On August 13, 2020 the US government proudly announced what it called a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While then President Donald Trump’s administration heralded the deal as a decisive step toward lasting peace in the Middle East, the announcement sent shock waves through Muslim communities around the world.

Mohamed Lemine Ould Abdallahi, custodian of his family’s library of ancient manuscripts, with an original text in the Mauritanian village of Chinguetti. Some of the 1,400 manuscripts in the family library, located on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert, are from Mecca and Medina and are more than 900 years old. Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

The controversy over the accord was quickly couched in religious terms. Indeed, the parties to the agreement named it the Abraham Accords while its many detractors stopped just short of calling it blasphemous. The president of the Emirates’ High Fatwa Council, Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, a national of Mauritania, stamped the accord with a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) that profusely praised the Emirati leadership in the process. Strikingly, many negative reactions to the Accord centered not so much on the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel but rather on Bin Bayyah’s willingness to grant these controversial policies his highly authoritative approval. In so doing, Bin Bayyah might have precipitated a crisis of authority among Muslims. Regarded by his peers as one of “the greatest geniuses alive” of Islamic law, the elderly scholar (born in 1935), embodies the “symbolic authority of Mauritania, which in the Western Muslim imagination exemplifies one of the few places still untouched by modernity, mostly because of the great amount of duʿat [preachers] and imams in the West who did their studies in the West African nation.”[1]

While the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic of Mauritania is perceived as peripheral to world affairs, Bilad Shinqit, its pre-colonial Islamic name, carries considerable weight in the religious imagination of Muslims worldwide. The ubiquity of Mauritanian Islamic scholars in global circuits of Islamic authority is no longer going unnoticed.

The ubiquity of Mauritanian Islamic scholars in global circuits of Islamic authority is no longer going unnoticed.
From the African continent to Mecca and from Abu Dhabi to California, bearing the patronym of al-Shinqiti signals strong claims to unparalleled scholarly expertise. Out of the several thousand Mauritanians living in the Gulf, nearly 70 percent are religious workers. Zaytuna College, the first Islamic liberal arts college in the United States takes inspiration from Mauritania where Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, one of its main founders, received his advanced Islamic education. Mauritania’s Islamic schools continue to attract international students, reinforcing the image of the country as a “global Islamic village.”[2] Often dubbed “the most influential Western Islamic scholar,” Shaykh Hamza Yusuf himself and his followers literally created a mythology around Mauritania, which can be seen in his YouTube videos. Bilad Shinqit’s status as a wellspring of pure Islamic knowledge has even become difficult to challenge. In October 2010 Aʿid al-Qarni, a hugely popular Saudi preacher, criticized Mauritanian scholars’ “ascetism,” “focus on memorization” and “overwhelming written output” but quickly felt the need to immediately publish a deferential apology to those he now calls the “noble, towering scholars of Shinqit.”[3] He lavished praise on “Mauritania, land of ulama and pure Islamic knowledge and ultimate line of defense of the Muslim world against external cultural threats.”[4]

The currency of the Mauritanian Islamic discursive tradition is either touted as timeless and peerless or instead seen as a consequence of the worldwide frantic search for Islamic authenticity after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Neither narrative takes into account, however, the intellectual history of Bilad Shinqit, nor its rather complex internal political economy, let alone the occasional politicization of its unique status.

 

Itinerant Pioneers

 

Islam reached Saharan shores around the ninth century. The eleventh century Almoravid movement, which is believed to have been launched from an island off the Atlantic coast of today’s Mauritania, swept across North Africa and enshrined the Sunni Maliki school of jurisprudence, ʿAshari theology and Sufism in the Sahara. A highly hierarchical social structure with powerful clerical and learned lineages emerged around the seventeenth century as a robust intellectual life developed. Memorization of the Quran, mastery of Arabic language and the practice of Islamic jurisprudence intensified as a number of Saharan trading towns, such as Shinqit (which gave the entire country its name) become renowned centers of Islamic scholarship.

