333 Saints of Timbuktu

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On 30 June 2012, it was reported that the tomb of Sidi Ben Amar had been destroyed by Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Maghrib, following the Battle of Gao, as it contravened sharia or Islamic law, as interpreted by Ansar Dine.  These attacks resemble the attacks that were carried out by the wahhabist movement on the Arabian peninsula during the late 18th century.

Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar (also known as Sidi Amar, Cadi Sidi Mahmoud, or Sidi Mahmoud) was a revered Muslim scholar who is one of the 333 Sufi saints said to be buried in Timbuktu.  The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is among 16 cemeteries and mausolea that are a part of Timbuktu, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

According to tradition the Cadi Sidi Mahmoud belonged to a Berber tribe of the Godala in Northern Africa, that lived along the Atlantic coast in present day Mauritania..  His forebears moved to Timbuktu after living in Macina and Qualata. Macina is a small town and rural commune in the Cercle of Macina in the Segou Region of Southern-Central Mali. The town of Macina lies on the north (left) bank of the Niger River. Qualata or Walata is a small oasis town in Southeast Mauritania, located at the eastern end of the the Aoukar basin, Qualata was important as a caravan city in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the Southern terminus of a trans-Saharan trade route and now it is a World Heritage Site.

Sidi Mahmoud was born in 1463 or 1464 and was named Cadi in 1498 or 99 and died in 1548.  Side Mahmoud was Ahmed Baba’s great uncle.  The Tarikh al-sudan (histories) of Timbuktu attributed him with numerous legends.  His tomb is a place of pilgrimage and his descendants count many scholars.  The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is visited by local people who believe he has the power to bring rain, through the blessing of God.

As reported by Canadian American Miranda Dodd, “according to the most learned men in Timbuktu, the number of Saints buried in Timbuktu is far greater than 333; it is a symbolic number and represents the greatest of the saints. For every great saint there are several lesser ones now completely forgotten or unknown.

“The Saints of Timbuktu possessed exceptional wisdom, kindness, scholarship, and generosity. Many of the great scholars or Ulama have been named saints, but not all. There are many non-saints that are still remembered and respected as great scholars.”

The following is a partial list, compiled by Dodd; listing where many of the 333 Saints are buried, their names and stories:

  • Diamune Hanane Cemetery just north of the petit marche.
  • Unenclosed cemetery to the NE of town past the Sidi Mohamed Cemetery, near the Orange cell tower.
  • 40 plus a set of twins who were given sainthood when killed by falling material during the construction of the mosque: Djingere Ber mosque.
  • Cemetery of Three Saints on the SW corner of town behind the military camp : Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Ben Amar and 2 others
  • Sidi Mohamed Cemetery NE corner of Abaradiou quartier: Sidi Mohamed and Moulaye Arby
  • Boucou and one other are buried in the cemetery carrying his name
  • Sankore mosque In fact an unknown number of saints are said to be buried here; only one is known.
  • Sidi Yaha is buried in his mosque, also an unknown number of other saints.
  • Sidi el Wafie is in the cemetery carrying his name
  • Alfa Moya is in his cemetery
  • Between the homes of Rene Caillié and Gordon Lang
  • In front of the home of Gordon Lang
  • Between Henrich Barth’s house and the Sidi Yahya mosque: Mohamed Baragha
  • Between the Carpenters after Heinrich Barth and the Tijaniya Aferu Ber Mosque
  • In front of the Direction Régional de Jeunesse near the post office
  • The shadow of the old water tower.
  • Behind the east wall of the Palais du Justice
  • In the Military Camp
  • On the road between the entry to town and the airport road
  • In Kabara, Timbuktu’s former port town

Here are the stories of a few of the prominent Saints of Timbuktu:

Abu Alkassim Attouatti (Abou-‘l Qâsem et-Touati)

Abu al-Kassin at-Toutti was an Imam of the grand Mosque Djingere Ber, only a small path separated his home from the mosque. He was the one who instituted the celebration of Maouloud (the birth of the Prophet Mohammed) in Timbuktu. He was a great mystic and consecrated his life to the faith and the creation of pious acts: complete reading of the koran on Fridays, creation of a cemetery around the mosque. He is most famous for always having dates and bread in his pockets which he distributed to koranic students. No matter the time of day or the amount he already gave he would still have some to give to the next person. And the bread was alway hot and fresh. Another well known event is that one day when he went to the mosque to pray and at the end of the prayer his boubou was all wet. His companions asked him how he managed to get so wet while praying. He explained that a pirogue had capsized in lake Debo and one of the drowning men called out to be saved in the name of God and his saints. God sent him to save the men. He died in 1528-29 (935 islamic year) at the age of 33. Sidi Mahmoud presided over his burial in the new cemetery. His tomb is located 100m to the west of town.

Ahmed Baba Ed-Doudani

Son of Alhaji Ahmadu, Ahmad Baba’s tomb lies between that of his father and the mausoleum of his uncle Sidi Mahmoud. A veritable well of science, Ahmed Baba is one of the most well known and greatest scholars of Timbuktu and left a colossal and varied work behind him. His works include commentaries on the “kalil” and on the hadiths, praises of the Prophet, books of history, and much more. Like his uncle, Ahmed Baba is credited with many spectacular miracles. On famous one took place during his detention in Marrakech. During the course of a discussion between himself and some learned Moroccans, Ahmed Baba caused a book from Timbuktu to appear at the moment he needed it. It was a book that gave the definitive verdict that was to resolve their disagreement. His adversaries saw a woman’s hand appear and offer the desired volume. Ahmed Baba died in 1631 (1035) at the age of 73 years shortly after being liberated to return to Timbuktu.

Alfa Moya Lamtouni

A great Saint and great philosopher Alfa Moya had many disciples. He was assassinated along with ten other saints in 1605 (1010) by spanish troops of the Jaoude who came from Andalousie. He was 55 when he died. His tomb is located east of town.

Alhadi Ahmadou

Al-hadji Ahmadu was a juris consultant. Some sources would have him be the german cousin of Sidi Mahmoud. The Tarikh es-Soudan names him as brother to both Sidi Mahmoud and another juris consultant Abdallah. It states that “Ahmed was a saint, Mohammed was a saint, Abdallah was a saint” and gives his lineages as Al-hadji Ahmed ben Oumar ben Mohammed-Aquit ben Oumar ben Ali ben Yahia ben Godala and states that he was buried about 100m from the mausoleum of this last.

Amar Ben Mohammed Aquit

The Father of Sidi Mahmoud, was also a great Saint. He died in Oualata where he emigrated to escape persecution by Sonni Ali-Ber. The Tarikh al Fattash as well as the Tarikh es-Soudan describe his encounter with the Touaregs and with Sonni Ali-Ber and the consequences of his flight, frightened by the Songhai King’s reputation, to Oualata at the time of Timbuktu’s conquest, even though it was Amar himself who had called him for help.

Cheikh Sidi El Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mohammed

Otherwise known as Sidi Khiar, he was a great saint of Timbuktu and great Philosopher. He knew Heinrich Barth during his passage through Timbuktu. He died at age 80 around 1853.

Djamane Hana

is an ancient mosque whose construction dates to 1542-43. There are forty saints buried here. It is found to the North of the Petit Marche. One side abuts the paved road.

El Imam Ismail

Originally from Djenne, Ismail came to Timbuktu to take a rest and visit the town. Unfortunately he never arrived. He died three kilometers from town. When there is a serious drought in Timbuktu all the imams, muezzins, learned men and other great personages gather together to pray to God for water. They go to each mosque and the tombs of the saints and finish by going to Ismail’s tomb 3km from town. When they finish the prayer here rain invariable follows. There are living today people who have assisted at this ceremony who swear to its authenticity.

Mohammed Aquit

Mohammed Aquit was the grandfather of the famous Sidi Mahmoud. He lived in Macina. After a misunderstanding with the Peuls of Macina in a question of marriage, he moved to Oualata. He wanted to establish himself in Timbuktu but it was under the reign of chief Tenguereche Akil, his enemy. He did not dare enter the city so he installed himself between Birou and Raz el-ma. His friend the grandfather of Masira-Anda Oumar, the juris consultant negotiated with the Tuareg chief Akil so that he and his large family could move to Timbuktu. He is buried about 100 m to the north of Sidi Mahmoud tomb.

Mohammed el-Micki

Sidi Mohammed el-Micki was very pious and could easily go three days neither eating nor drinking. He died at the age of 80 in the year 1844. His tomb is about 30 m to the south of the Abu-Kassim.

Sidi Yahya

Djinguereber was, for a long time, the only mosque in Timbuktu. When Sankore was first built it was not a mosque but a centre of learning, a university. So all the great scholars had to leave the university, cross the river, which at the time cut through the area in order to go pray at Djinguereber. One man had a dream in which the prophet appeared to him and told him to construct a second mosque halfway between the Mosque and the University.

As in Muslim tradition anything that comes via the Prophet Mohammed in a vision or dream etc. is considered to be from God Himself, and should be heeded. So they constructed the mosque. The question remained who would serve as Imam? The most learned among them said well, if this is truly the design of God, the Imam will come without our interference. So they shut the mosque and locked it.

A few months later a man from Oualata, in Mauritania, showed up in front of the Mosque and asked for the keys. The neighbours to the mosque gave him the key and he opened the mosque and went in. He said his prayers and sat and began reading the Koran. Sidi Yahya, the imam, had arrived.

He since performed many miracles.

Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar Ben Mohamed

According to tradition the Cadi Sidi Mahmoud belonged to a Berber tribe of the Godala. His ancestors moved to Timbuktu after living in Macina and then Oualata. He was born in 1463 or 1464 and was named Cadi in 1498 or 99 and he died in 1548. Sidi Mahmoud was Ahmed Baba’s great uncle. The Tarikh (histories) of Timbuktu attributed him with numerous legends. His tomb is a place of pilgrimage and his descendants count many scholars.

Mohammed Bagayogo

He was Ahmed Baba’s instructor, most famous for the following legend: when Ahmed Baba was in exile in Morocco he ended up teaching and advising many people there. Someone made reference to his being the most knowledgeable person and in his modesty he declined the honours saying it went instead to his teacher. When asked the name of this erudite he gave it. According to legend Mohammed Bagayogo in Timbuktu sat up in his yard where he was surrounded by young scholars and said Ahmed Baba sold me to the Moroccans. They will come here to seek me but will never find me. Sure enough the Moroccans did come seeking him out, but the day they entered town by the north Mohammed Bagayogo was leaving it by the south. He was on his way to his funeral, so the Moroccans never did find him. He is buried today …

Sane Haji

This is the first saint venerated in Timbuktu. He was born in Timbuktu in 868 of the Hegire (1490). He had four sons who were well educated and wrote several books. It is said of Sidi Mohammed that at the burial of his brother al-Hadji Amadou, he remained prostrate during the presentation of condolences. When he regained control of his faculties he excused his muteness explaining that he was following the soul of his cousin all the way till he was delivered to the angels. He died in 956 and was buried about 150m north of town.

Sidi Ahmed ben Raggadi

Sidi Ahmed was a great philosopher. He had numerous disciples who were very well educated. He died in 1718 at the age of 85. His tomb is 100 m west of town.

Mohammed Tamba-Tamba

Mohammed was a member of the tribe of Kel-es-Souk who lived north of Gao. He came to Timbuktu to perfect his knowledge. He died in the year 1210 of the hegire (1832) and was buried to the south west of town on the Route to Kabara. His tomb is now within the boundaries of the fort Sidi-el-Bekkaye.

Al-Imam Said

The Cheikh al Imam Said was a native of Timbuktu. He died in 1260 (1882) at the age of 70. He tomb is next to the Pharmacie Populaire.

Sidi Mohammed Boukou

Boukou lived at the beginning of the 16th century. He was part of the tribe Id Ouali of Chinguetti (in Mauritania). He has relatives in Touat to this day. He is buried to the east of town.

Sidi el-Wafi el-Araouani

Sidi el-Wafi lived in the 17th century. He came to Timbuctoo with two goals. To take a retreat and to improve his knowledge. He died in 1121 (1743). His tomb is found about 25m to the east of town.

Mohammed Sankare

He came to Timbuktu to study. He died at the beginning of the 17th century at the age of 60. His tomb is at the east of town.

Destruction of the Tombs of the Saints of Timbuktu

The destruction caused by Ansar Din’s in Timbuktu have been compared to the destruction carried out by the followers of ad Dawa al-Wahhabiyya in the 19th century.

In the 1800’s, followers of Ad Dawa al-Wahhabiyya or Wahhabism, named for its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 -1792), carried out similar attacks on the shrines of venerated Saints in the Arabian deserts. Wahhabism is a religious movement or branch of Sunni Islam.  It has been variously described as ‘ultra conservative”, austere”, ‘fundamentalist”, “puritanical” or “puritan”and as an Islamic “reform movement” to restore “pure monotheistic worship” (tawheed) by scholars and advocates, and as an “extremist pseudo-Sunni movement” by opponents.  Adherents often object to the term Wahhabi or Wahhabism as derogatory, and prefer to be called Salafi or Muwahid. The movement emphasises the principle of tawhid (the “uniqueness” and “unity” of God).  Its principal influences in Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) and ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328).

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab started the revivalist movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd, advocating a purging of practices such as the popular “cult of saints”, and shrines and tomb visitation, widespread among Muslims, but which he considered idolatry (shirk), impurities and innovations in Islam (Bid’ah).  Eventually he formed a pact with a local leader Muhammad bin Saud offering political obedience and promising that protection and propagation of the Wahhabi movement mean ‘power and glory” and rule of “lands and men.”

The alliance between the followers of ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud’s successors (the House of Saud) proved to be a durable one. The House of Saud continued to maintain its political-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect through the waxing and waning of its own political fortunes over the next 150 years, through to its eventual proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and then afterwards, on into modern times.  Today, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s teachings are the official, state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. With the help of funding from Saudi petroleum exports (and other factors), the the movement underwent “explosive growth” beginning in the 1970s and and now has worldwide influence. The “boundaries” of Wahhabism have been called “difficult to pinpoint,” but in contemporary usage, the term Wahhabi and Salafi are often used interchangeably, and they are considered to be movements with different roots that have merged since the 1960s. But Wahhabism has been called “a particular orientation within Salafism,” or an ultra-conservative, Saudi brand of Salafism.  Estimates of the number of adherents to Wahhabism vary, with one source (Mehrdad Izady) giving a figure of fewer than 5 million Wahhabis in the Persian Gulf region (compared to 28.5 million Sunnis and 89 million Shia). Many Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree with the Wahhabi  of the Ottoman empire movement, and a widely circulated conspiracy theory holds it to have been a product of British secret service efforts for causing the demise of the Ottoman empire. Ulema, including Al-Azhar scholars, regularly denounce Wahhabism in terms such as “Satanic faith”. Wahhabism has been accused of being “a source of global terrorism,” inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and for causing disunity in Muslim communities by labelling Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabi interpretation of monotheism as apostate (takfir) and justifying their killing. It has also been criticized for the destruction of historic mazars, mausoleums, and other Muslim and non-Muslim buildings and artifacts.

The World Heritage Significance of The Saints Of Timbuktu

Some of the ancient mausoleums of Timbuktu, shrines and tombs of Sufi saints which were a place of pilgrimage for centuries have been restored through a local and international project, three years after they were deliberately destroyed by armed groups linked to al-Qaida.

The director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, visited the city in Northern Mali, praising the reconstruction work as “an answer to all extremist whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali”. The 16 tombs, the treasures of a place known as “the city of 333 saints”, some dating back to the 13th century, were believed by the local people to protect their city from danger.  The saints were renowned for their scholarship as well as their piety, and their memorials formed part of the Timbuktu World Heritage Site, the Unesco list of the world’s most important monuments.

The work has been carried out by local masons using traditional building techniques, collecting old photographs and surviving fragments of the walls as patterns to rebuild using the local stone mortared with banco, a mixture of clay and straw.  The first monuments chosen for restoration were to three saints from different regions, one from Timbuktu, one from Algeria, and on from Djenne in the Niger delta.

Timbuktu has been known since ancient times as a centre of learning and trade.  In the 12th century it became the site of one of the world’s earliest universities, which at its height in the 15th century is said to have had 25,000 students.

Recognising its significance as a site of African architecture and its scholarly past, UNESCO declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in 1990.

The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic script, produced between the 15th and the 20th centuries. The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. The manuscripts were precious for what they said more broadly about Africa’s history. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who visited Timbuktu in 1996, explains that Hegel, Kant, and other Enlightenment philosophers contended that Africa had no tradition of writing, and therefore no history and no memory.  “And unless you have those, you are not a civilization, which was a pernicious argument that provided justification for the slave trade,” Gates said in a recent interview.  ‘The absence of writing, of books, was seen as a reflection of the subhuman position of the Africans.  So the presence of these books had high, high stakes, going back to the 18th century.  Kant and Hegel and Hume did not know anything about this.”

The Meaning of the Saints or Awliya In Sufism

A hierarchy of Awliya and their functions are outlined in the books of Sufi masters.  There is some controversies as to the terms used for each rank, but there is general agreement about the numbers and functions of each level starting from the top downwards:

  • One – Ghawth (Guide)
  • Three – Qutb (World Pillar)
  • Three – Nuqaba (Watchman)
  • Four – Awtaad (Pegs), Aqtab (Poles)
  • Seven – Abraar (Pious)
  • Forty – Abdal ( Substitutes)
  • Three Hundred – Akhyaar (Chosen)

Description of the Qutb.

Qutb, Qutub, Kutb, Kutub, or Kotb, means “axis”, ‘pivot”, or “pole”.  Qutb can refer to the celestial movement and used as an astronomical term or a spiritual symbol.  In Sufism, a Qutb is the perfect human being, al-Insan al-Kamil (Universal Man), who lead the saintly hierarchy.  The Qutb is the Sufi spiritual leader that has a divine connection with God and passes knowledge on which makes him central to, or axis of Sufism, but he is unknown to the world.  There is only one Qutb per era and he is an infallible and trusted spiritual leader.  He is only revealed to a select group of mystics because there is a human need for direct knowledge of God”

According to the Institute of Ismaili Studies, “In mystical literature, such as the writings of Al-Tirmidhi, Abd al-Razzaq and Ibn Arabi, Qutb refers to the perfect human being who is thought to be the Universal Leader of all saints, to mediate between the divine and the human and whose presence is deemed necessary for the existence of the world.



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