Timbuktu is a mythical city of magical proportions. Historically, it has served as a trading post, a city of rest on the Niger River for travelers making their way across Africa, and was at one point the wealthiest nation on earth – the El Dorado of the East, a haven of gold, wealth and intellect.
Between the 12th and 16th centuries, largely credited to the generosity of King Mansa Musa of Mali, Timbuktu became a center of Islamic scholarship during the height of Islam’s Golden Age. Advances in the sciences, arts and humanities by Muslim scholars flourished in Mali, alongside places like Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba and Cairo during this time.
It has been estimated that as many as 100,000 manuscripts, dating back to the 13th Century A.D. are, or once were, housed in this sacred city. Topics ranged from political science and history to theology, astronomy, botany and poetry. Texts were written in a variety of languages including Arabic, Fulani, Songhai and Bambara – later translated to Turkish and Hebrew – and were copied onto the camel blades of camels, sheepskin, tree bark and European paper. In essence, the manuscripts of Timbuktu have a carefully documented the history of West Africa.
Similar to her sister cities of spiritual thought, Timbuktu has also been scoured by the armed militias and waves of post-colonial nationalist struggles. Most recently, segments of Al-Qaeda have seized control of the West African nation and countless catalogs that had been preserved for over nine centuries were destroyed. Many of the manuscripts in the city covered a breadth of Islamic scholarship now vehemently frowned upon of Islamic extremists including women’s rights, medicine, music, anatomy and erectile dysfunction, making them prime targets for destruction by occupying militants that view Islam with the oppressive austerity of Wahhabism.
Very few of the documents have been documented or copied electronically, and while there are some scholars and centers that hope to document this vast and increasingly threatened history, most of the transmission, recovery and safety of the documents falls on the shoulders of ordinary people and librarians, like Abdel Kader Haidara. The Storied City and The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu documents these efforts to save and savour a historical memory of Islam that more readily embraces the Sufi path of peace and tolerance, vital to the theology that thrived in Mali during the Golden Age.
Ensuring the safety of these spiritual and historical artifacts is no easy feat, as has been witnessed by the complete devastation of cultural and religious sites in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. To stay one step ahead of the opposition, Haidara and others who are risking their lives to protect these manuscripts had to pull off “an Indiana Jones moment in real life,” as a Ford Foundation executive who was one of the donors of a mass manuscript rescue noted, which included hiding ancient manuscripts under donkey carts beneath cases of vegetables level of stealth.
While these heroic feats have garnered the attention of historians and the intrigue of onlookers, Amir Webb recently pointed out a glaring incongruence from Muslims about the epic recovery of Muslim manuscripts. Amir highlights how the discovery of these Timbuktu manuscripts at once confronts orientalist claims that Africa does not have a non-oral history, and simultaneously positions Black Muslim intellectuals as central to the knowledge formation and transmission of Islam’s Golden Age. This adds to a deep-rooted reality within Islam which centralizes the scholarship, narratives and experiences of Arab and Southeast Asian Muslims, marginalizes Persian and Turkish Muslim voices, and nearly silences Black Muslims.
What is lost in doing so? What is gained, and by whom? And what is maintained? Should the pursuit of Islam not also include the elevation of social justice as faith in practice?