Bismillah. The following information is about studying Islam in Mauritania. For those who are too lazy to read, here is a video presentation (3 parts, 30 mins) but you'll get much more detail below in addition to that video. I did not write all this, rather I've compiled it and inshaAllah share it for the benefit of others looking for all this information in one location. May Allah reward those brothers who put created this information I have simply compiled. May it be of benefit for us.
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd1EgH8GmAY
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qm8z4iN8Nlc
Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggRsFfWyYC0
Many people have heard of the traditional schooling system in West Africa, but few have been able to get a good picture of the way studies are carried out there. Since it is located in a remote village, people also have many concerns about the living conditions there. Some people, not having adequate information have come unprepared and so the following information should help out those interested in visiting the school of Sheikh Muhammad Saalim wald ‘Udood ash-Shanqeetee (Hafidhahullaah).
The Ulema in Mauritania are known for being strong in Fiqh of the Maliki Math-hab the Arabic language. If you go to Mauritania then I Advise you to ask shaykh Ahmadu Al-Murabit the Imaam of the Sa'oodi Masjid in the capital Nawakshott, to tell who the Scholars of Ahlus-Sunnah in Mauritania. Here is some info about the School Muhammad Salim.
The present location of the school has, at times, up to 250 people. About 100 of them are students with the rest being the shuyukh, their families, as well as other families that have come to live with the Sheikh and seasonal workers and ‘slaves’. The students are from a variety of backgrounds, the majority being young Mauritanians from the cities and smaller towns. Then you have the second largest group of Algerian and Moroccan students, amongst them also the Berbers, usually continuing their further studies from the excellent madrassas of Marakesh and Fez. The next group of students are the Arabs from all over Shaam and the Hijaaz, amongst them students of the late Sheikh Muqbil (rahimahullaah) and others from the ‘ulemaa of Yemen and Sa’udi. There are a few students there from Jaamia Islaameeyah of Madeenah, wanting a change from the ‘all too’ convenient mode of study of the universities, which of course might suit other students of the West a bit more. Finally, there are a few students from Britain, the USA, France, Nigeria, Gambia, Pakistan etc all at different levels in their studies.
The language of the Mauritanians is Hasaniyyah, an Arabic dialect, so one shouldn’t be surprised that many of the general people are not fluent in classical Arabic, although obviously all the students and teachers are fully proficient.
Visas are required for all except nationals of Arab League countries and some African countries. In countries where Mauritania has no diplomatic representation, including Australia, French embassies will issue visas for around US$30. Visas can also be issued at the Moroccan border (€20).
You can fly direct into Mauritania, but it will cost you. There are few flights in and out so the cost is relatively expensive compared to other high volume airports. A much cheaper option is flying into a neighbour country and going into
Mauritania by land.
Morocco: The only border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania is north of Nouâdhibou. Crossing this border is straightforward; the road is now entirely tarred to Nouakchott, except for the 3km no-man’s-land that separates the two border posts. Coming from Morocco, you can buy the Mauritanian visa at the border (€20). Expect to pay another €20 for various ‘taxes’ on top of the visa price. Although there are no longer any currency declaration forms, some customs officials still ask for it and, of course, if you can’t present it, they will expect a small bribe. Note that there’s no public transport between Morocco and Mauritania.
Senegal: The main border crossing for Senegal is at Rosso but it’s also possible to cross at Diamma (Keur Masséne), west of Rosso. When crossing into Senegal at Rosso, note that immigration is only open on the Mauritanian side from 8am to noon and 3pm to 6pm. The border crossing here is notorious for its hassles. From Dakar to Nouakchott by public transport usually takes from 11 to 13 hours depending on the wait at the border. Most minibuses and bush taxis leave Dakar before 10am to be sure of arriving in Rosso well before the border closing time (6pm). At Rosso, most travellers without vehicles cross by pirogue (UM200/CFA500, five minutes) as the ferry crosses only four times daily. Be prepared for some confrontation with customs officials who usually ask for ‘exit taxes’.
