Souadou Lagdaf. Journal of North African Studies. Volume 22, Issue 2. March 2017.
This article addresses Mauritanian society’s attitude towards death in general and the dead in particular. Although religion has a degree of influence on death and handling of the dead, the practices that Mauritanians have traditionally adopted with respect to these two issues reflect the multi-ethnic and cultural norms of this population. The article focuses on those traditions and prevalent rituals of Mauritanian society, examined within their ethnic diversity and spatial distribution, while in doing so assessing these practices from shari’a [Islamic Law] perspective. Using an anthropological and historical approach, this article identifies various components of Mauritanian society and discusses how they appeal to religious precepts to overcome some of those popular uses as they pertain to the deceased. This research article reveals that regardless of the injunctions of Islam on the matter, some traditional beliefs are everlasting because they are firmly anchored and widespread in the society, thus making their elimination quasi-impossible in the short term.
Mauritania is one of the Arab-Muslim countries best known for its cultural diversity, both ethnic and linguistic. In fact, Mauritania’s social configuration, location and geographical scope stand between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan (black) Africa. While the Arab-Berber component (Pazzanita, 96-98), the so-called biẓān, has been predominant for many years, this demographic hegemony has declined in recent years because of the growth of different ethnic groups of African origin, the Wolof, Peul (Fula/Fulani) and Soninke. For centuries, the various components of Mauritanian society have cohabited, sharing various cultural characteristics, especially religious, since most, if not all, the Muslims in Mauritania have been until the last decade Sunnī Mālikī, following the interpretation of Imam Khalīl (Fortier, 303). This peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups, safeguarded in the past through a tacit balance, has been disturbed in recent decades due to political and religious circumstances that, in turn, have been weakened by the socio-economic conditions. During meetings and interviews, we have addressed the attitude of Mauritanian society towards the dead – an issue outside any political or social conflict. When members of a group were interviewed on their customs and traditions, respondents often refused to talk or comment on the practices of other ethnic groups.
Nevertheless, there is consensus that Mauritanian society complies rigorously with its traditions, including those concerning the calls to the cemeteries. This rests on reverence to, fear of and respect for several imams’ teachings, highlighting commands of the sharīʿa. These rules relate to the wish to fulfil the duties of the living towards the dead from the moment of agony to the funerals.
In fact, reflection on life and death is always present in Mauritanian society, not only among religious people, but is also evident in every gesture, comment and decision made. This led an imam to argue that human beings have two homes: one in life and one, more important, after death, where death is considered both as a break and at the same time, for the believer, as the circle of continuity between life and the afterlife (Imam Ould Fatan). In this sense, scholars contend that ‘death, and what follows it, is a break from tradition’ (al-mawt wa mā ba’duh kharqu ‘ādāt), or rather a moment in which a human being in agony begins a transition from hereunder to the other world, one where everything is extraordinary. In order to understand the relationship between the population and the cemeteries, it is thus essential to understand the relationship between religion, the customs and traditions that dominate the society. This is a significant factor in Mauritanian society where, in the past, it was easy to confound custom with religious rules. This factor is also instrumental in differentiating between segments of the population and other sections.
This article addresses the cult of the dead and the rituals, such as ablution, burial and mourning, that some ethnic groups perform. In this context, particular attention is paid to the role and place of women. This article will also compare those rituals, customs and traditions against religious injunctions. The research is based on interviews and meetings with representatives of religious institutions and people from different ethnic groups that make up Mauritanian society at the time of the investigation in 2014-2015. The analytical approach is applied to an understanding of the rituals that span from death to the sanctification of the deceased.
Funeral Practices and Rituals in Mauritania
A part of the Islamic sharīʿa law is dedicated to the dead and funerals; it highlights the conduct and the duty of every Muslim (Bin Isḥāq al-Mālilkī). In fact, it is not unusual that in the land of zawāyā one finds great cognizance that the living have duties with respect to the dead, duties which begin from the moment of agony and extend to prayer and burials as well as paying visits to the graves.
These duties and obligations derive in part from the observance of Islamic law and partly from the accumulation of social customs that may often be in contradiction with the sharīʿa.
