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From here to Timbuktu

Published Jul 06, 2012 10:02pm


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SOME 12 years or so ago, I was in Tangier, the lovely coastal city in Morocco, and went to pay my respects at the modest tomb of Ibn Battuta, the town’s most famous son. Born there in 1304, he left for a pilgrimage to Makkah when he was 21.

Since then, he barely stopped travelling, covering around 75,000 miles by the time he died in 1368 or 1369. By far the most prodigious explorer of the Middle Ages, he visited China, much of South Asia, vast tracts of Africa, and south and east Europe, and left behind a complete record of his epic journeys.

Ibn Battuta passed through Timbuktu in 1352 when it was a small, bustling town. It had not then attained the importance it would a couple of centuries later as a major trading centre where camel trains passed through on their way from the west coast to many points in Africa.

In Mali, Ibn Battuta commented on the piety of the Muslims he encountered. Apparently, the mosques were so full that fathers would send their sons early to reserve a place for them for Friday prayers. Apart from being an important trading centre, Timbuktu was also a focal point of Islamic scholarship with three universities and 180 Quranic schools. Many stunning mosques were built there, as were imposing shrines to Sufi saints and other holy men.

Gradually, Timbuktu lost its importance to the point where its name became synonymous with a remote, almost mythical place. ‘From here to Timbuktu’ is an expression denoting a huge distance. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Dr A.Q. Khan, our very own nuclear proliferator, from visiting the now run-down town three times and apparently buying a hotel that he named after his wife, Hendrina.

Given its long history and striking architecture, it is no wonder that Timbuktu has been named a Unesco world heritage site. Sadly, this distinction has not stopped thugs of the Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, from destroying and damaging a number of ancient mosques and mausoleums.

Justifying their sacrilegious acts, an Ansar spokesman claimed that the design of the tombs was “idolatrous” as according to him, Islam prescribes about “the way and size in which tombs are built”. This is news to me, but then I’m no Islamic scholar.

This wanton destruction of historically and religiously significant structures is reminiscent of the Taliban’s demolition of the famous giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan. So outraged was the entire world at this criminal act of vandalism in early 2001 that even Muslim countries did not protest when the Taliban were attacked and sent packing later that year in the wake of 9/11.

Apart from their ignorance and brutality, the other thing the Taliban and the Ansar Dine have in common is their Wahabi/Salafi belief. This literalist Saudi tendency has seen the destruction of historically and religiously important buildings, including ancient tombs in Makkah and Madina. Entire historic sites have been bulldozed.

Curiously, most of the Muslim world has remained largely silent over this desecration. But none of this is new: the destruction of religious buildings has been going on in Saudi Arabia for centuries. Irfan Ahmad, who is associated with the Centre for Islam in the Modern World at Australia’s Monash University, writing in Issue 15 of Islamica Magazine (now sadly defunct) informs us:

“In 1802, an army led by the sons of Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahab (the founder of Wahabism) and Mohammed ibn Saud occupied Taif and began a bloody massacre. A year later, the forces occupied the holy city of Makkah. They executed a campaign of destruction in many sacred places and levelled all the existing domes, even those built over the well of Zamzam… In 1806, the Wahabi army occupied Madina. They did not leave any religious building, including mosques, without demolishing it…”

Wahabis/Salafists and other fundamentalists draw inspiration from the mediaeval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah to rationalise the destruction of ancient religious buildings.

This quotation from Ibn Taymiyyah is deployed by them to defend their antipathy towards ancient holy sites: “The leaders of Islam agreed that it is not permitted to build the mausoleums over the graves. They cannot be considered mosques and praying over them is not permitted.”

Presumably, if these fundamentalists could have their way, most of the world’s historical, religious and architectural heritage would have been levelled by now. Pyramids, temples and churches that have stood for centuries would have gone the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Mughal contributions to civilisation like the Taj Mahal, and Istanbul’s Ottoman Blue Mosque, would have been razed by the likes of the Taliban and the Ansar Dine. The exquisite Moorish buildings in Spain would have been blown up or bulldozed if the Salafis had their way.

Unsurprisingly, these hordes have little to contribute to learning and culture: they know only to kill and destroy. Rather than preserving the past and respecting the dead, they campaign to erase every vestige of history from memory except their version of it.

