Saving the Sufi Saints of Timbuktu

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)

Timbuktu has long been a perfect metaphor for the mythological exotic other. In 1510 Moorish author Leo Africanus described Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth during the height of the Songhai Empire – one of the largest Islamic kingdoms in history. In The History and Description of Africa, Africanus described the ritual in the court in Timbuktu as “exact and magnificent”. Its wealth came from its position as the southern terminus of a key trans-Saharan trade route. Merchants sold slaves and bought gold and the city was far enough away from everywhere to maintain autonomy and power. Some 333 Sufi saints are said to be buried in tombs and mausoleums across the city.

If ancient Timbuktu was fabled, modern Timbuktu is more prosaic. Its trade diminished as Atlantic ships replaced the ships of the desert. The city became more isolated due to squabbles and changed hands many times. In 1884 a decision in Berlin brought Timbuktu under colonial ownership. Sited north of a line between Say in Niger to Barou on Lake Chad, Timbuktu was deemed French territory not British. Locals were oblivious until nine years later when a small group of French soldiers annexed the city as part of the new French Sudan.
Timbuktu was bequeathed to the independent state of Mali in 1968. The corruption of Mali’s one party state coincided with the desertification and drought of Timbuktu. Northern Mali was dying while government in far-away Bamako did nothing to avert the crisis. Tuareg independence fighters from the north had long been active in the region and many returned to Mali this year battle-hardened after the Libyan civil war.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad was founded to liberate northern Mali. Helped by a coup d’etat in Bamako in March the NMLA combined with Islamist group Ansar Dine to take over the three biggest cities in the region – including Timbuktu. Ideological differences spread between the two factions. While NMLA was Tuareg nationalist, Ansar Dine was Islamist with links to Mauretanian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Ansar Dine wanted to impose Sharia Law in Timbuktu and former allies clashed at the battle of Gao in June. The Islamist faction won a decisive victory and took revenge on recalcitrant locals by destroying Timbuktu’s World Heritage listed old city. On June 30, the BBC reported Islamist fighters damaged the shrines in the city including the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the revered 333 Sufi saints. While UNESCO hissed over the destruction of its treasures, an Ansar Dine spokesman said all the shrines would be destroyed. “God is unique,” he said. “All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. Unesco is what?”
The sweeping certainty of the Islamists is in stark contrast to the views of most Muslims. Ansar Dine enjoys little support among locals and imposes rule by fear. Mali is 97 percent Islamic but the vast majority want nothing to do with the cult of Islamism. Ansar Dine follows not in the path of Mohammed but invented traditions of the twentieth century and fundamentalist icon Sayyid Qutb. Nothing in the magnificent mausoleums of Timbuktu is haram.
Where this leaves the city and Northern Mali, depends on the strength of the new unity government in Bamako, announced overnight. Imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) it relies on army and civilian leaders to overcome their suspicions and work together. Niger has expressed alarm about the dangers of Islamic radicalism in northern Mali. Ansar Dine’s links to AQIM will ensure Western support for the new government. Financial support for a desperately poor city is imperative. The fate of Timbuktu and its 333 Sufi saints will ultimately rely on the solidarity of its people to resist the medieval barbarism of the Islamists.
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