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Collection Islamic Manuscripts from Mali

Timbuktu: An Islamic Cultural Center

Timbuktu, the legendary city founded as a commercial center in West Africa 900 years ago, is synonymous today for being utterly remote. This, however, was not always the case. For more than 600 years, Timbuktu was a significant religious, cultural, and commercial center whose residents traveled north across the Sahara through Morocco and Algeria to other parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu was famous among the merchants of the Mediterranean basin as a market for obtaining the goods and products of Africa south of the desert. Many individuals traveled to Timbuktu to acquire wealth and political power.

Other individuals traveled to Timbuktu to acquire knowledge. It was a city famous for the education of important scholars whose reputations were pan-Islamic. Timbuktu’s most famous and long lasting contribution to Islamic–and world–civilization is its scholarship and the books that were written and copied there beginning from at least the 14th century. The brilliance of the University of Timbuktu was without equal in all of sub-Saharan Africa and was known throughout the Islamic world.

Over the past 1,200 years, the Western Sahara area has given birth to powerful empires: Ghana (8th-11th centuries), Mali (13th-17th centuries), and Songhai (15th-16th centuries). The influence of these empires transcends Mali’s current boundaries in its contributions to civilization and culture, particularly through Muslim scholarship. Many peoples, ideas, and goods passed through these empires by land and via the Niger River. Among travelers to the region were many Muslim scholars who came pursuing knowledge and whose scholarship survives in their manuscripts.

In 1960, when the former French Sudan–previously part of French West Africa–became independent from France, it took the name of a historic kingdom in the area that it covers, the empire of Mali. Today Mali is an independent, democratic, culturally diverse, predominately Muslim nation that sits at an important nexus of West African culture. The fabled city of Timbuktu lies in the Sahel–the southern edge of the Sahara, eight miles north of the Niger River in Mali.

The texts and documents included in Islamic Manuscripts from Mali are the products of a tradition of book production reaching back almost 1,000 years. Although this practice is anchored in the methods of Islamic book production, it possesses features particular to West Africa. The bindings of manuscripts from Timbuktu, and West Africa in general, are unique in the Islamic world. Their decoration with incised markings is in a style characteristic of the area. Further, pages are not attached in any way to the binding–a practice different from all other Islamic manuscripts.

The form of Arabic script used in Timbuktu ultimately derives, as do all forms of the Arabic script, from the Kufic and Hijazi forms of Arabic writing developed in Iraq and the Hijaz during the eighth and ninth centuries. Western and Eastern style scripts developed from the Kufic script. The Western style, influenced by the Hijazi script as used in North Africa, evolved into the script known as Maghribi, or North African, beginning in the 11th century in North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. Western style script still is used in North Africa. From North Africa, this script crossed the Sahara Desert, came to Timbuktu, and spread throughout West Africa where scholars and scribes further developed the script. An exhibit of pages from these manuscripts is available at:

The most commonly used form of script in these Timbuktu manuscripts is Saharan, named for the desert that borders the city. Another form of Arabic script used in Timbuktu is Sudani, which refers to the belt of open farmlands that extends from East Africa to the lands just south of Timbuktu in West Africa. The third West African form of Arabic writing is Suqi–literally the market script. Suqi letters are noticeably square compared to the more elongated forms of Maghribi, Sudani, and Saharan.
While many books were authored and copied in Timbuktu, its resident scholars also imported books from other parts of the Islamic world. Therefore, manuscripts found in Timbuktu are often written in Naskh, the most common book hand found in Arabic manuscripts from Egypt, Syria, and neighboring lands. Naskh developed from the Eastern style of the original Kufic script.

These works, whose subjects cover every topic of human endeavor, are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans during the Middle Ages and early modern period. They are also an important element of the culture of Mali, and West Africa in general, which survived the colonial experience.

Libraries in Timbuktu continue the tradition of the families who established them by preserving and making available these valuable works, which until recently were unknown outside Mali. Scholars in the fields of Islamic studies and African studies are awed by the wealth of information that these manuscripts provide. Indeed, the use of these works by scholars will likely result in rewriting Islamic, West African, and world history.

The ancient manuscripts preserved at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Center and in its private family libraries, such as the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, a suburb of Timbuktu, serve as eloquent witnesses to the influence of Timbuktu beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries.