Because it was a thriving center of scholarship instrumental to the spread of Islam in Africa and retains three notable mosques and one of the world’s great collections of ancient manuscripts, Timbuktu—long synonymous with the uttermost end of the Earth—was added to the World Heritage List in 1988, many centuries after its apex.
Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship under several African empires, home to a 25,000-student university and other madrasahs that served as wellsprings for the spread of Islam throughout Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. Sacred Muslim texts, in bound editions, were carried great distances to Timbuktu for the use of eminent scholars from Cairo, Baghdad, Persia, and elsewhere who were in residence at the city. The great teachings of Islam, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine and law, were collected and produced here in several hundred thousand manuscripts. Many of them remain, though in precarious condition, to form a priceless written record of African history.
Now a shadow of its former glory, Timbuktu strikes most travelers as humble and perhaps a bit run down.
But the city’s former status as an Islamic oasis is echoed in its three great mud-and-timber mosques: Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia, which recall Timbuktu’s golden age. These 14th- and 15th-century places of worship were also the homes of Islamic scholars known as the Ambassadors of Peace.
Most of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts are in private hands, where they’ve been hidden for long years, and some have vanished into the black market in a trade that threatens to take with it part of Timbuktu’s soul. There is hope that libraries and cultural centers can be established to preserve the precious collection and become a source of tourist revenue. Some fledgling efforts toward this end are now under way.
Religion wasn’t the city’s only industry. Timbuktu sits near the Niger River, where North African’s savannas disappear into the sands of the Sahara, and part of its romantic image is that of a camel caravan trade route. This characterization had roots in reality and in fact continues to the present in much reduced form. Salt from the desert had great value and, along with other caravan goods, enriched the city in its heyday. It was these profitable caravans, in fact, that first brought scholars to congregate at the site.
In the 16th century Moroccan invaders began to drive scholars out, and trade routes slowly shifted to the coasts. The city’s importance and prestige waned and scholars drifted elsewhere. French colonization at the close of the 19th century dealt another serious blow to the former glories of Timbuktu.
Things in Timbuktu deteriorated to the point that, though recognized as a World Heritage site only a few years before, it was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1990. But with major improvements to the preservation of the three ancient mosques Timbuktu earned its way off that list in 2005.
Timbuktu struggles to draw tourist revenue and develop tourism in a way that preserves the past—new construction near the mosques has prompted the World Heritage Committee to keep the site under close surveillance. Perched as it is on the edge of the Sahara, relentless encroachment of the desert sands is also a threat to Timbuktu.
The following information appears in the literature of The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word Exhibition
In the last millennium an important global legacy was uncovered—the literate culture of AFRICA—symbolized in the extraordinary richness of historical manuscripts that still survive. These ancient documents reveal that a sophisticated literate culture flourished in the city of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert beginning in the 13th century and lasting more than 700 years. A crossroads of international caravan commerce, including the book trade, Timbuktu was also a celebrated center of learning, attracting scholars, and thousands of students and teachers from many countries and background.
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures in partnership with the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu will showcase an exhibit of this glorious age and its legacy to America through the tragic events of the slave trade as it presents The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word Exhibition.
Books were not only brought into Timbuktu, but local scholars wrote their own works, and artisans scribed, decorated and bound them in a sophisticated local book production industry tied to the global Islamic knowledge industry—activities that culminated in a complex and highly viable socio-economic model. Leo Africanus, celebrated medieval historian, wrote “the buying and selling of books were more profitable than any other commerce in the city of Timbuktu.” The feature attraction will be 25 of the estimated one million manuscripts recently re-rediscovered in the West African country of Mali. Bound in leather, they contain finely articulated calligraphy and colorful, even gilded, illustrations and cover a wide variety of subjects.
In addition to the rare African manuscripts, experience the rich intellectual and cultural blend of African and Islamic heritage shared through videos and audio production, interactive media, models, artifact displays, and hands-on activities. Lean about, Islam’s spread into West Africa; Life in a leather tent of Saharan caravan traders; rise and decline of the great empires of West Africa and their leaders; the legendary Sankore Mosque and University; Methods and tools of manuscript production; French colonialism in Mali and the slave trade; life in Mali today and the work of generational artisans; sketches from the live of African Muslims enslaved in America. The participatory laboratory will feature Malian musical instruments and demonstrate the link between this indigenous music and American blues.
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures
Mississippi Arts Center
201 East Pascagoula Street
Jackson, Mississippi 39201
A team of donkeys walks past the Djingarey Ber, the oldest mosque in Timbuktu. King Mansa Musa paid an architect 200 kilograms of gold to design it, a show of his kingdom’s prestige, and it was completed in 1327. Ever since, it has been a symbol of the grandeur of the medieval Malian empire. Though Mali is today a very poor part of the world, 14th century Timbuktu was a center of wealth, trade, and education, including at mosques like this one, which doubled as learning centers. (emilio labrador/Flickr)
The interior of the Djingarey Ber mosque, which was designed to hold 2000 worshipers at a time. The UN designated it a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. (Wikimedia Commons)
Locals cart goods past the Sankore mosque, which is often known as Sankore University for its remarkable history as a place for education as well as religion. Though less architecturally significant than the older Djingarey Ber, Sankore developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as one of the medieval world’s great centers of learning. Students would travel here to learn history, math, and astronomy, as well as Islam, from its respected scholars. It is still in use as a mosque; a speaker, used to broadcast the daily call to prayer, juts out from its side. (emilio labrador/Flickr)
This photo shows Sankore from the opposite end of the famous, mud-brick minaret. This is the outer courtyard wall. (upyernoz/Flickr)
A U.S. museum displays a copy of a manuscript page, the original of which is in Timbuktu, hand-written by the prominent Islamic scholar Omar ibn Said. The West African’s late-1800s religious writings were both an important contribution to Islamic thinking and a testament to Timbuktu’s continued significance, centuries later, for Islam. Said was captured by slave-traders in 1807 and shipped to the Carolinas, where he died in 1864, a common slave age either 93 or 94. His writings are held in Timbuktu’s Mama Haidara Manuscript Library. Though Ansar Dine extremists have not targeted this library, locals say they are worried about their cache of ancient Islamic manuscripts, some of which go back to the 13th century. (AP Images)
This building probably isn’t in danger, but its story is a reminder of Timbuktu’s history: Africans have long traversed the Saharan desert, typically through Timbuktu, using the strategically located city to pass goods, slaves, and knowledge between black sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab-dominated north. But the first European to cross to Timbuktu was the Scottish explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, who set out from Tripoli in July 1825 at the behest of the UK colonial secretary. He arrived over a year later, in August 1826, broke, sick, and without a right hand, which he’d lost in one of many skirmishes with marauding Tuareg. He settling into this house, where he planed to remain only three days before continuing on, but ended up staying 38, on the final of which he was murdered. (upyernoz/Flickr
This is the main entrance of the Sidi Yahya mosque, which along with Sankore and Djingarey Ber make up what is sometimes called the “University of Timbuktu,” the trio of medieval-era Islamic and education centers. It was built in 1400 but left empty in expectation of a holy leader, who emerged in 1441 as a man named Sidi Yahya, after which the complex was later named. (Muhamed Maznillah)
The streets in front of Sankore are usually fuller than this. But this photo was taken on April 11, a week and a half after rebels seized Timbuktu, reportedly sending many residents fleeing over fear of more fighting. (AP Images)
Tomb of Askia, Mali. Photo: Nomination File
A Tuareg man stands in front of the Djingarey Ber mosque. Many Tuaregs, who are traditionally nomadic and tend to live in Mali’s north, have long sought to secede from the south, where the capital city of Bamako sits some 600 miles away. Amazingly, Djingarey Ber is built mostly from mud-brick and wood (though there is one large limestone wall) yet has amazingly stood for almost 700 years. Its architect installed cactus-like sticks in the sides of the walls so that, every year after the seasonal rains, engineers could climb up the side to repair any damage, which they’ve done for centuries since. (Reuters)
The Songhai expedition and aftermath
The 1590 expedition sent to conquer the Songhai Empire trade routes by the Saadi dynasty of Morocco was made up of four thousand Moroccan, MoriscoRefugees and European renegades, armed with European-style arquebuses. After the destruction of the Songhai Empire in 1591, the Moroccans settled into Djenne, Gao, Timbuktu and the larger towns of the Niger River bend. Never able to exert control outside their large fortifications, within a decade the expedition’s leaders were abandoned by Morocco. In cities like Timbuktu, the men of the 1591 expedition intermarried with the Songhai, became small scale independent rulers, and some of their descendants came to be identified as minor dynasties of their own right. By the end of the 17th century, Bambara, Tuareg, Fula and other forces came to control empires and city-states in the region, leaving the Arma as a mere ethnicity.
The following article originally appeared on the Revealer / by Alex Thurston
In northern Mali, an extremist militia called Ansar al Din (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”) is fighting to implement its version of shari’a (Islamic law). The rebellion began with an uprising in January by the ostensibly secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The region quickly achieved de facto independence from the government in Bamako, but the MNLA has been politically outmaneuvered and at some points outfought by Ansar al Din.
The Islamists now control the city of Timbuktu and have attracted worldwide notoriety by destroying the shrines of local (Muslim!) saints. Why are they doing this? In an essay for The New Inquiry, novelist Teju Cole writes, “Their version of Islam — Salafist, fundamentalist — considers the syncretic practices of Malian Sufism, with its veneration of saints and incorporation of vernacular practices, haram [religiously forbidden].”
With the word “syncretic,” an idea that surfaces several times in his essay, Cole displays a set of political attitudes that are helpful neither for understanding the situation in Timbuktu, nor to those whose shrines are being destroyed. Cole is notalone in using this word to describe religious life in northern Mali. These depictions imply that “African Islam” is only pseudo-Islamic–different from, and less pure than, its Arab counterpart.
So what is meant by “syncretism”? According to Wikipedia, “Syncretism is the combining of different (often contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought.” When it comes to religion, one could argue that almost all practitioners are “syncretists”: Christians who have trees in their homes at Christmas, Buddhists who acknowledge a host of divinities, Hindus who incorporate Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu. One could also argue that most people who are widely labeled “syncretists” are believers who view their practices as part of a coherent and meaningful religious identity. Indeed, people who define themselves as syncretists, or people with explicitly plural religious identities, like “Jewish Buddhists,” are much rarer than people labeled “syncretists” by others. To call a believer a syncretist when she does not apply the label to herself verges on calling her a liar.
When it comes to Islam in Africa, the term syncretism has, historically, taken on unfortunate connotations. From the French colonial administration’s talk of Islam noir(“black Islam”) to the present, various observers have questioned the depth and integrity of black Africans’ commitment to Islam, often stating or implying that a Muslim identity was simply a thin veneer over the “animist” substrate beneath. A recent article on Mali speaks of the “Africanization of Islam” between the seventh and nineteenth centuries:
These pre-Islamic societies were characterized by a conception of the universe, the “weltanshauung” founded on animism, the force and presence of spirits, the possibility of a dialogue with the dead, hence the cult of ancestors, and the capacity to act on events thanks to supposedly “supernatural” powers possessed by certain members of the community (shamans or marabouts). Put together, all these elements would be incorporated into the acceptance of submitting to Islam whose faith is simple, clear, and solid.
Though written in 2012 by a Senegalese diplomat, this passage could have been written a hundred years ago by the French colonial administrator-scholars Maurice Delafosse (1870-1926) or Paul Marty (1882-1938).
The idea that there exists an “African Islam” suffused by “animism” sets up a number of unhelpful binary oppositions. Writers sometimes portray Arabs as the true Muslims and Africans as the “syncretists.” In this framing, “Arab Islam” is supposedly legalistic and puritanical, “African Islam” allegedly tolerant and pluralist. Delafosse, for example, wrote in 1912:
Whatever may be the number of our [West African] subjects converted to Islam and practicing the religion of Muhammad…it is very rare that the native Muslims have adopted [Qur’anic] law, at least in its entirety. In [Islam] proper, religion and law hold together, both deriving either from the [Qur’an] or from the hadith. But when people other than Arabs convert to the Muslim religion, be they in Asia, Europe or in Africa, they by no means always adopt the Muslim code which in many cases clashes with secular customs and a social or economic state at odds with the prescriptions of [Qur’anic] law [Quoted in Christopher Harrison, France and Islam in West Africa, p. 104].
The ultimate implication is that some Muslims are “more Muslim” than others and that in Africa there is such a thing as being “too Muslim,” the first warning sign of which is the desire to impose shari’a law.
The idea of a peaceful, syncretist “African Islam” that de-emphasizes law and embraces pluralism plays into notions of “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” As Mahmood Mamdani shows, conceptions of which sorts of Islamic identity are politically acceptable (to colonial administrations, to Washington, to the international community, etc) have varied over time. In West Africa a century ago, it was the Sufi orders that were seen as threats to the colonial order. Today, however, African Sufis are often depicted as representatives of the “right kind” of Islam, and as being a “bulwark against extremism.”
Timbuktu, 2012: history is not “repeating itself”
With regards to the complex situation in northern Mali, Cole suggests we can understand the destruction of the shrines by analogy, and he begins with the most obvious ones: Mali is premodern Europe; Mali is Afghanistan under the Taliban (a comparison heard more and more frequently these days, but successfully debunked by Andrew Lebovich here). Then comes the interesting analogy: Timbuktu is Mecca at the time of its conquest by the forces of the Prophet Muhammad. Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and its Prophet, had remained under control of a pagan elite while the Prophet established the Islamic state in Medina. When the Muslims reconquered Mecca, the Prophet ordered the destruction of its idols. This was the analogy Ansar al Din invoked to justify their actions in Timbuktu. Cole presents the comparison between Mecca and Timbuktu uncritically, but it suggests that in both cases Muslims were destroying the idols of non-Muslims. He writes:
In Timbuktu, a once wealthy trading city, in a place once fabled for its wealth and learning, now swallowed up by the Sahel, these mausolea are expressions of local practice: simple and old beliefs in a land of griots and marabouts, the kind of syncretism common to all the big world religions, owing as much to universal edicts as to what works for the people in their land, in their language, and according to their pre-conversion customs of veneration.
The problem with the comparison to Mecca, of course, is that in Timbuktu the shrines Ansar al Din destroyed were the shrines of Muslims, and those doing the destroying were fellow northern Malian Muslims. In trying to make the argument that the iconoclasts are in reality obsessed with icons, an obsession that represents a form of “love,” Cole ends up accepting part of Ansar al Din’s worldview: the Muslims of Timbuktu and their saints, Cole and Ansar al Din say, are only partly Muslim at best; their core is pagan. The difference between Cole and Ansar al Din, of course, lies in the value they attach to these acts of destruction.
To make a gross understatement, uncritical talk of “syncretism” insults the Muslims of Timbuktu and their heritage. Let’s start with Sufism: many Sufis would say that Sufism, including forms of Sufism that include veneration of saints, is not a departure from Islam or a survival of animism but rather constitutes the deepest essence of Islam. Sufis might say that the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were Sufis, that the Qur’an extols the saints (see 10:62 and various interpretations of it), that saints provide links (in life and in death) between Muslims and Allah. The use of “marabout” by Cole, and the equivalence he suggests between it and “griot” (a non-Islamic term for storyteller), is revealing: “marabout” is not a word for pre-Islamic shamans or storytellers, but is rather a French colonial corruption of the Arabic word murabit, which derives from the root that means to link, bind, or connect – i.e., to Allah.
Then there’s the history: Timbuktu has been a Muslim city for at least eight hundred years. The city was home to famous Muslim scholars like Sheikh Ahmad Baba (d. 1627) and was a destination for scholars like Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abd al Karim al Maghili (d. 1505), whose intense concern with the application of Islamic law Ansar al Din might have a hard time matching. How long must a city be Muslim, and how much Muslim scholarship must it produce, before its Muslim credentials can be taken seriously? Or is it impossible that any place south of the Sahara can ever be fully Muslim, only “syncretist”? That anyone wishing to impose shari’a, to destroy shrines, to “purify” Islam, must be an outsider? That the resulting conflicts are not intra-Muslim, but Muslim outsiders versus local syncretists?
If so, then Ansar al Din has won the religious debate over shrines, while Muslims with alternative viewpoints have lost the political debate over the role of Islam in the modern world. If “real Islam” can only be defined as puritanical, legalistic, and violent, then “real Islam” can be equated with “bad Islam,” and the only “good Muslims” will be those whose Islam the West views as partial and insincere. Cole’s explanation of Ansar al Din’s destruction of shrines in Timbuktu is reminiscent of those who say, “Islam makes no separation between religion and politics” in one breath, and in the next demand that “moderate Muslims” step forth to disavow any connection between Islam and politics. Is there no way to be a “moderate” and a “real Muslim” at the same time?
The alternative – and the greatest challenge to Ansar al Din’s program – is not to assert Islamists’ hidden love for the things they say they hate, but to assert the reality, the desirability, and the possibility that there is more than one way to be a real Muslim. Timbuktu in 2012 is not Mecca in 630. African Muslims are Muslims, full stop. And the loss of shrines in Timbuktu is a loss not only for world civilization and for locals, but also for Islam.
Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at http://sahelblog.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to The Revealer.