The Meaning Of Timbuktu

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The meaning of timbuktu

Made possible by the Tombouctou Manuscript Project of University of Cape Town, South Africa

Edited by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne Published by HSRC Press Private Bag X9182, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa In Association with CODESRIA Avenue Cheikh Diop, X Canal IV, BP 3304, Dakar, CP 18524 Senegal


We are pleased finally to be able to present this volumes of essays to the reading public in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.  The essays were, with one exception, all originally read as papers at a conference of the Tombouctou Manuscript Project of University of Cape Town in August 2005.  On that occasion, they were prepared and presented in one of three languages – Arabic, English and French – and we are delighted to give English-language readers the opportunity to now read them all in one volume.  Simultaneous translation was available at the conference, and publication of the papers in all three languages in separate volumes were our original and rather idealistic ambition, but funding for such a publishing project was unfortunately, if understandably, not obtainable; Furthermore, the logistics of editing a single volume has been a sufficient challenge; with the two editors living at great distances from each other, and authors who are spread across three continents, and many of them often away from desk and classroom.  Simultaneity in this case was a most fanciful idea, but it is hoped that now that this collection of essays is in the public realm, the resources will be found to translate the volume into the other languages.  We are confident that we have original essays of value here that deserve to be widely read in South Africa, Africa and beyond.  It is our hope, that in the near future, readers other than those within the normal reach of the market of this press – French and Arabic speakers, if not other regional language – will have the book to in hand.

“The African traditions of scholarship, articulated in the Arabic language, and in African languages written in the Arabic script ( the so-called Ajami)that most of the chapters in this volume address, have to date been studied by a very small group of scholars – Arabists and historians or anthropologist, very largely, of course, trained to research and focus on the western regions of the continent.  Modern scholarly research on this African Islamic tradition of learning has a presence in a few scattered places in Africa, Europe, and the United States of America. While there is a colonial tradition of scholarship particularly focused on translating key text relevant to colonial policy makers, later, ‘scientific’ research about African pre-colonial writing has grown steadily if lethargically since the 1960s.

this world of African scholarship before the appearance of European colonialism is, however, generally not as widely known or incorporated into school or university curricula about Africa as, say, aspects of the continent’s  archaeology or oral tradition. Yet the corpus of materials to study is vast and, excluding North Africa above the Sahara, extends across West African and down to the East African coast and there even exist a small body of material in Cape Town, South Africa. In recent years some intermittent international media attention to these traditions of writing has led to a popular focus on them; but like so much that is pursued by the media there is instant, intense and often sparkling light thrown on the subject, only for it to be soon relegated to make way for the next big scoop.

The written heritage of ‘mysterious Timbuktu’ has attracted this kind of attention from time to time for a short while until ‘the next big thing’ came along. So that desert town has had its 15 minutes of fame.  However, we believe Timbuktu’s recent fame should be kept alive for a bit long among scholars interested in the past of books and libraries; it should remain prominent among those concerned with at least a part of Africa’s last few hundred years of written history.

This collection is a selection of over twenty studies, which combine specialist expertise and accessibility about the extensive institutions of scholarship over part of the Sahara and the Sahel – that region on the edges of the Sahara stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, also known as Bilad al-Sudan (land of the blacks) since the medieval period.  We also include two essays on the regions beyond, which is by no means comprehensive but merely an indicator of what exists outside  the focus area of this collection.  Altogether, these studies should wet the appetite of any educated reader or student interested in the transmission of  learning and book production.  We do not make any claim to comprehensiveness or definitiveness but cumulatively the essays provide concise introductions that are solidly researched and reliable and offer multiple perspectives on the worlds and meanings of scholarly reading and writing in Timbuktu and beyond.

This is not a collection of essays composed only of the work of scholars from universities outside the regions under study. We have scholars from within the regions who continue to work in, manage or own the libraries under discussion.  We also have scholars whose style of composition still have something of the classical modes of expression still taught in some tutorials and classes in the Sahel.  Even though the book does not contain essays on the aesthetics of the written materials themselves, except one  on aspects of calligraphy, there enough images in the following pages to give an impression of what future research is possible in fields such as West African arts and design, for example.  It was therefore a conscious decision to include a generous selection of images of texts and their context from the regions addressed in this volume.



Timbuktu: Makes Academy Awards History

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Timbuktu 2015 Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film! / Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Film Synopsis

2015 Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film! Not far from Timbuktu, now ruled by the religious fundamentalists, Kidane lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes when Kidane accidentally kills Amadou, the fisherman who slaughtered “GPS,” his beloved cow. He now has to face the new laws of the foreign occupants. Timbuktu is Mauritania’s first entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.


The film has received a score of 85 on Metacritic, indicating “universal acclaim”.

Jay Weissberg of Variety writes “In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master.”


Distributed by Cohen Media Group

Tarikh al-Sudan: History of the Songhai Empire

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The Tarikh al-Sudan (also Tarikh es-Sudan – the “History of the Sudan”) is a chronicle written in Arabic in around 1655 by Abd al-Sadi. It provides the single most important primary source for the history of the Songhay Empire.

The author, Abd al-Sadi, was born on 28 May 1594, and died at an unknown date sometime after 1655-56, the last date to be mentioned in his chronicle. He spent most of his life working for the Moroccan Arma bureaucracy, initially in the administration of Djenné and the messina region of the Inland Niger Delta. In 1646 he became chief secretary to the Arma administration of Timbuktu.

The early sections of the chronicle are devoted to brief histories of earlier Songhay dynasties, of the Mali Empire and of the Tuareg, and to biographies of the scholars and holy men of both Timbuktu and Djenné. The main part of the chronicle covers the history of the Songhay from the middle of the 15th century till the Moroccan invasion in 1591, and then the history of Timbuktu under Moroccan rule up to 1655. Al-Sadi rarely acknowledges his sources. For the earlier period much of his information is presumably based on oral tradition. From around 1610 the information would have been gained first hand.

In 1853 the German scholar and explorer Heinrich Barth visited Timbuktu on behalf of the British government. During his stay he consulted a copy of the Tarikh al-Sudan in his investigation of the history of the Songhai empire. However he was under the misapprehension that the author was the Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba. In his book Barth wrote:

But I myself was so successful as to have an opportunity of perusing a complete history of the kingdom of Songhai from the very dawn of historical records down to the year 1640 of our era; although, unfortunately, circumstances prevented my bringing back a complete copy of this manuscript, which forms a respectable quarto volume, and I was only able, during the few days that I had this manuscript in my hands during my stay in Gandó, to make short extracts of those passages from its contents which I thought of the highest interest in an historical and geographical point of view.

These annals, according to the universal statement of the learned people of Negroland, were written by a distinguished person of the name of Ahmed Baba, although in the work itself that individual is only spoken of in the third person; and it would seem that additions had been made to the book by another hand; but on this point I can not speak with certainty, as I had not sufficient time to read over the latter portion of the work with the necessary attention and care.

Forty years later Félix Dubois in his Timbuctoo the Mysterious pointed out that the Tarikh could not have been written by Ahmed Baba as it mentions Ahmed Baba’s death. “How could a man so well informed in Arabian subjects be so completely deceived? … If he had read the entire book with more attention, he would have seen that the date – year, month and day – of Ahmed Baba’s death is mentioned by the author …”. Dubois realized that the manuscript was by Abd al-Sadi.

After the French occupation of Mali in the 1890s, two copies of the manuscript were given to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. These were studied by the Arabic scholar Octave Houdas. The undated Manuscript A had been sent by Louis Archinard, Manuscript B was a copy made for Félix Dubois while in Djenné in 1895 and was very similar to Manuscript A. A third copy of the Tarikh al-Sudan, Manuscript C, was sent to Houdas by the linguist René Basset who was head of the École Supérieure des Lettres in Alger. Manuscript C was generally superior to the other two and included vowels for many of the proper names and the date of 1792 for when the copy had been made. Houdas published the Arabic text in 1898 and a translation into French in 1900. A century later John Hunwick published a partial translation into English.

Timbuktu: A World Heritage Treasure

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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, Morisco Refugees 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 not alone 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, and is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

Gandhi On The Arab-Jew Question In Palestine (November 26, 1938)

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Gandhi leading Salt Satyagraha, a notable example of Satyagraha

Several letters have been received by me asking me to declare my views about the Arab-Jew question in Palestine and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is not without hesitation that I venture to offer my views on this very difficult question. My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews. But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood? Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French. If the Jews have no home but Palestine, will they relish the idea of being forced to leave the other parts of the world in which they are settled? Or do they want a double home where they can remain at will? This cry for the national home affords a colourable justification for the German expulsion of the Jews. But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province.But if there can be no war against Germany, even for such a crime as is being committed against the Jews, surely there can be no alliance with Germany. How can there be alliance between a nation which claims to stand for justice and democracy and one which is the declared enemy of both? Or is England drifting towards armed dictatorship and all it means? Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness. Can the Jews resist this organised and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. No person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. Jehovah of the Jews is a God more personal than the God of the Christians, the Mussalmans or the Hindus, though as a matter of fact in essence, He is common to all and one without a second and beyond description. But as the Jews attribute personality to God and believe that He rules every action of theirs, they ought not to feel helpless. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep. It is hardly necessary for me to point out that it is easier for the Jews than for the Czechs to follow my prescription. And they have in the Indian satyagraha campaign in South Africa an exact parallel. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place that the Jews occupy in Germany. The persecution had also a religious tinge. President Kruger used to say that the white Christians were the chosen of God and Indians were inferior beings created to serve the whites. A fundamental clause in the Transvaal constitution was that there should be no equality between the whites and coloured races including Asiatics. There too the Indians were consigned to ghettos described as locations. The other disabilities were almost of the same type as those of the Jews in Germany. The Indians, a mere handful, resorted to satyagraha without any backing from the world outside or the Indian Government. Indeed the British officials tried to dissuade the satyagrahis is from their contemplated step. World opinion and the Indian Government came to their aid after eight years of fighting. And that too was by way of diplomatic pressure not of a threat of war. But the Jews of Germany can offer satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa. The Jews are a compact, homogeneous community in Germany. They are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organised world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in non-violent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. It will be then a truly religious resistance offered against the godless fury of dehumanised man. The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity. They will have rendered service to fellow-Germans and proved their title to be the real Germans as against those who are today dragging, however unknowingly, the German name into the mire. And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart. The same God rules the Arab heart who rules the Jewish heart. They can offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in their favour in their religious aspiration. There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-shares with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them. I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. Let the Jews who claim to be the chosen race prove their title by choosing the way of non-violence for vindicating their position on earth. Every country is their home including Palestine not by aggression but by loving service. A Jewish friend has sent me a book called The Jewish Contribution to Civilisation by Cecil Roth. It gives a record of what the Jews have done to enrich the world`s literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, agriculture, etc. Given the will, the Jew can refuse to be treated as the outcaste of the West, to be despised or patronised. He can command the attention and respect of the world by being man, the chosen creation of God, instead of being man who is fast sinking to the brute and forsaken by God. They can add to their many contributions the surpassing contribution of non-violent action. Segaon, November 20, 1938

The Road To Tawergha

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The Road To Tawergha

As Libya emerges from the shadows of dictatorship, it must decide whether to embrace retribution or reconciliation.

Filmmaker: Ashraf Mashharawi

In 2011, Libyans rose up against their leader, Muammar Gaddafi, as the Arab Spring took root in the north African country.

In the conflict that followed, the city of Misrata became a key battleground. During the battle for the city, some residents reported being tortured by Gaddafi loyalists from the town of Tawergha, 50km to the south.

After the battle, Misrata became a launch-pad for the rebels as they prepared to move on Tripoli in a final bid to oust Gaddafi. But, before heading to the capital, Misrata-based rebels made a trip to Tawergha.

The regime was able to incite hatred between Libyans. Everywhere, not only in Misrata.

Emad Elbannani, from the Justice and Construction Party

Much of the town’s almost 30,000-strong population fled. Some sought sanctuary in Benghazi in the east; others in Tripoli in the west and Sabha in the south. Most of the refugees are black Libyans.

In the refugee camps of Janzour, on the outskirts of Tripoli, and Al Halis, on the outskirts of Benghazi, many of the residents from Tawergha say they are still being persecuted.

