Mauritania Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress