After returning to the hotel, we ironed fresh clothing in preparation for a formal visit with the Imam of the Grand Mosque. Even our drivers and guides had doffed their mundane western garb in favor of beautiful traditional garments. The time passed quickly and before we knew it we had eaten a light breakfast and found ourselves in the beautiful home of the Imam of the Grand Mosque. The room we were escorted into could have well been located in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran or Pakistan. Low couches followed the entire contour of the rectangular room. The unpainted neat adobe walls were decorated with Islamic art and calligraphy pieces, and the floor was adorned with a beautiful collection of mats and rugs. The room spoke of a rich Islamic heritage that was as universal as the wider Islamic realm that Timbuktu was once connected to.
Our conversation with the Imam was brief but enlightening. He summarized for us the history of the city and the prominent role that Islam had always played in it. He also spoke of the pernicious influence of the French occupation of the city and the destruction of its Arabic intellectual heritage. He mentioned how he himself was far more conversant in French than in Arabic. After a brief visit he led us to the Grand Mosque for a tour of its precincts. He explained to us how the Agha Khan Foundation, to its immense credit, was underwriting the renovation of the mosque and had provided a blank check to do whatever was necessary to restore it to its former glory. To facilitate that objective, some of the world’s leading experts in adobe and Saharan architecture had been brought in. As a consequence of their work, the original foundation of the mosque, which had been built over when Mansa Kan Kan Musa rebuilt the mosque around 1324, had been discovered. The Imam showed us a part of that original foundation. Those experts had also discovered the original design that had been imprinted on the adobe pillars of the mosque, in addition to an Arabesque design that had surrounded the Mihrab. The renovated structure will feature all of those artistic embellishments.
The Imam took our leave as he had to meet another delegation. However, we would soon return to his house for a meeting with the Council of Imams and Religious Scholars. Departing for the mosque we went to visit the Ahmad Baba Center. Named after a luminary who is considered to be the greatest scholar the city has produced, the center is home to thousands of manuscripts. Ahmad Baba had attained such a high degree of knowledge that during his exile to Morocco (1594-1607) the Qadis and Muftis of Fez, Meknes, and Marrakesh would attend his lessons. We were given a tour of the center and were amazed by the variety of manuscripts and the depth of the scholarship they bore witness to. I was struck by the fact that many of the books were copies of texts that were very well-known in the Arab heartland of Islam. It was quite clear that Timbuktu at the height of its glory was well-integrated into an expansive Islamic realm that stretched from al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) in the West to China in the East.
It is interesting that Ibn Battuta the great Moroccan scholar and explorer who had traversed that realm during the first half of the 14th Century AD, actually visited Mali and Timbuktu in 1354. He was impressed by the diligence of the Malian Muslims in observing the congregational prayer, especially the Jumu’ah, and their devotion to the memorization and study of the Qur’an. The realm that Ibn Battuta visited was devastated by the bubonic plague. Had it not been for the plague that ravaged the entire length of that realm, and the rich system of trade it made possible, we Muslims may well have maintained our economic supremacy and possessed the finance capital necessary to both endow the research institutions needed for science and technological competitiveness, and to underwrite great exploration expeditions, such as those undertaken by the Europeans. Those expeditions would lead to the discovery of America, and her vast storehouses of gold and silver, and a sea route eastward to India and China. Both of these developments, coming less than two centuries after the devastation of the plague, would finalize the economic demise of the Muslims. That economic demise would gradually submerge Timbuktu in its wake.
It is a shame that high tech facilities with the elaborate air conditioning, humidity and light controls that are so essential for the preservation of ancient manuscripts are thus far lacking in Timbuktu. Perhaps the Muslims of America can contribute to the building of such a center. The curator of the Ahmad Baba Center was an intelligent, gracious and charismatic man who in many ways was a perfect embodiment of his city. From the Ahmad Baba Center we went to visit another manuscript library before returning to the Imam’s house to meet the senior and junior scholars of Timbuktu. This would be one of the highlights of the visit.