers islamiques en Mauritanie,” Afrique contemporaine 3, no. 231 (2009): 99–117, especially 113–116.

  • 37. Rüdiger Seesemann, “The Shurafāʾ and the ‘Blacksmith’: The Role of the Idaw ʿAlī in the Career of the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse (1900–1975),” in The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa, ed. Scott Reese (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), 72–98.

  • 38. Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, “«La mosquée, c’est pour nous!» Hratin et quête de la dignité islamique,” Prêcher dans le desert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Paris: Karthala, 2013). Chapter 5, 229–264.

  • 39. E. Ann McDougall, “‘What Is Islamic About Slavery in Muslim Societies?’ Cooper, Concubinage and Contemporary Legacies of ‘Islamic Slavery’ in North, West and East Africa,” in Slavery in the Islamic World: Its Characteristics and Commonality, ed. Mary Ann Fay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 7–36.

  • 40. Marie Rodet, Bakary Camara, and Lotte Pelckmans, “Mali Fails to Face Up to the Persistence of Slavery,” The Conversation, February 15, 2021; and Naffet Keita, ed., L’Esclavage au Mali (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012).

  • 41. Katherine Ann Wiley, Work, Social Status, and Gender in Post-Slavery Mauritania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

  • 42. Pierre Bonté, “L’«ordre» de la tradition. Évolution des hiérarchies statutaires dans la société maure contemporaine,” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, no. 54 (1989): 118–129.

  • 43. Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, “‘Militants aux pieds nus’: Les transformations du mouvement des Haratines de Mauritanie,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 44, no. 2 (2010): 283–316.

  • 44. Khaled Esseissah, “‘Paradise Is Under the Feet of Your Master’: The Construction of the Religious Basis of Racial Slavery in the Mauritanian Arab-Berber Community,” Journal of Black Studies 47, no. 1 (January 2016): 3–23.

  • 45. Ismāʿīl ʿAzzām, “Isāʾa li-l-Islām am Niqāsh li-l-Ṭabaqiyya,” Deutsche Welle, July 22, 2019.

  • 46. ʿĀlim Yuftī bi-Buṭlān Ayy Nawʿ min Anwāʿ al-Riqq fī Mūrītāniyā,” Essirage, April 14, 2015

  • 47. Clement Moore, “One-Partyism in Mauritania,” Journal of Modern African Studies 3, no. 3 (October 1965): 409–420.

  • 48. Anthony Pazzanita, “The Origins and Evolution of Mauritania’s Second Republic,” Journal of Modern African Studies 34, no. 4 (December 1996): 576.

  • 49. Mokhtar Ould Daddah, La Mauritanie contre vents et marées (Paris: Karthala, 2003), 296–297.

  • 50. Islamic Republic of Mauritania, “Ordonnance n° 83-162 du 9 juillet 1983 portant institution d’un Code Pénal,” Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie no. 608–609 (29 February 1984): 112–149.

  • 51. Pazzanita, “Origins and Evolution,” 580–581.

  • 52. Amnesty International, “Fear of Torture or Ill-Treatment: Possible Prisoners of Conscience (POCs),” June 2, 2003.

  • 53. Mauritanie: le centre de formation des oulémas fermé par les autorités,” RFI, September 26, 2018.

  • 54. Mūrītāniyā..Taʿyīn Raʾīs wa Aʿdāʾ al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li-l-Fatwā wa-l-Maẓālim,” Sahara Medias, April 12, 2018.

  • 55. Matt Buehler, “How does Legalization alter Islamists’ Electoral Strategies? A Comparative Study of Mauritania’s Tawassoul Party in the 2006 and 2013 Local Elections,” L’Année du Maghreb, no. 23 (2020): 303–323; Matt Buehler, Why Alliances Fail: Islamist and Leftist Coalitions in North Africa (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018); Francesco Cavatorta and Raquel Ojeda Garcia, “Islamism in Mauritania and the Narrative of Political Moderation,” Journal of Modern African Studies 55, no. 2 (June 2017): 301–325; Elemine Ould Mohamed Baba Moustapha, “Negotiating Islamic Revival: Public Religiosity in Nouakchott City,” Islamic Africa 5, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 45–82; and Cédric Jourde, “Politique des récits de l’islamisme en Mauritanie: Entre « marée montante » et « islamisme kalachnikov »,” Politique Africaine 114, no. 2 (2009): 67–86.

  • 56. Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, “Ambiguities of Salafism in Mauritania: The State, Clerics, and Violence,” in Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), Chapter 2, 19–37.

  • 57. Boubrik, “Pouvoir et hommes de religion en Mauritanie,” 139–142; Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, “Harun Wuld al-Shaikh Sidiyya (1919-1977),” in Le temps des marabouts: Itinéraires et stratégies islamiques en Afrique occidentale française v. 1880–1960, ed. David Robinson and Jean-Louis Triaud (Paris: Karthala, 1997), 199–219; Britta Frede, Die Erneuerung der Tiğānīya in Mauretanien. Popularisierung religiöser Ideen in der Kolonialzeit (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2014); and Joseph Hill, “The Cosmopolitan Sahara: Building a Global Islamic Village in Mauritania,” City & Society 24, no. 1 (April 2012): 62–83.

  • 58. On the pre-colonial and colonial periods, see A. Dedoud Ould Abdellah, “Le « passage au sud » : Muhammad al-Hafiz et son heritage,” in La Tijâniyya: Une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l’Afrique, ed. David Robinson and Jean-Louis Triaud (Paris: Karthala, 2005), 69–100; and Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, “Les perles et le soufre : une polémique mauritanienne autour de la Tijâniyya (1830-1935),” in La Tijâniyya: Une confrérie musulmane, 125–164. In their studies of the Tijaniyya Hamawiyya, both Benjamin Soares and Sean Hanretta refer to developments within Mauritania although they focus, respectively, on Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. See Benjamin Soares, Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005); and Sean Hanretta, Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • 59. Intikhāb Wuld al-Naḥwī Nāṭiqan Rasmiyyan bi-Sm al-Tījāniyyīn fī Mūrītāniyā wa-Mawlūd Fāl Nāʾiban Lahu,” Ṣaḥīfat Nuwakshūṭ, February 23, 2018.

  • 60. Stewart, Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 5. Muḥammad al-Ḥāfiz bin al-Mujtabā, Al-Ḥadīth al-Sharīf: ʿUlūmuhu wa-ʿUlamāʾuhu fi Bilād Shinqīṭ, 3rd ed. (Luksar, Mauritania: Maṭbaʿat al-Manār, 2011).

  • 61. Published by Al-Sharīf Mulay al-Ḥasan bin al-Mukhtār bin al-Ḥasan in Nouakchott beginning in 2009.

  • 62. Muḥammad Sālim bin ʿAddūd, Al-Tashīl wa-l-Takmīl (Nouakchott: Dār al-Riḍwān, 2012).

  • 63. Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ al-Bayān fī Īḍāḥ al-Qurʾān bi-l-Qurʾān (Mecca: Dār ʿĀlam al-Fawāʾid, 2005/2006).

  • 64. Muḥammad al-Ḥasan al-Dadaw al-Shinqīṭī, Fiqh al-ʿAṣr: Al-Majmūʿa al-Ūlā (Beirut: Dar Ibn Ḥazm, 2008).

  • 65. The Institute’s website is.

  • 66. The collection’s webpage is.

  • 67. Ould Daddah, La Mauritanie contre vents et marées, 83–85.