333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat
The following photographs were taken in 2007 in the region of Timbuktu, Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa.
At that time, Mali was one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
Timbuktu had regained its ancient fame at a center of Islamic scholarship.
Political chaos has now over-taken the north and south of Mali.
Timbuktu is controlled by rebel groups connected to al-Qaeda
Text and photos by Alexandra Huddleston
Timbuktu is a small city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert that developed as a crossroads for trans-Saharan trade. While in Western lore Timbuktu epitomizes the end of the earth, in African history it is known as a center of scholarship and wisdom.
Timbuktu’s legendary tradition of scholarship and the ancient manuscripts it created are still part of a living culture at the heart of the city’s religious and secular life.
I stayed in Timbuktu for ten months in 2007, to photograph this tradition of learning and of teaching, the ancient culture of Arabic language scholarship that has been passed down from teacher to student since the fifteenth century. Although I am a woman and an American I was welcomed into Islamic religious and scholarly sanctuaries.
What I found was an intellectual tradition as complex as any in Europe or the US, with its own canon of classic texts in subjects as diverse as poetry, grammar, law, religion, and mathematics. It’s a pedagogy covering over five centuries of knowledge that was in the past spread throughout West Africa.
The scholarly tradition in Timbuktu has long included and valued women. Moreover, it has been a shared culture for multiple ethnic groups in the region: including the Tuareg, Berbers, Arabs, Songhay, and Fulani.
In Timbuktu, there is a profound conviction that to be a saint is to be a man or woman of knowledge, whether by long study or by divine inspiration. Therefore, to be a scholar is to be on the path to sainthood.
Since Timbuktu fell under rebel control at the beginning of April, a militant Islamist group, Ansar Dine, has imposed strict Shariah law.
They have destroyed shops that sold alcohol, or played Western music, and enforced separate schooling for girls and boys, all against protests from the local population.
They have also destroyed civic monuments and desecrated multiple UNESCO world heritage sites including the Sidi Yahia mosque and shrines to many of the city’s 333 saints, declaring the local tradition of praying at these tombs to be un-Islamic.
Over half the population has fled, driven by fear of the city’s lawlessness and by the lack of medicine, food, water, and electricity.
From the beginning of my work, I knew that I was photographing a culture threatened by change. But the threat was a gradual pressure of outside influences. In 2007, the scholars complained about the influence of rap music, Brazilian soap operas, and Western fashion, as well as about the radicalism of new imams, educated in the Middle East in a militant Islam that was alien to the local way of life.
With the city falling under the control of Ansar Dine, militant Islam has become a far greater threat to Timbuktu’s tradition of scholarship then any outside influence of fashion, music, or television could ever be.
The Koranic schools and majlis of Timbuktu have long taught a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism and characterized by tolerance, plurality, and a deep joy in and respect for learning. This culture is now under attack by violence, greed, and religious intolerance.
This is a call for all those involved in Timbuktu’s future to respect the freedom of religion and cultural self-determination of its citizens. It’s a call to protect a living religious and scholarly tradition that is one of the great cultural legacies of humanity.
No short-term political, economic, or religious gain justifies the destruction of knowledge. Timbuktu’s scholars have long known this:
The famous sixteenth century Timbuktu scholar, Ahmad Baba, is known to have quoted the Hadith that states, “The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr.” Timbuktu’s scholars still have much to teach us about freedom of conscious and religious tolerance.
Text and photography by Alexandra Huddleston
Recording and sound editing by Brian Stillman
Introductory music: “Hibernal”
Stock audio provided by Ian Hubball/ Pond5.com
©2012 Alexandra Huddleston