Despite the commitment of Mauritanian religious scholars to spread, to the largest extent possible, the true values of Islamic law to gradually replace the existing traditions, the traditions have obstinately survived (Ould al-Bara). Since the loss of a loved person is a very difficult episode for anyone and since relatives want to fulfil every duty related to the deceased, it is on this occasion that one can observe that the religious aspects are interwoven with the social and tribal customs. This explains why the majority of the population seem unaware of the rules governing the status of death. Several Mauritanian traditions characterise this particular area. When one hears in a chant the phrase ‘lā ilāha illā-llāh‘ (There is no god but God), this means that in a house lies a dying person. This is a custom of religious origin that aims at soliciting from the sufferer to repeat what s/he perceives; those words are her/his last ones. S/he is not ordered to repeat this sentence, to prevent him/her from denying that s/he is saying something different that could harm his/her belief. The love and affection of relatives compel them to have the sufferer repeat this expression. When they manage to do so, many claim that before leaving the mortal coil, the deceased is able to emphasise the unicity of God. Placing the sufferer towards al-Qibla is widespread, as recommended by some fuqahā’; but, others, like al-Albānī, minimise the importance of orienting the person, in this circumstance, in the direction of Mecca (Al-Fataḥ al-Rabānī, 122-124). When the person is close to death, the Quran’s verse surat YaSīn is read to them. There is great confusion when reading this sura. Indeed, while in circles close to Sufism it is an act that helps to lighten the agony, for others it is a custom inspired by some students of Imam Mālik, although this trend is considered to be reprehensible by Mālik himself (Bin Isḥāq al-Mālikī, 4). As a result, some Mauritanian scholars deduce that it is reprehensible to read the Quran next to the dead, and consider it a weakness of the ḥadīth to ‘recite YaSīn in front of your dead’. Once death is ascertained, the eyes of the dead should be closed, in accordance with the ḥadīth that says that, ‘When you come to your dead ones, close their eyes, for the sight follows the soul’ (Sunan ibn Majah, sunnah.com) because leaving the eyes wide open is an insult to the dead, a condition that would cause dismay to visitors.
At such time, it is suggested that it is more suitable to describe only the virtues of the dead, for you have to be lenient with them: ‘and say good things, then the Angels say Amen to what the members of the household say’ (Sunan ibn Majah, sunnah.com). For these reasons, it is preferable that the dead be approached for a final farewell only by the best people who can recite a good prayer for their soul (Al-Albānī, 60). Imam Ould Blāl (interview, August 2014) says that in several laḥrāṭīn/ al–ḥrāṭīn (sing. ḥarṭānī or al-ḥarṭānī) families (of slave descents), the beginning of the agony of a relative scares away the family because, on the one hand, they are frightened by death and, on the other hand, they are confused and unaware of the religious precepts applicable in this situation. The escape is sometimes accompanied by screams, cries and tearing of hair; some will scratch their faces and tear off their clothes as a manifestation of sorrow. The same customs are also popular in the Fulani (Pullar) community; but, according to the statements of Imam Ould Barou (Interview August 2014), such social behaviour is questionable and considered negative because it evokes al-jāhiliyya, the pre-Islamic era.
In the Fulani tradition, amended in the Sufi worship, in which the Tariqa al-tijāniyya is dominant, when a person is agonising, all the relatives are notified. Shuyūkh are invited to pronounce the du’a (invocation) for the dying; they use the praise of the Lord (al-sabḥa) and the writing of the Quran on the Lawḥa, a slate of wood that is used in Islamic schools to write and/or read the sacred texts. The water used to wash the slate is then recycled as a drink or body ointment for the dying as a last attempt for his/her recovery.
The nature of the traditional desert life of most of the Mauritanian population has consolidated the practice that, once death is ascertained, something is put on the abdomen to avoid any changes in the body; the load should not be heavy because if the person is still alive, the load can cause pain. The body must be covered to avoid prying eyes and should not be left alone (Fortier). Before the burial, a pure (ṭāhir) person must remain with him/her. To leave the dead alone is, according to Imam Muḥammad Lamīn (Interview, August 2014), in contradiction with the sharīʿa. In addition, the room where the body lies must be prepared for the entrance of the angels; consequently, ‘objects that can cast shadows’ must be discarded, and ‘impure women’ (menstruating or pregnant) and dogs cannot enter the space. An atmosphere of serenity must be given to the place; on this occasion, they try to stretch the dead before the body becomes stiff, after the body had been stripped of all jewellery.
After ascertaining death, the corpse is cleaned by close relatives before the ablution which is performed by experts, a practice that is called in the Fulani language ‘Itt oude gadanam’ and is designed to prevent outsiders from seeing the state of the body.
Some popular traditions demonstrate the disturbance of the population in the face of death; it is common to consider the place where a person died as overshadowed by the spirits. As a result, some people light a candle, others read the Quran or offer a ṣadaqa [alms] to purify the place; in other circumstances, they avoid the place and even move the house. The earlier nomadic life of the population, in general, consolidated this practice since the Bedouin household consisted of a tent which could easily be moved to another location. Today, however, in a reality dominated by a sedentary lifestyle, this practice has become more complex.
In addition, there is widespread need to ward off death with the so-called tajmīr, which Imam Muḥammad al-Mahdī Muḥammad al-Shaykh (Interview, August 2014) has kept out from his general recommendations. In this respect, he denounces the hardships that the scholars of Islamic law in his country have faced, although some of them (e.g. Imam Blāl) deem the incensing of the house advisable after the removal of the deceased.
The tajmīr consists of putting incense in the house after the transfer of the departed to eliminate the smell of death and, as a result, taking death away from the family. This also explains why the dead person is accompanied by incense in order to protect against hostile spirits. The same tradition is followed by the Soninke communities, where in case of death away from the home, it is customary to bring the dead person to his/her earthly home before the funeral and, in this case, incense is also used to ward off the smell of death. A particular incense is utilised, says Khoudjudi Diagana, (sinonkè community, interview, September 2014), which is often burned in the hour of sunset, seen as the transition from day to night, to protect against evil spirits. The dead person does not spend the night at home, and has to be transferred and placed in a separate part of the mosque.
After death the ablution (wuḍu’) follows; the body of the dead person must be placed on a sloped surface in order to allow the wash water to slide down. The ablution is similar to that of janāba, that is, the state of severe ritual impurity; it begins with cleansing all impurities and is followed by the ablution typical of prayer; if practical, it is preferable to perform the ablution keeping the dead person in a sitting position. Only those who are engaged in the process are allowed to attend the ablution; the presence of others is considered reprehensible. The procedure must follow the rules of Islamic law. In the absence of water, the tayammum is used, an act of dry ablution using stone, sand or dust.
According to the sharīʿa, the ablution can be performed by those who enter Iṣma, that is, the next of kin of the deceased. The presence of the latter does not violate the religious norm since they are primarily the spouse, followed by those who have the right to inheritance, although, in this case, the brother comes before the grandfather (al-Dasūqī, n.d., 410).
If a woman dies while she does not have a husband or a close relative, the tayammum may be used in place of ablution by a stranger (Al-Dumaīrī, 154); the same act is also applied to man. If the ablution of a woman is performed by a non-female relative, he has to cover his private parts and pour the water without passing the hand over the body. This task is left, in most cases, to those who take responsibility for this role and are known in each village. In recent years, in large urban centres wide spaces dedicated to the ablution of the dead body have been opened employing specialised male and female staff. Nowadays, it is rare that a family member takes charge of the ablution of the deceased. Imam Blāl says that in his community and in other settlements in the desert, sometimes the family, instead of proceeding with the ablution of their dead, hires someone in the nearby suburbs who can perform this task. If the family does not find anyone, they bury the dead without fulfilling the obligation of ablution and without prayer, because of ignorance and fear of death. In other cases, they refuse to perform the ablution at home for fear that the spirits could invade and haunt it.
Once the body is washed and dried, cotton soaked in perfume is inserted in all the orifices of the body of the deceased (mouth, ears, nose and eyes and then the elbows, between the fingers and toes, etc.). Then the body is wrapped in al kufn or shroud. Imam Muḥammad Lamīn explains that, ‘the dead man is prepared to meet his Lord and the angels, for this he is to be perfumed and the shroud has the role of guarding the body, so it will be veiled in front of God’.
The shroud is mandatory and it is recommended to use a new one, preferably white, according to the saying of the Prophet: ‘Put on white clothes because they are the best, and use them for shrouding your dead’ (at-Tirmidhī and Abu Dāwud, sunnah.com).
In the land of Chenguiti, the custom calls for the use of a white shroud which should be split into an uneven number of pieces, and never in an even number. It is known that odd numbers, reminiscent of the oneness of God, are privileged in Islam. The shroud is divided into pants, tunic, turban and two bands that are placed one above and the other below for men. For women, the shroud is made up of four bands that cover the four sides, with a veil (khimār) covering the head, a tunic and a cloth around the waist (izār). The turban of the man is turned upside down so that the rear part sits on the forehead of the dead unlike the position used when that person was alive.
If the deceased is wrapped completely in the cloth, the duty is performed because veiling the body places it away from prying eyes and protects the deceased in the tomb. The economic and social difficulties of nomadic life, contrary to what the Sunna recommends, make the replacement of the shroud with a used cloth acceptable (Imam Muḥammad Lamīn).
Once the body has been shrouded, and before the burial is performed, the Ṣalāt al-Janāza (funeral prayer) is executed; it is considered farḍ kifāya (an obligation of sufficiency) and an integral part of the funeral ritual in Islam; as all the five daily prayers, al-Janāza takes place in the direction of the qibla. On this occasion, it is advisable to place the participants in three rows; the best should be chosen for their knowledge and religiosity from among those present to lead the prayer. During the ceremony, all the participants, including family members, are equal, except the imam; the imam stands near the centre of the body of the deceased, if the dead is a male, and behind, if the dead is a female.
The funeral prayer is a function that takes place without al raka’āt (units of prayer). After the niyya (the intention), four takbīrāt are required, each followed by the du’a’ (invocations). Maliki scholars differ on the du’a’ after the last takbīra; some Mauritanian imams, such as Muḥammad Lamīn, support its obligatory character even if al-Khalīl makes its practice optional (Bin Isḥāq al-Mālikī, 52). The prayer concludes with al-taslīm on the right side saying ‘Al-salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatu-Allah’ (‘Peace and blessings of God be unto you’). According to the imam, any du’a’ or prayer you can recite is beneficial for the dead person, such as ‘allahumu arḥamhu wa aġfir Lahu‘ (‘O Allah Forgives him, O Allah, have mercy on him’), although, in Mauritania, they favour the du’a’ narrated by Abu Hurayra (sunnah.com):
O Allah, he is Your slave and the son of Your male slave and Your female slave. He (the dead) used to testify that there is no god but You and that Muḥammad is Your slave and Your Messenger, and You Know That best. O Allah, if he acted well, then Increase his good action for him, and if he acted wrongly, then overlook his wrong actions. O Allah, do not deprive us of Your reward, and do not try us after him.
The function of prayer may delay the arrival of family members or for more participants to take part.
After the prayer the burial is undertaken. If the burial place is close to that of the prayers, the dead person must be carried by people; this will supposedly result in a great reward from God; in this case, it is customary to make three stops, to give the opportunity for the dead person to rest, says Ould Blāl. During the funeral procession, people walk on foot in front of the coffin and, if a means of transportation is used, they follow the vehicle. Imam Muḥammad Lamīn explains that those who walk in front intercede with God through their prayers; this is why all participants usually seek to reach the cemetery on foot. The du’a’ (invocation) is repeated by those walking: takbīr aloud and du’a’ for the dead in a quiet voice. If, on the contrary, the cemetery is far away, the dead person is carried in a vehicle. The Imam explains that this option is allowed based on an analogy with the practices of the prayers of al-‘aīd.
Prayer is a time when the whole community seeks to participate in the event; from a social point of view, this is considered a mark of respect and consideration towards the family of the deceased and, from a religious point of view, an act rewarded by God. Ould Barou says that it is customary that the imam, before beginning the prayer, invites the participants to ask God to forgive the deceased, and if the deceased is in debt with them, to contact the solicitor of the deceased, who is responsible for carrying out the matter of the debts of the deceased. In addition, he recommends to the participants to help his family by following al-ḥadīth, ‘When the news of the death of Ja’far came, the Prophet said: Prepare some food for the family of Ja’far, for indeed something has happened to them that will keep them busy‘. The funeral context, a moment of sorrow, makes everyone vulnerable and therefore generous towards others; at the end, the collection must be delivered to the relatives.
As for the burial (al-dafn), it is a duty to bury a Muslim in a tomb, an action that is up to a maḥram (a close relative) among those present, especially if the deceased is a woman. Different imams agree that, once death is ascertained, it is recommended to bury the dead person as quickly as possible because, says Muḥammad Lamīn, interpreting the saying of the Prophet: ‘If righteous, we hurry to prepare it to meet the Lord; if unjust, then we need to relieve the responsibility to fulfil the duty to bury him.’ Usually, the burial of a dead man is hurried if there is fear that his body alters; however, if there is no risk of alteration or if the death was sudden, the burial can be postponed for a few hours to make sure the person is really dead. This is especially true in cases of drowning or trauma as these need greater certainty, although, in the past, and in some regions, due to the apprehension of the people about death, the custom to speed up the burial of their dead is very widespread (Imam Muḥammad Lamīn, September 2015).
In Mauritania today, two standards of burial are followed: al-laḥd and al-shaq. The enforcement of these standards has evolved over time and differs according to the interpretation of each religious scholar, depending on the quality of the soil in which the burial is to be carried out. Some scholars defend al-laḥd burial which they trace back to the people of al-Medina and the al-shaq to those of Mecca; thus, they favour one over the other. To ascertain the most common form of burial in Mauritania is more complex than imagined; each person interviewed gave a personal interpretation that is sometimes confusing and inconsistent with the information obtained from other sources. This suggests that some imams try to give the impression that in this matter the teachings of sharīʿa are respected, and therefore they say that the al-laḥd burial is more widespread. However, as already mentioned, the choice of a burial is often linked to the conditions of the terrain in which it is performed. It is known that most of the sandy desert soils favour and make the al–shaq burial option easier and faster, although in some cases a simplification is used, by placing a grave combining both modes of burial.
Every Muslim knows that al-laḥd is the burial that was reserved for the Prophet Muḥammad; according to Imam Ould Fatan (Interview, August 2014), affiliated to the tījāniyya, in Mauritania, the al-shaq burial is more frequently used due to the nature of the soil, while the al-laḥd burial model is reserved for prophets.
In fact, the difference between the al-shaq burial and the al-laḥd is noteworthy: the first one is an incision in the pit of the land, which must take into account the size, height and width of the dead person, and must be laid deep enough to protect it from disinterment by wild animals. Mauritanians dig up to the knee of a man or a little above, as a guide, Muḥammad Lamīn observes, since the fuqahā’ did not recommend deepening the tomb. Instead, the al-laḥd burial is a side excavation which is executed on the side of the grave facing the qibla, so that the tomb appears to be empty. This would protect the burial in case of desecration. In the cases of both the al-laḥd and the al-shaq burials, the tomb is sealed with the ṣafā’īḥ (layers) usually made of wood.
Boyba Mamadou (Interview, August 2014) states that for the Fulani, the al-laḥd burial is reserved for socially or religiously influential people, although there are cases where it is carried out at the specific request of the family of the deceased. Furthermore, it is customary to enter the burial site of the sheiks before placing the body of the dead person so they can pray and ask God for mercy for the deceased; it is reported that this is necessary to prevent the tomb from narrowing around the body. In other cases, they write the name of the mother of Ali bin Abī Ṭālib, ‘Fāṭimah bint Asad’, inside the tomb, a tradition attributed to the Sufi followers among the Fulani. In this event, some Mauritanian ethnic groups (Fulani and Soninke) bury valuables with the dead, a practice that is encountered more often in areas bordering Mali.
There are other customs in which earth is employed, such as the practice in which participants take three handfuls from the earth dug up from the grave and throw it onto the burial site. Mauritanians whisper with the first launch of the earth, ‘from it I have created’, because, according to religious belief, human beings were created from clay; with the second throw, ‘we will return to it’, as the final fate of the human body for a Muslim is the land; and throwing the third and final handful, they utter ‘from it we will leave’, in reference to the day of judgement (Imam Ould Fatan). In another narration, Fortier reported that during the throwing of the three handfuls of sand, a part of the Quran (ḥizb) is recited for the salvation of the deceased’s soul (Fortier, 234).
There is another way, practised by some Mauritanian social segments, to throw the earth, according to Imam Blāl, so that it hits the ground towards the coffin, turning ones back to it, for fear of being struck by bad luck if one looks at it.
After the burial, the ground is covered over the tomb, ensuring that a small amount of ground must rise from the grave, according to the Sunna. Wetting the ground of the tomb to prevent the south wind of the desert from damaging the burial site was commonly practised; the continued use of this tradition in some regions has been criticised by scholars who consider it ‘innovation’ (bid’a).
After the funeral, al-talqīn is usually performed, a practice which consists in a person appealing to the deceased after the burial. Al-talqīn is performed by a single person (al-mulaqīn) who remains with the dead person after everyone has gone. Al-mulaqīn positions himself next to the head of the deceased and addresses him saying, ‘say three times to the deceased, “O so-and-so, say:” O so-and-so, say:” Allah is my Lord (rab), Islam is my religion (dīn) and Muḥammad is my prophet’; in Mauritania, they add: ‘Al-Quran is my guide’.
Mauritanian scholars have questioned the reliability of al-talqīn; several of them are opposed to this procedure, arguing that it has originated from a ‘weak’ ḥadīth, while the only talqīn they agree on is the one quoted above, and performed by someone on the verge of death.
The tomb should be marked and, to fulfil this need in the desert conditions, they put stones around the grave; failing that, pieces of wood are used to signal the head and feet of the dead. However, today a plaque is used on which some āyāt, verses of the Quran, and data related to the deceased are inscribed. For some fuqahā’, the writing of the name of the deceased on the tombstone is normal, but verses of the Quran should not be written because, exposed outdoors, it can be dirtied by animal droppings.
Among all the procedures listed above, the ablution, the shroud and burial are required, while the rest is optional.
After the burial, offerings to the deceased, such as prayers and donations (ṣadaqa), are increased because it is believed that a deceased person receives a benefit from everything that the living does in his/her favour.
Mauritania shares the same tradition as that practised throughout North African whereby during the time of condolences, the dinner of the deceased is served, consisting of a funeral banquet with different rites depending on the ethnic group.
After the burial, and the implementation of all its traditions, the period of condolence begins and lasts for three days. In the absence of mourners, the period lasts until their return, although today some scholars argue that a phone call could accomplish the act of condolences. According to the Sunna, it is recommended that Muslims bring food to the family of the deceased, based on the saying of the Prophet, ‘Prepare some food for the family of Ja’far … ’ because they have suffered bereavement. This Sunna has changed in Mauritania and in some neighbouring regions, a contrary course is taken to the one that the Prophet suggested, as it has become customary for the family of the deceased to prepare food for the mourners. In the bīẓān society, even on the first day after the burial of the deceased, the family, relatives and mourners gather in the house of the deceased where a funeral feast, the dinner of the deceased or salka (in ḥassaniyya) is offered; the occasion is accompanied by the reading of the Quran (Fortier, 234). Those who perform a detailed reading of the Quran are often students of zāwiya who have been either chosen, because they belong to the deceased family or are important to the imam, or because there exist personal ties between family members of the deceased, who, without a set reward, receive ṣadaqa from the dead’s relatives.
Among the Fulani, this ceremony takes place on the third day after death, to coincide with the conclusion of the recitation of the sacred text. Consequently, only the first three days are dedicated to the presentation of condolences, while the fourth day is devoted to the beginning of visits. On this occasion, it is usual for the mourners to pronounce the phrase ‘yo alla yourmamo ya foomo’, meaning, God be merciful to him/her and pardon him/her, and those who receive condolences respond: ‘ya alla windane baradji’, that is, and for you there will be a reward.
Among the Soninke, it is customary to conclude the reading of the Quran on the fortieth day after the burial, and on this occasion, the ‘dinner of the deceased’ is offered. This tradition is precise to the point of taking note of those who have not fulfilled the duty of the visit and would be admonished. The mourners bring offerings in cash or in kind; in the house where the mourning takes place, and despite the delicate moment, people show off the quantity and quality of what they have donated to the family.
This tradition now involves several family members who offer, one after the other, a funeral feast in memory of the deceased, basically a trend comparable to the glorification of the coffin, to exalt the importance of the person and that of his/her family. This has accelerated the debate in the various communities of Mauritanian society about the usefulness of this custom. For those looking for justification of this tradition that follows closely the sharī’a, it should not be considered a ‘dinner for the deceased’, but fulfilment of the duty of hospitality. Not surprisingly, in recent years, and with the spread of religious groups who aspire to a total application of Islamic law, there are often disputes between family members on whether to hold the funeral feast. In the early days of mourning, it is common to suspend the celebration of weddings and other celebrations in the district or to perform them without festivities of music and dance; in some cases, this is done to highlight the sharing of and respect for the family in mourning. In other cases, this practice derives mainly from superstition and/or the fear of ill omens that might be spelled by the deceased’s relatives.
From the spiritual point of view, in all different Mauritanian communities, the use of the al-sabḥa (rosary) is common, although its use differs from group to group. In the Fulani community, after the burial, the Sheikh establishes some ḏikr or ward (commemoration of God), the readings of a number of sura, such as Al-Fātiḥa, al-basmala, al-Iḫlās and al-hylala. These are established according to the social prestige of the dead person and to the time available. According to Imam Ould Barou, the ḏikr is in compliance with the words of the Prophet ‘Ask Allah to forgive your brother and supplicate for him for steadfastness because he is being questioned (about his deeds) now’ (Abu Dāwud). At the end of al-sabḥa, this quote follows: ‘Oh God, please transmit the reward of what we read and the benefit of what we recited to the soul of our lord Muḥammad, peace be upon him, and then the soul of our brother [deceased’s name]’; subsequently, the prayer continues for as long as possible.
Among the laḥrāṭīn, men go into the house of the departed to recite the Quran whose reward is for the benefit of the deceased, while the women do al-sabḥa. In some communities, the al-sabḥa has a very special ritual, to gather a number of women who divide among themselves an unspecified number of dates’ pits, though the use of one thousand stones is now practised; each of the participants reads prayers for each of the stones in her possession. Then the set of prayers is spiritually offered for the benefit of the soul of the deceased, a task entrusted to men. In fact, it is believed that men are better placed to deliver the prayers of the rosary for the dead; therefore, it is customary that when women end their sabḥa, they ask men to take care of sending the dead person the spiritual remuneration. To fulfil such a request, men say: ‘Oh God accept these prayers (haylala and sabḥa) recited by these [women] for the soul of [name of the dead person].’ At the end of the rite of sabḥa, the dates’ pits are retained for the prayers of the death of another relative.
In some laḥraṭīn groups, forty days after the death of the family member, the whole procedure of the first day is repeated, as well as dinner and prayers, since it is popularly believed that on the fortieth day the soul returns to the body of the deceased. In other communities, his food and his favourite drinks are prepared for the entire period of the forty days, the so-called shrāb lmrāḥīm, which literally means ‘the drinks of those who benefit from the mercy of God’, while the concept also extends to food. The term lmrāḥīm is the expression used to indicate the dead person in a cemetery.
The Woman: Social and Religious Constraints
While for men the sharī’a foresees no mourning period, for the woman, in general, mourning depends on whether she is pregnant or not. In the first case, the mourning continues until the birth of the child (sura: 65, 4); in the second case, it lasts for four months and ten days (sura: 2, 234). In addition to the religious requirement, which prohibits the woman from committing to a marriage during the period of ‘iddah (the waiting period for divorce), women cannot wear makeup or use perfume or even leave the house, except when necessary; in fact, the woman is subjected to close social norms. Until the beginning of this century, in Mauritanian society, in general, forcing the widow to dress in old clothes and remaining secluded at home, unable to go to work or fulfil her needs, was the norm; she also had to speak quietly and not see anyone except a maḥārīm or an immediate family member, while in some ethnic groups the widow, beyond this, follows a more complex process.
In the Fulani community, the widow must wait for the burial of her husband and the return of the mourners from the cemetery; then the sisters of the deceased attend to her personal affairs, from the opening of her tresses (a common hairstyle) to the shower, and they dress her with old clothing that should cover the entire body, except the face, and will not be changed for the whole duration of the mourning. The custom prohibits the widow from washing during the day and is allowed only at night, since daytime coincides with the visits of people and a clean look of the widow would suggest that she is not mourning. Moreover, in some families, the widow does not use a pillow when she sleeps and must use the shoes of her dead husband instead for the entire period of mourning (Muḥammad al-Ḥāfaẓ, tribe of Fulani, interviewed 2014). However, the widower is not bound by any usage or tradition; usually, he abstains from marriage for a period of at least one year, but one has to keep in mind that among Mauritanian communities the Fulani ethnicity is one in which polygamy is more widespread; therefore, it is rare that a man should be without another wife during this period. Among Soninke, the widow must begin her mourning on a Monday or Thursday and the previous days are not taken into account; subsequently, the widow is put in the hands of an am’alma (in ḥassaniyya is a black artisan) to open her tresses and help her to dress in black. Furthermore, the widow should not raise her voice, but she can go out in case of need. Mourning also extends to the sisters of the deceased who dress, on this occasion, with used plain clothes (Diagana).
As for the laḥrāṭīn community, the widow should not greet anyone and in some cases remains alone and isolated; she must wear black, old clothes; she is not allowed to take a shower, considered an act of immodesty and, in some cases, to feed herself properly. Other families forbid the widow from remarrying because that is believed to cause bad luck for men.
Sometimes traditions in Mauritania impose a misapplication of sharīʿa, as in some groups who oblige the pregnant widow to continue the duration of the expected mourning after the birth of the child (if the child is born a few days after the loss of the father); in other cases, women who are not his wives are forced to prolong their mourning beyond the required three days, in contradiction with the ḥadīth which stipulates that, ‘It is not permissible for a woman to mourn for anyone, for more than three days, except for her husband’ (Sunan an-Nasa’i).
Regarding the visit to the cemetery, it is said that the Prophet, while passing by a woman weeping beside a grave, said: ‘Fear Allah and be patient’, not preventing her from visiting the cemetery. But religious scholars are nevertheless divided on this question. Although the visit to the cemetery is not linked to the purity of the woman, which rebukes any interpretation based on age and the status of the woman, some rules have been introduced which are contained in some ḥadīth, such as those that put conditions on the visit of the woman to the cemetery depending on the distance from her home; for example, if the cemetery is near the city, the woman is allowed to go alone. However, if this requires a trip, she must be accompanied by a maḥram (p. maḥārīm: a close kin. They are listed in the sura 4: 22-23). The second rule is to cover herself; the woman should be fully covered and devoid of all ostentation and fragrant essence, in respect of the dead, but, most of all, according to the Imam, to avoid tempting men in such a peculiar place.
The Imam reiterates that some young women’s behaviour should be disapproved, such as frequent visits to the cemetery which might become a temptation and a distraction to male visitors. It seems that several male interlocutors are concerned about the danger and the ease of falling into the temptation of feminine charm; some respondents point out that this danger is real, quoting the ḥadīth: ‘I have not left after me any (chance) of turmoil more injurious to men than the harm done to the men because of women’ (Sahih Muslim). In this sense, Imam Muḥammad al-Mahdī said that religious scholars have divided women into three categories:
a) an old woman who is no longer interested in men and who can participate with men in all activities; b) a middle-aged woman who is no longer interested in men but who still fascinates men; these may attend the mosque but only occasionally and c) an attractive young woman who should not go to the mosque or visit the graves; nevertheless, the woman can participate in the funeral with those suffering the loss if she is a close family member.
There is also another concern that some imams have expressed regarding the visit of women to the cemeteries, specifically regarding the distance between each burial site, which is often very narrow; they fear that it is difficult for the visitors to pass through unobstructed. These imams worry not only that a woman could step on the graves, which are difficult to see since they are hidden in the sand, but also because of the presence of men in such tight spaces. The apprehensions of most of the interlocutors in this research concern two main issues, besides the fact that the graves should not be violated or trampled on: 1) the fear that the woman might be impure during the visit and 2) the woman could have contact with a non-maḥram, when the person in the burial site is not a close relative of hers.
From the interviews, observation of behaviour in urban areas and desk research for this article, the results show that Mauritanian society is experiencing an accelerated process of adaptation to the principles of the shari’a regarding the deceased. The propagation of teaching and lectures – held in the mosques – and preaching, whose aim is to ostensibly disseminate the correct concepts of Islam and to replace the social practices considered hostile to the content of the message of Prophet Muḥammad, aim at overcoming these customs that characterise one ethnic group or another. They seek to the unification of Mauritanian society through religious prescriptions. For example, in matters of mourning, awareness is spreading among the greater part of Mauritanian social classes that the custom of locking up the widow in the house in use and wearing old clothes and all the rituals passed from one generation to another do not conform to Islamic law and should thus be abandoned.
In this process, an important role is played by the imams belonging to different ethnic groups, and the same can be said about literacy, the non-nomadic lifestyle and the diffusion of satellite television, which have gradually helped overcome some deep-rooted preconceptions, especially in urban areas.
Nevertheless, for a good part of society, some customs persist and cannot be easily abandoned. Undoubtedly, it is still difficult to preserve, as demanded by some imams, the Maliki creed, supported by the exegesis of al-Khalīl and devoid of any adulteration from other doctrines (madhāhib). Even the Salafists, who often criticise the political life of the country, find some space to address such matters as the relationship of the Mauritanian people with the world of the dead. Critical of many aspects of the uses and customs of the society, they find fertile ground in the traditions of mourning, such as the dead man’s dinner and the visit to the cemetery. This position shows the distance of the society from the devotion to religious dictates, and makes it hard to understand how much a social reality, as authentic as the Mauritanian society is, can withstand the evolution of religious events in Arab-Muslim countries.