Kairouan Capital of Political Power and Learning in the Ifriqiya
FSTC Research Team*
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Table of contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Foundation and Expansion of the City
- 3. The Mosque of ‘Uqba
- 4. Intellectual Life
- 5. Ibn Abī Zayd al- Qayrawānī
- 6. Medical Studies
- 6.1. Constantine the African
- 6.2. Ibn al-Jazzar
- 7. Decline of Kairouan
Note of the editor
This article was published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in December 2002. It is republished with revisions and new illustrations. Copyright: © FSTC Limited, 2002-2010. We dedicate it to the memory of the late Dr Najwa Othman from Aleppo (1954-2009), who was an historian, architect and civil engineer. She wrote a book on The Mosques of Kairouan in Arabic for the production of which spent a long time in the ancient capital of Ifriqiya. The book was published as Masajid al-Qirawan (Damascus, 2002). Dr Najwa Othman is the author of the following article published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in 23 June, 2005: Islamic Citadel in Busra.***
Kairouan, known also as Al-Qayrawan, Qairawan and Kairwan, flourished under the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century. Despite the transfer of the political capital to Tunis in the 12th century, it remained the Maghrib's principal holy city, with a rich architectural heritage and a thriving tradition of learning.
Situated in north-west Tunisia, the city is now the capital of the Kairouan Governorate. For a long period, it functioned as the capital of the province of Ifriqiya (roughly equivalent to modern Tunisia) during the early Islamic period. Kairouan was founded in 670 by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi', the Arab general in command of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiya. Its original name was derived from Arabic kairuwân, which is in turn derived from the Persian Kâravân, meaning "military/civilian camp" or "resting place". After its establishment in the 7th century, Kairouan became an important center for Islamic learning, and thus attracted a large number of students and scholars from various parts of the world.
Kairouan lies 112 miles south of Tunis and 40 miles west of Susa, and is 250 feet above sea level in the middle of a great plain traversed by the Wadi Zarud and the Wadi Merguellil, both of which ultimately disappear into a salt lake. These rivers are subject to sudden floods, which sometimes turn the environs of the city into a lake, and when the rains have been sufficiently abundant, the soil yields a rich harvest. The Andalusian geographer Al-Bakri (1014–1094) tells how in the western part the grain sown sometimes yields a hundredfold .
Figure 1: Page from a Manuscript of the Qur'an, probably from Kairouan, dating from the early 10th century. The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Source).
The testimony about Kairouan by the geographer Al-Idrisi is quite edifying as to the perception Islamic medieval scholars had of it. He said: "Kairouan is mother of cities and capital of the land, it is the greatest city in the Islamic West, the most populated, prosperous and thriving with the most perfect buildings" .
Al-Idrisi's eulogy for Kairouan testifies to the special status of the city. Out of nothing, from the sand and bareness of pre-Islamic times, Kairouan rose as one of the most vibrant centres of civilisation of the Middle Ages. The city was not only a capital of political power, but a dynamic site of learning whose influence covered North Africa and the Western Mediterranean region. However, unlike other cities in the region, such as Fes in Morocco, the prosperity of Kairouan knew a progressive decline from the 11th century after the intervention of the Banu Hilal.
2. Foundation and Expansion of the City
The year 670 CE is the symbolic year of the foundation of Kairouan. Before to this date, the Muslim armies had already defeated the Byzantines gathered around the Patriarch Gregory at Sbeitla and as a result secured a powerful Muslim presence in the region . The first foundations of the city were laid by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi'. He first built a mosque, the palace of government, then houses for his soldiers as well as a wall 2750 yards long. Kairouan became the capital of Muslim Africa, known as Ifriqiya, and the residence of the Muslim governors .
The Muslim army penetrated the Maghrib by the region of Qastiliya, from where they attempted to reach the centre and the north, avoiding the coastal route and the shore on the east, which was dangerous for conquering forces, and the mountains on the west, which were well suited for ambushes and surprise attacks. By choosing this route, the Muslim soldiers had no alternative but to use the corridor which ended naturally in the region of Qammūniya, not far from where Kairouan would be founded. This town, which was first of all a military base, owed its origin to the strategy dictated by the relief of the country and from the fighting tactics of the Arab conquering army. Traditionally, the foundation of Kairouan is attributed to ‘Uqba b. Nāfi', but in fact it took place in stages and several military leaders contributed to it.
The battle of Sufetula (27 H/647-8) had practically delivered Byzacena (the region of modern Sousse) to ‘Abd Allāh b. Sa'd b. abī Sarh, the Byzantines being driven back behind their second line of fortification. It is neither impossible nor improbable that the conquerors pushed their raids on this occasion right into the region of Kairouan. The historian Ibn Nājī al-Tanukhi (d. after 839 H/1435) points out that at Kairouan there is a mosque dedicated to Ibn abī Sarh which in some way commemor
by: FSTC Research Team<, Fri 29 January, 2010