Population and ethnography
According to 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 residents.
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 February 2013.
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.
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According to thesciencetutor, 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.