THE reported destruction of two important manuscript collections by Islamist rebels as they fled Timbuktu is an offence to the whole of Africa and its universally important cultural heritage. Like their systematic destruction of 300 Sufi saints’ shrines while they held Timbuktu at their mercy, it is an assault on world heritage comparable with the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001.

The literary heritage of Timbuktu dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries when the gold-rich kingdoms of Mali and Songhai traded across the Sahara with the Mediterranean world. It took two months for merchant caravans to cross the desert, and while gold and slaves went north, books were going south.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvels that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

They were selling manuscripts by Arab scholars on everything from astronomy and arithmetic to Islamic law, as well as mystical texts on Sufism, the otherworldly, saintly style of faith that Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine finds so offensive.

This legacy of Arab learning that goes back to the great scientists and mathematicians who preserved the classical Greek heritage in the early middle ages is richly represented in the manuscripts of Timbuktu — but not necessarily in its original form. For scribes copied and recopied books in this city that loved learning, creating a legacy of works transcribed in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as earlier.

They also wrote down their own history and laws, chronicling the families of Timbuktu and preserving the poetry and stories of north Africa — at least, that is what seems to have lain in the many manuscripts of Timbuktu’s lost legacy that were just starting to be properly conserved when this terrible religious vandalism plagued the city.

When European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century the continent was seen as illiterate and lacking in history, memory, or literature. Its art was seen as “primitive”, partly because it lacked a written art history.

Timbuktu is a palimpsest in the sand that proves otherwise. Libraries like the Ahmed Baba institute were rescuing Africa’s history from oblivion. Timbuktu is Africa’s city of books and learning that disproved racist myths about the continent. That luminous inheritance is what the Islamists have destroyed. — The Guardian, London

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Comments (13)

January 31, 2013 9:44 am
That is whay everybody is destroying muslim worlds. People will continue to destroy muslim world till this tyranny called islam is end. enjoy the drone strikes.
Dr. D. Prithipaul
January 30, 2013 5:31 pm
The two greatest names in Islamic history are those of Avicenna and Firdausi who were both of Aryan stock. They were not Arabs. When the Muslims entered the Indian sub-continent they actually encountered a fully developed, sophisticated civilisation. Till today Muslims in the Indian subcontinent have not written a single sentence on the beauties they saw around them, nor have they ever said or written one word of homage to the creators of so may outstanding monuments. But they destroyed a lot. The library of the Nalanda University burned for 9 days, a library of manuscripts written in Sanskrit and Pali by some of the most enlightened metaphysicians the world had ever known. The lovely ruins of Hampi today still speak of the splendour of a city which was plundered and systematically destroyed during a whole year. Yet during the thousand years of their presence in the Indian sub continent the Muslims, after obliterating so many of the centres of high learning of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jainas, have not till today produced, even as a token replacement, one single great book. Their Urdu literature - itself an Indian creation - has not risen beyond the Ghazal. And they continue to act against learning and beauty even today with the disappearance of the Bamiyan Buddhas, with their state-sponsored terror, their wars, their hatred. And they do not even feel the irony of claiming as their heritage the few remnants of Buddhist art which recall the great culture which once flourished in Gandhara. All they offer in return is an assumption of superiority built on the foundation of arrogance, ignorance, and hatred.
January 30, 2013 2:31 pm
On the expected lines...
January 30, 2013 9:53 am
Another gift of this peaceful religion. My heart went to pieces when I saw majestic Buddha statue broken down .. One mosque broken down by another group of fanatics in 1992 and muslims are veiling injustice till today ... Hundreds of temples, literature and other invaluable human culture ruined by Islamist who veils ... Show me one important Muslim monuments dig two meters around it and you will find some ruins of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist places of worship.... I don't know if Allah the almighty still hears my prayers in the mosque build upon the relics of other religious places .... its like praying on the corpse of humanity ....
Straight Talker
January 30, 2013 6:40 pm
I have not seen other monuments but being from New Delhi I have seen with my own eyes when there was some repair work going on at Qutub Minar and they had to remove couple of stones because cracks started to build up on a few because of passage of time . When they removed the stones , the inside of the stone were carving of Hindu Gods and Goddesses . Now , we all know that right next to the Qutub Minar are the ancient ruines of Hindu temple of Jogmaya which Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji distroyed . It is not very difficult to put two and two together what chain of events took place in those days . Qutub Minar is a UNESCO wold heritage site now and my New Delhi is very proud of it . Yet we should keep the history books straight that Muslim invaders destryed some Hindu temples and Islamic structures were build on them .
January 30, 2013 7:02 pm
example of it is Woodz steel which arabs sold in europe as Damascus steel and never knew how to make it?
January 30, 2013 7:07 pm
when it comes to religious intolerance we are all part of the same hypocrisy.the aryans came in1500 bc and drove the dravidians into the south,the aryans are noble,says i need to go further.yes muslims are no saints i accept that nor are the other religions, no religion teaches tolerance.
January 30, 2013 10:19 pm
I just visited the Golden Dome mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Wailing Wall and the Church of Holy Spulchure. I was not surprised to learn that the Golden Dome mosque is also built on an existing church. In Istanbul, Hagia Sofia mosque also used to be a church. My main concern is about Timbuktu destruction is that the Holy Koran is interpreted in so many different ways and the high priests of Islam become part of the silent majority.
umesh bhagwat
January 30, 2013 10:52 pm
The Russians want to shut down the Lenin mausoleum.Signs of growing intolerance all around!
January 30, 2013 11:22 pm
Hang on Tamilselvan. Lets not lose ourself in hyperbole and trivialize the contribution of a whole community. The Arabs accepted, adapted principles of astronomy and mathematics from China and India. They also enhanced the disciplines through their own contributions and passed on the enriched knowledge to the rest of humanity.
January 30, 2013 1:58 pm
I think Indians, and esp Hindus should stop commenting with a hollierr than thou attitude. Also, the temples are/were destroyed because Islam abhors Idol worship. If a wrong is seen, then it is the duty of all muslims to correct it, and thus the temples are destroyed. If spiritually muslims see someone worshiping the wrong god, then it is the duty of all muslims to show them the path of Allah, and if still they do not follow it, then it is the duty of all muslims to ensure that such blatant insult of Allah is corrected (insult by not worshipping Allah). Allah gave us this wonderful world and this life. It is our duty to see to it that Allah is given the due reverence. Just like books and movies etc are banned in India, in the same way false theories and ideologies and books and practises (of worshipping at a grave) are banned in the muslim world.
January 30, 2013 8:31 am
Why the Muslim invaders always target any thing that is they think is not acceptable as Islamic. All the Afghan and central Asian warier who invaded India area declared themselves as Ghazi, the holy warier. They made it point to plunder and destroy the Hindu holy places. Imposed Jizya on the citizens of concurred territory. The Somnath temple in Gujrat, Sive temple at Banaras and Jgannath temple at Puri, are some of tragic incidents. When the Sultan of Bengal invaded Orissa in 16th Century in a span of few days his army destroyed hundreds of temple. Now the History repeats in Afaganistan, Africa and else where. If Islam is for peace and believe in being a universal religion why then these Sultans and terrorist behave in this way? From where these beasts get the inspiration to commit such heinous crime on humanity in the name religion ? I feel our Muslim brothers should ponder over it.
January 30, 2013 5:17 am
Not to forget astronomy and math came from present day India and china to the Arabs who were traders. Another example of destruction to civilization by Islamic fanatics done in the modern world
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