"Going to Timbuktu". This bit of a
statement, made often in jest in metropolitan India, refers to
some distant, exotic place on a corner of the earth. But for the
clued up and those who care to find out, Timbuktu is the fabled
city at the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali whose commercial
and cultural riches attracted many for centuries.
And as columns of French troops advance towards the oasis city in
an escalating conflict in the West African country, there are
fears that its renowned manuscript libraries and magnificent tombs
and mosques, built of mud and wood and revered by Sufi Muslims,
would be lost for ever.
Founded around the 12th century, Timbuktu in the medieval years
was a flourishing business hub, where African, Berber, Arab and Tuaregs traded not just salt, spices, ivory and gold but also
ideas. Scholars from around the Islamic world travelled to the
city to study at the universities of Sankore, Jingaray Ber and
Sidi Yahya. Sankore at one time had some 25,000 students and 180
Today, in Mali's ongoing conflict, Timbuktu's glorious past has
become another victim.
For the past year, northern Mali - nearly two-thirds of the
country - has been overrun by groups belonging to Al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West
Africa (MUJWA), and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
These Islamic militants have imposed a harsh Sharia law, banned
alcohol, smoking and music and forced women to wear headscarves.
They have been destroying the Sufi shrines which they consider as
"Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't
like it. We are in the process of smashing all the hidden
mausoleums in the area," Ansar Dine leader Abou Dardar had
declared late last year. Ansar Dine has rejected appeals by
archivists that the precious manuscripts be handed over to the Red
Cross so that those can be taken for safe-keeping.
And now as the conflict has intensified with French bombings and
possible ground combats, Unesco has once again called all armed
forces to protect the cultural heritage that has already been
"Mali's cultural heritage is a jewel whose protection is important
for the whole of humanity. This is our common heritage; nothing
can justify damaging it. It carries the identity and values of a
people," said Unesco Director General Irina Bokova this month.
According to Gregory Mann of Columbia University and an expert on
Francophone West Africa, the destruction of the tombs was actually
an attack on the very ideas of Sufism, widely practised across
Looking at the developments in a broader perspective, Raziuddin
Aquil, associate professor of history at Delhi University, says
"What is happening there is symptomatic of the current crisis in
contemporary Islamic world. Two groups of Sunni Muslims -
traditional and reformist - are fighting in this case, only to
join hands against Shias elsewhere, who in turn might be hounding
some smaller minorities under some repressive political order at
some place else."
The radical Egyptian Muslim leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary recently
called for the destruction of Sphinx and the Pyramids as "symbols
Aquil, whose research interests include Sufism and the making of
Islam in the Indian subcontinent, says the reports filtering out
of Timbuktu, and from Mali generally, have been quite disturbing,
"but actually not shocking at all."
"Sufi-oriented traditional and inclusive Islamic practices have
been struggling against bigoted and violent jihadis in Mali, as
elsewhere in the Muslim world, for long. What is particularly
alarming is that over 700,000 priceless medieval Islamic
manuscripts preserved at Timbuktu are on the verge of
"This is not to justify or recommend counter-violence of the
French-Mali military, but the invaluable manuscripts as well as
popular Sufi shrines must be protected at all costs," he adds.
The manuscripts, written in Arabic and African languages, are
works on mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine,
history, botany and geography. They explode the myth that
Europeans brought civilisation to Africa.
"No one has plumbed the depths of those texts, perhaps the most
important historical documents telling the story of West Africa -
including Islamic doctrine, slavery, marriage, trade, geography
and science. If those documents are destroyed, that knowledge
might be gone forever," says Mann, who has worked extensively on
When the reports of defiling and destruction in Timbuktu trickled
in early 2012, it sparked indignation in India and elsewhere. But
there was no concrete action to stop this "cultural terrorism".
"Islamist groups, which have no respect for tradition or history,
must be prevented from destroying the fine and rare examples of
surviving medieval Islamic heritage and culture," says Aquil,
author of "In The Name Of Allah: Understanding Islam And Indian
And the larger point that has escaped emphasising is that it was
not an isolated event and what it signified. The world elsewhere
has seen how iconoclasm and idol bashing have been deployed to
recruit cadres. There was a direct link between the destruction of
Timbuktu's heritage and its wider ramification. The recent hostage
crisis in eastern Algeria was a pointer to this.
In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the huge Bamiyan Buddhas in
Afghanistan. And six months later, the World Trade Centre was
attacked. The similarities between Afghanistan and Mali, the
ethnic conflict and entry of foreign forces have led some to call
India has a National Manuscript Mission aimed at reclaiming and
securing the country's vast treasure of manuscripts, which contain
centuries of accrued knowledge in such areas as philosophy,
sciences, literature, arts and the faith systems. It has also set
up a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) to preserve its
In the past, India had championed the decolonisation of Africa.
Over the decades, it has built a sustainable partnership to face
the challenges of globalisation and the threats to international
peace and security.
It is time pluralist India spoke out and saw Mali didn't become
Saroj Mohanty is a senior journalist with IANS. The views
expressed are personal. He can be contacted at Saroj.email@example.com