Timbuktu: A Legacy of Knowledge, Dignity and Wealth from West Africa to America in the 11th to the 18th Century
Muhsin Shaheed

When Timbuktu is mentioned, it is not unusual to hear, “What is Timbuktu?” The history of Timbuktu stretches over 8 centuries, from the 11th to the 19th. In this article, I will present some well-established facts regard-ing Timbuktu, a historic city and region in West Africa. After Makkah (Mecca), home town of the Prophet Muham-mad (Peace and Blessing Be Upon Him [PBUH]), Africa was the first continent where Muslims lived. In 615 C.E., af-ter their exile or flight from Makkah to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) during the lifetime of the Prophet, the Christian King Ne-gus Al-Asham (Ahmed Al–Najashi) gave asylum to the early Muslims fleeing the Quraysh tribe. King Negus later con-verted to Islam; he was the first king to embrace the religion of Islam (Ref-1) which began spreading westward.

In the late 1100s a trading post was established in West Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert by Tuareg nomads. They built it near a water well belonging to a woman named Bouctou, and eventually the com-munity that built up around there got the name Timbuktu. From there caravans crossed the desert to Sijilmasa, Mo-rocco, at the northern edge of the Sahara. The most valuable trade was salt from the Mediterranean shores in ex-change for gold from West Africa(Ref-2). Timbuktu came to export more gold than any other place in the world.

Scholars, jurists, and other scientists in Timbuktu and elsewhere in West Africa made important contributions in the natural sciences, social sciences, medicine, mathematics, geography, good governance, law, equal rights for male and female, religious tolerance, conflict resolution and creating a culture of peace, just to name a few areas. International scholars have begun to translate from Arabic to English the 800,000 to 1,000,000 manuscripts in Mali (the country where Timbuktu is located today) alone; there are an estimated 10,000,000 in all of West Africa. The translation of the ancient manuscripts so far has revealed that Timbuktu was a highly sophisticated, literate society. There were over 12,000 scholars in over 125 schools. The city flourished with prosperity, peace, security and knowledge as well as across tribal and religious differences. The skill of book binding along with writing and purchasing books were the number one source of income. Scholars and students came from Asia, Europe and the known world to sit at the feet of the inhabitants of this magnificent society to seek knowledge.

The manuscripts were written by the scholars of Timbuktu. The most recent unveiling of the artifacts, manu-scripts and history in Mali will no doubt shatter the myths that have long dogged the continent as not contributing to the advancement of civilization. A Moroccan diplomat and writer known in Europe as Leo the African who traveled there early in the 16th century gave this description:

“In Timbuktu there are numerous judges, doctors and clerics, all receiving good salaries from the king. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big demand for books in manuscript, imported from Barbary. More profit is made from the book trade than any line of business.” Leo Africanus (Ref-3)

During Mansa Musa’s leadership from 1312 1332, he made the Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1323-24 with 60,000 in his entourage, spending and giving away gold that would amount to over $548 billion in today’s economy.

The period of the Songhai Empire (1465-1591) is considered the Golden Age of Timbuktu. It ended with a crushing defeat by the more modernized Moroccan army. Many scholars were captured and carried back to Mo-rocco, including perhaps the most famous one, Ahmed Baba. By that time European powers were busy colonizing the American continents, and a new African product – people – had become more desirable even than gold. Conser-vative to moderate estimates are that between 12.5 million to 50 million Africans were captured and deported to the Americas during the infamous slave trade (Ref-4) Over 90% of them came from West Africa. Most were Mus-lims, and some were scholars.

Exhibits of selected manuscripts are now being loaned for periods to a few museums outside Mali, includ-ing in the United States. There are plans for them to be on display in Fort Worth during late winter and early spring 2013. The contributions by scholars in Timbuktu and West Africa are generally and uniquely unmatched, with the equality among male and female, good will across tribal and religious lines, and centuries of peace, prosperity and literacy.



1.Saad, Elias N., Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables 1400 – 1900 (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization, (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 1983), 58-59; Africa From the seventh to the Eleventh Century, Ed. I. Hrbek, General History of Africa. III, UNESCO, 1992, chapters 2, 3, 13 and 14.

2.Sodiq, Yushau, PhD, “Timbuktu.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Walter C. Rucker, Leslie Alexander. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. ABC-CLIO eBook Collection. 10 May 2010

3.Jackson, James G., An Account of Tinbuctoo and Housa, Territories in the Interior of Africa, by El HageAbd Salam Shabeeny (London, Longman, Hurst, Rees Sertina, van V., Ph.D., The Golden Age of the Moor, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick USA, 1992.

4.Sertina, Ivan V., Ph.D., The Golden Age of the Moor, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick USA, 1992.,