The World-Class University of Sankore
Known for its high standards, the Sankore University had over 25, 000 students in a city of 100,000 people in the 12th century.
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.
The University of Timbuktu is 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 Kabah in 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 and navigation. It was claimed that the intellectual freedom enjoyed in Western Universities was inspired from universities like Sankore and Qurtuba (Muslim Spain) universities.
Memorising 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 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
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 and mathematics. 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.
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.