Oddly, they claim to speak exclusively for a religion that enjoins its followers to seek knowledge from the far corners of the world. In their view, any Muslim who differs from their narrow vision of the faith is a non-believer and therefore ‘wajib-ul-qatal’, or deserving to be put to death. They have thus appointed themselves judge, jury and hangman.

The Muslim mantra is that these extremists are a small minority, and their views and actions should not colour the world’s opinion about Islam as a whole. But the truth is that even a tiny fraction of some 1.3 billion Muslims amounts to enough dangerous militants to cause havoc around the world.

In places like north Mali, north Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and large tracts of Pakistan, this cancer is spreading. Something all these areas have in common is a power vacuum that is being filled by extremist groups subscribing to the rigid, intolerant belief of Al Qaeda. Invariably, they follow the strict code of Salafism espoused by the Saudis.

Faced by these dangers, the Muslim world has opted for silence and supine inaction. In some cases, there is active if covert support from the state. Few raise their voices in protest. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Ibn Battuta’s small mausoleum in Tangier is demolished, too.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (41) Closed

zahid Jul 07, 2012 04:31am
Dear Irfan sahib, What a wonderful article. you managed in a short space to give a historcal info and perspective into this current madness. I have been saddened and shocked by what happned in Bamilyan and now Mali/Timbuktu, But even the sadder thing as you point out is the inaction of your leaders and ambivalence of the General Public...... Thanks for the great effort... pls keep on writing on the issue.....
Noorani Jul 11, 2012 03:50am
Nation, Modern both the words are non existent in dictionaries for pakistan
Hitesh Jul 07, 2012 11:03am
"Something all these areas have in common is a power vacuum" If you observe the post-Islamic History you will find the same situation throughout 1400 years. As there couldn't be an ideal Muslim possible, there couldn't be true ruler.
Kamakazi Jul 07, 2012 11:37am
Totally agree !!!
MKB Jul 07, 2012 11:35am
They are waiting to see the end, which has started.
rk singh Jul 07, 2012 05:12am
"The Muslim mantra is that these extremists are a small minority, and their views and actions should not colour the world
Muhammad Alvi Jul 07, 2012 02:30pm
I enjoyed reading the article and most of the comments. It is thought-provoking. But I liked and completely agree with the comments of Satya Assar. The need of the hour is for the 'silent majority' to wake up and take action. Unless people become active and find true and capable leaders, the status quo will continue. Nothing happens without a cause.
chak Jul 07, 2012 04:34am
I am quite cetain that these guys not only read and understand Arabic better than most of the english speaking so called muslims but also have a strong verbal history associated with their knowledge. Just because you think a particular thing is correct does not mean that it is correct and logical. Maybe it is the Satan misguiding you. hence follow the holy Quran like these people do, to the letter and spirit.
INDIAN Jul 07, 2012 04:35am
...I wonder whenever there is any article, comments about INDIA, pakistanis talks about Babri masjid demolition (eventhough it was closed for several years ,no prayer offering at that time & Hindus firmly believe its birth place of Lord Ram), Gujarath incident..Pakistanis are talking like its a mother of all sins..But, when i read what is fellow Muslims doing to their own brothers, their own religeous places in pakistan & all over the world on daily basis, its seems rediculous...When u r in Minority u will talk about secularism, minorities right,protection..but, when u r in majority you will declare minorities as wajib ul kathl & demolish their temple..
Abbas Nasir Jul 07, 2012 02:53pm
Excellent, Irfan. You so articulately place our present in its historical context.
BRR Jul 07, 2012 04:08am
I would have to commend the writer for speaking out against such intolerance and blindness to reason. I, for one, would love to walk through the old world in Timbuktu and take in the history, or walk through Andalusia and experience what the Moors have bequeathed. Let the muslims of the world see the havoc being created by fellow muslims, and rise their voices in objection - at least to show that they are still willing and able to stand for themselves and the future of their children.
Aziz Jul 07, 2012 04:00pm
Has anyone every paused to think why so many Muslim armies passing through the area of Bamiyan never destroyed or even touched the statues of Buddha despite their presence being well known to very powerful Muslim rulers of the age. Even the notorious destroyer of Somnath Temple left these statues untouched. There were two special groups of 'Muslims' both created by the vested interest groups. The Salafist created to obliterate the Turks in the Middle East and the 'Mujahideen (read Taliban)' as a joint-venture to obliterate the Soviets. Mr. Hussain, I am sure the world can gain very useful insight if you undertook to write about the true origins of the Salfists and the Talibans. Who are the 'real' creator of these Frankenstien and how much did they benefit from their enterprise?
