A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Zaytuna's Old Mosque-School Reopens in Tunis Medina

Zaytuna Mosque (Wikipedia)
This week the ancient mosque-school associated with Tunisia's Zaytuna mosque was reopened, after having been closed by Habib Bourguiba in 1964. Zaytuna, the Great Mosque of Tunis and the second oldest mosque (after Kairouan, also in Tunisia) in the Maghreb, was a great center of learning in the Middle Ages. Its religious university predated Cairo's al-Azhar, and was the preeminent theological and legal school in the Maghreb, a major center for the Maliki school of law. (Zaituna means "olive tree," one reputedly having once been growing in the courtyard.)

In the Bourguiba era the old school associated with the mosque at the heart of the Tunis medina (the old city) was closed and the name Zaytuna transferred to the Shari‘a Law School of the University of Tunis, while the ancient mosque itself remained the religious center of Tunis and Tunisia. Despite a pretense of continuity the modern university bore little resemblance to the ancient school,

Ibn Khaldun at Gateway to Medina
Now, Islamic learning will return to the ancient center in the Medina, apparently both to demonstrate a rejection of the excessive secularism of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras, but also to provide a government-sanctioned traditional Islamic counterpoint to the Islamist and Salafi movements that are growing in strength in Tunisia. More on the story here.

One of Zaytuna's products in the classical age was also perhaps the greatest mind to have been born in the city of Tunis, though later a fixture in many other places: Ibn Khaldun, The great historian (1332-1406) is sometimes acclaimed as the father of sociology, though he's a lot more readable than most later sociologists. Also, in what must be every author's dream of what they'd like to see as a book-jacket blurb, Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, referred to Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima as "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place." (No qualifiers, but what you need to know about the "of its kind" is that Toynbee considered his own book a lot like Ibn Khaldun's.) Appropriately, Ibn Khaldun's statue stands at the gate of the Tunis Medina, just outside of the medina (his birthplace) and the way to Zaytuna. But that statue gives me an idea for my next post . . .

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