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Mauritania, Islamic scholarship in.

Mauritania is known in the Arab world as the region of Bilād Shinqīṭ (lands of Chinguetti). It enjoys an excellent reputation for its achievements in the field of Islamic knowledge production and transmission. Mauritanian scholars are generally called Shanāqiṭa (sg. Shinqīṭī). Their image as scholars is based on their practice of memorizing sacred texts, their profound knowledge of classical Arabic poetry and Mālikī jurisprudence (fiqh), their manuscript tradition, and the development of the maḥḍara, mobile Islamic learning centers led by scholars who teach elementary and/or advanced levels of Islamic knowledge far from urban areas, often in a tent in the desert or a house in a trading oasis. A survey of Islamic scholarship in the territory of Mauritania today also needs to include the so-called Takārīr (sg. Takrūrī; Muslim scholars originating from the West African Sahel), whose mother tongue is not Arabic, but one of the Sahelian languages such as Soninke, Wolof, Bambara, or Pulaar/Fulfulde. They founded their own centers of learning mostly in settled environments, produced Arabic and ʿajamī (Arabic script for non-Arabic languages) manuscripts, and engaged in the memorization of sacred texts. Their intellectual tradition is closely connected with the Shanāqiṭa through intensive personal interactions and exchange of ideas. The two groups of scholars share a similar curriculum—for example, the study of Saḥnūn’s Mudawwana, the Mukhtaṣar Khalīl or the Risālah by Ibn Abī Zaid in the discipline of jurisprudence, or the Ājurrūmīya in the discipline of grammar (naḥw).

Research in the field of Islamic scholarship in Mauritania has begun only recently, and scholars are still far from being able to write a comprehensive intellectual history of the region. Efforts have been made to catalog and preserve the most important sources for this history: the Arabic manuscripts. A first provisional catalog of Mauritanian Arabic manuscripts was compiled by the Mauritanian historian Mukhtār Wuld Ḥāmidūn in cooperation with Adam Heymowski in 1965. The catalog has not been published and remains incomplete, but it has served as an important starting point for later published catalogs. In 1974 the IMRS (Institut Mauritanien des Recherches Scientifiques) was founded in Nouakchott with the aim of preserving the region’s cultural heritage. The collection and conservation of manuscripts is among the institute’s tasks, but most Arabic manuscripts are still stored in numerous personal and family libraries, where they are exposed to decomposition and access for studying their content is often limited.

The Beginning of Mauritanian Scholarship.

The Shanāqiṭa trace their Islamic scholarship back to the times of the Ṣanhāja, one of the three Berber lineages who lived in the Maghrib, converted to Islam in the ninth century, and subsequently migrated to the western Sahara and down to the banks of the Senegal and Niger rivers. The Ṣanhāja were actively involved in spreading Islam throughout the region and formed the basis of the pious Almoravid movement during the eleventh century. The Almoravid leader and scholar ʿAbd Allāh ibn Yāsīn (d. 1039) is said to have introduced the Mālikī scholarly tradition. It is his ribāṭ (stronghold) to which Muslim scholars have referred since the early seventeenth century when they speak of the origins of the local Muslim educational institution, the maḥḍara.

A new social order developed in the western Sahara from the late sixteenth century onward, resulting in the foundation of a cultural entity, distinct from the Maghribīs in the north, the Tuareg in the east, and the sub-Saharan peoples in the south. This process was accompanied by intensive Arabization, replacing the formerly spoken Berber language. Pastoralism, migration, and trans-Saharan as well as transatlantic trade activities further contributed to this process. Along the caravan routes, trade oases in the Adrar, Tagant, and Hodh region, namely Wadan, Chinguetti, Atar, Tishit, Walata, and Tidjikja, attracted Muslim scholars and developed in the following centuries into important centers of Islamic learning. The large quantity of manuscripts held in family libraries dealing with Islamic law (fiqh) points to a correlation between the development of commercial activities and Islamic scholarship.

This new cultural entity did not emerge without creating a certain degree of social unrest. The most famous is the so-called thirty-year war, Shurr Bubba (the “combat of Bubba,” 1644–1674), which played a crucial role in the social stratification of Shanāqiṭa society, with an elite divided into two distinct groups according to their professional specialization, the ḥassān (warrior lineage groups) and the zwāya (scholarly lineage groups). The formation of this new cultural entity in the Western Sahara in the seventeenth century is also indicated by the composition dates of the Arabic manuscript collections of Mauritania. According to Osswald (1986), around 80 percent of the existing manuscripts were written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, another 15 percent during the eighteenth century, nearly 5 percent during the seventeenth century, and only some scattered manuscripts during the sixteenth century. This suggests that the beginnings of the Islamic intellectual tradition of Mauritania go back to the late sixteenth century. This scholarly culture followed the Sunnī tradition and Mālikī jurisprudence. The bulk of the literature produced from the late sixteenth century onward consists of commentaries on the main texts of this Sunnī Mālikī tradition, as well as poetic renditions of these texts. Books in manuscript form were imported by traders and local scholars returning from their travels to the Middle East and North Africa. The manuscripts were kept in family libraries, and scholars wrote commentaries to serve as guidelines for teachers in the Bilād Shinqīṭ, thus forming a distinct tradition of Islamic scholarship embedded in the broader Islamic tradition that developed dynamically through the translocal exchange of ideas.

This exchange proceeded in two directions. On the one hand, ideas were imported from the Islamic heartlands like the Middle East; on the other hand, many Shanāqiṭa scholars had students from West Africa, who exported religious ideas back to the Middle East as pilgrims and exiled scholars. By the nineteenth century, if not earlier, the Shanāqiṭa were respected in the Arab world for their Islamic scholarship. Further evidence of their role in the Middle East is the involvement of Shanāqiṭa scholars in the Islamic reform movements of the late nineteenth century, such as the exiled scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, Muḥammad Mawlūd ibn al-Talāmid al-Tirkizī, who lived in Cairo and worked as an assistant to Muḥammad ʿAbdūh (1849–1905), or Muḥammad Maḥmūd al-Shinqīṭī (d. 1904), who lent his private copy of a rare book by the Mālikī scholar Abū Isḥāq al-Shātibī (d. 1388) to Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935). The role that the Shanāqiṭa played in the emerging intellectual trends of this period is not well studied, but their presence attests to the two-directional flow of ideas between Muslim scholars in intellectual centers like Cairo and those from the Western Sahara.

Scholarly lineage groups.

Islamic scholarship in Mauritania is intrinsically linked to the history of the zwāya, the social status group identified with Islamic learning and trade. The zwāya produced and transmitted Islamic knowledge and put it into practice, especially in the field of jurisprudence. As the cultivators of the Arabic manuscript tradition, they produced the written sources through which we are able to reconstruct the local political, economic, social, and intellectual history.

In particular, two biographical collections compiled by members of the zwāya give important insights into the intellectual tradition of the Shanāqiṭa from different regional and thematic perspectives. The first, completed in 1805, is entitled Fatḥ al-shakūr fi maʿrifat aʿyānʿulamā’ al-Takrūr (The Opening of the Pious [literally, the one, who gives devout thanks for all that God has given to him, both good and evil] for the Cognition of the Noble Scholars of Takrur). Composed by al-Ṭālib Muḥammad b. Abū Bakr al-Siddīq al-Bartilī al-Walātī (d. 1819), a scholar from Walata, the work is a collection of biographies with a focus on the region of Walata but includes famous scholars from all over the Bilād Shinqīṭ and Timbuktu. The second biographical collection, al-Wasīṭ fī tarājim ‘udabā’ Shinqīṭ (The Mediator of the Biographies of Chinguetti’s Poets), was written by Sīdī Aḥmad b. al-Amīn al-Shinqīṭī (1863/64–1913) and published in 1911 in Cairo. This book has the appearance of a poetry collection with an ethno-historical appendix, but the choice of cited authors and the kind of poetry reflects the personal worldview of a pious Ṣūfī trained in Liʿgul (a region in the southwestern province of Trarza), the most important center of the local Tijānīyah branch, a Ṣūfī order of Maghribī origin.

Although the two compilations cover overlapping time periods, only seven personalities appear in both books. This is partly due to the different perspectives taken by the authors, the Fatḥ al-shakūr referring more to specialists in Islamic law (fiqh) and the Wasīṭ focusing on Muslim scholars who were writing poetry, but it is also a reflection of the diversity of regional and scholarly networks in Mauritania.

The Influence of Sufism.

Sufism, as represented by various Ṣūfī orders, played a pivotal role in the historical development of diverse scholarly networks and in the flourishing of Islamic scholarship and education in Mauritania. As early as the late fifteenth century, two Ṣūfī orders established their presence in the region: the Qādirīyah and the Shādhilīyah. From the late eighteenth century onward, Sufism and Islamic learning spread over the whole region, raising the popularity of Islamic learning in the zwāya milieu and beyond. The nineteenth century was especially productive in terms of Islamic scholarship in Mauritania. This productivity was connected with Ṣūfī revival movements, the establishment of new Ṣūfī movements and centers of Islamic learning, a rise in the number of Islamic scholars, a high rate of paper consumption, and finally the manufacturing and importation of Arabic manuscripts. These developments led to the popularization of Islamic knowledge, thus integrating diverse social groups into the Islamic education system.

First to mention in this context are the revival movements of the already established Ṣūfī orders. The Qādirīyah experienced a renewal under the leadership of Sīdī al-Mukhtār al-Kuntī (d. 1821) and expanded in the following decades along the southeastern–northwestern trade route (Azawad [Northern Mali]–Tagant–Adrar), from the 1830s onward into the Gibla region (southwestern Mauritania), and eventually, after the 1870s, extended its influence into the sub-Saharan region, integrating Qādirī communities into their network. The Shādhilīyah revival movement is known as Ghuẓfiyah and was led by Muḥammad al-Aghẓāf ad-Dawdī al-Jaʿfarī (d. 1803/04). The Ghuẓfiyah didn’t expand in such a trans-regional way like the Qādirīyah, but established several communities in the southern Adrar and the Tagant region.