The unit of currency is the ouguiya (UM). Euros and US dollars are the cash to carry and wads of cash it must be, because travellers cheques and credit cards are pretty useless. Credit cards are accepted only at top-end hotels in Nouakchott.
It’s unsurprisingly dry in the Sahara region of the country, where annual rainfall doesn’t exceed 100mm. In the south, rainfall increases to about 600mm per year, mostly occurring during the short rainy season from July to September. Note that it can get quite cool at night, especially in the desert.
The traditional Islamic school in Mauritania is referred to as "mahdhara." It literally means “a fenced in or protected place”. The mahdhara was where the Muslims focused their concern and succeeded in providing a system to disseminate the traditional Islamic sciences among the Ummah.
The Mahdhara of Shaykh Muhammad Saalim
The Ameer or Sheikh of the village of Umm-ul-Qora is Sheikh Muhammad Saalim wald ‘Udood ash-Shanqeetee. He is the son of Sheikh Abdul Wadood, and his family follow in a long line of ‘Ulemaa of the Shanaaqeet Qabeelaa, having preserved the knowledge and tradition of the Salaf, via the oral tradition, something which Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta’aala) has bestowed upon the Shanqeetee tribes over the History of Islaam. His ‘aqeedah and manhaj is that of the Imaams of Sunnah, and his fiqh is mostly that of Imaam Maalik (radhiallaaho‘an), but as he is a Mujtahid in the madhab of Maalik, then it is normal to see him relying upon the authentic hadeeth, rather it may be said that he is more of an ibn Abdul Barr (rahimahullah) than ibn Rushd (rahimahullah), wal-hamdulillaah. Also, he is the only person alive today that knows the 14,000 lined poem containing the Sharh of Mukhtasar Khaleel, amongst many other texts, all preserved by the Will and Blessing of Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta’aala).
Sheikh Muhammad Saalim is recognized amongst those who know, to be the world’s leading grammarian, and a master of Fushaa, and to study with him is indeed a blessing for those who can benefit from it, may Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta’aala) preserve him.
The method of learning utilizes the lawh, or wooden tablet, whereby the text is written in charcoal ink on the tablet and then memorized and studied under the watchful guidance of the shuyukh. Everything that is studied is committed to memory, and this is one of the reasons why the scholars of the Shanaaqeet made a distinguished presence wherever they went. The children first memorize the Qur’aan, starting at about seven years of age. After memorizing it, they study the rasm, which is the science related to writing the Qur’aan according to the 'Uthmani script. Next, they study the Qur’aan a second time, though this time they write it on their tablets from memory. The first time they write it either having the sheikh write it for them, dictate it to them, or by looking at a mushaf (copy of the Qur’aan) although these are few and far between! After that, they learn the dabt which is a science related to the differences between the two narrations of Nafi' (Warsh and Qaalun). They then move on to pursue further studies in ‘aqeedah, nahw, fiqh and hadeeth.
In ‘Aqeedah, classical works such as ‘Aqeedah at-Tahaweeyah as well as other more specific Maaliki texts are taught. In Hadeeth, emphasis is placed upon the two Saheehs of Imam Bukhaaree, and Imam Muslim. The madhab of Imam Maalik is also taught using traditional texts. The text of Ibn Ashir, Imam al Akhdari, the Risala of Ibn Abee Zaid, Ashalul Masaalik, Nathamu Muqadimaati ibn Rushd, and the Mukhtasar of Sidi Khalil are the main texts studied there for fiqh, as well as other general comparative texts. The blessing of Sheikh Muhammad is that he will also bring together the most strongest opinions on the issues, even if this means leaving the madhab, which is the sign of a true mujtahid. As for grammar, they use the Ajrumiyyah, Mulhat al 'Iraab, Qatru Nada, and the Alfiyyah of Ibn Maalik. Fortunately, because of the openness of the mahdhara, and the immense knowledge of the Sheikh, one can choose their own text to study if they do so wish.
