The land of Chinguett, more commonly known to the English-speaking world as Mauritania, is renowned for producing great scholars, saints, and erudite women of note. Scholars traveling to Mauritania have observed that “even their women memorize vast amounts of literature.” Mauritanian women have traditionally excelled in poetry, seerah, and genealogy, but some who mastered the traditional sciences were considered scholars in their own right.
Maryam Bint Bwayba, who memorized the entire Qur’an and the basic Maliki texts, was one such Mauritanian woman worthy of note. I had the honor of knowing Maryam, a selfless and caring woman, and the noble wife of Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj, having first met both of them twenty-five years ago in a small tent in the remote spiritual community of Tuwamirat in Mauritania.
My journey to that destination began four and a half years earlier, in 1980, at a bookstore in Abu Dhabi, where I met Shaykh Abdallah Ould Siddiq of the renowned Tajakanat clan. I knew immediately he was from West Africa, given the dir’ah, the distinct West African wide robe he was wearing, as well as the turban, a rare sight in the Gulf at that time. I had met scholars from West Africa when I was in Mali two years before and was interested in studying with them, so I asked the shaykh if he knew anyone who taught the classical Maliki texts in the traditional manner. He affirmed that he himself was a teacher of that very tradition, gave me his number, and said I was welcome anytime to come to his house for lessons. That began my Islamic education in earnest.
I started to study with Shaykh Abdallah Ould Siddiq in addition to my required classes at the Islamic Institute in Al-Ain. Unlike most Mauritanian teachers, he did not emphasize rote memorization or use of the wood slate known as the lawh. I studied directly from books. After a few years and much benefit from him and two other great Maliki jurists, Shaykh Shaybani and Shaykh Bayyah Ould Salik, my education took a major turn when I met a young electrician from the Massuma clan named Yahya Ould Khati. He was of the view that while these scholars were excellent, the truly illustrious man of his age was Murabit al-Hajj, who lived in a forgotten part of Mauritania, far away from civilization and the distractions of this world. He informed me that Shaykh Abdar Rahman, the son of Murabit al-Hajj, was now in the Emirates.
Shortly after, at the house of Shaykh Bayyah, an elder of the Massuma clan who had taken me under his wing and from whom I benefited greatly in my studies, I met Shaykh Abdar Rahman. Upon meeting him, I was struck by the otherworldliness of his presence, which is not unusual for Mauritanian scholars, but it was clearly pronounced in him. I remember thinking, “If this is the son, I must meet the father.” I also began studying with his close friend and companion, Shaykh Hamid, after I helped him get settled and, with the help of Shaykh Bashir Shaqfah, another of my teachers and at that time the head of the Office of Endowments at Al-Ain, secure a position of imam for him in the main mosque of Al-Ain, where I was serving as a muezzin.
From Shaykh Hamid, I learned about the merits of memorization. Although I had studied several texts, and my Arabic was quite fluent by this time, Shaykh Hamid was adamant that without rote memorization, one was dependent upon books and did not really possess knowledge within oneself. Mauritanians, he told me, distinguish between daylight scholars and nighttime scholars. A daytime scholar needs light to read books to access knowledge, but a nighttime scholar can access that knowledge when the lights are out, through the strength of his memory and the retention of knowledge. Hence, he felt that I should start over.
I had studied Ibn Ashir, al-Risalah, and sections of Aqrab al-masalik privately; I had studied the early editions of al-Fiqh al-Maliki fi thawbihi al-jadid, which were used at the Institute; and I had studied hadith with Shaykh Ahmad Badawi, one of the great hadith scholars of Sudan. But I had put little to memory other than what I naturally retained. Shaykh Hamid procured a slate for me and began teaching me the basics again, but with rote memorization. It was humbling, but edifying, to see how this tradition has been carried on throughout the ages with these time-tested models.
I then became an imam in a small mosque near the large one, and was leading prayer for a community of mostly Afghan workers, who were sending their earnings back home to support families and the war effort against the Russians, who had invaded Afghanistan four years earlier.
It was then that I began to have dreams in which I saw a great man, whom I learned later was Murabit al-Hajj. One of those dreams included an elderly woman whom I had also never seen before.
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I decided to leave my very comfortable and enjoyable life in the Emirates in 1984 and headed towards Mauritania via Algeria, where I planned on spending some months memorizing the Qur’an. I made this decision even though I was warned that there was a draught in Mauritania and living conditions were extremely harsh. Somehow, I felt compelled to go and nothing could deter me.
After spending some months with Sidi Bou Said at his madrassa in Tizi, Algeria, I traveled on to Tunisia, obtained a visa to Mauritania, and took a flight to Nouakchott, which lies on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara. I arrived in that capital city, with its extremely primitive conditions and vast slums that surrounded a small city center, with no addresses and no specific plan, other than to find Murabit al-Hajj.
I went to the marketplace and asked around if there was anyone from the Massuma clan, and was directed to a small shop where I met Abdi Salim, a very friendly man who was from the same branch of Massuma as my teacher, Shaykh Hamid. When I told Abdi Salim I wanted to find Murabit al-Hajj and study with him, his face lit up and he wholeheartedly endorsed the idea. He then took me to someone from Mukhtar al-Habib, the branch of the Massuma clan that Murabit al-Hajj was from, and they took me to the house of Mawlay al-Maqari al-Massumi, a small place made from tea boxes with open sewage in the back. Similar houses were all around, as far as the eye could see. Mawlay al-Maqari al-Massumi was one of the most hospitable and welcoming people I had ever met; I later learned he was loved by all who knew him. I stayed with him and his family for several days.
Providentially, Shaykh Abdar Rahman soon arrived from the Emirates to visit his mother and father and, not surprisingly, it was his wont to stay with Mawlay al-Maqari whenever in the capital. He would accompany me to his family’s school in Tuwamirat, but the journey required camels. A message was sent to the encampment of Murabit al-Hajj via the government radio announcements, which was how people in the capital communicated with the nomads in the desert. The message stated that Shaykh Abdar Rahman and Hamza Abdal Wahid (my given name when I converted and used at that time) would be arriving in the town of Kamur on such-and-such a date and were in need of camels there to take them to their village, Tuwamirat. We then set out on a rather unpleasant journey in a truck to Kamur, which was several hundred kilometers inland into the Sahara desert. The road at that time ended at Bou Talamit, and two-thirds of it was simply rough desert track worn down over time by loaded trucks and jeeps. It was the bumpiest, dirtiest, and most difficult road journey I had ever taken in my life.
After two grueling days, we arrived in a beautiful town known as Geru, which at the time had no technology, and the buildings there were all a lovely adobe. Hundreds of students studied at seven madrassas, called mahdhara in Geru. At night, with the exception of a few flashlights, candles, and kerosene lamps, all was dark so the Sahara night sky could be seen in all its stellar glory. The entire town was filled with the soothing sounds of the recitation of Qur’an and other texts.
We stayed with Shaykh Khatri, the brother of Murabit al-Hajj’s wife, Maryam, and a cousin of Murabit al-Hajj. While in Geru, I came to know a great saint and scholar, Sidi Minnu, who was already an old man at the time. He memorized all of the Hisn al-Hasin of Imam al-Jazari and recited it everyday. His other time was spent in praying for the entire Ummah. Once, we were sitting on the sand and he picked some up with his hand and said to me, “Never be far away from the earth, for this is our mother.” He then said something that struck me to the core: “I have never regretted anything in my entire life, nor have I ever wished for anything that I did not or could not have, but right now I wish that I was a young man so that I could accompany you on this great journey of yours to seek knowledge for the sake of God.”
After a few days, we set out for Kamur, which we had passed on our way to Geru, and then took camels and set out for Murabit al-Hajj; by nightfall we arrived in Galaga, a valley with a large lake that rises and lowers with the rainfall and the seasons. After breakfast the next morning, we set out for the upper region some miles from where Murabit al-Hajj’s clan was encamped.
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As we came into Tuwamirat, I was completely overwhelmed by its ethereal quality. It was the quintessential place that time forgot. The entire scene reminded me of something out of the Old Testament. Many of the people had never seen a white person before and the younger people had only heard about the French occupation, but never seen French people or other foreigners for that matter. I entered the tent of Murabit al-Hajj.
My eyes fell upon the most noble and majestic person I have ever seen in my life. He called me over, put his hand on my shoulder, welcomed me warmly, and then asked me, “Is it like the dream?” I burst into a flood of tears. I had indeed experienced a dream with him that was very similar to our actual meeting. He then went back to teaching. I was given a drink, and some of the students began to massage me, which I most appreciated, as my entire body ached from the difficult journey.
Murabit al-Hajj insisted that I stay with him in his tent and sleep next to him. I soon came to know his extraordinary wife, Maryam Bint Bwayba. Completely attentive to my needs, she took care to see that I was comfortable, and provided me with a running commentary on the place and its people. Maryam was one of the most selfless people I have ever met. She spent most mornings with her leather milk container called a jaffafah, which she used to make buttermilk for her family, for the poorer students, and for the seemingly endless stream of guests that visited. She surrounded herself with wooden bowls to dispense the morning and evening milk collected from the cows, and she knew which cows were producing more milk and which ones were not. She was ably assisted in her domestic chores by her faithful and selfless servant, Qabula, who had been with her since childhood and who smiled all the time.
