Timbuktu, Islam and Knowledge

West Africa received the presence of Islam through North African traders who traveled with their camel caravans south of the Sahara. By the 14th century there were already Muslim sultanates in such areas as Mali, and Timbuktu in West Africa become centre of Islamic knowledge.  The process of the Islamisation of Africa continues even during the colonial period and continues until today.  Most Africans Muslims are caring on a tradition which has had practically as long a history in certain areas of sub-Saharan Africa as Islam itself.

The University of Timbuktu was established in Mali, comprised of three schools; namely the Masjid Sankoré, the Masjid Djingare Ber and the Masjid Sidi Yahya. During its height, the university at Timbuktu had an average attendance of around 25,000 students and 180 quran madrassah within a city of around 100,000 people. There were four levels within the University curriculum that included the “Circle of Knowledge”, the “Superior Degree”, the “Secondary Degree”, and the “Primary Degree”. Teachings mostly consisted of Quranic principles; however, literature covering topics of science, mathematics, and medicine are also observed, among other disciplines.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Masjid Sankoré


Sankoré Madrasah, Masjid Sankoré or The University of Sankoré, is one of three ancient centers of learning located in Timbuktu, Mali.  When the Mali Empire during the rein of Kanka Moussa gained direct control over the city of Timbuktu in 1324, Kanka Moussa brought the Granada architect Abu Ishaq es Saheli from Egypt to help build mosques and palaces throughout the empire. Abu Ishaq es Saheli designed and saw the construction of one of Sankore’s first great mosques. The foundations of the previous structure were laid around 989 A.D. on the orders of the city’s chief judge Al-Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar.  A local Mandinka lady, esteemed for her wealth, financed her plans to turn Sankoré into a world class learning institution with professors on par with any outside of Africa.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Masjid Sankoré, the minaret and view from the street


The Sankoré Masjid had been a fully staffed Madrassah or university with the largest collections of books in Africa. The level of learning at Timbuktu’s Sankoré Masjid was on a par with other Islamic centers in the world. The Sankoré Masjid was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest library in the world with between 400,000 to 700,000 manuscripts.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Masjid Djingarey Ber

The Masjid Djingarey Ber was a famous learning centre of Mali built in 1327 and designed by Abu Ishaq es Saheli who was paid 200 kg (40,000 mithqals) of gold by Kankan Moussa, emperor of the Mali Empire.  Except for a small part of the northern facade which is limestone, the Djingareyber Mosque is made entirely of earth plus organic materials such as fibre, straw and wood. It has three inner courts, two minarets and twenty five rows of pillars aligned in an east-west direction and prayer space for 2,000 people.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu islam and knowledge

The minaret, another view of Masjid Djingarey Ber.  House of the architect Abu Ishaq from Andalusia


Masjid Djingarey Ber was on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1988 and currently under massive restoration and rehabilitation which funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Masjid Sidi Yahya

The Masjid Sidi Yahya was built in 1400 by Sheikh El-Mokhtar Hamalla in expectation of a great holy person.  After 40 year without Imam, in 1441 Mohamed Naddah, the city-governor of Timbuktu, appointed his close friend Sidi Yahya from Andalusia (Sidi Yahya Tadelsi or Sidi Yahya Al Andulusi) as its first imam and head professor.  This marked the beginning of the mosque as a madrassah and a great centre of learning for the region.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

The main entrance of Masjid Sidi Yahya and the madrassah 

Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Imam Sidi Yahya’s room and later his tomb.  Mohamad Kanta, the caretaker of Masjid Sidi Yahya explaining the history of Masjid.  House of Imam Cheick Kunte HAIBALLA


Imam Sidi Yahya was said live in simple life only within the mosque.  When he died his body was buried in his room. The external main courtyard located in front of the mosque is used as reading space and gathering or ceremony. The back courtyard is a cemetery where the imams of the school are buried in an underground area located to the north of the mosque and now that is no longer in use


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Main front courtyard of Masjid Sidi Yahya, is used for Quran reciting and other activities and ceremonies.  Back courtyard (south), a cemetery of imams and others

Timbuktu Islam and knowledge     Timbuktu Islam and knowledge     Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Mehrab of Masjid Sidi Yahya and its interior

Masjid Sidi Yahya closely resembles the other famous mosques Sankore and Djingarey Ber. Main differences are it is not as tall and the doors are ornately made reflecting Moroccan architecture influence. The mosque has three rows of pillars facing north-south.