The school is very simple in its set up, and there is no registration, semesters, or tuition. Each student enters study at whatever level he is on and may begin at any time of the year. After learning the basic texts of fardh 'ayn (individual obligation), the course of studies is up to the student, although the shuyukh will generally recommend what each particular student should study. Once a subject has been chosen, the student will then write out a small section of the text onto his lawh and then go to the sheikh (of course, if one can’t write Arabic, then this is waived until they learn). The student will read it to him so that he can correct any mistakes, since the teachers there have memorized the texts. Having corrected the mistakes, if any, the sheikh will then give an explanation and answer any questions the student may have.
The entire sitting is one-on-one although other students may be present, listening in to try and benefit from any additional points made to the new student. It typically lasts for about 5-10 minutes to allow for the rest of the students to have their turns. The Sheikh prefers teaching in the mornings and an early start until the Dhuhr prayer is the norm. Everyone is given a number for the next morning, which is organized the night before after the ‘Esha prayer. You’ll know you’re in the right place if you see the huge scrum in the middle of the mosque as everyone battles for the early slots!
Also, because of this independent type schedule, the student can come and go to the school any time of the year. Once the student finishes that particular lesson, it is studied the remainder of the day for the purpose of committing it to memory. By giving the entire day to study that one lesson, with no other subjects interrupting, the student can concentrate deeply and spend many hours reviewing it. This review comes through sitting with the other shuyukh who are at that particular school, getting tutoring from one or more of the advanced students who are there, and then memorizing it. This last point is the reason that a student studies only one subject a day and goes on to another text once that one has been completed.
It is said that one of the Shanaaqeet was discussing with one of the Shuyookh of al-Azhar, in its better times. The Azhari said, “What makes you think you are so special?? You study all day and WE study all day, there is no difference!” The Shanqeetee replied, “Yes, that may be so, but whilst YOU may study all day, WE memorise it by night! ”Anyone who had the blessing of studying under Allaamah Muhammad Ameen ash-Shanqeetee, the Mufassir (rahimahullaah), will know exactly what is so special about this tribe. Also, anyone who knows Sheikh Muhammad Muhktaar, al-Faqeeh, (hafidhahullaah), currently in Madeenatul Munawwara, will truly realise the benefit of memorizing the texts that you study, in order to understand the meaning better.
The village in which the Sheikh spends most of his time is called Umm-ul-Qora, about 50km from the capital Nouakchott. Being in the middle of the desert, it is about a two hour journey on the back of a pick-up with 20 odd other students, their luggage and a goat or two! This is the mahdhara the students will spend most of their time, but there is another location to which the Sheikh and all his students go to for a few months out of the year, usually the early part of it, to a place called the ‘Aazeeb. Only the Bedouins would ever want to travel to such a place, and it shows the nomadic roots of Sheikh Saalim, who detests the so-called ‘civilised’ lifestyle of modernity etc, as many of the ‘ulemaa of the Shanaaqeet do likewise. The ‘Aazeeb is literally in the middle of nowhere, about 200km from the capital, absolutely desolate with no water for miles around, and therefore all the students are only allowed water for drinking purposes and tayammum applies to everyone whilst you study there. It is no small statement for the brothers to claim “I’ve done the ‘Aazeeb” as this is a Maqaam in itself!
Note that one must be on the guard, especially amongst us, the foreign students, of the whisperings of shaytaan, that ‘doing the `Aazeeb’ doesn’t just become an ego game, and that all our intentions remain pure for the sake of Allaah ‘azza wa jal. Of course, life is very simple in general at Umm-ul-Qora in terms of housing and food etc. All the foreign students live together in a large hall which used to be the old central masjid, and everyone just selects a certain area, just big enough for your bedding, and that shall become your home for the duration of your stay. The students share their meals, which are usually very simple, cous cous, rice and milk, some meat on the odd occasion, and coffee as the mainstay of the diet. And of all this is provided free of charge from the generosity of the Sheikh and the fellow villagers.
There is actually a little village shop that sells Coca-Cola (Subhaanallah, its amazing how well the Americans have penetrated every corner of this Earth!), and little plastic ‘bags’ of squash drink, as well as little packs of biscuits etc.
