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Charles C. Stewart
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The place of the region of Mauritania in the Islamic history of the Maghrib dates at least from the eleventh-century birth of the Almoravid dynasty, but it was the gradual southward migration of the Hilalian Banū Maghfar group, the Banī Ḥassān, that accounts for the Arabization of nomadic Berber populations in the territory by the sixteenth century. The traditional guardians and interpreters of Islamic culture in Mauritania are members—know as marabouts in French colonial literature—of the lineages known as the zāwiyahs. 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 arrived Ḥassānī warriors against a confederation of autochthonous peoples. The victorious Ḥassānīs (from whom the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania today, Ḥassānīyah, derives its name) are said thereafter to have maintained temporal authority and to have lived by the sword. The zāwiyah lineages (who also refer to themselves as Ahl al-Kitāb and are largely of Berber origin) pursued a pastoral lifestyle and served 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 Ḥassānī and zāwiyah, who collectively identify themselves as baydan (in Ḥassānīyah, people of Arab descent; bīḍān in standard Arabic) in opposition to the Sudanī, populations of black African descent. The baydan populations are self-described as a strict hierarchy of nobles, tributaries, freed slaves (haratine/ḥarrātīn), slaves, smiths, and musicians/praise-singers. However, the historic horizontal transfer and merging of groups across Ḥassānī and zāwiyah economies, the internal upward mobility of individuals and families, and the evident integration of servile classes into higher status both belies and explains this rigid ideology of class distinctions.

Nineteenth Century.

By the nineteenth century the names of the eponymous ancestors of particular Ḥassānī 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 Ḥassānī “emirates,” so christened by French observers; but the cultural zone defined by the Ḥassānīyah 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 Ḥassānī nomadic populations, on both sides of the Senegal River, lived pastoral and sedentarized Pular-speaking Tukolor or Fulbe (Fulani) peoples. Tukolor population 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 Tukolor populations 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-baydanī classes in the nineteenth century. Tension between Arabic-speaking “Moors”—a name first applied to the nomads by European visitors and now internally accepted as their identity—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 Tukolor 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 end of the nineteenth century. The second, inspired in part by the Futa Toro experiment, was led by al-Ḥajj ʿUmar 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 jihād and to spread the Tijānīyah ṭarīqah (Sūfī order). 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 zāwiyah camps appear in accounts of the education of Tukolor reformers and holy men.

The main mid-century zāwiyah influence in the southern Sahara was a disciple of the Timbuktu Qādirīshaykhs, Sīdīyā al-Kabīr (1774–1868). Sīdīyā 's twelve years of study in the camps of the Kunta tribe in the Azaouad, northwest of Timbuktu, (1811–1824) provided him with experience of 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 region lacking state political authority, Sīdīyā 's juridical skills and his studies in mysticism laid a foundation to capitalize on the labor of disciples who sought him out for protection and catapulted him into a position of a regional spiritual leader in southwestern Mauritania. Although Sīdīyā was associated with the Qādirīyah–al-Mukhtārīyah of his Kunta teachers, there is no indication that adherence to Ṣūfī orders held any political significance in Moorish society at the time. Sufism in the nineteenth-century Moorish zāwiyah 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 Qurʿān and fiqh to grammar. This was in contrast to the growing confrontation on the Niger Bend between the Kunta shaykhAḥmad al-Bakkāʿī, and the ʿUmarian state that was increasingly polarized around Qādirī and Tijānī confessional lines by mid-century.

A contemporary of Sīdīyā, Muḥammad Fāḍil (c.1797–1869), also a student in the Kunta camps, played a similar role in the Tagant, although he distanced himself from his Qādirī al-Mukhtārī masters, who criticized his eclecticism in Ṣūfī matters. The Fāḍilīyah was chiefly spread by two of Muḥammad Fāḍil 's sons, Māʿ al-ʿAynayn (1831–1910) and Saʿd Būh (c.1850–1917). From the time of his settlement in 1870 in the Sāqiyat al-Ḥamrāʿ, Māʿ al-ʿAynayn was on good terms with the ʿAlawī sultans in Morocco, and he soon was recognized as the principal religious leader in the northern reaches of the Ḥassānī region. By the 1890s he was charged by Ḥasan 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 Marrakech, was defeated by the French, and retreated to the Sūs Valley in the south where he died. Māʿ al-ʿAynayn '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 Saʿd Būh also achieved a broad regional reputation in the southwest of the country (Trarza) as a Ṣūfī and, during the French occupation, as one who counseled cooperation with the colonial forces. Like his brother, Saʿd Būh freely dispensed both Tijānī and Qādirī awrād as well as Shādhilī and Nāsirī. At this time the significance of ṭarīqah affiliations as real or imagined political networks appears to have been greater in the minds of the incoming French administration than in the experience of Moorish adherents.

Twentieth Century.

