Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Islamic Education in West Africa

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In this paper the author reviews the history of Islamic education in West Africa. It explains the origin and curriculum of traditional West African Islamic educational institutions and its manifestations in contemporary Africa.

There is a long history of Islamic education in West Africa. Islamic education in West Africa is the result of both West African and Arabic educational inspiration.

According to Ivor Wilks (1968) and Charles Hunter (1977) Islamic education wads diffused to West Africa by Ibaadi clerics from North Africa. The major founder of Islamic learning in West Africa was the 12th century Shaykh, al-Hajj Salim Suware, founder of the Jakhanka clerical tradition and scholars at the University of Sankore.

The most wide spread educational tradition in West Africa, was founded by al-Hajj Salim Suware. Al-Hajj Suware encouraged learning among the Serakhulle and other Manding speaking people, and a tradition of pacifism and withdrawal from political affairs by their educators and religious leaders.

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There is a long tradition of Islamic learning in West Africa. Muslim scholars traveled throughout the Muslim world in search of knowledge.

As early as the last quarter of the 10th century there was a mosque in Cairo for the people of Takrur. In Cairo the West Africans had homes in a special section of the city. (Trimingham 1962, pp.41-42)

African Muslims have a long tradition of Arabic scholarship. Many of their documents were written in Arabic, or in their own languages in the Arabic script. Dr. J. O. Hunwick (1962) has found over 400 African Muslim authors, who wrote 2000 books. But there are few inscriptions on royal tombstones or mosque in West Africa. Nor did the African Muslims mint coins .

Al-Zuhri, writing in Andalusia (Spain), in the Mid-12th century said that leading men of ancient Ghana made the pilgrimage (hajj ) to Mekka, this suggest that West Africans were also studying the zahir al-culuum branches of learning. Moreover, the Islamist Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.1505) author of the Tafsir al-Quran, in his biography Tahadduth bi ni cma Allah , mentioned many of the West African shaykh (teachers/leaders) whom he taught in Cairo, Egypt.

The African cleric/teacher restricted the use of Arabic to his teaching. Often these scholars will deliver many of their lectures on advanced Islamic studies in their own native languages. Educators in West Africa are called by many names including: Afaa, Mallam, Alufa, Shaykh, al-Wali or al-Faqih. the term fudi, is employed to designate a man of learning among the Manding, Soninke and Fulbe people. Among the Jakhanke/Jakhanka clan, a student becomes a fudi when he completes al-Suyuti's Tafsir al-Quran.


Muslims became interested in Arabic learning so they could understand heritage, and read the Muslim holy book called the Quran. The Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God Allah).

The Islamic sciences include the Quran, and hadith. In the Quran , surah (chapter) Yunus 3-7, we find a summary of the Islamic sciences:

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"Verily, your lord is Allah, who created the heavens and the earth in six periods then he settled Himself firmly on the Throne, He governs everything. There is no intercessor with Him save after His permission. This is Allah, your Lord, so worship Him. Will you not then mind? To Him shall you all return. The promise of Allah is true. Surely, He originates the creation, then He produces it, that He may reward those, who believe, and do good works, with equity; and as for those who disbelieve, they shall have boiling water to drink and a painful punishment, because they disbelieve. He it is who made the sun radiate a brilliant light and the moon reflect a lustre, and ordained for it proper stages, that you might know the count of years and the reckoning of time. Allah has not created this system but in accordance with the requirements of truth. He details the Signs for a people who possess knowledge.

Verily, in the alternation of night and day, and in all that Allah has created in the heavens and the earth there are Signs for a God fearing people" 

These passages from the Quran, make it clear that Muslims must seek knowledge, because it helps the Muslim become closer to Allah. It was the Muslim sufi who first established the idea that a Muslim obtains a special type of grace called baraka. 

The hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) demands that a Muslim seek out knowledge. Prophet Muhammad left many sayings referring to the quest of knowledge by Muslims including the following:

"The quest of knowledge is obligatory for every 

Muslim. Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets.

Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave".(Shalaby, 1954, p.62)


It is clear from the Quran and the hadith that it is the duty of the Muslim to seek al-culuum al-qliyyah (intellectual sciences). This makes the seeking of cilm (knowledge) sacred to Muslims. Conversely this meant that the awkaaf (endowments) for educational institutions and libraries was an important aspect of Islamic culture.

Given the necessity for Muslims to seek learning/knowledge in all its diverse and intellectual stimulating forms, allowed the non-Arabic speaking followers of Islam to make their traditional sciences part of the Islamic sciences upon their adoption of Islam. Study of the natural sciences was acceptable to Islamic educational traditions if they did not conflict with the teachings of Islam. This led to the scientific knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa, India , Greece , Mesopotamia , and Egypt to became absorbed into the Islamic sciences, via the educational system.

The Islamic sciences are usually referred to as al-cilm al-husuuli (acquired knowledge). In West Africa, the Islamic sciences are divided into various branches and sub-branches of learning. Whereas the Arab Islamic sciences are primarily based on Greco-Egyptian materials the West African Islamic sciences are basically of indigenous inspiration. This does not mean that the sub-Saharan African Islamic sciences have incorporated nothing into their educational curriculum from the North African system, but it should be made clear that much of the West African Islamic curriculum was of Black African origin.

The Islamic sciences are divided into two basic educational systems the ulama (ulaama) system and the madrasah systems. Under the ulama system, a student studies under an Islamic scholar at his residence. Under the madrasah (or Koranic school) system on the other hand, a group of students study in a classroom setting.

