After returning to the Imam’s house, we were seated in the room we had previously occupied. However, now the room was illuminated with the light beaming from the faces of religious scholars, both young and old. The senior scholars were all adorned with the blue gowns that are the hallmark of scholars throughout the realm of the West Africa and the Western Sahara region. They also were handsomely adorned with stately white turbans, all meticulously wrapped in a common fashion. The younger scholars were all wearing Arab style thawbs of various colors. None were dressed in the traditional blue. As we began our session of discussion and questions and answers, it was clear that the older scholars, as demonstrated by the Imam of Timbuktu earlier, were more comfortable speaking French than Arabic, with the exception of two or three who did not know French. As for the younger scholars all of them having studied in Arab countries, —Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunis, or Saudi Arabia, were more conversant in Arabic.
One would think that the fashion rift between the two groups of scholars seated in the room was an indication of a deeper division. However as we became more deeply immersed in a stimulating conversation it was clear that there was a deep sense of solidarity between the two groups characterized by mutual respect and love. I remarked on this perception and one of the younger scholars replied that this the way of Timbuktu, he would reiterate, “These older scholars are our teachers and we will never disrespect them.” To see such harmony was a real joy. In many countries, there is a clear tension between the older more traditionally trained scholars, and the younger scholars or students of knowledge who are educated outside of a particular country.
As our discussion progressed it was clear that there was one thing all of the scholars were in agreement on: the need for am educational facility that would train students to a respectable level in Arabic and the religious sciences. Such a school, they felt, was necessary in order to reverse the ignorance of the religion that had descended over the Sahel in general. Graduates of such a school would be able to go to towns and villages far and wide in order to teach the people. We all agreed that it was a laudable idea. I mentioned how the recently freed slaves in the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War were largely illiterate and how a campaign to build a network of teacher’s colleges through out the Southern United States was one of the major steps in the elimination of that illiteracy within a generation. We promised to look into ways we could help these noble scholars build their schools. May Allah grace us with the uplifting winds of Divine Providence.
After the meeting with Imams, we went to the Sankore Mosque for the Dhuhr prayer. This is a beautiful adobe mosque, smaller but in much better shape than the Grand Mosque, which as we mentioned is currently being renovated. After the prayer the Imam of the mosque gave us a brief tour. He directed to an area in the mosque where he mentioned that prayers were answered. I made sure to pray there. Such a claim could not be baseless. Generations of pious and even saintly men had prayed there, and their words and experiences, the traces of which gave the mosque a powerful, yet unseen aura, have been passed down through successive generations. Being a recipient of their news was a great honor. May Allah accept all of our prayers.
I reflected deeply on the fact that it is certain that Ahmad Baba prayed in that spot. Mansa Kan Kan Musa likely prayed in that spot. His half brother Abu Bakr II, the Emperor of Mali before him, a man who had led an armada of two thousand ships out into the Atlantic, heading towards the Americas, never to return, probably prayed in that spot. Ibrahim Abdur Rahman, the “Prince Among Slaves,” who had studied in Timbuktu during his youth, is sure to have prayed in that spot. Now I was here in Timbuktu, in the naturally air conditioned shade of the Sankore Mosque praying in that spot. Again, May Allah accept all of our prayers wherever we may be.
During our tour of the mosque, several members of our group squeezed through the narrow passage and ascended the aging stairs leading to the top of the minaret. From that vantage point they were able to take many fascinating pictures of the surrounding town. It was very gracious of the Imam to allow those who ascended to the top this honor, for neither the stairs nor the roof was designed to bear their collective weight. After their descent, the Imam and several of his colleagues chatted with us for a brief while before we boarded the bus to return to the hotel for lunch and a brief nap. Our day though was far from over.