Brotherhoods and Saints

Mauritania Table of Contents

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 Boumdeļt 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 Oualāta 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 Soninké, 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress