The city of Timbuktu in northern Mali is not only home to historic mosques and sacred tombs, but also an enormous collection of old manuscripts that illustrate the rich intellectual history of the region. All of this is now under threat from a wave of barbarism by salafists who have seized control of northern Mali.
European historians long claimed that Africa had no written history or intellectual tradition and that the first light of civilisation arrived there with the European colonisation. But if there is one city in Africa that dispels this myth, it is Timbuktu.
Centre of intellectual life
This city on the northernmost part of the river Niger, at the edge of the Sahara, was a thriving centre of commerce from the 13th century. There, Arabs from the north traded with various African tribes in gold, salt and other commodities. Europeans first arrived to the city in the 19th century, but Arabic scribes like the famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta described the city with admiration some five hundred years earlier.
Timbuktu is best known for its historic mosques and mausoleums, where Sufi saints are entombed. But only recently did people realize that, aside from a centre of trade, the city was also a significant centre of intellectual life. In the late 1990s, an international research team found a number of private libraries where prominent families from Timbuktu kept tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts. Written in Arabic and in African languages, the manuscripts showed the world that 13th-century West African scholars were deeply engaged in the study of religious subjects but also logic, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and natural sciences.
West African Islam has been deeply influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that favours a metaphorical interpretation of the Qur'an and focuses on the spiritual development of the individual. West African Sufism is also known for its cult of the Marabouts, 'enlightened' individuals who mediate between God and humankind and who are also worshipped after they die.
The groups who have now seized power in northern Mali are followers of a very different movement: fundamentalist Salafism from Saudi Arabia. Their brand of Islam has no historical roots in West Africa and it rejects Sufism and the mystical veneration of saints as a heresy.
It is the fundamentalist Islam imported from Saudi Arabia and its animosity towards Sufism that has led to the tragic destruction of irreplaceable symbols of West Africa's cultural heritage. Salafist literalists have already destroyed at least three historical mausoleums and they say they intend to raze them all to the ground. Historic mosques and libraries with manuscripts are not safe from these barbarians either. The manuscripts would fetch a fortune on the black market. There is a risk that important testimonies of a rich African scholarly tradition will disappear forever.