Virtually all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. They adhere to the Maliki rite, one of the four Sunni schools of law. Since independence in 1960, Mauritania has been an Islamic republic. The Constitutional Charter of 1985 declares Islam the state religion and sharia the law of the land.
Islam first spread southward into West Africa, including Mauritania, with the movement of Muslim traders and craftsmen and later with the founders of Islamic brotherhoods. Although the brotherhoods played a role in the early expansion of Islam, it was not until the nineteenth century that these religious orders assumed importance when they attempted to make religion a force for expanding identities and loyalties beyond the limits of kinship. The relative peace brought to the area by French administration and the growing resentment of colonial rule contributed to the rapid rise in the power and influence of the brotherhoods. In recent decades, these orders have opposed tribalism and have been an indispensable element in the growth of nationalist sentiment.
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