By Simba Jama
SANKORE was one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world which was found in Timbuktu, Mali.
Around that time the bulk of the literature being used in the institution was to do with the history of the eastern Solomonic kingdoms which had stretched to Ethiopia, Saba (Arabian Peninsula), India, Southeast Asia and parts of China.
The culture that this Solomonic lineage inspired in the coastlands of the above mentioned regions to which they sailed regularly for more than a thousand years was legendary.
Their achievements particularly in architecture and technology inspired the people of West Africa who eventually led world civilisation.
It is also important to highlight the fact that when Alexander, the so-called great, conquered the known world in the 4th century BC, he translated manuscripts he found into Greek and destroyed the original texts.
To this extent much of the literature the Timbuktu scholars used was already in Greek.
By translating the manuscripts into Greek and destroying the original African texts, Alexander was stealing the ownership of the scripts.
This is the origin of the confusion about civilisation having started in Greece.
It became necessary for the Timbuktu scholars to translate the Greek texts into Arabic and other local African Languages.
To understand how education developed in this part of Africa which the whites used to refer to as darkest Africa, we need to look at the historical events which were the basis of the legacy we see today.
Timbuktu is in Mali.
The word Mali means freedom and it is derived from the breaking away of a faction of the Songhai Kingdom, which was known as the Mandingo.
They rebelled against their brothers, who were of the Za dynasty of kings and they named the city Mali (free) to commemorate this event.
Books became more and more important in places like Timbuktu and when the Quran finally got into the hands of the West Africans, it was obvious that organised learning institutions and book trade were destined to develop in that area.
The story of how Islam got into West Africa is as follows.
After the breakdown of the Ghana Empire into several states and the proclamation of independence by influential groups such as the Mandingo, the Za dynasty kings were left ruling in Gao, the capital of Ghana while other independent operations under the Mandingo to do with trade were excelling in the north.
The trade was with various groups, but mostly with Arabs who were now mostly Muslim.
The original Arabs were black and they maintained close relations with Africans who they traded and mixed with since ancient times.
The Mandingo found that the Arabs were great in their trade and culture and the driving force behind this strength was their religion.
When they inquired of it, they found the Muslim beliefs no different from their own and this led to a swift transportation of Islam from North Africa, across the Sahara desert and finally into the fertile West Africa.
The Mandingo State rose to imperial status in 1240 AD.
The King credited with establishing and organising an imperial system in Mali was known as Sundiata.
Almoravides from Mauretania had subdued the Kingdom of Ghana and had imposed tax on the people.
Sundiata won a decisive victory against Sumanguru the leader of the Almoravide and this is when the Mandingo State arose. The Malian rulers were of this tribe called Mandingo.
Sundiata eventually accepted the teachings of the Quran.
His State increasingly became prosperous as the acceptance of Islam by his people led to the commonality of beliefs between West Africans and their black Arab neighbours in the north.
The inhabitants of Timbuktu were highly educated.
They abhorred injustice and put more value on human life than all other things.
The top commodity was neither gold nor salt but books for they were in high demand.
Among them were doctors, translators and writers.
This was at a time that northern Europe was largely illiterate and the likes of Britain had no real knowledge of the bible for it had yet to be translated into their language.
The West Africans were using both Arabic and their indigenous languages for written communication.
Many were bilingual and viewed learning as a way of escaping the ignorance of the world.
The driving force of this positive attitude was faith in Allah, and this led to peaceful coexistence.
Mali enjoys the reputation of being one of the last known great places of civilisation in Africa before European domination.
When the emperor of Ghana (Songhay) was away on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a Mali army general called Sagamandir took over Gao, the capital of Ghana.
Several Za kings and their kinsmen were imprisoned and among them was one known as Ali Kolon.
For a while the kingdom of Ghana was under the political authority of Mali, but it was not long before the kings of the Za dynasty escaped the Mali court and regained control of their kingdom.
It was Ali Kolon who would later be known as Sonni Ali, the liberator, who prevailed against the Malians and gave Songhay her last dance of grace.
He refused to pay tribute to Mali and later led a military force against Niani the capital of Mali.
When he prevailed, the Songhay dynasty that arose after him was known as the Sonni and Shi dynasty and it had in total a line of 18 Islamic-Hebrew kings.
Sonni Ali though Muslim did not rely on Islamic powers as allies to preserve his power.
He relied on his popularity among the people.
He, unlike most Islamic converts, practised and respected indigenous customs.
Timbuktu eventually came under his hegemony.
Sonni Ali made war with many neighbouring lands to consolidate power, but on one of his expeditions he drowned in a river.
His body was preserved in the way of the ancient Egyptians; i.e., embalming, de-bowling and smearing honey.
While the Mandingo and the Za dynasty rulers were of Hebrew origin Mohammad Toure was a native African who had worked closely with Sonni Ali the liberator.
When he succeeded in chasing Sonni Barra into exile, Sonni Ali’s daughters yelled out “Askia!”
This meant usurper and from that day onwards, Mohammad Toure decreed that everyone should refer to him as Mohammad Askia.
The Askia dynasty came in 1492 marking the end of the reign of the black Hebrew kings of West Africa.
Interestingly, 1492 also marks the end of the Moorish (black) reign in Europe which we shall soon be looking into.