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Mauritania - SOCIETY

Mauritania - Society


MAURITANIA'S NINETEENTH-CENTURY French colonizers envisioned the country as a geographic and cultural bridge linking North Africa and West Africa. In the late 1980s, however, Mauritania bore little resemblance to this vision. Instead, it was a society undergoing profound transformation, torn between two cultural and linguistic traditions. The process of compelling nomads to settle that was begun by the colonial government earlier in the twentieth century was accelerated by the severe drought that began in the mid-1960s. For the next two decades, the rate of urbanization was unprecedented; Mauritania was transformed from a nomadic pastoral society to a predominantly urban one. Large pastoral populations were forced to leave land that could no longer support them. The already-overpopulated cities, almost all of which were located in the far south, were unprepared to receive these displaced populations.

Although partially offset by continuing high infant mortality rates, population growth during the 1970s and 1980s exacerbated problems of urbanization. Combined with a depressed economy, urbanization and overpopulation contributed to a generally low standard of living. In the 1980s, the government used its meager resources to increase investment in education, housing, and health care services, hoping to reduce the effects of widespread poverty.

In the late 1980s, Mauritania's population continued to be divided along ethnic and regional lines. Maures from the north-- whites and black descendants of former slaves who identified with Maure values--made up a traditional elite. The other major group was composed of people of black African ancestry, most of whom lived in the south and identified with African cultural and social values. The legacy of Maure domination and enslavement of blacks had been blurred by intermarriage and assimilation into Maure culture; still, the gap between these two groups remained wide, reflecting the weak basis for social cohesion or national consciousness. Social tensions were evident in frequent clashes over state policy, political appointments, and charges of domination, all based on deep-seated cultural antipathies.

In the late 1980s, ethnic tensions further contributed to an unstable social environment. Even the similarities that linked Maures with peoples of African descent were relatively superficial. Religious unity within Islam, for example, masked wide differences in religious observances among Maures and blacks. Government officials hoped that the nation's rapid urbanization might increase social and cultural interaction and reduce prejudices, but most admitted that the task of developing a true national identity and a unified society promised to be long and difficult.



Mauritania - Population


Like many developing countries, Mauritania was unable to compile accurate demographic statistics during its first decades of independence. The official census of December 1976 enumerated over 1.4 million people, including a nomadic population of about 513,000. Based on these figures, the 1987 population was estimated at 1.8 million, of which about 50.25 percent were females and 49.75 percent were males. The government estimated annual population growth at 1.6 percent during the 1970s, but United Nations (UN) estimates placed growth at 2.9 percent between 1975 and 1985. The 2.9 percent rate projected Mauritania's population size in the year 2000 to be nearly 2.5 million people. This rate of growth, although lower than that of many other African countries, was expected to rise during the 1990s.

The crude birth rate for the years 1980 through 1985 was 50.1 per 1,000 population according to UN estimates, an increase over the 45.1 per 1,000 ratio observed in 1965. The crude death rate declined from 28 per 1,000 population in 1965 to 20.9 per 1,000 population in 1980. Infant mortality was estimated at 137 deaths per 1,000 births. Life expectancy was 42.4 years for men and 45.6 years for women. Infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower than the average for Third World countries in the mid1980s . Like many developing countries, Mauritania's population was young: in 1985 an estimated 72 percent was under thirty years of age, and 46.4 percent was under fifteen years of age.

Based on UN estimates, average population density in 1987 was 1.8 people per square kilometer--by far the lowest level in West Africa. The population also was unevenly distributed. The 1976 census showed that 85 percent of all Mauritanians lived south of 18� north latitude--a line running roughly east from Nouakchott. Migration toward the south continued throughout the 1980s. Population density varied from 0.1 per square kilometer in the Saharan Zone to more than 35 per square kilometer in densely settled parts of the Senegal River Valley.

Mauritania's population underwent dramatic changes as a consequence of drought and migration during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, pastoral nomads (mostly Maures) and sedentary agriculturists (mostly blacks) constituted more than 90 percent of the population. At that time, urbanization was at a very low level. By the mid-1980s, however, observers estimated that less than 25 percent of the population was still nomadic or seminomadic, whereas the urban population was about 30 percent and the remainder, sedentary farmers or small town dwellers. Many other factors also contributed to this shift in settlement patterns and livelihood, including long-term efforts by colonial and independent governments to settle the nomads and new employment opportunities associated with mining and export industries.

These trends, accelerated in the 1980s, fostered rates of urbanization that the World Bank placed among the highest in Africa. In 1984 observers estimated that at least 30 percent of the population (more than 500,000 people) were urban dwellers, not counting temporary residents displaced by drought. In mid-1985 the World Bank raised this estimate to 40 percent, following a further two-year period of extreme drought. Counting both resident and temporary urban dwellers, some sources in the late 1980s placed Mauritania's urban population at or above 80 percent.

In the mid-1980s, Nouakchott was home to an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 inhabitants. Nouadhibou's population numbered 50,000 to 70,000; Zou�r�t's, about 50,000. Other cities, such as Atar, Ka�di, Rosso, and N�ma, had doubled or tripled in size between 1970 and 1985.

More than any other locale, Nouakchott illustrated the problems brought about by rapid and uncontrolled urbanization. Originally a small administrative center, it had about 30,000 inhabitants in 1959 and more than 40,000 by 1970. During the 1970s, the city grew at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year; rapid expansion persisted into the mid-1980s. Only about one-tenth of the city's population had access to adequate housing and services. Water and housing shortages were especially severe. Many of the recent arrivals lived in the k�b�s (shantytowns) that sprang up around the capital. In 1983 a French researcher calculated that 40 percent or more of Nouakchott's population lived in k�b�s; by 1987 that percentage had increased.

The Mauritanian government sought international assistance to cope with the population problem. It also attempted to reverse the influx of people to the cities by offering land, seeds, and transport to families willing to return to the countryside and resume farming. A relocation incentive program was launched in 1985, but because of persistent drought its prospects were difficult to gauge.

Despite massive unemployment, a substantial number of foreigners--as much as 15 percent of the modern sector work force--were needed to meet the demand for skilled labor. At the same time, at least 600,000 Mauritanians sought work outside their homeland, mainly in West Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Mauritanian traders, for example, were involved in petty commerce in Senegal and C�te d'Ivoire and sometimes traded as far away as Central Africa. Maures sometimes sought employment in the Arab petroleum-producing states, whereas black Mauritanians most often sought work in France. Each year from January to July, when there was little need for cultivators and harvesters in Mauritania, large numbers of workers (mostly blacks) sought jobs in Senegal and Mali.

<>Ethnic Groups and Languages

Updated population figures for Mauritania.


Mauritania - Ethnic Groups and Languages


In 1987 six ethnic groups inhabited Mauritania: one of primarily Arab-Berber (Maure) descent and the others of black African descent. In 1978 the government estimated that 70 percent of the population was of Arab or Berber descent and 30 percent of black African descent. Blacks, however, rejected the government's figures, claiming their number was much higher. In any case, the lack of reliable demographic data and a long tradition of interracial marriage had blurred ethnic boundaries and made attempts at ethnic identification imprecise.

The Arab-Berber population encompassed peoples of North African origins, most of whom were nomadic or seminomadic and who were unified primarily through the use of various dialects of Hassaniya Arabic. Hassaniya is derived from the beduin Arabic spoken by the Bani Hassan tribe, who extended their authority over most of the Mauritanian Sahara between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hassaniya is not closely related to other North African variants of Arabic, probably because the Arab invaders of this southwestern portion of the Sahara remained relatively isolated from the great Berber tribes of the northern Sahara. The primary differences among the numerous dialects of Hassaniya are phonetic.

The remainder of the population in 1987 comprised several groups of varied African ancestry. Most were sedentary agriculturists who spoke African languages. Family and kinship groups were the predominant social units. As elsewhere in Africa, kinship groups were preserved by interaction and social support, shared religious observances, and rituals celebrating stages of the life cycle of individuals. The sharing of rituals reinforced group solidarity and the values the kinship system embodied.

Traditionally, one of the most common kinship groups throughout Mauritania was the lineage, or descent group. Lineage organization is based on the belief that relationships traced through males differ substantially from those traced through females. The patrilineage, which traces descent through male forebears to a male ancestor, is the most common unit of social organization in Africa; matrilineages trace descent through female forebears to one female ancestor. Both types of lineages include men and women, sometimes five or six generations removed from the founding ancestor, but the linking relatives are of one gender.

Lineages generally share responsibility for socializing the young and maintaining conformity to social norms. Lineage elders often meet to settle disputes, prescribe or enforce rules of etiquette and marriage, discuss lineage concerns, and preserve the group itself.

Lineage ties emphasize the unity of living and deceased relatives by descent through ritual observances and ceremonies. At times, however, lineages break apart, either because of interpersonal rivalries or because they become too large to maintain close ties. When such fission occurs, related lineages usually maintain some ties and celebrate some occasions together. If their alliance is important enough to be preserved for several generations, the resulting confederation of lineages, usually termed a clan, often includes thousands of individuals and may become a powerful interest group in the context of a nation. In Mauritania, many aspects of lineage behavior and expectation are important, providing lineage members with a sense of history and social responsibility and defining the role of the individual in society.

<>Black Africans



Mauritania - Maures


Maures trace their ancestry to Arab-Berber origins, although many have intermarried among African populations over the centuries. Maures occupy scattered areas across West Africa from southern Morocco to Gambia and from the Atlantic Ocean to Mali. The greatest concentration of this group is in Mauritania, which took its name from this dominant segment of its population.

Maure society's complex social relationships are based on rigid hierarchical social and ethnic divisions. Social distinctions reflect the interplay of heritage, occupation, and race. Broadly speaking, Maures distinguish between free and servile status on the one hand and between nobles, tributaries, artisans, and slaves on the other hand. Non-Maure populations, termed "black Africans" in this context, are not included in this ranking system.

Two strata, the warriors (hassani) and the religious leaders (zawaya), dominate Maure society. The latter are also known as marabouts, a term applied by the French. These two groups constitute the Maure nobility. They are more Arab than Berber and have intermarried little with black African populations. Tributary vassals (zenaga) are below the hassani and zawya in status but nevertheless are considered among the elite. They are descendants of Berbers conquered by Arabs, and their Hassaniya Arabic dialect shows a greater Berber influence. Although these three social strata are termed "white" Maures (bidan), the zenaga have intermarried with other groups to a greater degree than have the hassani and zawaya.

Craftsmen and artisans in Maure society are described as members of "castes" because they form closed groups whose members tend to intermarry and socialize only among themselves. Bards or entertainers, called ighyuwa in Mauritania and griots elsewhere in West Africa, are also considered to be members of a caste. At the bottom of the social order are the socalled "black" Maures, previously the servile stratum within Maure society.

Myths of origin are used to reinforce perceptions of social status and justify elements of this elaborate system of stratification. Craftsmen and musicians in Maure society are said to be of Semitic (Arab) rather than Berber or African ancestry. Imraguen fishermen, a caste group living in the vicinity of Nouadhibou, are thought to be descended from the Bafour, the aboriginal black population who migrated south ahead of the expanding desert. Small hunting groups are considered to be the remnants of an earlier Saharan people and may be of Berber origin.

White Maure Nobility

In Mauritania the warrior and marabout elites have developed a symbiotic relationship. Traditionally, warrior tribes protected the unarmed religious leaders, while the marabouts provided political, spiritual, and moral support for the warriors. Under French rule, most warrior tribes were pacified and became cattle herders and traders. Even though the warriors' role changed gradually from one of physical protection to one of political and economic control, the alliance of traditional warrior groups with associated religious tribesmen survived.


