READERS OF THE history of Islam in Africa often come away with an image of West Africans as suffering from a religious duality: Distinctive cultures animating the African soul with an Islam as a kind of external overlay, driven by a relationship between African Muslim kings and intrepid Arab merchants. This obscures the harrowing native Islamic educational movement in West Africa and its brilliant and courageous standard bearers.

A review of the West African Islamic project’s intellectual roots and its proliferation in the context of two urban centers of culture and learning–this, I hope, will give a more realistic picture of Islam’s organic spirit among West Africans and its frontal challenges.

(1) Kano, Nigeria

Islam and the West African Religious Endowment

After passing through Kanem-Bornu, Islamic education entered Hausaland as late as the thirteenth century. It captured Hausa imagination through the front gates of the emporium at Kano. This fortified Muslim city was unique in that surrounding states—like sixteenth century Gobir, the birthplace of the celebrated Fulani Shaykh and Amir Uthman Dan Fodio, and even nineteenth century Zaria—remained pagan.

In his A History of the African People, Robert July writes about endowed Muslim cities after the decline of the great Islamic Songhay Empire:

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They were located in combined woodland and farming country that produced abundant citrus fruit and cereal crops raised by the tall, black-skinned, broad-faced people of the region. Eventually, Kano would become the leading market of the central Sudan, with its houses of sunbaked mud, its vast market, its mosques, its great walls, and its compliment of cultivated and prosperous merchants.

While Timbuktu, as we shall see, enjoyed daunting prestige, scores of scholars, like Al-Hajj Ahmad, who taught theology and jurisprudence, followed the caravan route to Kano and took advantage of its esteemed scholarship. From Kano, the preeminent scholar Al-Maghili, at the request of the king of Kano, Muhammad Rumfa, wrote his famous treatise on the art of governing Muslims and non-Muslims together, which he closed with the words: “The eagle can only win his realm by firm resolve….Kingdoms are held by the sword, not by delay.”

By the twelfth century, Kano, one of the largest walled, urban West African entrepôts, housed approximately 30,000 residents. In the century prior, Almoravid influence was widely diffused throughout the region, including occupying the southern Iberian Peninsula.

During that era, reformers were preoccupied with enforcing authentic Islamic practices, as the Muslim temperament for Islam in the region was initially lukewarm, even apathetic. Converting pagans and rearranging life to stem deviant Muslim behavior grew Kano’s reputation as a strict town that also revolved around trading, a hub for scholarly activity as well as an urban environment with numerous and variously talented teachers contained in mosques.

Almoravid education fused with the indigenous to take advantage of the African predisposition to worship of God. Instead of deconstructing and overthrowing existing indigenous educational incentives, the learned leaders of Kano rather aided the axis of African religious cosmologies, cultures, and, consequently West Africa’s first introduction to a universal religion.

By the fifteenth century, the majority of Kano’s inhabitants were Muslim with Islamic instincts and sensitivities. Instead of mirroring Umayyad or Abbasid structures, Africans essentially did not create learning centers built around outside models but rather retained an indigenous sense of worship, and through education and experience, they synthesized in one location the old guard with new ideas imported from the outside world.

Language, Learning, and Cosmological Communalization

Linguistically, Kano, the capital of Hausaland, increased the impact of education and the presence of Islam in West Africa by synthesizing Hausa with the venerated Arabic, only later to have East African Swahili follow this transition. By innovatively merging Hausa with Arabic, Muslims altered the course and urgency of how religion acclimated to the traditional. By way of language, they had ingeniously, and in a local, culturally sound way, allied students to a novel universal perspective and religious means of communication.

Through the leadership and foresight of education activists like Imam Umaru of Salga (1858-1934), who demonstrated the extent to which Islamic education effectively penetrated the inner circles of Hausaland, the Muslims of Kano instituted Islamic study circles and translated Hadith literature into Hausa.

The prestige of writing boosted the image of Muslim schools, and the use of Arabic letters in local languages firmly determined and fixed local Islamic consciousness. As an isolated but great learning center with many schools-within-mosques, Kano—in the midst of a region of diverse and warring pagan ethnicities—was the center to which the majority of the people sent their sons to learn Quran and Hadith. Replete with African and Arab imams and scholars, by the eighteenth century Kano came to rival the legendary and prestigious Islamic learning center of Timbuktu.

There was a sense of upward mobility and status for families sending their boys to Quranic schools in Kano, where from the outset boys learned Al-Fatihah, and then short verses of the Quran. Other than the widely practiced rites of passage, religion had no such precedent. The educational atmosphere initially frightened students because it resembled that of the military. Teachers were serious, as their responsibility was believed to be a divine intervention, and the result for students a celestial reward.

But while salvation was obviously one concern, students were prepared also to spread Islam through teaching. They memorized the last sixteenth of the Quran as a means to Qur’anic and Arabic literacy, compelled as they were to learn Arabic letters and vocalization, and then advanced to the longer chapters. Contrary to the practice in Euro-American schools, there was no expected time-frame for completion of studies; in fact, the teacher-student relationship may have extended until the death of the instructor. Aside from the elevated “chair” used by the professor, and the wooden slates, chalk and the bowls of drinking water used to hydrate parched students, African schools in the mosque were sparsely equipped but recognizable as education facilities.

Female attendance at schools was common. The Yoruba of Ilorin, for example, have for the most part not experienced the gender tensions stereotypically associated with communalism in Africa. This presence of women comes as a backdrop to African history, which often demonstrates female contributions in a clearly patriarchal society. The Shinqit of Western Sahara took pride in the manner in which female education, using poetry and praise-singing, debunked fictitious universals about male dominated Qur’anic education. The irrational gender divide and formal exclusion of females from education, typically exemplified by static patriarchal pagan societies, is thus not a universal African Muslim social configuration.

As students accelerated through the most demanding levels of course work, they were encouraged to play a role in the community and mosque. Student responsibilities included, not only work at home, but at school. Daily, it was the students that assembled the necessities for classes, assisted the Imams, cleaned floors, cooked, offered the call to prayer, and collected firewood. Upon graduation from the rudimentary educational levels, large flamboyant white turbans and lavish and abundantly colored African clothes were awarded.

During the final ceremony, and on cue from the headmaster, students recited the first part (juza’) of the Quran while the community, including close relatives, looked on with a visible sense of ennoblement. Celebrations included dance, music, eating bull’s meat and fresh fruit, and chewing kola nuts, as students praised their teachers in front of satisfied parents. Families ceremonially bedecked exhausted but proud teachers with white cowrie shells and draped fine European cloths on their backs. The graduation ceremony marked the end of formal training. Like the demands of the rites of passage, however, students were now expected to identify professions, as well as take brides and begin families, which, according to a well-known prophetic tradition, completed the other half of their religion.

(2) Timbuktu, Mali

The Islamic Eminence of a Legendary City

Just north of the elongated Niger River vein, where the regal flow of water casually makes its most dramatic bend, lies the once-glorious bravura of Timbuktu. The most celebrated city outside the immense Western Sudan, founded by exhausted, wandering Taureg nomads somewhere around 1100 A.D., Timbuktu, the trading terminus, survived the onslaughts of the maverick renegade Sunni Ali to become the unrivaled West African nucleus of Islamic scholarship.

Leo Africanus wrote that Timbuktu did not become the focal point of intellectualism, until Askiyah Muhammad Toure reawakened the sleeping giant through a religious and cultural renaissance begun years before by the towering Al-Hajj Mansa Musa who built the Sankore Mosque. July adds:

Most of all Leo (Africanus) was impressed by the city’s intellectual activities, for the king, Muhammad Toure, had attracted many learned and professional men to Timbuktu and supported their studies from his own treasury. Libraries were large and numerous, and the Sankore Mosque was doing double duty as a university as well as a place of worship.

The city of Timbuktu, with its tradition of Islamic scholarship, was first an urban outpost and seasonal encampment for pasturing flocks on the banks of the Niger River. Within 200 years, Timbuktu would attract enough scholars with extensive libraries to allow literacy to connect the city to smaller communities across the southern fringes of the Sahel. Unlike with the history of Christianity–represented by the Church of Constantine, the leader who reserved the luxury of literacy for a small cadre–literacy in the Arab world quickly extended to Africa.

Known as the City of Scholars when Ibn Battuta visited Timbuktu in 1353, the city was governed by Sanhaja nomads of the Massufa tribe. Al-Sa‘di writes that the regional federation theologically influenced by the Maliki Almoravids was originally a place frequented by traveling herdsmen not scholars. A testament to the Almoravid influence is the Kitab al-Shifa’, written by renowned Al-Qadi ‘Iyad in the early twelfth century, widely circulated and still a part of some West African school curricula.

Islam’s West African Golden Age

By 1324, Mansa Musa effectively walked onto the expansive stage of African history with his ceremonial return from Makkah. What is widely known about Musa is that on the way to pilgrimage his generosity with gold changed the economy of Egypt. Overlooked is that Musa, and many other African Muslim reformers upon their return from Makkah and Cairo, brought a number of Arab scholars with them south of the Sahara to Timbuktu and other centers of learning. Musa returned with Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Al-Sahili, who–like many Muslim intellects–made West Africa a final home.

Al-Sahili migrated to Timbuktu and supervised the building of the Great Mosque financed by gold from the Senegal River. Later, the Almohads of North Africa, originally led by Ibn Tumart, sent teachers to Kanem-Bornu. Ibrahim Ibn Ya‘qub Al-Kanimi, who made a career as an Arab grammarian, scholar and poet, held a seat at the royal court of Marrakech and later advised the amirs of Mali.

By 1374, the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques of Majorca, for the first time placed Timbuktu on a European map prepared for Charles V of France. As a result, Muslim scholars from North Africa, and even Jews from Andalusia, migrated to Timbuktu and worked in schools as translators and business people, respectively. Ibn Tumart’s Al-Murshida, translated into Hausa by the scholarly reformist Uthman Dan Fodio, is still widely used in Nigeria as a primer on Tawîd.

Shaykh Yahya Al-Tadlisi Ibn Abd-Rahman Al-Tha‘labi arrived in Timbuktu somewhere between 1438 and 1468, along with his teacher Modibbo Muhammad al-Kabari. Al-Kabari taught the Sanhaja Umar Ibn Muhammad Aqit, whose lineage extends from one of the leading Almoravid figures, Abubakr Ibn Umar. Muhammad Baghoyogho (d. 1593), perhaps the most celebrated qadi and lecturer of his era, was responsible for the early training of the intellectual Ahmad Baba. Ira Lapidus tells us concerning Ahmad Baba that his “biographical dictionary indicates a high level of Arabic learning,” and his writing describes not only his teaching process but also contains actual curricula.

Of towns such as Walata, Tuwat, and Awjila, densely populated with students, Professor John Humwick, the last translator of Al-Sadi’s Tarikh al-Sudan writes:

What is interesting here is the fact that these southerly towns were early centers of learning that produced scholars deeply versed in the literature of the Maliki madh-hab, from whom Timbuktu profited. Although there is no direct evidence, we may hypothesize that this tradition ultimately stems from Almoravid scholarship, which was imbibed by Soninke Muslims who came in contact with Sanhaja scholars in the Sahalian regions.


African American historian and social scientist W.E.B. Dubois was the first to use in writing in English the term the “University at Sankore at Timbuktu.” Built partly by the financial generosity of a woman from the local community, Sankore means “white nobles” and alludes to the lighter skinned Tuareg.

Although the majority of learning took place on a one-to-one basis and in the homes of scholars utilizing private libraries, the Great Mosque and the Sidi Yahya Mosque were centers of scholarly activities. Nevertheless, there is no basis for comparing African universities to European ones. Nor is there any evidence of a centralized institutional system in West African history.

Students received Quranic studies diplomas and were disciplined to memorize chapters and verses. German professor of Islamic studies Stefan Reichmuth adds:

The student made his own copy from his teacher’s dictation, and then read it back to him, or listened while another student read his. When he had a correct copy—and some shorter works might at the same time be memorized—he could then study the meaning of the text and its technical intricacies from lectures delivered by his teacher and at a higher level by question and answer. Many texts would be studied along with commentaries written in other times in other parts of the Muslim world.

The most well-known collections of manuscripts from the golden era of Timbuktu belong to the Mamma Haidara Library, the Al-Wangara Library, the Fondo Kati Library, and the Mohammad Tahar Library. The As-Sayouti family of Timbuktu claims more than 2,000 texts, including topics about optics and astronomy dating back to the 1300s.

Timbuktu found a permanent home nestled along the end of a prehistoric trade route connecting West Africa with Tunis, Cairo, Venice, Barcelona, and Genoa. With the fall of the Songhay, the last great African empire, numbered were the days of the last great city,Timbuktu, of Africa’s Islamic Golden Age. Eventually the city would become a shadow of its former magnificence, and in 1888, by the time Rene Callier arrived, the French explorer noted, “There is nothing here. The fêted Timbuktu no longer exists.”


* Amadou Shakur is an historian, writer, and lecturer living in North Carolina.

Originally posted 2015-10-07 14:13:59.

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