The Global Context of the Timbuktu Manuscripts

Bridging the gap between the Islamic-world knowledge represented by the ancient manuscripts of Mali, and contemporary Christian perspectives of Europe and the West


Jo Ann Moran Cruz

Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan représentant Kanga Moussa, roi de l'Empire du Mali (1312-1337) sur son trône 1375, BnFSAVAMA-DCI

The Timbuktu manuscripts represent an invaluable body of knowledge from the Islamic world, in which the city of Timbuktu was a in important scholarly hub. From medicine and astronomy to human rights and governance, the range of subjects covered in the manuscripts offer experts deeper understanding of the erudite Islamic tradition in which they were produced.

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It is particularly interesting to consider how the Islamic perspectives presented  on the following topics in the West African Timbuktu manuscripts compare to the worldviews of similar time periods in Christian and European parts of the world. 

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Good Governance and Mirrors of Princes

Mirrors of Princes literature, broadly understood as educative and encouraging moral and effective rulership, incorporates many genres and is fundamentally intended as advice on ruling; the literature often includes portraits of exemplary rulers.

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The heyday of Mirrors of Princes writing in Europe was from the sixth to the seventeenth centuries, and in the Islamic world from the eighth through to the nineteenth century.  While European writers of Mirrors of Princes literature gradually moved away from religious perspectives, the religious perspective remained within these forms of Islamic texts, as is the case in the Timbuktu manuscripts.

Quran manuscript close upSAVAMA-DCI

Slavery and Human Rights

Similarities can be drawn between Muslim views against slavery expressed in seventeenth century Timbuktu manuscripts by scholars such as Ahmad Baba, and Christian canon law, which instructs Christians not to enslave non-Christians who were under the protection of Christian states. However, the responses of Ahmad Baba include an additional clause not found in the Christian texts against enslaving non-Muslims (or in the case of Christians, non-Christians) who were allies.

Ancient Benin Kingdom by D. O. DapperThe Centenary Project

For Christians, it was considered permissible, for many centuries, to enslave those captured in battle or existing in an antagonistic relationship with a Christian power. It was not until the abolitionist debate in the United States and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century that there was an outburst of anti-slavery literature in the Christian world.  

Manuscrit de ‘Abdullah b. Muhammad b. ‘Usman b. Fudio (XIXe siècle)SAVAMA-DCI

Meanwhile, following his predecessors in the Islamic tradition, Abdullah b. Fudio argued at the turn of the nineteenth century in favour of attending to all humans and human needs for intellectual and physical flourishing. 

La mosquée Sankoré à Tombouctou by © El Hadj DjitteyeSAVAMA-DCI

Education and Women's Rights

The Mosque and University of Sankoré in Timbuktu is the oldest continuously-operating institution of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa. The mosque may have been established at Timbuktu as early as 989 by the Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar, and the university was flourishing by c.1100. Few know about Sankoré, although the library at Timbuktu, originally associated with the university, is famous.

Oxford University (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

European universities followed close behind, with a university at Bologna operating by the end of the eleventh century. Paris and Oxford, the two most famous early universities in Europe, were not developed until the twelfth century.

Old Photograph of Sankore mosque in TimbuktuSAVAMA-DCI

Women were important patrons of these institutions; the History of Soudan text by Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi (c. 1629) reports that an anonymous but wealthy Mandinka woman made a benefaction to Sankoré.

Manuscrit de ‘Abdullah b. Muhammad b. ‘Usman b. Fudio (XIXe siècle)SAVAMA-DCI

Both Paris and Oxford also benefitted from female benefactors, despite the fact that women were not allowed to attend. Meanwhile, unlike the statements written by Abdullah Dan Fodio (d. 1829) that education should be open to both boys and girls, women in Europe were generally not considered the intellectual equal of men.

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Some documents in the manuscript collection speak to the Qadi, whose role as a local or provincial notary, judge, religious overseer and magistrate (the functions often shifted from country to country and time to time) was to render justice according to Islamic and customary law and, if possible, to conciliate parties to a disagreement.

The Hearing of Qadi (1746–47) by Claude Augustin Duflos le Jeune|François BoucherThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qadis are characteristic legal officials in all Islamic lands.  Western traditions have no clear parallel to the position of Qadi, although a local municipal judge or a circuit judge fulfills some of the same functions based on state and local laws, without reference, however, to a religious legal tradition.

Manuscrit Muhammad al-Mustapha b. ‘Abd al-Rahman connu sous le nom d’Ibn Zarfat (1800)SAVAMA-DCI

Ethics and Religious Tolerance

Timbuktu was known as part of an empire in which religious toleration was practiced, a practice that would have been enforced by the qadis. Uthman b. Mohammed. B ‘Uthman b Fudio (1754-1817), founder of the Islamic state of Sokoto, advocated personal ethical principles of patience, affection toward the people, toleration, respect, affability and courtesy, grounded in Islam.

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He was a near contemporary of Voltaire, who, as a famous activist, was writing urgently in the 1760s promoting religious toleration in France for non-Catholics. Voltaire arrived at his position of tolerance and respect from an anti-religious perspective. Religious tolerance in Europe was first advocated in the sixteenth century by the Anabaptists.



The study of Mathematics, in the Islamic context, was deeply rooted in earlier Greek and Indian sciences. Until about 1300, medieval Europe depended upon Roman numerals (which are cumbersome even to add and subtract) and the abacus.

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In the early thirteenth century, Leonardo Fibonacci introduced Arabic-Hindu numerals to western Europe based on his experiences with Mediterranean merchants and especially his education in north Africa.  It was not until the fourteenth century, however, that Arabic/Hindu 
numerals began to be used throughout Europe.  


Algebra was also introduced into Europe through Arabic sources, although the roots go back to Babylonian, Greek, Indian, Hellenistic and Persian writers.  It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that Algebra, already well known in the Islamic world, was more fully taken up by European thinkers.

Top Afri (W) French Soudan (Mali) TimbuctooLIFE Photo Collection

As was the case in Timbuktu, arithmetic was used by European merchants in maritime trade and with regard to agriculture, banking and monetary affairs. It was also the focus of religious authorities, who had to calculate the festal seasons and religious rituals. 

Manuscrit d'astronomie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Astronomy was an important study for religious authorities in both Islamic and Christian cultures where its calculations were used to construct calendars and chronologies. Astronomy and astrology were ancient forms of knowledge practiced in both the Islamic and in the European Christian context from late Roman times.


In Europe, until the fourteenth century, the study of astronomy was based on Arabic materials from the Maghreb and Iberia. Islamic study of astronomy was notably international, gathering astronomical information from Byzantine, Persian, Jewish, Muslim, Syrian and Zoroastrian sources, while medieval Europe depended on the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which was rarely challenged.

Seconda parte del disegno raffigurante la costellazione delle Pleiadi, come vista da Galileo con il telescopio by Galilei, Galileo 1564-1642Museo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

A further difference between the two traditions was the practise of observing the stars. Medieval Islamic treatises on astronomy and astronomical calculations arose from multiple observations of the heavens, while European astronomers began to build observatories in the sixteenth century.

Saturno, Giove, Marte e Venere con le proprie fasi by Galilei, Galileo 1564-1642Museo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Another difference is found in the study of various types of eclipses. One Timbuktu manuscript, a copy of a fourteenth century commentary on an early twelfth-century poem, mentions eclipses in reference to those of the moon and various planets, while European scholars from early in the Middle Ages focused on eclipses of the moon and the sun.

MS 36186 P014 MH (1800/1825)SAVAMA-DCI


An observational tradition was characteristic of Arabic medicine and survived in Islamic lands to the present; for example, one late seventeenth-century treatise on the marvels of general medicine focuses on the observation of a patient’s urine. The observation of urine was central to the diagnosis of disease. In medieval Europe that image of the urine flask became the universal symbol for European physicians.

MS 05839 P012-013 MHSAVAMA-DCI

Europeans, beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries gained much of their medical knowledge through Arabic writers whose works were translated into Latin. From the Arabic texts, medieval and early modern Europeans gathered medical knowledge, much of which was empirical, practical and clinically oriented.


The Arabic treatises emphasized attention to diet and the environment. This text, written by Abdullah b. Fudio at the turn of the nineteenth century, emphasizes the need for a doctor to interrogate the physical state of a patient: the humors, the environment, one’s eating habits and prior medical issues. 

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European-trained doctors and medical practitioners combined empirical observations with the learned traditions of Galen, Hippocrates and Aristotle, with perhaps less attention to the specific symptoms of an individual than was the case in Islamic lands. Both Arabic and European physicians believed in the healthy balance of bodily humors, of which urine and blood were especially critical.


Physicians in both Arabic and European traditions associated astrological calculations with disease. During the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century, many European doctors thought it was caused by astrological alignments; other argued that it spread by pollution of the air or by wells that had been poisoned or was the result of the wrath of God. 

Lisan-ad-Din ibn al-Khatib of Andalusian Spain (d. 1374), however, recognized the infectious nature of the plague by observing that itinerant nomads in North Africa who were relatively isolated were less affected by the plague.

Bot Herb Medical Poisons Mandrake Herb GardenLIFE Photo Collection

Arabic writers on botanical pharmacology contributed significantly to the array of known medicinal plants and to the understanding of compounded medicines; they passed on botanical knowledge from India and China and made a number of original contributions.  This knowledge passed to Europe from the twelfth century forward and well into the early modern period.

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