Population and ethnography
Countryaah data, Mauritania is the region's sparsely populated country
with 4 residents per km2 (2019). The regional
distribution of residents has changed dramatically in recent
decades. Repeated drought disasters in the 1970s and 1980s,
with extensive livestock deaths, destroyed the living
conditions of a large portion of the nomadic population.
About 80 percent of the population now lives in the
country's southern, cultivable parts.
Since 1972 Mauritania has undergone rapid urbanization.
From 1972 to 2017, the proportion of urban population has
increased from 18 to 54 percent. Slum areas and tent camps
are spreading around the larger cities. Between 1972 and
2014, the capital Nouakchott grew from 55,000 to 899,900
For information on life expectancy and other demographic
statistics, see Country facts.
In northern Mauritania there is an Arabized Berber
people, in Europe long known as "Moors", in the south and
especially along the Senegal River black ethnic groups such
as Bambara (17,000), Fulani (37,000), Soninke (43,000),
Tukulor (242,000) and Wolof (15,000). On the Atlantic coast
there is an Arabic-speaking fisherman population called the
imrague (700). In the eastern parts of the country there are
also Tuar rule (100,000). The Moors, who speak Hassaniya
Arabic dialects, make up 70 percent of the population and
are organized into tribes, which are ranked among themselves
in different classes.
At its highest are Beydans (white Moors), descendants of
Arabs in Banu Hasan who brought Arabic to Mauritania in the
15th century. They assert the economic and political power
of the country. Next follows zwaya, which are tribes that
often have Berber origin and which included many prominent
Sufi scholars, so-called marabuts. Last comes a spacious
category of protected and tributary tribes, so-called
haratins (black mores). At the bottom is a layer of slaves.
Slavery, despite international pressure, has lived in the
country into our day. Formally it was abolished as early as
1981 and 2007 it became punishable to keep slaves, but life
traits and slavery are still reported to occur in the
country, including to the UN Commission on Human Rights in
Especially in the countryside, old structures remain.
Between 340,000 and 680,000 people, formally free, still
live in conditions that must be described as life traits.
Children and women are considered particularly vulnerable.
Even in cities, there are life-trait relationships between
haratins and former slave owners. The reasons are that a
large part of the population (44 percent) lives in deep
poverty and are poorly educated as well as a direct
disinterest or difficulty for the authorities to control
whether the laws are complied with.
Official languages are Arabic and French. Majority
language is hassaniyah, an Arabic dialect. The Niger-Congo
languages in Mauritania include fulani and wolof, both
from the Atlantic group, and soninke, a male language. In
addition, the Berber language is spoken zenaga.
Mauritania is located in the area of West Africa that
was Islamized during the 800s and 900s. Almost the entire
population is Islamic (Sunni Muslims belonging to the
Malikite law school). Sufism is widespread; the two dominant
fraternities are Qadiriya and Tijaniya. There are other
faith communities in the country, but their followers are
few and are usually non-Mauritian. Of these, the Catholic
Church has the most members, about 5,000. Other Christian
communities together have about 4,000 members. There are
also a few Jews in the country, but no synagogue.
In 1960 Mauritania became independent from France.
According to the 1991 Constitution, Islam is state religion
and the source of all law. The president must be a Muslim.
Freedom of religion is limited not only with the
constitution but also with other laws. Anyone who converts
from Islam loses his citizenship. Waste from Islam is
considered a crime according to the Criminal Code. If the
deposition does not repent within three days, he or she is
sentenced to death and the person's property is seized by
the state. The law does not prohibit non-Muslims from
recruiting proselytes, but in practice such activities are
made impossible by the fifth article of the Constitution:
"Islam shall be the religion of the people and the state".
Holding non-Muslim religious material is allowed, but
printing and disseminating it is prohibited. Christian
worship is limited to a few churches, but after state
approval, Christians are allowed to gather in the homes.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional
Education issues fatwor, fights religious extremism,
favors research on Islam, organizes pilgrimage and
supervises mosques, which by law from 2003 may not be used
for any political activity. Religious groups are not
registered. However, all non-governmental organizations with
links to religious organizations must be registered with the
Ministry of the Interior, committing themselves not to
engage in any anti-Islamic activity.
The following religious holidays are national holidays:
Islamic New Year, Prophet Muhammad's birthday, Id al-fitr
and Id al-adha.