The Sufi soul of Timbuktu
English dictionaries cite Timbuktu as a metaphor for any mystical, faraway place. It is an old Saharan trading route, which flourished in the 16th century as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists. It is presently enduring religio-cultural vandalism on a scale not seen since the puritanical Taleban blew up the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
The Islamist group Ansar Dine (which means ‘defenders of the faith’, with members reportedly drawn from as far afield as Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Nigeria) is presently imposing their version of Sharia throughout northern Mali, which involves the banning of alcohol, the mandatory veiling of women, the zealous stoning of adulterers, and the punitive mutilation of thieves. Timbuktu's Christians started leaving the city when these militants began wielding pickaxes and reducing 15th and 16th-century Sufi shrines to rubble.
It is a complex, fraught region, with turbaned separatist groups and bearded religious factions all vying for supremacy. They’ve been at it for centuries. But this offensive cultural cleansing is on a scale not previously seen: it is like hordes of Muslims suddenly descending on Westminster Abbey and systematically destroying its ancient royal tombs and sacred shrines. Imagine how the Sufis feel having the graves of their spiritual saints desecrated, and the soul ripped out of their city.
To the Islamist Salafis, the local Sufi version of Islam is deemed idolatrous. But this is nothing new. The action appears to have been precipitated by the decision of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee to place Timbuktu on its list of endangered heritage sites. This appears to have given 16 Sufi shrines some sort of official religio-political status of global importance, which irked the Salafis, to whom all shrines and statues are blasphemous, detracting from the glory due to Allah alone.
The militants have ignored all requests to desist: “We are subject to religion and not to international opinion,” said an Ansar Dine spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha. “Building on graves is contrary to Islam.” And the eradication of un-Islamic superstition, they insist, justifies the smashing down of an ancient wooden door, the opening of which Sufis believe portends the end of the world.
And so the outrageous sacking of Timbuktu continues to cries of ‘Allahu akbar!’. Mosques and mausoleums which have stood for centuries reduced to dust in 40 minutes. The tolerant, broad-minded, mystical Sufi strain of Islam is being wiped out and replaced by the aggressive, extremist, malignant Sunni-Salafi strain. Whatever does not accord with their view of Islam must be eradicated.
And all the people of Timbuktu can do is weep. And all the UN can do is sit and watch. And all we can do wonder how long it will be before the inoperable cancer spreads.