Book Burning in Timbucktu

English: Image of Timbuktu manuscripts.

English: Image of Timbuktu manuscripts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a child, Timbuktu generally seemed to mean the farthest possible place it was possible to travel to while still remaining on the planet, an almost mystical city, not one you who expect to travel to. It actually came a something of a shock to me when I saw Timbuktu on a map. I didn’t really think it was a real city.

Well, Timbuktu is real enough and not nearly far from the troubles of the world as the inhabitants might wish. Timbuktu has been in the news quite a lot recently as a battleground in Mali‘s civil war. Recently, Malian and French soldiers captured the city from the Islamic militants who had seized the city ten months ago. The terrorists did not show much respect for the historical or cultural legacy of Timbuktu, and even less respect for the rights and well being of the people there. I read this report from the Associated Press.

Timbuktu, a city of mud-walled buildings and 50,000 people, was for centuries a seat of Islamic learning and a major trading center along the North African caravan routes that carried slaves, gold and salt. In Europe, legend had it that it was a city of gold. Today, its name is synonymous to many with the ends of the earth.

It has been home to some 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many were destroyed in the blaze that was set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a “desecration to humanity.”

“These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages and it’s the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.

The militants seized Timbuktu last April and began imposing a strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali, carrying out amputations and public executions. Women could be whipped for going out in public without wearing veils, while men could be lashed for having cigarettes.

During their rule in Timbuktu, the militants systematically destroyed cultural sites, including the ancient tombs of Sufi saints, which they denounced as contrary to Islam because they encouraged Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.

The mayor said the Islamists burned his office as well as the Ahmed Baba institute, a library rich in historical documents.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. There is something of a tradition of iconoclasm among the more fanatic Muslim sects. Muslims generally regard the pre-Muslim past as the time of Jahiliyyah or ignorance. This often leads Muslims to denigrate the pre-Islamic history and culture of a nation and more devout or fanatic Muslims can even systematically destroy artifacts from the past, especially art that is considered pagan or idolatrous. The worst offenders in this regard are probably the members of the Wahhabi sect, prominent in Saudi Arabia. In their zeal to purify the Islamic faith and to ensure that Allah alone is worshiped, the Wahhabi have often attacked long standing customs and traditions of less strict Muslim sects, such as the veneration of saints, Sufi mysticism, and the Shi’ites whom they regard as heretics. The Wahhabi dominated government of Saudi Arabia has been destroying historical sites in Mecca and Medina that are associated with the beginnings and early history of Islam.

I am not certain to what extent the militants in Mali have been influenced by Wahhabism. The story said that they were linked to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin was, of course, from Saudi Arabia. It seems likely that their ignorant destruction of historical manuscripts is derived from the same sort of fanaticism that drives the Saudis to destroy houses and mosques associated with Mohammed and other figures from early Islam.

 

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