Timbuktu: The Ink of Scholars and the Blood of Martyrs

In this excellent montage Alexandra Huddleston closes by reminding us of a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad -- still learned and taught in Timbuktu -- "the ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr." These words echo today as a reminder that the mainstream Islamic tradition has always harbored the most profound respect for scholarship and sanctity while questioning worldly ambitions.

Unfortunately, the "radical Islam" of groups like Ansar Dine and al-Qaida have spilled far too much blood and ink in Northern Mali and beyond. Armed with deadly weapons, a false doctrine of jihad, and a perverse sense of martyrdom they have committed countless acts of violence. While the Western imagination is captivated by fear of 'radical Islam' its victims -- in Timbuktu as elsewhere -- are almost invariably Muslims.

Ms. Huddleston shows us their faces -- the men, women, and children of Timbuktu -- many warmly rejoicing in the pleasures of ancient knowledge, all fully connected to the contemporary world. In a single blow they have suffered a double violence: their lives and ways of life have been taken, and their religion has been disfigured, disgraced, and defamed by their tormentors.

It is important to understand that the leadership of groups like Ansar Dine and al-Qaida often has little or no formal training in the Islamic religious sciences. This does not stop them from passing judgment upon the Islam of their well-learned and lettered adversaries. To make up for their lack of knowledge they routinely resort to spectacles of symbolic violence, desecrating the tombs of scholars and destroying manuscripts. They seek, not only to cow opposition, but to wipe the slate clean of competing forms of Islamic authority

In a place like Timbuktu this is no small task, for it first gained an international reputation for Islamic knowledge in the fourteenth century when the great medieval empire of Mali was at its height. Its fame as a city of learning attracted students and scholars from all over West Africa as well as the Maghrib, Egypt, Baghdad and Damascus.

Though they usually maintained cordial relations with emperors, the scholars and teachers of Timbuktu, like most West African Islamic scholars, tended to scrupulously avoid overt involvement in politics. Islamists like to say "Islam is religion and politics," but this is no Prophetic tradition, it is a maxim little more than a century old. It was coined as some began to transform Islam from a universal religion to an ideology of resistance to Western imperialism. The classical tradition, of which Timbuktu was an integral part--tended to be suspicious of such things. As a rule it preferred for scholars to maintain a pious distance from power for fear that it might corrupt their intellectual and ethical autonomy. In the West, efforts to separate church and state evolved primarily to protect the latter. In Muslim Africa scholars and saints usually maintained distance to protect the former.

The Islam that the scholars of Timbuktu taught the world was (and remains) a profoundly humanist tradition. On humble wooden boards, like those pictured in the video, children learned the words that Muslims believe to be God's verbatim speech, and with it a deep respect for Him, and His most noble creation, the children of Adam.

Advanced students went on to the majlis, reading complex manuscripts with well-versed male and female teachers, learning the intricacies of law, grammar, poetry, history, theology, astronomy, mathematics, mysticism, and medicine. The whole process was imbued with a profound respect for people as bearers of knowledge, but also a relish for animated scholarly debate.

The ordinary method for teaching fiqh or shari'a illustrates this. The specter of Islamic law evokes fear in the West, but in the classical tradition of Islamic scholarship, still quite alive in West Africa, shari'a means first and foremost understanding how to live Islam. How to be a good neighbor to Muslim and non-Muslim alike, how to be a good person and draw closer to God. The way it was taught differences of opinion, contradictory evidence, and subtleties of interpretation were transmitted along with authoritative recommendations. Those that mastered this discipline in its traditional form usually understood Islamic law to be a subtle affair, wherein disagreement did not necessarily imply error. People could hold different opinions and both could be right.

Ansar Dine and their ilk tend to see the world in black and white. They may claim to have instituted Shari'a law, but we should be leery of accepting them at their word. There is no justification in shari'a law for the kinds of violence such groups routinely commit against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Classical Islamic law condemns treating even aggressive enemy combatants in the ways that many such groups have treated unarmed women, children, and elders. Ansar Dine may ban the sale of alcohol, but sells drugs to pay for weapons. They usually dispense with the formalities of scholarly training and debate, and certainly make no effort to maintain pious distance from power. Their worldly ambitions are inscribed at every level of their project.

In times like these, we must register our moral, spiritual, and human solidarity with the people of Mali. The Prophet Muhammad once said that if one sees an injustice, one should stop it with the hand. If this is not possible, one should speak against it with the tongue, and if this too cannot be done, one must reject it with the heart. This is the weakest form of acceptable resistance. This video turns our hearts towards the people of Timbuktu and against their aggressors, but let us heed its call for a stronger stance against this injustice and take steps to resist with our tongues and our hands.

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