The regional scholarly hegemony of Shinqit Islamic culture reached its apex in the nineteenth century, generating a massive written output. Out of 10,000 manuscripts recovered in the country, 5,000 works are original writings penned by local scholars.[5] As the historian Bruce Hall insists, “the richest region of West Africa for Arabic manuscripts is almost certainly Mauritania. The Manuscripts of Timbuktu are part of a wider Mauritanian-centered intellectual context.”[6] The local Islamic high culture did not evolve in isolation but rather in close relation to its wider Islamic environment. “The Prophet Muhammad,” historian Ghislaine Lydon writes, “encouraged all Muslims to seek knowledge as far as China. The Shanaqita [Mauritanians] historically have more than taken the Prophet at his word.”[7] Murtada al-Zabidi, a famous eighteenth-century Egyptian scholar, kept meticulous records of his Shinqiti and more broadly African scholarly network. He documented in particular the Mauritanian scholarly diaspora based in the Hijaz, which today primarily encompasses western Saudi Arabia.[8]

Shinqiti scholarly influence reached unprecedented levels in the second half of the nineteenth century as its scholars increasingly moved around the Muslim world.
Shinqiti scholarly influence reached unprecedented levels in the second half of the nineteenth century as its scholars increasingly moved around the Muslim world. They specifically deployed, performed and enacted their scholarly identity over decades of productivity and high visibility in the Middle East. Shaykh Muhammad Mahmud al-Turkuzi al-Shinqiti, often called “the leading scholar on Arabic language” of his time, imposed the authority associated ever since with the Shinqit label. Al-Turkuzi al-Shinqiti, the first to hold the position of chair of Arabic at al-Azhar university and a close associate of Muhammad Abduh who appointed him, was revered by major Muslim intellectual figures and reformers such Rashid Rida and Ahmad Taymur. He is also featured in the memoirs of Taha Hussein and Ahmad Hassan al-Zayyat, famous luminaries of the Arab literary renaissance called the nahda.

Mauritanians continued to emerge as foremost Islamic scholars in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century, such as the Mayaba family of four brothers who left their native land in 1908 to protest the advent of French colonial rule. They settled shortly in Morocco, then in the Hijaz in 1912. The elder Mayaba brother, Muhammad al-Khadar subsequently held the position of Mufti of the Sunni Maliki in Medina. By the time the al-Saud family seized the Hijaz in 1925, al-Khadar had already agreed to accompany Sharif Abdullah bin al-Hussein to establish the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921. Muhammad al-Habib Mayaba served as Professor of Hadith at al-Azhar until his death in 1943. Al-Khadar’s own son, Muhammad al-Amin Mayaba, later assumed key positions in Jordan, including Chair of the Council of Islamic Scholars, Chief Justice, Minister of Education and, lastly, Jordanian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Over the following decades, a steady stream of Shinqiti ulama moved to the Gulf where they left an indelible mark on the religious and cultural landscape in Islam’s heartlands.

Mauritanian scholars also became key players in the emergence of proto-Salafi networks. Muhmmad al-Amin Val al-Khayr al-Shinqiti left Mauritania in 1899 on a journey in search of knowledge that 30 years later led him to Kuwait and southern Iraq where he exerted great cultural, political and social influence.[9] Known as a fierce anti-colonialist Salafi firebrand, he is remembered today as the founder of Madrasat al-Najat, the first modern Islamic school of the region where generations of local elites were trained in the interwar years. Muhammad al-Amin ibn Muhammad al-Mukhtar al-Shinqiti, a towering authority on Quranic exegesis, traveled to the Hijaz in the late 1940s and went on to became one of the very few non-Saudis to achieve full membership in the country’s Council of Senior Scholars while also founding and teaching in the main Wahhabi scholastic institutes.[10] The political scientists Alex Thurston and Michael Farquhar have suggested that there are more professors from Mauritania in Saudi Islamic universities than from any other country. In a recent paper titled “How Mauritania exports Salafism to Saudi Arabia,” the authors argue further that “even Mauritanian scholars whose outlook is much closer to the Saudi Arabian religious establishment’s take care to show their independence.” Indeed, most of them have advantages over their Saudi counterparts, including within the ranks of extremist groups, due to the reputation of their Mauritanian lineage.

 

A Doubled-Edged Sword

 

In the post-September 11 world, Mauritania’s outsized religious influence proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, terrorist networks attracted many graduates of the traditional Mauritanian Islamic school system, a system where a few foreign extremists have also been trained. On the other hand, the Mauritanian government and its foreign partners relied on the country’s theological authority to counter the Islamic justification of jihad.[11] Mauritania’s status is even deemed an asset for furthering US interests in this regard. In January 2015, for example, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Bisa Williams saluted the country’s past record of success in countering violent extremism. Williams linked this success to Mauritania’s reputation as a center of Islamic learning whose scholars “are well-equipped to respond to assaults on the practice of Islam and espouse messages of peace.” Yet, Mauritania’s scholars have also been linked to ideological support for extremism.

Mauritania’s scholars have also been linked to ideological support for extremism.
As a February 2016 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report points out, “relative to its population size, no other country in the Sahel and Sahara region produces as many jihadist ideologues and high-ranking terrorist operatives as Mauritania does.”

In the 1990s, a number of such cadres joined al-Qaida. Mahfouz Ould al-Waled (aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) was part of Bin Laden’s inner circle in both Sudan and Afghanistan. At the time of the September 11 attacks, he worked at the Kandahar Islamic Center. After the US attack on Afghanistan in 2002, al-Mauritani fled to Iran where he spent ten years under house arrest. Repatriated to Mauritania, and eventually released in July 2012 with the approval of US authorities, he is known as the recruiter of a more famous Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was arrested in 2002 and sent to the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. In the 9/11 Commission Report Slahi was linked to some of the attackers, whom he met years before the 2001 attacks on the United States. Although the US authorities were never able to prove his involvement in terrorism, he admitted to being a former member of al-Qaida and an imam in Canadian and German mosques that were later linked to terrorism. Slahi spent 15 years at Guantanamo Bay only to be released and repatriated to Mauritania in 2016. His memoirs, Guantanamo Diary, a New York Times best-seller, is now a major award-winning Hollywood motion picture, The Mauritanian.

In the post-September 11 era, a few international figures of jihadism boasted of their Mauritanian Islamic education. The former al-Qaida number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi acted as the “theological enforcer” of the organization precisely because of the high status he gained from his religious education in Mauritania.[12] Moreover, Abu al-Munzir al-Shinqiti, a high profile cyber-jihadi ideologue reportedly coined the key concept of ansar al-sharia, meaning supporters of Islamic law, which several extremist groups have adopted as their names.[13] Mauritanians are also prominent in the ranks of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

 

Hierarchy, Race, Gender

 

The country’s prestigious Islamic reputation in both mainstream and extremist circles coexists with a long history of slavery and ethnic division. Mauritania is a caste-like multiethnic society in which the Bidan (meaning “light skinned”) predominate in social authority while the Haratin (formerly enslaved people also called “Black Arabs”) occupy the bottom of the social hierarchy. Historically, widespread slavery allowed Bidan clerical lineages called Zawaya to free themselves from the material pressure of Bedouin nomadic life in order to focus on developing such robust Islamic scholarship. Mauritania, which was under French colonial rule from 1904 until 1960, only abolished slavery in 1981, and its enduring effects underwrote the development of the country’s dynamic local Islamic culture.

Mauritania, which was under French colonial rule from 1904 until 1960, only abolished slavery in 1981, and its enduring effects underwrote the development of the country’s dynamic local Islamic culture.
Today, Haratin and former members of lower castes, such as griots and blacksmiths, openly criticize the Zawaya for using Islamic law to legitimize present social stratification and the legacy of slavery.[14] In addition, non-Arabic speaking Afro-Mauritanian ethnic groups (a quarter of the population) do not identify with the Bilad Shinqit label despite their contribution to Mauritania’s Islamic scholarship and spiritual life as scholars and Sufi leaders.