Mauritania - Zenaga


The zenaga, now the descendants of tributary vassals of the nobility, tend to be ethnically and culturally more Berber than the hassani and zawaya. They, too, are divided into warrior and religious tribes; but these traditionally were assistants to the nobles, often as slaves. The zenaga still work for the nobility, raising their livestock and looking after their families.

Traditionally, the zenaga paid both individual and group tribute to their noble patrons. Although the French colonial administration banned tribute (coutume), in some areas payment survived as late as the 1960s. Individual tribute took the form of military or educational services; group tribute was in the form of goods.

Artisans and Entertainers

The two most prominent occupational castes in Maure society are skilled craftsmen (or artisans) and entertainers (or storytellers). Artisans practice blacksmithing and ironworking, jewelrymaking, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, potterymaking, shoemaking, weaving, and tailoring. All crafts but weaving and tailoring are performed by men. Although the hassani, zawaya, and zenaga regard artisans as their inferiors, the elite values their products and services, and craftsmen are sometimes allowed to live among the elite on a nearly equal basis.

Entertainers, poets, and musicians constitute a special group. Maure society, like most Islamic societies, places a high value on poetry and music. At the same time, some Maures fear poets and musicians, to whom they attribute occult knowledge and mystical powers that can be physically or politically threatening. Accordingly, noble families often become the patrons of entertainers; thus, the nobles are able to demonstrate their elite status while obtaining both entertainment and protection. Fishermen, salt miners, and nomadic hunters are economically and socially marginal to Mauritanian society and are generally considered outside the caste system.

Black Maures

Black Maures distinguish themselves from "black Africans" to emphasize their cultural affinities with white Maures and their cultural distance from sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, their forebears were incorporated into Maure society as slaves. Maure society continued to accept the institution of slavery even after independence in 1960, but it customarily distinguished among three types of servile status: full slaves, part-slaves, and former slaves now freed, called harratin (sing., hartani). Conditions of servitude varied from benevolent to callous and cruel. White Maures had full rights over their slaves, including the right to sell or relocate them. Slaves sometimes earned or were granted their freedom.

Slavery has been outlawed several times, most recently in 1980. The term for slave, abd, was officially replaced with the term for freedman, hartani, but black Maures continued to be considered a slave class. Their status and role in Maure society have changed little. Many Maures continued to hold slaves and exercise their traditional prerogatives even after official decrees outlawed these practices.

Islamic law requires Muslim slaveholders to free their slaves by the fifth generation. Freedmen, however, usually remained in the camp of their former master and filled the same servile role. Whether as slaves or freedmen, black Maures tended their masters' animals, acted as household servants, worked in the palm groves or millet fields, or gathered the crop of gum arabic.

Maure Kinship and Marriage

The principal Maure kinship group is the patrilineage. Among sedentary Maures, the smallest segment of the patrilineage is a group of related males who, with their wives, sons, and unmarried daughters, constitute the extended family. Among nomadic groups, the significant unit is the camp group, consisting of several related lineage units and their extended families. The clan, the subtribe, and the tribal unit are groups of increasingly greater inclusiveness, each of which in principle is organized on the basis of patrilineal descent.

Marriage is almost always within the same clan, and lineages are endogamous as well. Islamic marriage prescriptions are generally followed, with the preferred marriage pattern between first cousins and strict prohibitions on marriage between other, specified relatives. In general, tradition emphasizes marriage within the lineage first, then within one's social level.

Polygyny is accepted among most Maure groups, but relatively few Maures actually have more than one wife at a time. Successive marriages are common, however, especially among elites. Marriage to a widow or a divorced woman entails a lower bride-price than a first marriage. Although levirate (marriage of a widow to her deceased husband's brother) is permitted, widows generally live with one of their sons rather than remarry.


Mauritania - Black Africans


Of the five major black African ethnic groups in Mauritania, the largest is the Toucouleur, an offshoot of the Fulbe. The Fulbe are the second largest black African group in the country. Other significant black African groups include the Sonink�, Wolof, and Bambara. Small groups of other ethnic Africans also live in the far south of Mauritania.

Like Maures, most Fulbe are nomadic. Most other African groups practice sedentary agriculture in the Senegal River Valley. Almost all have kin in Senegal or Mali. They speak Fulfulde or West Atlantic languages within the Niger-Congo language family.

Black African society, like Maure society, is highly stratified. The overall system of social stratification is nearly identical for all black groups. Three classes predominate: nobles, endogamous castes, and a servile class. Further social distinctions are recognized on the basis of livelihood, prestige, and power. Castes of skilled craftsmen are organized on the same occupational basis as among the Maures. Slaves and former slaves compose the servile group, but as within Maure society, they are accepted as part of a family and enjoy relatively humane treatment.


Mauritania - Toucouleur


The Toucouleur, also called the Halpularen, differ from the Fulbe primarily in terms of livelihood and dialect. Most Toucouleur live along the Senegal River in Mauritania and Senegal. As founders of the ancient kingdom of Takrur, they incorporated a number of local peoples, including the Wolof and Sonink�, into their society. The Toucouleur speak Fulfulde, a dialect of Pulaar (the language of the Fulbe) that includes many borrowings from their neighbors and differs from Pulaar in pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax. Most Toucouleur are sedentary farmers, in contrast with the nomadic Fulbe.

In addition to nobles, freemen, artisans, and slaves or former slaves, the Toucouleur also recognize social groupings based on age. Called fedde, these age-groups are involved in a number of rituals designed to ensure solidarity and pledges of friendship between families. Descent is patrilineal, and the patrilineage is the most important kinship group. Nonetheless, maternal kin also play important roles at critical points in an individual's life.

The Toucouleur are Muslim, and, like many of their neighbors, they believe in divination and supernatural power (baraka) associated with Islamic holy men. They are members of the Tijaniya Islamic brotherhood.


Mauritania - Fulbe


The Fulbe of Mauritania are part of the larger Fulbe population that inhabits scattered areas across the African savanna from Senegal to Sudan. They are thought to have originated in Senegal and to have slowly migrated eastward to their present locations over the last 800 years. Known by a variety of names, including "Peul" in Senegal and "Fulani" in Nigeria, they call themselves "Pullo" (sing.) or "Fulbe" (pl.) in Mauritania. Their Fulfulde dialect belongs to the West Atlantic subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family. It is a rich and flexible language with a well-developed body of oral literature. The Fulbe are Muslims, but the manner in which they observe Islam varies.

