Sub-Saharan Centres of Learning

by Natty Mark Samuels Published on: 5th August 2005

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Though we may think of Timbuktu as the pre-eminent site of pre-colonial West African scholarship, we must remember that there were other places spanning across the Western and Central Sudan that were renowned for their tradition of teaching. One such place was the capital city of the Kanem Bornu state, Birni Gazargamu. This first great centre of Islamic learning in Central Sudan produced such outstanding figures as Idris Alooma, the pioneering 16th century mai (King) who improved governance and infrastructure. A scholar himself, he funded scholarship and the copying of sacred books. An earlier product of this stimulating aura was Ibrahim al-Kanemi, the first known Sub-Saharan writer (12th century) to have written in Arabic.

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If we venture west from Chad into Nigeria we can enter the cities of Kano and Katsina, two of the original Hausa city-states. It was around the environs of Gobarau Mosque built during the reign of Sarkin (King) Muhammed Korau (1463-1495), the first Muslim ruler of Katsina, that this metropolis became a centre of learning. Ibn Sabbag known as Dan Marina, an acclaimed scholar of the 17th century, who the Sokoto Caliphate ruler Muhammed Bello, often referred to as ”the corridor to knowledge,” was educated there. Muhammed al-Fulani al-Kishnawi, who became a noted figure, in the celebrated al-Jabarti circle, based at Al-Azhar University, also studied there. He passed away in Cairo in 1741 CE. In an article by Dr Musa Ahmad Karkaru[[1]] we are informed that there are copies of his works in the Egyptian National Library, as well as in some Moroccan and Nigerian archives. The Kano Chronicle[[2]] tells us that it was the Wangara teachers and traders that popularised Islam in Kano during the 14th century. Amid the reign of Sarkin Kano Muhammed Rumfa (1463-1699) and after his return from Mecca, the city became a centre of learning; attracting scholars and students from near and far – such as the jurist Muhammed al-Maghli, from Tlemcen, Algeria.

Continuing westward, into Burkina Faso, there is the village of Darsalamy, founded by Wangara scholars. Since the 18th century they have been resident in the major city of Bobo-Dioulasso. During the mid-19th century, in the western part of the country, they founded Darsalamy, translated as “abode of peace” or “house of peace” in Arabic, as a village of study and prayer in. Inspired by the teachings and life of the Malian scholar, al-Hajj Salim Suwari, these teachers followed his tradition.

Sudan, Africa (Source)

Going south from Burkina Faso, we enter Ghana. Salaga, in the north of the country, was sometimes referred to as the ‘Timbuktu of the South,’ due to the twin attributes both towns shared – trade and scholarship. One of the outstanding figures of the 19th century in Salaga, was a scholar of Nigerian descent, al-Hajj Umar, who was a founder of the schools there. Thought to have had advanced knowledge in Greek philosophy as well as Arabic poetry, he later relocated to Kete Krachi; becoming a paramount figure in the establishment of that town as a centre of learning.

The Ivory Coast, which shares a border with Ghana, was also home to hubs of studying such as Bondouku and Kong, both founded in the early 18th century. The learning in these towns was generated by the teachings of Mande lineages in for example Kamagahte, Saganago and Timate. As well as being trading emporiums specialising in gold and kola nuts, they were well-known centres of learning, known for their teaching of Maliki law. Of the four recognised schools of Islamic law, the majority of Islamic West Africa follows the Maliki branch.

Staying on a westerly path, we find ourselves in the Sierra Leonean hinterland. In 1831, in a town called Gbile, in northern Sierra Leone, Fode Ibrahim Tarawali founded a school of higher learning. In an article by David E. Skinner[[3]], we are informed that the esteemed Pan African pioneer Edward Blyden, when passing through the area in 1872, said of the school, that:

‘Billeh is a sort of University town – the Oxford of this region… The president of this institution is Fode Tarawally, celebrated throughout the country for his learning…”

Going north of Sierra Leone, passing through Guinea, we make a stop in the Senegambian region. In 1611, Khaly Amar Fall founded the widely honoured Pir Saniokhor University in Senegal. Senegalese notables such as as Omar ibn Said, Malik Sy (founder of Bundu) and El Hajj Umar Tall studied at Pir, as well as the Gambian mystic Mass Kah, who founded his own settlement and school in his homeland, which he called Medina.

East of Senegal is Mali. The country that produced centres of learning, such as Jenne, where the Bagayogo lineage hails from and Kabura. Kabura is celebrated for being the hometown of the Fulani teacher Moddibo al-Kaburi, a pioneering figure of the Timbuktu scholarship, which produced alumni such as Ahmed Baba, the eminent scholar of 16th century Timbuktu. Some referring this period to its “Golden Age.”

Ode to Ahmad Baba Al-Massufi – Muslim Heritage Article Banner Image (Source)

Thus if Timbuktu was the bright star, the central phenomenon in the teaching constellation, the other centres of learning we have briefly visited were complimentary satellites of often equal brilliance.

© Natty Mark Samuels, 2015. African School.

[1] Skinner, David E. “Mande Settlement and the Development of Islamic Institutions in Sierra Leone.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 11, no. 1. DOI: 1978.

[2] Palmer, H. R. R. “The Kano Chronicle.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 38. Accessed July 31, 2015. doi: Jan – June, 1908.

[3] Karkarhu, Dr Musa Ahmad. “The Gobarau Mosque and its Role as a Centre of Islamic Learning in Katsina.” International University of Africa. Accessed July 31, 2015.

Timbuktu Manuscripts or (Tombouctou Manuscripts) is a blanket term for the large number of historically important manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries in private households inTimbuktu, Mali. (Source)

Muslim Heritage: The University of Sankore
Image: Sankore Mosque that houses the University Campus in Mali.

Muslim Heritage: Lecture on Timbuktu Manuscripts at Al-Furqan Foundation

Muslim Heritage: Black History Month: African contributions to Muslim Civilisation

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