(This is a series of short biographies of Sahelian and nothern Nigerian ulama from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and may broaden later to include some nineteenth-century figures. The selections and order are determined entirely by whim.)
Shaykh Muhammad Salim Ould Muhammad ‘Ali Ould ‘Abd al-Wadud, nicknamed ‘Addoud, was born in what is now Mauritania in 1929 (one source says 1930, but the 1929 date is much more widespread). He has a major legacy in Mauritania and more broadly, and is important not just for the depth of his learning and scholarly impact, but also for his long career in government.
His father, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali (d. 1982), merits a biography of his own – he was one of the most prominent scholars of his own generation. And another member of the family is even more famous now – Shaykh ‘Addoud was the maternal uncle (and Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali was the maternal grandfather) of one of Mauritania’s best-known living scholars, Shaykh Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew (b. 1963). The family is from Boutilimit (map) in the Trarza Region.
Shaykh ‘Addoud’s first and seemingly most important teacher was his father, who supervised a prominent mahdara (classical Islamic school). Here are the two men, Shaykh ‘Addoud on the left and Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali on the right:
According to the short biography of him in this book, Shaykh ‘Addoud taught at his father’s mahdara as a young man. He then was recruited in the 1950s to teach at the Islamic Institute of Boutilimit. The Institute or University was a complicated project with backing from an influential Sufi leader, Abdullahi Ould Cheikh Sidiyya, as well as from the French colonial government (see here, pp. 114-115; a brief history of the town can also be found here). In the early 1960s, Shaykh ‘Addoud was chosen as part of a small delegation of young Islamic scholars sent to study law in Tunisia; he graduated with a license degree in law in or around 1965; the experience also included time spent training in Tunisian courts. In this way he obtained a hybrid education, traditionalist and state-backed, that gave him a rare profile especially in the context of early postcolonial Mauritania, where at first there were little more than a handful of people with college/university degrees.
His career afterwards, according to this obituary, involved a series of prominent government appointments in positions related to Islamic affairs and the judiciary, including lengthy tenures as deputy head and then head (1984-1987) of the Supreme Court; then Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation (1987-1992); and then head of the High Islamic Council (1992-1997).
This period from 1984-1997, the apex of his professional career, coincided with the first phase of the military ruler Maaouya Ould al-Taya’s time in power (he led a 1984 coup and was deposed in a coup in 2005). Shaykh ‘Addoud also had, sometimes in parallel with his judicial and governmental appointments, a teaching career that included time at the University of Nouakchott and at another major institution in the capital, the High Institute for Islamic Studies and Research.
From what I can tell, Shaykh ‘Addoud retired after his time at the High Islamic Council. This obituary, which gives slightly different dates from some of the appointments mentioned above, says that he spent his last years teaching at his mahdara in the village of Umm al-Qura approximately 60 kilometers outside Nouakchott. He died in April 2009.
In terms of intellectual legacy, he left behind a massive trove of written works in fields such as creed and jurisprudence – including one versified commentary on a core Maliki legal text, the Mukhtasar of Khalil, where Shaykh ‘Addoud’s commentary reportedly runs to more than 10,000 verses. In my own trips to Nouakchott I have not succeeded in finding any printed copies of these works, nor have I yet found any online. Many of his works, I suspect, exist only in manuscript form or in very limited print runs.
In terms of students, the two most prominent ones I am aware of are (1) his famous nephew, mentioned above, Shaykh Ould al-Dedew, and (2) the Moroccan scholar Shaykh Sa’id al-Kamali. I am sure there are many others.
From what I can tell in relatively informal conversations in Nouakchott, Shaykh ‘Addoud is not perceived as a one-dimensional “Sultan’s scholar” – even critics of successive governments seem to consider Shaykh ‘Addoud as having an extra-special degree and depth of learning. At the same time, that long government service does mean that some Mauritanians today see him as relatively loyalist in his politics.