Safi Jul 07, 2012 02:31pm
A superb and thought provoking piece of writing. Dear author contribute an article to the causes of such a tarnished adherence to rotten thoughts which are, I believe totally alien to Islam, on the part of Muslims, if possible.
sam Jul 08, 2012 09:56am
Liberal Muslim is an oxymoron.
Hem Jul 07, 2012 11:59am
Majority of Pakistanis listen to militant mullahs in their mosques and only read the Urdu papers or website, they will not or can not read Dawn articles in English. It is not surprising that militant Islam is thriving in Pakistan and liberals dare not question the militant citizens. it is a sad thing when the government is scared of mullahs and militants.
Satya S Issar Jul 07, 2012 10:37am
Is it any surprise that the face which Islam is showing for the world to see is highly repugnant ? The so called 'silent majority' by not raising their voices to the full is equally culpable. The root cause is ignorance which has been spread by the powers to be by changing texts in history and suppressing realities from the masses. It suits the ruling classes to continue to retain their iron hold on the masses. These are signs pointing to the degradation of societies not withstanding short term advantages.
Bill Jul 07, 2012 09:58am
It is Islam in action. The Muslim world, by its silence.. agrees on the actions.
Bill Jul 07, 2012 05:27am
It is Islam in action. The Muslim world, by its silence.. agrees on the actions. So do Pakistanis when they suppress, oppress maim and/or otherwise kill minorities with the Law, and the Gun, and the Mob. Every Islamic nation, with its fascist Islamic laws, an affront to and a crime against... humanity. Some honesty here please.. how is Timbuktu any different ?
rabnawaz Jul 07, 2012 05:40am
sr irfan,after reading your article i hav been able to somewhat make sense that why is it that islam is looked as an extremist religion in the eyes of the west.mainly,it is because of such hedious activities of people like ansar dine that islam is being projected erroneously.inaction from or silence at such actions from the muslim world is another this dismal scenario voices of people like u are certainly applaudable. from rabnawaz
RY Deshpande Jul 07, 2012 05:48am
This is coming from a fine liberal mind, and I congratulate the author. The reality is harsh and ugly, and the task is tough to make the real reality real. If only such progressive voices join! At times a forward looking person is defined as one with a wife and two children, but there has to be a place in it for the country, for the world, for the culture, for nobler and elevating values of life. How will this happen?
Asif Jul 07, 2012 06:35am
Taliban are followers of the Deobandi school of thought not salafist as your article suggests
Salim Jul 07, 2012 06:41am
Prevailing attitude is not surprising, as Muslims now, particularly Pakistanis, remain in a state of denial and ignorance. They exhibit no cheer and hardly contribute to global well being.
Noorani Jul 07, 2012 07:05am
"“In 1802, an army led by the sons of Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahab (the founder of Wahabism) and Mohammed ibn Saud occupied Taif and began a bloody massacre. A year later, the forces occupied the holy city of Makkah. They executed a campaign of destruction in many sacred places and levelled all the existing domes, even those built over the well of Zamzam… In 1806, the Wahabi army occupied Madina. They did not leave any religious building, including mosques, without demolishing it…” --------------------------------------------------- These wahabi /saudi dynasty were ruthless than and are ruthless even today. They have bulldozed "Jannat -ul-Baqi cemetry in Madina right in front of Masjid -e -Nabvi and are playing videos propagating false hood quoting absolutely in correct sayings of The Prophet (PBUH). As per their version, saying / reciting a prayer (fateha) for a dead soul is forbidden (Haram). The sad part in all thiis is that more than half of the entire staff hired to monitor the traffic at "Jannat -ul-Baqi are from another crazy country Pakistan who subscribe to this false wahabi/ salafi beliefs and their looks are so disgusting when they try to demonstrate their authorityby. Shame on each & every one of them.
sanjay Jul 07, 2012 07:10am
A must read article. This kind of thinking and secular ideology is the need of hour for Pakistan, if it has to survive as a modern nation.
Rajesh Rathore Jul 07, 2012 07:11am
Since 1999 when you used to write as Mazdak, I have been a regular reader of your columns. I find your writing very informative and constructive without any biasing. I find you writing with wisdom as I find the wisdom in Kabir and Rahim’s couplets. Keep it up: There are millions who subscribe to your views. Rajesh Rathore
taranveer singh Jul 08, 2012 09:39am
Mr bashir Muslims in Burma are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 3 million are living in India. but in Burma they are easily recognised. can you tolerate if millions of people from Africa enter in Pakistan. why Burma wil tolerate Bangladeshis.
Sridhar Jul 07, 2012 08:31am
