The University of Sankore at Timbuctoo: A Neglected Achievement in Black Intellectual History

If the University of Sankore had not been destroyed; if Professor Ahmad Baba, author of forty historical works, had not had his works and his university destroyed; if the University of Sankore as it was in 1591 had survived the ravage of foreign invasions; the academic and cultural history of Africa might have been different from what it is today.

Kwame Nkrumah – Flower Of Learning (1), At His Installation As First Chancellor Of The University Of Ghana – November 25, 1961

dr-john-henrik-clarke
DR. JOHN HENRIK CLARKE was Advisory Editor for the African-American Scholar and Professor, Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies, at Hunter College, New York, Past President, African Heritage Studies Association, and Founding Member, Black Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a prolific writer of articles on African and Afro-American history and culture appearing regularly in journals in the USA and abroad.

In the Mali Republic, in West Africa today, the ruins of some of the buildings that once housed the University of Sankore, and the Grand Mosque of Timbuctoo, can still be seen. Therefore this subject is both topical and historical. Most Black Americans are just beginning to hear about the University of Sankore and the grandeur of the Songhay Empire during Africa’s third and last Golden Age.1 Western historians have either ignored this period in African history or attributed it to the influence of the Arabs and the Berbers.

The intellectual history of Africa has not been written. It is a history that is long, strong and rich and the holocaust of the slave trade did not destroy it. Contrary to misconceptions that still prevail, in spite of historical evidence that can dispell [sic] them, the Africans were producers of literature and art, and a philosophical way of life, long before their contact with the Western world.

Before the destruction of the Empire of Songhay, by the Moroccans and European mercenary soldiers, at the end of the sixteenth century, the Africans in the Western Sudan (inner West Africa) had been bringing into being great empires and cultures for over a thousand years, the most notable empires were Ghana and Mali. The Songhay Empire, and the University of Sankore, at Timbuctoo, was in existence over a hundred years after the slave trade had already been started along the west coast of Africa.

During the period in West African history–from the early part of the fourteenth century to the time of the Moorish invasion in 1591–the city of Timbuctoo and the University and [sic] Sankore in the Songhay Empire were the intellectual centers of Africa. Black scholars were enjoying a renaissance that was known and respected throughout most of Africa and in parts of Europe. At this period in African history, the University of Sankore was the educational capital of the Western Sudan.2 In his book Timbuctoo the Mysterious, Felix DuBois gives us the following description of this period:

The scholars of Timbuctoo yielded in nothing, to the saints in their sojourns in the foreign universities of Fez, Tunis, and Cairo. They astounded the most learned men of Islam by their education. That these Negroes were on a level with the Arabian Savants is proved by the fact that they were installed as professors in Morocco and Egypt. In contrast to this, we find that the Arabs were not always equal to the requirements of Sankore.3

I will speak of only one of the great Black scholars referred to in the book by Felix DuBois.

Ahmed Baba was the last chancellor of the University of Sankore. He was one of the greatest African scholars of the late sixteenth century. His life is a brilliant example of the range and depth of West African intellectual activity before the colonial era. Ahmed Baba was the author of more than forty books; nearly every one of these books had a different theme. He was in Timbuctoo when it was invaded by the Moroccans in 1591, and he was one of the first citizens to protest this occupation of his beloved hometown. Ahmed Baba, along with other scholars, was imprisoned and eventually exiled to Morocco. During his expatriation from Timbuctoo, his collection of 1600 books, one of the richest libraries of his day, was lost.

plan-of-timbuktu-showing-the-residence-of-ahmed-baba
Plan of Timbuktu/Timbuctoo showing proximity of Ahmed Baba’s dwelling to the University of Sankore/Sankore Mosque. From Felix Dubois’ book Timbuctoo the Mysterious https://books.google.com/books?id=OYELAAAAIAAJ&vq=Ahmed%20Baba&pg=PA341#v=onepage&q&f=false

Now, West Africa entered a sad period of decline. During the Moorish occupation wreck and ruin became the order of the day. When the Europeans arrived in this part of Africa and saw these conditions, they assumed that nothing of order and value had ever existed in these countries.

Western scholarship, in most cases has ignored the great wealth of information on intellectual life in the Western Sudan. The following details on the subject were extracted from the pamphlet,4 “Literacy and Scholarship in Muslim West Africa in the Pre-Colonial Period,” by John O. Hunwick (1974).

In sixteenth-century Timbuctoo, during the relatively settled and prosperous period of the Askias of Songhay, there was an important concentration of scholars around the famous Sankore Mosque and University. There were many celebrated families of scholars in Timbuctoo and throughout the Songhay Empire. Ahmed Baba came out of such a family. This family, and others, produced numerous scholars during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and an illustrious dynasty of judges. In his book Professor Hunwick tells us that:

The scholars of Timbuctoo were not wholly wrapped up in their theoretical studies and the preservation and handling of knowledge, important as this was…many went on pilgrimage to Mecca and while there took the opportunity to hold discussions with, or acquire knowledge from scholars from other parts of the Muslim world. On the way home, some stopped in Egypt and studied under the leading scholars in Cairo. Some also visited other African towns in the course of their travels such as Kano, Katsina, Takedota and Walata, studying if they found teachers, and teaching if they found pupils.

In the Book Timbuctoo the Mysterious the writer Felix DuBois tells us:5

Timbuctoo was not merely the great intellectual nucleus of the Sudan, but also one of the great scientific centers of Islam itself.

sketch-of-the-great-mosque-of-timbuktu-from-rene-caillie
Sketch of the plan of the great mosque of Timbuctoo, and view taken from E.N.E. from the book Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo: And Across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824-1828, Volume 2 https://books.google.com/books?id=u7xjAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA72-IA1#v=onepage&q&f=false

The University of Sankore had established relationships with similar institutions in Cairo, Cardova, Fez and Damasus. The collection of ancient manuscripts in the library at Sankore leaves us in no doubt upon this point. These manuscripts give us the opportunity to reconstruct the life of the intellectual community at Timbuctoo and to see how this community related to the Muslim world of its day. According to Felix Dubois:

An entire class of the population was devoted to the study of letters, being called fakirs or sheiks by the old manuscripts, and marabuts (holy men) of the Sudanese of today…these pious and cultured families of Timbuctoo lived within the precincts of the mosque of Sankore…they were held in high esteem by both dignitaries and people. The Songhay kings pensioned the most celebrated, and they received many gifts, especially in the month of Ramadan.

The great scholar, Ahmed Baba, belonged to one of these families. When the Moroccan expeditionary force, composed largely of Andalusian renegades and other white mercenaries occupied Timbuctoo in 1591, an attempt to revolt led to the deportation of the leading scholars, including Ahmed Baba.6

The story of Ahmed Baba is part of the story of the Songhay during the years after the death of the great ruler that is known in African history as “Askia the Great.” After the death of Askia, in 1528, the Songhay Empire began to lose its strength and its control over its vast territory. When the Songhay Empire collapsed after the capture of Timbuctoo and Gao by the Moroccans in 1591, the whole of the Western Sudan was devastated by the invading troops. The Sultan of Morocco, El-Mansur, had sent a large army with European fire across the Sahara to attack the once-powerful empire of Songhay. The army did not reach Timbuctoo until 1591. The prosperous city of Timbuctoo was plundered by the army of freebooters. A state of anarchy prevailed. The greatest Sudanese scholar of that day, Ahmed Baba, was among the exiled.

Timbuctoo provides the most terrible example of the struggles of the West African states and towns as they strove to preserve what was once their Golden Age. The Arabs, Berbers, and Tuaregs from the North showed them no mercy. Timbuctoo had previously been sacked by the Tuaregs as early as 1433, and they had occupied it for 30 years. Between 1591 and 1593, the Tuaregs had already taken advantage of the situation to plunder Timbuctoo once more. One result of the plundering of Timbuctoo was the destruction of the great University of Sankore and the exiling of its leading teachers and scholars.

The following information on this sad period in West African History has been extracted from the book Timbuctoo the Mysterious, by Felix Dubois:

However regrettable this exile may be from its consequences to the Sudan, it does not lack great historical interest. It is the touchstone which enables us to test the Eulogies concerning Sudanese science and learning contained in the native documents, for we now see the scholars of Sankore confronted by the highest developments of Arabian civilization. How will they stand the ordeal? The test proves entirely to their advantage.

Among the exiles was a learned doctor, Ahmed Baba by name, born in 1556 at Arawan, Sehnadjan. In spite of his youth, he enjoyed a considerable reputation in Timbuctoo at the time of the Moorish conquest, and his brethren gave him the title of “The Unique Pearl of his Time.” His renown [sic] increased in Morocco and became universal, spreading from Marrakesh to Bougie, Tunis and even to Tripoli. The Arabs of the north called this African “very learned and very magnanimous,” and his gaolers found him “a fount of erudition.” At the request of Moorish scholars the doors of his prison were opened a year after his arrival (1596). All the believers were greatly pleased with his release, and he was conducted in triumph from his prison to the principal mosque of Marrakesh. A great many of the learned men urged him to open a course of instruction. His first thought was to refuse, but overcome by their persistence he accepted a post in the Mosque of the Kerifs and taught rhetoric, law and theology. An extraordinary number of pupils attended his lectures, and questions of the greatest importance were submitted to him by the magistracy, his decision always being treated as final. With a modesty worthy of his learning, he said concerning these decisions: “I carefully examined from every point of view the questions asked me, and having little confidence in my own judgment I entreated the assistance of God, and the Lord graciously enlightened me.” The ancient histories of Morocco relate many other interesting details, and the author of the Bedzel el Nouasaha [sic] (aka Mouasaha or Moussa) reports the following utterance of Ahmed Baba: “Of all my friends I had the fewest books, and yet when your soldiers despoiled me they took 1600 volumes.” The Nozhel el Hadj gives the following instance of the courage and pride of the African Sheik: “After he was set at liberty Ahmed Baba presented himself at the palace of El Mansour, and the sultan gave audience to him from behind a curtain. “God has declared in the Koran,” said the sheik, “that no human being can communicate with Him hidden behind a veil. It is your wish to speak to me, come forth from behind that curtain.” When El Mansour raised the curtain and approached him, Ahmed Baba continued, “What need had you to sack my house, steal my books, and put me into chains to bring me to Morocco? By means of those chains I fell from my camel and broke my leg.” “We wished to establish unity in the Mussulman world,” replied the sultan, “and since you were one of the most distinguished representatives of Islam in your country, we expected your submission to be followed by that of your fellow-citizens.” “If that is so, why did you not seek to establish this unity amongst the Turks of Tiemcen and other places nearer to you?” “Because the Prophet says, Leave the Turks in peace so long as they do not interfere with thee.” “That was true at one time,” responded Ahmed Baba, “but since then Iba Abbas has said, Leave not the Turks in peace even though they should not interfere with thee.” El Mansour, being unable to reply to this put an end to the audience.”

Although apparently free, Ahmed Baba was detained in Morocco for twelve years; the sultan had only released him on that condition, fearing the effect of his influence on his fellow-citizens. It was not until after the death of El Mansour that permission was obtained from his son for the learned man to return to the Sudan. Ahmed Baba then set out for the country to which he had so ardently desired to return, and of which he never spoke without tears, in his eyes. The following verses were written by him in his exile:

“O thou who goest to Gao, turn aside from thy path to breathe my name in Timbuctoo. Bear thither the greeting of an exile who sighs for the soil on which his friends and family reside. Console my near and dear ones for the deaths of the Lords, who have been entombed.”

The principal marabuts of Marrakesh formed hima guard of honour at his departure, and, at the moment of farewell, one of them seized Ahmed Baba by the hand and saluted him with the following sura from the holy book:

“Certainly he who has made the Koran for thee shall lead thee back to the point of departure” — a customary address to a traveller in wishing him a safe return. On hearing these words, the sheik abruptly withdrew his hand, exclaiming, “May God never bring me back to this meeting, nor make me return to this country”

He reached Timbuctoo in safety, and died in 1627. A man of great learning and a prolific writer, the names of twenty of his books have been handed down to us. Except for an astronomical treatise, written in verse, and some commentaries on the holy texts, his books are chiefly elucidations of the law and the sciences he professed, and prove that he was above everything a jurist. Two of his books alone possess general interest; they have been preserved, happily….One is entitled the Miraz, and is a little book upon the different West African peoples, written by Ahmed Baba in exile, with a view to making the Sudanese populations known to the Moors. The other is El Ibtihadj, a large biographical dictionary of the Mussulman doctors of the Malekite sect; in it Ahmed Baba carried on the famous work of Ibn Ferhoun, and made it a continuation of the latter’s Dibadje. The learned biographer added to it the lives of all the scholars whom Ibn Ferhoun had not mentioned. Ahmed Baba completed his book in 1596, and it had such a great success in both Northern and West Africa that the author was obliged to publish a popular edition containing the principal biographies only.

It is partly owing to the Ibtihadj that it has been possible to reconstruct the intellectual past of Timbuctoo, and for this reason the name of Ahmed Baba deserves to be held in pious memory by our savants, as it is by those of the Arabian countries of Northern Africa. To this day his name represents to the letter every effort made by the Sudan to attain the intellectual level of the Mussulman world; so much so, in fact, that any Sudanese work of unknown parentage is attributed to him.

The family of Ahmed Baba is not yet extinct…One of his great-great-grandchildren, Ahmadou Baba Boubakar, was kadi, and enjoyed a considerable reputation for learning; the other Oumaro Baba, lived by making copies of books which he executed in a very beautiful handwriting. The family religiously perserves [sic] a chair which had belonged to their glorious progenitor, to whom it had been presented by his liberator, the Sultan El Zidan. A curious family tradition is connected with this venerated piece of furniture. On the occasion of the marriage of a member of the, the bridegroom is permitted to seat himself in this chair on the day of his nuptials. It is hoped, they told me, that some of the great qualities of the illustrious sheik will fall upon the husband and his descendants.

The sixteenth century, which we saw and [sic] so disastrously for the marabuts, formed the apogee of Timbuctoo’s scientific and literary grandeur. The wholesale arrest and exportation of her scholars proved a fatal blow to the University of Sankore. The decline of learning, as of everything else, set in with the Moorish occupation and yet the greatest work of all the literature of the Sudan was produced in the first days of its twilight, namely, tha Tarik and Sudan (the History of the Sudan) which we have so often had occasion to mention.

Ahmed Baba lived in the part of inner West Africa that is now the Republic of Mali. The story of this great Black scholar has been handed down from one generation to another.7

There is no way to separate the name of Ahmed Baba from the University of Sankore, at Timbuctoo, during its last days before the Moroccan invasion. The destruction of this great institution and the wreck and ruin of the Western Sudan, is one of the great tragedies in African history.8


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