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Studying Islam In Mauritania

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Studying Islam in Mauritania @ Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj


The following article, written by Rami Nsour, provides some basic information about the school of Murabit al Hajj in Mauritania. For those who are serious about studying in Mauritania, it is recommended that you contact or visit the Zaytuna Institute located in Hayward, California in person to receive more information.

Many people have heard of this traditional school in West Africa, but few have been able to get a good picture of the way studies are carried out there. Since it is located in a remote village, people also have many concerns about the living conditions there. Some people, not having adequate information have come unprepared or over-prepared (bringing unneeded items, which will only burden the person during the travel). Some people, after setting out to go to the school, became sidetracked and lost valuable time before reaching the school. Others did not reach the school at all, mainly due to not having information to contact people to aid them on their journey. The following information should help out those interested in the visiting the school of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj.


The traditional Islamic school in Mauritania is referred to as "mahdhara." It literally means "a fenced in or protected place." It has a long tradition going back to the Murabitun who came in and established institutions to train Muslims both spiritually and martially. They also divided the needs of the society among the present tribes. So, for example, certain tribes were appointed the duty of preserving the knowledge, and these tribes are known as the Zawaya. Other tribes were appointed the task of pursuing extensive martial training to protect the other tribes, and these became known as the Bani Hassan tribes. There were also tribes concerned with farming, some with carpentry or blacksmithing, and others with herding. The mahdhara was where the Zawaya focused their concern and succeeded in providing a system to disseminate the traditional Islamic sciences among the Ummah.


The mahdhara that most people have heard of is that of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj. His true name is Sidi Muhammad bin Salek bin Fahfu, and he is from the tribe of Massumi who trace their lineage back to the Himyar tribe of Yemen. The shaykh himself comes from a long line of scholars and is known throughout Mauritania for his knowledge and piety. After studying in the school of his father, he decided to make the trip to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage at the age of about nineteen. A total journey of about three years deserves a book to chronicle his experiences.

He traveled by foot crossing Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan and then by boat to Yemen where he then made his way to Mecca, spending time along the way teaching in many areas, and he was offered a position of teaching in Mecca. Although he had a great love to live in the city of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), he did not think he could assume the right of being a neighbor to the Best of Creation (peace and blessings be upon him), and therefore he made his return journey home. It was after his journey to Hajj that his mother gave him the title "al Hajj."

The shaykh then spent most of his time in solitude worshiping through prayers, fasting, and reading the Book of Allah. Staying near the encampment (as they were still nomadic at that time), he rarely interacted with people and had his food and drink brought to him. It was only after students came to sit with him upon hearing about his knowledge that he left his solitary worship. He then spent most of his time teaching with little time for family, sleep, and other basic needs. He would teach late into the night by fire light and then get up in the last part of the night to pray. However, if a student came for a lesson, the shaykh would quicken or give up this time for prayer, as well as all other types of extra praying. He has continued this way of life up until the present day where he still teaches, and the only thing that has slowed him down, although not considerably, is old age as he is about 95 years old. May Allah give him a long life to continue benefiting the Ummah of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him).

Through his perseverance and sacrifice, Murabit al Hajj has produced many scholars, some of whom are his own children and cousins. At his present school, his cousin Shaykh Muhammad al Ameen; his son, Muhammad Tahir; and his grandson, Shaykh Abdullah bin Ahmadna teach alongside him providing a complete system to teach the necessary sciences. Also, throughout the village are people who have memorized the Quran and are able to teach it and usually have a few small children learning from them. The wives and daughters of the shuyukh also teach the Quran and the basic texts of fiqh. In addition, there are advanced students who also spend their time tutoring others.


The Mauritanian school system of the mahdhara is a microcosm of the traditional style of learning that was going on throughout the Ummah. Then, within Mauritania, the school of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj is outstanding in that it has preserved the traditional way more so than other areas due to the remoteness of the village, an area where not even the Mauritanians in general frequent. In the early 1970's, Shaykh Murabit al Hajj and his family decided to go down and live in a city that was being established nearby, Guerou, because the drought had made it hard to live in the badia (open land) since their lives depended on their livestock and seasonal farming. It was an easier life, but Shaykh Murabit al Hajj did not feel comfortable living there as he felt that people were drifting away from the Sunnah. So, in accordance with the hadith about the last days, he took his family and livestock and returned to the badia to protect his deen.

The present location of his school has, at times, up to 400 people. About 100 of them are students with the rest being the shuyukh, their families, other families that have come to live with Shaykh Murabit al Hajj, and seasonal workers. There are two other schools in the area which follow the same style of teaching and learning. About 20 km to the northwest is the school of Shaykh Murabit Ahmad Fal, who is the father of Shaykh Abdullah. Shaykh Ahmad Fal was married to the daughter of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj until she passed away. About 30 km east of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj's school is the school of the noble Shaykh Muhammad Zain (who is descended from the Prophet, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him).

The method of learning utilizes the lawh , or wooden tablet, whereby the text is written in charcoal ink on the tablet and then memorized and studied under the watchful guidance of the shuyukh. Everything that is studied is committed to memory, and this is one of the reasons why the scholars of Mauritania (also known as Shinquitt) made a distinguished presence wherever they went. The children first memorize the Quran, starting at about seven years of age. After memorizing it, they study the rasm, which is the science related to writing the Quran according to the 'Uthmani script. Next, they study the Quran a second time, though this time they write it on their tablets from memory. The first time they write it either having the shaykh write it for them, dictate it to them, or by looking at a mushaf (copy of the Quran). After that, they learn the dabt which is a science related to the differences between the two narrations of Nafi' (Warsh and Qalun). They then move on to pursue further studies in fiqh, grammar, aqidah and hadith.

The madhab of Imam Malik is taught using traditional texts. The text of Ibn Ashir, Imam al Akhdari, the Risala of Ibn Abi Zaid, Ashalul Masalik, Nathmu Muqadimaati ibn Rushd, and the Mukhtasar of Sidi Khalil are the main texts studied there for fiqh. As for grammar, they use the Ajrumiyyah, Mulhat al 'Iraab, Qatru Nada, and the Alfiyyah of Ibn Malik. In aqidah, they teach the Ash'ari creed using the texts of Imam Ash Sharnubi, Imam al Bulaym, Jawahar at Tawhid, and Idaah as well as other texts.

The school is very simple in its set up, and there is no registration, semesters, or tuition. Each student enters study at whatever level he is on and may begin at any time of the year. After learning the basic texts of fard 'ain (individual obligation), the course of studies is up to the student, although the shuyukh will generally recommend what each particular student should study. Once a subject has been chosen, the student will then write out a small section of the text onto his lawh and then go to the shaykh. The student will read it to him so that he can correct any mistakes, since the teachers there have memorized the texts. Having corrected the mistakes, if any, the shaykh will then give an explanation and answer any questions the student may have.

The entire sitting is one-on-one, and the student is given as much time as he needs for the lesson. This is very important because it allows the student to study at his own pace by going as fast or slow as he wants through the texts. Also, because of this independent type schedule, the student can come and go to the school any time of the year. Once the student finishes that particular lesson, it is studied the remainder of the day for the purpose of committing it to memory. By giving the entire day to study that one lesson, with no other subjects interrupting, the student can concentrate deeply and spend many hours reviewing it. This review comes through sitting with the other shuyukh who are at that particular school, getting tutoring from one or more of the advanced students who are there, and then memorizing it. This last point is the reason that a student studies only one subject a day and goes on to another text once that one has been completed.


Memorization of texts was the traditional way students all over the Muslim world would retain the knowledge they were seeking. There are many stories and sayings of the scholars emphasizing the need to have the text memorized, but there is a famous one of Imam Al Ghazzali with which many people are familiar. Imam Al Ghazzali had spent two years transcribing texts that he would be using in his studies. He then traveled with this library when brigands attacked the caravan. They began to take his books because books in those days were very valuable. He asked one of the brigands to at least leave his books and not take away his knowledge. The brigand responded, "What kind of knowledge is that if a person like me can take it away from you?" Imam Ghazzali realized then that Allah (glory be to Him) had made him say that, and he resolved to memorize any knowledge he pursued in the future. Imam Al Shafi' also stressed the importance of memorization, and there are many amazing stories about his power of memorization. He has some lines of poetry to the effect of, "My knowledge is with me wherever I go, and it is not in my trunk at home," meaning that his knowledge is not only recorded in the books of his library but also imprinted on his mind and heart.


