Three Items on Mauritania

  1. Jeune Afrique has a good article (July 15, French) on Mauritanian policy towards Mali – and why Mauritania has opted to keep the relationship functional and functioning despite many, many problems next door, including the deaths of Mauritanian citizens in Mali. One Mauritanian minister, quoted anonymously, sums it up, referring specifically to the decision to keep export corridors open during the period Mali was under sweeping sanctions: “We would derive no benefit from the collapse of our neighbor. Starving the populations was totally out of the question.”
  2. Mauritania’s ruling party was renamed and rebranded earlier this month, changing its name from the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) to al-Insaf, Arabic for “equity” (the translation that French-language Mauritanian media outlets are using) or perhaps “even-handedness.” (The root n-s-f has to do with halving and sharing, as in nisf, “half.”) The party also has a new president, Mohamed Melaïnine Ould Eyih, who is also minister of national education – you can read a short biography of him here (French). There is a long backstory involving the party and a power struggle between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the party’s founder, and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – who appears to be in firm control of the current iteration of the party.
  3. In the course of one of my research projects I finally tracked down the text of a 2015 fatwa (Arabic) by a Mauritanian cleric, Shaykh Ahmad Jiddu Wuld Ahmad Bahi, giving a blanket condemnation of present-day slavery. The lines of argument will likely be familiar to anyone who has looked in depth at the “Islam and slavery” debate (if you haven’t, you might start here), but to simplify greatly, the fatwa says that early Islam acknowledged the reality of slavery but worked to improve slaves’ conditions and end the practice, and that public interest, as well as what he views as legal consensus among states (Muslim and non-Muslim) against slavery, should compel present-day Muslim societies to completely eradicate slavery. There’s a lot more to the fatwa than that, of course, but those are a few of the key points. You can also watch a rich discussion between the shaykh and a Mauritanian journalist here (Arabic).

Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel



The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.


The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.


Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.


Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.


  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).


Controversy around a Mauritanian Atheist

Reportedly (Arabic), A Mauritanian man recently professed atheism on Facebook. I haven’t been able to find the original page, but the incident has caused controversy in the country. The government’s High Council for Fatwa and Grievances released a statement (Arabic) announcing “our distress and our disapproval” of the man’s words and calling for legal action against him.

This incident is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged unbelief, apostasy, or blasphemy in Mauritania. 2014 saw a wave of such events. One man was jailed in January and then sentenced to death in December for writing an online article perceived as blasphemous. Another man was arrested for allegedly urinating on a copy of the Qur’an in February 2014, while March 2014 saw protests over an incident in which a small group of men allegedly desecrated copies of the Qur’an. Those events were seemingly unconnected, but coming in rapid succession they elevated tensions around issues of apostasy and blasphemy.

Other events have had a more political tinge. Also last year, Mauritanian religious scholars accused leftist writers of spreading atheism. In 2012, the anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Abeid publicly burned texts from the Maliki legal school (one of Sunni Islam’s four major schools, and the one most widespread in northwest Africa) in protest at the ways in which such texts had been invoked to justify slavery. The burning triggered protests and resulted in his arrest. It’s important to note that burning Maliki texts is categorically different from desecrating a Qur’an, and that Ould Abeid was not making a symbolic gesture of unbelief but rather was attempting to confront and overturn a certain interpretation of tradition.

In any case, the point is that accusations of blasphemy can be directed at both isolated individuals and opposition movements. Also, the issue has become sensitive enough that even one individual’s Facebook posts can elicit a government response.

Mali’s Elections: SABATI 2012 and Muslim Engagement

For those interested in how Muslim identities figure in the lead-up to Mali’s July 28 presidential elections, the organization SABATI 2012 presents an important case. According to this article (French), SABATI, headed by a man named Moussa Boubacar Bah, is backed by two major Malian Muslim leaders: Imam Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and Chérif Bouillé of the Hamawiyya Sufi order.

SABATI is intervening in two important ways in the campaign: it has released a document outlining its policy recommendations to the new government, and it is preparing to endorse a candidate.

SABATI’s memorandum requests that the new government make policy changes in several sectors, among them “justice, the crisis of the north, security, health, religious, our ethical and moral values, education, agriculture, sanitation, and governance.” In the religious domain, SABATI calls for greater funding of religious institutions, the establishment of new centers for training religious professionals, the incorporation of Qur’anic schools into the state education system, and the creation of a national agency for Islamic schools. It is noteworthy both that SABATI makes relatively specific requests regarding government action on religion and that SABATI is deeply concerned with ostensibly non-religious sectors like agriculture (though, some might argue, everything is a religious matter).

Regarding SABATI’s endorsement, several articles (French) suggest that Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta (Wikipedia page here) is the preferred candidate of the organization and its purported backers. From what I can tell, however, the official endorsement has yet to appear.

For religious leaders, endorsing candidates carries rewards but also risks. Successfully mobilizing portions of the electorate (SABATI promises to mobilize more than 15% in Mali [French]) can oblige elected politicians to heed religious leaders’ demands, and can moreover bind followers and leaders more tightly together. On the other hand, giving an endorsement but failing to mobilize followers can make religious leaders appear impotent and ridiculous in the eyes of both politicians and their own followers. In Senegal, major Sufi leaders largely discontinued the practice of giving explicit endorsements after the late 1980s and early 1990s, when youthful disciples’ voting and rioting made clear that they were rejecting their shaykhs’ commands.

In Mali, some religious leaders, notably Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara (French), have stated that they will not give specific voting instructions to their followers; indeed, though SABATI has sometimes claimed to have Haidara’s support, press accounts suggest that Haidara’s followers have largely held themselves apart from the organization and its plans. We will see how SABATI and its backers manage the endorsement process, and how it affects their political and religious reputations.

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Akhdari: A Jurisprudential Text Used in Northern Nigeria

In Northern Nigeria, many Muslims seek religious instruction to learn about the tenets and practices of their faith. In the “traditional” curriculum (the word “tradition” can be problematic, for example if it implies that systems are static, but I use it as a placeholder sometimes), Muslim children and young adults begin by memorizing part or all of the Qur’an. They typically move next into a series of jurisprudential texts from the Maliki School, one of the four main legal schools in Sunni Islam. The Maliki School is widespread in North and West Africa and takes its name from Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), who lived in Medina and was one of the Successors of the Successors (i.e., the third generation of Muslims).

The Maliki texts that many Northern Nigerian Muslims read are summaries or manuals. They focus on issues like the details of how to perform ablutions before prayer. These texts, in the sequence they are typically read, progress in complexity and length. The first Maliki text in the “traditional” sequence is called Mukhtasar al Akhdari fi al ‘Ibadat ‘ala Madhhab al Imam Malik (Arabic: Akhdari’s Summary of Worship Practices According to the Legal School of Imam Malik). It was authored by Shaykh ‘Abd al Rahman al Akhdari (d. 1585). The text is known as Akhdari for short. The version here (Arabic, .pdf) is 19 pages, which may seem short – fitting for an introductory text, though I hope you will keep in mind that students would typically read this text together with a teacher, and that the text might spur conversations, meaning that the total time to study and master the text might be longer than its page length would lead one to expect.

Akhdari opens with an introductory section on faith and ethical behavior, before moving through the following sections: (a) purity; (b) ablutions with sand; (c) menstruation; (d) childbirth; (e) times of prayer; (f) conditions of prayer; and (g) negligence (i.e., during prayer). Akhdari focuses on prayer, in other words, as a core ritual duty of the individual.

I hope this short treatment of Akhdari has provided some background on what many Northern Nigerian Muslims read. In the media and even in academia, we hear a lot of ideological chatter about what such texts mean – “these texts represent rote memorization and the evils of the ‘madrasa’ system” or “these texts represent a living tradition that evil modernists have scorned.” My aim here is not to engage that ideological chatter, but simply to give you a snapshot into what these kinds of texts are about.

On Arabic in Northern Nigeria and Breaking the “Muslim=Arab” Equation

I’ve felt more aware recently of how some people see the Middle East as the “core” of the Muslim world, and other Muslim population centers as less relevant to Islam and even less “Islamic.” The equations “Arab=Muslim” and “Muslim=Arab,” which many people seem to accept, are hard to break. Certainly Mecca is the ritual center of the Muslim world, and Arabic the language of the Qur’an. But this does not mean that non-Arab Muslims are second-class believers, that they are less versed in Islamic sciences, or that they are less central to the trajectory of Islam in the contemporary world.

Arabic grammar is one of the classical Islamic sciences, and I think it is especially important to point out that many non-Arab Muslims can more than hold their own in this area. I think many students of Islam who have not traveled to sub-Saharan Africa might be surprised at the high standard of Arabic that some African Muslim scholars possess. During my field research in Northern Nigeria I routinely met people who spoke flawless Arabic (fusha, typically), even people who had never left Nigeria. This does not mean that advanced Arabic literacy is widespread among the population – although many people possess some ability to, at a minimum, sound out Arabic writing – but people with an advanced religious education, including advanced training in Arabic, are not rare.

One anecdote may help demonstrate the depth of such people’s command of Arabic. In Arabic textbooks in the United States, you will often find that what we call in English the “passive voice” is called in Arabic “al mabni lil majhul,” a classical grammatical term that translates, “the construction for the unknown [subject].” I was sitting with a friend one day when the term came up. He ventured that the “passive voice” would be better rendered “al mabni li ghayr al musamma bihi” – “the construction for the subject that is not named.” After all, he pointed out, just because the subject is not named does not mean that it is unknown. Maybe that won’t seem like a big deal to you, but it blew my mind. This man’s knowledge of Arabic was so deep, and he had spent so much time thinking about the grammar of the language, that he was able to point out an untenable assumption in a common grammatical term. I would put that man up against nearly any native speaker, or grammarian, and expect his knowledge of Arabic grammar to equal or surpass theirs.

How do such people get to that advanced level? Oftentimes, even for people who have university degrees (as he does), what we might call “traditional education” has given them a strong foundation. In the US, we frequently view memorization by rote as the lowest form of learning. We exalt “critical thinking,” as though one can think critically without a foundation comprised of details – details that must be memorized. We also tend to read widely, reading many texts, instead of deeply, reading one text closely or repeatedly. In Northern Nigeria, the memorization of texts is widespread, as is their close and repeated study. Grammarians in the region will often study in depth, and possibly memorize, texts like the Alfiya of Ibn Malik. That memorization can bring a powerful command of the language, especially in its classical form.

The memorization of the Qur’an itself can also offer a tremendous grounding in Arabic. A professor from Maiduguri (which is, or was, renowned as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an), told me once about an impromptu competition he had held in Syria between Syrian students and a few Nigerians who were there. The competition was to write out the fatiha – the opening sura of the Qur’an – from memory without making mistakes in voweling and other linguistic features. He said that the Nigerians were able to reproduce the Qur’anic text perfectly, while the Syrians stumbled. One may disbelieve the story, but it at least shows the confidence that he felt in Nigerians’ command of Arabic and of scripture.

There is much more to say on the subject of outsiders’ perceptions – and the realities – of the depth of religious commitment and religious knowledge among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. I plan to return to the subject. But I hope these quick anecdotes have shown that just because a Muslim is not an Arab does not necessarily mean that their Islam – or their command of Arabic – is second-rate.

Mauritanian Imams and Government Control

From Magharebia’s Jemal Oumar comes an interesting article on the Mauritanian government’s new program for training imams:

Mauritanian authorities kicked off a month-long training programme for imams at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Nouakchott last week as part of a push to encourage moderate beliefs.


More than a hundred imams are expected to take part in the programme. The Islamic affairs ministry said they “will receive presentations and training on topics in various areas relating to the interests of the people and management of their religious and daily life removed from extremism and delinquency”.

Mohamed Lemin Ould Emahoud, President of the National Union of Imams in Mauritania, praised the government support, saying that the training session was the “fruit of a programme of ambitious co-operation between the Union of Imams and the ministry to organise more training sessions for imams with an aim toward expanding their scholarly horizons in the performance of their noble mission”.

Participants in the seminar said it was important to educate imams so that they understand modern issues, including the threat of terrorism.

I am not surprised to see a program like this. Given its struggle with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Mauritanian government has a clear interest in trying to control the field of Islamic discourse in the country. Training imams – and therefore attempting to manage their pronouncements to some extent – is a logical place to intervene, given that other areas, like the internet, are less amenable to central control.

But I worry sometimes about the word “moderation,” because it seems to be used so often as a cudgel against Muslims, in a game whose rules are controlled by governments or outsiders, and which Muslims cannot win. For example, when American conservatives ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” over and over again, I get the sense that the question is not meant to be answered concretely, but rather to be used as a rhetorical weapon to define “good” and “bad” Muslims. So what does “moderation” mean in Mauritania? Presumably the government and almost all imams can agree on the goal of countering extremism, but if it is the government that defines “moderation,” that definition could quickly rule out non-violent forms of religio-political dissidence. On the whole it seems that these kind of efforts in Mauritania are a good complement to the use of force against AQIM, but the political consequences of this kind of government supervision could be larger than anticipated.

True, Mauritania has a decades-long tradition of government involvement in Islamic affairs, but that involvement has sometimes produced a backlash, or at least greater activism than the government has desired (for example, many of the country’s leading non-violent Islamists are products of government institutions of higher Islamic learning, yet the Ould Taya regime spent a lot of time jailing those Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s). So perhaps it is best to say that the government has a balancing act to perform here: looser government involvement in the training of imams could allow violent ideologies to proliferate, but overly tight government control in this area could generate resentments and backlash.

The Tenth Parallel

I began hearing about journalist Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel , which explores Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa and Asia, even before it came out. Yesterday I was reminded of it on Twitter by a posting from the Carnegie Council, which recently hosted an event with Griswold. I am planning to check out the book – have others read it yet?

The New York Times praises it:

“The Tenth Parallel” is a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue — whether fundamentalism leads to violence — which Griswold investigates through individual lives rather than caricatures or abstractions.


Griswold’s journey is made all the more interesting because of her personal motivations. The daughter of a leading liberal Episcopal bishop, she recalls being spooked by the consecration ceremony in which he lay facedown on the floor of the cathedral in Chicago with his legs and arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. As a young girl she saw the Bible “as a book of spells, one whose extravagant metaphors, whose terrible and powerful parables were ways to call God down to earth.” And as a teenager she feared that God would ask her to be a nun. “I spent those years wondering how it was that smart people could believe in God,” she writes.

In 2003 Griswold traveled to Sudan with Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who attempted to convert her by inviting her to pray with him. She could not find a logical reason to decline, since, as a good ecumenical Episcopalian, she had prayed with Sunnis and Sufi Muslims. She returned to Sudan five years later, after its leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. The war-torn country’s Christian south is preparing for a 2011 vote on whether to split from the Muslim north, which would break Africa’s largest country in half. Griswold also reports from Somalia at great personal risk, vividly describing in 30 pages the religious violence and ill-informed policies that America has pursued since its failed attempts to corral the murderous Aidid clan (members of which she meets with). More recently, Washington has been trying to weaken the Qaeda-linked Shabab gang and shore up a hapless Islamist government.

Sounds pretty fascinating. If I get a chance to read it I’ll post more, and if you read it please tell me what you think.

Kenya’s Constitutional Controversy Turns Violent

Just returned from my trip, so I’m easing back into blogging today.

Provisions regarding shari’a courts in Kenya’s proposed new constitution have created legal controversy for weeks, but now they are also causing violence:

At least five people have died and dozens been injured in a stampede at a rally in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The stampede followed two explosions, the cause of which is unknown.

The rally was organised by Christian groups opposed to a draft constitution because it retains recognition of existing Islamic courts and includes a clause on abortion.

Kenyans are due to vote on the new constitution in a referendum in August.

This is a real tragedy, and also a real reason to worry: people feel strongly about the issue, and August is still a ways off.