Ahmed Baba es Sudane: The Jurist, Philosopher & Scholar of Ancient Timbuktu

                            

-by Muhsin Shaheed

Ahmed Baba Es Sudane was a preeminent jurist, philosopher and scholar during the last quarter of the 16th and the first quarter of the 17th Century. He was born October 26, 1556 in Araouane, Mali and he died in Timbuktu on April 22, 1627. He was educated as a jurist in West Africa. Ahmed Baba became a scholar and a political provocateur in the area then known as Western Sudan in West Africa. He was the son of a noted scholar and teacher as well, Ahmad bin al-hajj Ahmad bin Umar bin Muhammad Aqit. Ahmed Baba moved to Timbuktu at an early age to study with his father and with another noted scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Bagayogo.

He is arguably the foremost writer, free thinker and renowned scholar during   Medieval

Times. He was considered the Mujjadid (reviver of the religion of the century). The public li- brary in Timbuktu, The Ahmed Baba Institute, stores over 30,000 manuscripts, named in his hon- or.¹ His personal library had more than 1,600 manuscripts at the time Timbuktu was invaded by the Moroccans. He was captured and taken to Morocco as a prisoner in themedieval period known as “The Golden Age” of the Islamic World.² Ahmed Baba was not only a jurist, a philoso- pher and an educator; he was also an Arabic grammarian and a prolific writer. He wrote more than 60 books on history, grammar, medicine, theology, jurisprudence, logic, mathematics, chem- istry, astronomy, herbal medicine, conflict prevention, democracy and philosophy.³

In 1967 UNESCO set up a documentation center called the Ahmed Baba Center in his name to honor him. Several families in Timbuktu have come forward to register and store their treasures (ancient manuscripts) at Ahmed Baba Center. It is estimated that there are over 10 mil- lion manuscripts in Mali alone and approximately 5 million more throughout West Africa.4

Ahmed Baba came from a long history of proud predecessors, including scholars and ex-

plorers since the 8th century, when the West Africans rulers and leaders embraced Islam as their religion. One of the great leaders was Mansa Musa, who went on pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca)  in 1324-25 C.E. His entourage of over 60,000 included 8,000 soldiers and 500 selected young servants, each carrying a 6- pound solid gold staff. 15,000 camels carried gifts and supplies, includ- ing 80 camels carrying Mansa Musa’s money for the voyage, which was 300 pounds of gold dust  on each camel. His expedition is well documented in Cairo, Egypt in particular and throughout the world, because his gifts and generous contributions to the people he encountered were so abundant that he upset the balance of trade for over twelve years in Egypt.5 For centuries, Tim- buktu was regarded as the most prosperous, scholarly and peaceful society in the world, a kind of heaven on earth, until the invasions by Moroccans and Europeans.

For years, rumors had led many Arab and European leaders and explorers to believe that Timbuktu specifically and West Africa in general had streets lined with gold.  The Songhai  Empire was initially invaded by the Moroccans under the leadership of Al Mansur for gold and slave labor in 1591 A.D. However, it was the leadership of Pasha Mahmud Ibn Zarqun that sacked the city, plun- dered the wealth, burned the libraries, and put to death many scholars who resisted. In 1593 Ah- med Baba and 75 scholars, philosophers, and other intelligentsia were arrested and taken as prison- ers over the Sahara Desert in chains to Fez and Marrakech. They were freed in 1593 but not al- lowed to leave Morocco.6 Interestingly, more women were taken as captives than men.7 Ahmed Baba spent 14 years in Morocco from 1593 to 1607 on charges of sedition. He wrote extensively while he was in exile, including his famous biography of Muhammad Abd al-Karim al Maghili, a scholar and jurist responsible for much of the traditional religious law throughout the area. The bi- ography was translated by M.A. Cherbonneau in 1855. It became the principal text for the study of legal history throughout West Africa for centuries to come.8 He insisted to his captors to be known as Ahmed Baba Es Sudane. Finally, he was set free, after he and other scholars wrote appeals for his release and return to his native home in Timbuktu.

The European invasion was led in sequence by the Portuguese, the Spanish and then the French, all for gold, spices and other riches and finally for slave labor. Prior to the Western world’s “Berlin Conference,” (dividing the African Continent among themselves, in November 1873 – Febru- ary 1874), West Africa was virtually under the control of one individual. The Timbuktu Empire was geographically larger than the Roman Empire. The Empire included the lands now called Mali (the heart of Timbuktu), Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Northern Nigeria and Niger. Gold, art and manuscripts were the first treasures the Europeans stole. They rationalized their actions on the ground of cultural and racial superiority. After the European takeover of North and South America, there was a need for labor, and West Africa in particular and Africa in general were further exploit- ed for free labor. Ayub S. Haroun, a Ghanian historian, said that 2/3 of the slaves sent to America came from West Africa.9 Today Timbuktu is struggling to dig itself out of poverty and the econom- ic, political, social and cultural ravages left from the centuries of invasion, occupation, theft and dev- astation under the rule of Moroccans and Europeans. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is the millions of ancient manuscripts of science and art that Africans managed to hide, though most are yet to be translated to re-define the history of the world.

