Leo Afrikanus, 1495 - 1548.

A Moroccan without peer largely ignored in Moroccan circles.

The monthly gazette "Al Maghrib" - 21st december 1934.

His epoch.

Political Upheavals.

The author Ibn Zaraa in his book "Al Qirtas" described the uprising of the Merinids against the Almohad dynasty in these terms:

"At this historical juncture, the Almohad dynasty had weakened considerably and began to show signs of impotence. Its rulers no longer had authority over the countryside; their power and order limited to urban centers only. Battles between tribes increased in frequency and intensity. Fear reigned along travel routes and at remote locations. People no longer respected civic codes of conduct, each acting as they pleased. There was nothing to distinguish the rogue from the principled. Henceforth the weak were at the mercy of the powerful, each adjusting to their given abilities. Those who wished to cause harm had all the latitude to do so at their disposal. There was no administrative authority, princely or otherwise, in a position to stop or to prevent them. The 'Zenatta' tribes and certain Arab and Berber tribes organized armed robberies along the main thoroughfares. From time to time they even descended to raid the market towns and villages."

"The Merinid prince Abou Saad ben Abdelhaq saw the Almohad authorities as an enfeebled dynasty struggling to govern. By neglecting their subjects, he noted that they had lost the esteem that would otherwise have been their due. They shut themselves off in the depths of their palaces to escape from the obligations of authority invested in them. There they gave in to drink, to music and other sensual pleasures. Seeing the country in the hands of a sovereign living in debauchery, no longer capable of facing up to his obligations as a ruler, the prince brought together Merinid dignitaries and exhorted them to take action. He enjoined them to act according to the principles of Islam which obliged them to protect the interests of the Muslim community. He gained their adherence immediately and soon thereafter campaigned all over the country at the head of a powerful army of volunteers. He crossed over mountains and through valleys, enlisting tribes from all corners. He assured protection to all who pledged an oath of allegiance to him and to all who agreed to pay a tax, known as the 'Kharaj' tax. As for the recalcitrants, he persecuted the latter by subjecting them to cruel and tyrannical treatment, ranging from the plunder of their possessions to outright assassination."

This was how Ibn Zaraa presented the final days of the Almohad dynasty and the not so subtle message for reform delivered to the Moroccan nation by the Beni Merin. This description of events is accurate and suffers no exaggeration. If Ibn Zaraa had lived at the beginning of the Saadian era and if he had wanted to depict the end of the reign of the Merinids, he would not have been able to describe it any differently. The Merenids gained control and were enthroned for two and a half centuries, a period during which they prevailed over all vital sectors of the country. They initially led with an enlightened policy marked by a resolute encouragement of the arts, literature and science. But like the previous dynasty, the Merinids eventually had to face up to their own political upheavals which ultimately ended their existence as the reigning dynasty. And so another regime change would soon be imposed, endowing the nation with a rejuvenated, determined and firm government capable of offering the necessary measures to face up to the new crises at hand.

Tossing a rapid glance at events during the period in which lived our subject, we become aware of the troubles suffered by Morocco as it plunged into chaos following the weakening of the Merinid administration and the mass arrivals of the last contingent of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula after the Spanish "reconquista" of the Andalous region. The Spaniards exploited the weak authority in Morocco to nourish their aims on the southern bank of the Mediterranean straits. They entrained in their wake Portugal which also took advantage of the political turmoil tearing up the country by engaging in the conquest of Anfa in 1489 AD (894 Anno Hegira) and of Asilah in 1502 AD (907 AH). The Portuguese built the city of Mogador (now known as El Jadida) and advanced along the coastal cities of the Sous region. After having constructed Fort Founty near Agadir, they conquered the port of Safi and occupied Azemmour and Mamora. Meanwhile battles were raging between the last of the Al Wattasids and the Merinids on the one hand and Abou Alabbas Ahmed Al Saadi on the other.

Such were the events marking this era. The country was prey to internal revolts while foreign powers continued their attacks against its government, sapping its foundations. The events of this difficult period, precipitated the appearance and the consolidation of power by the Saadians who waged civil war against the aging Wattasid Merinid dynasty. Eventually the Saadians took over Morocco's destiny and chased away the foreign occupiers from the areas they had conquered, recovering full sovereignty over the entire Moroccan territories.

Intellectual Pursuits

It is very likely that intellectual pursuits are the last to be influenced by externally induced political upheavals and internal revolts. Their roots grow and become strong during times of stability and rapid social, political and cultural development. And yet their fruits ripen much later, often during periods of rebellion against the establishment. Researchers typically do not take into much consideration the first manifestations of political turmoil. Instead they continue to focus their attention in a general manner on the various branches of scholarship and culture. Up to a certain point, one could surmise that the student's desire for study and the efforts by educational institutions to promote research serve as buffers against the negative effects of unrest.

The individual whom I wish to depict here, lived in this era marked by political agitation. But despite this, he succeeded in sweeping away obstacles in his path of learning and succeeded in becoming an exceptional talent who kindled admiration in the west. He lived during the end of the Merinid era, improved his education in their medrassas and was regarded as a shining outcome of the Merinid's stable and brilliant Islamic civilization.. Even though we know of him only through what was written about him in the west, he represents a golden era of our past, a most thriving period for the Moslem world with the city of Fez at the vanguard of science and civilization and the meeting place of western and eastern worlds. Fez was also the spiritual spring from which Europe, whose authority and influence was dominated by the Catholic Church, drew the essentials from the religious courses it taught.

In Fez, the Merinid capital, as well as in other Moroccan cities, institutes of learning played a very important role in education and the dissemination of knowledge. High level and state of the art courses were taught in the various branches of human knowledge. One could attend lectures on the law, the institutions, the natural sciences, mathematics, geography as well as many other disciplines. The Kairouyine University, unlike today, never restricted the scope of studies in science nor did it confine literature to prefixed ideas. On the contrary, the student holders of diplomas from this university were considered to have attained a high level of maturation thanks to the development of mind and talent allowing them to overcome the challenges in the scientific disciplines and to master the most arduous of literary texts.

A simple glance on the list of great thinkers cited by Hassan El Wazzan (aka Leo Africanus) in one of his works enlightens us on the level of culture of this era. He cites more than sixty of the most eminent thinkers of the time. In philosophy he references such notables as Averroes, Al Farabi, Avicenne, Ibn Tofayl, Al Tobrani, Ibn Khaldoun, Ibn Omran, and Moussa Ben Mamoun. Amongst the Sufis he mentions Al Ghazali, Al Hassan Al Basri, Abou Al Hassan Alssary, Al Chadli , Abou Hafs Omar Ben Farid. In medicine, Abdallah AlbaytAr, Ibn Zohr, and Ishaq Ben Amran el Razi. Amongst the geographers he cites Ibn Abdallah Al Bakri, Al Sherif Al Idrisi, Ibn Fadl Allah Al Amr and Al Masudi. The historians he mentions include Al Chahrastani, Ibn Al Jawzi , Ibn Al Hassan Al Mutalmidi and Ibn Bachkwal.

He refers to these leading experts and others in his book that deals on the geography of Africa in general and of Morocco in particular which is preserved in a European library. I don't know how many names he cites in books which he dedicated to other branches of learning. The latter were mislaid, without one copy preserved in a Moroccan library. These works are probably vegetating in the shelves of a private collection. And perhaps one day, by divine will, they along with other Moroccan manuscripts subjected to the same fate, will see the light of day and thus shed new light on the Merinid and other periods of Moroccan history and accurately underscore their cultural and contributions to civilization. The intellectual pursuits of his period are in contrast with the rot 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.

His Life

We do not know much 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. He 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 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 which we will cover later, that he was a man of above average education, well beyond levels reached by the common man. He combined in his aforementioned book painstaking observations and his innate talent to introduce us to a vast cultural experience encompassing different branches of science and, in addition, provided a panoramic view of the multiple facets of the existing Islamic culture.

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 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 via Tlemcen, Algeria and Tunisia. The following year he undertook a long voyage to Asia and North Africa.

In 1520 AD (926 AH), his ship was seized by Italian pirates along the shores of Naples. He was led in front of Pope Leo X finding himself in a European setting totally alien to him. He recovered quickly and remembered that he was the product of a refined culture and as such had all reasons to be proud of his prestigious heritage. His intellectual professionalism took over once he became aware that he was dealing with the papal institution, one that was omnipotent throughout Europe. The pope was an exceptional man of the times; he patronized the sciences, literature and the arts. Thus, when they presented Hassan Al Wazzan to him, it was in his nature to ask him to talk about his country, Morocco. The pope appreciated very much the quality of the ensuing discourse presented by Hassan Al Wazzan and was impressed by the scope of his vision and the preciseness of his knowledge.

History tells us that the pope drew Hassan closer to his fold, endowed him with a substantial remuneration and arranged for him a social standing of the highest level amongst the Vatican's dignitaries. Contrary to other detainees who were glutting Italy, the pope found in him a disciple of a golden age of learning and a worthy representative for the coexistence of cultures. His relations with Hassan Al Wazzan took root and their friendship went beyond nominal courtesy. Certain historical references inform us that the pope invited him to convert to Christianity and that he effectively did so under the pseudonym of Leo.

From thereon and to this day, the European scientific circles know of him by way of this assumed name. We do not know if he did willingly convert to Catholicism, he who had lived all his earlier life in an Islamic environment and who had received a strictly Moslem upbringing. Nor do we know if this conversion was the fruit of a simplistic deduction drawn by certain historians in view of the established relationship between the pope and Hassan Al Wazzan or if it was due to the unanimous conviction of the pope's faithful that the pope could not hold in such consideration a person in his fold who was not converted to Christianity. One well known oriental scholar who had studied the life and work of Leo Africanus reports that he immediately reconverted to the Islamic faith upon his return to Tunisia. Consequently, his conversion to Christianity even if it had occurred, was never manifested in any obvious manner. As for me, I strongly doubt that Leo Africanus converted willingly. Otherwise how could one explain that, soon after the death of Pope Leo X, he had left Rome for Tunisia where he reconverted to Islam? Why would he have wanted to leave for Tunisia if not to respond to a deep longing within his conscience which compelled him to revert back to being a Moslem so as to be interred in Islamic soil as a Moslem? Moreover, his impressive book, which we have in our hands, treats many topics on Moslem countries with all the respect that is their due. There is nothing therein to suggest that he distanced himself from Islam or Moslems or that he condemned them for not being on the righteous path.

That is all we know about the life of Leo Africanus. We don't think that these few references could constitute a biography nor even to allow us to submit his person to a systematic analysis so as to draw conclusions to appropriately highlight his creative genius and his scientific talent. Moreover, these same references need to be stripped of some cloudy areas susceptible of discrediting him in the eyes of Moslems. This is especially so given that references in Arabic appear to have been unaware of him, having devoted neither sentences or even a few words about him. However, his monumental work, "Description of Africa" informs us about the scope of his knowledge and about the vast horizons of his research as well as his alertness and quick learning. It explains how this man acquired esteem from western researchers and scientific circles that became interested in his work and his leadership.

His publications

"Description of Africa"

Hassan Al Wazzan wrote several pieces of work but unfortunately only one or two have succeeded in reaching us. As to the other publications we only know their titles. He most certainly must have edited books before and after his detention but of these we know absolutely nothing, not even their titles. Despite this, the book which we now find in our possession is to a large extent sufficient to give us a notion about the man, his thinking and his talents. The work in question is his "Description of Africa" which was not conceived for the purpose of retracing the steps of his itineraries in a descriptive manner but was instead a practical book, planned with attention to numerous details according to a methodical approach with all the precision of scientific logic. This was a book which tackled many subjects and further advanced numerous areas of research and analysis. It became a basic reference for history and geography and, before we had established relations with the west, it was even considered for a long period of time as the unique reference about Moslem countries for Europeans.

The mystery which surrounds the life of our subject surrounds his achievements as well. It extends to his "Description of Africa" which was translated into all the principal western languages and occupies a privileged place in European libraries. In reality we do not know for sure in which language Leo Africanus first wrote his publications nor what were the references which he relied on to justify the merit of his affirmations. Likewise we do not know the motives which drove him to author his books, nor the time he dedicated to their editing. So many questions whose answers would have contributed to setting us straight and to removing the nebulosity of the thoughts that vacillate in our minds. But, all that we know according to our current state of understanding, is that the aforementioned book was published in Italian in 1530 AD within the framework of an encyclopedia by the Italian Romisio dedicated to land and maritime travel. It was later translated into Latin and then into French in 1556 AD before becoming the object of systematic translations into the majority of the other European languages.

As to its Arabic roots, that is if it was of Arabic origin, we know absolutely nothing. We have recourse only to the thesis by professor Massignon, according to which Hassan Al Wazzan would have compiled travel logs during his many voyages and that he would have enriched these with everything that his prodigious memory of firsthand knowledge would have retained. This is because during his stay in Italy he had no Arabic references at his disposal to rely on to support his line of reasoning. He could only count on his personal observations and experiences during his voyages and it is precisely here that all the merit of his works which owe their intrinsic value only to the personal reflections of the author, independent of any external published reference. As to the motivation which drove him to write this book, we would not be too far from the truth in thinking that it was probably Pope Leo X himself who suggested to him, in the name of the friendship created between them, to undertake this endeavor to which he attached outstanding importance.

There is no doubt that the interest held by the pope in all fields of learning led him to ask his Moroccan host to describe the state of his country and to share with him observations he made during his many journeys. One can imagine Leo Africanus in the midst of trying to recollect events from his past prior to launching himself into a causerie; a chat that would have so impassioned his host that the latter would have proposed to put to ink the information evoked so it could be preserved in the Vatican Library. His interlocutor would have gladly accepted and would have put to print the publication asked of him. But all this is based on simple conjectures. Leo Africanus never alluded to such conversations and lacking any solid clues enabling confirmation, these conjectures should be considered to be nothing more or less than simple products of one's imagination.

When Louis Massignon, the noted orientalist scholar, studied the contents of the "Description of Africa" , he concluded , judging from its thematic content and from the methods used for analysis and classification, that it was edited uniquely for European readers. "Leo the Moroccan" divided his book into nine sections. He dedicated the first section to geographical deliberations of a general nature and addressed the following subtitled topics:

  • The origins of the word "Africa"

  • The frontiers of Africa

  • The countries of Africa

  • The inhabitants of Africa

  • Their origins

  • The Arabs residing in the African cities

He pursued his examination with as much precision as with depth of analysis.

In the following seven sections, he proceeded with the description of different aspects about Africa , neglecting no details, and elucidating his statements with impressive explanations, journeying from the villages of each region to the surrounding mountains.

In the ninth section, he addressed the mineral resources, the fresh water streams and the seas.

It is of interest to emphasize that he was the first to have introduced the Maghreb in terms for four major regions:

  1. The Berber country north of the Atlas mountain chain consisting of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

  2. The land of the palm trees south of the Atlas

  3. Libya which was associated with the Sahara

  4. The Sudan or the land of the Gnawas

This geographical partition is used to this day in the geography manuals on the Maghreb. Hence, being the first to have made such a partition shows a talent for observation endowed with an ability to conduct an analytical approach that is concrete and practical. Paging through this book, one gets the impression that it was written in our times. It contains some very broad information on certain aspects of living that one would think that the ancient world would not have granted the slightest note and moreover would not have drawn the conclusions brought to light by the author. When Leo Africanus sites an monument built by Yacoub El Mansour, he does not neglect to provide an exhaustive catalogue of all its composing arches. In his descriptions about the major regions he informs us about their mineral riches and the natural resources. We know, thanks to the information recorded in his book, that the life expectancy of Moroccans lay between 65 and 70 years . It could also vary between 80 and 100 years in the Atlas regions where the climate permits one to lead a healthy life and this is corroborated by the most recent of statistical studies.

