The capital city of Tunisia hosts the Al-Zaytuna Masjid that played a significant role in religion many centuries ago and recently renewed this role. This masjid is the oldest in Tunis and has quite a history to it. Its very structure has an interesting history, for 160 of its columns were brought from the ruins of the old city of Carthage. It was the second masjid to be built in its region, the first being the Masjid of Uqba, which is two hours to the north. The exact date of the construction of the building is debated, but most scholars believe it was in 703 by Hassan Ibnu-Noauman, who also led the conquest of Tunis and Carthage. In 731, the masjid was enlarged and its architecture was enhanced.
The architecture of the masjid followed the design of previous masajid. Its most important influence was the Masjid of Uqba and would later on be an inspiration for other mosques, including the masjid established in Cordoba by the Moors (side note: be sure you check out our guest series, The Flight of the Moors!). The square minaret was built in 1894 and was influenced by the minaret of the Kasbah Masjid, another masjid in Tunis, which was built in 1230 by the Almohads.
This masjid would become an important educational center, but that did not come about until the 13th century when Tunis became the capital of the region under the Almohad and Hafsid rule. It became one of the major centers of Islamic learning and attracted many students from all over the world known to them at the time. The university flourishing here taught both religious and secular subjects, including the Qur’an, jurisprudence, history, science, and medicine. The libraries at the university were some of the largest in North Africa and had tens of thousands of books that covered a wide variety of subjects, like grammar, cosmology, vocational training, and the methodology of research. For over a thousand years, many Muslim scholars graduated from the university established at this masjid.
Over the centuries however, its educational functions diminished more and more, often under the regimes of the country. The school was closed in 1964 by a secular leader named Habib Bourguiba in efforts to curb the influence of religion. In the beginning of April 2012, the court officials reopened the university, allowing students to attend. This was done in hopes to counter the spread of radical views and was driven by religious scholars and activists. They hope to revive the masjid’s role in education and religion in North Africa and help spread the principles of Islam.