The Intellectual Legacy of Timbuktu

The Intellectual Legacy of Timbuktu

By Saulat Pervez – Writer and Editor

When someone mentions ‘Timbuktu,’ our minds often invoke mythical images of a mysterious, otherworldly place. However, when we study a map of Africa, we realize that it is very much a physical city in the country of Mali. What’s more, Timbuktu actually gained legendary status because of its riches and scholarship after Muslims permanently settled there early in the twelfth century.

Originally, Timbuktu was only a seasonal encampment for residents from nearby towns and a temporary outpost for traders and travellers. Its proximity to the Niger River made it a natural meeting point for nearby settlers and visitors alike. The foundation for the Sankore Mosque of Timbuktu was laid late in the tenth century. It was financed by a wealthy lady, who supported a desire to see the town turn into a centre of learning. Over the centuries, it gradually solidified its position as an important trading stop and this vision became a reality. Merchants from around the world visited the mosque, bringing with them ideas and books. Books became the most circulated commodity in Timbuktu, and libraries flourished. Meanwhile, Muslims decided to inhabit the town.

The Mosque grew into a University and by the end of the twelfth century, “student numbers were at twenty-five thousand, an enormous amount in a city of a hundred thousand people,” according to “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World”. Students first studied Arabic and memorized the Quran, followed by a rigorous syllabus consisting of math, sciences, logic, astronomy, history, etc., culminating in philosophical and religious research work.

The nearby salt ranges and gold mines only spurred trade; Timbuktu’s devotion to scholarship also attracted scholars and thinkers who arrived to settle there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This led to Timbuktu’s Golden Age in the next two centuries, turning the town into an intellectual and spiritual hub amidst its economic boom. Other mosque-universities, such as Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University, sprouted, all three together comprising the University of Timbuktu.

Subsequently, thousands of manuscripts were written, copied and passed on through generations. In this way, Timbuktu contributed a legacy of written scholarship in Africa, which has survived through the centuries. These documents are now being discovered from cellars, safes in mud-walls and treasure chests. Today, they are being collected and placed in various libraries in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu has endured a long decline in the years since its glorious past, after falling victim to Moroccan invasion, tribal rule and French colonization. As a result, Timbuktu’s vast scholarship can also be found in the museums of Morocco and France.

The Republic of Mali finally gained independence in 1960. Presently, Timbuktu is an impoverished city with only a few remaining landmarks of the city’s magnificent times. Yet, it remains a tourist attraction, complete with an international airport.

In recognition of its scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy, Timbuktu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

Don’t Get Caught Dead Without Islam – Part 2

Don’t Get Caught Dead Without Islam (2)

By Dr. Bilal Philips – Scholar, lecturer, author, editor, translator, professor, and founder of Islamic Online University, Doha

We all believe that we cannot escape death. However, if we accept that death is inevitable and consider ourselves to be practicing Muslims, our actions should reflect our preparation for death. Preparation for death does not mean buying your Kaffan (wrapping shroud), travelling to Makkah, washing it in Zam Zam water and bringing it back to store in your closet. It means to follow Allah’s (swt) commandments in order to be rewarded in the Hereafter with what He has promised the believers.

We should realize that it doesn’t make sense to fear death; this is because if we fear death, we fear Allah (swt) Who has created death. If we fear Him, it simply means that we fear the harm that will come to us because of our disobedience. It is not like fearing fire and hence avoiding it, or fearing a lion by escaping from it. Similarly, we should not fear Allah (swt) in that sense and should not try to run away from Him.

Today, the fear and avoidance of death, which has become deeply rooted in people’s hearts needs to be addressed. For this, firstly, we should supplicate in our Salah and request Allah (swt) to grant us the spirit of sacrifice in this world; we should ask Him to make our life and our death dedicated to Him and in accordance with His Will. This Dua should then become a reality in our lives because whatever good we do in this life, we are doing it for ourselves; whatever evil we do will ultimately be against us only. We might think we are settling scores with somebody or we are hurting someone in this life, but in the end, what we have done is unjust. Allah (swt) says that whatever evil we do in this life is really against ourselves, because the greater it is, the greater its punishment in the next life.

