"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
The Dual Legacy of Classical Timbuktu:
by Ali A. Mazrui

For several centuries before European colonization, much of West Africa was a product of two civilizations – indigenous African culture and the impact of Islam. This duality included the great Mali Empire which flourished at its height from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The dual legacy of Africanity and Islam also included the Songhai Empire which flourished from 1325 until the Moroccan invasion of 1588-91. Geographically, Songhai once extended from today’s Republic of Mali to today’s Nigeria. Songhai’s history overlapped with the history of the Mali Empire.

The most historically significant city produced by these two empires was the city of Timbuktu, which over the centuries has commanded more fascination among historians than almost any other intellectual center in the history of Black Africa. Timbuktu became the best positive celebration in the Black world of that old triumvirate of “God, gold and glory.” This triumvirate was in subsequent centuries to be usurped by European imperial colonization, but from the fourteenth century to the 1590s God, gold and cultural glory converged onto the destiny of Timbuktu. The foundations of the culture was the dual legacy of Africanity and Islam.

We define the classical period of Timbuktu as the era when Timbuktu flourished under the aegis of the Songhai empire (1325 to 1591) and the Mali Empire (1100 to 1700) – two overlapping imperial periods. But the legacy of scholarship in Timbuktu continued in subsequent centuries as well.

The interaction between Africanity and Islam was greatly facilitated by the continuing links between West African Empires and the Maghreb in North Africa, especially with Morocco. The links were often intellectually precious, but the links also included such moments of hostility and greed as the Moroccan invasion of 1588-1591.

Let us now put Timbuktu in a wider setting of interaction between Islamic scholarship and African intellectual foundations. The most famous classical centers of Islamic learning in Africa were three – Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the collective scholarly academy in Timbuktu and the oldest Qarawiyin university in Morocco in Fez. Al-Azhar University and the Qarawiyin mosque and University were older than Timbuktu, but they were also older than any Western university in existence. Today Al-Azhar is more than a thousand years old –which makes it older than almost any existing Western center of learning.

The triumvirate cities of Islamic learning – Cairo, Timbuktu and Fez – were, in medieval times, interdependent. There were scholars from Timbuktu who taught at Al-Azhar and in Fez – and vice-versa. New forms of scholarly interdependence were emerging in these academic exchanges of the ancient world.

There were centuries when Timbuktu was indeed a celebration of “God, gold and glory.” God was represented by two religious traditions – Indigenous African and Islamic. The gold featured in the trans-Saharan trade which was Timbuktu’s first exposure to international trade. The glory was for centuries partly scholarly. As a French author once observed:

The scholars of Timbuktu yielded nothing to the sojourns [and academics] in the foreign universities of Fez, Tunis and Cairo. The Blacks astounded the learned men of Islam in their erudition. That these Negroes [Blacks] were on a level with the Arabian savants [scholars] is proved by the fact that they were installed as professors in Morocco and Egypt, in contrast to this we find that Arabs were not always equal to the requirements of Sankore [in Timbuktu].[1]

Timbuktu became part of the Mali Empire. The Mail Empire produced one pilgrimage which was itself a symbol of “God, gold and glory.” Mali Emperor Mansa Moussa decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in a huge caravan of “God, gold and glory.” The trip to Mecca was overland through Cairo. Mansa Moussa is reported to have arrived in Cairo with an entourage of 60,000 people, 80 camels carrying over two tons of gold for distribution to the poor and the pious. Mansa Moussa was so lavish in his generosity in Egypt that the value of gold almost collapsed on the Egyptian gold market.

When in our own times the second millennium was coming to an end in the year 1999, Life magazine included Mansa Moussa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in the fourteenth century among the great events of the whole millennium – a remarkable celebration indeed of “God, gold and glory.”

Mansa Moussa’s pilgrimage was a matter of recorded history. But there is an element about the Mali Empire which is a matter more of historical speculation than of historical confirmation. Did Abubakari II of Mali [Emperor Bakari II] launch a fleet to cross the Atlantic generations before Christopher Columbus traversed the ocean blue in 1492? Did the Emprie which produced the glories of Timbuktu also produce the glories of a Black trans-Atlantic crossing long before Christopher Columbus? This latter claim is more hotly debated than Mansa Moussa’s trans-Saharan odyssey. But both have entered the grand legends of the Black Experience.

There is a third huge topic which touches upon the historical interaction between the people of the southern margins of the Sahara like Mali and Niger and those of northern Sahara like Moroccans, Tunisians and Egyptians. Are we to trace the origins of the name “Africa” to the historic interaction between so-called Berber people of northern Sahara and the trans-Saharan Tuareg all the way to Mali?

What is clear is that the name “Africa” was first applied only to North Africa and the term, “Blacklands” (Arabic “Sudan”) was first applied to Mali. Timbuktu’s interaction with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt might gradually have helped to create the name of our continent, “Africa.”

Another major connection we need to associate with Timbuktu is the link between religion and science. In the African context, the scholars of ancient Timbuktu were among the first to synthesize the twin studies of religion and science. A similar trend was occurring in the West at the same time.

In the history of universities within the second Christian millennium there was often a link between religion and science. For several centuries at the University of Oxford, England, one could not hold an academic position without subscribing to the articles of faith of the Church of England. One could not get a Masters degree either without that religious reaffirmation.

