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.

Roundup on Sudan, Israel, and the Yarmouk Weapons Factory

On October 23/24, explosions occurred at the Yarmouk weapons factory in Sudan. The Sudanese government has stated that an Israeli airstrike was responsible. The situation remains murky enough that I do not feel comfortable writing an analytical piece on the issue, but the incident has generated substantial media attention, so I thought I would round up some important stories.

International Press Reports

  • VOA: “The [US-based] Satellite Sentinel Project released images Tuesday that show six 16-meter-wide craters near the center of the explosion. The group said the holes are consistent with impact craters created by air-delivered munitions.”
  • NPR: “Israel Operates Inside Sudan, Israeli Official Says.”
  • AP: “In Sudan blast, signs of Iran and Israel’s rivalry.”
  • BBC (October 29): “An Iranian naval task force has docked in Sudan, carrying with it a ‘message of peace and security to neighbouring countries,’ Iranian state media report.” Reuters (October 31): “Iran Warships Leave Sudan after Four-Day Stay.”
  • Al Jazeera: “Sudan denies Iranian links to bombed factory.”
  • VOA: “Sudan’s Iran Alliance under Scrutiny.”

Speculative Commentary (International Media):

  • Time: “Did Israel Bomb a Sudanese Ammunition Depot?”
  • Reuters: “Sudan: A Front for Israel’s Proxy War on Sinai Jihadists?”
  • Washington Post/World Views: “Why Would Israel Bomb Sudan? Theories Cite Iran, Hamas, Even the US”

Sudanese, Egyptian, and Israeli Sources:

  • Sudan Tribune: “Sudanese Opposition Groups Condemn ‘Israeli Aggression,’ Criticize Government.”
  • Akhir Lahza (Arabic): “Explosions and Fire at the ‘Yarmouk’ Factory”
  • Ahram Online: “Egypt Military Dismisses Rumors of Israeli F-35 Overflights.”
  • Akhbar (Arabic): “The [Non-Governmental] Egyptian Delegation Returning from Sudan: The World Ignores Israel’s Crimes.”
  • YNet: “Egypt Denies Knowledge of Attack in Sudan.”
  • Jerusalem Post: “Sudan Strike – A Blow to Iran.”

What do you make of this whole affair?

Africa News Roundup: Sudan and Israel, Oil and Floods, Mali and Drones, and More

IRIN: “Sahel Crisis: Lessons to Be Learnt.” One key point:

Pastoralists are affected by food access issues earlier than other groups and need support to access animal fodder, water, vaccinations and to destock, in March and April, not May and June.

This need is rarely reflected in early warning or response, said aid agencies. Pastoralists’ needs are still relegated to a few specialist NGOs rather than being addressed through national systems and as a result they remain marginalized, said Gubbels. Further, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which could be a vocal advocate on their behalf, did not clearly ring the alarm bell to donors on their needs, said NGOs.

During heavy floods in Nigeria recently, oil production has fallen from this year’s average of 2.5 million barrels per day to around 2.1-2.2 million.

Sudan has accused Israel of bombing the Yarmouk weapons factory in Khartoum on Wednesday. NPR: “Israel officials never publicly confirm nor deny their country’s involvement in overseas operations. But speaking anonymously to NPR, an Israeli intelligence officer says that Israel does -– most definitely –- operate in Sudan.” Time has more, as does McClatchy (h/t Armin Rosen).

BBC: “Is the World Ready to Take on Mali’s Islamists?” and AP on French surveillance drones in northern Mali.

The World Bank: “Africa Can Feed Itself, Earn Billions, and Avoid Food Crises by Unblocking Regional Food Trade.”

South Sudan as a diplomatic actor in its region:

Newly independent South Sudan plans to help resolve the long-running border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a senior official said on Wednesday.

South Sudan’s minister for cabinet affairs, Deng Alor, said Addis Ababa and Asmara had given the green light for mediation talks on the border, which could start as early as November.

Ethiopian Muslims continue to protest “what they call unconstitutional government interference in religious affairs, heightened by the election of Muslim leaders this month the protesters say were not free or fair.”

The Sahel is one region of concern for US officials who plan to “keep adding names to kill lists” (h/t Ingrid Pederson).

What else is happening?

Another Kano Update

My second week in Kano went as well as the first. After spending week one at the university, I was eager to get out into the city more during week two, and I largely succeeded. I was able to talk with officials at several Islamic institutions, and met several people who studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan (in other words, exactly the type of people I came to conduct interviews with). Later today I am hoping to meet with some members of a Nigerian Shi’a group. My research focuses primarily on Nigerian Muslims who have studied in Arab countries, but talking with people who studied in Tehran and Qom should help broaden my understanding of the phenomenon of Nigerians pursuing religious education abroad.

As I’ve branched out beyond the university, I’ve been struck most by the number of conversations I’ve had with Muslim intellectuals who are deeply concerned about the situation in Israel/Palestine. Nearly everyone I talk with seriously has something to say on the topic. Northern Nigeria may not be crawling with foreigners, but its residents are (in my experience and by other accounts) deeply connected to and interested in world affairs. Radio, notably BBC Hausa, VOA, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France, along with local outlets, has played a major role in shaping this international consciousness. Granted, I have been talking with people who come from backgrounds of relative affluence and high education, but still I think American policymakers may underestimate the degree to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engenders tremendous passions not just on the “Arab street,” but also on the West African street. And there are, if one performs a rough estimate by calculating that Nigerian Muslims make up 50% of its 150 million residents, some 75 million Muslims in this country.

Other political conversations have focused on Nigeria’s national politics, especially the upcoming elections. From what I can see, former head of state and two-time presidential runner-up Muhammadu Buhari enjoys broad support in Kano, as does his new party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). I do not know what Buhari’s chances of winning the presidency are, but it seems that CPC has a good chance of capturing the governorship here in Kano State.

