Tunisian residents of the old medina, scholars, and imams witnessed the reopening of Zitouna University last Saturday. The university had been closed for almost half a century under the rule of former Tunisian presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali for fear of religious extremism.
The ancient university was originally housed in the Zitouna Mosque, located in the heart of Tunis. It was the very first university in the Muslim Arab world and even preceded Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, which is considered nowadays as the chief center of Islamic teaching in the Arab world.
At one point in its history, Zitouna University was considered the most influential center of Islamic thought, which played a leading role in the dissemination of Arab-Islamic culture throughout the Maghreb.
Many Muslim scholars graduated from the university, such as the trade unionist and writer Tahar Haded, politician and writer Abdelaziz Thaalbu, Tunisian national poet Aboul-Qacem Echebi, and the judge and scholar Mohamed Tahar Ben Achour.
The organization of the “Alumni and Supporters of Zitouna,” which includes old Zitouna-affiliated scholars, went to court to petition for the reopening for the ancient university following the Tunisian revolution.
“The reopening of the university comes at a challenging time when Tunisian unity is threatened because of the divergence of religious sects causing conflict. Many Muslims coming from different background are eager to know about their religion,” stated Mohamed Ben Amor, president of the organization.
On March 19th the First Court of Tunis issued the ruling that the school could reopen. This past Sunday morning, the university witnessed its first course. The Sunday course will be held once in a week as a trial with enrollment open to people from all ages and genders.
“The registration office is witnessing a significant number of applicants interested in learning about Islam,” said Yassine, a worker at the university’s administration.
Not a single book remained in the library of the university. Yassine mentioned a rumor that Sakhr el-Matri, one of Ben Ali’s sons-in-law, took hold of them, while others said they had been handed over to the national archive. Islamic scholars will therefore be forced to teach with their owns materials on subjects ranging from Islamic doctrine, ethics and Islamic jurisprudence.
Kamel Saafi, a Tunisian Islamic scholar, believed that the courses offered at Zitouna University will lead Tunisians to the “original forms” of knowledge concerning Islam. ”Tunisia was the heart of Islamic sciences and it should return to its former glory,” he said.
Ahmed, a 23-year who described himself as a Salafist, came to register and expressed his enthusiasm about the news of the university’s reopening.
“Bourguiba marginalized the Islamic researchers and Ben Ali persecuted them. The resumption of classes will give back this university its heyday and its value,” he said. For Ahmed, the young generation only has a shallow understanding about their religion since Islamic education during the Ben Ali era was “shameful and artificial.”
“We were used to a light kind of Islam,” he added.
Olfa, a 35 year-old student, expressed her interest in broadening her knowledge of Islam. ”Before, the more you knew about Islam, the more you endangered your life because of the religious persecution that targeted the Zitounian scholars and any other Tunisians interested in the field,” she recalled.