Rediscover the Glory
Where would a 16th century seeker of knowledge want to go to excel in scholarship and literacy? The Sankore University would be a top preference.
Sankore University, also known as Sankore Masjid or University of Timbuktu, is one of three ancient centers of learning in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa. During the 14th-16th century, Sankore University enrolled more foreign students than New York University today.
Today, the intellectual legacy of Timbuktu is neglected in historical discourse. These pages of our history tend to get ripped out.
Structure and History What began as a simple mosque built on order of the city's chief judge in 989 AD, developed into a masterpiece of architecture. The mosque's courtyard was built in the exact dimensions of the Kaba, located in the city of Makkah, using a rope for precise measurements. The large pyramidal Mihrab remains the most prominent feature of this building.
With the financial help of a female philanthropist from Mandika, and support of Mansa Musa (1307-1302 AD) and the Askia Dynasty (1493-1591 AD), Sankore University established itself as the leader in religious and secular education and attracted several thousand foreign students from around the world.
But the structure is not the real source of its glory. It is the celebration of this university as one of the world's significant seats of learning and as a community of matchless Muslim scholars during the 14th-16th century. The diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds of students attending Sankore University made it a model of true multiculturalism.
Education System and Graduation Sankore University was unique in organization to the universities of medieval Europe. It had no central administration, student registers, or prescribed courses of study; rather, it was composed of several independent schools or colleges, each run by a single instructor or Imam. Students learned from a single teacher and classes took place in the open courtyards of mosques or private residences.
While the method of enrollment and format of education seemed simple, the curriculum was intense and comprehensive, including religious and secular subjects. There were four levels of degrees offered by Sankore University.
On graduation day, students were awarded Turbans. The turban symbolized Divine light, wisdom, knowledge and high moral conduct. It represented a demarcation line between knowledge and ignorance. The knots and circles of the turban depicted the name Allah, which implied that the student was now obligated to share his knowledge and expertise with fellow human beings in an honorable fashion.
Scholars and Professors: Among its most formidable scholars, professors and lecturers were Ahmed Baba (1564-1627), a distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh-es-Sudan and other works. He penned more than 60 books on various subjects including medicine, law, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy.
Other renowned scholars of Sankore University were Mohammad Bagayogo as-Sudane, Modibo Mohammed al-Kaburi, Abu al-Abbas Ahmad Buryu ibn, Ag Mohammed ibn Utman, Abu Abdallah, and Ag Mohammad ibn al-Mukhtar an-Nawahi.
Unfortunately, the university was adversely affected by the Moroccan invasion of the 1590’s and the deportation of its best scholars. It never regained its 16th century eminence.
Wisdom Unearthed Over a million manuscripts were recently re-discovered in Timbuktu, Mali and about 20 million more in West Africa. The variety of topics these manuscripts cover is phenomenal.
As the historian, Runoko Rashidi, points out, “The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore at Timbuktu leaves us in no doubt about the magnificence of the institution and permits us to reconstruct this side of her past in fairly intimate details.”
Intellectual Legacy of Africa These manuscripts, incredibly rich in style and content, illustrate the depth of knowledge and intellect of students and scholars in this center of learning in West Africa.
“Contrary to the common myth, these manuscripts declare that African culture was not a simplistic oral tradition, but a highly literate and sophisticated culture. The fact that the trade of books in Mali was considered the most profitable business at that time shows how much West Africans loved literacy and education,” says Emad Al-Turk, Chairman and co-founder of International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC).
“Muslim and non-Muslim worlds need to rediscover the Sankore University’s glorious legacy in order to appreciate the contribution of Africa to literacy, scholarship, trade, and diversity at the world stage,” adds Al-Turk.
It’s enough to conclude with an old West African proverb that testifies to its grandeur, "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu."