The University was organized around three great Masajid or Mosques:
Masajid (plural for mosque) are places of worship for Muslims. Not only did students seek knowledge, but they purified their souls through the sciences of Islam. Islam breeds leaders that are God fearing, just, honest, trustworthy and of excellent moral character. Graduate students were the embodiment of the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the traditions of the Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.
Around the 12th century, the University of Timbuktu had an attendance of 25,000 students in a city which had a population of 100,000 people. The students came from all corners of the African continent in search of excellence in knowledge and trade. On graduation day, students were given Turbans. The turban symbolizes Divine light, wisdom, knowledge, excellent moral conduct and represents the demarcation line between knowledge and ignorance. The knots and circles of the turban represent the name Allah. This means that the graduate students know the Divine obligations and responsibilities to be discharged honorably in their communities and toward their fellow men.
The University curriculum had four degrees or levels:
1. The primary degree
At this level the students memorized the Holy Qur'an, perfected their mastery of Arabic and learned to communicate and write effectively. The students were also introduced to the basics in other sciences. This level is also called Qur'anic school.
2. The secondary degree
Now the students have committed the Holy Qur'an to memory. This is very important because all the Islamic sciences are rooted and derived from the Qur'an which constitutes the source of authenticity and authority. Any teachings or narrations that are not supported by the verses of the Qur'an are rejected and constitute an innovation.
This level may be called the General Studies level. Here the students are introduced to the different branches of Islamic knowledge. These Islamic sciences are: grammar, commentaries of the Qur'an, the Hadith or the Prophetic narrations, jurisprudence, mathematics, geography, history, Islamic schools of thoughts, physics, astronomy, chemistry, sciences of the purification of the heart and soul, etc. The students also spend time in learning a trade and the Islamic business code and ethics. The university trade shops offered classes in business, carpentry, farming, fishing, construction, shoe making, tailoring, navigation etc.
This is very important because as an Imam or Islamic scholar one has to impart honest and unbiased judgments in settling legal issues. This integrity will be compromised if the Imam or the scholar’s living expenses are being supplied by the rich people. In order the Imam or scholar to be just and fair in discharging legal decrees, he has to earn his own halal (permissible) income.
3. The superior degree
The curriculum was highly specialized. The students sat in classes of renowned professors. Sankore was one of the most important departments of the University in this regard. At this level, the studies were of higher learning and mastery and are comparable to any university in the Islamic world. The students did more of the research work.
For instance, the professors of the different branches of Islamic knowledge would give the students questions on different subjects and topics to be researched. Each student would then present, argue and defend his position in front of the professors and other students who would storm him with a flow of tough questions. Students go from one department to the others and from one professor to the others in search of knowledge.
Most students at this stage would find a Shayk or master and study under his guidance. The Shayk would purge the student of all his Shaytanic characteristics and tendencies, and then would ensure that the same graduate student be a good Islamic model for the generation to come. Graduation was based upon a student's excellent Islamic character and his mastery of Islamic knowledge.
4. The circle of knowledge
This is the club of Muslim Imams, Scholars and Professors. It was here that most of the important and crucial issues of Islam are being discussed. The caliphs or Muslims state leaders such as Askia Mohammed of the Songhai Empire, Mansa Musa of the Malian Empire, Shayk Amadu of the Fulani caliphate of Massina, The amirs and sultans of the provinces of the Sudan would send crucial questions to the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu. The scholar who received the questions will make copies of these question or issues and distribute them among the members of the circle of knowledge. Each scholar will research the issue and then they all get together to share their answers and thus put together a manuscripts dealing in detail with the questions or issues and then issue a Fatwa or legal Islamic ruling by the government authorities will abide.
There was also the case of one Muslim who was wealthy and generous. Whoever was in need in Timbuktu approached him and secured a loan. As time went by, the Imam of Jingare Ber noticed that the number of attendance of Mosque was decreasing each Friday. (Jingare Ber, up to the present day, is the only Masjid open on Fridays in Timbuktu. The entire population converges to this famous Mosque). The Imam inquired about the cause of the lowered attendance at the Masjid and discovered that most people of Timbuktu owed money to the generous wealthy man. The people who owed him money were unable to pay their debt so they decided to stay home for fear and embarassment of running into the man. The dilemma now was what to do. The matter was submitted to the circle of knowledge who decided that the wealthy man should stay home or forgive the debt. The wealthy man was called in. He forgave those in debt and said he had no idea that the lower attendance was because of him.