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Mauritania Table of Contents


Origins of Islam


Old mosque at Nouakchott
Courtesy Larry Barrie

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 (see Almoravids , ch. 1). 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.

Data as of June 1988