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Studying in Mauritania

I wanted to write a step-by-step guide for someone who is interested in learning Arabic in Mauritania. But then I realized, there’s no instruction manual for Mauritania: there are only experiences; and it’s different for everyone. There are no fixed rules and steps to follow. Everyone has a different experience, from which you can learn and benefit. You have to embark on your own journey to find yours.

Why Mauritania?

Many may not even have heard of this country in the West-African Sahara desert. Why would you? It’s supposedly one of the poorest countries in the world (depends on how you define poor). There’s absolutely nothing here except for the vast Sahara: there are no holiday resorts or lush greeneries. But of course, if your purpose is to seek knowledge (ilm), there maybe no better place to find it.

Mauritanian scholars are masters of the Arabic language. They’re well-known for their amazing memory. Most kids here would have memorized the Quran by the age of 6-7 years. Day and night you’ll hear the Quran being recited: while walking, driving, sitting, standing, etc. They’re also well-known for their knowledge of the Maliki Fiqh. In general, there are many knowledgable scholars in Mauritania in every field of Islamic science.

Some students doing Hifz under the streetlights
Some students doing Hifz under the streetlight

Learning Style

In Mauritania, most of the learning is done in small villages in a traditional way; sitting in circles at the feet of the Sheik, in his house. Norm is to study just one book at a time with a focus on mastery. There’s no rush to finish a book or a course. Nothing is rushed here, everything is given time (a lot of time!) to sink in and understand. It’s highly recommended that you don’t go further in your lessons if you don’t understand it well enough. It’s your duty to try to understand it well by seeking help from other students who are always willing to help.

No one is going to come and wake you up in the morning or ask you to attend classes (Of course if you don’t study anything for a while, the Sheik may ask you to leave the village). But it’s all up to you: you have to develop a strong sense of self-discipline and a certain degree of self-study is needed to be successful.

Everyday you write down a few lines that you want to learn (usually about 5 lines or less) and go to the Sheik, who explains them for about 5 minutes. What does it mean to write the lesson? It means that you’ve already gone through the lesson by yourself or with the help of other students, and tried to understand it before even going to the Sheik. After your session with the Sheik, you then go back and memorize them for the rest of the day. Some students choose to memorize the lesson before going to the Sheik, unless it’s the Qur’an. For the Qur’an is always memorized after you take your lesson. Some prefer to understand the lesson first and then memorize. You do whatever works for you.

Education is personalized. There’s no classroom setting or standardized testing. Anyone can come and start at any level, any time. The Sheik may have over hundred students daily to whom he gives about 5-10 minutes on one-to-one basis. Sometimes it’s lesser than that (lots are drawn every week, and you wait your turn everyday). At times, 2-3 students maybe grouped together if they’re doing the same book at the same level. Other students could be sitting and benefiting from your lesson as well. Almost all the students revise their lessons with other students during the rest of the day.

There’s a huge importance given to memorizing every book you learn, whether it’s Qur’an, Arabic or Fiqh. Some scholars have even memorized books of Hadith like Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari. Many Mauritanians are excellent poets. Late Sheik Salim Adood Ash-Shanqeetee (RA) had composed a poem of over 19,000 lines which was all hand-written, and he also wrote a commentary on it (No computers or typewriters involved here!). And of course, he had an excellent memory! Many scholars have also composed poems based on some popular classical books to make it easy for memorization.

Mauritania is definitely not a place for beginners of the Arabic language even though there are a few students who have came here with no Arabic and have mastered it over the years. But the process is really long and hard, which requires a lot of determination and patience. I don’t recommend this place for beginners. However, if you want to master the language then this is definitely the best place to do it. Regardless of your level, almost everyone starts their Arabic journey with the 13th century text of Ibn Ajroomiyyah (RA). You’ve to be flexible with what you can find and go with it.

Luh
Everything is written on a wooden-board called Luh (لوح) and memorized through repeated recitation of about 150-300 times or more, per day

People

Apart from the knowledge, people are definitely the next best thing about Mauritania. Mauritanians are extremely polite and generous. Even the foreigners who have moved here seem to have absorbed much of their qualities.

I have never seen such sincerity in people anywhere else in the world. Especially if you’re in the circle of students of knowledge. I have met people who go out of their way to help you and expect absolutely nothing from you in return. Their sole intention is to please Allah (SWT). This is definitely rare in today’s world.

Of course, not all of them are like that. Especially in the cities, you have to be cautious. If they recognize that you’re not from here, they will try to get everything they can out of you! (They’re still amateurs though, compared to Egypt!) But on the other side, I have had some brothers who helped me fix my house and broken toilet when we first moved in, which required some nasty work. Yet they refused to take any money for their time and efforts, saying they didn’t expect anything from me. May Allah reward them! Ameen.

Even the sisters were very welcoming to my wife, by sending food and offering help to clean the house. They even insisted we use their washing machine and refrigerator (not everyone has one in the village). When they were going to the city for a few days, they offered to give us their house keys so we could use whatever we needed!

Fire-Mauritania
One of the brothers from Denmark making fire for the kids on a cold-winter night

Life in Mauritania

This is probably the most difficult part about studying in Mauritania. If I have to describe the life here in one word, it would be: harsh. You’re in the middle of the biggest desert in the world: what do you expect? Weather is either too hot or too cold. Some days there can be heavy sand storms and it’s hard to see anything.

Your Sabr is constantly tested from the moment you enter Mauritania. In our case, it started from the airport. Our baggages didn’t arrive with us. We got it after two or three days (This seemed like a common thing since we saw a room full of bags waiting to be collected). The immigration officer who had to stamp the entry-date on our passport asked for a bribe of $20, which I pretended to not understand by repeatedly saying I already paid for the visa at the visa-counter; and he let us go. These things are common here, especially in the cities, but we have to just be firm and they won’t bother us (They generally don’t like to draw attention).

Once you come out of the city, you’ll find sand everywhere. You’ll literally become one with the sand! (This is no exaggeration) It’s not easy if you’re someone who likes their branded clothes and cosmetics. The desert doesn’t give a damn. The sand will eat you up! Best months (relatively) are from October to March.

If you’ve never lived outside the comforts of a city life, this place is definitely not for you. There’s no cellular network most of the time (we travel to the city once a week to talk to our family). Even though many villages now have electricity and water, many live without it. You can also buy a small solar-panel kit in the city which comes with two light bulbs and a USB charging port. Although we built our own toilet with the help of some brothers, many don’t have the luxury of proper toilets! You’ll find some people doing it in the open. You just have to ignore it. Forget the luxuries of choosing between cold and hot water.

You wake up to the sound of roosters and the Adhaan (call for prayer); and go to sleep when it gets dark after the night (Isha) prayers (Night sky is a beautiful sight in the desert!). I was once told by my teacher to come to take my lesson when the sun gets to a certain point in the sky (he was pointing out at the sky with his finger).

Life is very simple and basic in the desert. But it’s easier said than lived, if you’ve never experienced something like it before. For people who have never been out of the comforts of the city life, I advice you to go out camping for few days where you’ve no electricity, running water or internet. Now imagine doing that for months and years.

Since most of the learning is done in the villages/deserts (Badia), people travel to the cities/towns on a regular basis to buy what they need. Almost everything you need is available in the capital city (Nouakchott). Some villages are better connected than others in terms of transportation.

Mauritania
Leisurely walks in the vast Saharan desert can be a time for deep reflection and self-awareness

Family

Living with your family is definitely not an easy task in Mauritania. I was told, many brothers came extremely motivated, but had to move because of the inconveniences to their families in terms of lifestyle changes. It’s important that your family is comfortable so that you can focus on your studies. If not, it can be really challenging. May Allah bless the sisters who are staying with their husbands and kids, with Sabr and strength. Ameen.

Women have very limited resources in terms of learning in the villages: they’ve to rely on their husbands to teach them what they learn or on other female-students whom they get to know. If you already know Arabic, you’ve a better chance of learning more. The Sheik in our village takes up classes for women on Friday evenings. Having kids with you requires a whole new level of Sabr!

In case you’re planning to bring your family, make sure you leave them in Nouakchott (capital city) until you arrange your accommodation in the village. Sometimes the villages are full and there’s no accommodation available. Many of them build their own tents and houses; and this may take some time.

Conclusion

Mauritania is definitely not for everyone. The desert can really test your Sabr and strength. If you think you have what it takes, think again, and again and again. Many come all the way here and leave because of the harsh life and inconveniences (The record-time in the village I’m in: one brother from the UK came to the village in the morning and left before Magrib!)

On the other side, this is probably the closest you can get to experiencing how the Sahabas (may Allah’s Mercy and Blessings be upon them all) must have lived. There’s nothing more valuable than the knowledge that you receive at the feet of the Sheiks who have spent all their lives in the efforts of preserving and spreading the Deen. They don’t take anything from you nor expect anything. There is no tuition fee. If they’ve houses available, they’ll give it to you – which is usually without any rent. Most of the time, even the food is sent to you by the Sheik and others in the village, since you’re treated as a guest. They maybe poor by the worldly standards, but they’re the richest people I have met in terms of generosity and mannerism.

For those who are seriously considering of traveling to this amazing country to seek ilm, my advice is to have a lot of Sabr. If you show Sabr in hardship, Allah will make it easy, In Sha Allah.

فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا

إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا

“For indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.

Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.”

[Quran 94:5-6]

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