With the new Libyan government so far failing to embrace the notion of national reconciliation, some Libyans are taking it upon themselves to pursue peace and forgiveness.

The Road to Tawergha is about war, retribution and the difficult road to reconciliation that Libya must travel if it is to emerge from the shadows of Gaddafi’s 42-year reign.

Human Rights Watch: Statement at the Human Rights Council on the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya

Oral statement under Item 4 – Interactive Dialoque with the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya

March 12, 2012

Human Rights Watch welcomes the report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, which rightly highlighted a wide range of past and ongoing human rights violations. We support the Commission’s conclusions that “international crimes, specifically crimes against humanity and war crimes, were committed by Gadhafi forces in Libya.”

Human Rights Watch’s research also confirms the Commission’s conclusion that anti-Gaddafi forces “committed serious violations, including war crimes and breaches of international human rights law.” We support the Commission’s finding that crimes against humanity of torture and killing by anti-Gaddafi forces in Misrata have apparently taken place.

Of deep concern are reports of torture and maltreatment in detention facilities run by militias, sometimes resulting in deaths. Armed groups are also engaging in arbitrary arrests and revenge attacks against those who supported or are perceived as having supported the Gaddafi government.

The state is slowly taking control of detention facilities, and this is welcome. But militias still illegally hold between five and six thousand detainees, and most of them have not had any judicial review. The government should redouble its efforts to bring these detainees under its control, and give them prompt judicial reviews or release them. The Libyan government should send a clear message that only official security structures are authorized to make arrests, and it will not tolerate illegal detentions or torture.

The creation of an inter-ministerial body to address human rights violations is welcome. But the problems require concerted action, including prosecutions of all those who violate the law.

Another concern is the fate of roughly 35,000 people from Tawergha, who are blocked from returning to their homes by militias from Misrata. These militias accuse Tawerghans of having committed atrocities against Misrata together with Gaddafi forces, but it is collective punishment, and likely a crime against humanity, to prevent the entire town from returning home. In addition, the displaced people in western Libya are subject to ongoing harassment and attacks, including one last month on a camp in Janzur that killed seven people. The government should immediately bolster security at camps where displaced people are staying, and implement plans to ensure their safe return home.

For these and other serious violations committed in Libya, accountability is required. Security Council Resolution 1970 gives the International Criminal Court ongoing jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the territory of Libya since February 15, 2011.

Free and fair elections in Libya, schedule for June, will require laws that protect the rights of Libyans to criticize their leaders and others in public life and to associate and assemble as they see fit, without fear of prosecution or other reprisal. Guaranteeing the independence of civil society and the active participation of women will be critical for a transition to democracy, and for this reforms are required. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that vetting procedures may be used to ban candidates based on vague and broadly defined criteria.

Libya has passed important laws on Transitional Justice and Amnesties, and these are important steps. But the government should make these laws public and widely available so they can be understood and implemented in line with international human rights standards. It should make publicly available all oil and gas contracts, so Libyans know how their national wealth is being managed.

To protect women’s rights, the interim government should withdraw all remaining reservations to CEDAW, and reform personal status laws that discriminate against women, including laws on inheritance, marriage, divorce, and custody of children and adopt laws that protect women and girls from gender-based violence.

Human Rights Watch believes that Libya should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would allow for independent inspections of detention facilities.

With the likely ongoing crimes against humanity occurring in Libyan territory, the primary responsibility to protect the population of Libya rests with the Libyan government. However, the international community also has a duty to assist the government, speedily and fully, to implement its responsibility to protect and end these crimes immediately.

Given the gravity of the challenges still faced in Libya, the Human Rights Council should establish an international mechanism, such as an independent Expert, to assist Libya in abandoning past abusive practices and following up to the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, and to report back regularly to the UN Human Right Council on progress and challenges.

Lastly, Human Rights Watch calls on NATO to investigate cases in which Libyan civilians died from its attacks during last years’s campaign, as recommended by the Commission of Inquiry. NATO took extensive measures to minimize civilian casualties and the number of victims is relatively low. But that does not lift the legal obligation to investigate questionable cases. NATO should also compensate the civilian victims of its campaign.