When you think of Islamic Scholarship, which country do you think of? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Yemen? Syria? How about Mauritania?
Mauritania has got to be the most interesting country. It sits on the borders of the Atlantic ocean and northwestern Africa. Ninety percent of it is made up of the Sahara Desert and its population reflects a fusion of Arab-berber ethnicity, language and culture. Also, like all of Africa, it was colonised by Europeans…by the French. It’s filled with rich natural resources but also, like all African nations… it’s incredibly poor. But that’s not why it’s interesting.
You see, Mauritania has been one of if not the most vital countries in contributing to Islamic scholarship in the world. For centuries, Mauritanians and other Western African Muslims were admired throughout the Muslim world for their enthusiasm for Islamic Scholarship. As of the late twentieth century, it is estimated that there were close to 30,000 manuscripts preserved in nearly three hundred libraries in Mauritania.
But how? How did Mauritanians, living in the middle of the Sahran desert, have access to literature from all across the Muslim world? And how did Mauritanian scholarship become so sought after by the Islamic world? Let’s find out…
The story of Islam in Mauritania starts with the ancient city of Chinguetti. For more than 1200 years, Chinguetti has welcomed travellers seeking shelter from the harsh Saharan heat. Founded in the 8th century, it was originally a caravan stop for Hajj pilgrims that blossomed into one of the biggest centres of science, religion and mathematics in West Africa. It is because of this city and it’s reputation that gave the North Western African region its name ‘Bilad al-Shinqit’. Which is why any scholar bearing the title al-Shinqiti suggests strong scholarly expertise.
As pilgrims and scholars came and went, many left religious texts, scientific studies and historical manuscripts. In fact, so many of these historical documents accumulated over the years that during Chinguetti’s peak between the 13th and 17th Centuries, this thriving city boasted 30 libraries. Saharan families from across generations preserved book manuscripts in Saharan libraries. This reflected the immense sources of knowledge and by extension, power and prestige to the families who owned these libraries. Saharan traditions of islamic knowledge in and around Saharan oases thrived thanks to enterprising activities of Saharan scholars and their families. Scholars were often traders which means they were also really successful in acquiring and producing literature. It’s fair to say that a culture of Quran memorisation, mastery of Arabic language and the practice of Islamic Jurisprudence was fostered across Bilad al-Shinqit.
The Mauritanians understood that when the Prophet ﷺ commanded all Muslims to seek knowledge, it meant that they couldn’t just plant their feet in the ground and wait for the knowledge to come to them. They had to interact with the wider Islamic world and wherever they went they would put their legendary scholarly identities to good use. Wherever they went, they would lead the world in Islamic sciences and become the leading scholar on the Arabic language like Sheikh Muhammad Mahmud al-Turkuzi al-Shinqiti (d.1904) who held the position of chair of Arabic at Al-Azhar university. As a matter of fact, the political scientists Alex Thurston and Michael Farquhar have suggested that there are more professors from Mauritania in Saudi Islamic universities than from any other country.
Even female Mauritnians contributed greatly to all areas of classical Islamic scholarship. Like Khadija bint Muhammad Vall al-Samsadi al-Shinqīṭī (d.1947) who was nicknamed al-Qari’a al-Shinqitiyya meaning ‘the highly persuasive women from Shinqit’ because of her active ability to engage and win scholarly arguments against male scholars. She would often use the Quran and Hadith to help promote women’s role in Islamic scholarship and learning.
Mauritanians and other North Western Saharan Islamic scholars have had a profound impact on Islamic culture. They built robust Islamic networks that were and still are central to Islamic trends and ideas that go beyond borders. Their mastery of classical Islamic knowledge, the Arabic language and poetry and memorisation of the Quran cemented their authority on transnational religious authority. Till now, Mauritanian Islamic culture continues to exhibit rich intellectual tradition and global relevance. May Allah bless the scholars of Mauritania who have carried the knowledge of this beautiful religion.