Ode to Ahmad Baba Al-Massufi

Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Ahmad al-Takruri Al-Massufi al-Timbukti, otherwise commonly known as Ahmad Baba for short, was a well-known teacher, professor, philosopher, Arabic grammarian and an author of over forty books and various works.

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Note of the Editor

Ahmad Baba's work ranged from biographies to commentaries[1] - and he was one of the most celebrated professors. He was also the last Chancellor at the University of Sankore, Timbuktu. The University of Sankore has been compared to other higher education universities during Muslim civilisation such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, Al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco and Qurtuba University in Spain. It is also said to be a source of pride amongst African-Caribbean communities worldwide as it was a great intellectual institution dating back to civilisations in Mali, Ghana and Songhai particularly during the 12th to 16th centuries[2]. Ahmad Baba (also spelled as Ahmed Baba or Ahmet Baba), like many scholars, naturally spent much of his time reading as he did writing and his personal library consisted of over 1,600 different volumes[1].

Natty Mark Samuels is the founder of African School, a Cultural Education project based in Oxford. This initiative provides teaching in African Studies with a focus on pre-colonial sub-Saharan cultures and early Black journalism. It is working towards developing specialisms in medieval Ethiopian Christianity and sub-Saharan Islamic scholarship. Natty Mark is also a Visiting Tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford and at Oxford Spires and Isis Academies. In honour of the memory of Ahmad Baba and recognition of his works, Natty dedicated the following poem.

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~ I ~
 

1st voice

Here comes the sand

To cover everything -

Camouflaging.

But before it does, 

I honour an African Teacher,

Of Ahmed Baba I must sing.
 

2nd voice

We know you are coming Sahara
 

 Voices

Desertification
 

2nd voice

We know you are coming
 

Voices

Manuscript destruction

Hold off for a while

Until we've finished this recording
 

3rd voice

Beautiful calligraphy,

Illustrations in gold -

Lovingly bound in leather.

  Termite is no respecter of beauty,

He just comes along,

Always claiming his booty.
 

2nd voice

Because of insect, heat,

Dust and grit -

A very precious thing,

Is disappearing bit by bit.
 

1st voice

To sing of African treasure,

Lost in the sand.

So fragile and brittle,

The careful human hand.
 

Voices

Stay away Sahara,

We pray you stay away,

For just a little longer.
 

1st voice

To sing of the African gems,

Song of the shinning scholar.

Tell the whole wide world,

Of gold that came from paper.
 

2nd voice

His father was a teacher,

Destined to be one too.

The most famous professor,

University of Timbuktu.
 

1st voice

And though the sand 

Keeps coming in,

Choking,

Burying.

And though the sandstorm,

Throw his weight around.

It can't stop me!

Of teacher Baba I must sing.
 

Voices

Sankore Sankore,

Bless your name Sankore.

We sing of Ahmed Baba,

The last great Chancellor.
 

~ II ~
 

1st voice

Timbuktu,

Where the slaves came through -

Gold and salt too.

Timbuktu

Of the Tuareg,

Turban indigo blue.
 

2nd voice

Timbuktu 

Of Fulani -

And Hausa merchant crew.

A golden age of peace;

For Christian, Muslim

And Jew
 

3rd voice

Timbuktu

Of schools and scholars,

Manuscripts and books.

The sweet pursuit of learning,

In every library,

Space and nook.
 

Voices

From all over the world,

Books innumerable -

The city of the libraries
 

1st voice

Binding

2nd voice

Inkmaking

3rd voice

Copying

1st voice

Illustration
 

Voices

Massive book industry,

Employing thousands -

Skills that gave them dignity.
 

2nd voice

Books,

Multitude of books -

More than the eye will ever see.

Library after library;

Sankore,

Sidi Yahya,

Jjingereber;

Timbuktu University.
 

3rd voice

Who was Ahmed Baba's teacher?

Who started that river flow?
 

1st voice

From Jenne on the Niger,

The renowned Mohammed Bagayogo.
 

2nd voice

In his time of hajj,

They gave him a badge.

Honorary degree,

Ancient Egypt.

Old Cairo -

Al Azhar University.
 

1st voice

Because of word passed down,

Because of manuscript,

We know his contribution.

Of that we know.

In singing of Ahmed Baba,

We honour Mohammed Bagayogo.
 

1st voice

Both wrote books on Medicine and History

Voices

16th century

2nd voice

On Law and Philosophy

Voices

16th century

3rd voice

Mathematics and Astronomy

Voices

16th century

1st voice

Signposts for you and me

Voices

21st century
 

Voices

Sankore Sankore,

Bless your name Sankore.

We sing of Ahmed Baba,

The last great Chancellor.
 

~ III ~
 

1st voice

Here comes the invader,

With European partner -

Cannon and musketry. 

Burnt the books,

Banished the teachers -

The Songhei Tragedy.
 

2nd voice

Marrakesh Men,

Didn't come on their own -

Came with mercenary.

Came from Spain

In their thousands -

The latest weaponry.
 

3rd voice

All the libraries,

Public and private,

Put to the torch or robbed.

The student howled,

Bookbinder wept,

Professor began to sob.

Wave of invasion,

Rage of destruction,

When ignorance is rife.

The scribe became ill,

Illustrator broke down,

The inkmaker took his life.
 

1st voice

Battering of beauty,

Crucifixion of culture -

The nail goes in and in.

The elder screams,

''Timbuktu''
 

Voices

My Timbuktu is dying.
 

1st voice

Teachers of Timbuktu,

The Chain-gang Professors.

Exile of the Educator,

Away across the Sahara.
 

Voices

Across the Sahara,

Across the desert in chains.
 

1st voice

Robbed a piece of our soul,

Took the best of our brains.
 

Voices

Across the Sahara, 

Across the desert in chains.
 

3rd voice

Accused of rebellion,

Ahmed Baba in chains.

Time for everything they say -

A time for pain
 

2nd voice

Locked in Moroccan prison,

But his light shone out.

Here comes Marrakesh scholar,

Ahmed Baba's name they shout.
 

1st voice

Captive of the Sultan,

Open arrest in Marrakesh.

Living the same old vision,

Time to dream afresh.
 

2nd voice

Students galore, 

No room for anymore.

The legal men came too,

Asking questions of the law.
 

3rd voice

Slow trudge of exile,

Year after year after year.

Ahmed Baba in his house,

Shedding the quiet tear.
 

Voices

Sankore Sankore,

Bless your name Sankore.

We sing of Ahmed Baba,

The last great Chancellor.
 

~ IV ~

1st voice

The old Sultan died,

Another stepped in.

Ahmed Baba went to see him -

Man of successful petition.
 

3rd voice

After 12 years,

Going home,

Teardrop for Timbuktu.

To see beloved city,

Familiar faces -

The elders and the new.
 

2nd voice

A city changed,

No longer at its best,

Beauty in decline.

Our hero wept,

To see Timbuktu,

No longer able to shine.
 

1st voice

Dry

2nd voice

Wasteland

3rd voice

Where are the farmers?

Voices

Gone to another place.

3rd voice

Dry

2nd voice

Where are the teachers?

 

Voices

Gone to another place.

Lovers of light and wisdom,

They ran to freedom's embrace.
 

3rd voice

Invasions means disruption,

Means economic confusion,

Tribal rivalry.
 

1st voice

Here comes Tuareg

2nd voice

Here comes Bambara

3rd voice

Here come the Mossi
 

2nd voice

Born to teach,

Born to write.

Timbuktu dark

Or Timbuktu light.

Ahmed Baba,

Born to teach and write.
 

Ahmed  Baba

Farewell Golden Age. I'm glad I knew you. Glad I participated in your shining. I bask in your reflection. Warmed by your brilliance. And although I no longer have my library, I bear the imprint, the hallmark of learning. It has been a privilege, blessed Timbuktu, to have been a teacher within you.
 

