The medieval glory of Timbuktu in golden letters
ONE OF THE ‘Timbuktu Manuscripts’ on display at Ajanta Hall, National Museum, is an 18th-century volume on sexology which promises to be an elaborate treatise on physical intimacy between man and woman, perhaps an African Kamasutra. The statement beneath announces that its author Ghidado bin Ahmad discusses in these pages ‘life and relationship between men and women and also provides suggestions to women to allure and keep their spouses’ happy. It is written in Arabic, like the other 24 manuscripts at the exhibition, curiously titled Taj Mahal Meets Timbuktu and curated by Khatibur Rahman, an assistant curator at the Museum who specialises in ancient Arabic texts. This exhibition has been in the making since Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar visited Mali last year.
History sleeps in these manuscripts that have made their way to Delhi from Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in the west African city. Transporting these fragile old treasures—dating back to as early as the 13th century and written in various styles of Arabic calligraphy such as Saharan, Maghreb, Sudanese and Essouk— from Mali, the seat of several prosperous old kingdoms and culture, to the capital must have been an arduous exercise. But far more glorious is the saga of how these manuscripts escaped destruction at the hands of zealots for centuries (and also the Islamist purges of 2012 and 2013). For days, the whole world thought that Al Qaeda-allied groups fleeing French troops had destroyed almost all of these medieval manuscripts when they set fire to two libraries in Timbuktu, one of the most famous cities of Mali. Luckily, only 4,000 manuscripts from the glorious past of the region could be burnt. The rest, an estimated 700,000 of them, were smuggled to safety from this town to another, Bamako, by renowned Timbuktu-based library owner Dr Abdel Kader Haidara and some 35-odd traditional ancient- books-owning families with state help and funds from overseas institutions. They carted these delicate manuscripts in metal boxes concealed in vegetable and fruit boxes and through other means to safety from terrorists who believe in a violent and reductive interpretation of Islam and are determined to wipe out anything they consider ‘idolatrous’.
This daring clandestine effort to protect a rich legacy of Timbuktu’s past has inspired books and write-ups, the most prominent ones being The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer and The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save Its Treasures by Charlie English.
Over the centuries, many of these hundreds of thousands of manuscripts of Timbuktu have perished for another reason, especially after the colonialisation of West Africa over the past few centuries by European powers that often tried to denigrate its Islamic heritage: they weren’t preserved properly.
The less severely damaged manuscripts, however, offer deep insights into the intellectual and cultural glory of West Africa, which had much more than oral history to fall back on, as these books confirm. The subjects covered in these texts on display at National Museum include jurisprudence, astronomy, mathematics, science, grammar, governance, work ethics, Sufism, diplomacy, conflict resolution and so on. A 19th century manuscript written by the scholar Muhammed al-Mustafa explores various facets of governance and women’s rights to land, among others. Another one authored by Ibn Said al- Kibri in the 16th century dwells at length on astronomy and also offers ‘descriptive illustrations’ of the solar system and the movements of stars. Such texts also contain critiques of previous works by scholars on various subjects, highlighting the importance given to analyses of scholarly works.
A writer named Sidi Ahmad bin Amar al-Raqadi discusses in his book the nature of various birds, animals, ‘medicinal plants, mineral products’ and about the treatment of injuries—besides surgical procedures. This 17th century text was written in Saharan calligraphy. Another travelogue from the same century by Al-Gharnati narrates his experiences on his visits to Egypt, Iraq, Europe and several other places. This exhibition also showcases a manuscript by Sheikh Jamal al-Din Muhammed al-Habashi who examines the significance of work, its virtues and how it promotes self-reliance. This book lists agriculture among one of the finest professions from a spiritual viewpoint. An 18th-century treatise by Al-HajSalim al-Zaghawi on the science of language appears to be one of the manuscripts widely discussed by scholars over a long period of time. It carries notes on the fringes of its pages, probably from other scholars of the subject, made in other local African languages. Equally notable is a commentary on a watershed book on Arabic grammar by Ibn Malik, author of the famous volume, Alfiyya Ibn Malik. Abdullah bin Uthman al-Fodi’s treatise, also part of the exhibition, focuses on good social behaviour and ‘morals and values’ that help individuals lead a happy life. It also digs deeper into mysticism and moral philosophy in Islam, subjects that have lately become taboo in places that are under the control of groups that favour inflexible guidelines and laws. This exhibition, though it has assembled only a small fraction of the manuscripts that have survived, also puts Islam in a historical perspective as a faith whose adherents promoted plurality of thinking, dialogues on theology, Sufism, science, women’s rights, health rights, political relationships and so on.