From one topic leading to another, he managed to lay out a list of diseases ravaging the country, looking to diagnose their sources and their causes. Then he tackled social life and the influence of climate on those customs which he qualified as spontaneous and free. He described the Berbers as a people tied to commercial occupations, always in action, always engaged in discussions, and much attached to religion. He dedicated several pages to the period's garments and their variety as a function of the seasons and special occasions. He later delved into Moroccan dietary customs, showing an attention to detail and revealing a magnificent mastery of social behavior. He also analyzed the governing bodies. For each region he enumerated the courts therein, and pointed out the political divisions that defined the boundaries of areas under Wattaside authority and those under cities that enjoyed autonomy. He informs us that the tribes recognized neither the administrative bureaucracy nor the rule of the Wattasides because of their weakened authority and due to the declining state of affairs brought on by the political decadence of their dynasty. He described roadside conditions with infinite detail and listed the urban agglomerations en route as well as their network of roads.

In summary, Leo the Moroccan had touched upon a wide range of topics and treated each with such broadness and conciseness to lend proof to the broad scope of his knowledge and to the depth of his intelligence. It is certain that if we would continue to itemize and bring to light all that this book contains with respect to learning and information, we would exceed the framework of this introduction whose intent was to not sink under excess detail. The glimpse we have offered here on the life and work of Leo Africanus should suffice to rekindle him in our collective memory and to stimulate the curiosity of current and future young generations on the achievements of this worthy forefather who remained neglected for too long by the Moroccan community from which he had sprung.

I mentioned earlier that this book by Hassan Al Wazzan had been the unique reference representing us in the west. Since then, the oriental scholar, Louis Massignon, cited several famous authors who cited Leo Africanus as a reference in their research on Africa in general and on Morocco in particular. Their number exceeds thirty, the first dating back to the sixteenth century and the last in the middle of the nineteenth. To grasp the importance granted to him by the west, it suffices to open any book on Morocco published in Europe. One will find Leo Africanus named at the forefront of the index of bibliographies upon which the author of the book relied on to properly buttress his studies.

Other publications

Sadly science and culture were dealt a disservice by the unfortunate loss of the other works by Leo Africanus of which only the titles of some remain. If the opportunity was given to us to rediscover these publications so as to submit them to appropriate study, we would have been in a position to re-establish contact with the scientific and cultural era of the Merinids. One wonders if there are manuscripts in certain private Moroccan book collections which , with current means of publishing, could be shared and thus creating a veritable revolution in our thinking of historical events and provoking a radical change of the ideas that we have had until now about our past.

Amongst the publications by Leo Africanus of which we know only the titles, it is necessary to cite an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary a copy of which is preserved at the Escorial monastery near Madrid, a grammar book, another on linguistics, and another written in Latin dedicated to the biographies of large number of Islamic notables. It remains for us to wonder if he had proceeded to publish anything before his detention or after his return to Tunisia. Meanwhile everything leads one to think that the above-mentioned books were written during his stay in Italy. And so it is at the least inconceivable that a man of the sciences and of such character as Hassan Al Wazzan could have spent a significant portion of his life, in the midst of his own and in the linguistic and cultural surroundings he inherited from his forebears, without having dedicated a given number of publications about his reflections on literary and scientific subjects. All that we currently know about our man we owe to the writings of western authors whose publications at the same time make up the only available references.


Hassan Al Wazzan aka Leo Africanus enjoys great notoriety in western intellectual circles. Numerous articles were written about him, presenting him as a man who dedicated himself to the service of culture and research during a period where human knowledge was superficial and limited. We would have a guilty conscience if we let this eminent personality disappear from the collective memory of the Arab world where he had lived and received the essentials of his intellectual development while the west venerated and treated him with great respect for his knowledge and his research methodology. The least we could do in regard to this exceptional man is to translate his book "Description of Africa" into Arabic, which after all was his mother tongue. We should translate in order to restore to the Moroccan library a masterpiece that was amongst uncountable publications we lost track of and to allow Moroccan readers access to a work that reflects on several centuries of his country's history including its golden and dark eras. Is there someone from within our young intellectual community today who could take on this fascinating task?