The place where Shaykh Murabit al Hajj has his school has actually become a village with many of the residents not necessarily being students. Depending on the time of year, the village, called Tuwamarat (a Berber word), can have up to 400 people. Of these, about 100 are students and the rest comprise of the shuyukh and their families, and other families who had moved there for the sole purpose of living and praying with Shaykh Murabit al Hajj. Additionally, there are a number of laborer families who do jobs for people in the village. These laborers take care of things from building the dwellings to fetching the water to preparing the food. All this is done for a relatively modest wage.

Part of the village is reserved for the students and part for the shuyukh. The masjid is in the center of the village, and the families are on the other side. The shuyukh and the families usually have adobe houses or the traditional sheep-hair tents. The students build small huts with wood frames and then cover them with cloth or canvas. Some students live together and build larger huts (15' by 20'). Others prefer to live by themselves and build small huts (8' by 10'). The students who live together help each other out with daily work such as cooking and fetching water. Other students who prefer not to deal with these chores usually hire some of the laborers to do the work. It is very inexpensive, relatively. Having 20 liters of water brought to you every day costs the equivalent of about $1.50 for one month. The type of food there is very basic and limited.


The food they usually eat is rice or macaroni for lunch, seasoned by either beef jerky or black-eyed beans, which are grown locally. In the night they usually have wheat cous-cous and sprinkle the jerky on it or add fresh meat when available. In the morning they have milk (when available) and bread cooked by a local baker when he is in the village. They also have dry wheat biscuits and dates that some people might have in the morning when the milk or bread is not available. As there is currently no butcher in the village, fresh meat is available only when a group of students or someone else slaughters a sheep or a goat and then divide the meat among those who participated in the purchase and butchering.


The water in the village is from a well which has a pipe that goes about 270 feet down into the mountain. The power needed to bring the water up is supplied by solar panels which are so efficient that the power they generate can carry over into the night and continue pumping up the water. Another well of that type was recently drilled and will soon be providing water as well. The only difference is that the power source for the latter one is by a diesel generator. The actual water is of very high quality and is as clear as the water out of the tap here in the United States.


The village does not have electricity other than the two solar panels which power the well and the three lights in the masjid. So, at night people get around using flashlights unless the moon is full enough to provide adequate light for moving around. The students who study at night usually don't need lighting as they use it for reciting Quran or practice other memorized material. The students who wish to use lighting at night can choose between the lighting in the masjid, flashlights, or candles. Batteries, flashlights, candles, and other basic materials are sold in the village. Some students have brought solar powered flashlights, and there is also room for people interested to bring solar panels from home to provide electricity for personal needs. The only advice for this is to buy quality products as the desert is very harsh, and only good products can withstand the conditions.


The village, known as Tuwamarat, is situated in one of the most remote areas in the world. Most people don't even know where the country of Mauritania is, and even more have not even heard of the country. Then, within that country, there is a mountain state known as Taganet (another Berber word meaning " the forest"), and most Mauritanians have not been to it. This is because the majority of the state is not accessible by roads, and the foot or animal paths are very rugged. The nearest paved road to Tuwamarat is a rugged 20km footpath or a 50km path that only the best 4x4s can travel on.

Many people may have a picture that only top trained people can reach this village, but keep in mind that all paths to the village have been traveled by old men, women, and young children. Then, in other situations, young strong men have refused to travel those same paths or, after travelling them once, have a hard time returning. The main reason for this is "Where there is a will, there is a way," and those who have a will to be in the company of some of the greatest men of Allah and seek sacred knowledge will look past the hardships and focus on the goal. So those young healthy men lost the will and therefore lost sight of the way.


The main season that people are concerned about is the summer which officially starts May 15 and goes to August 15, but the heat of the Sahara sets in about April and goes through July. (Precise temperatures may be obtained from some of the tourist websites of Mauritania.) The heat, like that of most deserts, is dry, not humid, and that makes it easier to tolerate. At the peak of the summer, the students usually take a two to three week vacation and either visit their families or go to the capitol, Nuwakshott, where it is cooler.

The summer begins to cool off as the rains of autumn begin, and this also turns the land green with grass. Autumn is officially from August 15 to November 15. Because of the abundant pastures and water, the animals in the village produce much milk which provides enough milk and yogurt for most of the students. From November 15 to February 15 is the winter which can get very cold at times. The cold does not actually start until about the end of November, and the months of October and November are actually very moderate months, oftentimes resembling the weather of California.

The cold of the winter is increased by ever-present winds which add to the wind chill factor along with the fact that most students don't live in the warm adobe structures. This does not hinder the studies of the students, and for many it actually causes their studies to increase. The reason for this is that the students often collect fire wood and then have a bonfire in the last part of the night both to keep them warm and give them light for reading their lawhs. Other students prefer to stay inside their huts and read by candlelight. With some extra clothing, such as sweaters and warm pants, it is actually not that hard of a season.

The spring is officially from February 15 to May 15. Because of the moderate weather, it is a good time for people who wish to study there to come and begin their studies. Arriving in the spring will allow one to adjust to the weather gradually, and so one will not have too much difficulty dealing with the heat of the summer that follows it.


Generally speaking, the life there is hard for even the Mauritanians, and more so for the people coming from the West who are accustomed to the luxuries of life. However, once a person experiences the serenity of Tuwamarat, all hardships are patiently borne. Studying with some of the most knowledgeable and God-fearing people is enough of a reward by itself, but there is another peace that is achieved there.

The isolation due to the location of Tuwamarat is something that all should experience. One type of isolation is from family and friends, as travelling in and out is hard, so many don't do it. There are no phones in the village, and the nearest phone is about one day's hard travel. This allows the student to spend his time focusing on the studies at hand. Imam Ghazzali mentions in his section on The Manners of Learning that studying far from one's home and not having many friends is essential for the student. Whereas most people do not have the discipline to implement this technique, those who are in Tuwamarat have no other choice than to follow this, and it works out for the best.

The other blessing that this isolation provides is separation from the vices of the city. Markets, cars, music, pollution of all types, and most other problems associated with the city are not present. This provides for such a pure environment that when a car comes to the village, its sound is heard long before it arrives. Then, once it arrives and after leaving, the stench of the diesel is quickly noticed by those near and far. Many people living in the cities take one weekend out of the year to go camping to try and "get away from it all." Allah (glory be to Him) has blessed those living and or studying in Tuwamarat with this peace every single day.


One can bring books designed to teach Arabic to non-Arabic speakers and then study them on one's own and get help from other students there who know Arabic, a few of whom learned the Arabic language, for the most part, there in the school of Shaykh Murabit al -Hajj. One of the most ideal books is the Kitab al Asaasi fi ta'lim al lughatil al 'Arabiyah (The Basic Book for Learning the Arabic Language). They are a set of three books and are the books used in the Syrian schools that teach Arabic. With the help of these books, it has been proven that the Arabic language can be learned at this particular school.

When I put this concern of non-Arabic speakers and their not feeling like they can go and study without the language to one of the shuyukh there (Shaykh Muhammad al Amin--the cousin of Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj), his answer was simple. He told me that the reason you go out to study is to rectify your worship of Allah through the traditional texts and that this can be done with having no knowledge of Arabic. Firstly, this is because you will learn the Arabic you need as you go through the text by using a dictionary and the translation. As for sitting with the shaykh and understanding him, there are students there that speak both Arabic and English and can translate for you. This is not a new thing and has been going on for some time. In fact, there was a student who could not hold a conversation in either Arabic or the dialect spoken there, and yet he had studied and memorized the fiqh text of Al Akhdari and (at the time this paper was written) was studying and memorizing the fiqh text of Ibn 'Ashir.

