A Statement Against Islamophobia from Mauritania’s Ruling Party (Excerpt and Brief Context)

Mauritanian’s ruling party, the Union for the Republic, yesterday (October 26) issued a statement against Islamophobia. The statement refers obliquely to recent “waves of offense to our pure (hanif*) Islamic religion and our Prophet, upon him be the best of blessings and the most befitting peace.” The statement goes on to argue, quite effectively in my view, that Islamophobia in the name of free speech undercuts “the spirit of openness and understanding the particularities of the other,” as well as the “goal of making humanity into a single society.” The statement does not call for other countries, in other words European countries, to ban anti-Islamic speech, nor does it call for any particular policy response, nor does it (in my reading) make any threats, it just condemns anti-Islamic speech and calls for a model of coexistence based on mutual respect.

Two contextual points:

  • The UPR is not an Islamist party but you do not have to be an Islamist to make a statement like this, especially in a virtually 100% Muslim society that proclaims itself an Islamic Republic. I think it can be assumed here that the UPR here speaks for the president as well.
  • I myself have only vaguely been following the latest developments in France and elsewhere, the developments that clearly prompted this statement from the UPR. Shoot the messenger if you like – but my point is that some people in the Sahel are clearly paying close attention to those developments and are very troubled by them. And issuing a statement like this does not mean the UPR is tacitly endorsing violence or anything like that.
  • The UPR is far from the only ruling party, or ruler, issuing statements like this. The tone varies a lot, though. See Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement, for example, which is much more direct about criticizing French President Emmanuel Macron.

*hanif is a hard word to translate; it can also mean “monotheist,” “sincere,” etc.

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.

Very Quick Notes on the September 29 G5 Sahel-MINUSMA-European Union Meeting in Nouakchott

On September 29, the G5 Sahel, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the European Union (EU) met in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott. This was a coordination meeting for supporting the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force, which draws battalions from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The meeting does not appear to have produced any dramatic news.

I’m a bit buried with work this week, so here are just a few links and notes:

  • The meeting was held in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2531 (available here). Among other things, the resolution (p. 11, paragraph 30) “Requests the Secretary-General to ensure adequate coordination, exchange of information and, when applicable, support, within their respective mandates and through existing mechanisms, between MINUSMA, the MDSF [Malian Defense and Security Forces], the FC-G5S [G5 Sahel Joint Force], the French Forces and the European Union missions in Mali, and further requests MINUSMA to convene regular meetings of the Instance de Coordination au Mali as the main platform for such coordination, exchange of information and support.”
  • Here is MINUSMA’s short press release (French) on the coordination meeting.
  • Here is a longer readout (French) from the G5 Sahel. Again, no major news from what I can see.
  • Brief press coverage from RFI (French).

And a few photographs, via Twitter:

Mauritania: Ex-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz Under a Police Microscope As Parliament Reconvenes

Mauritania’s former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as military ruler, and 2009-2019 as civilian president) faces an ongoing investigation into alleged corruption during his time in office. Here at the blog I last checked in on the story when Ould Abdel Aziz had given an interview to France 24 on September 10; in the interview, as in other press engagements, he dismissed the allegations and the investigation itself as baseless and politically motivated.

In August, Ould Abdel Aziz was held by the Economic Crimes Police for questioning for approximately a week, and then a few days later was briefly questioned again. On September 27 (more here, in Arabic), he was summoned once more, although he does not respond to questions in keeping with his legal team’s argument that he continues to benefit from presidential immunity. Meanwhile, his passport was confiscated in August, but he has now been barred from leaving the capital Nouakchott.

One source I missed in this story was this interview (Arabic) from August with the head of the parliamentary commission of inquiry, Habib Ould Brahim Diah. Jeune Afrique profiled Diah back in May, describing his background in the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) party under both Ould Abdel Aziz and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The interview is worth a read. In it, Diah argues that there has been a clear separation between the executive and the legislature during the parliamentary corruption inquiry, implicitly rejecting Ould Abdel Aziz’s characterization of the inquiry as a political vendetta.

What comes next? On October 1, a new ordinary session of parliament starts – in a “heated atmosphere,” to loosely translate this headline (Arabic). Directly relevant to the corruption inquiry, and to Ould Abdel Aziz’s ultimate legal fate, is the question of (re-)establishing a high court of justice, the sole body constitutionally empowered to try a former head of state. In July, deputies voted to create such a court, so now comes the implementation.

