Monday, September 30, 2013

The Intellectual Traditions of Timbuktu

Nearly a thousand years before Europeans established a colonial presence in the West African region, the city of Timbuktu flourished. While in the west, the very word "Timbuktu" possessed an aura of mystery, and continues to purvey a fanciful sense of otherworldliness, Timbuktu proved remote, in the main, only to Europeans. That is, their access to the lucrative West African gold trade for which Timbuktu was an essential entrepot of the transsaharan routes was effectively and quite deliberately blocked by their Arab trading rivals. To the inhabitants of the region known as the Western Sudan -- that is, this inland region of West Africa at the southern boundaries of the Sahara desert -- Timbuktu was neither inaccessible nor mirage-like. Rather it, represented a thriving focal point of commercial activity and scholarship.

In appreciating the historical integrity of Timbuktu scholars are also proffered the opportunity to become acquainted with the intellectual traditions that this vibrant city spawned. However, just as the term "Timbuktu" conjures in the western imagination, fanciful notions of alienness, the term "intellectual" in connoting human cognitive sophistication, has oftentimes harbored its own exclusivity. That is, this latter term has seldom been applied to the cultural output of societies within sub-Saharan Africa. This situation exists, in all probability, because the diverse societies and cultures south of the Sahara are almost wholly perceived within the popular western imagination, and I might add, academic one as well, as belonging solely to a rural subcontinent of subsistence-level, stateless, non-literate societies. This article represents a provisional, and rather humble attempt to encourage the process of re-situating Timbuktu within the mainstream of intellectual history. It does so by paying special homage and relying on the work of social historian Elias N. Saad who laid the groundwork for this effort in his Social History of Timbuktu: the Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400-1900 published in 1983. The in-depth writing of the intellectual history of the region will only gain momentum after a more broad based effort is launched to examine and translate the works in Arabic from Timbuktu that have survived. The Ahmad Baba Center for Documentation and Research located in that historic city in the present-day West African nation of Mali maintains a collection of 10,000 surviving Arabic manuscripts from all periods of Timbuktu history. Thus the need for attention among Arabists to this rich corpus is a vital one. And perhaps more important still, is the need for collaboration among Arabists and African historians of the region. Only then, will the history of this region be re-written in ways that give proper value to the intellectual output of its people.

In order to be understood fully, Timbuktu must be situated both within its Islamic intellectual context as well as its West African cultural setting. Well meaning scholars, possessing a passing familiarity with the Arabic literature of the region, had in the past ignored the intellectual products of this area, assuming these works to be merely derivative of Islamic or Arabic writings elsewhere, without appreciating the special flavor of these texts. It is not that the Western Sudan deserves special attention, separate and apart from the larger Islamic world. It is rather that as scholars have come to appreciate the distinctive flavors of the diverse writings in Arabic from different regions of the Middle East and North Africa, the same intellectual pleasures will undoubtedly await them in the Western Sudan.

Timbuktu, strategically located at the junction of the Niger River and the Sahara desert, apparently began at some early period as a summer camping ground for the pastoralist Tuareg. Over time, it evolved into a market town of sedentarized Mande from the Sudanic region as well as Sahelian populations of various Berber clans. Its demography changed dramatically when a large group of Berber and Sudanic traders and scholars relocated to the city from Walata, which had been an important terminus for the transsaharan trade until trade routes began shifting eastwards. Situated just north of the relatively fertile valley at the bend in the Niger River, Timbuktu joined in the histories of all three of the Western Sudan's great merchant empires, Ghana, Mali and Songhay. The predominant ethnicity of the area was the northern groups of the Mande peoples (popularly known as Mandingoes). But it also included the Tuareg and various other Sahelian Berber clans.

Tuareg dominion over the city was eventually lost when Timbuktu became annexed to the Mali empire in the thirteenth century. The quality of Islamic learning had evolved to such a degree during the Malian period that the Songhay scholar, ‘Abd al-Rahman Al-Sa‘di, who wrote his Tarikh al-Sudan much later in the sixteenth century, offered the following anecdote. A certain scholar from the Hijaz who had returned to Mali with the Mansa Musa of Mali after the monarch's famed pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, insisted that the scholars of Timbuktu were so much more learned than he, that the Hijazi felt compelled to travel to Fez in order to brush up on his studies before returning to Timbuktu so that he would be taken more seriously.

