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The world-class University of Sankore, Timbuktu

Sankore's achievement in higher education is important to Islamic civilisation even though it was less known compared to Al-Azhar, Al-Qairawan, Al-Qarawiyyin and Qurtuba Universities.

It is also a pride among the whole black community around the world as it was a great intellectual institution of the black civilisations of Mali, Ghana and Songhay particularly during 12th to 16th centuries.

University of Timbuktu often referred to, as the ‘University of Sankore', as there are two other universities in Timbuktu, 'Jingaray Ber' and 'Sidi Yahya' universities. The University of Sankore is located in the north east district of Timbuktu and housed within the Sankore Mosque.

The Sankore Mosque was founded in 989 by the erudite chief judge of Timbuktu, Al-Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar. He had built the inner court of the mosque in exact dimension of the Ka'abah in holy Makkah. A wealthy Mandika lady then financed Sankore University making it the leading centre of education. The Sankore University prospered and became a very significant seat of learning in the Muslim world, especially under the reign of Mansa Musa (1307-1332) and Askia Dynasty (1493-1591).

The University of Sankore had no central administration; rather, it was composed of several entirely independent schools or colleges, each run by a single master (scholar or professor). The courses took place in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. The primary subjects were the Qur'an, Islamic studies, law and literature. Other subjects included medicine and surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language and linguistics, geography, history and art. The students also spent time in learning a trade and business code and ethics. The university trade shops offered classes in business, carpentry, farming, fishing, construction, shoe making, tailoring, navigation etc. It prospered and became a very significant seat of learning in the Muslim world. It was claimed that the intellectual freedom enjoyed in Western Universities was inspired from universities like Sankore and Qurtuba (Muslim Spain) universities.

Memorizing the Qur'an and mastering Arabic language were compulsory to students. Arabic was a lingua franca of the university as well as the language of trade and commerce in Timbuktu. Except from a few manuscripts, which are in Songhay and other a'jami language, all the remaining 70,000 manuscripts are in Arabic. (Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation-London publishes a list of the manuscripts just in Ahmed Baba library in 5 volumes.) The highest "superior" degree (equivalent to PhD) takes about 10 years. During the graduation ceremony, the graduates had to wear the traditional turban to represent the name ‘Allah' and which symbolizes divine light, wisdom, knowledge and excellent moral conduct. The graduates had to demonstrate excellent character and care for Islamic values and education.

Like all other Islamic universities, its students came from all over the world. Around the 12th century, it had an attendance of 25,000 students, in a city of 100,000 people. The university was known for its high standards and admission requirements. It produced world-class scholars recognised by their publications and graduates. Quoting the French author Felix Dubois in his book, Timbuctoo the Mysterious:

"The scholars of Timbuctoo (Timbuktu) yielded in nothing, to the saints in the sojourns in the foreign universities of Fez, Tunis, and Cairo. They astounded the most learned men of Islam by their erudition. That these Negroes were on a level with the Arabian savants is proved by the fact that they were installed as professors in Morocco and Egypt. In contrast to this, we find that Arabs were not always equal to the requirements of Sankore." Felix Dubois

The most famous scholar of Timbuktu was Ahmad Baba as-Sudane (1564-1627), the final Chancellor of Sankore University. He wrote more than 60 books on various subjects including law, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics etc. He was a matchless jurist, professor and Imam of his time. In 1593, during the Moroccan invasion, he was deported to Fez, while most of his work was destroyed.

Other eminent names from Sankore include: Mohammed Bagayogo as-Sudane al-Wangari al-Timbukti (Conferred an honorary Doctorate from Al-Azhar University during his visit to Cairo en-route to Haj), Modibo Mohammed al-Kaburi, Abu al-Abbas Ahmad Buryu ibn, Ag Mohammed ibn Utman and Abu Abdallah and Ag Mohammed Ibn Al-Mukhtar An-Nawahi.

Most of the scholars were of the Maliki school of thought and followed the Qadiriyyah tariqat (spiritual path). The scholars were graduated from Fez, Tunis, Cairo and Makkah in the early history of Sankore.

The University of Sankore is still functioning but with little resources. The Muslim world and UNESCO need to preserve, maintain and to support what used to be a great institution of learning, which contributed to our present Civilisation.

For a review of the historical development of Sankore University, we give below a timeline for the period 900 to 1960.


1. Dubois, F. (1897) Timbuctoo the Mysterious. Translation from the French by Diana White. London: Heinemann.
2. Hunwick, J. (No date). The Islamic Manuscript Heritage of Timbuktu. [Online]. Available: http://www.sum.uio.no/research/mali/timbuktu/manuscript%20heritage%20timbuk.pdf [2003, 22 March].
3. Muhammad Shareef. (No date). About Sankore [Online]. Available: http://www.sankore.org/About%20Sankore.htm [2003, 17 March].
4. 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.
5. Timbuktu Education Foundation. (2002). University of Timbuktu [Online]. Available: http://www.timbuktufoundation.org/university.html [2003, 14 March].
6. List of Manuscripts in Ahmed Baba of Timbuktu. Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation, London.

by: Zulkifli Khair (FSTC Limited), Thu 05 June, 2003

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