The name of the old town of Timbuktu carries mythical associations for many people around the world.
I remember as a young man listening to the American ballad, Take a message to Mary, about a young man in prison for murder but who doesn’t want his sweetheart to know where he is. “You can tell her I went to Timbuktu, or tell her I’m searching for gold.” Far away, hazy, unreachable, it was, in the imagination of many people the world over, the Never-Never land of lost romance.
But, of course, we know that Timbuktu is only too real, a windswept, sandy collection of old multistoried buildings made of clay and wood in central Mali, where one of the oldest universities of the world was founded in the 14th century in what was the Ghana Empire, and which became a world-renowned centre of commerce, culture and Islamic learning.
The fabulous reputation of this desert wonderland was, no doubt, bolstered by incredible tales of the pilgrimage of Mansah Mussa, who ruled over the area during this time, and whose travels to Mecca and back at the time left tales of such splendour and largesse that the countries he journeyed through had never witnessed.
Mussa attracted prodigious numbers of scholars in art, architecture, astronomy, literature, medicine and many other disciplines, which all contributed to the prodigious prestige of the city, the mosques and the community generally.
This city would hardly strike you as a prime venue for concerted attacks by any group that claims to act in the name of Islam. After all this should be hallowed ground for anyone professing the faith, as a premier repository of learnt treatises on their beliefs. Yet that is what happened a few years ago, when thugs claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State razed some of those vintage structures to the ground and trashed thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts. All in all, it is estimated that over 4,000 manuscripts were destroyed.
It may be hard to see any intended consequence in this, but the mayhem wreaked by the terrorists has turned out to be the perfect excuse for French imperialism already embedded in the region, to further entrench itself without too much condemnation.
In face of the failure of Mali’s government to secure its territory against the terrorists, it seems an okay thing for the French to step in, claiming they are protecting Mali. Thus does imperialism become the unlikely ‘benefactor’. How do we bring ourselves to condemn the French when they are helping?
And then, out of Nazareth comes some good. In Minnesota, US, a Benedictine monk who had been following the wanton destruction around Timbuktu in horror, decided to offer a helping hand. Father Columba Stewart of St. Joseph’s Abbey got in touch with the Imams of the Three Great Mosques of Timbuktu, and undertook to lead a team of experts to Mali to rescue whatever there was that could be rescued.
It comes across as strange that a Catholic monk should be the one to volunteer to try and salvage Islamic literature from the destructive activities of those who claim to be defenders of the so-called Caliphate. It seems as counter-instinctive as one can imagine. What would the interest be for this monk, whose concern should surely be in spreading ‘the Word’ according to the Bible, pulling smouldering bits and pieces of Quranic teachings out of the bonfire started by Muslims?
It boils down to the eternal conflict between the untiring quest for knowledge by some on the one hand, and the nefarious obscurantism of those others who have found bliss in not knowing and safety in ignorance on the other.
Like the Buddha statues that the Taliban bomb-destroyed in Afghanistan, the manuscripts of Timbuktu belong to our common world heritage, something of incredible value that links us to our shared past and projects us into a common future.
Strangely, the term Taliban translates as Students, which makes you wonder about the nature of students who want to destroy recorded history. Even stranger is the phenomenon of the destruction of Muslim knowledge of antiquity by would-be Muslims of some strange persuasion completely out of sync with the teaching of their own religion which urges them to seek knowledge “as far away as China.”
Father Stewart may, in the fullness of time, be recognised as the one who did the good deed when there could not have been any compulsion to do so except an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]