Two Mauritanian Ulama and the UAE-Israel Abraham Accord

On August 13, the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, and the United States announced that the UAE and Israel have agreed to a package of agreements called the Abraham Accord. To quote from the three governments’ joint statement:

Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.

[…]

As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.

For the purposes of this blog, what interests me is the role that Mauritanian ulama are playing in the intra-Muslim debates unfolding as a result of the agreement. Two Mauritanian scholars are particularly prominent in the “for” and “against” camp, respectively: in the “for” camp, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah (b. 1935), one of whose roles is chairing the UAE’s Fatwa Council; and in the “against” camp, Shaykh Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew (b. 1963). Their official biographies can be found here and here, respectively (Ould al-Dedew’s is in Arabic).

Their roles point to the substantial “spiritual capital” that Mauritanian shaykhs generally and these two figures specifically have in the Muslim world, albeit in very different ways.

There is a context for why these Mauritanian scholars matter so much to debates centered far from their country of origin. Mauritania is a country with a small population (perhaps 4-5 million, estimates vary) and it sits at the geographic edge of the Middle East and North Africa region as often defined – and some definitions wouldn’t even include Mauritania. Yet in Islamic scholarly terms, Mauritania punches far, far above its weight. That is largely due to the depth of its Islamic scholarly culture and the image (sometimes heavily romanticized) that outsiders, including in other Muslim societies in the region, often have of Mauritania as a wellspring of pure Islamic learning only minimally affected by “modernity.” (In my view Mauritania lives up to its reputation for learning and scholarship, but shouldn’t be treated as some kind of one-dimensional “desert society.”)

Mauritanian scholars’ credentials, and outsiders’ esteem for those credentials, have repeatedly elevated Mauritanian scholars within the mashriq, the “Middle East” part of the “Middle East and North Africa.” For example, Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d. 1973) was to my knowledge the only non-Saudi Arabian national ever appointed to that kingdom’s Hay’at Kibar al-Ulama (Council of Senior Scholars). As Michael Farquhar and I wrote in a short piece in 2018, interactions between Mauritania and the Middle East (in that piece, we focused on Saudi Arabia) are two-way, rather than one-way. These two-way interactions challenge the caricature of the Middle East or Saudi Arabia “exporting religion” to the so-called “periphery.” Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s appointment as chairman of the UAE’s Fatwa Council in 2018 has to do, in part, with Mauritania and the UAE’s shared traditions connected with the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, and it built on a series of collaborations between Shaykh Bin Bayyah and the UAE, notably the shaykh’s role as president of the Abu Dhabi-based Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies. But the appointment also has to do with this parallel pattern of Mauritanians taking on prominent religious roles in the mashriq.

In terms of views and profiles, Shaykhs Bin Bayyah and Ould al-Dedew emerge out of the same milieu: Shaykh Bin Bayyah moved in the same circles as, and worked closely with, Shaykh al-Dedew’s maternal uncle Shaykh Mohamed Salem Ould Addoud (d. 2009) over the course of decades. Both Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh al-Dedew, moreover, have at different times worked with the “global mufti” Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926).

Yet there are key contrasts: Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s career inside and outside Mauritania has been spent working for and with governments. Especially in recent years, the shaykh has been elaborating what some (very thoughtful) critics have called a “theology of obedience.” Meanwhile, Shaykh al-Dedew’s career within Mauritania has been spent mostly in the opposition, often aligned with Islamists and supporting various forms of protest. And within the mashriq, Shaykh Bin Bayyah is (obviously) close with the UAE, where Shaykh Ould al-Dedew has a close relationship with Qatar. Shaykh al-Dedew also has a long history of vocally condemning Israeli actions – and he was a key opponent and critic of Mauritania’s diplomatic opening toward Israel, which lasted from roughly 1999-2009. It would be interesting to dig further into whether and how Mauritanian domestic debates over Israel in that period are now being replayed on a larger stage amid the UAE’s diplomatic gambit.

Returning to the Abraham Accord, there is an obvious religious symbolism to the name,  fitting into a spate of efforts in recent years to stress commonalities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Both of these Mauritanian scholars have weighed in on the deal with religiously-focused arguments. I cannot find the UAE Fatwa Council’s full statement online, but here is an Emirates News Agency report that quotes from it and from Shaykh Bin Bayyah:

The Emirates Fatwa Council has commended as “right and proper” the good offices undertaken by the UAE leadership that have led to Israel’s suspension of declaring sovereignty over areas of the Palestinian territories.

