Racializing Arabic: Colonial Education Policies and the Linguistic Issue in Contemporary Mauritania

Baba Adou, University of Florida


Alfred Gertainy, an American researcher, observed as early as the first decade of Mauritania’s independence that “everything of national importance in Mauritania is conditioned by the racial and ethnic factor.” The reason, he argued, “is contained in Mauritania’s geographic location and historical background as the resulting racial and ethnic constitution and traditional social structure of its society.”[1] The past six decades of Mauritania’s history demonstrate that Gerteiny was right about the centrality of race in Mauritania. As early as 1965, deadly clashes between “Black” and “white” Mauritanians over the mandatory teaching of Arabic in school were just the beginning of a sequence of racial tensions that are still shaping Mauritania’s social and political life. The situation became even more tense in the 1980s when the military regime in power executed hundreds of military officers from the Haalpulaar, the major Afro-Mauritanian community in the country, and expelled thousands of civilians to neighboring Senegal and Mali.[2]

While power balancing and competition over the new nation’s resources were the driving causes of this racial strife, language was also at the heart of the issue. Arabization, the process by which Arabic gained a considerable presence in the administration and school settings, was often blamed for reinforcing discrimination against Black Mauritanians of Haalpular, Wolof, and Soninke origins. But this raises its own question: How was Arabic, a language that was once adopted by pre-colonial Mauritanian intellectuals from all racial backgrounds, racialized in a way that contributed to racial tensions in Mauritania?

I argue that French colonial education policies in Mauritania not only restructured the social and political life of the country but also shaped the way in which el Bidhan or les Maures (Moors), the Hassaniya-speaking tribes in Mauritania, came to categorize themselves racially as a homogeneous white Arab group, juxtaposed to a Black population within the country. This was done first through the colonial conception of Arabic as an identity language and later by el Bidhan’s adoption of this colonial-constructed identity. Maintaining such an identity in the post-colonial state, however, proved to be challenging. Significant components of the Hassaniya-speaking population, including the Haratin (mostly descendants of former slaves) and other traditionally marginalized groups such as blacksmiths and griots, contest the present system as a hindrance to their social mobility.[3] These social dynamics make it challenging to establish mass support for a foundation for the political rhetoric of Arabization, especially considering that these groups do not necessarily identify as “Arabs.” It is possible to imagine similar resentment, or at least a lack of enthusiasm, to political Arabization on the part of Berber tribes in the absence of a colonial project that bridged the pre-colonial gap between Arab Hassan and Berber Zawaya tribal confederations that produced a much more complex relationship with the Arabic language. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a considerable minority of Berber speakers. Estimated then at 13,000 speakers in the Trarza region of southern Mauritania, the figure dropped sharply on the eve of the twenty-first century.[4]The lack of political salience of the Berber language in Mauritania—a feature of post-colonial politics in other Northern African countries—and the politicization of Arabic could not be explained away by pre-colonial history. By highlighting colonial legacies, this essay explores the hypothetical path that Arabic might have followed among the diverse ethno-racial groups in Mauritania had there been no French colonial influence in the country.

I build on works about raciolinguistics, language, and identity, which focus on the dialectical relationship between language and race as well as language and identity formation. Following scholars who understand race as a social construct, rather than being fixed and predetermined,[5] raciolinguists argue that continuous and repeated language use (re)creates racial, ethnic, and national identities.[6] They understand language not as an intrinsic feature of the ethnic group, but as one of the resources individuals use to create ethnoracial selves.[7] In Mauritania, Arabic began to emerge as a racialized language when colonial education policies drew a dividing line between “Arab” and “African” Mauritania. The instrumentalization of language by state elites and the use of Arabic to displace Afro-Mauritanian elites from power was thus facilitated by these colonial legacies and perpetuated in problematic ways in the postcolonial era.

Historical Background

A useful starting point is a brief overview of the historical process through which the contemporary Hassaniya-speaking Moorish community came into existence and the place of Arabic in this process. Islam first came to what is known today as Mauritania in the eighth century, spreading through trade, especially among Berber Sanhaja tribes and the Soninke of the Ghana empire.[8] With this initial contact with Islam, Mauritanians (from both Berber and Black African origins) were exposed to Arabic as the language of the new religion. The second major phase of Islamicization came with the Almoravids in the mid-eleventh century.[9] The Sanhaja tribes maintained a strong tradition of Islamic learning, which they adapted to their Berber culture and nomadic lifestyle.[10] Starting from the sixteenth century, the advent of Arab tribes would initiate a process of Arabization that resulted in the spread of the Hassaniya dialect and the decline of the Zenaga language.[11]

While Hassaniya—the dialect spoken by the Arab tribes of Banu Hassan—maintained traces of the Berber Zenaga language and borrowed from other local dialects and languages, it became the lingua franca in the space occupied by Moorish tribes.[12] The contact between the Arabs and the local Sanhaja tribes resulted in the reconfiguration of the sociopolitical system, especially after the Shar Bubba War (1645–1675) in which the Sanhaja were defeated in southwestern Mauritania. Moorish society was then divided into Zawaya tribes of Berber origin and the Hassan warrior tribes of Arab origin.[13] The latter, specializing in warfare, reduced the Sanhaja to a status of “respectable subordination.”[14] Although there were exceptions to this rule, the Zawaya “were thought of as people who specialized in religious learning and commerce, a peace-loving people who needed the special protection of those who specialized in warfare.”[15]

This complex process of Arabization led some Berber tribes to change their genealogical origin to Arab ancestry. However, the adoption of language to understand the Quran and specialize in religious learning did not always correspond to such a genealogical shift.[16] In fact, the mother tongue was often present alongside Arabic in traditional schools for the purpose of explaining the meaning of the Arabic text.[17] In addition, there was limited command of classical Arabic as a language of oral communication in traditional educational settings.[18] Even the Sanhaja tribes that underwent a deep Arabization process—supported by a widespread claim that Sanhaja were Himyarite Arabs—established a definite demarcation between their Arab identity and that of the Hassan Arabs, while also embracing a shared Zawaya culture with other learned Berber tribes.[19] The variety of Arabic currently spoken in Mauritania is still referred to as klam Hassan, or the language of Hassan, an indication that a distinction was made between Arabic as a separate language and Hassaniya as an identity dialect. This pre-colonial division between Hassan and Zawaya therefore had important implications for the trajectory of Arabic in the country.

In the River Valley region of Mauritania, where Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof communities lived, a similar relationship connected these groups to Arabic. As was the case in the Moorish community, “the learned men [in these communities] had at their disposal a unified corpus of reference, based on the triad of Màlikism, Aš’arism, and Sufi brotherhood, and applied largely similar methods to transmit knowledge.”[20] Arabic was viewed and used by Mauritanians from all racial and ethnic backgrounds as a liturgical and literary language that coexisted with local languages. With the advent of colonialism, however, the two communities, which possessed similar social stratification systems and were linked through religious Sufi traditions, would be remodeled in a way that impacted their relationship with Arabic. [21]

Two Colonial Education Policies

When the French entered Mauritania, they were aware of the racial and ethnic divisions in the country, but they treated the Maure as they did any other Arab society they colonized, despite the different historical and social circumstances surrounding the formation of Moorish society. In colonial Mauritania, the French differentiated between two types of Islam: Black Islam and Moorish or “white Islam.”[22] The former was understood to be recent and hence more susceptible to colonial penetration. Whether the French invented this division between Islam noir and Arab Islam or borrowed it from earlier Arab and North African practices and traditions,[23] it had implications for the type of policies they pursued in Mauritania. The French dedicated more resources and attention to the Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof communities, which they directly targeted with colonial education policies, while the Moorish community, understood to be homogeneously Arab, was largely spared from heavy inculturation attempts.[24] The French hoped that by exposing these indigenous people to the French language and culture, they might develop a more favorable opinion of the colonial administration. However, this policy only brought them closer to Islam in greater numbers.[25]

The French would later open schools in the areas populated by the Moorish tribes. In reaction to Moorish families’ reluctance to send their children to French schools, the colonial administration adopted the médersa system that it had used in Algeria. The médersa was a bicultural educational institution that incorporated elements from both the French school system and Islamic education.[26] While three médersas were open in Senegal and Mali, this system mostly targeted the Hassaniya-speaking population in Mauritania. One reason for this focus was the racist colonial view that Moorish Islam was more authentic and difficult to penetrate compared to Black Islam.[27] By the end of 1940 there were 14 French schools in Mauritania.[28] In all of these schools, except the ones in the River Valley region, the French language was an optional subject. French would only become mandatory later when parents expressed interest in teaching French to their children after they noticed the importance of the language for employment and participation in the colonial administration.[29]

Unusually, instead of relying on teachers from France as was the case in many West African schools, the colonial médersas initially recruited teachers from Algeria. This choice was due to the belief that students would be more likely to connect with Arab teachers who were familiar with the same religious texts, since they were also classified as Arab by the French.[30] For similar reasons, French education administrators also preferred to hire Algerian directors over directors from other ethnic groups such as Halpulaar, Wolof, or Soninke.[31]

As colonial agents, Algerian teachers played a central role in adapting colonial education to the Mauritanian context.[32]They also contributed to the training of Mauritanian state elites. As a study of one of these schools reveals, graduates from Boutilimit médersa came to occupy key positions in the state after independence in 1960: 23 percent of these graduates became ministers, 18 percent ambassadors, 38 percent governors, and the rest ended up occupying high-ranking administrative and university positions.[33] Many of the Algerian teachers ended up integrating into society and marrying Moorish women,[34] playing a central role in the colonial process of racializing the Arabic language and forming an encompassing Arabo-Berber identity that transcended pre-colonial divisions.

It is true, as some historians of Mauritania have observed, that the impact of colonial education was very modest in terms of its reach since it only produced a small and mostly weak elite.[35] However, this elite not only ended up taking over the post-colonial state, but it also shaped the political discourse on the state and the place of language in the state-building project.

The médersa system was abolished in the 1940s, but the French continued to distinguish between Mauritanians based on racial categorization by accommodating the Hassaniya-speaking population under the new system. To compensate for the abolition of the médersas, Arabic was introduced in all schools attended by speakers of Hassaniya.[36] The other communities wanted a similar treatment.[37] Evidently, Arabic was important to these Mauritanian Muslims as the language of the Quran and an indispensable tool for attaining religious authority in their community. However, the colonial administration thwarted this possibility because the French drew a clear distinction between Arabic as an identity language and Arabic as a religious language.[38] The French accommodated the first but not the latter, since it contradicted the secular values of its republican school system,[39] which strictly limited the presence of religion in the school curriculum. This colonial treatment of Arabic as an identity language for the Arabs failed to recognize the special status it enjoyed among non-Arab communities. Arabic was not only a liturgical language for African communities in Mauritania. It also served as a medium of knowledge production for many intellectuals in Mauritania and other West African countries who produced significant religious, historical, scientific, and literary works using this language.[40]

French colonial policy around the Arabic language masked a complex social structure within pre-colonial Moorish society. Within this context, Arabic was not an identity language for all Hassaniya speakers. Arabic was adopted by Berber tribes for religious reasons but also as a tool to accrue more power in a sociopolitical context defined in Islamic terms. Voluntary Arabization on the part of some Berber tribes was perhaps a strategy for resisting Arab domination. By mastering Arabic and religious subjects and, in some cases, claiming Arab ancestry, these Berber tribes sought to establish a link with the predominant political paradigm at the time, which was shaped by Arabic and Islam. Divisions between Zawaya (mostly Berber) and Hassan (mostly Arab) tribes persisted despite Arabization.


The politicization and racialization of Arabic, a language that was widely used by pre-colonial African intellectuals and is still accorded a special liturgical status by many in Muslim West Africa, finds its roots in colonial language and educational policies. Colonial policies, I tentatively argue, may have contributed to the construction of racial identities that would only become evident in the lead-up to independence. The essay demonstrates how these policies led to the rise of an identity crisis and played a pivotal role in race-making in Mauritania during and after the colonial era.

The French—in contrast to the policies they pursued in other parts of the region—adopted two different language and education policies in Mauritania, one directed at the non-Arabic-speaking population in the south while the other at the Arab-Berber tribes in the rest of the country. The former strictly relied on the French language and educational system while the latter accommodated Arabic and made connections between Hassaniya-speaking Mauritanians (who hailed from both Arab and Berber backgrounds and were therefore linked to Arabic in different ways) and the Arab world. This colonial process involved, on one level, bringing North African teachers to these colonial-run schools or médersas and framing Arabic as an identity language while, on another level, denying Afro-Mauritanian students the opportunity to study Arabic.

One counterargument to the point I am making here is that colonial education itself had limited reach in Mauritania, as some historians have rightly noted. The colonial schools produced only a small elite. However, this elite assumed control of the post-colonial state and played a significant role in shaping the political discourse surrounding the state and the role of language in the state-building project. In a way, they perpetuated the colonial project by perceiving Arabic through the lens of identity and, either directly or indirectly, contributed to the emergence of a linguistic crisis in the country.

One should not understate the role of post-colonial developments in the country, including educational reforms and local demographic and migration dynamics, in setting the process of Arabization in motion. However, given the particular historical process through which the contemporary Hassaniya-speaking Moorish community came into existence, the racialization of Arabic and even the development of “Arab nationalism” in the country would have been difficult to imagine without colonial intrusion.


[1] Alfred G. Gerteiny, “The Racial Factor and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania,” Race 8, no. 3 (1967): 263.

[2] Pierre-Robert Baduel, “Mauritanie 1945–1990 Ou l’État Face à La Nation,” Revue Des Mondes Musulmans et de La Méditerranée 54, no. 1 (1989): 11–52; Cédric Jourde, “‘The President Is Coming to Visit!’: Dramas and the Hijack of Democratization in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania,” Comparative Politics (2005): 421–40.