The French military and administrators began the “pacification” of Mauritania in 1902, bringing to it their North African experience, which had sensitized them to the political danger of Ṣūfī orders. Their efforts to contain such a threat in West Africa effectively heightened the prestige of Ṣūfī shaykhs in many Muslim communities during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In Mauritania the Qādirīyah–al-Mukhtārīyah was chiefly identified with Sīdīyā 's grandson Sīdīyā Bābā (1862–1922). Like Saʿd Būh, Sīdīyā Bābā 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 Ṣūfī orders in the early colonial era, Bābā criticized the ritual excesses of the orders. In this he sought to distance himself from the traditional zāwiyah practice in the southern Sahara, and he thus marks a distinct departure from the nineteenth-century Ṣūfī shaykhs.

More typical of the direction in which Ṣūfī affiliation was moving in Mauritania during the interwar period was the confrontation between followers of a sharīf from Tichitt, Shaykh Ḥamallāh (1886–1943), and the French administration. The doctrinal issues that set Shaykh Ḥamallāh apart focused on his practice of the Tijānīyah in the eastern Nioro region on the Mauritania/Mali frontier. Civil disturbances led to the arrest and exile of Shaykh Ḥamallāh 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 ṭarīqah, the Ḥamallīyah, that survived the shaykh 's death while he was in detention in France 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 Sīdīyā Bābā '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 (150 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 madrasahs for advanced studies in the Islamic sciences throughout the country. In the 1950s the Ahl Shaykh Sīdīyā 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 Études Islamiques in Nouakchott in an effort to consolidate and formalize the madrasah tradition. At the end of its first decade of activity the Institute enrolled nearly 500 students, and its staff of twenty-five included several non-Mauritanians.

Colonial jurisprudence followed an indirect rule system by which the entire territory was administered, with the greater part of civil law dispensed by locally appointed qāḍīs under the supervision of regional French authorities. Their charge was to administer “customary law” (under which the sharīʿah 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 qāḍīs ’ former responsibility for adjudicating economic matters (inheritance, contracts, and slavery), which led to their increased preoccupation with religious matters. Not until some years after independence was the sharīʿah reexamined as a system for adjudication in civil cases.


At independence in 1960 the founders of the République Islamique de Mauritanie sought a common cultural ground in Islam. The intent was not so much to create an Islamic state as the pragmatic objective of enshrining in the new republic 's name a common ideology that might bridge ethnic constructions of national identity. The colonial administration had done little to integrate Mauritania 's populations of baydanī and Sudanī heritage, and in the years since independence political upheavals have consistently reflected the tensions of this legacy. In 1960 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 initially maintained 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 ties to the Arab world despite Moroccan antagonism toward the new state.

In many respects the central focus of postindependence national politics was education policy; in particular the official language for instruction and for use in the government bureaucracy was one of the central issues in ethnic conflicts. Before the coup that brought the military to power in 1978, roughly one-quarter of the (mainly Moorish) schoolchildren followed an Arabic program in their studies, and three-quarters followed a francophone course (a ratio that favored non-arabophone 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.

The combined effects of the Ṣaḥrāwī war (Western Sahara War, 1973–1991), and ecological calamity in the form of twenty years of drought that began in the early 1970s led to a massive urbanization that reversed pre-independence demographics when over 75 percent of the population was classified as nomadic to a population, by the late 1980s, that was 80 percent settled. Political crises in the late twentieth century need to be read against this demographic shift in a failing economy—once the livestock base was eliminated, the country was left with iron ore exports and an excessively exploited fisheries industry off the Atlantic coast—that found sustenance increasingly from the Arab world. Changes in the educational system dating from the late 1970s and the increasing use of Arabic as the language of government and the local media 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 cleavage between baydanī and Sudanī in Mauritania 's common religious heritage has been exacerbated as the country has increasingly identified with her North African neighbors and the Arab world, and this divide has been replicated in her external relations with francophone and arabophone states, as it is in the educational systems and language of government. Embedded in these tensions is a new meaning for religion. Islam is no longer simply a set of local expressions of an abstract ummah presided over by the well-born guardians of orthopraxy, but a dynamic and accessible ideology that ties individuals to the marketplace of ideas throughout the Muslim world. Thus, forty years after independence, the main streams of Islamic activity in the central lands are integral to Mauritania, mainly in the urban centers, alongside an aging but still highly influential traditional and tribal Islamic authority that is attempting to retain control in the dramatically changed economic and social circumstances since the 1970s.



  • Baduel, Pierre R.“Mauritanie entre arabité et africanité.” Special issue of Revue des Études du Monde Mediterrané Musulman54, no. 4 (1989). Scholarly essays examine contemporary ethnic problems and ties to the Arab world.
  • Boubrik, Rahal. Saints et société on Islam: La confreric oeust saharienne Fadiliya. CNRS Editions. Paris, 1999. Life and times of Muhammad Fadil, Māʿ al-ʿAynayn and Saʿd Būh.
  • 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 Qādirī 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.
  • Norris, H. T.Shinqītī Folk Literature and Song. Oxford, 1968. Excellent survey of literary traditions in the Ḥassānīyah world.
  • Pazzanita, Anthony G.Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. Lanham, Md., and London, 1966. Brief notes on mainly twentieth-century personalities and events.
  • Stewart, C. C.Islam and Social Order in Mauritania. Oxford, 1973. Life and times of Sīdīyā al-Kabīr, and politics in nineteenth-century southern Mauritania.
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