Citation for Zaytūnah

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Deeb, Mary-Jane . "Zaytūnah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 25, 2022. <>.


Deeb, Mary-Jane . "Zaytūnah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 25, 2022).


According to one view, postulated by French scholar Lucien Golvin, the Zaytūnah mosque in Tunis was built in 734 by the governor of Ifrīqīyah (as Tunisia was called by the Arabs), ʿUbayd Allāh Habhab. Other historians have maintained that the Zaytūnah mosque was built earlier, around 698, by Ḥussān ibn al-Nuʿman al-Ghassānī, the Arab conqueror of Tunis and Carthage. A more recent thesis, however, has been put forward by Muḥammad al-Badji ibn Mami, who holds that the Arab conquerors built the Zaytūnah mosque on the remains of an existing Byzantine construction and within the ramparts of a fort.

Whatever its origin, al-Zaytūnah remained, until the twelfth century, primarily a place of worship, and the Qayrawān mosque was the major center of Islamic thought and learning in North Africa. When the Ḥafṣid dynasty (1207–1534) came to power and made Tunis its capital, the Zaytūnah emerged as one of the most important Islamic institutions of higher learning in the Muslim world. Its famous library of al-ʿAbdalīyah expanded to house a very large collection of books and rare manuscripts that attracted Islamic scholars and men of learning from many nations. Students were taught Qurʿānic exegesis, ḥadīth, and fiqh, as well as history, grammar, science, and medicine, in its madrasahs (Islamic schools), which in turn produced great scholars such as the historian and philosopher ʿAbd al-Rahmān Ibn Khaldūn.

In 1534, the Ḥafṣid dynasty was ousted and the Spaniards occupied Tunis until 1574. They ransacked its libraries and mosques and burnt or removed many of the Zaytūnah's precious books and manuscripts. With the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into North Africa, there emerged in the seventeenth century two local Turkish dynasties, the Murādids and the Ḥusaynids, who restored and expanded the Zaytūnah mosque, its libraries, and its madrasahs, and made it once again a major center of Islamic learning and culture.

The French occupation of Algiers in 1830 revealed the political, economic, and military weaknesses of North African states, and led Aḥmad Bey I and his grand vizier, Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnisī, to begin reforming the government and the educational system of Tunisia. Between 1840 and 1875, they introduced major administrative and curricular changes that included placing the Zaytūnah under the control of two qāḍīs and two shaykhs al-Islām, representing the Mālikī and Ḥanafī schools of jurisprudence, to accommodate the Ottoman preference for the Ḥanafī school and yet maintain Zaytūnah's Mālikī traditions. With the establishment of the French protectorate in 1881, the pace of change increased, with Zaytūnah students organizing to demand reforms in the curriculum and the methods of teaching. New courses were introduced in 1896, including physics, political economy, and French as a foreign language, and in 1912 the reforms were extended to the regional branches of the Zaytūnah in Qayrawān, Sousse, Sfax, Tozen, and Gafsa.

The reforms of 1958 that unified the educational system in independent Tunisia, and the creation of the University of Tunis in 1960, undermined the status of the Zaytūnah as a university. In 1965, its role as an independent educational institution was officially abolished, and it became the school of theology and Islamic studies of the University of Tunis.

See also TUNISIA.


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