What will become the favourite drink of the students is a Mauritanian special, Zareeg, which is basically milk powder, sugar, and water. If you are offered some, don’t resist otherwise you’ll regret it. A drink which I didn’t like at the beginning, after a few weeks, it was the most dearest thing to my eyes!
Water can sometimes be a bit of a problem, even at Umm-ul-Qora, due to problems with the wells. Electricity is very rare in the outlying areas, and only the main Masjid has some kind of regular supply. The rest of the wells are hand-pulled, and this is no mean task. The students take it in turns to go in groups with all the buckets they can find, and the water extracted generally lasts a few days but is of poor quality, although one gets used to it after a while. Any filters that brothers can bring with them would be well worth it.
At night, people get around using flashlights unless the moon is full enough to provide adequate light for moving around. The students who study at night usually don't need lighting as they use the night for reciting Qur’aan or practice other memorized material. The students who wish to use lighting at night can choose between the lighting in the masjid,flashlights, or candles. Batteries, flashlights, candles, and other basic materials are sold in the village. The only advice for this is to buy quality products as the desert is very harsh, and only good products can withstand the conditions.
The main season that people are concerned about is the summer, which officially starts May 15 and goes to August 15, but the heat of the Sahaara sets in about April and goes through July. (Precise temperatures may be obtained from some of the tourist websites of Mauritania.) The heat, like that of most deserts, is dry, not humid, and that makes it easier to tolerate. At the peak of the summer, the students usually take a two to three week vacation and either visit their families or go to the capital, Nouakchott, where it is cooler.
The summer begins to cool off as the rains of autumn begin, and this also turns the land green with grass, although not so in the Sahaara surrounding Umm-ul-Qora. Autumn is officially from August 15 to November 15. From November 15 to February 15 is the winter, which can get very cold at times. The cold does not actually start until about the end of November, and the months of October and November are actually very moderate months.
The cold of the winter is increased by ever-present winds, which add to the wind chill factor along with the fact that most students don't live in the warm adobe structures. This does not hinder the studies of the students, and for many it actually causes their studies to increase. The spring is officially from February 15 to May 15. Because of the moderate weather, it is a good time for people who wish to study there to come and begin their studies. Arriving in the spring will allow one to adjust to the weather gradually, and so one will not have too much difficulty dealing with the heat of the summer that follows it.
Generally speaking, the life there is hard for even the Mauritanians, and more so for the people coming from the West who are accustomed to the luxuries of life. However, once a person experiences the serenity of the Sahrah (desert), all hardships are patiently borne. Studying with some of the most knowledgeable and God-fearing people is enough of a reward by itself, but there is another peace that is achieved there.
The isolation due to the location of Umm-ul-Qora is something that all should experience. One type of isolation is from family and friends, as traveling in and out is difficult, so many don't do it. There are no phones in the village, and the nearest phone is in the capital Nouakchott, which believe it or not, also has full internet capabilities as well. This allows the student to spend his time focusing on the studies at hand. Imam Ghazzali mentions in his section on The Manners of Learning that studying far from one's home and not having many friends is essential for the student. Whereas most people do not have the discipline to implement this technique, those who are in Umm-ul-Qora have no other choice than to follow this, and it works out for the best.
The other blessing that this isolation provides is separation from the vices of the city. Markets, cars, music, pollution of all types, and most other problems associated with the city are not present. This provides for such a pure environment that when a car comes to the village, its sound is heard long before it arrives. Then, once it arrives and after leaving, the stench of the diesel is quickly noticed by those near and far. Many people living in the cities take one weekend out of the year to go camping to try and "get away from it all." Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’aala) has blessed those living and or studying in the Sahrah with this peace every single day.
