The Idaw ‘Ali are one of the two most prominent and influential zawaya groups in Mauritania, the other being the Kunta, disseminators of the Qadiriyya tariqa in West Africa who claim to be descendants of the great Arab hero and conqueror of North Africa, Uqba b. Nafi. The basis of the prestige of the Idaw ‘Ali rested in part on their widely recognized sharifian origin. Another basis of their prestige was their introduction of the Tijaniyya tariqa in Mauritania. As descendants of Prophet Muhammad, the Idaw ‘Ali occupied a noble and privileged position in the society that placed them above the other zawaya and lay groups in Mauritania.
The Idaw ‘Ali traditions, as reported by Sidi Abd-allah b. al-Hajj Ibrahim al-‘Alawi (d. 1818) in his treatise, “Sahihat al-Naql fi Alawiyat Idaw ‘Ali wa Bakriyat Muhammed Ghull” (The Authenticity of the Descee Idaw ‘Ali from Caliph ‘Ali and that of Muhammed Ghull from Caliph ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq), state unequivocally that the Idaw ‘Ali descended from ‘Ali b. ‘Abu Talib (d. 661), son-in-law of the Prophet and fourth Caliph, through an eponymous ancestor ‘Ali b. Yahya. Sidi Abdallah maintains that:
. . .the Idawa ‘Ali are the descendants of ‘Ali b. Yahya and to be reckoned the progeny of ‘Ali b. ‘Abu Talib (May God be pleased with him). We know of no disagreement between those who are learned in that which has been handed down, both written and spoken, and those who have been favored with spiritual illumination regarding it.
This genealogy is said to have been examined and declared sound by Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti, the founding father of the Qadiriyya-Mukhtariyya brotherhood in West Africa. Furthermore, the author of “Sahihat al-Naql” adduced numerous quotations which he related to genealogists and scholars of Mauritania and the Orient to prove the validity of the Idaw ‘Ali’s claim to sharifian ancestry.
Sidi Abdallah relates in “Sahihat al-Naql” that he was informed by Sidi Ahmed al-Daymani, the famed scholar of the Awlad Dayman zawaya group, that the Idaw ‘Ali descended from the house of the Prophet. According to al-Daymani, the Idaw ‘Ali
. . .are the progeny of ‘Ali and.. . both their young and their old continue to trace their lineage to him in spite of the paucity of that which God has allotted to them in support of their claim.
Sidi Abdallah also relates that a member of the Idaw ‘Ali made the pilgrimage to Mecca where he met Sidi Ahmed al-Habib of the Idaw ‘Ali. Sidi Ahmed is said to have told the pilgrim:
… If you are in straightened circumstances, then say-oh forefather, oh Messenger of God-for in truth you are his descendant .
The pilgrim asked Sidi Ahmed how he acquired this information concerning the lineage of the Idaw ‘Ali, and Sidi Ahmed replied:
I saw that in a book in Cairo, but if you return there, ask Sheikh al-Murtada about the lineage of the people of Shinqit. Sheikh al-Murtada is the saint of Egypt and its sun . . .’
On the pilgrim’s return journey he passed through Cairo and asked Sheikh al-Murtada about the lineage of the people of Shinqit without specifying any one group. Sidi Abdallah reported the conversation between the pilgrim and Sheikh aI-Murtada as follows:
. . . as for the Idaw ‘Ali, they are the descendants of Muhammed b. ‘Ali b. ‘Abu Talib. . . The pilgrim said to him, “Sidi al-Habib told me that we are the offspring of Fatima.” “Did he say it?” He said, “Yes.” Al-Murtada said, “This is what I know.”
The genealogical records of the Idaw ‘Ali state that a few of the descendants of Caliph ‘Ali b. ‘Abu Talib moved, at an unknown date, from Koufa in Iraq where Caliph ‘Ali is interred, to Egypt, and then to Tlemcen in northwest Algeria. From there they filtered into the southwestern Algerian oasis of Tabalbalet, finally reaching the town of Abwayyar in Mauritania sometime in the second half of the twelfth century.9 It was in this town, according to the local traditions, that these descendants of Caliph ‘Ali came to be known as the Idaw ‘Ali. Sometime between 1223 and 1261 the Idaw ‘Ali are said to have abandoned Abwayyar to settle in the new settlement which they founded, the farfamed town of Shinqiti.
There are no local, nor for that matter, external sources other than “Sahihut al-Naql” that report the migrations of the descendants of Caliph ‘Ali from Iraq through North Africa to Mauritania. Moreover, “Sahihut al-Naql”neither gives the dates of these migrations, nor does it specify the factors that prompted them. Again, “Sahihat al-Naql” is rather uncertain as to which of the three sons of Caliph ‘Ali was the progenitor of the Idaw ‘Ali. At one point ‘‘Sahihut al-Naq1”states that the Idaw ‘Ali were the descendants of either Hassan or Hussein, the sons of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter and wife of Caliph ‘Ali. Yet at another point “Sahihat al-Nuql” maintains that the Idaw ‘Ali descended from Muhammed b. al-Hanafiya, Caliph ‘Ali’s son by a second wife known as al-Hanafiya. To lend credibility to this confused story, “Sahihut al-Naql” states that one of the sons of Muhammed b. al-Hanafiya married one of his cousins, a daughter of Hassan. It was through the offspring of these two grandchildren of Caliph ‘Ali that the Idaw ‘Ali thus claim descent.
Such confusion and ambiguity in “Sahihat ul-Naql”, as well as in other Idaw ‘Ali traditions, raise serious doubts as to the authenticity of the Idaw ‘Ali’s claim to sharifian descent. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that this early part of the Idaw ‘Ali was perhaps fabricated and deliberately concocted for the sole purpose of elevating the group to a lofty and honorable status, that of shurufa. Furthermore, one tends to agree with P. Amilhat’s suggestion that the Idaw ‘Ali were Zanata Berbers in origin and had no sharifian blood running in their veins. Paul Marty, on the other hand, states that the Idaw ‘Ali descended from a western Saharan eponymous ancestor, ‘Ali b. Belhamar, who is said to have lived either around 1350 or 1500.12 If this was true, the Idaw ‘Ali would have gotten their name “Idaw ‘Ali” (sons of ‘Ali) from a western Saharan figure, possibly Berber in origin, rather than from Caliph ‘Ali.
The Idaw ‘Ali’s claim to sharifian descent remained unchallenged by the people of Mauritania. Their alleged sharifian ancestry became part of their heritage, and thus one of the basis, perhaps the most essential basis, of their noble social standing in Mauritania. Indeed, it confirmed their claim to the political and religious leadership in the town of Shinqiti.