The city reached its height after incorporation into the successor empire of Songhay in 1468. This annexation was accomplished through the military exploits of the legendary Songhay ruler, Sonni Ali. By the sixteenth century, its vast boundaries extended nearly to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and to the borders of modern Northern Nigeria in the east, and from the former Tuareg stronghold of Air in the Sahara Desert for more than five hundred miles to the salt mines of Taghaza and Taudeni. Since the populations of the sodium-deficient regions of the West African forest belt traded their gold for the even more valued Sahelian salt, Songhay dominion over the salt producing region was of prime significance.

The state of learning in Timbuktu gained a dramatic boost with the rise to power of the Askia dynasty following the ouster and death of Sonni Ali in 1492. The new ruler, a former General to Sonni Ali, was the Askia Muhammad Ture. Holding the reigns of power for thirty-five years, he was also noted for his Muslim scholarship. His family was believed to have migrated to the Songhay region from Futa Toro in Senegal, West Africa, which was the site of the earliest West African state to practice Islam, Takrur. Apart from whatever spiritual aspirations he harbored for the spread of his religion, the Askia Muhammad skillfully employed Islam to consolidate his political base of power and the transsaharan commercial ties. Both a military leader and a scholar, Muhammad enlarged on his predecessor's conquests and greatly encouraged the proliferation of Qur'anic schools in the commercial centers of his empire.

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wizaz of Fez, who later became known as Leo Africanus, visited Songhay in 1510 and then returned in 1513. He published a vivid and detailed description of the state at its height under the rule of Askia Muhammad. Regarding Timbuktu he wrote:

[Tombuto] is situate within twelue miles of a certaine branch of Niger, all the houses whereof are now changed into cottages built of chalke, and couered with thatch. Howbeit there is a most stately temple to be seene, the wals whereof are made of stone and lime; and a princely palace also built by a most excellent workeman of Granada. Here are many shops of artificers, and merchants, and especially of such as weaue linnen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbarie- merchants bring cloth of Europe. All the women of this region except maid- seruants go with their faces couered, and sell all necessarie victuals. The inhabitants, and especially strangers there residing, are exceeding rich, insomuch, that the king that nowis, married both his daughters vnto two rich merchants. . . . Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diuers manuscripts or written bookes out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandize. The coine of tombuto is of gold without any stampe or superscription: but in matters of small value they vse certain shels brought hither out of the kingdome of Persia, fower hundred of which shels are worth a ducat: and sixe peeks of their golden coin with two third parts weigh an ounce. The inhabitants are people of a gentle and cheerful disposition, and spend a great part of the night in singing and dancing through all the streets of the cite: they keep great store of men and women-sloes, and their townie is much in danger of fire: at my second being there half the town almost was burnt in fire.

The mid sixteenth century has been called the golden age of Timbuktu, in large measure because of the support offered by the Askia dynasty to the city as a center of religious learning. Sankore, was the quarter of Timbuktu where the majority of the teaching clerics lived and held their classes. Although it was not organized into a single "university", historian Robert O. Collins remind us that the number of scholars and students there probably exceeded the number to be found in sixteenth century Oxford or Paris.

At its height, Timbuktu boasted not only the impressive libraries of Sankore and the other mosques, but also a wealth of private ones. One of the most noted, containing more than 700 volumes, was collected by the master scholar Hajji Ahmad bin 'Umar. Timbuktu also prided itself during this period for maintaining between 150 and 180 schools, among a population whom S. M. Cissoko estimates to have been around 75,000. The culture of the city evolved into a cosmopolitan admix of Mande clans (Soninke, Malinke, Sosso, Songhay) and Berbers (Tajakant, Kel Nt'ssar, Barabish, Kunta). As for literacy in Arabic among the Mande and Berber speaking populations of Timbuktu, Elias Saad makes the following observation:

. . . a minimal command of literacy was universal among all but the poorest sections of the free population. Indeed, Caillie observed after visiting the city in the early nineteenth century that 'all the negroes of Timbuktu are able to read the Koran and even know it by heart.' The literate population probably included most of the male retail traders who, along with women active in the market, supported half to two-thirds of the inhabitants at any single time.

