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Burning Ahmed Baba and Alexandrian library – Is Sufism haram?

In another defining act of intellectual barbarism, “Islamist extremists” (term borrowed by AP – Activists, Islam fighters nor Islamists won’t do) in Mali destroyed a number of tombs in the ancient city of Timbuktu, which in the last year fell under control of a separatist insurgency. Home of the prestigious Sankore University, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Sufism (an Islam faction) throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu’s golden age. “The destruction is a divine order,” said a spokesman from Ansar Dine, a radical outfit with alleged links to al-Qaeda. Ansar Dine  or “defenders of the faith” in Arabic is group led by a prominent leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s which wants the imposition of strict Sharia law across Mali.The Associated Press Posted Jan 28, 2013 @ 07:32 AMSEVARE, Mali (AP) — Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said today, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city.  Books burning in fire

All of this is haram

According to BBC the “spokesman” went on: “God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. Unesco is what?” According to reports, the militants teared down the centuries-old mausoleums of Muslim holy men in Timbuktu. As many as half of the city’s shrines have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism. When driven out of Timbuktu by the French, the leaving “activists” burned down the Ahmed Baba library which is a real tragedy, because so much of Sufi and African history, literature and learning was lost forever. Build by the South African government in 2009, the Ahmed Baba Institute was named after a Timbuktu-born scholar and held thousands of priceless manuscripts in its climate-controlled, underground vaults. Ancient books of culture, geography, science are now all torched up 20,000 scholarly manuscripts lost.

Memories come up when in March 2001, Taliban fighters and grandees blew up the famed giant 6th century statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.The Taliban also rampaged through the national museum which I visted in the seventies, smashing any art depicting the human form, considered idolatrous under their hardline interpretation of Islam. In all, they destroyed about 2,500 statues. Or of the final destruction of the ancient world’s single greatest archive of knowledge, the Library of Alexandria, which was burned down by Caliph Omar 640 AD when the Muslims took the city of Alexandria. Upon learning of “a great library containing all the knowledge of the world” the conquering general supposedly asked Caliph Omar for instructions. The Caliph has been quoted as saying of the Library’s holdings, “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”  It is somewhat ironic that Alexandria was the center of Monophysitism, a Christian heresy  weakening Byzantine and Roman power.


Too many critics of Islam, including atheists, fail to appreciate just how diverse and varied Islam can be, much more than Christianity. This is especially true when it comes to Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement in Saudi Arabia. Saudis are aligned with the West to bring down all somewhat secular dictatorships in the region. In the puritanical strain of Islam adhered by most radical Sunni (like Taliban and Salafists) but also fundamentakist Shiites, veneration of Sufi saints – which remind on Christian saints – counts as idolatry a heretical practice that cannot be tolerated. It is against modernity, secularism, and the Enlightenment which orthodox Islam do fight — and it is this anti-secularism, anti-modernism which helps drive extremism, even to the point of cultural terrorism. Militants bearing guns, pickaxes and shovels reduced to rubble the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud, who died in 955 A.D. They have also knocked down tombs of two other prominent medieval saints, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya.

Who controls the history controls the future

Who controls the history controls the future

Both South Africa and the Libya of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi were involved in efforts to revive the fortunes of the ancient city and its artifacts. South African researchers involved in a project to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts have had word that most of the treasures survived in private libraries and secure locations.Mohamed Mathee of the University of Johannesburg told  a News Channel, “It seems most of the manuscripts are OK. These manuscripts are with families and are safe.”  All those events in the new millennium have highlighted that we are today’ in a ideological war is fought with more than just weapons – just as Samuel Huntington has written in his a powerful and disturbing book in the late nineties.

