Saturday, January 30, 2010

From Here to Timbuktu

Timbuktu might not always come to mind as one of the world's great sites. Yet it is, and to omit its mention is to omit a triumph of Islamic scholarship and learning, which in a world of one billion Muslims would be an omission indeed. It is interesting, though, that, once again, Muslims are not getting their message across sufficiently well to the rest of the world. Everyone has heard of the Great Wall of China and the Eiffel Tower, but Timbuktu?

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Timbuktu is a rather forlorn place. Lying on the edge of the Sahara Desert in present-day Mali, which it became part of in 1960, the town has a small population of just over 30,000 people. In constant danger of desertification from the shifting sands of the Sahara, the town still manages to attract visitors who brave great distances in getting there, and it now even has its own international airport. There are still fine monuments to be seen, but it is more what the town used to be that attracts. Timbuktu is almost mythical. In the English language we talk of traveling "from here to Timbuktu," suggesting a journey to faraway and difficult-to-approach places.

In its heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu had 100,000 inhabitants, almost a quarter of whom were Islamic scholars who had traveled from Egypt and Makkah to study at the great University of Sankore. How many Muslims know this?

Timbuktu lay at the crossroads of trading routes linking North and West Africa with the Arab world and beyond. It was a trading center for gold and for salt. In fact, Timbuktu was so fabulously wealthy that when Emperor Mansa Musa traveled to Cairo in the 14th century on his way to perform Hajj, he is said to have given away so much gold as gifts that the local currency market crashed. It was he who brought architects from Al-Andalus in Spain to build the city's great mosque and also the mosque of Sankore, around which the university grew.

Timbuktu's fame as a city of scholarship came from its books, which were written, translated, and copied by its scholars. In its heyday there were 120 libraries containing manuscripts that chronicled every aspect of human knowledge. The town today still has many of these libraries, though smaller in scale, and they house dusty manuscripts and books going back centuries. The world's wealthier nations have contributed both time and finances to document and preserve many of these treasures, although many more manuscripts have managed to find their way to libraries and museums overseas.

Timbuktu still has three of its mud-built mosques. The mosques of Djinguereber (1327), Sidi Yahya (1441), and Sankore (early 15th century) remind us of the primacy that knowledge and learning hold in the Islamic world, since the university's students would gather in them to sit at the feet of their teachers. The mosques and the libraries, dating back centuries, both remind us that Islam is not the backward creed that many would like to portray it as today. The city's scholars influenced minds many thousands of miles away.

While not the most obvious place that comes to mind when the world's wonders are mentioned, Timbuktu is nevertheless a fabled place with a great history. Distant and remote from the noise and the bustle of this world, it is a place to reflect. Muslims are justifiably proud that Islam sees no opposition between faith and reason.

Timbuktu speaks to us of a Muslim city where faith and intellect can sit quite comfortably together. For that reason alone, in a world where faith and reason are often pitted against one another, it deserves our vote as one of the wonders of the world. For that reason, alone, Timbuktu has something to say to the hearts of all people. As Muslims, encouraged by our Prophet (peace be upon him) to seek knowledge "even as far as China," we should be prepared to reverence such a place and be eager to travel each day, in our hearts, in search of life's meaning "from here to Timbuktu."


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