Mauritania has approved the establishment of the first Islamic university for graduates of the centuries-old Mahdhara, a traditional Islamic school, in order to promote moderation in Islam in the face of extremist thought, as well as preserve desert-based Muslim religious education.
The Council of Ministers approved the new Islamic university, to be called the Greater Shankite Mahdhara (GSM), on 14 February, according to the website of the Mauritanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education.
“The establishment of the Greater Shankite Mahdhara is a mega step toward preserving the legacy of the unique traditional Shankite educational system which is one of the oldest surviving educational religious models in the history of Muslim education,” expert in North African Islamic studies, Tarek AbdulSalam Ladjal, associate professor in the department of general education at Effat University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told University World News.
“The GSM university will revive Mahdhara with modern curriculae that adapt the notions of tolerance and renewal in order to be able to deal with the contemporary challenges of terrorism and extremism,” Ladjal said.
Unlike other institutions of higher education such as the University of Islamic Sciences and the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies and Research, it will have administrative, financial and educational independence.
The new university will only admit graduate students of ‘Mahdhara’ who have passed competitive entrance examinations. The duration of study will be eight years divided into three stages including bachelor, masters and doctorate levels.
‘Mahdhara’ literally means ‘a fenced-in or protected place’. The traditional Islamic schools focus on providing a system to disseminate traditional Islamic sciences among the Islamic nations, according to a 2017 report entitled Desert-based Muslim Religious Education: Mahdara as a model, co-authored by Ladjal.
“In its Bedouin context, the Mahdhara produced religious scholars no less competent in the mastery of religious Islamic sciences than graduates of other reputable Islamic learning institutions,” the report said.
In the Mahdhara system and under harsh desert conditions, students begin by memorising the Quran, followed by the Islamic sciences, mainly taught in the form of traditional poetry. All these texts are memorised and are taught free of charge to anyone willing to learn. Mahdharas are considered to be the universities of the desert.
The GSM university, to be based in Akkugat, seeks to promote a positive image of the Mauritanian world as cosmopolitan and moderate, and to extend scientific best practice to Arab and African regions, according to the Mauritanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education.
“Formal institutions of Islamic teaching, particularly at the tertiary education level, provide important venues to train local Islamic scholars, and allow students to pursue advanced degrees in Islam and discuss complex theological issues from rich, broad and academic perspectives as well as disseminate authentic and contextual Islamic knowledge in society,” Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor in the department of political science at the United States-based University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, told University World News.
“While opening new venues for formal learning of Islam is a first step, it is equally important – if not more urgent – to staff these institutions with qualified faculty who not only technically well versed but also have extensive insight into aspects of Islamic teaching and learning in social relations and applications of Islam,” Achilov said.
“The university should provide an open environment in which all sorts of views and pressing questions should be welcomed and debated. The curriculum should emphasise openness to new ideas and critical, creative thinking,” Achilov said.
However, despite these aspirations, some observers are concerned that the new institution is a tool for ideological control.
“There are concerns that the establishment of GSM could be a move by the government aimed at controlling Islamic education after warnings made by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz against politicised Islam last year,” higher education expert, Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University World News.
Last September, Mauritania shut down two Islamic higher education institutions, including the University of Abdullah ibn Yasin and the Centre for Training Islamic Scholars, due to their alleged links with the main opposition Islamic political party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This move was condemned by several national, regional and international organisations.