When Timbuktu Was the Paris of Islamic Intellectuals in Africa


T20I Debutant
Apr 1, 2011
Post of the Week
Ever wondered where the intellectual centre of the Islamic world was, between the end of the Arab civilization (1258) and the rise of the Safavids (Iran), Mughals (India) and Ottomans (Turkey) ? In Mali, West Africa.
During all these centuries (and before Moroccan invasion...), the Sankoré madrasah continuously hosted 20,000 students (yes!) from modern day Morocco to modern day Indonesia, studying theological sciences next to rational knowledge (mathematics, astronomy, ...)
The best proof of their intellectual production being "...over a million manuscripts were re-discovered in Mali and about 20 million more in West Africa. The variety of topics these manuscripts cover is phenomenal. It’s very rich in style and content, which illustrates the depth of knowledge and intellect of common people and scholars in 14th to 16th centuries in West Africa."

An old article, but today Mali is in the news for all the wrong reasons and "mujahideen" don't find better hobbies than bombing museums and libraries, thanks - again - to Anglo-Saxon neo-imperialism and geo-political gimmicks, which has already hurt Iraq's (Islamic) cultural heritage and is on way in Syria... remember, the first target of Serbian nationalists were Bosniaks' libraries and literary heritage, and hundreds of thousands of their manuscripts and symbols of Ottoman heritage went to the flames (and the Serbian intellectual who "advised" it committed suicide, perhaps realising that it was their shared heritage), or when, during the Sri Lankan civil war, "some" decided to burn the Jaffna library, hosting +90.000 ancient Tamil manuscripts... there's a reason.

In popular imagination, the word Timbuktu is a trip of three syllables to the ends of the earth. Today this West African city is a slumbering and decrepit citadel at the southern edge of the Sahara, in Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Yet it is here that some of the most astonishing developments in African intellectual history have been occurring. In recent years, thousands of medieval manuscripts that include poetry by women, legal reflections and innovative scientific treatises have come to light, reshaping ideas about African and Islamic civilizations. Yet even as this cache is being discovered, it is in danger of disappearing, as sand and other grit are abrading many of the aging texts, causing them to disintegrate.

''The manuscripts reveal that black Africa had literacy and intellectualism -- thus going beyond the mere notion of Africa as a continent of 'song and dance,' '' John O. Hunwick, a scholar who has uncovered some of the writings, said in a recent interview.

Although this rich intellectual heritage is familiar to numerous Africans, many Westerners still believe that Africa had only an oral, nonliterate culture. Comments like those made by the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963 still resonate: ''Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.''

In reality, Timbuktu was once a haven of high literacy. These manuscripts, some dating to the 14th century and written mostly in Arabic, show that medieval Timbuktu was a religious and cultural hub as well as a commercial crossroads on the trans-Saharan caravan route. Situated at the strategic point where the Sahara touches on the River Niger, it was the gateway for African goods bound for the merchants of the Mediterranean, the courts of Europe and the larger Islamic world.

When the Renaissance was barely stirring in Europe, Timbuktu was already the center of a prolific written tradition. By the end of the 15th century, Timbuktu's 50,000 residents thrived on the commerce of gold, salt and slaves, and hundreds of students and scholars convened at the city's Sankoré mosque. There were countless Koranic schools and as many as 80 large private libraries. Wandering scholars were drawn to Timbuktu's manuscripts all the way from North Africa, Arabia and even Persia.

The bulk of these texts have remained buried for years in Timbuktu's mud homes. Many owners are the descendants of the skilled craftsman class, and the manuscripts often represent a family heritage passed on from generation to generation.

Mr. Hunwick, a professor of history and religion at Northwestern University who has spent 40 years doing research on Africa, came across piles of manuscripts in the musty trunks of a family library in 1999. They were part of a private collection of several thousand manuscripts, some more than 600 years old. While most were written in Arabic, others used Arabic letters to transcribe local tongues like Fulani and Songhay. Mr. Hunwick said he was awe-struck.

The collection was in the possession of descendants of Mahmoud Kati, a 16th-century scholar who, along with others, jotted intricate notes in the margins of his books. Occasionally Kati commented on the texts, but mostly his notes strayed to other topics, from weddings and funerals to floods and droughts. Of a meteor shower in August 1583, he wrote: ''In the year 991 in God's month of Rajab the Goodly, after half the night had passed stars flew around the sky as if fire had been kindled in the whole sky -- east, west, north and south. It became a mighty flame lighting up the earth, and people were extremely disturbed about that. It continued until after dawn.''