For years, rumors had led many Arab and European leaders and explorers to believe that Timbuktu specifically and West Africa in general had streets lined with gold.  The Songhai Empire was initially invaded by the Moroccans under the leadership of Al Mansur for gold and slave labor in 1591 A.D. However, it was the leadership of Pasha Mahmud Ibn Zarqun that sacked the city, plundered the wealth, burned the libraries, and put to death many scholars who resisted. In 1593 Ahmed Baba and 75 scholars, philosophers, and other intelligentsia were arrested and taken as prisoners over the Sahara Desert in chains to Fez and Marrakech.

 

They were freed in 1593 but not allowed to leave Morocco. Interestingly, more women were taken as cap- tives than men. Ahmed Baba spent 14 years in Morocco from 1593 to 1607 on charges of sedition. He wrote extensively while he was in exile, including his famous biography of Muhammad Abd al-Karim al Maghili, a scholar and jurist responsible for much of the traditional religious law throughout the area. The biography was translated by M.A. Cherbonneau in 1855. It became the principal text for the study of legal history throughout West Africa for centuries to come. He insisted to his captors to be known as Ahmed Baba Es Sudane. Finally, he was set free, after he and other scholars wrote appeals for his release and return to his native home in Timbuktu.

The European invasion was led in sequence by the Portuguese, the Spanish and then the French, all for gold, spices and other riches and finally for slave labor.  Prior to the Western world’s “Berlin Conference,” (dividing the African Continent among themselves, in November 1873 – February 1874), West Africa was virtually under the control of one individual. The Timbuktu Empire was geographically larger than the Roman Empire. The Empire included the lands now called Mali (the heart of Timbuktu), Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Northern Nigeria and Niger. Gold, art and manuscripts were the first treasures the Europe- ans stole. They rationalized their actions on the ground of cultural and racial superiority. After the European takeover of North and South America, there was a need for labor, and West Africa in particular and Africa in general were further exploited for free labor.   Ayub S. Haroun, a Ghanian historian, said that 2/3 of the slaves sent to America came from West Africa. Today Timbuktu is struggling to dig itself out of poverty and the economic, political, social and cultural ravages left from the centuries of invasion, occupation, theft and devastation under the rule of Moroccans and Europeans. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is the millions of ancient manuscripts of science and art that Africans managed to hide, though most are yet to be translated to re-define the history of the world.

He wrote extensively while he was in exile, including his famous biography of Muhammad Abd al-Karim al Maghili, a scholar and jurist responsible for much of the traditional religious law throughout the area. The biography was translated by M.A. Cherbonneau in 1855. It became the principal text for the study of legal history throughout West Africa for centuries to come. He insisted to his captors to be known as Ahmed Baba Es Sudane. Finally, he was set free, after he and other scholars wrote appeals for his release and return to his native home in Timbuktu.

 

 

  1. Bivar,A. D. H.; Hiskett, M. “The Arabic Literature of Nigeria to 1804: A Provisional Account” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 25, No 1/3. (1962), 104-148),
  2. Curtis Abraham, “Stars of the Sahara,” New Scientists, August 18, 2007, p.
  3. Abdullah Hakim Quick. “Timbuktu: Journey To The Empire of Knowledge,” DVD, Interviews in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa.
  4. Abdel Kader Haidara, Executive President, Mamma Haidara Library of Manuscripts, interview at Jackson State University; Islamic West Africa’s Legacy of Literacy and Music to America and the World; National Conferences in Jackson, Mississippi, February 19-22, 2011.
  5. Galbraith Welch. The Unveiling of Timbuktu, Carroll and Graf Publishers, In New York, New York 1939, p. 254.
  6. Timbuktu Educational Foundation, General History of Africa, pp. 197-200 vol. iv. UNESCO Alameda,

 

  1. J. De Blij and Peter O. Muller, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997, P. 340.

 

  1. Richard Gray, ed. The Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge, 2003) pp. 142-160.

 

  1. Ayub S. Haroun, “Road and Kingdoms,” Bait Cal World Wide DVD – 8 Centuries in America,
  2. Bivar,A. D. H.; Hiskett, M. “The Arabic Literature of Nigeria to 1804: A Provisional Account” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 25, No 1/3. (1962), 104-148), 109.
  3. Curtis Abraham, “Stars of the Sahara,” New Scientists, August 18, 2007, p. 38.
  4. Abdullah Hakim Quick. “Timbuktu: Journey To The Empire of Knowledge,” DVD, Interviews in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa.
  5. Abdel Kader Haidara, Executive President, Mamma Haidara Library of Manuscripts, interview at Jackson State University; Islamic West Africa’s Legacy of Literacy and Music to America and the World; National Conferences in Jackson, Mississippi, February 19-22, 2011.
  6. Galbraith Welch. The Unveiling of Timbuktu, Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc. New York, New York 1939, p. 254.
  7. Timbuktu Educational Foundation, General History of Africa, pp. 197-200 vol. iv. UNESCO Alameda, California.
  8. J. De Blij and Peter O. Muller, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997, P. 340
  9. Richard Gray, ed. The Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge, 2003) pp. 142-160.
  10. Ayub S. Haroun, “Road and Kingdoms,” Bait Cal World Wide DVD – 8 Centuries in America, 2010