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[BKARTS] Islamic Texts Crumble in Africa--from ABCNews.com
Ancient Islamic Texts Crumble in Africa
History to Dust: Ancient Islamic Texts Crumble in West
Africa's Desert North
The Associated Press
TIMBUKTU, Mali April 13 ? 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
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.
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
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."
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
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."
In 2000-01, his institute made digital images of about
2,000 texts with $150,000 from the U.S.-based Ford
"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."
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