1st voice

Ring the bell of learning,

Loudly let it ring.

  To celebrate a great teacher,

Of Ahmed Baba I must sing.
 

Voices

Stay away Sahara,

We pray you stay away,

For just a little longer.
 

Voices

Sankore Sankore,

Bless your name Sankore.

We sing of Ahmed Baba,

The last great Chancellor.

 


Muslim Heritage: The University of Sankore
Image: 
Sankore Mosque that houses the University Campus in Mali. 

 

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Muslim Heritage: Lecture on Timbuktu Manuscripts at Al-Furqan Foundation

 

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Muslim Heritage: Black History Month: African contributions to Muslim Civilisation

 

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theguardian.com"A worker stands over examples of ancient Islamic manuscripts at Ahmed Baba Library in Timbuktu, Mali - Ben Curtis/AP"

 

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Google MapsAhmad Baba House and Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba

 

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BBC.co.uk"The most important collection belonged to the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research which moved to this new building in 2009..."

 

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The knowledge city of Timbuktu is now located in Mali

 

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onislam.net: "There is limited information about Ahmad Baba in libraries partially due to the fact that his recordings were lost along the way after his death."

 

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everythingspossible.files.wordpress.com: "Ahmad Baba al-Massufi, Ahmed Baba Es Sudane, or Ahmed Baba, the black (1556–1627), was a medieval West African writer..."

 

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wikipedia.org: "The Ahmed Baba Institute, officially the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research..."

 

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willdoherty.org: "A Day in Timbuktu: Ahmed Baba Institute and Another Manuscript Library"

 

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BBC.co.uk: "The main collection in the city - with more than 40,000 items, some of them dating from as early as the 10th Century - is held at the Ahmed Baba Institute of High Studies and Islamic Research"

 

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a-w.co.za: "Ahmed Baba Centre, Timbuktu, Mali"

 

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nytimes.com"Abdoulaye Cissé of the Ahmed Baba Institute with a manuscript..."

 

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ismailimail.wordpress.com: His Highness the Aga Khan (centre) and Prime Minister Ahmed Mohamed Ag Hamani (right) examining ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, Mali. – Photo AKDNGary Otte

 

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africultures.com: "Manuscrits conservés dans le centre Ahmed Baba. © Christelle Marot"

 

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tombouctoumanuscripts.org: "Institut des hautes études et de recherche islamique Ahmed Baba de Tombouctou : En Attendant Le Retour Au Bercail"

 

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larepubliquedespyrenees.fr: "Des pages des manuscrits de Tombouctou sont numérisées le 28 janvier 2015 à l'Institut Ahmed Baba de Bamako (AFP - Sebastien Rieussec)"

 

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buryingbooks.wordpress.com: "The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research in Timbuktu holds tens of thousands of historic manuscripts dating back to the late 13th Century, from the period when Timbuktu was a major trading settlement and centre of scholarship."

 

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theguardian.com/cities: Timbuktu's Djinguereber mosque: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 5

 

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Muslim Heritage Facebook: Great Mosque of Djenné dates back to 13th century

 

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wikipedia.org: Timbuktu Manuscripts or (Tombouctou Manuscripts) is a blanket term for the large number of historically important manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries in private households inTimbuktu, Mali.

 

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Muslim Heritage Facebook: Al-Wangari library in Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

 

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Muslim Heritage Facebook: This painting is by Oxford artist Christine Chambers, it depicts a Hausa man, refer to al-Kishnawi from Katsina

    Poem by Natty Mark Samuels

 


[1Effiong, P. (2013). Ahmed Baba: Malian Scholar. [Online]. Available: http://www.philip-effiong.com/Ahmed-Baba-Scholar.pdf [2015, 20 May]

[2Khair, Z. (2003). The University of Sankore. [Online]. Available: http://muslimheritage.com/node/1792 [2015, 20 May]

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