In the early 15th century Mali, precisely in the eastern city of Timbuktu, you could find three major intellectual institutions, which were, Jungaray Ber, Sidi Yahya, and finally, located in the North East district of Timbuktu, the eminent University of Sankoré, a spectacular pyramid-shaped work of architecture. Few today know that the University of Sankore was founded in 989 AD by the erudite chief judge of Tumbuktu, Al-Qadi Aqib Ibn Mahmud. It was founded during the time of the Empire of Ghana, stayed relevant into the Empire of Mali, then survived another political transition into the time period of the Empire of Songhai.
The university was built as a “madrassah”, which translated into “school” in Arabic and the term is also used among other non-Arabic speaking Muslim communities. A madrassah at the time had a somewhat different organization and structure from the common universities of medieval Europe, although the highest level of learning at the time had similar focuses to Europe’s studia generale; even though Sankore was founded earlier.
Rather than having a central administration, the University of Sankore was composed of several independent schools or colleges, each run by a single head (scholar or professor). The courses were conducted in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. Among the subjects taught at the University were medicine, surgery, mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, language, linguistics, history geography and art. However, the principle subject matter was Qur’anic and Islamic studies, law and literature. It is also reported that students were spending time learning a trade along with its relevant business code and ethics. The University offered a myriad of trade classes including business, carpentry, farming, fishing, construction, tailoring, navigation, shoemaking and many other handy trades. The University prospered and became a great intellectual institution particularly during the 12th to 16th century.
The city of Timbuktu was a destination for merchants from both the Middle East and North Africa. This allowed different merchandise and ideas to pass through the legendary city. And since most of the traders were Muslims, the mosque of Sankore would always have visitors. Those visitors contributed in the accumulation of a wealth of books from throughout the different Muslim regions and countries that they came from. At some point, books became more valuable than any other goods in the city and several private libraries were built in the homes of native scholars.
Since Arabic was the language of trade and commerce in Timbuktu, as well as the lingua franca of the university, it was compulsory for students to master the language and memorise the Qur’an. Nearly 70,000 manuscripts originating from the University of Sankore are in the Arabic language, along with about 30,000 manuscripts which are in Songhay and another a’jami language. Their contents covered a variety of subjects such as; astronomy, botany, music, law, trade, religion, history and sciences. A list of those manuscripts was published by the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation in London, and it can be found in a 5-volume collection in the Ahmed Baba Library in Mali. The library was founded in 1970 by the Mali government with collaboration of the UNESCO in order to restore and digitize the preserved manuscripts. Those manuscripts, which cover almost every aspect of the human endeavour, are evidence of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans at the time. The people of Timbuktu specifically, regarded literacy and books as symbols of wealth, power and blessings. In the early 14th century, and by the end of Mansa Musa’s reign, the Sankore Mosque has been converted into a fully staffed Islamic School and University with the largest collections of books and manuscripts (between 400,000 to 700,000 manuscripts) in Africa since the Library of Alexandria.
During the colonial period, huge efforts were made to conceal the documents stored in the universities and the private libraries, after a number of entire libraries were taken to London, Paris and other places in Europe. Some manuscripts were buried underground, and others where hidden in caves or in the desert. Many still remain hidden to this day.
The university’s curriculum had four degree levels. It is reported that the highest degree level -which is equivalent to PhD- , took the students ten years to undertake. It was centred around debates on philosophic and religious questions, and the students were required to study under specialized professors. During the graduation ceremony, the graduate would wear the traditional turban symbolizing divine light, wisdom, knowledge and high morals. Moreover, graduates had to demonstrate excellent character and care for Islamic values prior to receiving their graduation invitation. In celebration of receiving their diplomas, the graduates would gather in the main campus library and throw their turbans high into the air, accompanied with cheers and holding each other’s hand in show of their brotherly and sisterly bond that they developed during their years of studying in the university.
Much like other Islamic universities, the University of Sankore granted admission to students from different origins and diverse backgrounds. It is reported that in the 12th century, there was an attendance of about 25,000 students in a city with a population of 100,000 people. The university was renowned for its high standards and admission requirements which resulted in producing world-class scholars who were recognized by their publications.
One of the most famous scholars of Timbuktu was Ahmed Baba As-Sudane [1564-1627], the last Chancellor of Sankore University. He wrote over 60 books on several multiple subjects such as law, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. During his time, he was a one of a kind professor, jurist and Imam. Unfortunately, in 1593 most of his work was destroyed during the Moroccan invasion where he was deported to Fez.
Another remarkable figure is Mohammed Bagayogo As-Sudane Al-Wangari Al-Timbukti, who during his journey to perform the holy pilgrimage (Hajj), visited Cairo, where he conferred an honorary Doctorate from Al-Azhar University.
Other notable scholars from Sankore include; Modibo Mohammed Al-Kaburi, Mohammed Ibn Al-Mukhtar An-Nawahi, Abu Al-Abbas Ahmed Buryu and Mohammed Ibn Utman, many of whom were already graduates from other educational establishments in Tunis, Fez, Cairo and Makkah during the early times of Sankore. The scholars wrote their books as part of a socioeconomic model based on scholarship. The profit made by buying and selling these books came second to the gold-salt trade.
Not only did the university value proper education in the fields or religion and other life sciences, but it aimed to provide its students with practical skills and useful trades that would help them earn a decent living while embarking on their journey to pursue knowledge. Today, the University of Sankore is still functioning but on a much smaller level due to limited resources. The Muslim world and other supportive organizations need to maintain and preserve what was once a most formidable institution of education that contributed greatly to our present civilization.
Woods, Michael: Seven wonders of Ancient Africa, p. 61. Lerner books,United Kingdom 2009. ISBN-10: 082257571X
Elias N. Saad, Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables 1400-1900. Cambridge – London – New York 1985. ISBN-10: 9780521136303
Sadi, Abd al-Rahman ibn Abdullah. (1999). Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi’s Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613, and other contemporary documents. Translated and edited by John O. Hunwick. Boston, Mass.:Brill. ISBN-10: 9004128220