Writing and Knowledge in the Medieval Middle East and North Africa

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Title / Content Area:

Writing and Knowledge in the Medieval Middle East and North Africa

Developed by:

Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Grade Level:


Essential Question:

How was scientific and cultural knowledge produced and distributed among the peoples and cultures of Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa?

Contextual Paragraph:

During the period after the rise of Islam until around 1600, the Islamic world developed a literate, scientifically curious, and artistic culture. Much of this culture was built around the Islamic (and Jewish) notion that exploring the intricacies of the world is to better appreciate God’s work in creating it. Many works from ancient Near Eastern cultures were incorporated into the Islamic corpus of knowledge, as were the classics of Roman and Greek literature. This work was translated into Arabic, commented upon, and often referenced in new philosophical and scientific works as scholars tried to prove or disprove various theories. This production was not limited to Muslims; the period between the 10th and 12th centuries in Muslim-ruled Spain is also regarded as one of the two Golden Ages of Jewish thought and cultural production.

Annotated Resource Set (ARS)

Resource Set

School exercise tablet
unknown author
2200–1900 BCE

David ben Yosef Abudarham, Abudarham (Fez, 1516)

This clay tablet from Mesopotamia is written in cuneiform, which is believed to be one of the first two writing systems to have been developed in the world (at least, one of the first two of which we have an archaeological record). Originally believed to be older than the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system, recent discoveries have once again muddied the waters of determining which came first. (It is believed that they arose relatively simultaneously, one having been inspired by the other, but not copied; in other words, the utility of writing was recognized and one culture developed its own system having seen the other in use).

Writing is believed to have grown out of accounting; the earliest clay tablets are itemized records of royal property holdings, contents of the royal granaries, and offerings at the temple.

The first book printed in Africa, this edition of the Abudarham is a reprint of the Lisbon 1489 edition. The Abudarham outlines religious customs and practices according to the Sefardic rite. Morocco had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world at the time, numbering around 300,000.

Printing presses were a subject of controversy in the Islamic world. Although there was never an outright ban on the use of printing presses, scribes and illustrators guilds were influential and were able to convince various sultans and caliphs that using presses to reproduce Islamic works would be sacrilegious (waste generated by the presses during setup that contained God’s name would need to be disposed of according to religious means; that this would also cut significantly into the profits earned by the guilds also played a role). Hence, the first permits to own and operate printing presses were given to Jewish and Christian presses and, correspondingly, the first texts to be printed in the Islamic world were Jewish and Christian holy texts.



Kharidat al-'Aja'ib wa Faridat al-Ghara'ib (The Pearl of Wonders and the Uniqueness of Things Strange)

The Fainting of Majnun and Layla

Creator: 'Umar bin Muzaffar Ibn al-Wardi

This is a map of the world, dating from the 17th century. Properly displayed, it is “upside down” with geographic south at the top of the map.

AT THE CENTER of this map are the two holiest cities of Islam: Mecca and Medina. The map shows China and India in the north and the “Christian sects and the states of Byzantium” in the south. The outer circles represent the seas. The manuscript is a cosmology, not meant to be accurate geographically, but only to present the reader with a systematic overview of the existing knowledge about the world at the time.

Unknown author/calligrapher, 1550-1600. This folio depicts a well-known passage from the tragic story of Laylah and Majnun. Layla and Majnun is the counterpart to Romeo and Juliet in Perso-Arabic culture, being the story of star crossed lovers who can never be together and suffer a tragic end. Forcibly separated by their respective tribes' animosity, forced marriage, and years of exile into the wilderness, these two ill-fated lovers meet again for the last time before their deaths thanks to the intervention of Majnun's elderly messenger. Upon seeing each other in a palm-grove immediately outside of Laylah's camp, they faint of extreme passion and pain. The old man attempts to revive the lovers, while the wild animals protective of Majnun ("The King of Wilderness") attack unwanted intruders.

The enduring impact of the story upon popular culture in the region is also similar to Romeo and Juliet, so much so that a young man who is rebuffed by a woman that he fancies is often teased for being “A Majnun.” (Majnun also means “insane” in Arabic, as the literary Majnun goes insane as a long-term effect of his unrequited love for the woman he cannot have). Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” was inspired by this story.

The location and time of the narrative is hinted at by the two tents dressed in the middleground and the dark nighttime sky in the background. The composition's style and hues are typical of paintings made in the city of Shiraz during the second half of the 16th century. Many manuscripts at this time were produced for the domestic market and international export, rather than by royal commission.



Kashf al-Ghummah fi Nafa al-Ummah (The Important Stars Among the Multitude of the Heavens)

Mud mosque in Mali, with three minarets topped by ostrich eggs with low buildings and people in foreground

AUTHOR/CREATOR: Nasir al-Din Abur al-Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Hagg al-Amin al-Tawathi al-Ghalawi

1733. During the medieval ages, scientific output was recorded on handwritten manuscripts such as this one. This particular manuscript is stored in a mosque in the town of Timbuktu in Mali, which was home to a large university from 1400–1800. The dry air keeps them preserved; even so, there is a massive effort under way to digitize and preserve this collection of priceless manuscripts that doubles as a reminder of classical Islamic learning as well as a learned, literate sub-Saharan African culture.

This particular text was written to train scholars in the field of astronomy, a science that Islamic tradition traces back to Adam and to the Prophet Idris. The author discusses how to use the movements of the stars to calculate the beginning of the seasons and how to cast horoscopes, among many other aspects of astronomy. Displayed is a diagram demonstrating the rotation of the heavens.

Author/Creator: Phillip Harrington
Published: January 22, 1959

This mosque is in Timbuktu, and it is typical of architecture in the city, combining sub-Saharan and North African architectures. Most mosques have a school attached to them, in which both religious and scientific learning took place. It is in one such mosque that the cache of manuscripts (of which the previous document is one) was discovered.



Foundations Annotations

Curriculum Connections

Social Studies (Grade 6, World History)

Curriculum Standards

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies

§113.22. Social Studies, Grade 6

(18)  Culture. The student understands the relationship that exists between the arts and the societies in which they are produced. The student is expected to: (A) explain the relationships that exist between societies and their architecture, art, music, and literature; (B) relate ways in which contemporary expressions of culture have been influenced by the past; (C) describe ways in which contemporary issues influence creative expressions; and (D) identify examples of art, music, and literature that have transcended the boundaries of societies and convey universal themes such as religion, justice, and the passage of time.

(19)  Culture. The student understands the relationships among religion, philosophy, and culture. The student is expected to: (A) explain the relationship among religious ideas, philosophical ideas, and cultures; and

§113.33. World History Studies

(1)  History. The student understands traditional historical points of reference in world history. The student is expected to: (A) identify major causes and describe the major effects of the following important turning points in world history from 600 to 1450: the spread of Christianity, the decline of Rome and the formation of medieval Europe; the development of Islamic caliphates and their impact on Asia, Africa, and Europe; the Mongol invasions and their impact on Europe, China, India, and Southwest Asia; (B) identify major causes and describe the major effects of the following important turning points in world history from 1450 to 1750: the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the influence of the Ming dynasty on world trade, European exploration and the Columbian Exchange, European expansion, and the Renaissance and the Reformation;

(4)  History. The student understands how, after the collapse of classical empires, new political, economic, and social systems evolved and expanded from 600 to 1450. The student is expected to: (A) explain the political, economic, and social impact of Islam on Europe, Asia, and Africa; (B) describe the interactions among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish societies in Europe, Asia, and North Africa; (C) analyze how the Silk Road and the African gold-salt trade facilitated the spread of ideas and trade.

Teaching with Primary Sources - Annotated Resource Set

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