Colonizing Shari‘a: Islamic and Customary Law, the French Secular, and the Zwaya Ascendency in Mauritania, c.1900-1940
Lawrence, Benjamin Nichlas
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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EmbargoRelease after 07/10/2024
AbstractThis dissertation examines the complex relationship between Islamic law, custom, and French civil law in Mauritania during the colonial encounter of the first half of the twentieth century. France invaded and occupied Mauritania in the early twentieth century in the context of an ongoing conflict between local groups, tensions which were subsequently reflected in relations between the French administration and Islamic reformers. Using European colonial and African indigenous Islamic sources, both archival and oral, I explore the different perspectives of indigenous elites and French colonizers. Focusing specifically on transformations in Islamic traditions, indigenous law, and African customary legal cultures during the process of colonialization, I investigate ways in which Islamic law, education, and elite status were integrated in the colonial system. My dissertation is a response to a familiar question, namely “what happens to Islamic structures in a colonial context?” “Colonizing Shari‘a” argues that Islam was a central element of governmentality during the colonial administration of Mauritania because pre-colonial African indigenous political struggles provided opportunities to both the French and a community of Mauritanians, the Zwaya. Previously a marginalized Islamic group, Zwaya became central to colonial governance, working as Islamic agents, in the role of clerics, qadi clerks and adjudicators, school instructors, and self-professed tribal law authorities, contributing to shaping of the legal and educational policy of colonialism. Furthermore, Islamic law was standardized, formalized, and ultimately institutionalized during this colonial encounter and marked as distinct from “traditional” customary law and practice. Building on this argument, I further contend that during the colonial encounter, Islam was associated with certain social groups, leading to the emergence of an Islamic and colonial identity politics. The modalities by which Islam was deployed during this period eventually differentiated Islamic from customary tradition, facilitating a wider politics of social differentiation with importance legacies in the post-colonial and contemporary periods. My dissertation fills a critical gap in the research by bridging perspectives that are too often disconnected. I demonstrate that local intellectual and political history is essential to understanding broader political and legal developments in colonial Mauritania. My work offers a new account of how a particular community of Islamic agents structured political power and facilitated their later social ascendency, contributing to an understanding of the post-colonial politics of Islamic law, secularization within Islamic context, and efforts toward legal reform
Degree ProgramGraduate College
Middle Eastern and North African Studies