Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania

By David Robinson

Fatwa of Shaikh Sidiyya Baba

Date: January 5, 1903
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.

Memoires de Bou El Mogdad

Date: 1903
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.

Approbation de la fetoua. Dieu seul me suffit

Date: 1903
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.

Hassana Letter

Date: September 15, 1905
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.

A History of the Western Sanhaja: Longer Excerpts

Date Range: 1910-1919
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.

1914 Declaration of Support for French in WWI

Date: December 8, 1914
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.

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