Zaytuna University

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Prominent university in Tunis.

Built as a mosque in the eighth century, Zaytuna was enlarged by the Aghlabids in 864 when the Abbasid caliph al-Muʿtasim ordered the addition of a wing. It continues to serve as a school mosque and houses a huge library that in the fourteenth century was administered by the Malikite theologian Muhammad ibn Arafa. One of Zaytuna's students was Abd alRahman ibn Khaldun, the well-known Arab historian and philosopher. In modern times alumni include the leader of the Tunisian Destour party, Abd al-Aziz Thaʿlabi. In addition many Zaytuna graduates staffed the cadres of the Neo-Destour party.

Although at first traditional, teaching at Zaytuna was gradually modernized. The last reform came in 1933, at the hands of its students. Upon Tunisia's independence the Zaytuna became the shari ʿa (Islamic law) school of the University of Tunis.

In 1945, Zaytuna had five branches in various cities of Tunisia and three thousand students in the secondary and college levels combined. The regional branches were not very active, and their ties with Tunis were very weak. With the appointment of al-Taher ben Ashour as the director of Zaytuna, new branches were opened in Tunisia and even in Algeria, raising their number to twenty-five. All became very active. The number of students in the main and the regional branches jumped to 20,000.

The growing national role of Zaytuna University in opposing French colonialism and the leadership of its graduates in the nationalist movement, caused it to become the target of the French colonial government. The university gradually found itself at odds with the political powers, and its activities were curtailed. The great cultural support Tunisia received from the Arab League allowed it to pursue the spread of Arabic culture and language teaching through Zaytuna University as well as other centers of learning, thus counteracting the colonial cultural policy of promoting French at the expense of Arabic. Zaytuna University was instrumental in safeguarding Arabic culture in Tunisia and also helped its neighbor Algeria, a country that did not have a similar cultural center.

see also league of arab states.


Abu-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

aida a. bamia