He may have been a controversial figure due to his legal opinions on slavery.
Ahmed Baba, a prolific writer and Islamic scholar from Timbuktu, wrote in a treatise on slavery that “Muslims could not be held as slaves”, irrespective of their origin and skin color.
But he wasn’t really against slavery as he thought the practice was “legitimate” for non-Muslims at a time when it flourished in Timbuktu.
Despite his controversial views, Baba remains one of the greatest scholars of his days due to his works and the fact that he was able to stand up against the Moroccans who invaded Timbuktu in the latter part of the 16th Century.
Born in 1556 in Arawān, near Timbuktu in Mali, Baba moved to Timbuktu at a very young age and understudied a great scholar called Mohammed Abu Bekr, who would play a huge role in his intellectual activities.
At the time, Timbuktu, which had become part of the Mali Empire in the 14th Century, was an important trading route for the trans-Saharan trade and therefore became a major trading center in gold, salt, ivory, among others. The prosperity of the city endeared it to the world.
Timbuktu became not only a commercial centre of note but a center of learning. Islamic culture and scholars occupied Timbuktu like bees wanting to have a share in the sweetness of Timbuktu’s honey. There were visible citadels of learning in the city including universities and centers of Islamic learning.
Baba taught in some of the city’s popular mosques and became the last Chancellor of the University of Sankore. Sources say the university “enjoyed high prestige as the intellectual center of Africa and the educational capital of western Sudan, which at its height had 25,000 scholars.”
The university offered courses in art, astronomy, music, mathematics, ethnography, medicine and surgery. It also had courses in botany, pharmacology, geometry, geography, chemistry, biology and law.
Baba authored over 40 books on these subjects, particularly on ethnography, theology, biography, and astronomy.
What is even more interesting was that he had a collection of 1,600 books, one of the richest libraries at the time but when the Moroccans attacked Timbuktu in 1592, his library was destroyed.
For strongly protesting the Moroccan invaders, Baba was captured and exiled to Morocco where he stayed for 12 years.
The first time he arrived in Morocco, he was imprisoned and released after a year following a petition from some Arab scholars.
It has been documented that when he was released, “all the believers were greatly pleased with his release, and he was conducted in triumph from prison to the principal mosque of Marrakesh. A great many of the learned men urged him to open a course of instruction.
“His first thought was to refuse, but overcome by their persistence he accepted a post in the Mosque of the Kerifs and taught rhetoric, law, and theology. An extraordinary number of pupils attended his lectures and questions of the gravest importance were submitted to him by the magistracy, his decision always being treated as final.”
Continuing his studies in Morocco, the historian and biographer, who the Moroccans even considered as a “fully-fledged scholar”, was given the chance to meet up with the Sultan of Morocco, Al Mansur.
At the meeting, Baba complained about how he was treated during his arrest and the destruction of his personal library. But Al Mansur was not able to give any favorable reply, so he ended the meeting, according to most accounts.
Baba, despite writing some of his famed works during his exile in Morocco, longed to return home.
He wrote, “O you who go to Gao, do so by way of Timbuktu and murmur my name to my friends. Give them the fragrant greetings of an exile who sighs after the soil where his friends, his family and his neighbors reside.”
After 12 years in exile, Baba returned to Timbuktu in 1608 where he died in 1627.
Decades after his death, his legacy remains alive as the only public library and research center in Timbuktu is named after him.
The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research holds about 20,000 manuscripts covering Mali’s history and other important collections of Islamic scholarly texts.