Timbuktu has a special place in the hearts of many travellers and historians alike. Evocative of deserts, massive adobe walls, and Tuareg camel trains the name is instilled into our psyche from childhood – “Head to Timbuktu, travel, see the world.” – ask on any travel-related forum what location people want to visit simply because of the name and Timbuktu is always on the list.
However, this beautiful and fascinating city is being torn to shreds. After a Tuareg uprising in May this year, hordes of Islamist militants have poured into the region from the North, Libya via Algeria, armed with plentiful weaponry. These groups quickly overthrew the semblance of any Tuareg independence and imposed their own Islamist rule.
Timbuktu has earned its place in history books by being, in essence, a muslim place of pilgrimage and education. In the 15th century scholars here were writing about their religion, studying, and producing such a wealth of manuscripts that the ex-President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was persuaded to set up a library specifically to house and document them.
But Timbuktu has the wrong kind of Islam. Many of the shrines and details are Sufi, a branch within Islam that promotes oneness with Allah through reducing the ego (nufs) and returning to the humans’ original state of fitra (the word from the Qur’an describing the natural wish and tendency to worship one god, and encompassing so many deeper meanings that it would require a lifetime of study to comprehend).
Originally a reaction to the growing materiality of the muslim Caliphates of the 7th century, in some ways similar to the Cathar heresies that spooked the Christians, this branch of Islam is now seen as dangerous, innovative and potentially shirk (idolatry/polytheism – the most undesirable state possible for muslims and which provokes fear, hatred and disgust) by many muslims due to the influence of Indian mysticism and Hindu ideology within a small but significant branch of the sect.*
There is much more to it than this, and I do not want to enter the rampant religious debate over the pros and cons of Sufism, Sunni or Shia thought, however this basic presumption that Sufism is shirk and un-Islamic has created a tragedy.
The Islamists (not the Tuareg) in Timbuktu are methodically destroying much of the historic and beautiful architecture of the city. The celebrated shrines, mosques, parchments and artworks that are housed in the UNESCO-listed “Oxford of Africa” are being turned to dust because they are un-Islamic and thus must be destroyed.
This is a tragedy. Not only for the people whose lives, homes and places of worship are being torn to shreds, but for the whole of humanity and the wider world. The amazing historical record of a highly advanced, Islamic, African, desert society is being erased forever.
The tourism potential for this impoverished country, abandoned by lucrative traders due to faster and easier shipping and aviation, was huge. Despite being a difficult and sometimes dangerous country to travel through many people from outside have travelled there over time to witness these wonders, thus contributing to the economy and the livelihood of the people who live there. This attraction is now dead. Gone. Returned to desert sand.
I can understand the thoughts behind the destruction – nothing is as powerful as strong religious belief and the wish to please your god and attain heaven (jannah). However, in doing so, and in wreaking havoc within the community, driving away all with the means or ability to leave, these Islamists have forgotten one thing.
You cannot live on belief alone.
When they are finished what will draw people, money and trade to the city? With the trading camel-trains long vanished into the sands, the buds of a lucrative tourism trade are withering and may disappear entirely.
*It is interesting to note that I have spoken to muslim friends in Britain who state that there is a growing ‘pressure’ amongst young, British muslims to follow Sufism, and many I have spoken to would state that they agree with at least some aspects of Sufi thought.