The University of Sankore, the center of higher learning that made Africa a shining star in the Middle Ages

Stephen Nartey March 03, 2023
University of Sankore/Photo credit: Wikipedia

Financiers like the unknown woman from Mandinka invested substantial funds to make sure the University of Sankore lived up to its name. Many often referred to it as the University of Timbuktu since it was founded by the chief judge of Timbuktu, Al-Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar in 989 CE. The university placed significant priority on the quality of education offered, and on the learning environment. Unlike other institutions, the school had no central administration but concentrated its resources on providing independent schools and colleges which were administered by one professor or scholar. Its architecture can be described as unique because it was built similarly to the inner court of the mosque of the Ka’abah in Makkah.

There is an argument that quality education emerged in Africa with the arrival of European missionaries, but contrary evidence discovered by historians suggests otherwise. One of the counter-proofs is the history surrounding the University of Sankore in Timbuktu. It was the citadel of learning during the reign of Mansa Musa and the Askia Dynasty. If the University was situated in modern times, it will measure up to the Ivy League institutions of today. It was the renowned center of learning for those seeking to study medicine, surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language, linguistics, geography, history, as well as art.

These strategic investments made Sankore University the center of excellence when it came to the Muslim world. One of the decisions taken to ensure its academic integrity was that courses were undertaken in open courtyards of the mosque’s complex or private residences. The study of Islamic studies and the quranic teachings as well as law and literature was non-negotiable. Students were made to devote time to understudy business mentors, along with fundamental business codes and ethics.

It is believed western universities may have taken the inspiration for their academic freedom from Sankore University. Over 70,000 manuscripts originated from this institution as a result of in-depth research students were made to conduct. Studying at the university was considered so rigorous, it took up to 10 years for students to earn a superior degree, which is equivalent to today’s Ph.D. level of qualification. Those who graduated were the only ones who qualified to make it through the mill-wear, a traditional turban worn during graduation. The turban signified their association with divinity, knowledge, and integrity exhibited during their studies.

The French author, Felix Dubois, in his book “Timbuctoo the Mysterious,” highlighted how the university paid attention to stringent measures in its admission of students. In the 12th century, it is believed the university had over 25,000 students out of 100, 000 of the city’s population. There was an emphasis on producing world-class scholars who were recognized for their papers and publications. This was spearheaded by one of the most celebrated scholars of Timbuktu, Ahmad Baba Es Sudane, the last chancellor of Sankore University. He published over 60 books on law, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 3, 2023


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