Africana Studies lecture explores Mauritanian scholarly excellence

February 23, 2023

Mauritanian Scholars on the World Stage: From “Desert Archive” to Global Islamic Authority, a community lecture hosted by the Africana Studies Committee at Northwestern Qatar, explored the outsized global influence of Mauritanian Islamic scholars, religious texts, and institutions of learning.
Zekeria Ahmed Salem, associate professor at Northwestern University, presented his newest research in a conversation moderated by Northwestern Qatar Professor Zachary Wright. In his talk, which was attended by fellow academics, students, and staff, Salem examined the origins of Mauritanian Islamic scholarship and how the associate label Shinqīṭ has become a signifier of Islamic knowledge and religious authority in Africa, the Middle East, and across the Western world.
Salem began the talk by noting that, while Mauritania is perceived as peripheral to world affairs, it carries considerable weight in the religious imagination of Muslims worldwide. “The ubiquity of Mauritanian Islamic scholars in global circuits of Islamic authority is no longer going unnoticed,” said Salem. He added that “bearing the patronym of al-Shinqīṭī has become a signal of strong claims to unparalleled scholarly expertise.”
In explaining how Mauritania became known for “authentic” Islamic and Arabic scholarly excellence, Salem suggested that its Islamic discursive tradition is touted as timeless and peerless. He added that the intellectual history of Bilād al-Shinqīṭ and its complex internal political economy are key factors that, after the 9/11 attacks, helped solidify its status as a wellspring of pure Islamic knowledge, especially with notable Mauritanian scholars like Abdullah bin Bayyah at the forefront of articulating a version of “Islamic moderation.”
Over the years, Salem said Mauritania’s status as a center for scholarly excellence has become even more difficult to challenge as its Islamic schools continue to attract international students reinforcing the image of the country as a “global Islamic village.” He also underscored the role of political economy in advancing Mauritania’s image in the region and around the world, saying, “out of the several thousand Mauritanians living in the Gulf, nearly 70 percent are religious workers.”
Salem went on to discuss the impact of the spread of Mauritanian scholarship in the Gulf and how Mauritanian scholars became key players in both “traditionalist” and “Salafi” networks in the region.

In highlighting the importance of the lecture and Salem’s work on Mauritanian Islamic scholarship, Wright, professor in residence and associate dean for faculty affairs, said, “it demonstrates not only the ubiquity of Mauritanian and West African Islamic scholarship in global contexts – something which pushes against the center-periphery stereotypes of Islamic Studies in the academy.” He added, “it also suggests that very similar practices of Islamic learning could be mobilized for competing political projects.”
Zekeria Ahmed Salem is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa. He joined Northwestern Qatar as part of the Africana Studies Guest Lecture series. The event was hosted by the Africana Studies Committee, which provides an interdisciplinary, joint minor program in Africana Studies shared between Northwestern Qatar and Georgetown University in Qatar.