[3] It is important to note that not all Haratin are direct descendants of former slaves. However, the association between Haratin and historical slave status is prominently evident in contemporary Mauritania. See Anne McDougal, “Hidden in Plain Sight: ‘Haratine’ in Nouakchott’s ‘Niche-Settlements,’” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 48, no. 2 (2015): 259–79.

[4] Catherine Taine-Cheikh, “Le berbère zénaga de Mauritanie: un îlot (bilingue) en pleine terre,” (2020) (forthcoming): 1.

[5] For instance, see Franz Boas, “Race, Language and Culture,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease94, no. 4 (1941): 513–14.

[6] H. Sami Alim, John R. Rickford, and Arnetha F. Ball, eds., Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas about Race (Oxford University Press, 2016); Fiona McLaughlin, “Senegal: The Emergence of a National Lingua Franca,” in Language and National Identity in Africa, ed. Andrew Simpson (Oxford University Press, 2008), 79–97.

[7] Elaine W. Chun and Adrienne Lo, “Language and Racialization,” in The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology (Routledge, 2015), 220–33.

[8] Catherine Taine-Cheikh, “Arabic of Mauritania,” in Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics (EALL), III, ed. K. Versteegh, (2008): 169–76.

[9] Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, “Espace Confrérique, Espace Étatique: Le Mouridisme, Le Confrérisme et La Frontière Mauritano-Sénégalaise,” Les Relations Transsahariennes à l’époque Contemporaine (2003): 195.

[10] Philip D Curtin, “Jihad in West Africa: Early Phases and Inter-Relations in Mauritania and Senegal,” The Journal of African History 12, no. 1 (1971): 11–24.

[11] Taine-Cheikh, “Arabic of Mauritania.”

[12] For a detailed discussion on Shurbubba and the movement of Nasser Al-Din, see Harry Thirwall Norris, “Znāga Islam during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 32, no. 3 (1969): 496–526.

[13] It is important to note here that there are exceptions. There are Arab Zawaya tribes and vice versa.

[14] Curtin, “Jihad in West Africa.”

[15] Ibid. 12

[16] By this I mean the process through which tribes of Berber origin claimed an Arab lineage.

[17] Taine-Cheikh, “Arabic of Mauritania.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harry T. Norris, “Yemenis in the Western Sahara,” The Journal of African History 3, no. 2 (1962): 317–22.

[20] Taine-Cheikh, “Arabic of Mauritania,” 2.

[21] Cheikh, “Espace Confrérique, Espace Étatique.”

[22] Erin Pettigrew, “Colonizing the Mahadra: Language, Identity, and Power in Mauritania under French Control,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 33, no. 2–3 (2007).

[23] Jean-Louis Triaud, “Giving a Name to Islam South of the Sahara: An Adventure in Taxonomy,” The Journal of African History 55, no. 1 (2014): 3–15; Baz Lecocq, “Distant Shores: A Historiographic View on Trans-Saharan Space,” The Journal of African History 56, no. 1 (2015): 23–36.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Charles Toupet and Jean-Robert Pitte, La Mauritanie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977); Pettigrew, “Colonizing the Mahadra.”

[26] Samuel D. Anderson, “From Algiers to Timbuktu: Multi-Local Research in Colonial History Across the Saharan Divide,” History in Africa 49 (2022): 277–99.

[27] Anderson, “From Algiers to Timbuktu.”; Pettigrew, “Colonizing the Mahadra.”

[28] Sid’Ahmed Ould El Amir, “The Emergence of the Modern School in Mauritania and the Algerian Role in its Development,” Alakhbar Info (blog), 2020.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Pettigrew, “Colonizing the Mahadra.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Anderson, “From Algiers to Timbuktu.”

[33] Brahim Benmoussa, “Medersiens Algériens Directeurs de Médersas En Mauritanie, Un Transfert Transsaharien Méconnu,” Trache SM, Yanco J. (Dir), 2016.

[34] Ould El Amir, “The Emergence of the Modern School in Mauritania.”

[35] Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, “CHERCHE ÉLITE, DÉSESPÉREMENT: Évolution Du Système Éducatif et (Dé) Formation Des” Élites” Dans La Société Mauritanienne,” Nomadic Peoples, 1998, 235–52.

[36] Taine-Cheikh, “Arabic of Mauritania.”

[37] Catherine Taine-Cheikh, “Les Langues Comme Enjeux Identitaires,” Politique Africaine 55 (1994): 57–64.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Fiona Mc Laughlin, “The Linguistic Ecology of the Sahel,” in The Oxford Handbook of the African Sahel, ed. Leonardo Villalón (Oxford University Press, 2021), 649–65; Rüdiger Seesemann, “Islamic Intellectual Traditions in the Sahel,” in The Oxford Handbook of the African Sahel, ed. Leonardo Villalón (Oxford University Press, 2021), 533–49.