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Mauritania Table of Contents


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.

Data as of June 1988