Mosques to visit after the Coronavirus lets up (Chapter 3): The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia

Tunisia - Great Mosque of Kairouan
Mosque Okba (Uqba), Kairouan, Tunisia Photo by Haythem Gataa on Unsplash

More than a week has passed in quarantine and most of us have now shifted to a dominantly virtual life, opening our doors only to acquire necessary groceries. The inability to freely leave the house steadily fuels our impatience, as our imagination grows ever wilder.

In moments like these you should realise that Allah has presented you with a unique opportunity to get ever-closer to Him, dedicating the more time to his worship in your isolation.

You man be thinking in parallel, perhaps, of the first things you’ll do when the commotion over the virus finally dissipates and once again you will be able to roam free like a leaf on the wind.

Don’t get too carried away though, as this is yet another opportunity to get closer to Allah by taking this chance to visit one of the most important and old mosques in the history of Islam – the Great Mosque of Kairouan (Mosque of Uqba), Tunisia. Interestingly enough, the city itself has been elected as a UNESCO world heritage site. 

This monumental construction was originally built 1,350 years ago under the guidance of famous Arab general Uqba Ibn Nafi. Some twenty years later, the city of Kairouan was attacked and overrun by Berbers who had the mosque vehemently razed by 690.

By the 720’s the mosque had already once been rebuilt, but quickly started running out of space needed to accommodate the city’s bustling population. As such, in a period of four years the mosque was nearly completely taken down, with the exception only of the mihrab, and rebuilt anew with a number of embellishments and a novel minaret.

The final major refurbishment of the Mosque was made by Aghlabids during the 9th century, drawing out its current silhouette. At the time, the city of Kairouan was becoming a major trade centre in the Islamic civilisation, assembling famed and talented scholars from around the Middle-East.

Up until the 11th century, the mosque of Kairouan served the dual purpose of being a house of prayer and a centre for Islamic studies under the Maliki current. As the city steadily attracted intellectuals throughout the 10th century, the various subjects and sciences taught at the mosque also increased, soon to encompass sciences such as medicine, botany, astronomy and mathematics. It thus quickly grew in popularity and became a prominent centre for study in the Islamic world, assimilable to the University of Paris by its importance in the middle-ages.

Throughout the long-lasting centuries, the Kairouan Mosque gradually shifted in form as periodical additions and restorations were made to it by various rulers, forming the marvellous interior we know today.

Towards the 18th century, the mosque had already lost most of its former scholarly value. Nevertheless, the architectural grandeur of the Mosque progressively enticed worldwide popularity, recurring as a common subject of depiction for European poets and explorers.

Among them, most notable were English cleric Thomas Shaw, calling it “the most beautiful and the most sacred of Berberian territories” and later on Guy de Maupassant, who portrayed in the book La vie errante his sincere admiration for the stunningly graceful architecture of the Mosque.

It is fitting to note that this mosque currently remains one of the most renowned and holy sites in the African continent, emanating a particularly strong presence from within. Excluding the Mecca, a visit to this sacred place should appear on top of every Muslim’s bucket list, owed to the inevitably great experience you will attain from this unforgettable journey.