During my time there, I came to know Maryam as this noble and joyful woman, especially her nurturing nature. At one point, I became severely ill from the endemic malarial fevers in Mauritania, and Maryam took motherly care of me. One day I remarked that I was used to eating vegetables and that their diet of milk and couscous, with some cooked dried meat, was hard on me. Maryam immediately began giving me dates everyday before the meal and also asked some of the Harateen to plant carrots for me. Soon, she began preparing small cooked carrots and serving them with my meals.
Maryam was always in a state of remembrance of God. Her full name was Maryam Bint Muhammad al-Amin Ould Muhammad Ahmad Bwayba. At an early age, she married Sidi Muhammad Bin Salik Ould Fahfu al-Amsami, known as Murabit al-Hajj Fahfu. She was an extraordinary woman of great merit and virtue and was noted for her more than sixty years of service to the students of the Islamic College of Tuwamirat. Maryam grew up during a time of great hardship in Mauritania and told me that people were so poor that many simply covered their nakedness with leaves. Her father, Muhammad al-Amin, who was known as Lamana, was a scholar as well as a skilled horseman and expert marksman. Maryam always displayed the greatest pride in her father and related to me his many exploits. I once praised her husband, and she laughed and responded, “You should have seen my father!”
Maryam was in a state of complete submission to her Lord and always encouraged people to study. Her world was that of a small tribal province, but her spirit was truly universal. When she married Murabit al-Hajj, he was already recognized for his scholarship, mastery of Arabic, and complete disengagement from worldly matters. After he had married Maryam, her father said to him, “You might want to think about the means to a good livelihood now that you are married,” to which Murabit al-Hajj replied, “The means of this world are as multitudinous as the night stars to me, but I would not like to sully my soul with their pursuit.”
In their early years, Maryam studied several texts with her husband. She memorized the entire Qur’an in addition to the basic Maliki texts. Furthermore, she studied with him the entire al-Wadih al-Mubeen of Sidi Abdal-Qadir Ould Muhammad Salim with its hundreds of lines on matters of creed. She also read his extensive commentary, Bughyat al-Raghibeen ‘ala al-Wadih al-Mubeen, which she kept at her side for many years. She knew the text and its meaning by heart and was extremely adept in matters of creed. Maryam also memorized and practiced Imam al-Nawawi’s book of prayers and supplications known as al-Adhkar.
Those who have had the blessing of spending time in Tuwamirat would always see her sitting under her tent or the lumbar surrounded by her pots and milk bowls and her prayer beads. When new students arrived, she always asked about them, their parents, brothers, and sisters, and where they came from. She would laugh and say she had “luqba,” a Mauritanian colloquialism for “curiosity,” but in reality she delighted in the students and desired to make them feel at home. Incredible as it sounds, she never forgot anyone who had studied at the school and when they visited years later, she would call out their names and ask about their family members, name by name! When I first arrived, she had asked the names of all of my family members, which, given that they were Christian names, would have been harder for her to remember than Mauritanian names. But when I returned many years later, she asked about each of the members of my family, whose names I had mentioned to her only once. “Kayfa Elizabeth? Kayfa David? Kayfa John? Kayfa Troy? Kayfa Mariah?” I was completely stunned. I remarked to her that in another time she would have been a great muhaddith scholar, with her uncanny ability to recall names.
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I first saw Maryam in one of the dreams I had in 1983 in the Emirates, a year before I actually met her. One day, I was sitting in the tent studying with Murabit al-Hajj, when I saw her in the background and realized she was the person in my dreams.
The last time I saw Maryam, her world had changed considerably in her lifetime, but there was something unchanging about her. Despite the fashionable colored milhafahs that the women of the clan began to wear, she clung to the old-fashioned ways of her ancestors, and wore the traditional blue-dyed nilah that left a ghostly shade of indigo on the skin of the women, as well as the men who wore turbans made of the same material. And regardless of the outward difficulties of her life, she remained one of the most happy and joyful people I have ever known.
Maryam had always hoped to make the pilgrimage but felt obliged to first take care of her responsibilities, to her family and the school that she felt were binding upon her. She was never in the limelight, but the blue image of her milhafa could be seen in the background of meetings when dignitaries and visitors would come and pay their respects to Murabit al-Hajj, always in service to all. Once, when a group of Western students visited, one of the women asked Murabit al-Hajj for his prayers and he replied that they should also ask Maryam for her supplication as her prayers were ones that, insha’ Allah, God listened to and would answer. Although she was not famous like her husband, nor noted for any distinguished achievements, she was a luminary in her own right. Her son once told me, “She was one of the hidden ones, far more learned and accomplished than the people who knew her or lived with her realized.” I couldn’t agree more. When I told her brother, Khatry, she was like a mother to me, he replied, “She was a mother to all the believers.” No words could be more befitting.