Timbuktu tomb destroyers pulverise the history of Islam in Africa

July 3, 2012

(A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra )

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.

“They are striking at the heart of what Timbuktu stands for … Mali and the world are losing a lot,” Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor at New York’s Columbia University and an expert on Islamic philosophy in Africa, told Reuters.

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.

“A Salafi would say that creating a culture of saints is akin to idol-worshipping,” Diagne said. Unlike Christianity, where the clergy formally confers sainthood, the veneration of “saints” in various, non-Wahhabi, strands of Islam largely arises from popular reverence for pious historical figures.

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