None of us claims to be an extremist but none of us can honestly deny that there does not exist any extremism in oneself. So, how can we point a finger at the Taliban or Ansari Dine?
Akhlesh Jul 07, 2012 09:27am
Liberal Muslims are quite rare. There is a huge silent majority too, but it occasionally erupts into action which is never on the side of liberalism.
Fazil Jul 07, 2012 06:38pm
After the Taliban’s demolition of the famous giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, a distressed Afghani man said on TV news: "We did not have a future; now we do not have a past". What would the Malians say?
Tariq K Sami Jul 07, 2012 11:53pm
Then go to Egypt which is has Al Azhar University and ask their scholars why they have preserved all their vast Pharonic Culture in buildings and museum. Also ask your self why Islamic scholars of 13 centuries were overridden by Abdul Wahab who came only in less than a 100 yrs ago. I have never heard Omar the Great ordering any destruction of old temples.
NASAH (USA) Jul 08, 2012 12:55am
"Liberal Muslims are quite rare" -- quite an statement for a regular on Dawn.
Bashir Jul 08, 2012 02:01am
mr irfan what about the muslims of Burma????? I did not see any article by you on this human suffering???
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:32am
there is no Islamic Nation and no Nation has Islamic laws! you should know that before you post such rubbish. Your prejudice is obvious to everyone eating this and in your hatred you are closer to those you criticize then anyone else. Americans voted for Bush twice while he was spreading love all over the world. Are all Americans responsible for his actions and greed? The government in Pakistanis there because the Americans planted it there. How many people voted for PPP but it has been in power for the last 5 years. You are wrong, Muslims are not quite, we put our lives at risk by standing up to them every day but of course you don't care. Intolerance and Fascism are western Ideas which have no place in Islam.
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:35am
Who is YOU? There is no shortage of narrow minded, greedy Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and Buddhist etc. We are al responsible for our own shortcomings so lets try and correct them rather then justifying them.
Adil jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:43am
General Intolerance of Islam? No wonder it is the only religion which has allowed other religions to not only survive but prosper even when it was the dominant religion in the world. How many people were forced to become muslims? Lets count the number of Muslims murdered by non-muslims and vice versa in the last 100 years and the answer to the intolerance of Islam will be apparent. It was the atrocities in Bosnia which really made us realize who we are and why we were being persecuted. We will stand strong and stand just, opposing even those among us who do wrong and when our time will come we will not behave like the murderous leaders of the world today, cause we are muslims and believe in justice before all else.
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:48am
If your definition of Liberal is agreeing with your point of view then I guess you are right, but unfortunately for you that is not what a liberal is. A liberal is some one who gives others the right to have their opinion and understand different points of views. So there are hardly any liberals in the world today.
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:50am
It is not their faith but the Riyals talking, unless you realize that you cannot understand why people behave like this.
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:53am
So all the Christians agreed with Hitler until he went too far? Saudi government is in bed with Americans and is in place due to its servitude of the west. You speak against it and you will be declared a terrorist and killed by the enlightended western democracies. This is all about money and oil.
Adil Jadoon Jul 08, 2012 02:57am
Nice article. We need to stand up to these narrow minded people where ever they are for if we don't we risk being party to their crimes. No matter which ideology we belong to we must always do what is right and just.
Abbas Jul 08, 2012 03:06am
I think you an are anti-Muslim extremist. Just as bad.
Keti Zilgish Jul 08, 2012 03:30am
"There were two special groups of 'Muslims' both created by the vested interest groups. The Salafist created to obliterate the Turks in the Middle East and the 'Mujahideen (read Taliban)' as a joint-venture to obliterate the Soviets." The "Salafist" were led by T.E. Lawrence who developed his understanding of the world while in Waziristan as a British Airforce Pilot. He eventually found himself a violent death --- suicide. It cannot possibly be a mere coincidence that the taliban also have had much to do with Waziristan. To begin exploring this the first question that a young mind might wish to ask is: why is this place called Waziristan. Now it seems that the Wazir-i-Azams of this unfortunate Indus Valley Civilization are being taken to task by the Supreme forces. I think that the world could be helped much by some psychosomatic therapy as soon as it is bored by the drones.