Death is just a transition; it is unavoidable. We should visit the graveyards to remind ourselves that this transition is a reality. We should visit the sick to comfort them and also to remind ourselves that we can be sick any time and may not recover. Health is a blessing from Allah (swt), which can be taken away anytime. While we are healthy, we need to prepare for the time we are ill – the worst that can happen to any Muslim is dying in a state of Shirk. The only way we can protect ourselves from such a situation is by understanding the principles of Tauheed thoroughly and applying them on ourselves.

Unfortunately, even though much has been written about Islam, there is very little material on Tauheed. You will find many books talking about the fundamentals of Islam, but Tauheed is given only a paragraph. As a result, people who read and study about Islam today miss some of the essential material, which should form the basis of everything else. Allah (swt) is One, and that is the final truth. Our economics, our politics, and our prayers – in fact, everything has to be built on a solid foundation of Tauheed. One verse of Allah (swt) is more than just a statement – it represents the entire framework of life for a believer. Thus, it is essential for us to understand how Tauheed should operate in all the factors of our life. For those with limited knowledge in this area, I would personally recommend a book which I have written – “The Fundamentals of Tauheed”. It is perhaps one of the very few books available, which deal in depth with the essential principles concerning Tauheed.

When we die, all our deeds in this life will end. But we can still earn and receive genuine benefit after our death from three basic actions that we did while we were alive:

One: Charity which we give to people and it continues to benefit them.

Two: Knowledge that we pass on, which continues to guide others.

Three: A righteously-raised child who prays for us to Allah (swt).

Our preparation for death should involve giving as much charity as possible. If we know that the only thing which can benefit us after we die is charity which people continue to benefit from, we need to find multiple avenues where we can give our wealth. We need to find out as much about Islam as we can and educate others.

Furthermore, we should prepare for death by looking after our children – by trying to educate them as best as we can primarily from an Islamic perspective. Of course, we also need to prepare them for surviving in this world, so secular education is a part of their life too. However, we should not allow them to consider secular education to be the main goal – we should not let it become the most important aspect of their education. We should discover new avenues for our kids to educate them spiritually, for instance, by bringing them into contact with other righteous young people and by involving them in gatherings wherein righteousness is spoken about, etc.

Our Prophet Muhammad (sa) said that whoever says “La Ilaha Illa Allah” as his/her last words will be led to Paradise. This is not easy for a person who has not lived “La Ilaha Illa Allah”. On the death bed, a corrupt person will not automatically utter “La Ilaha Illa Allah”. Thus, if we consider our God to be Allah (swt) and if we want to enter Paradise as Prophet Muhammad (sa) said, we have to start living “La Ilaha Illa Allah” from now only.

Our will is also a part of our preparation. Abdullah Ibn Umar (rta) has narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: “If we have anything to will others and we want it to be given to others after our death, we should not allow two nights to pass without writing it down.” (Malik, Bukhari, Muslim and others) This is a part of awareness of death. Because people are unaware of death, they die and never avail the opportunity to write down any special thing they wanted done upon their burial or regarding their belongings left behind.

If we are believers in reality, we have to be amongst those who prepare for death. We cannot have in our hearts an overwhelming fear of death; instead, we have to be aware of the reality of our end and of what is to come, which should be reflected in our preparation throughout our life.

A point to contemplate concerns the Jews, who claim to be the beloved and the chosen people of Allah (swt): “Say (O Muhammad (sa)): ‘O you Jews! If you pretend that you are friends of Allah, to the exclusion of (all) other mankind, then long for death if you are truthful.’” (Al-Jumuah 62:6)

Allah (swt) commands the Jews to wish for death but they will not do so because of the evil they have committed. They know they are not really the chosen people of Allah (swt); it is only their claim. Hence, they fear death because of the evil in their hearts.

This fact shows a mirror to the Muslims – are we repeating what the Jews have done? Do not Muslims around the world harbour this fallacy that they are going to enter Paradise just because they are born Muslims and their parents are Muslims? In reality, they fear death. Sadly, we, too, have become like the Jews and the hypocrites.

May Allah (swt) enable us to adequately prepare for our death throughout our life. Ameen.

Transcribed and compiled for Hiba by Mr. Nazir-ud-Din Qureshy.