To learn Arabic
One can bring books designed to teach Arabic to non-Arabic speakers and then study them on one's own and get help from other students there who know Arabic, a few of whom learned the Arabic language, for the most part, there in the school of Sheikh Muhammad Saalim. One of the most ideal books is the Kitaab al Asaasi fi ta'lim al lughatal 'Arabiyyah (The Basic Book for Learning the Arabic Language). They are a set of three books and are the books used in the Syrian schools that teach Arabic. With the help of these books, it has been proven that the Arabic language can be learned at this particular school. The Madeenah series by Dr. Abdur Rahim is also very useful.
The brothers should know one very important thing though, and that is that the best way to pick up the language is to learn all the new words and principles solely in Arabic. This is the Mauritanian way. For example, we learnt that an ism was ‘that thing there with a name’ as opposed to looking at it a bit differently ie ‘an ism is a noun’. This method is often a lot easier for those who (a) have little detailed knowledge of English grammar and (b) those who have very little Arabic going into their study. Personally, I benefited greatly from that as a principle, and it’s something that I would recommend.
As for sitting with the sheikh and understanding him, there are students there that speak both Arabic and English and can translate for you. This is not a new thing and has been going on for some time.Then, after finishing the basic books, one can choose to move on to a more extensive book in fiqh, the Risalah of Ibn Abee Zaid, and this covers all chapters in fiqh. This book takes about a year, but after having completed it as well as the other books (which should take between two to three years), a person will be well grounded in the areas of knowledge and will have a basic or extensive command of the Arabic language. At that time, if one chooses to continue studying, one will no longer have to rely on translators, translations, or dictionaries and might even be able to do without them after a year. Another thing to remember is that one of the main things to study is the Qur’aan, and that can be memorized without having any knowledge of the Arabic language. This is a promise that Allaah has made by making the Qur’aan easy to memorize and has been proven throughout the ages by Muslims from all lands.
Women and families
Everyone who wishes to come to the village is welcome, whether they come for a visit or for studies or just to spend their days gaining some barakah from a setting that reminds one of the simplicity of the life of the Prophet (sallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and the closeness of the kibaar ‘ulemaa and an opportunity to observe their ways, and learn their wisdom etc. The only thing that should be taken into consideration is the difficulty of the life there and the inadequate accommodations, especially for young children.
The Mauritanians themselves have a hard time living there, and they have had hundreds of years to adapt to the lifestyle. Inadequate food is not so much a problem for young men, but it may pose a danger to young children. Many of the young children there around two years of age will often eat dirt or sand, and they say the reason for this is a lack of vitamins. This is even present in some of the smaller towns, where although they occasionally have fruits and vegetables, it is obviously not enough. If you have children, you might consider having them study in a modernized country, such as Morocco, or at least one with adequate facilities. There they can learn the Qur’aan and the other basic texts and then when older go continue their studies in Mauritania.
For those thinking about taking a family there, they should get in contact with many people before making any move. They should contact people who have gone to Mauritania, and people in Mauritania. Taking a family there without proper accommodations can be putting them in a dangerous situation which may lead them to catching a number of diseases which are present in Mauritania (such as malaria). One's hope of bettering the situation of one's family's spirituality can actually cause him to disobey Allaah, as the Law (Shari'ah) has required us to protect our bodies.
The cost of living will differ depending on if you choose to live in one of the schools in the badia (mountainous, desert regions) or in the city. As for the badia, after buying the materials you will use to build a place to live in and all the necessary utensils (between $250 to 500), you can figure about $20 a month for living expenses. Of course, it must be emphasized that this will be a very simple lifestyle, the abode literally a small mud-walled hut, but perfectly acceptable in the circumstances, and much better than living in the communal qaa’a (hall). The only thing you would add would be traveling expenses and the cost of the phones if you go down to the city to use thephone.
If you choose to live in the city, you might want to figure about $200-300 a month. Remember, these are only rough estimates for a single man, and even that will differ depending on his life style. If he is planning on bringing a family to live in the city, then he would have to figure out a different set of expenses, and he might better work that out after talking to someone from Mauritania. A few brothers have their families in the city of Nouakchott, whilst they study themselves during the week, returning to their families on the weekend. In the city you can find a apartment with running water, and electricity for about $50 a month
There are a few practical tips which one should keep in mind, especially when traveling from the UK. Buy the best equipment you can get your hands on. Amongst these would be a quality water filter system that is portable, a good mosquito net, and the best thing, a ‘sapphire light’ which is made by a few companies, i.e. ATS. This is available in most good camping shops, is the size of a key fob, and emits a tiny laser light, which is very small but very powerful. I found it excellent for nighttime reading and also to find your way in the absolute darkness of the desert. Best of all, it never needs batteries and so for about £20, its amazing value.