I have no idea how all this ends. A prison term for Ould Abdel Aziz is certainly possible at this point, I’d say. But I could also see a scenario where he simply leaves the country for good. Or a scenario some former ministers get harsh sentences, but not the ex-president. I’m still a bit surprised that the inquiry got this far, actually. I suppose I’ve gotten used to a Sahelian (and global) norm of former heads of state mostly being beyond the reach of the law – although I should add that multiple things can be true at once: Ould Abdel Aziz almost certainly oversaw major corruption, and the parliamentary inquiry is in my view quite obviously politically motivated. You don’t have to pick between those two interpretations.

 

Biographies of Contemporary Sahelian Ulama 1: Shaykh Muhammad Salim Ould Addoud

(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.

 

Notes on France 24’s Interview with Former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

Mauritania’s immediate past president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in office 2008-2009 as a military ruler, and 2009-2019 as an elected civilian president), is facing legal difficulties connected with a corruption investigation by the Mauritanian parliament. See my timeline of his encounters with parliament and the police here, and that post also links to pieces that give more context about the situation.

Ould Abdel Aziz gave a press conference on August 27, accusing the investigators (and, implicitly, his successor-turned-enemy, current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani) of using the investigation to settle scores and damage his reputation.

On September 10, from his home in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, Ould Abdel Aziz gave an interview to France 24. Again, as France 24 noted in their writeup, the former president denounces a “political vendetta” but without directly naming Ould Ghazouani as the instigator of that vendetta.

Here are a few other notes and comments on the interview:

  • Ould Abdel Aziz describes himself, along with his son-in-law Mohamed Ould Mboussabou (who was questioned by police in late August) and one of his sons,* as the principal targets of the inquiry. He complains that out of the 317 people (his figure) named in the report, only he and his two family members have been detained at length.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz traces the genesis of his current troubles to the power struggles over the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR), a contest he lost to Ould Ghazouani in late 2019/early 2020.
  • He describes the members of the parliamentary commission of inquiry as close associates of the current president – a claim with some truth, although as Jeune Afrique has noted, the head of the commission is a long-time UPR member, meaning he may have been close to Ould Abdel Aziz himself at some point.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz argues that his treatment has violated the Constitution and specifically Article 93, which basically grants the president immunity for all acts in office – except, and this is crucial, for high treason, and in that case an ex-president can be judged by a High Court of Justice. In late July, deputies voted in favor of re-establishing such a court in connection with the corruption inquiry. Asked directly about such a court, he dodged a bit, saying that the whole inquiry had been suffused with bias and irregularities from the beginning.
  • The second half of the interview is less interesting than the first; the second half basically consists of Ould Abdel Aziz mostly denying different things, including the suggestion that he wanted a third term or that, once out of office, he tried to organize a coup against Ould Ghazouani.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz is evidently frustrated and affronted, repeatedly saying that he had resisted all those close to him who encouraged him to seek a third term, and insisting that he left the country in excellent shape, stable, etc. He seems to have expected to receive a great deal of deference and exercise a great deal of influence in his post-presidency, and neither of those outcomes has occurred.

*I’m having trouble pinning this point down. He refers to the questioning of “the administrator of the foundation” connected with his son, and Al Jazeera refers to an accountant connected with that foundation being questioned. But I had trouble finding any more details. Relatedly, for what it’s worth, this columnist describes ex-Oil Minister Mohamed Abdel Ould Vetah as a kind of “adopted son” of Ould Abdel Aziz. So family connections appear to be involved in more ways than one. Readers’ insights on these points, and others, are welcome as always.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.

Mauritania: A Timeline of Former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s Legal Woes During Summer 2020

Here on the blog I try to keep pretty current on events from Mauritania to Chad but it’s hard not to fall behind with so much going on. In this post I’m going to try to catch myself (and you, if you need it) up on the corruption investigation into Mauritania’s immediate past present, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as a military ruler, and 2009-2019 as a civilian president). For my last post on the investigation, see here, and for broader background on the falling out between Ould Abdel Aziz and his successor, current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, see here.

For now, I want to assemble the timeline of key events this summer:

  • July 6: The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry summons Ould Abdel Aziz to appear at a July 9 hearing; he refuses.
  • July 27: The Parliamentary Commission presents its final report, and a majority of parliamentary deputies vote to reinstate the High Court of Justice, the sole institution capable of judging past presidents.
  • August 17: Ould Abdel Aziz questioned and detained by the police, specifically by the Directorate-General of National Security.
  • August 23-24: Ould Abdel Aziz released, but banned from leaving Nouakchott.
  • August 25: Ould Abdel Aziz summoned again for questioning by police.
  • August 27: Ould Abdel Aziz gives a press conference and charges that the Parliamentary Commission’s real goal is to settle scores and ruin his reputation.

For analysis of the most recent developments, see Geoff Porter’s briefing (available to those who sign up) at North Africa Risk Consulting.

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.