Pastoral Fulbe are famed for their herds of cattle and dairy produce. Much of their culture centers on their pastoral lifestyle . The basic social unit is the nuclear family; the nuclear families are organized into lineages and clans. Descent is patrilineal, and the household unit is usually the patrilocal extended family. Marriage is legitimized by the payment of a bride-price, and great value and prestige are placed upon childbearing.


Mauritania - Sonink�


The Sonink� in Mauritania are the westernmost branch of the large and widely dispersed Sonink� people (also called the Sarakol�), most of whom live in Mali, Burkina Faso, and C�te d'Ivoire. They inhabit the banks of the Senegal River in southcentral Mauritania, where they engage in agriculture and trading. Their ancestors were the founders of the ancient kingdom of Ghana. Some Mauritanian Sonink� speak Azayr, a Sonink� dialect heavily influenced by Berber; however, most speak the languages of the peoples among whom they live. They are fervent Muslims.

Sonink� society is rigidly stratified, allowing for little social mobility. Descent, inheritance, and succession to kingroup and family authority are all patrilineal, and the household unit is the patrilocal extended family. Polygyny is permitted, but the extent to which it is practiced among the Sonink� in Mauritania is not clear. Bride-price is a well-established custom, and folklore and ritual are integral to Sonink� life.


Mauritania - Wolof


A relatively small number of Wolof live in Mauritania. Most live in Senegal, where they are the dominant group. The Wolof language comprises several dialects and has borrowed many words from Arabic and various European languages. Almost all Wolof are Muslims, and nearly all belong to one of several Islamic brotherhoods. Farming and trading are the basis of their livelihood.

Descent is reckoned patrilineally, but close ties also are maintained with maternal kin. The basic social unit is the extended family. Perhaps one-fourth of all Wolof households are polygynous. Social stratification is fairly rigid, intermarriage across ethnic boundaries at the same stratum being far more common than intermarriage across strata.


Mauritania - Bambara


Only a small number of Bambara live in Mauritania; most reside in Mali. They are thought to be descended from the founders of the thirteenth-century kingdom of Mali. Their language, Mand�-kan, is closely related to nearby languages. Many are Muslims, the number of adherents varying widely by group and locale. Most Bambara are farmers.

The Bambara recognize occupational castes and the institution of domestic slavery, as do their West African neighbors. They recognize patrilineal descent, and they practice polygyny. The normal household unit is the extended family.


Mauritania - RELIGION


Virtually all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. They adhere to the Maliki rite, one of the four Sunni schools of law. Since independence in 1960, Mauritania has been an Islamic republic. The Constitutional Charter of 1985 declares Islam the state religion and sharia the law of the land.

Islam first spread southward into West Africa, including Mauritania, with the movement of Muslim traders and craftsmen and later with the founders of Islamic brotherhoods. Although the brotherhoods played a role in the early expansion of Islam, it was not until the nineteenth century that these religious orders assumed importance when they attempted to make religion a force for expanding identities and loyalties beyond the limits of kinship. The relative peace brought to the area by French administration and the growing resentment of colonial rule contributed to the rapid rise in the power and influence of the brotherhoods. In recent decades, these orders have opposed tribalism and have been an indispensable element in the growth of nationalist sentiment.

<>Brotherhoods and Saints


Mauritania - Islam


Origins of Islam

In A.D. 610, Muhammad, a prosperous merchant of the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations said to have been granted him by God (Allah) through the agency of the archangel Gabriel. The divine messages, received during solitary visits into the desert, continued during the remainder of his lifetime.

Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans, his vigorous and continuing censure ultimately earning him their bitter enmity. In 622 he and a group of his followers were forced to flee to Yathrib, which became known as Medina (the city) through its association with Muhammad. The flight (hijra) marked the beginning of the Islamic Era and the entrance of Islam as a powerful force on the stage of history; indeed, the Muslim calendar begins with the year 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued his preaching, ultimately defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated the temporal and spiritual leadership of most Arabs in his person before his death in 632.

After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled those of his words that were regarded as coming directly from God in a document known as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings of the Prophet, as well as the precedents of his personal behavior as recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith (sayings). From these sources, the faithful have constructed the Prophet's customary practice, or sunna, which they endeavor to emulate. Together, the Quran, hadith, and sunna form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the faithful in most Muslim countries.

Islam in a short time was transformed from a small religious community into a dynamic political and military authority. By the early eighth century A.D., Muslim conquerors had subdued the coastal population of North Africa, but widespread conversion of the nomads of the central and western desert did not come until after large-scale invasions of the eleventh century by beduin tribes from Arabia and Egypt. As Islam spread westward and southward in Africa, various elements of indigenous religious systems became absorbed into and then altered strictly Islamic beliefs. For example, the Islamic tradition includes provisions for a variety of spirits and supernatural beings, as long as Allah is still recognized as the only God. Muslims in Mauritania believe in various lesser spirits apparently transformed from pre-Islamic faiths into Islamic spirits. Mauritanian Muslims, however, do not emphasize the Islamic concepts of the eternal soul and of reward or punishment in an afterlife.

Tenets of Islam

The shahadah (profession of faith, or testimony) states succinctly the central belief, "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." The faithful repeat this simple profession on ritual occasions, and its recital designates the speaker as a Muslim. The God preached by Muhammad was known to his countrymen, for Allah is the general Arabic term for the supreme being rather than the name of a particular deity. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the pantheon of gods and spirits worshiped before his prophethood and declared the omnipotence of God, the unique creator. The term Islam means submission to God, and a person who submits is a Muslim.

Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets," the last of the prophetic line. His revelations are said to complete for all time the series of revelations that had been given earlier to Christians and Jews. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but men are seen as having misunderstood or strayed from his true teachings until set aright by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, resurrection, and the eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the "five pillars" of the faith: the shahadah, salat (daily prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). The believer prays facing Mecca five times a day. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque under direction of an imam, or prayer leader, and on Fridays are obliged to do so. Women are permitted to attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, but their attendance tends to be discouraged, and more frequently they pray in the seclusion of their homes.

In the early days of Islam, a tax for charitable purposes was imposed on personal property in proportion to the owner's wealth; the payment purified the remaining wealth and made it religiously legitimate. The collection of this tax and its distribution to the needy were originally functions of the state. With the decentralization of Muslim religious and political authority as Islam spread to many countries, however, this became an individual responsibility.

The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, celebrated as the time during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. It is a period during which Muslims must abstain from food, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours. Exempted are the sick, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, young children, and menstruating, pregnant, or lactating women. The well-to-do accomplish little work during this period, and many businesses close or operate on reduced schedules. Since the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan occurs during various seasons.

Finally, at least once during their lifetime, all Muslims should if possible make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in the special rites that occur during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Upon completion of this and certain other ritual assignments, the returning pilgrim is entitled to an honorific title, Haj (fem., Hajjah).

In addition to prescribing specific duties, Islam imposes a code of conduct entailing generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. It proscribes adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol. The proscription of alcohol is irregularly enforced in most Muslim countries, but since 1986 the Mauritanian government has strictly enforced its prohibition.

Muslims traditionally are subject to sharia, which--as interpreted by religious courts--covers most aspects of life. Sharia was developed by jurists from the Quran and from the traditions of the Prophet, and it provides a complete pattern for human conduct. Sharia also serves as a normative legal code.


Mauritania - Brotherhoods and Saints


The religious movement known as Sufism arose in the thirteenth century in reaction to the orthodox emphasis on law and its denial of the mystical or emotional needs of the human spirit. Sufism stressed the intuitive and emotional discovery of Allah by the faithful, and it interpreted the Quran as providing a key to the mystic union or personal friendship of individuals with God. The mystical elements of Sufism also facilitated the blending of Islamic beliefs and pre-Islamic religious concepts. With the rise of Sufi concepts came acceptance of the role of "intercessors" between the individual and God, which led to the formation of brotherhoods (tariqas, or "ways") and recognition of holy men (marabouts). From the thirteenth century, the brotherhoods and the marabouts were perhaps the most important elements in the growth and development of Islam in West Africa.

Essentially stemming from the combination of Sufi mysticism and orthodox Sunni intellectualism, the Islamic brotherhoods have also been important as a unifying cultural and religious force. Because membership in a brotherhood cut across ethnic and tribal lines, it contributed to the development of a broad communal identity.

The brotherhoods are all extremely hierarchical. Each has a chief who initiates all members and delegates certain responsibilities and authority to other leadership levels. Brotherhood members generally live in the secular communities of their tribes rather than in a central location, although they may live in separate communities while they are undergoing instruction. Thus, the religious community is more spiritual than physical for most brotherhood members, even though there is a central territory (zawiya; pl., zawaya) for an order or for its important branches.

The leaders of the brotherhoods are believed to have baraka, a supernatural gift that has been defined variously as "blessing" or "mystical power." In a general sense, baraka is more than a spiritual force or power. It is a complex of positive personal traits--moral, intellectual, and emotional--with which only some men are endowed and which sets these men apart from others in their group. Originally it was believed that baraka was invested only in the descendants of Muhammad. With the rise of Sufism and the growth of the brotherhoods, however, it became a quality that could be transmitted to other religious leaders or to anyone judged particularly worthy.

In the 1980s, two brotherhoods, the Qadiriya and the Tijaniya, accounted for nearly all the brotherhood membership in Mauritania. The Qadiriya and Tijaniya were essentially parallel "ways," differing primarily in their methods of reciting the litanies. Their Islamic doctrines and their religious obligations were basically similar. Two smaller brotherhoods also existed-- the Chadeliya, centered in Boumde�t in Tagant Region, and the Goudfiya, found in the regions of Tagant, Adrar, Hodh ech Chargui, and Hodh el Gharbi.

The Qadiriya

The Qadiriya is the largest and most highly organized brotherhood in Mauritania. Founded in Mesopotamia in the twelfth century by Abd al Kader al Jilani, it spread to Africa in the fifteenth century. Like all brotherhoods, the Qadiriya includes some emotional mystical elements, but it also stresses learning and Islamic education as the way to find God. All members of the Qadiriya are directed to follow the precepts of humility, generosity, and respect for their neighbors regardless of religious beliefs or social standing.

The Qadiriya brotherhood has had two main branches in Mauritania, the Sidiya and the Fadeliya. Although the Sidiya has been most influential in the vicinity of Trarza--where the family and followers of the brotherhood's founder, Shaykh Sidiya Baba, were centered--it has also been important in Brakna, Tagant, and Adrar. The Fadeliya, founded in the early nineteenth century by Mohammad Fadel, has been centered in Oual�ta and Atar.

The Tijaniya

Ahmed al Tijani, an Algerian Berber, founded the Tijaniya brotherhood in 1781. Its rituals tend to be simpler than those of the Qadiriya, and its members are not expected to pursue Islamic learning to the same extent. Essentially a missionary order, the Tijaniya brotherhood has spread in many areas of West Africa at the expense of the Qadiriya. One explanation for its expansion may be that the simpler and more flexible Tijaniya teachings are better suited for modern life.

Tijaniya precepts include injunctions against lying, stealing, cheating, and killing. These precepts insist that promises and obligations be honored, neighbors be loved, and superiors be obeyed. Members are to deprive no one of his freedom without cause and are to reflect continually on God in prayer. Although the Tijaniya recognizes that everyone sins, it suggests that loyal members of the brotherhood will be rewarded in an afterlife.

The Tijaniya has two branches in Mauritania, the Hadefiste (or Hafediste) and the Omariya. Little is known about the Hadefiste. The Omariya branch was founded by a Toucouleur, El Hadj Omar, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The membership of the Omariya is largely Toucouleur, but many Sonink�, Fulbe, and Wolof also belong to this order. A subdivision of the Omariya, the Hamallya, was founded in the early twentieth century by Sherif Hamallah. The Hamallya emphasizes mystical Islamic beliefs more than most of the other brotherhoods and stresses the equality of all mankind. Drawn from the Fulbe and from mixed Maure groups, Hamallya membership initially included ex-slaves, young people, and women. This group has tended to be extremist, and the main Tijaniya brotherhood claims it is not a true Tijaniya group.


The leader of a brotherhood, called shaykh by the Maures, is often referred to as a marabout. This term, however, is a general title that applies to any religious leader or to any person who performs the functions traditionally associated with Islam. In a religion without formal clergy, the marabout represents the human element in the faith, the intermediary between the people and Islamic theology. The marabout exercises a moral and spiritual influence within the culture and propagates the faith by teaching, proselytizing, and--at least in the past--wielding political influence. Marabouts usually are associated with a brotherhood and, like the leaders of the brotherhoods, are believed to possess baraka.

The functions of a marabout include teaching and promoting Islamic culture; leading religious recitations (including chants in some cases) in community prayer; and performing rites connected with curing the ill, preventing misfortune, and soothsaying. Because illness is believed to have spiritual as well as physiological causes, the marabout is called upon to help cure the sick. The marabout also makes, uses, and sells amulets and talismans that are believed to have mystical powers to protect their bearer from sickness, injury, and other misfortune.

Other functions of the marabout include negotiation, mediation, and activities related to peacekeeping; the granting of protection and asylum to individuals; and the acting as advisers and agents of important tribal leaders. Although the role of the marabout as political adviser to warring tribes or groups has diminished, many of these mediation or arbitration tasks have political overtones.


Source: U.S. Library of Congress



In the 1980s, Mauritanian society was a collection of distinct, stratified ethnic groups that showed little evidence of social cohesion or national identity. The process of creating national institutions or professional classes had hardly begun. For most Mauritanians, loyalty to family, lineage, and ethnic group far outweighed allegiance to the state or to national institutions. Ethnicity, social position, and caste identity remained strong, conditioning the processes of state formation and administration.

During the colonial period, Mauritania's social structure had come to reflect the impact of French administrative preferences. Individuals, families, and dominant clans attempted to use the colonial presence to maintain or improve their privileged status. Among the Maures, for example, the zawaya tribes at first used their control of religious education to dominate economically and politically. This was accomplished at the expense of the hassani, who had made the transition from warriors, raiders, and tribute collectors to pastoralists, traders, and low-level civil servants. However, the French generally employed Wolof and Toucouleur, rather than Maures, as low-level civil servants. By 1960 black Africans were the majority of the colonial administration's civil servants and played a much larger role in the modern employment sector than did either the hassani or the zawaya.

After independence was granted in 1960, Mauritanian society changed faster than it had during the colonial period. This era saw the beginnings of urbanization, the founding of a permanent capital, the establishment of national organizations such as trade unions, and the expansion of education facilities and literacy. It also brought a reorientation away from West Africa toward the Maghrib as the number of white Maures in the government increased. Secular education, heretofore largely the preserve of black Africans, increased significantly among Maures. White Maures attempted to give Mauritania a distinct Arab-Berber character and in doing so often alienated the black population. At the same time, Maures developed a sense of ethnic identity and unity that had not existed before independence.

By the 1980s, the ranks of the bureaucracy and military included both white Maures and black Africans, but the distribution of professionals in these ranks varied widely. In the late 1970s, studies indicated that black Africans generally formed a larger proportion of the salaried professional class than did white Maures, whereas the opposite was the case among wage earners and general laborers. Continuing the colonial pattern, the Toucouleur and the Wolof were well represented in higher and mid-level professional ranks, and the Sonink� were beginning to penetrate the lower and mid-level ranks. White Maures and black Africans were almost equally represented at the highest bureaucratic levels.

Considerable tension existed between Maures and black Africans in the late 1980s. Many Maures still viewed black Africans as people who should be under Maure control, a perception especially evident among more traditional Maure tribes of the north. Many blacks, however, considered Maures (especially white Maures) to be ignorant, lazy, and inefficient. They also saw white Maures as slaveholders. Thus, they feared growing Maure political and social dominance.

These attitudes intensified during the 1980s. Despite official denials, many black Africans complained of widespread racial discrimination in political and economic areas. They pointed to the disproportionate number of Arab-Berbers at the top of the government bureaucracy and military command, to Mauritania's close ties with the Arab world, and to the emphasis on the use of Arabic in national life to support these complaints.

Another issue that exacerbated racial tensions during the 1980s was access to land along the Senegal River. As plans for economic development along the river valley progressed, blacks feared that wealthy white Maures would buy up productive land in areas traditionally claimed by blacks. Desertification of once- fertile lands farther north added to the competition for better watered land in southern Mauritania.

As in many newly independent countries with marked ethnic and linguistic diversity, the selection of national and official languages heightened intergroup tensions. At independence, Hassaniya Arabic was given "national" language status, while French remained an "official" language. In 1966, however, the government made Hassaniya Arabic an official language along with French and required that Arabic be taught in secondary schools, a requirement that brought protests from Mauritania's blacks.

In the late 1980s, blacks continued to protest against the compulsory study of Arabic and complained that their lack of proficiency in the language was used to block their advancement in the bureaucracy and military. Blacks could still choose to be educated in French, however, and French retained its status as an official language. The government also permitted primary-level instruction in several of Mauritania's African languages.

Economic development has altered traditional social organization, particularly among groups near centers of modernization. Rapid urbanization has accelerated these changes. The importance of lineage endogamy has declined among Maures, and customary marriage patterns have begun to change. By the late 1980s, urban Mauritanians paid less attention to distant segments of their lineages, and they seldom reckoned their kin-group membership back more than five generations.

Economic functions of the various black African and Maure caste groups were becoming less rigid; social patterns, therefore, also were becoming more fluid. An increasing number of Mauritanians were involved in work unrelated to traditional caste occupations. Although the customary social distinctions associated with traditional stratification patterns remained and individuals were still identified socially as members of particular castes, there were indications that caste designations were becoming less important socially and economically. In addition, government efforts to modernize and commercialize the activities of craftsmen and fishermen resulted in some rise in the social status of these groups.

If the pace of change was slow in Mauritanian society as a whole, it was even slower in the area of slavery. Slavery was abolished in 1960 and again in 1980. Mauritanian authorities acknowledged the continued existence of slavery and took limited steps to eradicate it, but in 1981 observers estimated that at least 100,000 people were still slaves and 300,000 were ex- slaves.

In 1974 a group of escaped slaves formed an emancipation movement known as El Hor (Freedom). By the late 1970s, El Hor began to achieve some notable successes; the 1980 decree abolishing slavery was owed at least in part to El Hor's agitation, as were fact-finding missions by the London Anti- Slavery Society (1981) and the UN (1984). Building on these achievements, El Hor continued to press for specific laws to ensure that emancipation became a reality and that former slaves enjoyed equal rights and treatment.

Factors that conditioned the role of women in Mauritanian society in the late 1980s included the impact of Islam and sharia (Islamic law); West African influences that allowed women substantial independence in some social and economic areas; economic modernization, which challenged customary behavior patterns in some areas; and Mauritania's rapid pace of urbanization, which subjected traditional nomadic customs to new scrutiny. Many women in such urban centers as Nouakchott, for example, were born in the rural interior of the country and found their childhood training challenged by changing urban social conditions.

Girls' education took place primarily at home and emphasized homemaking skills. Some girls attended Quranic schools, but their training was usually limited to learning verses from the Quran and attaining minimal literacy skills. A mother's responsibility toward her daughter traditionally included instruction in household and family affairs and childrearing. In recent decades, fathers were responsible for financing any formal education for their children, but a father's most important responsibility toward his daughters was to prepare them for marriage, primarily by ensuring their physical attractiveness. A widespread practice was forced feeding (gavage). Forced feeding usually involved psychological pressure, rather than physical force, but it often required a family to reserve substantial quantities of food--in most cases, milk--for consumption by its pre-teenage daughters, whose beauty was a measure of a father's commitment to the marriage alliances they would form. Many young women were betrothed or married by the age of eight or ten. Unmarried teenage girls were subjected to severe social criticism.

Divorce was fairly common in Mauritanian society in the 1980s, even among very traditional villagers. A divorced man suffered no social stigma, but a divorced woman could still become an outcast if her family or her former husband's family criticized her behavior. Women traditionally had cared for their homes and worked in limited agricultural pursuits; but by the 1980s, they were beginning to enter professions formerly closed to them, such as commerce, teaching, and a variety of skilled occupations.

By 1985 nearly one-fourth of all girls below the age of eleven attended primary school, a marked increase over enrollment figures just a decade earlier. More women were attending secondary schools and university, and in 1987 Khadijatou Bint Ahmed, Mauritania's minister of mines and industry, became the nation's first female cabinet official.


Mauritania - EDUCATION


In the late 1980s, Mauritania was still in the early stages of developing a modern education system. Although Islamic education had long been an important part of life, this religious instruction involved only rote learning of the Quran. Few Mauritanians possessed skills necessary to create a modern nation-state.

The government has consistently stressed the need for improved and expanded education programs and in the 1980s was actively pursuing these goals. While modern, skill-oriented programs were being established to help satisfy the growing needs for skilled workers and technicians, efforts also were under way to expand traditional Islamic education. Expanding Quranic education has been viewed as necessary to preserve Islamic cultural tradition and promote national unity.

Traditional Islamic Education

Mauritania has long had an extensive but scattered education system consisting of the religious and cultural education provided by marabouts. Indeed, it was largely through the efforts of these teachers that Islam was spread throughout West Africa. Although in the past Islamic education was largely limited to fundamental religious teaching, the children of white Maures often studied Arabic and simple arithmetic as well. Both boys and girls received traditional education, at first within the family and later in the local Quranic schools operated by the marabouts. They usually began their education around the age of eight, the boys studying for about seven years, the girls for perhaps only two.

Traditional Islamic schools were found in the nomadic communities and in settled villages. Because particularly renowned marabout teachers would be surrounded by families who wished their children to learn from these masters, several centers of more advanced Islamic learning developed around the camps of these marabouts. In these centers, students learned grammar, logic, and other subjects, as well as traditional religious subjects. Many of the centers developed sizable collections of manuscripts through the efforts of the great marabouts.

The tradition of religious learning centers continued through the late colonial period. The Institute of Islamic Studies, founded in 1955 at Boutilimit, was the only Islamic institution of higher learning in West Africa. It provided instruction in traditional Islamic subjects and teaching methods. After independence, it was moved to Nouakchott, where it continued to draw upon the manuscript collection built by the marabouts of Boutilimit as well as other libraries of traditional Islamic literature in Chinguetti, Ka�di, Mederdra, Oual�ta, and Tidjikdja.

Modern Education

The French colonial administration established a system of public schools in Mauritania. The French schools were largely concentrated in the sedentary communities in the Senegal River Valley. In 1950 the first teacher training school was established at Boutilimit, and in 1957 the secondary school in Rosso also began training teachers. In part because public schools were concentrated in the south, black Africans enrolled in large numbers. As a result, the overwhelming majority of public school teachers were black, and blacks came to dominate the nation's secular intelligentsia.

The few French schools located in nomadic areas had difficulty attracting students. The Maures in particular were reluctant to accept the public schools and continued to favor purely Islamic instruction. Gradually, however, they began to send their children to public schools, as they saw that traditional religious training was not preparing their children for life in the twentieth century. The French also experimented with "mobile schools" after World War II, and in this way they provided public education for a larger number of nomads. In 1954 there were twelve so-called "tent" schools serving 241 students. At least some of these tent schools continued to function after independence.