As early as 1967, Unesco recommended the creation of a manuscript conservation center in Timbuktu. Six years later, with financing from Kuwait, the Malian government opened the Ahmed Baba Center in the city, and it has been collecting manuscripts, acquiring more than 18,000 works so far.

''These amount to about 10 to 15 percent of the written potential in Timbuktu and its region,'' said Ali Ould Sidi, the chief of the city's small but active cultural affairs office. Some scholars believe there are up to one million manuscripts in Mali, about 100,000 of which are in the Timbuktu region. These texts -- possibly the most ancient to survive in sub-Saharan Africa -- offer a window into the ways black Muslim scholars thought and imagined the world around them over centuries.

Unesco designated Timbuktu as a ''world patrimony'' site in 1989, and the city has since received numerous conservation grants from American foundations and from the governments of Norway, South Africa and Luxemburg. After finding the manuscripts of the Kati collection, Mr. Hunwick became involved in an international effort to preserve and disseminate Timbuktu's written history, in the process creating the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern. Closer to home, last year the New Partnership for Africa's Development, based in Johannesburg, has announced plans for a multi-million-dollar Timbuktu initiative to benefit the manuscripts.

There are formidable obstacles, nonetheless. The texts are rotting inside their metal cases. While turning them over to experts might help preserve them, owners are extremely reluctant to let them go, since they represent personal family legacies.

Those that make it out of family trunks have other problems. Human handling by researchers and visitors, as well as a robust black market, are further chipping away at this historical trove. Chris Murphy, a Near East specialist at the Library of Congress who was a co-curator of an exhibition of Timbuktu manuscripts last summer, said in an interview that trafficking was now common practice. ''Poverty is such that you can buy these for $2 to $5,'' he said. ''Then they are taken to Switzerland, often, where their provenance will be forged. And they get moved to auction houses where they will be sold for up to $1,000. Sometimes, they can even reach five figures.'' Often unaware of their bogus provenance, oil sheiks and university collections alike become potential clients.

Sean O'Fahey, a professor of Islamic African history at the University of Bergen, in Norway, who has worked extensively with European aid agencies across Africa, said that part of the problem in Mali, unlike such other African countries as the Sudan, is that most of the people who own these manuscripts cannot read them because they do not know Arabic. ''So what you've got in Mali,'' he explained, ''is a kind of break in the intellectual heritage.'' This gaping rift between past and present, he said, may prove to be the greatest obstacle to preserving Timbuktu's cultural legacy.

Thanks so much for sharing this. The African contribution to the Muslim community is little known, even by most Muslims. It is important for people to study African history, only then will we realise how great an impact they made upon the intellectual life of Muslims.

There is a book, entitled 'Illuminating The Darkness' - I have not read it, but understand it to be a fantastic chronicle of African Muslim history. So, do make a note of it :)
Thanks so much for sharing this. The African contribution to the Muslim community is little known, even by most Muslims. It is important for people to study African history, only then will we realise how great an impact they made upon the intellectual life of Muslims.

There is a book, entitled 'Illuminating The Darkness' - I have not read it, but understand it to be a fantastic chronicle of African Muslim history. So, do make a note of it :)

Thanks for the book. Will read.
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Thanks so much for sharing this. The African contribution to the Muslim community is little known, even by most Muslims. It is important for people to study African history, only then will we realise how great an impact they made upon the intellectual life of Muslims.

There is a book, entitled 'Illuminating The Darkness' - I have not read it, but understand it to be a fantastic chronicle of African Muslim history. So, do make a note of it :)

Thanks for contributing.
...the most significant impact Musa’s Hajj had on Mali was its subsequent growth as a center of knowledge. With the best scholars from all over the Muslim world, Mali developed one of the richest educational traditions of the world at that time. Libraries were all over cities such as Gao and Timbuktu. Public and private collections had thousands of books on topics from Islamic fiqh, to astronomy, to language, to history. Great universities attracted talented students from all over Africa to come study in this center of knowledge.

This tradition of knowledge lasts until today in Mali. Families still hold on to private library collections that number in the hundreds of books, many of them hundreds of years old. The people of Mali are fiercely protective of their knowledge that has been passed down from the time of Mansa Musa, making it very difficult for outsiders to access these great libraries.