Timbuktu islam and knowledge

Bibliotheque of Ahmad Baba

Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

The Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research of Ahmad Baba (IHERIAB) 


The Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research of Ahmad Baba (IHERIAB) is founded by the government of Mali, with collaboration of Unesco. Ahmad Baba al-Massufi, Ahmed Baba Es Sudane, or Ahmed Baba, the black (1556–1627), was a medieval West African writer, political provocateur and scholar of Masjid Sankore. Through out his life, he wrote more than 40 books and is often noted as having been Timbuktu’s greatest scholar and mujaddid.


Timbuktu islam and knowledge    Timbuktu islam and knowledge

Commentary of Al-Quran 1241 and Mushaf Al-Quran written with gold

Timbuktu Islam and knowledge    Timbuktu islam and knowledge

Another manuscripts of pharmacology written by Sidi Ahmae b Umar ar-Raqadi al-Kunti in 1066 Hijriyah on display and text of Medicine by Ibn Sina (Avicenna)


IHERIAB’s library holds some of these manuscripts in order to restore and digitize them. More than 18,000 manuscripts have been collected by IHERIAB, but an estimate said there are about 400,000-700,000 manuscripts in the region.  There are many other private bibliotheques in Timbuktu where thousands of manuscripts are kept. Some manuscripts were taken and kept to Paris, London, Spain and other parts of Europe. Some manuscripts were buried underground, while others were hidden in the desert or in caves. Many are still hidden today.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Boubacar SADECK is an art writer who copying and transfering of the 16th century manuscripts on to new medium, operates his works at Gordon Laing’s house.  Shown are the manuscripts and his art works.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

Ecole pour Talibes.  One of many Madrassah for Quran in Timbuktu and this madrassah also house of orphanage.  The Quran’s scripted board and the boy reading the Quran.


Timbuktu Islam and knowledge   Timbuktu Islam and knowledge

 Another one of many masjid in Timbuktu.  Masjid Alpha Sekou SARAIKEINA and its prayer hall 


During my research, I have found this 35 minutes documentary video with title of Journey to the Empire of Knowledge narrated by Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick (posted by zaman27).  Let you enjoy viewing the great history of Timbuktu.



Journey to the Empire of Knowledge 



Recently I have found another interesting documentary by journeyman pictures with title of Treasures of Timbuktu.  Let we discover the treasures.





  1. Dear Mamadou, I work for France 24 television. We’re reporting on the news that the main door of the Masjid Sidi Yahya has been destroyed by Ansar Dine Islamists, and would love to use some of your pictures if you’d agree to give permission. Please contact me – wedwards@france24.com

    Thank you.


  2. Hi Mamadou
    How do I contact you to apply for permission to use one of your photos?


  3. Dear Ms Megat

    Thank you for visiting my mediocre blog. Your hubby is my best friend always the best. Your comments are welcome. Thanks


  4. Wow!!! I just got your blog site from my hubby – Megat. I found it very interesting and informative. Land of Timbuktu is full with historical places. I enjoy reading your experiences with the Toureg too!!!


  5. Dear Riri.

    Yea indeed Timbuktu is a beautiful and interesting place to visit and to live too

    Riri many thanks for your visit and compliments


  6. I used to think that Timbuktu is a ‘made’ place, u know, from those fairy tales and so ….. sorry for my limited knowledge … hehehehe …. but you have proven that it’s actually a beautiful and historical places ……

    this blog has been better and better …. thanks for sharing ev’thing …. thru’ words and images …..



  7. Assalamu’alaikum Uncle Awang

    Mudah-mudahan begitulah yang diharapkan semoga yang dipaparkan boleh dimunafaatkan biar sedikit.

    Terima kasih


  8. Salam Saudara mamadou,
    Terima Kasih kerna berkongsi pengelaman Saudara selama berada di hujung dunia.Selain kecantikan bentuk akitek bangunan rupa-rupa nya banyak juga sejarah yang terdapat di Timbuktu.


  9. Dear Justin

    Happy to note that finally you have found my blog’s site. Live and work in Land of Timbuktu, Republic of Mali provide me the opportunities to widen my perspective about Timbuktu beside its reputation as ‘end of the world’. Keep visiting

    Thank you


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