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.


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.

New Post at The Maydan: “An Emerging Post-Salafi Current in West Africa and Beyond”

This post, up today at The Maydan, is a somewhat tentative argument from me (i.e., I might be completely wrong, but I wanted to explore the them). It deals with the question of whether there is something we might call “post-Salafism,” i.e. a trend within the Salafi movement that reaches much more accommodating positions toward Sufis and other non-Salafis. I consider the kinds of internal contradictions and limitations within Salafi politics that seem to be propelling some Salafi (or post-Salafi) openings toward Sufism in Mali, Mauritania, and even the United States. I look forward to your feedback!

Mauritania: Muslim Scholars and Associations React to the Closure of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama

Last week, I wrote about Mauritanian authorities’ decision to close Markaz Takwin al-Ulama, or the Center for the Training/Formation of Islamic Scholars. The school is run by Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, a prominent Islamist cleric in Mauritania and beyond.

As one might expect, the closure has elicited criticism from Islamists within Mauritania. I was a bit surprised (though I should not have been) that the issue reverberated beyond Mauritania as well.

Here are some of the reactions.

Al-Dedew sent an audio message to supporters and students of the Markaz:

Employees of the Markaz protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott, stressing the school’s international and scholastic character:

The staff also went to court:

In Burkina Faso, the Salafi association Daawatoul Islamia (The Islamic Call) denounced the closure and, interestingly, attributed it to authorities’ anger at al-Dedew’s criticisms of Saudi Arabia (h/t Louis Audet-Gosselin, whose tweet about this Facebook entry inspired my blog post):

The Moroccan Islamist association Movement for Unity and Reform (Harakat al-Tawhid wa-l-Islah) also released a statement (Arabic original, French summary) criticizing the closure.

Some Mauritanian actors, meanwhile, took more complex positions. The ex-al-Qa’ida cleric Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Muritani, who returned to Mauritania in 2012 and became a prominent scholar) met with various actors in the debate, including the president, and issued a statement on his Facebook page. The statement argued that the closure was not part of a “general government policy” toward Islam or Islamic institutions, but rather was “an individual issue.” Ould al-Walid went on to say, however, that he and others had asked the president to reconsider the decision and reopen the school. (The statement is much more complex than that, though, in both its argumentation and its politics, and it merits its own blog post.)

Finally, I should point to the response of more official, government-leaning ulama in Mauritania. Two bodies – the National Union of Mauritanian Imams and the League of Mauritanian Ulama – released a statement that praised what they called “tangible services and achievements in the Islamic field” under the president’s leadership. The statement went on to say, without mentioning the Markaz, that “the modern institutes have not succeeded in graduating/producing any scholar from our society since their founding and up to today.” The struggle over the Markaz, in such scholars’ view, is not just a political battle between the government and Islamists but also an epistemological battle over the status and transformation of the Mauritanian mahdara (classical Islamic school).


On Mauritanian Authorities’ Closure of Markaz Tawkin al-Ulama

At a global level, one of Mauritania’s two most famous living Islamic scholars is Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew (the other is Abd Allah bin Bayyah). Ideologically, al-Dedew is most closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the Mauritanian Islamist party Tewassoul, although his theology and politics are not easy to classify; I myself have wavered on whether to classify him as a Salafi, given that his openness to warm relations with Sufis runs against the anti-Sufism that I usually associate with Salafism. Meanwhile, his relationship with organized Islamism is also complex, given that he is not a formal member of Tewassoul but rather a kind of spiritual mentor to Mauritania’s Islamist movement generally. The complexity of al-Dedew’s background and biography is also illustrated by his family lineage, which includes a maternal grandfather who was arguably the most famous traditionalist scholar of the early postcolonial period, and a maternal uncle who was a longtime government scholar and minister. So the sources of al-Dedew’s charisma and reputation are multiple and even somewhat in tension – he drew on family prestige even as he emerged as a political dissident, especially during the period when Mauritania had relations with Israel (1999-circa 2009).

