The Desert University (The school of Al-Murabit Al-Hajj)

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tuwamaratThis an overview of the Madrasah of Al-Murabit Al-Hajj(The Desert University). It is a truly beautiful place as you can see. May Allah preserve its inhabitants and all those who visit them. Amin.

University of Murabit ul-Haj: The traditional nomadic encampments (Mahdaras) were established centuries ago by the Zawaya tribe to preserve Islamic sciences. The Mahdara of Sheikh Murabit ul-Haj, publicized by American scholar Hamza Yusuf (shown sitting in the background), is the most well-known.
A simple structure propped by poles serves as the mosque for the village. The type of foundational sciences – logic, grammar, law – taught here is quite advanced despite the simplicity of the environment
Where does a young, college-educated, second-generation American go to pursue graduate studies? For Humza Chaudhry, a senior in biochemistry and Near Eastern Languages & Civilization at the University of Washington (UW), the answer is Mauritania, Africa’s least densely populated country.
Not an Ivy League university in the U.S. or anywhere in Europe. Not even in Asia or Northern Africa. But a university that sits in the desert countryside of Mauritania in Tuwamarat, a tiny village with 400 inhabitants of which 100 are international students.
The university village itself has no electricity aside from two solar panels, one that powers a light for the mosque, and one that powers a well drilled for the village inhabitants. There is no phone or running water—water must be carried by bucket from the well to one’s hut. Yes, there is no dorm room or houses to rent in here.
At the Old Redmond School after Friday prayers in late March, Chaudhry was saying goodbye to several of his old friends by giving them friendly hugs. It was his last weekend in Seattle before his flight to Morocco and then Mauritania for a one year course.
“I should have half my dissertation material (by the time I return).” said Chaudhry happily, one hand holding a bag containing nearly $500 of electronic equipment that included a MP3 recorder, digital camera and solar charger.
Chaudhry is on an independent study course from UW and is to earn credits for his one year desert sojourn. He also hopes to record nearly 1000 hours of lectures over the course of a year on his MP3 recorder which he will later use for PhD dissertation material.
Classical teachingAn interesting study technique is that all books taught are also memorized by students. This is a tradition that was alive in the pre-colonial schooling system across the Islamic world although this scarcely exists today.
This emphasis on the use and development of memory has earned the Mauritanian scholars repute across the Muslim world. So, it is no wonder that graduates of this university become professors at universities and Imams of mosques in Gulf Countries such as UAE.
Students typically spend over 60 hours every week in instruction, study and review. The large amount of study time is due to the absence of distractions such as TV, phones, markets or restaurants. Subsequently, students learn much more in a shorter time span than if they attended a regular university.
Chaudhry will be attending the mahdhara of Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj. He is currently about 97 years old and is well renowned for his immense knowledge in all of the Islamic sciences as well as his piety and good character; although old age has slowed him down a little, he still devotes a vast majority of his time to teaching, and takes out a small amount of time for his own meditation and even less for his sleep.
The core of his school comprises Murabit al-Hajj himself and five Mauritanian professors. Muhammad Rami Nsour, an American student who studied a few years in Mauritania, cautions potential students that life is difficult in Tuwamarat until the body adjusts to the desert harshness.
“People get sick. Hepatitis, Malaria. Dysentery. Mainly stomach problems and flu. A little cut takes a long time to heal.” More importantly, what can be learnt in a desert without huge libraries, hundreds of professors and access to new knowledge? “There are matters that change with time.” acknowledges Nsour but clarifies that what he learnt in the mahdaras are foundational matters that don’t change with time and started listing some of the sciences.
“Grammer (nahw), memorization of the Qur’an, jurisprudence (law), Principles of Law, ideology (aqeedah), logic, astronomy, ….”

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