The manuscripts on display reflect an intellectual culture at variance with the diktats of Wahhabism, which is gaining in influence today
All manuscripts on display reflect an intellectual culture at variance with the diktats of Wahhabism, which is gaining in influence rapidly in today’s world primarily thanks to money and access to arms. A 19th-century manuscript by Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti talks about corruption in public life and proposes ways to fight it effectively. There are also texts interpreting Islamic laws, like one written by Al-Shaykh Abu al-Qasim. A manuscript by Uthman al-Walati even discusses workers’ rights—much before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto that changed the course of world history.
One of the earliest texts at the exhibition is a 15th-century treatise on Islamic jurisprudence by Abu Mohammed bin Haroon al-Kanani. Similar manuscripts that cover Islamic laws on marriage, transactions and worship also bear margin notes made by other scholars, especially those from an area that’s now Senegal and Chad.
Sufism, denounced by extremist followers of Islam (including Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia, among others, many of them now even in West Africa), was debated extensively during the medieval period, as evident from some of the manuscripts at the exhibition. One volume offers a lengthy commentary on battles led by Prophet Muhammad, and another on how to assess the authenticity of the Hadith (recorded sayings of the Prophet) and that of the narrator. Back in those days of what could be called an Islamic ‘Renaissance’ in that part of the world, scholars apparently held debates on a truly wide range of subjects , some as hilarious as the ‘benefits’ and consequences of consuming tobacco. Scholar Ahmad Bab bin Ahmad discusses such issues in his book, though interestingly, as a response to questions posed by an Egyptian scholar of the time. Other subjects covered in these manuscripts include human relationships and the climate. The Timbuktu Manuscripts, in their entirety, also boast of some relatively popular works such as ‘The Book of Blessings of Prophet Muhammad’ by 15th-century scholar Muhammed bin Sulayman al-Jazuli. Of course, what has pride of place in the collection is an illuminated copy of the Holy Qur’an that dates back to the 16th century.
It was perhaps natural that such texts of varied subjects originated in Timbuktu, said to be a place of great prosperity and learning in the past, an El Dorado of Africa that has for long attracted fortune hunters and academics alike, even after losing its magnificence as an intellectual centre and prominence as a gold hub. Tor Benjaminsen and Gunnvor Berge beautifully capture the city in their paper titled Myths of Timbuktu: From African El Dorado to Desertification: ‘Few cities and places in the world are surrounded by as many myths as is Timbuktu. The city was, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an important center for Islamic learning, and it blossomed during this time as a junction for the caravan trade across the Sahara. The main commodity in the trans-Saharan trade was gold.’ In the 19th century, they write, the city ‘was imagined to be a metropolis overlaid with gold, with alternating roofs and streets of gold—a place south of the Sahara, but with an unknown location. The Timbuktu myth grew in Europe, even though the gold trade through the city had ceased long before. Timbuktu’s days of glory were a stage in history that had passed.’
The legend of Timbuktu grew as a nucleus of Islamic learning in that part of the world after the city was annexed by the 14th-century African king Musa Keita I, who built it into an urbanised settlement. It is believed that Musa Kieta was the richest man in the world; some others argue that he is still the richest man ever in recorded history, after factoring in inflation. Whatever be the case, it was after his much-trumpeted and extravagant pilgrimage, accompanied by thousands of soldiers and officials, to Mecca that Timbuktu acquired fame. According to reports, Keita ruled a vast empire that covers what’s now Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. Historians credit him with setting up large schools and universities in Timbuktu. He also patronised science, culture and the arts.
These manuscripts from Timbuktu have survived the region’s turbulent and conflict-ridden history. Organised jointly by the Embassy of the Republic of Mali and the National Museum, this exhibition is a revelation amid a rise in Islamic radicalisation, Islamophobia and Afrophobia. It also offers a rare glimpse of an interesting phase of African history and Islamic culture that holds lessons for the modern world.
(Taj Mahal Meets Timbuktu runs till June 6th at the National Museum, Delhi)