I think I’ll stop there. I’ll try to post one more update before I leave, but in the rush of gift-buying and packing next weekend I may not be able to. I’m also trying to put together a links post for tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who’s still checking in despite the drastically reduced output.

More on AQIM Summit

If you’re hungry for more coverage of the recent pan-Saharan summit on AQIM, check out Kal’s piece on the subject. He turns needed attention on the internal dynamics of Mauritanian politics and terrorism:

What is missing in the discussion about AQIM, especially in Mauritania, is a critical look at the country’s current leadership. This refers to perhaps two trends: (1) the tendency of the current Mauritanian government to evoke AQIM and terrorism when attempting to consolidate broader and (sometimes) extra-constitutional powers; and (2) a similar movement by the government towards “engaging” the Salafist tendency to the point where it risks making a generally marginal political and religious movement more mainstream and an important part in legitimizing the first trend internationally and domestically.

The rest of the piece builds on these remarks.

Speaking of internal Mauritanian politics and their broader effects, Mauritania recently severed ties with Israel. Ties were suspended since the Gaza offensive in January 2009, but this month Mauritania “expelled Israeli diplomats and ordered the closing of the Israeli embassy.”

What do commenters think of this move? Does it signal a desire on Mauritania’s part to move more firmly into the Arab fold? Has US and French support for Mauritania’s leadership (as described by Kal in the piece above) made President Ould Abdel Aziz feel freer to reject ties with Israel? Does breaking ties with Israel dilute the appeal of Salafism for Mauritanian youth?

Nigeria and Israel

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s five-country African tour “is one of the most extensive trips by an Israeli foreign minister to Africa in recent years.” He has used the occasion to call for a greater role for Africa in the Arab-Israeli peace process:

Avigdor Lieberman addresses the Ethiopian-Israel Economic Forum in Addis Ababa, 09/02/09

Avigdor Lieberman addresses the Ethiopian-Israel Economic Forum in Addis Ababa, 09/02/09

Lieberman on Wednesday [September 2nd] said Africa should help moderate Arab positions to solve the Middle East crisis[…]

“Africa’s ties with Arab and Muslim countries, whether within the framework of the Arab League, the Islamic Conference or the African Union, place the countries of Africa in a position to contribute positive influence.

“We look to Africa to help promote moderation and reconciliation in the Middle East.”

Many African countries, often cajoled by Libya whose leader Moamer Kadhafi currently holds the African Union chairmanship, have traditionally backed Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

Kadhafi accused Israel Monday of being “behind all of Africa’s conflicts” during a special AU summit in Tripoli.

“Indeed, within the African Union itself it is very important that the decisions and activities of African states reflect a positive and constructive approach, one that rejects one-sided decisions against Israel,” Lieberman said.

Yesterday in Nigeria, Lieberman received a message in return:

Nigeria’s foreign minister said on Tuesday Israel must do more to achieve peace in the Middle East if it wants improved diplomatic and business ties with Africa’s most populous country.

Ojo Maduekwe and his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, on a two-day visit to Nigeria’s capital Abuja, signed an economic agreement for both countries to work more closely on trade, agriculture and infrastructure development.

“We urge you to do a lot more for peace then you have done now,” Maduekwe said after a signing ceremony.

“If there is peace, we will sign more. If there is no peace, it will be difficult to sign more agreements.”

Maduekwe said Nigeria was “frustrated” with the violence in the Middle East and suggested Israel turn to African countries for help in resolving the crisis.

“Every solution has been tried except the African solution … perhaps we can provide more traction in that process,” Maduekwe said.

Reuters goes on to say that Israel may sign an agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) while Lieberman is in Nigeria. It seems then that Lieberman’s trip will boost Israel’s economic position in Africa, but Maduekwe’s statement suggests it will be harder for Israel to improve its political position on the continent.

I’m actually working on a conference paper about how the Arab-Israeli conflict played out in Northern Nigeria in the period just before and after independence, so I’m following these developments with interest. To give a rough historical outline of the relationships, from the late 1950s through 1967, Israel’s diplomatic position in Africa was strong, and despite African leaders’ objections to the Six Days’ War it was not until 1973 that a majority of African nations severed ties with Israel. Israel rebuilt some relationships on the continent in the 1980s and afterwards, and restored ties with Nigeria and many other countries by the early 1990s. So Israel is not cut off from Africa. This effort by Lieberman, however, does appear to herald a renewed effort at engagement. I wonder where it will lead.

Saturday Links: Burkina Faso Flooding, Al Shabab and Somaliland, Drones in Seychelles

Flooding has ravaged Burkina Faso. 150,000 are homeless. The BBC has photos.

Al Shabab threatens to target Somaliland.

The spiritual leader of the radical Somali militant group al-Shabab has sharply criticized the leadership of the breakaway region of Somaliland for having ties with Ethiopia. The radical leader also called the brand of democracy practiced in the Somaliland un-Islamic and demanded implementation of Sharia law.

In a thinly-veiled message warning of future attacks, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr, warns residents of Somaliland not to do business with Ethiopians and to stay away from Ethiopian-owned property.

In the taped message, the al-Shabab leader also ripped the territory’s government, saying that that Somaliland democracy is responsible for the disunity among its leaders and has stomped on teachings of the Koran.

In other Somalia news, al Shabab is crossing the border and recruiting Kenyans to fight in the war.

To fight piracy, the US military is going to operate drones out of the Seychelles.

Avigdor Lieberman says Africa can “help promote moderation and reconciliation in the Middle East.”

And finally, NPR has a report on the US military and terrorism in Africa.