The Glory and Prestige of the University at Timbuktu, One of the Oldest in the World

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The documentation of education in Africa in this age often forgets to mention the former glory and prestige of the university at Timbuktu, which was one of the very earliest in the world.

The rich legacy of these early institutions is often not accorded the recognition it deserves as far as the discourse of Africa’s educational history is concerned. With Timbuktu, Africans were advanced more than anyone could have fathomed at the time. 

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Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, was the site of the earliest universities in the world. The thirst for knowledge within Africa was like a raging fire as evidenced by the vast educational prowess at Timbuktu. The University of Timbuktu dominated the 12th century to the extent that Europeans were even mystified by the fine knowledge dispensed by the education gurus at Timbuktu. It is reported that in 1824, an offer of 10,000 francs was made for the first European to locate the town of Timbuktu. 

The Glory and Prestige of the University at Timbuktu, One of the Oldest in the World
The Glory and Prestige of the University at Timbuktu, One of the Oldest in the World

Teaching at the mosque-university in Timbuktu was centered on Arabic scholarship and Islamic values. Sophisticated methods of adjudication and political administration were also firmly set up. The ancient mosques, tombs, and monuments of the university in Timbuktu consisted of the Masajid of Djinguereber, the Masajid of Sidi Yahya, and the Masajid of Sankore. A mosque built by Mansa Musa in the year 1327 had set the perfect conditions for education to thrive in Timbuktu. 

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Sankore, by the end of Mansa Musa’s reign in the early 14th century, had been turned into a fully staffed Islamic school-university with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. The learning commanded immense superiority and was the best in the Islamic world at that time.  At its height, long before Europeans had begun to seriously build universities, Timbuktu had an average attendance of around 25 000 students within a city of around 100 000 people. 

The university curriculum was divided into four parts. The primary degree level at Quran schools introduced students to the holy Quran, Arabic language and basics in science. The second degree or general studies familiarised students with grammar, commentaries of the Quran, the hadiths, prophetic narrations jurisprudence, mathematics, physics, chemistry, history, trade, Islamic business code, and ethics. The superior level comprised of highly specialized learning in which students were guided by professors and it took about ten years.  It commanded the respect of a doctoral degree. Then there was the Circle of Knowledge which was a specialized club of scholars and professors hosted by the university. The brilliant students who posited a remarkable impression on their teachers were admitted to the circle of knowledge and became tenured professors. 

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The Glory and Prestige of the University at Timbuktu, One of the Oldest in the World
The Glory and Prestige of the University at Timbuktu, One of the Oldest in the World

Leo Africanus, a 16th-century historian once wrote this about the university in Timbuktu: “There are many judges, doctors and clerics here, all receiving good salaries from King Askia Mohammed of the State of Songhay. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a great demand for books, and more profit is made from the trade-in books than from any other line of business” 

The legacy of the University in Timbuktu should be preciously preserved and honored. Timbuktu, as a city, thrived as a flourishing civilization and it was a rich kingdom. Presently, there are more than 700 000 manuscripts from the medieval era still surviving in public libraries and private collections and are now being digitalized. The books touch on religion, law, literature, and science including letters between rulers, officials, and merchants on issues such as taxes, trade, marriage, and commerce.

This legacy should not be thrown away and future generations must continue learning about the glory and prestige of the university at Timbuktu.

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E. Africa

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