The Role of Mathematics in the Peace (and Manuscripts) of Timbuktu

The Timbuktu scholars solved important questions and equations


This manuscript excerpt concerns the practical aspects of mathematics. The calculation of inheritance according to Islamic law makes up a large part of the mathematics manuscripts found in the West African region.

A mathematician seated at a table, working on mathematical equations, from a portfolio of prints of the Imperial Gallery of Paintings in Vienna; plate 34 of the series (1728) by Jusepe de Ribera (called Lo Spagnoletto)|Anton Joseph von PrennerThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is worth remembering, however, that a more abstract tradition developed in the Islamic world with the invention of algebra.

B-reel animationSAVAMA-DCI

The use of arithmetic in Timbuktu for centuries made it easier to calculate the proportions of the share of inheritance within families. This explains the upholding of tranquility and stability within families and in Timbuktu society as a whole.


The sciences of succession and arithmetic

“The purpose is to illustrate certain important arithmetic questions. Theoretically, this involves performing addition and subtraction.

The operation consists of removing some numbers and replacing them with others; in other words, it is about addition and subtraction.

Some say arithmetic was invented by the inhabitants of the city of Homs and the city of Seville, given their practice of maritime trade.


Remember that arithmetic is of undeniably great use, except in the eyes of people who live in the darkness of ignorance. It is like the rank of a great judge, an adviser who is called upon to solve important questions and equations.

It is the final recourse and has no recourse to others. The clarification of rights and its application are its responsibility.

It is the means to distinguish Islamic laws from jurisprudential problems of worship and many more, such as chronology, days of menstruation and purification,

the threshold of alms and their due part, deeds of advance transactions, association in livestock rearing, monetary affairs, and agriculture... not to mention credits owed to creditors and inheritance."

Manuscrit d'astronomie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Arithmetic, an interdisciplinary science, has been used by Timbuktu’s ulamas in the fields of astronomy, astrology, and mathematics for centuries.

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