Al-Dedew is also a participant in a loose movement to “modernize” the Mauritanian mahdara. The mahdara is a traditionalist institution that teaches Islamic sciences, centered on Islamic jurisprudence and Arabic grammar but including other disciplines as well. A range of Mauritanian shaykhs of different theological and political persuasions, but mostly based in Nouakchott and a few other Mauritanian cities, have been experimenting with efforts to update and streamline the mahdara, allowing students to reduce their length of study while obtaining formal degrees (proponents of the traditionalist mahdara, of course, might counter that there is no way to streamline the curriculum except through shortcuts). Al-Dedew’s own effort in this direction is Markaz Tawkin al-Ulama (The Center for Forming Islamic Scholars, founded 2009), located in Nouakchott. I visited it in fall 2017, where I was unsuccessful in meeting al-Dedew but where I did get an overview of the school’s curriculum and approach. During the same visit, critics of al-Dedew told me that the Islamist movement has failed to produce any other notable Islamic scholars and that the Markaz is his effort to cultivate a new generation of scholars for the movement.

On 24 September, Mauritanian authorities closed the Markaz, accusing it of spreading extremism. The closure is part of a longer story of highly variable relations between al-Dedew and successive Mauritanian regimes, as well as highly variable relations between regimes and the Mauritanian Islamist movement as a whole. Major crackdowns came in 1994 and 2003, and al-Dedew himself has been imprisoned before. At other times, however, regimes have not just tolerated Islamism (for example, by giving legal recognition to Tewassoul in 2007) but also worked with al-Dedew, most notably by involving him in dialogues with imprisoned jihadists and accused jihadists starting in 2010. There were tensions even then, of course, but it seemed in recent years that the administration of current President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz was breaking with past policies of arresting major Islamists.

Reacting to the closure of the Markaz, al-Dedew has denied that any extremist views were taught there, and has called the closure “a surprise with no cause or justification.” Al Jazeera, at the link, also quotes from a Facebook post by the Markaz’s deputy director Mahfouz Ibrahim Ould Vall, but I could not find the original post on his page.

I honestly don’t know what prompted the closure, but it’s hard not to view it in the context of the recent legislative elections in which the ruling party did quite well and in which Tewassoul was solidly in second place. The closure perhaps comes as the regime’s reminder to Tewassoul and to al-Dedew in particular that the regime is in charge of the country and will only tolerate dissent to a certain point. One could also, in this vein, point to debates among the Mauritanian ulama, from a few months ago (May-June), concerning the possibility of a third term bid by Ould Abd al-Aziz. Whereas longtime government-aligned scholars explicitly endorsed the idea, the Markaz’s Ould Vall (speaking, I assume, for al-Dedew as well as for himself) said that the president should serve only two terms, i.e. should step down in 2019. Ould Abd al-Aziz has not publicly declared any intention to run in 2019, but various constituencies (perhaps with his permission or encouragement) are already calling for it, and so the debate has already been initiated in the public sphere. It would not be a stretch, then, to view the closure of the Markaz as an early move by the regime as it prepares to more openly lay the groundwork for a third term.

Some observers have suggested that there may be something to the charges of extremism against al-Dedew. Personally I’m highly skeptical that al-Dedew has any organizational links to any jihadists, although it’s worth noting that the way al-Dedew talks about jihadism (for example, about jihadism in northern Mali) is relatively mainstream in the Mauritanian context but would shock a lot of Western observers. What’s “radical,” then, is partly in the eye of the beholder.

More broadly, though, I wonder whether the closure of the Markaz is a sign that Mauritanian policy on jihadism is shifting. I think some of Mauritania’s success in avoiding jihadist attacks since 2011 is predicated on the regime not arresting, imprisoning, and torturing Muslim scholars and preachers – the crackdowns of the 1990s and the early 2000s were explicitly cited by some young Mauritanian jihadists as grievances that fueled their desire to attack within Mauritania. The argument, to be clear, is not that al-Dedew is involved in extremism, but that if young Mauritanian hardliners see the regime targeting figures such as al-Dedew, they may get angry enough to stage attacks in Mauritania again. So arguments about cause and effect – does targeting al-Dedew forestall or encourage violence – can run in multiple directions, depending on how one views these dynamics. If I’m right, though, then the authorities must be calculating that they’re ready to pay the price of angering some young hardliners, and that the benefits for the regime of targeting al-Dedew outweigh any risks that action may generate.