From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Timbuktu: Religious shifting sands

Sankore Mosque (Photo by Senani P)
Timbuktu has long been thought of as on the road to nowhere  - but once upon a time, it seemed to be at the intersection of everything and everybody.

At first just a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent one in the early 12th century.  Located in West Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu was on the trade routes for gold, ivory, salt, and slaves.  Along with this trading came the trading of knowledge, values and beliefs. 

Traditionally, the indigenous people of West Africa (aka “the Western Sudan”) were polytheistic (believing in multiple deities) and animistic (believing in human and non-human spirit beings such as those of rivers, plants, animals, mountains, and human ancestors).  The village chief was considered to be a religious leader, as well as a secular one. 

When Timbuktu became part of the Mali Empire in the early 13th century, Islam began to slowly take root alongside the indigenous beliefs. explains that “Islam came to Mali as a result of trans- Sahara trade.”  A famous hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) was undertaken in 1324 CE by Mali’s King Mansa Musa.  Musa “rode more than 3,000 miles across the desert to Mecca, accompanied by some 60,000 escorts, including his senior wife.”

During this “Golden Age” of Timbuktu, great Islamic centers of learning were established there.  Wikipedia
reports that the medieval University of Timbuktu (made up of three schools – Sankore, Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya) once averaged an attendance of 25,000 students (within a city of approximately 100,000 people).  Although the university offered mostly Quranic studies, other topics within “science, mathematics, and medicine” were also taught.     

Timbuktu’s tolerant Sufi heritage is currently being threatened by militant fundamentalists.  When asked about
their deliberate destruction of Timbuktu’s Sufi sites, their spokesman told The New York Times:  What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.


Copyright July 9, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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