The categories for study in the Islamic system is divided into two broad categories zahir and batin studies. The zahir studies make up the Islamic science of society as a whole. The batin studies include divination, medicine and occult knowledge. (Winters 1987)

In general, because of the existence of a pre-Islamic educational system in Africa before the adoption of Islam by many West Africans we find that zahir studies follow the Arab model of education. The practical sciences on the other hand, or batin studies combine the Arab and the African sciences, or are wholly African in origin.

In the African Islamic tradition of learning, zahir studies refer to the study of the scripture and sources of Islam. The zahir curriculum includes three areas:

Tawhid (theology)

I. Science of Society fiqh (law)

Madh (laudation)/hadith

Tafsir (Quranic commentary)

nahw (grammar)

II. Logic lugha (literature)


III. Practical Sciences





Natural Sciences 





The batin studies deal with esoteric studies or secret knowledge based on the symbolic or mystical interpretation of the Quran. This includes knowledge about divination, mathematics, khatam (charm making) and tibb (medicine). To become a Shaykh (or very learned man) one must master both the zahir and batin learning. 


If we were to categorize the zahir curricula in West Africa we must conclude that they are founded on either 1) the Suwarian tradition of the Western Sudan, or 2) the Timbuktu tradition in the central Sudan. The zahir studies in West Africa is based on the Maliki fiqh or school of Islamic law. The Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, is the earliest school of law to appear in Arabia.

The Maliki fiqh was founded by Malik ibn Anas, author of the Muwatta. The Muwatta, studies in detail the deeds and sayings of the Prophet of Islam. These deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are called the Sunnah.

The usual zahir curricula of most West African schools included the study of the Quran, one or two simple prayer books; the study of fiqh through the analysis of the Risala, by Ibn Abi Zayd; and the Tafsir al-Quran, by al Suyuti. It was Touba Jakhanke, who centralized the use of the Tafsir al-Quran, in West Africa.

Another important text used in West Africa to study fiqh was the Mukhtasar. Among the Hausa speaking people of Nigeria the Mukhtasar is often considered on the same level as the Quran.

The major text for advanced study in most West African schools in West Africa is the Mudawwana, by Sahun. It is used by most West African educators, except the Jakhanke.


The term batin studies refers to the study of medicines, divination and the making of charms. The batin studies usually deal with the mystical importance of Arabic letters and their corresponding numbers. This type of batin study is usually called huruuf (letters).

Batin studies began with the memorization of the numerical values of the Arabic letters. After this stage the student goes on to study khatam (seal or ring).

The khatam is a series of diagrammatic magic squares. There are three types of khatam , the muthallathu or squares three by three, the murabbacu or squares four by four, and the mukhammasu squares five by five. These khatamun (plural form of the word khatam).

In the batin institution the student learns to make different types of charms. The most important batin charm is the kaba koi naso 'bottled white liquid'. This charm is composed of a bottle which contains a white liquid and six pieces of paper. On four of these slips of paper passages from the Quran are written in Arabic script. Tables of numerical calculations are written on the final two sheets of paper. The kaba koi naso was sought by people interested in obtaining political authority.

Another common batin form, was a charm called sofo by the Manding, it was written on paper and placed inside a leather pouch, or the horn of an animal. This amulet was worn around the neck, arms, waist or ankles and was suppose to bring one good luck.


The Muslim educator must have a license to teach. The student after studying under a recognized educator earns a license to teach called the cijaza. The cijaza is also called sanad ,it documents the chain of authorities who passed on information to the student's teacher.


In the African Islamic education tradition children usually learn the Quran at home and how to write the Arabic script. Their style of writing Arabic is called ajami.

The student begins his study of the Quran by constantly memorizing the first surah of the Quran, the Fatiha, for two weeks. then the student moves on to learn additional lines of the Quran. To learn the Quran each surah is recited loudly by the student.


The Jakhanke people are the Manding speaking specialized caste of Muslim clerics and educators. (Hunter 1977) The Jakhanke people belong to the Soninke people, but they prefer to be called Serakulle. The term Soninke, in West Africa is used to refer to non-Muslim people.

The Jakhanke learning was spread throughout West Africa by the transmission of the teaching tradition from master to student. The usual Jakhanke curriculum undertaken by the Jakhanke student begins with the Quran and ends with study of the Tafsir. There are a total of 28 books that must be mastered before a student can become a teacher. The student is to hand copy these books and take them back to his village where he can begin his own Karanta (school).


The central Sudani system of teaching , popular in Nigeria was founded by the scholars at the University of Sankore in Timbuktu. Sankore was founded during the Mali Empire by Jedala scholars.

Sankore was highly regarded as a center of learning by Muslims around the world. The curriculum of Sankore consisted of 1) Faculty of Law, 2) Faculty of Medicine, surgery, pharmacology and allied subjects, 3) Faculty of Letters, 4) Faculty of Grammar, 5) Faculty of Geography and 6) Faculty of Industrial Arts. The leading scholar of the Sankore tradition was Ahmad Baba.

Information about Ahmad Baba is found in the Tarikh al-Sudan by al-Sadi. He was born in 1556, and died in 1627. Baba strictly adhered to the Maliki fiqh. Ahmad Baba is said to have written 39 books. He taught both at Timbuktu and Marrakush, Morocco. His writings were used by many militant Islamists in the 18th and 19th century to justify jihads (holy wars) in West Africa. The curriculum founded by Ahmad Baba was made up of 44 books .

In conclusion West Africans have a long history of Islamic education. This educational system is based on both Arab and West African traditions. 

The founders of the West African Islamic education system was established by scholars of Timbuktu and al-Hajj Salim Suware. These systems used in the Central Sudan and Western Sudan respectively, are still existing today (Doi 1985; Winters 1987).

This Islamic education scheme which functions outside the national education system in West African countries plays an important role in the militant Islamic movements that are causing political problems in countries like Nigeria and Senegal.


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