Despite the fact that the original settlers of Timbuktu were Tuareg nomads, the chains of transmission of Islamic learning at Timbuktu led back to the sedentarized Mande population, in particular to a certain Muaddab Muhammad al-Kaburi. He was a scholar from the farming town of Kabura in the Niger flood plain. The local transmission of learning or isnad within Timbuktu developed over time around the schools of three prominent families. The most well-known of these belonged to the family of 'Umar b. Muhammad Aqit. His school later became known outside the region because of the writings of its most prized student, Ahmad Baba, whose works were disseminated throughout Morocco during his years in captivity to the Moroccans after the fall of Songhay. Broader influences from the outside, Egypt and the Maghrib also helped to define the nature of Timbuktu scholarship. Even closer to home, the intellectual interchange between Sahelian scholars from the Berber towns of Tacit, Tuat and Ghadames, and their Sudanic counterparts also influenced the direction of learning in Timbuktu.

Social historian Elias Saad points out that the Islamic sciences formed the core of the academic syllabus, including Qur'anic interpretation (tafsir), the traditions of the Prophet (hadith), jurisprudence (fiqh), sources of the law (usul), and doctrinal theology. Apart from the religious courses, students were also required to study grammar (nahw), literary style and rhetoric and logic (mantiq). Only when religious and linguistic literary had been achieved was a student assigned to a particular mentor. As the number of students increased, so did the fields of study available. Subjects such as history, mathematics astronomy and cartography in time joined the wealth of courses available. One of the most noted historians of Timbuktu, `Abd al-Rahman al-Sa`di, writing in the mid 1600s described in his work, Tarikh al-Sudan, the destruction of Songhay, which never recovered from the Moroccan invasion of 1591. He says:

I was present at the ruin of knowledge and at its effacement. I saw it disappear along with the gold coins and small change of the realm. However, knowledge is precious in the treasures which it encases and fertile in the knowledge it bears, since it reveals insights to humankind about their homeland, their ancestors, their annals, the names and biographies of their heroes. For these reasons, I asked divine assistance and undertook to record all that I could gather on the subject of the princes of the Sudan [Land of the Blacks] and of the Songhay people. This was in order that I might recount their adventures, their history, their exploits and their battles. Having accomplished this goal, I added to this narration the history of Timbuktu, from the foundation of this city, the princes who reigned in it, the scholars and saints who inhabited it and other things as well.

Just as Timbuktu had an unmistakable personality all its own, so the tradition of Muslim learning and leadership by scholars in the Western Sudan evolved its own norms and conventions.While Sufism only appears to have taken strong hold in the region during the later eighteenth and nineteenth century through the Qadiriyya confraternity, the sixteenth century Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba mentions in his biography the works of one important Sufi scholar of the earlier Timbuktu period, Abu Bakr ibn al-Hajj Ahmad b. Umar. The North African Malikite school of jurisprudence predominated in Timbuktu as elsewhere in the Western Sudan from the fifteenth century onwards.

Four Timbuktu writers are of special interest for the information they provide about the civilization of the city, the history of the Songhay empire, and the light they shed on the state of Islamic learning particularly during the sixteenth century. As often occurs in historiography, the importance of these scholars and their works is also conditioned by the whims of fate, that is the mere fact that certain of their writings have survived while those of other eminent scholars to whom reference is made, have been lost. Mahmud ibn al-Mutawakkil al-Kati, who was born in 1468 was a scholar of Soninke ethnicity. He was a personal adviser of Askia Muhammad and is believed to have begun writing his important chronicle of Songhay, Tarikh al-Fattash [Chronicle of the Seeker for Knowledge] in 1519. The work was completed by a grandson, Ibn al-Mukhtar, about 1665. However, it has also been recently suggested that another prominent scholar of Timbuktu, Mahmud ibn ''Umar al-Aqit rather than al-Kati may have been the actual author of the work. The defective and emendated copies of this work which have survived continue to fuel controversy extending even to the point where one version, according to Elias Saad, asserts that the Cairo scholar Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti acknowledged the Askia Muhammad as the eleventh of the twelve true caliphs.

The most noted Timbuktu scholar of his time, Ahmad Baba came from the prominent Timbuktu al-Aqit merchant family, who were of Berber origins. The fact that he became so widely known outside of the Western Sudan may relate in large measure to the subsequent tragedy of Timbuktu's own history. That is, after the fall of that city as well as the entire empire of Songhay to an invasion force of Moroccans in 1591, Ahmad Baba was taken prisoner to Marrakesh. In exile, he was however able to continue writing and his works became widely disseminated throughout North Africa.

Ahmad Baba claimed in his biography that he owed his scholarly formation to a noted Timbuktu intellectual named Muhammad Baghayughu of Mande lineage, none of whose works, unfortunately, have survived. Ahmad Baba, himself, was the author of some fifty treatises on grammar, Malikite law, and other subjects, of which some thirty may have been recovered. His best known work, Nail al-Ibtihaj bi Tatriz al-Dibaj [the Gaining of Bliss through the Embroidering of Brocade], which may have been written as an appendix to a collection of biographical notices of Malikite jurists complied by Ibn Farhum, a Medina writer of the fourteenth century. Much of Ahmad Baba's work falls under the heading of jurisprudence, or is related to devotional subjects. Additionally, he wrote some four compositions in grammar and a similar number in historical biography.

Abd al-Rahman al-Sadi (1596-1656) was born in Timbuktu probably of Fulani parentage. He served as an official and diplomat in the Askia's administration. His only extant work, Tarikh al-Sudan [History of the Land of the Blacks) offers a gripping first hand account of the decline of Songhay after the Moroccan invasion. It was this work that Heinrich Barth rediscovered in Northern Nigeria in 1853.

One historical document that has been recovered from this period relates to a correspondence between the Askia Muhammad and the North African theologian, Al-Maghili (d.1504) and offers special insights into the nature of legal interchange during the period:


I entered these lands after Sunni Ali who had amassed wealth and slaves from diverse sources, and I took possession of all of that. Then I released everyone who claimed that he was a free Muslim and a large number of them went off. Then after that I asked bout the circumstances of some of them and about their country and behold they pronounced the shahada: 'There is no god save God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God'. But in spite of that they believe that there are beings who can bring them benefit or do them harm other than God Almighty and Exalted is He. They have idols and they say: 'The fox said so and so and thus it will be, and 'If the thing is thus then it will be so and so.' They venerate certain trees and make sacrifices to them. They have their shrines and they do not appoint a ruler or undertake any matter either great or small except at the command of the custodians of their shrines.

So I admonished them to give up all that and they refused to do so without the use of force. Does this render them unbelievers and make it lawful for them to be put to death and their property to be seized if they persist in this, although they say with their tongues: 'There is no god save God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God?

AL-MAGHILI'S REPLY: . . . your action in setting free all those who claimed to be free Muslims was correct. Similarly, it is your bounden duty to return to specific Muslims all property known to belong to them. . .As for the people whose conduct you described, they are polytheists without doubt, for in accordance with the literal interpretation of the ruling, one may be adjudged an unbeliever for less than that, as we explained in he preceding Question.

There is no doubt that jihad against them is more fitting and worthy than jihad against [born] unbelievers who do not say: 'There is no god save God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God', since those whom you describe have confounded the truth with falsehood in such a way as to mislead many of the ignorant Muslims so that they become unbelievers without realizing it. They are more worthy [to be made the object] of a jihad than the [outright] unbelievers whom no Muslim would imitate. So make jihad against them, killing their men and enslaving their women and children and seizing their property in accordance with what he put forward in the Reply to the previous Question. If they persist in their polytheism, burn the custodians of their shrines and their gods, as did Khalid b. al-Walid, may God be pleased with him, with some of those who refused to pay zakat, after he had been given the order to burn them by the Commander of the Faithful Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, may God be pleased with him.

However, scholars of the region have noted with some amusement that what proved most telling in this exchange was not so much the content of Al-Maghili's judgments but the fact that the Askia Muhammad with a certain degree of diplomatic finesse nonetheless proceeded to ignore them completely.

During the course of the sixteenth century, the power of Songhay gradually declined. The power of the Askia was weakened by a successor of short reigns and dynastic disputes which erupted in civil war in the 1580s. At the same time the general population and agricultural basis of the economy was weakened by drought and disease. There was a loosening of Songhay's control over long-distance trading networks. In the east the growth of the Hausa city-states, Borno and the Tuareg sultanate of Air, was drawing trans-Saharan trade away from Songhay and the western routes. And from the south the supply of gold declined as the chiefdoms of the Akan forest diverted some of their trade to the newly arrived European traders on the coast.

In 1591 the Sa'dids of Morocco Moroccans successfully invaded Songhay, eventually capturing Timbuktu. This invasion was launched in hopes of seizing control of and reviving the transsaharan trade in gold. However, while this Moroccan conquest did succeed in subduing Songhay, it never attained its practical goals. That is, the Portuguese had already begun establishing trade relationships with the coastal African city-states, that actually mined the gold, diverting that and the ivory trade permanently from the Sahara to the Atlantic seaboard. The collapse of Songhay also signalled the tragic transformation of Timbuktu from the Western Sudan's vibrant center for Arabic learning, into little more than a casual metaphor for the remote and desolate "ends of the earth".

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