[…]

“Given that the supreme interest is the de jure determinant of the acts undertaken by the Sovereign Ruler who is the only one that can determine the nation’s supreme interests and responsibilities in relation to war and peace, and the relations between nations, the Emirates Fatwa Council blesses the wise leadership’s acts for the supreme good for the nation and its people,” reads the statement.

Commenting on the historic development, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, Chairman of the UAE Fatwa Council, said, “the initiative is one of the rightful authorities of the sovereign ruler”, noting that the Islamic Shari’a abounds in many examples of such cases of reconciliations and peace-making in accordance with the public good and circumstances.

Here, in contrast, is a statement by the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, signed by Shaykh al-Dedew (my translation from the Arabic, with punctuation and phrasing lightly adjusted for smoother flow in English):

Treaties with the Israeli Occupation are all invalid (batila)

Treaties with the Israeli Occupation are all invalid and they have no basis in [Islamic] law. Whether it is Camp David and Oslo or the exchange of commercial and diplomatic relations, it is haram and invalid.

In regard to the evidentiary basis that some have sought (bi-l-nisba l-istidlal ba’d) in what was in the Hudaybiyya [agreement], the agreement was with the people of Mecca and they were the residents of the land and its proprietor; they were neither usurpers nor colonizers, and the agreement was a truce for ten years that only lasted two.

There’s a lot to unpack here if you’re not familiar with Islamic legal terminology and/or with the biography of the Prophet Muhammad – although if you are, the message should scan fairly quickly. Three points of clarification for the unfamiliar:

  • Istidlal, which I’m struggling to think of a concise translation for (“evidence-seeking”?), is the effort to ground Islamic legal rulings and opinions in one or more pieces of evidence (dalil, plural adilla). Usually what counts as a dalil must be rooted in one or more verses from the Qur’an or one or more reported statements/actions of the Prophet Muhammad or, failing that, statements and precedents from the early community or, failing that, various other principles and techniques. Long story short, Shaykh al-Dedew is saying that there is no convincing dalil for the Abraham Accord.
  • More specifically, Shaykh al-Dedew is arguing that Muslims cannot analogize between the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the UAE-Israel agreement. Hudaybiyya, named for the location where the agreement was concluded, is typically dated to 6 hijri/628 CE. It was an agreement between the Prophet Muhammad and the (then still non-Muslim) rulers of Mecca following a series of major battles. The agreement was a key political and religious event for the early community – see Surat al-Fath of the Qur’an for the event’s religious resonance. In any event, with this context hopefully it is clear why and how Shaykh al-Dedew rejects the comparison between Hudaybiyya and the Abraham Agreement.
  • Finally, the reference to “some (ba’d)” in “istidlal al-ba’d” is part of an Islamic scholarly convention or etiquette where naming those you are disagreeing with can be seen as rude or overly polemical. Is Shaykh al-Dedew referring here euphemistically to Shaykh Bin Bayyah? I can’t tell, and my searches for someone making the argument about Hudaybiyyah yielded nothing, but it’s definitely possible that the two shaykhs are directly debating one another without explicitly doing so.

For the ulama, there are explosive issues at stake here vis-a-vis their own credibility: the risk of being seen as an Emirati or Qatari pawn is very, very high. The risk is higher for Shaykh Bin Bayyah, obviously, given the widespread sympathy for the Palestinian cause within (and beyond!) the Muslim world, but at this point inter-state tensions in the mashriq affect any Muslim scholar who rises to a certain level of fame and influence.

These credibility risks relate to what I see as a wider crisis in Muslim religious authority globally: ulama are regularly pressed to comment on politics, and many feel a moral duty to give what they see as the appropriate Islamic perspective on a given issue, but when they do weigh in, their credibility will often take a hit with a significant portion of whatever audience is listening.

Mauritanian scholars play notable roles in the global and regional competition over Islamic religious authority – as non-nationals of the key mashriq countries, Mauritanians can bring formidable scholarly auras to bear that are not necessarily available to religious functionaries who are nationals of the UAE, Qatar, or even Saudi Arabia. Yet the (indirect) exchange between these two shaykhs also shows how fragmented global Muslim authority is at present.

Coda: There is a wider debate over which scholars have really said what in regards to the UAE-Israel deal. That question in turn has repercussions not just for the mashriq but for the American Muslim arena as well. As usual, Jonathan Brown expresses himself well and bluntly on these points. In any case, I have not seen anyone questioning whether Shaykh Bin Bayyah really said what is attributed to him in the quotation I included above.

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