Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Need some outrage on the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mali

by Salman Hameed

Last year I had posted an article about the preservation of the spectacular mud mosque of Djenne, Mali. The architecture is amazing and distinct. Now comes the news that an extremist Islamic group has taken upon itself to destroy ancient sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. In the process, they are wiping out precious Islamic history, as well as manuscripts valuable for history of science. This is despicable and should be a case for outrage in the wider Muslim world. We'll see if the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), which fashions itself after the UN, makes an effort in the direction of this preservation. My hopes are low as countries like Saudi Arabia have themselves done the same in their own countries. This really sucks if you like and appreciate history.

Here is an excerpt from an article on Reuters (tip from our friend Tom Heneghan):

Over the last three days, Islamists of the Ansar Dine rebel group which in April seized Mali's north along with Tuareg separatists destroyed at least eight Timbuktu mausoleums and several tombs, centuries-old shrines reflecting the local Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the "City of 333 Saints". 
For centuries in Timbuktu, an ancient Saharan trading depot for salt, gold and slaves which developed into a famous seat of Islamic learning and survived occupations by Tuareg, Bambara, Moroccan and French invaders, local people have worshipped at the shrines, seeking the intercession of the holy individuals.
This kind of popular Sufi tradition of worship is anathema to Islamists like the Ansar Dine fighters - Defenders of the Faith - who adhere to Salafism, which is linked to the Wahhabi puritanical branch of Sunni Islam found in Saudi Arabia.
The article actually does a good job of presenting some of the nuances associated with this issue:
Mali's government in the capital Bamako about 1,000 km (600 miles) south has condemned the attacks, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north. 
Some believe the tomb-wrecking onslaught by Ansar Dine, which is led by Tuareg chieftain turned Salafist Iyad Ag Ghali, may have been directly triggered by UNESCO's decision on Thursday to accept the Mali government's urgent request to put Timbuktu on a list of endangered World Heritage sites. 
"That is meaningless to Ansar Dine; what is UNESCO to them?" said Jeppie. Just as northern Nigerian Islamist militants are carrying out bloody bombings and shootings under the name Boko Haram (which broadly means "Western education is sinful"), so Ansar Dine's fighters may see UNESCO as an emblem of Western heresy. 
"They are not scholars; they are foot soldiers," added Jeppie, adding they were probably unaware that Timbuktu, which was an alluring mirage of exoticism and remoteness for 19th-century European explorers, represented multiple and varied layers of Islamic tradition deposited like sand over centuries. 
Its long history had tracked the turbulent rise and fall of the great African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai.
"Timbuktu was sacked many times before," said Jeppie.
"But we have had no events of destruction of monuments, mosques and tombs. It never happened before."
And New Scientist also has a piece that talks about the potential of losing precious history of science material:
Various sites in Timbuktu house a matchless collection of 300,000 ancient Islamic texts, some dating from the 13th century, which include treatises on science and mathematics. Among them are texts on the harmful effects of tobacco, on medicine as practised 300 years ago, and on astronomy
One of UNESCO's projects is to translate and digitise the Timbuktu manuscripts, many of which are currently kept in the town's Ahmed Baba Institute. They are among the most important historical texts in Africa.
Read the full article here

The problem is that this sort of destruction may be becoming more common. Is this a resurgence of Salafi version of Islam, or is it the desperate last grasp in the face of a fast changing world? I think (and hope) it is the latter - but we'll have to wait and see. Here is a post by Tom Heneghan that connects the destruction in Mali to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan. The political goals may be different in each country, but the tactic is similar:
The grim sacking of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu is the latest chapter in an assault on prized religious heritage across the Muslim world that has picked up over the past decade with the spread of radical Islamism. 
The world got a first taste of this iconoclasm in 2001, when Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban blew up two huge 6th-century statues of Buddha despite an international outcry.
Since then, radical Islamists have also struck holy sites of other faiths, especially Christian churches. But their most frequent targets have been mosques and shrines of other Muslims loyal to a version of Islam less puritanical than their own. 
This violence has spread through Pakistan, starting near the Afghan border and fanning out to strike famous Sufi shrines as far away as Lahore and southern Punjab. 
It broke out in the Middle East last year when, in the wake of the Arab Spring, once-repressed Salafi groups destroyed shrines in Egypt. In Libya, some militants dug up Sufi saints’ graves and dumped their remains on garbage heaps. 
Like the radicals’ strict theology, this assault on rival religious heritage goes back to the dawn of Islam and is rigorously enforced in its birthplace, Saudi Arabia.
Read the full post here


Gary said...

I first heard of the ancient shrines and manuscripts of Timbuktu on a flight home from Sharjah. One of the in-flight videos was a documentary on the manuscripts from the region. I was amazed at the wealth of knowledge and information that research was uncovering.

I have a simple description of these thugs who destroy shrines and manuscripts in the name of their perversion of Islam.

They are like that vile, rancid smelling dog shit that you get on the sole of your shoe when you don't watch your step. Except these guys who are destroying part of Islam's heritage aren't on the sole of your shoe they are on the Soul of Islam

Salman Hameed said...

Gary - I agree with you - and I find the lack of outrage in the OIC (or other self-righteous states) appalling. I just hope some sanity prevails before the loss of too much material.

Aurangzeb said...

This is unfortunate. The one question that I would like to ask them is - "Do you people have any shame left?"

Salman Hameed said...

In fact, there has been more destruction since then. I guess there have always been idiots destroying their own cultures in the name of purity - and this is just another phase.

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