The people of Africa and the Arab Maghreb do not have to travel to the Arabian Peninsula to absorb the sciences of Sharia and Islamic jurisprudence. They themselves were the first to establish a university for Islamic jurisprudential sciences — Zaytuna University.
In the middle of the Tunisian capital is a large architectural edifice that covers an area of 5,000 square meters [53,819 square feet]. It is the site of the Mamour Zaytuna Mosque, built in 79 A.H. (698 A.D.). Over successive historical periods — stretching more than 13 centuries — the Mamour Mosque has preserved its scholarly value and importance. It has graduated many luminaries of Islamic thought.
To this day, residents of the capital Tunis wake up to the sound coming from the minaret of the Zaytuna Mosque, which was the second mosque built in North Africa. The first, the Uqba Mosque, was built by Uqba Ibn Nafaa in the city of Kairouan, also in Tunisia.
The Zaytuna Mosque is distinguished by a unique architectural style, compared to the basic architecture and engineering that is characteristic of a number of important mosques built in the first century of Islam. The fine detail in the dome of the mosque's mihrab (prayer niche) is one of its most important features. The three-story high niche is adorned with intricate designs, demonstrating the extent of interest the Wali of Africa, Abullah Ibn Habhab, showed for this landmark of great scholarly importance. Construction of the mosque was completed under Habhab in 116 A.H. (734 A.D.).
Since its early years, the mosque has played a prominent scholarly role, attracting students of religious sciences. It has produced a significant number of luminaries of Islamic thought, including Imam Sahnun al-Tanukhi, who wrote Al-Mudawwana, a compendium of legal opinions organizing the Maliki school of jurisprudence; Imam Mohammed Ibn Urfa al-Tunisi; and Ibn Khaldun, known for his role in the establishment of sociology in human history. It also educated the "reformist" sheikhs such as Imam al-Taher Ben Achour, who interpreted the Quran in a nearly 30-volume text that is considered one of the most important modern Quranic interpretations. Through this work, he tried to enlighten the Islamic mind and take [Islamic society] out of tradition and repetition. Imam Ben Achour was also one of a handful of Islamic scholars from the Zaytuna Mosque who contributed in developing Tunisia's Personal Status Code after the country achieved independence in 1956. This code imposed a system of monogamy and forbid men from taking multiple wives.
Ghufran al-Husayeni, a journalist and researcher in Islamic civilizations, told As-Safir, "The Zaytuna Mosque played the same role as the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. The latter represented the intellectual center of Ismaili doctrine in the Fatimid dynasty [before converting to Shafiite Sunni Islam in the 12th century]. Similarly, the Zaytuna Mosque contributed to spreading the Maliki doctrine in North Africa." Husayeni added, "The Zaytuna Mosque was a beacon of scholarship in the Arab Maghreb, and its reverberations reached Andalusia. It is historically well-known that the Maliki doctrine spread from this region of the Islamic world via the Zaytuna Mosque — along with the Kairouan mosque. This was carried out through the great roles undertaken by scholars such as Ali Ibn Ziyad, Assad Ibn al-Furat, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Urfa and Ben Achour."
Furthermore, the Zaytuna Mosque was not far removed from the resistance to French colonization in Tunisia and served as an incubator for the nationalist movement. Regarding this point, Husayeni said, "The first union work in the country was carried out with the participation of elders from the Zaytuna Mosque, including Sheikh al-Qadi and Sheikh Salah al-Nayfez. In 1933, they called for establishing a union for Zaytuna religious scholars, something the French resident-general at the time rejected. The latter dissolved the union less than a week after it was founded."
Husayeni noted, "The Zaytuna Mosque also had political influence on the path to independence. It absorbed most of the intellectual elite at the time." He added, "The national movement was launched from the mosque, through the founding of the Muslim Young Men Association and the Muslim Girls Association, at the hands of Sheikh Mohammed Salaf al-Nayfez. These associations had a cultural role — through [establishing] the Islamic Tunisian identity — as well as a political role, since they served as a form of support for the national liberation movement."
Finally, it is worth noting that the Zaytuna Mosque has not been isolated from social life in the country. It was and still is a place for concluding contracts and agreements. To this day, Tunisians still head to the mosque to sign marriage contracts, and worshippers gather in its halls to perform evening prayers during the month of Ramadan. The mosque also serves as a place to celebrate religious holidays, such as Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and al-Mawled al-Nabawi [the Prophet Muhammad's birthday]. During these holidays, food is distributed to the poor and the mosque collects alms to give to those in need.
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