Generally speaking, the early nineteenth century marked the beginning of the flourishing of popular Ṣūfī movements that lasted throughout the French colonial period until the middle of the twentieth century. One of these Ṣūfī orders was the Tijānīyah. Founded in the late eighteenth century in present-day Algeria and later moving its headquarters to the city of Fez in Morocco, its most important Mauritanian center was established around 1805 in the Gibla region (southwestern Mauritania) by Muḥammad al-Ḥāfiẓ (d. 1831). After the 1830s other centers were founded by his descendants in the Adrar and Tagant regions. Like the Qādirīyah, the Mauritanian branch of the Tijānīyah extended its influence after the 1870s into already existing Sahelian Tijānī communities. Another influential Ṣūfī order is the Fāḍilīyah, which was founded in the Hodh region by Muḥammad Fāḍil b. Māmīn al-Qalqamī (d. 1879). The Fāḍilīyah spread westward throughout southern Mauritania and the neighboring Sahel and northwest into the Sāqiyat al-Ḥamrāʾ. All these newly founded Ṣūfī centers propagated Islamic learning. They offered elementary Islamic education for nearly everybody and often established institutions of higher Islamic learning.

The colonial period brought profound changes in Mauritanian society, affecting especially the ḥassān,the emir lineages, and the tributaries (lineage groups that give a payment to another lineage as an acknowledgment of submission or as the price of protection). Disarmed by the colonial authorities, former warriors had to look for new economic resources and a significant number of them entered the Islamic education system, run by the Muslim scholarly zwāya families.

The Maḥḍara.

The Islamic education system in Mauritania is based on the maḥḍara, a unique institution in the Islamic world that has survived until contemporary times. Before the sedentarization of the nomads beginning in the 1940s, the maḥḍara was either established in a trade oasis, or resided part time in such a place and moved part time through the desert, or was completely mobile. The teaching was based on orality, reflecting the importance of memorization in the Islamic education system of Mauritania and the production of didactic poetry covering different Islamic disciplines. Libraries were rare and more often found in at least semi-sedentary communities. Unlike their counterparts in North Africa or the Middle East, these schools were run without regular subsidies from any political ruler. Therefore the scholars who ran a maḥḍara were often involved in pastoral and/or trade activities to meet the demands of their families. The students had to work for their teachers while studying, and their families contributed grain and cattle to the scholar’s family. Islamic education was theoretically offered to anybody who asked for it, but the lack of material resources and manpower in the desert limited access to higher Islamic education to those whose families could afford it. As a result, higher Islamic education was mainly found in the zwāya milieu, and Islamic scholars mostly came from zwāya families.

Generally the maḥḍara was open to girls and boys alike. But upon reaching puberty, girls often married and turned to household and family duties without continuing their studies. Only for the daughters, sisters, and wives of scholars was it usual, even expected, to continue their studies after marriage. These women often reached a high level of Islamic education. Some of them even started teaching; some wrote treatises of their own. Women scholars have left few visible traces in Mauritanian intellectual history; their manuscripts are rarely found in the private libraries, and their own lives are mostly remembered in oral accounts, without being written down. In the zwāya families, women generally reached a comparatively high level in Islamic education, because they were responsible for the first steps of their children in the Islamic education system, teaching them the alphabet, the first parts of the Qurʾān, and the life of the Prophet.

The contemporary Maḥḍara.

With the introduction of secular schooling during colonial times, the maḥḍara did not disappear, but continued to exist alongside the village schools. With financial support from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, new maḥḍara institutes have been founded since the 1980s, and in recent decades some of them have managed to recruit students for summer courses from all over the Islamic world, including converts from Europe and the United States. In international networks of both Salafī-oriented and Ṣūfī-oriented activists, the Mauritanian maḥḍara is favored for the quality of its transmission of Islamic knowledge. But with the modernization of society, the institution has had to adapt to the new circumstances: the schools are nowadays located in towns and villages, memorization has gradually lost its central role, and students often have to pay fees for their lessons rather than working for their teachers. Gender segregation is practiced in most of these schools, and as a consequence more and more women have founded their own educational institutions.

The influence of Mauritanian Islamic scholars on the educational and juridical policies of the country have remained strong since independence and may even have been strengthened by the Islamization trend visible since the late 1970s and the government’s desire for control of the religious realm, especially after 9/11 and the threat of militant activism in the country. Nowadays there are few students without modern education; most go through both kinds of institutions. Therefore the maḥḍara as foundation of Islamic scholarship in Mauritania was never replaced completely by the modern education system. Acknowledging the maḥḍara’s place in the culture, the government has maintained the fluidity between the two educational institutions, as demonstrated by the possibility for holders of a maḥḍara certificate to receive a baccalaureate in one extra year at the Islamic University of Nouakchott. In the past a significant number of maḥḍara graduates used this opportunity to qualify for positions as teachers in secular schools. However, because the government has felt threatened by a popular politicized Islam said to be promoted especially by maḥḍara graduates, the bureaucracy has tried to make it more difficult for them to enter the secular education system. This attempt has been opposed by several groups of Islamic scholars, demonstrating that the social and political influence of Mauritanian Islamic scholars is still very much alive.


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