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Timbuktu tomb destroyers pulverise Islam’s history
The al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters who have used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter earthen tombs and shrines of local saints in Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu say they are defending the purity of their faith against idol worship.
But historians say their campaign of destruction in the UNESCO-listed city is pulverising part of the history of Islam in Africa, which includes a centuries-old message of tolerance.
Over the last three days, Islamists of the Ansar Dine rebel group which in April seized Mali’s north along with Tuareg separatists destroyed at least eight Timbuktu mausoleums and several tombs, centuries-old shrines reflecting the local Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the “City of 333 Saints”.
For centuries in Timbuktu, an ancient Saharan trading depot for salt, gold and slaves which developed into a famous seat of Islamic learning and survived occupations by Tuareg, Bambara, Moroccan and French invaders, local people have worshipped at the shrines, seeking the intercession of the holy individuals.
This kind of popular Sufi tradition of worship is anathema to Islamists like the Ansar Dine fighters – Defenders of the Faith – who adhere to Salafism, which is linked to the Wahhabi puritanical branch of Sunni Islam found in Saudi Arabia.
Experts are comparing the Timbuktu tomb destructions to similar attacks against Sufi shrines by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year. The attacks also recall al Qaeda attacks on Shi’ite shrines in Iraq in the past decade and the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan
Some believe the tomb-wrecking onslaught by Ansar Dine, which is led by Tuareg chieftain turned Salafist Iyad Ag Ghali, may have been directly triggered by UNESCO’s decision on Thursday to accept the Mali government’s urgent request to put Timbuktu on a list of endangered World Heritage sites.
Scholars are also fretting about the fate of tens of thousands of ancient and brittle manuscripts, some from the 13th century, housed in libraries and private collections in Timbuktu. Academics say these prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.
Do you think Timbuktu tomb destroyers have pulverised Islam’s history? Are the al Qaeda-linked Islamists right in destrying the tombs?