You wouldn’t know it now, but Islam was once a historically moderate and intellectual religion. Yes, true story. The seat of science and civilisation a thousand years ago was in the Muslim world—largely because the Muslim world had become the repository of Greek manuscripts that would otherwise have been destroyed by Europe’s barbarians.
Aristotle and his works are important leading players in this historical drama. In a parallel to the story of how Aristotle’s own manuscripts were rescued from destruction by savages, scholars at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute rescued thousands of scholarly documents reflecting Islam’s historically moderate and intellectual past from jihadists who took control of Timbuktu in April 2012.
Radical Islamists had entered Timbuktu four months earlier, and they had set about destroying everything they deemed a sin.
They had demolished the tombs of Sufi saints. They had beaten up women for not covering their faces and flogged men for smoking or drinking. They most certainly would have burned the manuscripts — nearly 300,000 pages on a variety of subjects, including the teachings of Islam, law, medicine, mathematics and astronomy — housed in public and private libraries across the city… The jihadists who took control of Timbuktu in April 2012 quickly chose as their headquarters the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run library and research center named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar…
The militants kicked out the employees and scrawled the name of their organization on a wall in Arabic: “Ansar al-Dine,” or “Defenders of the Faith.”
The jihadists, along with fighters from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in West and North Africa, had piggybacked on a Tuareg separatist rebellion that had taken advantage of a military coup in March to overrun the north. Within weeks, the radicals pushed out the Tuareg rebels and asserted control over Timbuktu and other cities in the north.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was a center of Islamic culture under several African empires. It had a university and many Islamic schools that attracted scholars and students from Cairo, Baghdad and other corners of the Middle East. Some brought along sacred Muslim texts. Others produced several hundred thousand manuscripts, handwritten in Arabic and African languages, sometimes in gold lettering.
The jihadists initially appeared not to know the value of the manuscripts kept in Timbuktu — or didn’t seem to care. But after local television reports about the manuscripts, some Islamists, clutching guns, came by the old Ahmed Baba Institute and asked the employees whether any documents were inside.
Then began a tale of heroism, derring-do and intellectual heroism, the centre’s scholars and their families spiriting away and preserving the intellectual heritage of an earlier, more benevolent, Islamic age.
[Hat tip Stephen Hicks]