The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The race to save ancient Islamic manuscripts from terrorists who want them destroyed

Manuscript pages in Djenne, Mali, a sister city of Timbuktu, from a restoration and digitization project underway, funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. (Photo by Sophie Sarin)
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After Islamic extremists took control in 2012 of several major cities in Mali, a majority-Muslim nation in West Africa, it was soon clear that a millennium’s worth of classic Islamic manuscripts was in grave danger.

As half a million Malians fled the violence, secret plans were put in motion to spirit away the treasure trove of writings to safety. Fearing that the jihadists would destroy the scrolls, because they were bombing and burning other historical artifacts, a librarian organized something of a manuscript underground railroad: Reams of delicate parchment were transported on donkeys and skiffs on the Niger River, across the country to sanctuary.

In what a Washington Post editorial called a “Daring rescue,” an unlikely grouping of scholars and ordinary people, including a taxi driver and a janitor, risked their lives to guard these sacred texts.

Why the urgency — then and now — to save and protect the Mali manuscripts?

The manuscripts chronicle the evolution of a moderate, tolerant and peaceful Muslim religious practice. They refute extremism and brutality; they describe widely-embraced Malian traditions rooted in forgiveness and dialogue; they are used to teach youth about rituals like the “Circle of Knowledge.”

To resolve conflicts, people gather at what is known as a “Palaver Tree,” a traditional African meeting place. But Malians, typically sitting around an elephantine Baobab tree, form a circle they will not break until a dispute is settled.

As violence spreads across the region, with a terrorist attack last Friday at a hotel in Mali’s neighbor Burkina Faso, the messages in the Mali manuscripts have never been more urgent, say moderate Muslim leaders and scholars.

And since French troops intervened and restored relative peace to Mali in 2013, global efforts to locate, protect and digitize the manuscripts have stepped up, with several projects underway to put them online. The efforts to preserve the manuscripts are going forward despite a fresh wave of attacks in the region, including one in Mali’s capital, Bamako, in November, when gunmen stormed a Radisson hotel.

“As the manuscripts tell us, conflicts must be resolved not through violence and war, but peacefully, through dialogue, tolerance, understanding and forgiveness,” said Michael Covitt, a US entrepreneur and filmmaker who founded the Malian Manuscript Foundation to raise awareness and money for preserving the texts.

Covitt is working on a remake of the 2010 film, “333,” named for one description of Mali’s storied city of Timbuktu,  as the city of 333 saints. The film portrays the role of the manuscripts in maintaining Mali’s centuries-old tradition of peaceful conflict resolution through dialogue and tolerance.  It was screened at the United Nations and shown privately elsewhere, Covitt said.

Most of the estimated 800,000 to a million manuscripts stored throughout the country were spared destruction during the 2012 and 2013 fighting. But the militants did set fire to about 4,200 texts at a library in Timbuktu, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Several terrorist groups took control of three major cities, including Timbuktu, and imposed a strict form of sharia law and attempted to wipe out anything that contradicted their view of Islam.

The manuscripts cover a striking range of subjects: astronomy, animal rights, Islamic law and practice, philosophy and women’s rights. Islamic teachers and students, who traveled to and from Timbuktu, roughly between the 12th and 18th centuries, wrote most of the texts.

At the time, Timbuktu was a thriving center of Islamic culture, scholarship and the exchange of ideas.

Written mostly in Arabic, with some in African languages, the manuscripts have been passed down through multiple generations, copied and re-copied, kept in private libraries and in some cases buried in the Sahara desert for safekeeping. Many were inked in elegant calligraphy — in some cases using gold lettering — onto animal hide parchment, wooden boards and paper that can crumble to the touch.

In 2003, the Library of Congress exhibited some manuscripts on loan from a library in Timbuktu. An overview of the exhibit says: “Scholars in the fields of Islamic Studies and African Studies believe that analysis of these texts will cause Islamic, West African, and World History to be reevaluated.”

One manuscript is entitled “An Argument for Peace” (the collection of texts is still available for viewing online). A translation of it says: “The author, a scholar and religious leader, urges warring factions to make peace and live in peace. He supports his argument with quotations from the Koran and allusions to the practice of Muhammad and his companions, which require the faithful to avoid discord, to reconcile, and to live in peace and tolerance.”

The Malian ambassador to the United States, Tiéna Coulibaly, said in an interview that his government is “very, very committed” to protecting the manuscripts. He added that he is grateful for the increasing interest from the United Nations, the United States, England and South Africa, along with other governments and organizations, in helping his country preserve them.

Once online, access to the manuscripts could be banned by a fundamentalist government, but they could not be burned again.

“I think that all of the efforts now, which aim to transform the manuscripts into a kind of live library that can be consulted by you and I, this means we’re on our way,” the ambassador said.

Covitt, the filmmaker, has drawn many supporters to his cause, including General Richard B. Myers, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was appointed a few weeks after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and served in the position for four years.

“Something like this movie would be inspiring to those who have a view of the Muslim religion as one of violence and inspiring to Muslims contemplating violence,” Myers said. “My view is that we need to keep working at these issues. Is it going to solve world hunger? No, it will not do that. But dialogue can happen in a positive way, as opposed to the dialogue we hear on our TV sets.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, which describes itself as a bridge builder between Islam and the West, appears in the documentary “333.” He stressed the critical need for foundational texts like the Mali manuscripts that put peace and reconciliation first — the diametric opposite of the warlike vision of Islam that drives radical militants.

“People feel that just because they can read the Koran in Arabic they are therefore qualified to render an opinion,” he said. “And in the process they have upended more than 1,000 years of history, of tradition, of majority opinion by the scholars.”

Another organization working to protect the manuscripts, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (with financing from the Arcadia Fund), is supporting a project in Djenne, about 200 miles south of Timbuktu. There, documents are being digitized at a local library, and families are encouraged to bring the delicate manuscripts from their private collections to the library so they can be put online.

Sophie Sarin, who is managing the project, said in an email that the number of families bringing manuscripts to the library in Djenne is increasing every month, with about 60 families having contributed more than 4,000 manuscripts. She said about 90,000 images of the texts are now online for viewing at the Djenne library and that she had recently committed to another two-year project.

Still, there is a long way to go.

UNESCO held an international conference on the state and fate of the manuscripts last January, concluding that “emergency action” was needed to safeguard the texts. About 350,000 were relocated from Timbuktu to the Malian capital in the 2013 rescue operation, but moving them from a dry climate to a humid one has posed a worrisome risk to the manuscripts.

Historians and scholars say the Mali manuscripts hold great significance for the study of Islam.

“West Africans have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive political movements, sustain religious belief and fight injustice,” said Gus Casely-Hayford, a cultural historian working with the British Library. “The Malians learned from the beginning about weaving people together, getting people to agree to disagree, and that there needs to be enough tolerance to allow for difference.”

This story has been updated.

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