Africa’s Oxford vandalized by Islamist militants
Situated in Mali, Timbuktu is a legendary city on the southern edge of the Saharan desert – desolate, forlorn, remote with some 333 Sufi saints buried there.
Whatever it may look like today with its dismal poverty, it used to be an important trade centre opening up across the Sahara, to the Mediterranean North African coast that had business links with Asia and Europe. For 600 years it continued to thrive and the city became the hub of West African trade. Along with trade, what attracted foreigners to visit the place, was its excellent Islamic university presided over by Sufi saints. Timbuktu disseminated knowledge and its scholars attracted disciples from across Europe and Asia. The most famous of its scholars is Cadi Sidi Mahmoud ben Amar (1463-1548) who was appointed Cadi (a judge) in 1498. His tomb is one of 16 most revered mausoleums in the city. These tombs were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO.
In April 2012, northern Mali was overrun by the Islamist Ansar Dine who vowed to establish Sharia law in the area. Ansar Dine, an ultra-conservative fundamentalist group having links to Al-Queda, believes that tombs of Sufi saints are a form of idolatry and they took no time to impose their brand of Islam. On 30 June, a local journalist reported that the Ansar Dine activists, armed with pickaxes and shovels, had destroyed the tomb of Baba Amar and two other adjacent tombs. They vandalized a sacred door opening which, according to popular belief, would spell the end of the world. UNESCO made an appeal to spare the World Heritage Sites but the pickaxes would not rest until all the mausoleums were destroyed. Recently it was reported by media that 90 per cent of the sacred tombs have been destroyed by the Salafist Ansar Dine. Known as the Oxford of Africa, Timbuktu is in the process of losing its entire heritage along with hundreds and thousands of Arabic handwritten manuscripts which form a glorious chapter of its Islamic past.
Salafism (also known as Wahabism) is a brand of ultra-conservative Islam first propagated by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahab of Najd, Saudi Arabia. Influenced by Imam ibn Taymiyya, he started preaching against impurities and innovations practiced by Muslims. Soon he fell out of favour with the local ruler and he was expelled from his birthplace Uyayna. He found a patron in the ruler of Diriya, Muhammad Ibn Saud who gave him shelter and entered into an agreement with him to the effect that while religious leadership would devolve on Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahab, temporal leadership would belong to the Saud family. So as a part of the purge-drive the Saudi rulers destroyed many historical and cultural sites in both Makkah and Madina. In the 1880s the Arab tribes in their zeal for reform nearly destroyed the holy shrine of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In 1920 the descendants of Ibn Saud bulldozed and levelled a graveyard – Jannatul Baqee in Madina which saw the destruction of shrines of Hazrat Fatema, Hazrat Hasan, Imam Zeinal Abedin, Imam Baqer, Imam Jafar Sadeque and some of the Prophet’s companions. Simultaneously, they destroyed parts of Jannatul Mualla in Makkah which included the holy shrines of Hazrat Khadija Al-Kobra, Hazrat Abdul Mottaleb and Abu Taleb. The seven mosques on the site of the Battle of Trench have been completely wiped out. Even they are contemplating to demolish the house where the Prophet (pbup) was born. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the 1000 year-old buildings in Makkah and Madina have been destroyed during the last two decades. Tarek Fatah, a Pakistani Canadian writes in Toronto Star, “What makes this demolition worse is the fact that the home of the Prophet (pubh) is to make way for a parking lot, two 50-storey hotel towers and seven 35-storey apartment blocks; a project known as the Jabal Omar Scheme, all within a stone’s throw of the Grand Mosque”.
So the Salafists, aided by petrodollars, are all over Africa, Asia and Europe. The Taliban who destroyed the 6th century Statue of Buddha share their fanaticism with the Salafists and are keen on imposing Sharia Law. It was the Taliban who destroyed the Lahore Mausoleum of Data Ganj Baksh in 2010 which left 42 people killed and many others injured. Petrodollar is also active in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia in the form of grants and aid for mosques and Madrasas where the Wahabi-Salafi brand of Islam is practiced.
The reckless demolition of Timbuktu Sufi tombs is a part of the global agenda of the countries that provide funds for Ansar Dine, Al Shabab, Boko Haram who are better armed than the African states within which they operate. It is ironical that one Babri Mosque generates so much heat within and outside India, but the destruction of the Holy Prophet’s (pubh) residence does not provoke any response from the Muslim states around the globe! No wonder that the destruction of Timbuktu heritage has gone almost unnoticed by the Islamic world!
The writer, a professor of English at IIUC, Dhaka Campus, is Associate Editor of The Independent. He is also the former DG and President of Bangla Academy and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org