In Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the municipal authorities in Tevragh Zeina, a large and relatively upscale neighborhood, have decided to rename several major streets. Charles de Gaulle Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall Avenue, John Kennedy Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama Buddah Ould al-Busayri Avenue, and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir Avenue becomes National Unity Avenue.
At least to me, the symbolism reads as the replacement of foreign, decolonization-era figures with regional/local Islamic leaders. ‘Umar Tall (d. 1864) was a leader within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, and the architect of a pre-colonial jihad state extending deep into present-day central and northern Mali. He is the subject of a great deal of Western scholarship, including by David Robinson. Tall, significantly, was ethnically Toucouleur, rather than Arab, and it is possible to see this street renaming as a gesture toward the idea/hope of Islam as a basis for racial unity in Mauritania.
Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) is actually the topic of my next book project (so perhaps I’m on the right track, research-wise!). He was imam of Nouakchott and mufti of Mauritanian throughout much of the postcolonial period, and acted as a kind of “papal” figure (somewhat similar to Stéphane Lacroix’s depiction of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz in Saudi Arabia) during a period of rising Islamic/Islamist activism in the 1970s and after.
Are these renaming a form of decolonization? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that figures such as de Gaulle, JFK, and ‘Abd al-Nasir have lost some of their resonance, perhaps above all for younger generations born long after the independence era.
I’m up at the Berkley Center with a piece I co-authored with Mike Farquhar (read his book!). Our post looks at religious contacts between Mauritania and Saudi Arabia; this is part of a larger project, led by Peter Mandaville, on the “Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power.”
Here’s an excerpt from our piece:
It was certainly not the case, however, that such Saudi influence overwhelmed the Mauritanian religious sphere. For many scholars, the dominant religious references remained the classical paradigm of northwest Africa—the Ash‘ari creed, the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and membership in a Sufi order. All of these, especially Ash‘arism and Sufism, are rejected by Salafis/Wahhabis and are officially frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. Yet the classical paradigm of northwest Africa holds continued sway, even hegemony, in many of Mauritania’s Islamic schools or mahadir (singular mahdara). Moreover, scholars with classical or neo-classical outlooks served prominently as ministers of Islamic affairs or as heads of religious associations throughout the post-colonial period and up to the present.
Even Mauritanian scholars whose outlook is much closer to the Saudi Arabian religious establishment’s take care to show their independence. Among an older generation, now largely deceased or aging, Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) came to have significant overlap with Salafis in terms of creed and legal methodology. As imam of the “Saudi mosque,” as the quasi-official (though stubbornly non-salaried) “mufti of Mauritania,” and as the mentor to several generations of Islamist and Salafi activists, al-Busayri wielded significant influence. He enjoyed warm relations with Saudi Arabian scholars, particularly ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz (1910-1999), a prominent pro-government scholar who eventually became Grand Mufti. Yet al-Busayri remained committed, at least nominally, to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and there is some evidence that he returned to Sufism at the end of his life.