The Timbuktu Tradition


The Timbuktu Tradition

by Dr. Ibrahim Sulaiman

Perhaps the most important factor in the resurgence of Islam after several decades of decline in Bilaad as-Sudan was that the Islamic tradition of learning and scholarship continued throughout the period of decline to operate as a living and thriving tradition, producing scholars, jurists and saints all over the region. The tradition preserved the best of Islam, and kept alive its intellectual legacy, strong enough for any determined reformer to apply as an instrument of societal transformation. That tradition of Islam was best symbolized by an enigmatic and highly venerated West African city that flourished for at least five centuries from the twelfth century A.D.

Timbuktu was a city bolstered by piety, and as Dr. Hunwick tells us, “it was the proud boast of its people that worship has never been offered to pagan gods within its wall.” He quotes Muhammad Kati who described the city in Ta’riikh al-Fattaash:

“Religion flourished and the Sunnah enlivened both religious and worldly affairs… In those days it had no equal in the Sudan, from Mali to the edges of the Maghrib, for soundness of institutions, political liberties, purity of customs, security of life and goods and respect for and assistance to, the students and men of learning.”

The city owed its prestige and its immense influence on the sub-sequent history of West Africa to its being a center of learning. It was a university complex, drawing students and scholars from different parts of the Muslim world, nourishing governments with administrators, clerks and judges, feeding cities with Imams, teachers and jurists, and providing for the wider society a long chain of muftis, saints and above all, mujaddids. The unusually high number of mujaddids which the Bilaad as-Sudan has produced – perhaps higher than any other part of the Muslim world – can be attributed in part to the tradition of learning fostered by Timbuktu.

“The tradition of learning in Timbuktu,” Elias Saad writes in ‘Social History of Timbuktu’, “assured the city a status and prestige”:

“The Muslim sciences which the various settlers brought and fostered in the city went hand-in-hand with the widespread commercial contacts of these groups to secure for the growing town a measure of non-interference from outside. For one thing, the settlers themselves commanded considerable wealth along with wide spread networks of trade and alliances in the area. Additionally, however, the security of the city was in its Islamic image; its mosques, schools and shrines began to be conceived early as its guardians. In the psychological mood which prevailed after pilgrimage of Mansa Musa of Mali (and again on the return from the Hajj of Askia Muhammad over a century and a half later), Timbuktu gradually gained an aura of ‘sanctity’ and assumed for itself a sort of inviolability.”

In this tradition of learning, after the elementary stage of Qur’anic recitation and literacy, a student was introduced into the world of scholarship via the Arabic language. Versatility in Arabic, Saad suggests, was highly valued, therefore, such fields of learning associated with language, grammar, rhetoric, logic and prosody became an essential part of the process of learning.

The fundamental goal of learning in this tradition was to acquire the understanding of Qur’an, ḥadiith and fiqh, and to some extent, of taṣawwuf. Hence, the science of tafsiir, Qur’anic exegesis was perhaps the most important of all sciences studied. Then followed study of the ḥadiith, in which, Saad states, “the abilities of a jurist came to be measured by his familiarity with the precedents set by the Prophet.”

In the study of fiqh, the Timbuktu tradition insisted on achieving a level of competence as high as could be found in any other part of the Muslim world. The fiqh studies revolved almost wholly around the Maaliki School, to which the entire region has subscribed until the present day. Other fields, such as taṣawwuf, uṣuul or the philosophy of law, tawḥiid or the science of unity of Allah, history, medicine, astronomy and mathematics were also given due attention. A relatively wide range of text books was available to the students.

Knowledge was sought in this tradition precisely in order to enable the students to organize their lives as Allah had ordered, and subsequently to organize society and state on those lines as well. Scholarship therefore, was an institution in its own right, distinct from and almost totally independent of the state. It remained self-reliant, maintaining and generating its own funds through a high level of commercial activities, and preserving its own prestige and sanctity. Scholars were never subservient to the rulers; indeed, in some respects the tradition was so strong as to force the rulers to concede to the supremacy of the scholar over the ruler. For example, it was the monarch who visited the Qaaḍii of Timbuktu, and not the other way around. The idea was that the qaaḍii, as the custodian of Allah’s sacred law, was pre-eminent over the temporal ruler. This tradition gave the scholars of Timbuktu an aura of sanctity and respectability that made them the symbol of the people and the conscience of society.

The Timbuktu tradition persisted in Hausaland and in the whole of Bilaad as-Sudan, producing scholars who upheld the spirit of Islam and nourished Islam itself both in the periods of light and of darkness. The Moroccan invasion of 999 A.H./l591 A.D., in which almost all the leading scholars were arrested, precipitated its decline. This deterioration, however, was merely quantitative; the quality of the tradition was maintained. So, while Hausaland was sunk in moral degradation, this intellectual and moral tradition carefully nurtured a cadre of scholars who were to bring about a revival of Islam and create a society dedicated to Islam, a state committed entirely to its defense and enhancement.

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