The Death of a Northern Malian Shaykh, and a Few of My Analytical Blindspots

On April 2, northern Malian sources reported the passing of Shaykh Hamdi Ould Muhammad al-Amin (Romanized spellings vary), the chief judge (qadi al-quda) of Kidal.

In a Facebook post (Arabic), one spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA) traced the shaykh’s genealogy back to Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729-1811), one of the most influential religious scholars (.pdf) in the Mauritania-Mali sub-region in the past several centuries.

The shaykh appears to have been more than just a learned man. He also seems to have had strong relationships with tribal and political leaders in northern Mali; for example, he was one prominent attendee at the installation (Arabic) of the Kunta confederation’s new ruler Muhammad al-Amin Ould Baba in 2015. The Nord Sud Journal, in its report (French) on the shaykh’s death, notes that his passing was announced by the prominent northern Malian politician and hereditary ruler Alghabass ag Intalla, sectary-general of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), over WhatsApp. The journal describes the shaykh as a “consensus” figure in northern Mali, writing that he “judged all the disputes between armed groups after the Anefis accords of 2015.” (See background on those accords here.)

The MNLA and HCUA eulogies for the shaykh are another reminder that neither of these movements should be understood as secular. In interviews, MNLA leaders have stated to me that they and the rebellion they launched in 2012 received support from prominent shaykhs and jurists in the region – including another prominent northern Malian shaykh who died in 2017, Al-‘Atiq bin Sa’d al-Din (Arabic).

Identifying the senior Muslim scholars of northern Mali has been a consistent blind spot for me, and with both Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din I became aware of them only upon their deaths. In part, this is simply a weakness of my own research, and a sign that I have not yet found the right sources and interviewees, or have not asked the right questions of the politicians I’ve interviewed. On another level, though, I think the task is objectively harder than, say, identifying prominent clerics in Bamako or Nouakchott. Perhaps this difficulty reflects a center-periphery split, with the ulama (religious scholars) of the capital much more visible than those in the north. Yet there is essentially no difficulty in identifying major political or military figures in northern Mali: such individuals are routinely profiled and interviewed by Jeune Afrique, for example, and they have proven relatively easy to meet in Bamako and even in Washington.

So there are a few questions that have occurred to me over the years:

  1. Has there been a disruption in scholarly reproduction in northern Mali? In other words, do senior scholars have clear successors – from within their families or from among their senior students? From what I’ve read on Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din, scholarly authority appears strongly hereditary in the region – but that does not mean that it will be reproduced automatically, or that sons will have the same status as their fathers. The eulogies for Ould Muhammad al-Amin indicate that there are clear successors in his place, but I have wondered about the wider picture.
  2. Are northern Malian ulama reticent to step into the media spotlight given the conflict in the region, or because of the local scholarly culture? In Bamako, even when I know the names of major scholars and seek out interviews with them, I have found it much harder to have productive interviews with shaykhs than with politicians, including politicians from the north. Is there even more reticence in the north about interacting with foreigners and/or journalists?
  3. How much did the rise of Tabligh in the 1990s and 2000s, and the rise of Salafism and Salafi-jihadism in the region, affect the wider religious field? How were traditionalist – i.e., Maliki-Sufi-Ash’ari – scholars in the north affected? Is it even correct to assume that someone like Ould Muhammad al-Amin, from a family famously identified with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, still identified as Sufi? What is the position of someone like the jihadist(-leaning?) judge Houka Houka ag Alhousseini within the wider religious field – an outlier, a representative of a minority trend, a representative of a growing trend, etc.? Is someone like that only infamous because he is associated with jihadists, while the truly influential religious scholars in the region shun the spotlight?
  4. When the 2015 Algiers Accord, meant to bring peace to northern Mali, refers to the role of cadis/qadis (Islamic judges) in local governance (.pdf, p. 13), do northern leaders have a list of specific people in mind to fulfill these functions – or who are already fulfilling these functions? Or is this more aspirational?

Obviously I welcome any insights that readers may have. The answers to these questions potentially have major import for how one understands the situation in northern Mali. A situation where senior, traditionalist scholars are dying without being replaced could mean that the politicians are the ones dominating the scene and/or that jihadists face less resistance within the religious field. On the other hand, if the senior traditionalists are still present but reticent, that could mean that there are powerful religious influences on politicians and powerful counterweights to jihadists, in complex dynamics that lie outside of my view.

1 thought on “The Death of a Northern Malian Shaykh, and a Few of My Analytical Blindspots

  1. Pingback: Mali’s Imam Mahmoud Dicko and the Northern Nigerian Salafi Ulama, Briefly Compared | Sahel Blog

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