Then, after finishing the basic books, one can choose to move on to a more extensive book in fiqh, the Risalah of Ibn Abi Zaid, and this covers all chapters in fiqh. This book takes about a year, but after having completed it as well as the other books (which should take between two to three years), a person will be well grounded in the areas of knowledge and will have a basic or extensive command of the Arabic language. At that time, if one chooses to continue studying, one will no longer have to rely on translators, translations, or dictionaries and might even be able to do without them after a year. Another thing to remember is that one of the main things to study is the Quran, and that can be memorized without having any knowledge of the Arabic language. This is a promise that Allah has made by making the Quran easy to memorize and has been proven throughout the ages by Muslims from all lands.


Everyone who wishes to come to the village is welcome, whether they come for a visit or for studies or just to spend their days praying behind the Murabit. The only thing that should be taken into consideration is the difficulty of the life there and the inadequate accommodations, especially for young children.

The Mauritanians themselves have a hard time living there, and they have had hundreds of years to adapt to the lifestyle. Inadequate food is not so much a problem for young men, but it may pose a danger to young children. Many of the young children there around two years of age will often eat dirt or sand, and they say the reason for this is a lack of vitamins. This is even present in some of the smaller towns, where although they occasionally have fruits and vegetables, it is obviously not enough. If you have children, you might consider having them study in a modernized country, such as Morocco, or at least one with adequate facilities. There they can learn the Quran and the other basic texts and then when older go continue their studies with the Murabit.

For those thinking about taking a family there, they should get in contact with many people before making any move. They should contact the Zaytuna institute, people who have gone to Mauritania, and people in Mauritania. Taking a family there without proper accommodations can be putting them in a dangerous situation which may lead them to catching a number of diseases which are present in Mauritania (such as malaria). One's hope of bettering the situation of one's family's spirituality can actually cause him to disobey Allah as the Law (Shari'ah) has required us to protect our bodies.


The cost of living will differ depending on if you choose to live in one of the schools in the badia (mountainous, desert regions) or in the city. As for the badia, after buying the materials you will use to build a place to live in and all the necessary utensils (between $250 to 500), you can figure about $20 a month for living expenses. The only thing you would add would be travelling expenses and the cost of the phones if you go down to the city to phone. The phones will range in price from $2 to $4 a minute. You might want to look into buying a satellite phone if you plan to stay a while and want to have regular contact with family or friends.

If you choose to live in the city, you might want to figure about $200 to $300 a month. Remember, these are only rough estimates for a single man, and even that will differ depending on his life style. If he is planning on bringing a family to live in the city, then he would have to figure out a different set of expenses, and he might better work that out after talking to someone from Mauritania.


There are students of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj who are now qualified scholars who live in areas where the living is more suitable. So, you don't necessarily have to give up the idea of Mauritania altogether. There are students of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj who are now scholars and teach in the cities, such as Nuwakshott, Kiffa, and Guerou. Life there is more suitable to people who may not be able to live in the badia. You can find an apartment with running water, electricity, etc. for about $50 a month. Many of the modern conveniences, such as phones and an abundance of fruits and vegetables that would make life easier, are found in the cities.

Another choice for people who like the traditional style of living is to go to some of the Mauritanian scholars who live in Medina and Mecca. There are a number of them there, and a few are students of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj.


The most important thing to do before travelling to Mauritania is to get in contact with people there who can help you once you enter the country to get to the school. To protect those people's privacy, these contact numbers are available through the Zaytuna Institute. To ensure that those numbers are given only to people seriously planning on going, you may be asked to fax a copy of your ticket or visa before you receive those numbers or to visit the Zaytuna Institute in person. For anyone interested in going, these contact names and numbers are very important as traveling to the school will be easily facilitated. The other thing to remember is that people who traveled not having these contacts often reached the school after much difficulty, and some did not even find the school and returned home. Thus, it is very important to contact and preferably to visit the Zaytuna Institute before making any plans for attending any schools in Mauritania. May Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala help those with sincere intentions. May He bless our shuyukh and all those who are striving to preserve this deen.


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