Although female Shinqiti scholars have contributed to all areas of classical Islamic scholarship, learned Mauritanian women are “easier to locate in oral traditions than in libraries,” as Ghislaine Lydon puts it.[15] Khadija ibn al-‘Aqil who lived in the early nineteenth century taught Aristotelian logic to the celebrated grammarian al-Mukhtar ibn Buna and to Abdel Kader Kane who led the Torodo Islamic reform movement in the Futa region of what was then Senegal-Mauritania and who later became its leader. Khadija bint Muhammad Vall al-Samsadi al-Shinqiti was nicknamed al-Qariʿa al-Shinqitiyya for her persuasive ability to engage and win scholarly arguments against her male counterparts. She actively defended the role of women in the production of authoritative Islamic knowledge using evidence from the Quran and the Hadith.[16]

Yet, the history of slavery and the erasure of women’s contribution remain absent from the popular, idealized representations of Bilad Shinqit abroad as Mauritania continues to assert spectacularly its religious relevance and Islamic authority on a global scale. The history of Mauritanian scholars and their significant influence demonstrates how the geographical margins of the Muslim world have shaped, and continue to shape, Islam worldwide. While hardly new or unique to Mauritania, this undeniable fact challenges the center-periphery polarity that conventional depictions of religious authority in the Muslim world take for granted. Mauritania’s outsized influence and global reach illustrates how tradition, mobility and scholarly performance are more instrumental to the articulation of Islamic authority than supposedly central institutions and religious bodies located in the so-called heartland of Islam.

 

[Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Thomas Parker and Walaa Quisay, “On the Theology of Obedience: An Analysis of Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Political Thought,” Maydan, January 8, 2019.

[2] Joseph Hill, “The Cosmopolitan Sahara: Building an Islamic Global Village in Mauritania,” City and Society, 24/1 (2012).

[3] A’id al-Qarni, “The Joke of Memorization,” al-Sharq al Awsat, October 12, 2010. [Arabic]

[4] Aid al-Qarni, “See you in Mauritania and Greetings to the Shanaqita,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 20, 2012. [Arabic]

[5] Ulrich Rebstock, “La littérature mauritanienne. Portrait d’un héritage négligé,” L’Ouest saharien 2 (1999).

[6] Bruce S. Hall, “Rethinking the Place of Timbuktu in the Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa,” in Toby Green and Benedetta Rossi, eds. Landscapes and Intellectual Projects of the West African Sahel Past (Leiden: Brill, 2018) p. 240.

[7] Ghislaine Lydon, “Inkwells of the Sahara,” in Scott Reese, ed. The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2004) p. 39.

[8] Stefan Reichmuth, “Murtada al-Zabidi (1732–91) and the Africans: Islamic Discourse and Scholarly Networks in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in Scott Reese, ed. The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

[9] Abudrrahman Alebrahim, “Kuwait-Zubayri Intellectual Relations until the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” in Marc Jones, Ross Porter and Marc Valeri, eds. The Gulfization of the Arab World (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2018), 135.

[10] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith. Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[11] Christopher Bouceck, “Saudi Extremism to Sahel and Back,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 26, 2009.

[12]Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al-Qaeda’s Theological Enforcer,” Terrorism Focus 4/25 (2007). Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, “Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War,” The New York Times, April 4, 2008.

[13] Joas Wagemakers, “Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: Yemen,” Jihadica, June 5, 2012.

[14] Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, Prêcher dans le désert. Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Paris: Karthala, 2013).

[15] Lydon, “Inkwells of the Sahara,” 68.

[16] Said Tawla, Faces of the Intellectual Life in Medina from the 11th Century to the 14th Century (Medina, Maktabat al-Mubarak, 2018) [Arabic].

 

How to cite this article:

Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem "The Importance of Mauritanian Scholars in Global Islam," Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).
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