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In Salafis wake, charred Malian heritage in Timbuktu

Shortly before being driven from Mali's ancient city of Timbuktu, the salafi jihadis who'd occupied the city lit a bonfire with some of its ancient manuscripts.

By Correspondent / January 30, 2013



Timbuktu, Mali

The first thing Islamist militants did upon commandeering Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research last April was change the locks. Their parting act last week was to burn some of the institute’s medieval manuscripts.

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"All this time, we were the only state service they didn’t destroy,” says Abdoulaye Cissé, an archaeology professor and acting director of the institute. Mr. Cissé sits on a bench in the institute’s enclosure, a temple-like complex with inner courts and alleys partly open to the sky, as the wind tosses ashes from a pile near his feet.

During their nine months in control of Timbuktu, Islamists wrecked some of the city’s historic sites and terrorized its people. Last week, as French and Malian troops advanced, they torched around 2,000 of the Baba Ahmed Institute’s manuscripts – a parting shot that locals are still trying to understand.

“I can imagine two motivations,” says Cissé. “First, they want to make war on Mali and its heritage. Second, they see no value in anything but the Quran."

Many of the Islamist militants in Mali share a violent form of salafism, an ultraconservative reformist trend in Islam that seeks to emulate the religion’s earliest generations. That means following core texts to the letter, while largely rejecting 14 centuries of Islamic thought, scholarship and spirituality.

In Timbuktu, that translated largely to oppression and vandalism under rule by Ansar al-Din and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), two of three Islamist militant groups that overran Mali’s north last year.

Beatings, mutilation

Smoking and music were punished with beatings, and theft with cutting off the accused person’s hand. Last summer, militants demolished the graves of Sufi holy men venerated here as links to God – a common practice in Islamic mysticism that looks to some conservatives like polytheism.

Yet few, if any, in Timbuktu expected the city’s manuscripts to be targeted. For months, militants – including those who took up residence in the Baba Ahmed Institute – made no move against them.

Timbuktu’s wealth of Islamic manuscripts - estimated in the scores of thousands - date to its role as a trading hub and center of learning in the late Middle Ages. The city reached a zenith in the 16th century, when books were among the most precious commodities and scholars were supported by the state.

The best-known scholar was perhaps Ahmed Baba, who produced dozens of works mainly on theology and Islamic jurisprudence. But meanwhile, up north, trouble was brewing. Invasion by an army of the Moroccan sultan in 1591 saw scholars including Baba Ahmed arrested or deported and Timbuktu slid into decline.

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