The independent government viewed secular education as one of the major methods to promote national unity, as well as a necessary step toward the development of a modern economy. It still faced shortages of funds, adequately trained teaching staff, and classroom facilities at all levels. Another teacher training school was opened in Nouakchott in 1964.

School attendance was not compulsory, and in 1964-65 only 19,100 primary-school students and 1,500 secondary-school students--about 14 percent of school-age children--were enrolled. By 1985 an estimated 35 percent of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, but only about 4 to 10 percent of eligible secondary-school-age children were enrolled. In both cases, boys heavily outnumbered girls.

In 1985-86 primary-school enrollments had climbed to 140,871, and enrollments in secondary and vocational schools amounted to 34,674. The government reported a total of 878 primary schools and 44 secondary or vocational institutions. A total of 4,336 students were enrolled in postsecondary training programs. An additional 448 students were attending the National Islamic Institute (formerly the Institute of Islamic Studies), and some 1,900 Mauritanians were enrolled in various training programs abroad. The public schools employed almost 2,900 primary teachers, 1,563 secondary and vocational teachers (412 of them foreign), and 237 postsecondary instructors, more than half of them expatriates. In 1982 the National College of Administration and the National College of Sciences opened in Nouakchott, and in 1983 nearly 1,000 students began instruction at the University of Nouakchott.

Illiteracy remained a major problem and an important impediment to economic and social development. In 1985 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 17 to 25 percent, approximately half the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, this rate represented an improvement over the estimated 5 percent literacy rate at independence and 10 percent a decade later. Recognizing the need for a better educated work force, in mid-1986 the government launched a major literacy campaign and created the State Secretariat of Culture, Information, and Telecommunications to head the effort. That same year, the government reported that the number of literacy classes had already increased more than ten times over the 1985 number.

At the same time, the cost of education was quite high in comparison with neighboring countries. In the mid-1980s, Mauritania was spending about US$45 million (20 percent of current expenditures) on education every year. Its costs for primary schooling were the highest per student in francophone West Africa, and only C�te d'Ivoire exceeded the cost per secondary pupil. These high costs were due in part to teachers' salaries, particularly those of expatriates, and to a generous system of scholarships. Planned investment in education for the years 1985 through 1988 was set at US$27 million under the Economic Recovery Program for 1985-88, an increase of less than 1 percent over the period from 1980 through 1984.

The French system of primary and secondary schools remained in force into the late 1980s. Over the years, however, some significant changes had been made, and others were planned. In the early 1980s, instruction in Pulaar, Azayr (Sonink�), and Wolof was introduced into the primary school curriculum, and Arabic was emphasized at all levels. The official policy of gradually replacing French with local languages and Arabic, adopted in the late 1970s, drew vigorous protests from Frenchspeaking black Mauritanians and was abandoned within a decade.

Mauritania remained critically short of skilled labor. In the mid-1980s, only about 15 percent of secondary-school students were enrolled in vocational education. To redress this situation and to raise the general level of literacy, the government encouraged the growth of private and Quranic schools; most industrial training took place in private institutions. More important, the government also turned to the international community. In 1987 the World Bank agreed to help make Mauritania's education system more responsive to the country's development needs. Proposed changes involved expanding primary education and restructuring secondary schooling. Special attention was to be given to vocational training in areas of particular national need, such as water engineering and fisheries.




Despite the central government's good intentions and some health care planning, health care and medical facilities in Mauritania remained inadequate in the late 1980s. Most Mauritanians, especially those who inhabited rural areas, did not have access to modern health care facilities. Nouakchott and the provincial centers had facilities, but even in these locales health care was rudimentary. Planned public investment in health and social services for the years 1985 through 1988 was projected at only US$2.5 million. While this doubled the amount spent from 1980 through 1984, it was still inadequate to meet the country's needs.

Medical Care

Mauritania's health care infrastructure in the early 1980s consisted of a central hospital in Nouakchott, twelve regional hospitals, a number of health clinics, maternal and child care centers, dispensaries, and mobile medical units to serve the countryside. All facilities suffered from a lack of equipment, supplies, and trained personnel. The ratio of people to hospital beds was 2,610 to one. The ratio of people to physicians was 13,350 to one. This ratio represented an improvement over the 1965 figure of 36,580 to one and was better than that of some of Mauritania's neighbors.

In 1987 Mauritania's largest medical facility was the 500-bed government-run hospital in Nouakchott. Staffed by Mauritanian and expatriate doctors, it lacked supplies and properly maintained equipment. Other facilities included the National Health Center, built in 1977 for the study of disease prevention and methods of public health care education, and the National School of Nurses and Midwives, founded in 1966 to train nurses, midwives, and paramedical personnel.

In general, health standards were quite low, and many infectious diseases were endemic. Contagious diseases (such as measles and tuberculosis) and respiratory disorders were more prevalent in northern arid regions, whereas malaria, guinea worm infection, and schistosomiasis were more common in the Senegal River Valley. The desert tended to be a healthier environment than the more tropical south, but several major diseases were common to all areas of the country. Typhoid, poliomyelitis, hepatitis, and a variety of parasitic illnesses also affected the population. In late 1987, the World Health Organization issued warnings about cholera, and outbreaks of both yellow fever and Rift Valley fever were reported in the extreme southern part of Trarza Region around Rosso. Contagious and infectious diseases were rampant in the k�b�s surrounding major towns, cities, and villages.

In the mid-1980s, a mass vaccination campaign for children under five years of age was under way. The program, aimed at reducing infection from poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, and several other diseases, was reportedly meeting with some success. Malnutrition remained widespread, especially in children. The long-term drought and the consequent drop in food production exacerbated this problem during the early 1980s. According to a 1987 report by the United States Agency for International Development, between 40 percent and 70 percent of children under the age of five had experienced moderate to severe malnutrition. The degree of malnutrition varied according to the success or failure of local crops, and some slight improvement was noted in early 1987.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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