The tomb of the 333 Saints
MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, July 16 2012
“Pray to God that by the grace of his saints, he will recall our afflictions and lighten our burden.”
— Hamidou Lahaou Touré (Mali)
There is a belief in Timbuktu that when the Tomb of the 333 Saints is destroyed, the end of the world is near, the town will lose its protection, the Marabouts will be scattered and there will be great desolation.
Two and a half weeks ago, fresh from stripping the library at Gao of its centuries old manuscripts, the Salafists of al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), and its ally the Tuareg Ansar Eddine, set about destroying Timbuktu’s holy mausoleums. Among these was the tomb of the 333 Saints. The people barred themselves into their houses or fled, too terrified to give information even over the telephone. The Salafists had already banned all foreigners from the town and the area around it, ensuring that the demolition of the tombs with pick axes, went on behind closed doors. Few doubted the promise of a spokesman for Timbuktu’s Salafists that any building which did not comply with Sharia rules would be destroyed. Salafists had already destroyed anything modern which they came across, from television to books in French, to video games. It turns out that for Timbuktu’s Salafists the tombs violated a Sharia law governing the height of mausoleums and therefore trespassing on the One-ness of God.
Sufis, Malikites and Marabouts
Behind this language on tombs in Timbuktu and the secular nature of ancient manuscripts at the nearby town of Gao, is the condemnation of the Sufism which informs the Malikite rite followed by Timbuktu’s Muslims. This rite includes obedience to holy men during their lifetime, and their veneration after their death. Friday prayers may not only be at a mosque, but at one of the many shrines which recall the virtues of this or that holy man now dead. Entry into adolescence may be marked by ritual, eg for a boy the taking of the turban, before one of the mausoleums. This associates one of the saints with entry into adulthood. Marabouts, considered prophets and wise men by followers of the Malikite rite, are considered by Salafists as nothing else but witches.
The Malikite rite is not specific to Mali. It is also the dominant form of Islam in Mauritania. There, its precise rules governing the relationship of master and slave have made it the major legitimation of slavery as well as the principal target of anti-slavery and anti-discrimination demonstrations. Saints to whom tombs and mosques have been constructed may also be claimed as ancestors of prominent and wealthy family, thus linking the holiness of the past with the politics of the present.
Salafists, an austere fundamentalist movement descended from the already austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabian Wahabism, has emerged with the Arab Spring as a political force to be reckoned with. In the case of Mali, “Salafists” refer to two groups: the Tuaregs of Ansar Eddine and a branch of what was the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in Algeria. This last, embittered after the Algerian government voided the victory of the Islamist Party in the first round of the elections of 1991, has regionalized both as al Qaeda in the Maghreb and/or al Qaeda in West Africa. It has also launched into a number of bloody adventures. These include desert kidnapping and the beheading of seven Trappist monks at the height of Algeria’s Civil War. The Salafists were for a short while allied with Tuareg Independentists demanding North Mali as a homeland for the nomadic Tuareg, AWAD. The Independentists are mainly led from abroad and were easily pushed aside after the All Fools Day weekend lightning attack on Gao, Timbuktu and other urban centres of Northern Mali. After a victory facilitated by the attempt of an army coup d’état in Bamako, the capital of Mali, Salafists declared themselves not for the partition of Mali, but for the unity. Under the Sharia.
The reason usually given for the Malian situation is the wash of arms in the region as a result of the Libyan war with its helter-skelter arming of individual brigades. This is partly true — the town of Gia is reputed to have its entire perimeter mined. But is this all? There has been concern for some time in a number of countries, over the porous nature of the Sahara with regard to drugs, al Qaeda and illegal immigrants on their way to Europe. With the rise of the Far Right in Europe, this has become the number one political issue in Europe. Algeria, bordering on Mali, is hardly likely to be satisfied with al Qaeda of the Maghreb on its doorstep. Mali, unlike Senegal next door, has resisted particular closeness to France the former colonial power including on the question of immigration. Enough to explain the relative silence before the destruction of “the Pearl of the Desert”: Timbuktu. And of a democracy: Mali.