Many Africans and non-Africans believe that the quest for knowledge originated outside the continent. I would like to present the evidence of Sankoré in Timbuktu.

Sankoré, the famous medieval mosque-university at Timbuktu (in present day Mali) was set up around the twelfth century; and teaching was based on Arabic scholarship and Islamic values.  More sophisticated methods of adjudication and political administration, were also established. It was initially a mosque built by Mansa Musa in the year 1327. By the end of Mansa Musa’s reign (early 14th century AD), Sankoré had been converted into a fully staffed Islamic school-university with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. The level of learning at Sankoré University was superior to that of all other Islamic centres in the world. It was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with between 400,000 to 700,000 manuscripts.


The University had four degree levels. The primary degree level at Quran schools introduced students to the holy Quran, Arabic language and basics in science. The secondary degree or general studies level students were introduced to grammar, commentaries of the Quran, the hadiths, prophetic narrations jurisprudence, mathematics, physics, chemistry, history, trade, Islamic business code and ethics. The superior degree consisted of highly specialized learning where students were guided by professors and it took about ten years. It was equivalent to a doctoral degree. The University also hosted the Circle of Knowledge which was a specialized club of scholars and professors. Students who impressed their teachers were admitted to circle of knowledge and became tenured professors.


State leaders such as Mansa Musa of Mali, Askia Muhammad I of Songhay, Sheik Amadu of Fulani caliphate of Massina, and Emirs of Sudan often sent questions on major issues to Circle of Knowledge for guidance demonstrating centrality of university education in the sustainability of society. The Circle of Knowledge provided a ruling that was often respected and binding on the issue at hand. Scholars of Sankoré included Ahmad Babu as-Sudane (1564-1627) the final chancellor of Sankoré University before the Moroccan invasion in 1593. He wrote more than 60 books in law, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, Mathematics. Others included Muhammed Bagayogo as-sudane al-Wangari al Timbuktu. He was conferred with a honorary doctorate degree from Al –Azhar University in Cairo.


During the uprising the Mali in 2012, it was feared that Sankoré would be destroyed. Thankfully it was not. Sankoré, and its legacy of historic African enlightenment still stands, for now. It is an African legacy we should be proud of.


PS: The University of Karueein (Al Quaraouiyine) founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco is accepted by UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first university. I have focused on Sankoré here for two reasons:

1. It is often suggested (I do not agree) that Morocco is not ‘proper Africa.’ (See previous blog on Hegel’s idea about North African Arabs being of superior intellect to Black Africans)

2. There does seem to be some limited dispute as to whether Karueein (Al Quaraouiyine) was a university. I think it was, but Sankoré puts the existence of learning in Africa before European invasion beyond all doubt.


Cleaveland, Timothy. “Timbuktu and Walata: lineages and higher education.” The meanings of Timbuktu (2008): 77-91.

Haidara, Ismael Diadie, and Haoua Taore. “The private libraries of Timbuktu.” The meanings of Timbuktu (2008): 271-75.

Jeppie, Shamil, and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. The meanings of Timbuktu. University of Cape Town, 2010.

Saad, Elias N. Social history of Timbuktu: the role of Muslim scholars and notables 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 1983.


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