In the context of the millennium, Oxford University is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of the oldest in the Western world. Harvard is less than half a millennium old. Harvard College was a church-sponsored school for two centuries, and it was named after a Puritan Minister in about 1638. The problem at Harvard at that time was not Eurocentrism but Christocentrism. Harvard was not only exclusive by class but also exclusive by religion.

There are two methods for a religious school to go beyond being purely religious – one is through a strategy of secularization and the other is through a strategy of dualization. Secularization is the route which Harvard (and Oxford) took as the subject-matter, the methods of study, and the qualifications for entry and graduation became more and more religion-neutral.

Dualization is the strategy which Timbuktu and Al-Azhar University took as each evolved into a dual university – one part still religious and basically sacred and the other part of Timbuktu and Al-Azhar as secular and modern.

But neither the secularization of Oxford and Harvard nor the dualization of Al-Azhar and Timbuktu happened at once. There were stages on the way. For example, while Harvard was secularizing the subject-matter being studied within its walls, it was still discriminating on religious grounds in its admissions policy.

The policies of the quota system at American universities for centuries were intentionally designed to restrict the number of Jews admitted, in favor of Christians. Christocentrism applied to admission. There is still a lot of Christocentrism left at many American universities, but most of university life has been increasingly secularized in the last quarter-millennium.

Occasionally there is Judeo-Christocentrism at American universities. When I started teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1989, and I offered to teach a course on Islam in World Affairs, the chairman of my department said, “Do you realize, Professor Mazrui, that this is a Jewish university?” I responded, “Is that an argument for, or against, teaching a course on Islam in world affairs?” And he said, “The real problem is that your coming here was accompanied by a good deal of controversy. It would be inadvisable to be teaching a course in your first semester about a controversial subject.” In the end we compromised by my teaching such a course on Islam in my second semester after arrival, rather than the first. Since then Jewish students have demonstrated a healthy interest in classes on Islam.

Of course U.S. universities have since become increasingly secular and scientific institutions – though within the wider diversity of American academia there are still faith-based universities like Notre Dame (Catholic in orientation), Brandeis (Jewish in orientation) and others. But even these are at their best academic vanguards of science rather than asylums of religion.

U.S. Muslims have also begun establishing institutions of higher learning of their own – including this Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences [GSIS] located near Washington, D.C..

GSIS is not very far from Georgetown University in Washington, which has its own Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding led for a long time by Professor John Esposito, a Roman Catholic scholar of Islam and a friend of U.S. Muslims.

Elsewhere in major universities in the United States Islam is also studied. A major complaint of U.S. Muslims is that most centers of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies on the main campuses are either led or dominated by Jewish scholars. However, although there are as many Muslims as Jews in the U.S. today, there are many more Jewish scholars than Muslim scholars.

Have African universities also experienced the dialectic of sacred science? In Arab Africa universities go further back than not only universities in the United States but further back than in Europe. Al-Azhar University in Cairo is, as we indicated, over a thousand years old – older than any existing university in the Western world. Morocco can boast a comparable ancient institution of higher learning still in existence today in Fez [Qarawiyin].

The history of Islamic civilization as a whole was indeed once a fusion of religious vision and scientific advancement. Timbuktu was part of this vanguard. We must not forget that words like algebra, zero, tariff, are of Arabic derivation. And the numerals we use are still called Arabic numerals – though they are partly also Indian. Religion and science were also once linked in the academy in Timbuktu in ancient times. Timbuktu was using the Arabic numerals long before this hemisphere knew how to write down the numerals 1492 or 1776. The scholarly foundations of classical Timbuktu continued to be the dual legacy of Africanity and Islam.


We have mentioned Timbuktu’s relationship with North Africa. One of Africa’s greatest travelers was Ibn Battuta (1304 to 1368), who testified to the scholarship of Timbuktu. North Africa had earlier contributed to Christian thought through the scholar St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine was one of the most brilliant theologians in the history of Christianity.

North Africa has also contributed to global scholarship the Tunisian Ibn Khaldun, after whom a number of Chairs in the United States have been named. Ibu Khaldun was stimulated by Timbuktu. American University in Washington, D.C. currently has an Ibn Khaldun Chair.

In December 1999 the BBC Programme asked me to choose the two greatest Africans of the Millennium. For the man of the pen I chose Ibn Khaldun; for the man of action I chose Shaka Zulu. A North African name of compelling intellectual relevance is Ibn Khaldun who was born in Tunis in 1332. From 1375 he spent 4 years writing Al Muqaddimah, his philosophy of history. Arnold Toynbee, the distinguished Western macro-historian, described Ibn Khaldun’s work as “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

Robert Flint, another historian of thought, described Ibn Khaldun as follows:

“As a theorist of history he had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later. Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers...”

A partial translation of the Al-Muqaddimah was translated into Turkish in the 18th century. But it was not until a complete French translation of Al-Muqaddimah appeared in the 1860s that Ibn Khaldun would claim world audience and recognition of his remarkable genius.

The interaction between North Africa and West Africa stimulated not just awareness of God and the pursuit of gold. It also stimulated the glories of the mind. These were not just moments in history. They were advances for all time. Timbuktu is part of this grand panorama of human achievement;. The dual legacy of Africanity and Islam turned classical Timbuktu into a remarkable triumph of cultural synthesis, a meeting point of civilizations.


[1] Felix DuBois, Timbuktu the Mysterious (trans. Diane White), Heinemann, 1897
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