Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania
By David Robinson
Shaykh Saad Buh (ca. 1850-1917) receiving disciples, with period furniture and rug, ca. 1900.
The Seck family was one of two leading Saint-Louis families who combined distinction in Islam, close ties with Mauritanian clerical families, and close affiliation with the French presence; they combined these three relationships without any apparent problem, and were a great boon to the colonial enterprise. Their home in the town often served as a reception area for distinguished Moors who were visiting Saint-Louis.
The first distinguished member of the family was Bu-El-Mogdad (1826-80), also called Dudu Seck. He became the chief translator of Arabic Correspondence for the French and, more briefly, the Qadi of the Muslim Tribunal of the town. He is shown here in a formal robe with his French medals pinned conspircuously on this chest; this was a posed shot, taken in about 1860, at the same time that he accomplished the pilgrimage to Mecca with French support - a journey that he accomplished with the expressed purpose of creating a rival pilgrimage to the conspicuous one of Al-hajj Umar.
A second distinguished member of the family was his son, also called Bu-El-Mogdad (I usually call him Bu-El-Mogdad II) and Dudu Seck. He had the same schooling, mainly in southern Mauritania, and the skills in speaking Hassaniyya, the Arabic dialect of Mauritania. His main service to the French cause came in the 1890s and early 1900s as the Europeans sought to create a colony in Mauritania.
Shaykh Sidiyya Baba (1862-1924) traveling in a camel caravan with his entourage, 1903. He stands out by his white robes, signifying a Muslim scholar or marabout. The picture came from the Fonds Auguste Terrien at the Institut de France in Paris. It was supplied to David Robinson by Ghislaine Lydon and placed in his book, "Paths of Accommodation."
In 1914, as the Allies faced off against the Axis powers, including the Ottomans and their sultan, who had recently begun using the more resonant Islamic title of caliph, the French grew concerned that the Ottoman sultan's call for all Muslims in the world to wage jihad against the Allies might produce revolt among some of their subjects in West Africa. They consequently called upon their leading clerical allies to issue declarations of support for the French cause, and to indicate that there was no obligation incumbent upon Muslims to support the Ottoman cause. They gathered these statements together in a special issue of their leading journal on the Islamic world, the "Revue du Monde Musulman," and published it at the end of the year. Sidiyya Baba's declaration was among the most important in that volume. He took up some of the themes that he had articulated in his 1903 declaration. We have no way to measure the impact of Baba's statement or the others in that volume. We can say that the sultan's call to jihad received little response among the Muslim societies of French West Africa.
This history was written by Sidiyya Baba with French encouragement, probably in the early 1910s. The Captain Gerard who is mentioned was a French officer stationed at Butilimit, and he urged Baba to write this history. Baba had a significant impact on the formation of knowledge about Mauritania, an impact which still holds today. An English translation fills pages 160-217 of H.T. Norris, "Saharan Myth and Saga" (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1972). Norris was an important anthropologist and literary historian of Mauritania and the "bidan." This longer excerpt comes from the beginning and the end of the history, pages 160-163 and 211-213 of the Norris book. The shorter excerpt found in the essay is from page 211.
Endorsement of Sidiyya Baba by Saad Buh. In the same article published in “Archives Marocaines” in 1907, the French printed an endorsement by Saad Buh of the content of Sidiyya Baba’s fatwa. Saad Buh, from his headquarters in Trarza, had been an ally of the French for much longer than Baba, and in addition he was a younger half-brother of the principal French opponent for the conquest of Mauritania, Ma-El-Ainin. For these reasons his endorsement of the declaration and his support of Coppolani’s “pacification” were important. The endorsement was probably written and read early in 1903, as the Coppolani campaign was beginning.
This very important document was issued by Sidiyya Baba in January, 1903, just as he and Saad Buh were touring the Senegal River region with the French, who were launching their "pacification" campaign to take over southern Mauritania. It provided important justification for Muslims accepting French overrule. Here we provide excerpts of the document, translated from the French version into English. The French translation of the Arabic was published in 1907 by Edouard Michaux-Bellaire, ed. and trans., in "Une fetoua de Cheikh Sidia approuvee par Cheikh Saad Bouh ben Mohamed El Fadial ben Mamin, frere de Cheikh Ma El Ainin," Archives Marocaines 11 (1907), pp. 129-39.
English translation from the French translation of the Arabic of the 1905 letter of Hassana, son of Ma-El-Ainin, to Shaikh Sidiyya Baba. This excerpt comes from a document which we can call a fatwa. It was a slightly veiled threat against Sidiyya Baba, written by someone in the Ma El Ainin party in the hopes of separating Baba from his alliance with the French. It was written in 1905, between the “pacification” of southern Mauritania, ended by the assassination of Coppolani, and the resumption of the conquest in 1909 under the leadership of Gouraud.
This report, written up by Bu El Moghdad II after the watershed visit of Sidiyya Baba to the French colonial capital of Saint-Louis in 1898, was compiled for the French and deposited in the Mauritanian archives in Nouakchott. My copy was given to me by Charles Stewart in 1969, and probably does not exist in the Mauritanian archives at the present time. I suspect that Bu El Moghdad drafted the report in Arabic, since his French was more limited than the language that he began learning in his childhood.
This mental map, based on Arab conceptions of the Mediterranean and Africa, correlates the descending southern climes of Africa with greater heat and diminished civilization. It created the framework for racial and cultural prejudice, and was very present in the 19th and 20th century conceptions of "white" or bidan societies as they thought of the "blacks" or sudan living in Senegal and other areas to the south. This map contains the following captions, "Map 4 - The Arabs' conception of Africa in the thirteenth century C.E. Adapted from John D. Fage and Maureen Verity, An Atlas of African History, New York, 1978." "5th climate" "Al Bahr Al Muhit (The Ocean or All-Encircling Sea)" "Al Maghrib" "Al Aosa" "Ifriqiyah" "Sardiniyah" "Al Andalus" "Bahr Al Rum (Sea of the Franks)" "Fas" "Al Maghrib" "Al Aswat" "Tunis" "AL Qayrawan" "Al Mahdiyah" "Siqilliyah" "4th climate" "Al Khalibat" "Marrakush" "Al Maghrib (The West)" "Sijilmasah" "Gadames" "Barqah" "Al Iskandariyah" "Misr" "Fayyum" "Al Qahira" "3rd climate" "Al Sahra" "Fazzan" "Sahra" "Libiya" "Al Nil (Nile of Egypt)" "Uswan" "2nd climate" "Lamta" "Awdaghast" "Takrur" "Al Nil (Nile of Ghana or Sudan)" "Ghana" "Bilad As Sudan (Region of the Negroes)" "Kuku" "Kanem" "Buja" "An Nuba" "Dunqula" "Zaghawa" "Bahr Al Qulzum" "Makkah" "Suqutra" "1st climate" "Wangara" "Ard Al Habasha (Land of the Abyssinians)" "Approximate limit of Arab knowledge" "Lake" "As Zanj (Zanjibar)" "Al Bahr Al Muhit (The Encircling Ocean)"
This map highlights the areas of Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia where Shaykh Sidiyya Baba, grandson of Sidiyya al-Kabir, had networks of followers. The spiritual center of the Sidiyya Path is in Boutilimit, Mauritania.