Islamic Learning Center in Africa

By Elmira Akhmetova

The city of Timbuktu is located in the present-day territory of Mali, some 12 kilometers (8 miles) north of the Niger flood-plain along the southern edge of the Sahara. The city was founded in the 11th century by the Tuareg, an African ethnic group.

Timbuktu was the starting point for African pilgrims going to hajj and the center of Islamic scholarship and education in the West Africa throughout several centuries. This city was a product of an eclectic mixture of African and Arab influences that found in Islam a common denominator. Tuareg, Fulani, Berbers, Soninke, Songhai and other ethnic groups lived side by side here in peace, bound together by their belief in Allah, following the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

At its height during the mid 16th century, Timbuktu had a population of about 60,000. As a prime caravan stop and the center of manufacturing, it dominated the West African trade and economic growth. But the city’s key role was in being a learning center. When traders, travelers or pilgrims reached the city, they spent months, even years for learning, in Timbuktu before moving on.

Earliest records about Timbuktu belongs to the 12th century. For eight centuries Timbuktu captured the imaginations of both the East and the West, though for very different reasons. In 1620 the English explorer Richard Jobson wrote: “The most flattering reports had reached Europe of the gold trade carried on at Timbuktu. The roofs of its houses were represented to be covered with plates of gold, the bottoms of the rivers to glisten with the precious metals, and the mountains had only to be excavated to yield a profusion of the metallic treasure.”[i]

Other reports said that rose water flowed in the city’s fountains and that the sultan showered each visitor with priceless gifts.

Islamic sources on Timbuktu, on the other hand, are Tarikhs (history books) and series of chronicles. Two history books among them give the most detailed information. The first one is the “Tarikh al-Sudan,” written in 1653 by the city’s most eminent scholar – Abdul Rahman Al-Sa’di, who was an African Muslim from an aristocratic Sudanese family. The “Tarikh al-Sudan” traces history and its society from its founding until the time of writing. Al-Sa’di’s work is so reliable, and his descriptions are so exact, even after 250 years this book was used by the French journalist Felix Dubois as a guidebook. “The author displays an unusual conscientiousness, never hesitating to give both versions of a doubtful event,” wrote Dubois in 1897.[ii]

Another book of “Tarikh” is the “Tarikh al-Fattash,” written in the same century by Mahmood Al-Hajj Al-Ka’ti, also a Sudanese Muslim, who was born and grew up in Timbuktu.

According to these “Tarikhs”, Timbuktu’s religious leaders, judges and officials all tended to be graduated from the city’s schools. There were 150 or 180 schools for the teaching of the Qur’an in Timbuktu in the middle of the 16th century. In one of them 123 writing boards were counted. These numerous schools for beginners formed the broad basis for the higher levels of education. In the three principle mosques and in the private homes of the leading scholars, circles of students gathered to hear their lessons and to read texts in all branches of Islamic sciences: Quranic exegesis (tafseer), the Prophetic traditions (hadith) and jurisprudence…[iii] Apart from the religious courses, the students studied grammar (nahu), literary style and rhetoric (balaghah), logic (mantiq), mathematics, history, astronomy, and cartography.

Likewise, those born in Timbuktu to humble families were also guaranteed their education. So great was the fervor for Islamic learning that even the tailors of Timbuktu, among other craft guilds, founded their own centers of learning where instructors oversaw both the workshop and its college. In this environment, students worked as apprentice tailors while they were also instructed in the foundations of Islamic scholarship. By the 16th century is said to have had more than 26 establishments for tailor scholars alone, many employing more than 100. Thus, institutes also reinforced the city’s role as a significant manufacturer of cloth. [iv]

Even without an official institution of higher education, Timbuktu looked like a university town. Scholars were known for their specialized subjects and students went to learn a subject from the foremost authority. After he had completed the reading of a text, the student received from his master a certificate (ijaza), which gave him permission to teach that text to others. Chains of the transmission of learning developed and through them one can discern several traditions of scholarship, which contributed to the flourishing of education in Timbuktu.[v]

In Timbuktu, there were three centers for higher learning, which we can even called universities, located in three main mosques. The most important among them was the Sankore mosque, where a famous scholar Ahmad Baba (1556-1627) used to teach. A great, tawny, pyramidal structure laced with protruding wooden support beams, the Sankore mosque was the bastion of learning in Timbuktu. Its imams were regarded with unequalled respect; its school attracted the noble and the rich as students. And, as Timbuktu’s fame grew in the Islamic world, Sankore became the most important center of Islamic scholarship in Africa after al-Azhar.[vi]

Also, Timbuktu was famous for its rich libraries, especially the private ones. One of the greatest, containing more than 700 volumes, was left by the master scholar Hadji Ahmad bin Umar. His library was said to have included many of the rarest books ever written in Arabic, and he copied and annotated a considerable number of the volumes himself. The libraries of Timbuktu grew through a regular process of hand-copying manuscripts. Scholars would visit the caravansarais and appeal to learned travelers to permit their precious volumes to be reproduced. Alternatively, they duplicated texts borrowed from their mentors’ collections, studying the material as they did so. Al-Wazan commented that “hither are brought divers manuscripts or written books, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise.” As late as the close of the 19th century, Felix Dubois purchased a number of antique books in Timbuktu, including the copy of the Divan of Kings, a chronology of the rulers and events of Sudan between 1656 and 1747.[vii]

Accordingly, Timbuktu was an important center of learning for West Africa as well as for the entire Sudan belt region for many centuries. It introduced knowledgeable rulers and scholars for the Mali sultanate (13-15th centuries). Then, when Mali lost its territory to Songhay, the new rulers gave a particular attention to the ulama. This is how Timbuktu reached its peak during the period of the Songhay Sultanate. In 1591, the Sultanate was invaded by Moroccan ruler Maula Ahmad Al-Mansoor, whereby many scholars (including Ahmad Baba) and civil servants were taken to the Maghreeb territory, especially to Marrakesh.

But the city of Timbuktu hadn’t lost its significance as a center of learning and educating African people for quite a long time. In the early 19th century a French explorer Rene Caille remarked that all population of Timbuktu was able to read the Qur’an  and even know it by heart. Some 66 years later, when the French colonized the region, they recorded that some two dozen key scholastic centers still flourished in Timbuktu, continuing to teach Arabic, Qur’an and Ahadith.



[ii]              Ibid.

[iii]             The Cambridge History of Africa, editor: Roland Oliver, Cambridge, UK, 1977, vol. 3, 417.


[v]              The Cambridge History of Africa, 417.


[vii]            Ibid.

Writer is a faculty member of the department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia