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The race to rescue Africa's Islamic texts

Scholars say irreplaceable Islamic texts representing a historic era of Muslim culture, including West Africa’s unique part in it, are decaying to oblivion in homes in Mali.
Crumbling ancient Islamic manuscripts belonging to 48-year old Fatama Bocar Sambala, top, are shown in her mud-walled house in Timbuktu.Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lit by a sunbeam slanting through his broken roof, a 16-year-old Islamic student chants verses from a brittle, yellowing page — one of an estimated 1 million ancient texts that experts say are crumbling to dust in this once-thriving city of Islamic learning.

Twice in the past eight years, conservationists working to save the manuscripts have come to this fly-buzzed home of sand floors and outdoor toilets, hoping to buy the disintegrating pages.

But while the family earns no income and lives on handouts, it refuses to part with its sole possession of value — about 40 volumes with ripped bindings and torn pages, heaped in a medical supplies box.

The student, Alhousseini Ould Alfadrou, cites the Prophet Muhammad to explain that holy writ cannot be sold for money.

“So we’re obliged to keep them,” Alfadrou says. “We’re the ones who read them. It’s written in these books: Those who read them must protect them.”

But scholars say irreplaceable Islamic texts representing a historic era of Muslim culture, including West Africa’s unique part in it, are decaying to oblivion in sweltering homes.

Tens of thousands have been rescued and put in safe storage here and abroad, but many more are scattered around Timbuktu — private heirlooms handed down from parents to children over the centuries.

The Timbuktu texts “are probably among the most important unused scholarly materials in the world,” said Chris Murphy of the U.S. Library of Congress, who was co-curator of an exhibition of 23 of the manuscripts in Washington last year.

Ancient seat of learning
Timbuktu today is city of 30,000 people surviving on foreign aid, a spotty tourist trade and sales of bricks. Near-naked children with dust-caked grins fill the streets, and homes lack electricity or plumbing. There’s only one Internet connection in the entire town.

But in the late 1300s, the salt, spice and slave routes were bringing wealth — and Islam — to West Africa’s northern desert. Timbuktu grew into a city of 100,000 and an international seat of learning.

Timbuktu scholars penned intricate Arabic-language manuscripts about mathematics, poetry, medicine, law, astronomy, zoology, history and Islamic thought.

Centers such as this helped preserve Western learning during Europe’s Dark Ages.

Perhaps the texts’ most enduring legacy is what they tell about the underpinnings of West African Islam, which folds in African influences and is less austere than Arab Islam.

“The contents of the texts show very well, especially in legal and political terms, the working-out of the desire of West Africans to be Muslims, but to keep things that are important to them,” Murphy said.

“You see it all the time, the struggle to be Muslim — but in the West African manner.”

Timbuktu's decline
By the time Mali was colonized by France in the late 1800s, most commerce had moved to coastal ports. Civil strife further impoverished the town.

For the families that own them, the texts represent a last link to a golden past, even though few documents are likely to be more than 200 years old. Older ones likely would already have crumbled, experts say.

“These books are from my grandfather and we must save them. They’re our only inheritance,” says 48-year-old Fatama Bocar Sambala, serving rice and onions to her five children.

Benefactors from the United States, Europe and South Africa have tried to move the texts to safekeeping, but no large-scale, unified effort has been launched.

Up to 1 million may still survive around Timbuktu, says Murphy, and perhaps 3 million across West Africa.

Mohamed Galla Dicko, director of Timbuktu’s government-financed Ahmed Baba Institute museum, says the 20,000 texts he cares for in air-conditioned rooms are “just a tiny part of what’s out there.”

Virtual library
In 2000-01, his institute made digital images of about 2,000 texts with $150,000 from the U.S.-based Ford Foundation.

“If we had the money and the family doesn’t want to sell their manuscripts, we could scan them and put them on the Web,” Dicko says.

He says the government runs some awareness campaigns. For instance, it tries to knock down the notion that Quranic law prevents the texts’ sale.

Tadjir Ahmed, a local Islamic leader, says he sold his books to Dicko’s institute and private collectors because he couldn’t care for them properly, and with the proceeds built a roomy Quranic school with electricity for 60 students.

“Now, I’m missing the books, but my children can go to school and the books are still in town,” says Ahmed, 35, who has three wives and four children.

“Others can keep theirs until the termites eat them. Then they’ll have nothing.”