These manuscripts today are threatened by the desertification of the Sahel, where the environment threatens to turn these great books into dust. Political problems in West Africa also threaten to destroy the remaining manuscripts. Efforts are underway to preserve these great libraries by digitizing them. The Timbuktu Educational Foundation is leading efforts to scan individual pages before they are lost to history. You can find (and read) many of these manuscripts online.

As Mali became a center of knowledge in West Africa, Islam ingrained itself deeply in the lives of it’s people. It was common for “everyday people” to be very well educated in religious and and secular matters. The effects of this knowledge on society is seen in Ibn Battuta’s trip to Mali in the 1350s, when he remarked that if a man wanted to have a seat in the masjid during the Friday prayer, he would have to send his son hours early to reserve a spot for him, as the masjids would be filled to the brim early in the morning.


A manuscript on mathematics and astronomy from ancient Timbuktu.

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The commonly used example of the wealth and power of the Malian empire is Mansa Musa's Hajj, his company being several thousands strong and it is also said that the extent of gold influx into local markets such that they all suffered from heavy inflation in the years to follow, including major egyptian markets. It may be exagerated but it is still true that the wealth exhibited in that trip contributed to thousands of philosopher/scientists and tradesmen (architects, macons,...) flocking to Timbuktu.
Fantastic! Thanks for sharing these gems, they really are eye-openers. One wonders if Muslims will ever be able to re-create that lost intellectual energy and vibrancy.

Only road to glory are books ; there's a dramatic statistic about the reading habit of the Arabs, like 6 pages a year...

Sum of all fears: Arabs read an average of 6 pages a year, study reveals


What can you do in life with such mentality ? Absolutely ugly! To compare, one street of Marrakesh, in Morocco, was known to have 100 booksellers (that's where the name of the Koutoubia mosque comes from), and in Baghdad to have a book was probably as prestigious as having an iPod today ; Muslims used to pay ransoms with books !

I think it was Al Hakam II, caliph of Cordoba, who had a private library of 500-800,000 books, when the West didn't have one single library of more than 600 books and when, 6 centuries later (14th century), Charles "the Sage", the French king, decided to gather books from all over Europe and his library (which would become France's national library) didn't have more than 800 books... Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd put together probably wrote more themselves!
The modern "caliphs" prefer to spend on Slavic prostitutes and sporadically finance a skyscraper, when, of course, they're not sponsoring "mudjahideen" who take foreign countries as playgrounds for wider American geo-political strategies.

In fact, modern Muslims (minus Persians and Turks) not only don't read books, but literally hate them!


When Islamist rebels set fire to two libraries in Timbuktu earlier this year, many feared the city's treasure trove of ancient manuscripts had been destroyed. But many of the texts had already been removed from the buildings and were at that very moment being smuggled out of the city, under the rebels' noses.

"These manuscripts are really precious to us. They are family heirlooms. Our history, our heritage," says Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, owner of one of Timbuktu's biggest private libraries, containing manuscripts dating back to the 16th Century.

"In our family there have been generations and generations of great scholars, great astronomers, and we have always looked after these documents."

When Islamist rebels took over Timbuktu last year, looking after the documents began to look like an impossible task.

Under their strict interpretation of Islam, the rebels soon began destroying shrines they considered "idolatrous". The documents held in Timbuktu since its glory days as a centre of Islamic learning in the 13th to 17th Centuries were equally vulnerable.

As a precaution, Haidara and other big book-owning families, together with officials of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute, had already removed most documents from major collections, hiding them in private homes.

After the destruction of the shrines, it became clear a more radical approach was necessary.

"We realised we needed to find another solution to take them entirely out of Timbuktu itself," says Haidara. "It was very difficult. There were loads of manuscripts. We needed thousands of metal boxes and we didn't have the means to get them out. We needed help from outside."

With approval from 35 key families, Haidara went in search of funding, which he secured from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and the German Foreign Office, among others.

But there was a major problem - the rebels often searched vehicles leaving Timbuktu, and if they found manuscripts they would certainly confiscate or destroy them.

"It was very risky. We evacuated the manuscripts in cars, carts and canoes," says Haidara, who launched the operation in October, frequently concealing the metal boxes under crates of vegetables and fruit.

"One car could only take two or three metal boxes at the most. So we did it little by little."

The cars headed for Bamako, via Mopti, the last government-controlled town in Mali during the Islamist occupation of the North.

The canoes - part of local transport in northern Mali for centuries - travelled to Bamako on the river Niger, via Djenne.

When in January of this year the insurgents torched two libraries belonging to the Ahmed Baba Institute, as they were retreating from Timbuktu, the covert rescue operation was already half-complete - and the libraries themselves had been all but empty for months.

Haidara estimates that only a few hundred manuscripts were destroyed.

As the situation in the north remained volatile, however, the rescue operation continued for three months after the rebel withdrawal, until 2,400 metal boxes containing an estimated 285,000 manuscripts had been delivered to private homes in the capital.

In Bamako, however, the papers now face threats of a different kind.

Having been preserved for centuries in a dry desert climate, they now find themselves in the tropics, with the rainy season about to start.

"The houses are not air-conditioned and in comparison humidity in Bamako is much higher than in Timbuktu," says Dr Michael Hanssler of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to assess the condition of the documents.

It's impossible for air to circulate around the documents as long they are stored in metal containers. Mould usually develops at humidity levels of 60%, and levels as high as 80% are expected in July and August.

Efforts are now under way to renovate a building in Bamako that will have proper storage facilities. Windows are currently being bricked up in order to protect the manuscripts from daylight, insects and heat.

There will also be a workspace where experts can restore the documents and digitise them for scholars worldwide to study.

"The manuscripts of Timbuktu have always been an aspiration for scholars working on the intellectual history of Africa," says Eva Brozowsky, a German paper restoration specialist, who examined six of the chests in Bamako in April.

The 2,000 documents she had access to were from Islamic North and West Africa, but also from the Middle East, and covered commerce and diplomatic relations as well as commentaries on the Koran, jurisprudence and Arabic linguistics.

"This is an untapped treasure trove of unthinkable value, nobody quite knows what's hidden in these chests," adds Hanssler, whose foundation is supporting the restoration efforts financially and logistically.

The manuscripts have never been kept in optimal conditions, Hanssler says.

"Some of the documents have been damaged in the past by insects or water. Others have suffered from being exposed to dry air in Timbuktu, and the leather covers have become brittle and have cracked."

The manuscript paper itself - thought to have originated from the region around Venice in Italy - has aged substantially. As a result the documents have become fragile and fragmented, and some of the writing has faded.

Haidara himself estimates that about 20% of the manuscripts are severely damaged and extremely fragile, while another 20% are damaged, but less severely.

While the security situation in northern Mali remains uncertain the manuscripts should stay in Bamako, he says, but he won't hear of them being taken out of the country.

"The day there is a lasting peace in Timbuktu we will return them to Timbuktu. But until that time comes we must preserve them well - put them in boxes, restore them, catalogue them and digitise them."

When they go back, it won't be in canoes or under piles of vegetables, and hopefully many will be in better condition than when they left.

To come back to the subject of how vibrant and ahead of other civilizations learning centers such as Timbuktu, Cairo, Baghdad or Samarkand used to be and whether it will happen again.

Today's era is the first time in the history of humanity that one can travel anywhere in the globe in less than a day and, at the same time, communicate with most people on this planet almost instaneously. Unless there is a cataclysmic perdition of current technology, one can't expect any single country to be as dominant as the past except for the western culture which, through the coincidence of completely dominating the planet before and during this revolution of the past centuries, has permanently stamped its identity on the globalized common humman conscience.

That this conspired with the anglo-saxon rise to impose a language as limited and tasteless as English on everyone of us, shaping not only the way we communicate but also the way we think, is something that horrifies me to the bone.

To Berossus, the same north western part of Europe would have been the same as Mozambique as compared to the majesty of the processional way to the Ishtar Gate or the stories of the might of Nineveh yet none of the people who lived for 5000 years in current Mexico have heard of them, while every little detail of Obama's latest speech can be immortalized for the ages and for everyone.

As the quote goes, we live in a time where we have explored everything on our planet and yet don't have the technology to explore outside it. This translates into a unipolar, uniformized and void of mystery time where I can't see a shift in cultural dominance.
Some are perfectly aware that they'll barely contribute to world civilization, so why not burn in few 30 minutes 4000 manuscripts (at least) written over a period of few centuries.

Timbuktu, the centuries-old Malian center of Islamic learning on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, is rebuilding after Islamist militants razed some of its most revered shrines built in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Reconstruction is taking place brick by brick, as workers use banco, a mixture of mud and straw, to restore 14 of the 16 mausoleums destroyed or damaged by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, or "defenders of the faith." Those two groups follow Islam's Salafi movement which regards the practices of the Sufis in Timbuktu as sacrilegious.

"We have witnessed the destruction, we are now seeing the start of the reconstruction," the imam of the Djingareyber mosque, Abderrahmane Ben Essayouti, said as he ambled in a flowing, wide-sleeved robe known as a boubou to attend Friday prayers this month. "To us, it is a new birth for Timbuktu."

The militants were driven out of what's known as the City of the 333 Saints in January last year after a 10-month occupation. The city, 706 kilometers (438 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, is protected by France's Serval intervention force, United Nations peace-keepers and Malian troops and police. The last attack on the Timbuktu occurred on 28 September when a suicide bomber struck the Malian military barracks.

"By rebuilding these monuments, we will destroy the work of the jihadists," Andrzej Bielecki, the European Union's political counselor, said at a 14 March conference at Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research.

So far, 3 million dollars of the 11 million dollars needed for the four-year rebuilding project has been raised, according to Lazare Eloundou, representative to Mali of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco. The main sponsors so far are France, the EU, Norway and Switzerland, he said. Timbuktu is a Unesco World Heritage site.

As local bricklayers laid the foundation stone of the Djingareyber mosque, Malian Minister of Culture Bruno Maiga pledged to restore the cultural icons of the city.

"This patrimony belongs to the people of the north," he said. "It will be rebuilt by the people of the north."

While Timbuktu is generally peaceful today, there have been some attacks by militants in the surrounding countryside, residents say.

"The city is quite calm nowadays, even though residual criminal acts remain," said Aboubacrime Cisse, president of the council of Timbuktu localities. "On terrorist issues we bet on Serval. People rely on Serval for this kind of issue, much more than on the UN soldiers."

French forces intervened in Mali in January last year to prevent Islamist fighters allied with ethnic Tuareg separatists from taking control of the northern part of the country.

France, which has 50 soldiers in Timbuktu, is reducing the number of its troops in the West African nation to 1,000 from 1,600 now, with President Francois Hollande saying on 8 January the intervention's objectives "have been largely achieved." Yet security in the north of Africa's third-biggest gold producer, especially towns such as Gao, 1,200 kilometers from the Bamako, is precarious.

A landmine on road between Tessalit and Aguelhok injured four United Nations soldiers, Agence France-Presse reported on March 16.

Besides the French troops stationed in Timbuktu, Mali has about 160 soldiers along with 600 UN peace-keepers, Remi Libessart, spokesman for France's Operation Serval, said by phone from the capital.

The large signs that the militants had planted to promote Shariah, or Islamic law, along the city's streets have been painted white. A rusting plaque lying in the sand along the airport road is one that used to say, "Timbuktu: the gateway to the application of Shariah law, welcome."

Evidence of the damage the militants caused with pickaxes remains. Behind the entrance gates at the Cemetery of the Three Saints there are broken earthenware jars and rubble in the sand. Tombs at Djingareyber Mosque were also destroyed by Ansar Dine, which regards the Sufi veneration of saints as blasphemy.

Unesco says that 320,000 ancient manuscripts were smuggled from Timbuktu to Bamako during the Islamists' occupation. More than 4,200 others were destroyed in the Ahmed Baba center courtyard.

While Unesco has said it would like to return the manuscripts to Timbuktu by June, Malian officials are wary.

"The top priority is to digitalise the documents," Professor Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga, head of the Ahmed Baba Institute, said in a phone interview. "We cannot risk more damage by returning the manuscripts too quickly to the libraries of Timbuktu. We should not be in a rush."

Refugees from neighboring Mauritania and Burkina Faso are returning to judge if security has improved, according to Cisse, the president of the Timbuktu council.

In the meantime, rebuilding work goes on.

"It is a great honor for us to have this task. The mausoleums have been built by our ancestors, and we will rebuild them following the traditional way," said Alassane Hasseye, the head of a bricklaying team. "I cannot find the words to explain what it does to my heart."

That man, Emperor Musa of Mali, is said to be THE RICHEST Person in entire history
( inflation adjusted).

His Pilgrimage-Journey to Makkah is an astonishing read.