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Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf
The intellectual pursuits of Leo Africanus' period are in contrast with those of present today. There was exuberant thinking on many scientific themes and on methodology in other disciplines. And this was so despite political unrest, and violent jolts which shook from time to time the social foundation and tempered the vigor of cultural progress.
Not much is known about the life of this Moroccan. He is surrounded from all sides by mystery. We hardly take the first step along his biographical path so as to find explanations for some suggestions about him when we have to stop and pose questions which can not be answered unless we were in his company. He was not of those who lived for years and later are buried without having taken from life something other than superficial experiences. The latter journey through life like a cloud that moves across the sky and simply disappears into the horizon. On the contrary, he was a man who retained all that he saw and heard, making pertinent and detailed observations. Leo Africanus had barely developed his natural abilities and reached his intellectual maturity when he was taken by force to a very different world from that which had lavished on him the skills that destined him to be a man of culture in the truest sense of this expression.
All that we know of his life is that he was born in Grenada at a time when the Spanish were attacking the Arabs in Andalusia. It was the period of the 'reconquista' of the land once Leo Africanus conquered by Tariq Ibn Ziyad who, by planting its standard on the Iberian soil, had claimed it for Islam. It was also the period during which Moslems were experiencing chaos, living in a climate of terror and despair. They were hounded because of their adherence to their faith. He had barely completed his passage from childhood while the last Moslem contingents were leaving the Iberian peninsula. His family left Andalusia for Morocco and headed for the Merinid capital where Hassan ben Mohammed Al Wazan pursued his studies, mastering to perfection the Arabic language and the disciplines of knowledge to which it gave birth. We lack information on the exact curricula that he followed. We can at most proceed by extrapolation, starting from some fragmentary indications from his book, that he was a man of above average education, well beyond levels reached by the common man.
Fez during this time was at the apex of its glory and influence, surpassing other capitals.It was the torch bearer for the Arabic Islamic civilization standing at the forefront of culture and education. The Kairaouiyine university was at the top of all educational institutions established by the Merinids. It provided higher education that attracted students from all corners of Morocco and beyond. Its administration provided material assistance and moral support to those in need. And so it was in this university setting in Fez that the character of Hassan Al Wazan was formed and in which his appetite for study and research was nourished.
He tells us that he devoted himself to the legal profession and that he practiced in the notary trade for two long years, managing the books of the civil and commercial registry. But it seems that this occupation was not to the liking of our man whose life's ambitions extended
Leo Africanus beyond sitting all day long deep inside a narrow store drafting documents and deeds on his knees. His wish was to travel the world to study the living conditions in different communities and to confront his imagination with the realities on the ground thereby allowing his aptitude to grow through the experiences and through the difficulties he would have encountered during his journeys.
Within a span of ten years he had travelled the breadth and width of Morocco reaching as far away as Timbuktu. He had visited different regions of North Africa and went on to Mecca and to Istanbul before travelling through parts of Asia. During his travels, he was often engaged in missions of a political nature. In 1515 AD (921 AH), he found himself in Tadla and he witnessed the battle at Mamora by the mouth of the Sebou river. He later returned to Fez before leaving once again for Mecca…[continue]
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