Take little clothing, as you’ll stay in the same set of clothes for a long time. Make sure they are light and practical, and don’t take too much stuff in general, as it will only weigh you down. Take a few plastic folders to keep your books covered, for the sand is deadly for books and soon you’ll see all your pages falling out once the sand gets into them.
Take a few nice bottles of ‘itr or perfume as there isn’t much around in the cities. Also a good pocket sized mushaf will be useful. The shops in the cities are not very Islamic orientated…and that leads to another point. Don’t expect Mauritania to be the Khilaafah, because it is FAR from that. In fact, you’ll find Jaahiliyyah there amongst the Muslims that will shock you, including open music all over the city (and Indian music is there favourite for some bizarre reason!!), scantily dressed women, empty mosques etc etc. And whilst in the mosques, one finds the people looking all over the show in the prayer except at the place of sujood! So know, that the deen is to be found in the outlying villages and centres of learning, and it is only THAT which we are concerned with. Ibn Battuta the traveler remarked about Mauritania 700 odd years ago when he passed through, “…over there, the women only cover themselves with one wrapped piece of cloth, the men have no gheera, and they drink of milk and water mixed together.” One finds that his observations are as if he was passing through today!
On the financial front, pounds and dollars will get you good exchange rates inside the capital. Also, don’t stand for any corruption, especially at the airport where they’ll see you as ‘easy pickings’ but be strong and confident when they demand a bribe. Rather, do not be intimidated and speak loud and with authority to them for it scares them and embarrasses them in front of their peers (they are not open to advice as that has been tried many a time already).
Also, watch the taxi drivers and their charges. As a general rule of thumb, you should pay a maximum of HALF of his quoted price for a journey. They are the masters of over inflating their prices, and if you instantly walk away in disgust from their quote, you’ll often find an immediate cut by 50%!
On a final note, there is no doubting the potential of Mauritania. It is simply one of the most amazing places on the face of this Earth, but at the same time, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty is widespread and quite desperate, and requires the Muslim to really purify his soul and bring himself to the level of the people. This in itself is one of the greatest blessings of studying there. Tazkiyyatun Nafs is a must, and will be developed further in the peace, simplicity and serenity of the mahdhara. Control of the base desires, reliance in Allaah, appreciation of the bounties of Allaah, are all hugely increased. But, one must not go unprepared. Mental preparation is the onesingle most important requirement. Forget all the luxuries of life in England, otherwise you’ll breakdown mentally. And KNOW that Allaah ta’aala makes the way easy for those who go seeking knowledge sincerely for the sake of Allaah.
I personally, along with other brothers who have been there for longer periods of time, do NOT recommend Mauritania for every student of knowledge, and those wanting to learn the language. It can only be for those who are absolutely committed to their cause, and can withstand very difficult conditions for living and studying, and Allaah knows best.
These are some are the names of some other people of knowledge Upon the Aqeeda Ahlus-Sunnah (there not ‘Ashari) that live in Mauitania. Muhammad wuld Mahfoodh - Sheikh-us-Sooq (Nouakchott) Ahmadu wuld Muraabit.(Nowakchott)he is the Imaam of the Saudi Masjid writte in arabic as – Masjid Sa’oodi. Leh (Tinjakmajik).
Al-Hamdulillah, we praise Allah and seek His aid and forgiveness. May the Salah and the Salam be upon the Messenger of Allah, and upon his family and companions and all who follow his path with goodness until the Day of Judgment. Wa Sallallahu ala Nabiyyina Muhammad wa ala aalihi was Ashabihi Ajma'in.