International outrage with little understanding of the Islam has been swift to blame “Islamists”. But beyond understanding history (and Islam) better, there’s little anyone can do to stop this wretched bout of iconoclasm. History is littered with the debris of toppled temples and smashed idols. Salafists and others who also believe in a more orthodox brand of Sunni Islam harbor a particular animosity toward Sufism, whose mystical interpretation of the divine affords a more heterodox faith, steeped sometimes in local pre-Islamic traditions and a reverence for saints and deceased wise men. Islam, as it spread outside the Arabian world, did so in some part through the peaceful teachings of Sufi orders and wandering monks — not just under the hooves of conquering Arab armies. Yet, recently under the Arab Spring, Sufi shrines have come under attack from emboldened and radicalized puritans in countries like Egypt and Libya by Muslim brotherhood and Salafist; in Pakistan, the Taliban and its affiliates have waged a sectarian war on Sufis, systematically targeting dozens of tombs and Sufi sites, while killing hundreds of devotees. In Persia the orthodox Shiites did not much less harm.
The many holy places and old libraries of Timbuktu, once a prominent center of Islāmic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries, were preserved for centuries as a result of the city’s remote location on the path of now collapsed salt and gold-trade routes. In single-minded devotion to the word of the Koran, the orthodox Islam cares little for the juridical wisdom of generations of Timbuktu’s theologians who critically examined Islam’s founding holy text. The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is just one more attack against history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together. It is an attack against the physical evidence about the Islam’s majority livelong struggle against freedom, science and mysticism.


The Ahmed Baba Institute had nearly 30,000 manuscripts, which are being studied, catalogued and preserved. Four basic types have survived:

  • key texts of Islam, including Korans, collections of Hadiths (actions or sayings of the Prophet), Sufi texts and devotional texts
  • works of the Maliki school of Islamic law
  • texts representative of the ‘Islamic sciences’, including grammar, mathematics and astronomy
  • original works from the region, including contracts, commentaries, historical chronicles, poetry, and marginal notes and jottings, which have proved to be a surprisingly fertile source of historical data.

Some manuscripts themselves are also of special importance to their owners to prove noble descent or land and property ownership. But they are also proof of Africa’s pre-Islamic culture, which the Islam claimed (and radical despise) like any culture Islam took over and claimed of its own.

According to the 17th-century historian Abdurrahman As-Sadi, the history of the West African desert region could be divided into the rise and fall of three great empires – ancient Ghana, medieval Mali and the Songhay empire. Located at a hub of commercial exchange between Saharan Africa, tropical Africa and Mediterranean Africa, Timbuktu was a magnet that attracted both men of learning and men of commerce. It benefited from the gold trade , however, the most profitable trade items in Timbuktu were books. Buying them was considered a socially acceptable way of displaying wealth and a great source of prestige.  As the empire of Ghana declined, the Mali empire took its place. King Sundiata Keita of Mali conquered ancient Ghana in AD 1240, and two generations later, Islam became the dominant religion of the Malian cities and Arabic became the language of scholarship. Described as the ‘Latin of Africa’, Arabic was useful for communicating between tribes such as the Bambara, Fulani, Hausa, Mossi, Songhay and Tuareg who all spoke different languages. Just as Latin in medieval Europe was associated with Christianity, Arabic in medieval Africa was associated with Islam, and just as Europeans adopted the Latin script to write their own languages, Africans used the Arabic script to write theirs.

Mali became indepdent 1960

Mali became indepdent 1960

The Sankoré University mosque was built in about AD 1300 with funding from a woman of the Aghlal, a religious Tuareg ethnic group. There were a number of challenges to Malian hegemony. ‘The Tuaregs began to raid and cause havoc on all sides. The Malians, bewildered by their many depredations, refused to make a stand against them.’ Mali lost control of Timbuktu in 1433. Once a tributary to the Mali empire, the Songhay became independent as Mali declined.  The gold traders and the scholars of Timbuktu were also treated harshly and many fled. Timbuktu benefited under the reign of the Askiya kings by tax and slavery privileges and rose to intellectual dominance in the region.  The Sankoré University mosque was the main teaching venue  but classes were also taught at the Great Mosque and at the Oratory of Sidi Yahia. Public libraries were established and employed calligraphers to copy books.

Timbuktu was also a religious city. According to a West African proverb: ‘Salt comes from the north, gold from the south and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.’ There is a local legend that the city is guarded by 333 renowned saints as well as numerous lesser ones, and surrounding Timbuktu like a rampart are the chapels where the saints are buried. Saints and chapels are of course an anathema to orthodox Islam. According to the Sufis, a saint is a Muslim mystic, usually a scholar, who has achieved such closeness to God as to possess special powers.

Ahmed Baba

Ahmed Baba, the Sufi scholar after whom the burned down library was named, studied Arabic grammar and syntax, astronomy, logic, rhetoric and prosody. Textbooks were purchased and copied on a number of subjects, including astronomy, astrology, botany, dogma, geography, Islamic law, literary analysis, mathematics (including calculus and geometry), medicine, mysticism, morphology, music, rhetoric, philosophy, and occult sciences. The works of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy were basic references for Islamic astronomy. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were also common. The Greek physician Hippocrates was popular, as well as the Persian medical philosopher-scholar Avicenna. The Timbuktu manuscripts mainly comprise Korans, Koranic exegesis, collections of Hadiths, writings on Sufism, theology, law and other closely related disciplines. By the 15th century, Timbuktu scholars were producing original works as well as compiling new versions and commentaries on established texts. The reading and writing of poetry was important in these cultures. Among the Timbuktu documents are verses devoted to the Prophet and to the adoration of a particular woman or man, and poems.  A number of manuscripts were written in Ajami – Arabic script used to write local languages – with botany, diplomatic correspondence, occult sciences, poetry and traditional medicine.


There are three main branches of Islam – Sunni, Shiite and Sufi. Sunnis make up about 85 percent of the Muslim population globally, while Shiites account for about 15 percent. The two split over differences of who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad but are further subdivided.

  • Sunni follows a strict, literal interpretation of the Quran and the life of Muhammad with the Sunna as core teaching. Wahhabism is an austere form of Sunni dominant in Saudi Arabia for which Muslims more often use the term Salafism.
  • Shiism is the smaller of the two major branches of Islam. It developed after the death of Muhammad, when his followers split over who would lead Islam.
  • Sufism  is an Islamic mystic tradition with followers around the world. Sufis tend to identify with either Sunni or Shiite Islam. Many Muslims are critical of Sufism as an unjustified innovation.
Shia Faction of Islam Sunni Faction of Islam Sufis/Sufism
10-15% of all Muslims Majority of Muslims  
Shia means “faction,” refers to “faction of Ali.” Sunni means “tradition,” adheres to orthodox tradition Suf means “wool,” considered the Mystics of Islam.
Iran center and home of most Shia, 88% of Iranians are Shia (Shi’i), In Iraqi 96% are Muslim and over 50% of them are Shia (Shi’i), though Iraq was ruled by minority Sunnis. Reverse Syria if you consider Alawis (12er ) to be Shiites. Grew out of Umayyad dynasty. World-wide 85% of Muslims are Sunni. Developed in reaction against the excesses of the Sultans and Caliphs (who wore silks, satins), specifically the Caliphate of Damascus in the Umayyad dynasty, Sufis wore course wool garments in protest.
Succession and Leadership
Believe in Ali and the Imams as rightful successors of Muhammad, but not in first 3 Caliphs. Ali was first of 12 successive legitimate Imams. Succession was to be hereditary. Acknowledge each of the first four Caliphs as rightful successors to Muhammad. Value deliberate simplicity, meditation rather than just a formalistic following of the rules.
Look forward to Messianic return of the last recognized Imam. Muhammad al-Mahdi, last Imam, disappeared 900 CE, went into “hidden realm”, was sinless. Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989) believed by many to be the return of the last Imam. Through the ages, Caliphs rule “in God’s name.” Sufis gathered around shaikhs (masters) and formed faqirs (orders or communities). Rabi’a (1717-1801 CE) was a Sufi poet whose poetry spoke of God’s Love  similar to Christianty Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) first Sufi to bring the faction into mainstream Islam.
Imam holds an exalted position, Ayatollah refers to most important Imams. Imam is a prayer leader. Sunnis approach God directly, there is no clerical hierarchy. Sufi Shaikhs are the masters. Wandering monastic culture
Teachings and Scripture
Characteristic is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine by the clerics. Believe in entire body (canon) of life and teachings of Muhammad as found in Qur’an and hadiths (sayings and traditions of Muhammad). Sayings and traditions are interpreted by scholars in Islamic schools. Qur’an is full of symbolism, each verse has from 7 to 70 meanings. Believe in three approaches to the divine: mysticism of Love (heart knowledge), Ecstatic (visionary knowledge) and intuitive discernment (mental knowledge)
Both Sunni and Shia factions believe in the Sharia, the comprehensive law derived from the Qur’an (revelations of Muhammad) and the Sunnah (sayings or interpretations of Muhammad). Believe in fana (extinction) of separateness from God and “remembering” that “there is nothing but God.”
  Scholars carry on debate in Islamic Schools. Science of Tradition refers to Islamic scholarship and rating of specific writings (rated sound, good, weak, or infirm) Influenced by Christianity and Gnosticism (life is a spiritual journey—want to know God/Allah now not just after death), Persian Zoroastrianism and Hindu Mysticism
Shia Faction of Islam Sunni Faction of Islam Fufis/Sufism
Fundamentalist approach to Islam, interpretation by clerics Qur’an applies to everyday life, public life is shaped by the Qur’an. Saudi Arabia considered model of proper Islamic state Called “the Heart of Islam,” highest experience in life is experience with Allah, can get face to face with Allah/God

Sufism has been, especially in the West, portrayed and regarded as a valuable and legitimate part of the Islamic faith. Anybody somewhat familiar with the complex interaction of religions will agree  with this statement “considerable ink has been spent by modern scholarship on the ‘origins’ of Sufism in Islam, as to how far it is ‘genuinely’ Islamic and how far a product, in the face of Islam, of outside influences, particularly Christian and Gnostic.”  The historian Rahman seems to hint that some of this ink has been wasted, as he concludes that “outside influences must have played an accessory role and these no one may deny, but they must have supervened upon an initial native tendency.”  Sufism  goes beyond the Five Pillars of Islam are which are obligations which are required of every Muslim: shahadah (statement of faith), salat (prayers), zakat (alms), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage).

History of religions

History of religions

A thorough and critical examination of historical and present day Sufism, quickly reveals the influence of numerous religious ideas foreign to Islam.  Zoroastrianism had also an intimate contact with Islam like Gnostic Manichaeism. Zoroastrianism provided first of all a vocabulary for Sufi poets and symbols of angelology and cosmology transparent in the light of gnosis.  Most orthodox scholars would be perplexed by this conclusion, especially when it is considered that Zoroastrianism (and pre-Christan Gnostic) predated Islam by over 1000 years.

The further one delves into Sufism from a content perspective, the more clear it becomes that both the origins and content of Sufism show the inclusion of religious ideas and influences alian and contradictory to orthodox Islam. The scholar Elliot Miller states that “[being] based on experience rather than doctrine, Sufism has always been more open to outside influence than other forms of Islam… in addition to early influences from Christianity, one can find elements of Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, and other diverse traditions.”

While Sufi teachings have been influenced by various religions, their practices also bear close similarities to those of Hinduism and other mystical religions of the East. The Sufi orders are led by shaikhs, who play the same role as Hindu gurus.  Most Sufi orders still consider the five pillars of Islam to be essential, and practice them piously, however they go far beyond this, aiming to spiritual awakening. Central to all of these practices are ritual “invocations of the Divine Name,” also known as dhikr, which can be done either silently or in a chant. Here similarities with Hindu mantras are unmistakable.  The evidence of Sufi borrowings from other Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Zoroastrianism is certain. The similarities in teachings and ritual are overwhelming. It is no surprise then that the goals of Sufism reflect their pantheism and monism.Christological_heresies_in_Jesus_Human_Divine

Echoes of Eastern ( and Western) mystic religions are of course distinctly contrary to Muslim orthodoxy but its mystic quest for spirituality has embraced all sorts of religion. How then, in conclusion, does the evidence presented, reflect not only on the nature of Sufism, but on the very nature of Islam itself? Sufism is clearly a reaction or response to what was lacking in early Islam. The very strength of Islam, in its reliance on a simple creed  combining religion, law (and power of a non-secular state) and the five pillars of practice, proved to be the very weakness of Islam. The design of the Islamic ideological system had allowed, however, for rapid expansion and political aggression. Another area of weakness in Islam, which helped lead to the problem of Sufism, is found in the inherent synthesism (and gnosticism) of Islam. Here the vagueness caused by the doctrine of the indescribably Allah (a main concept common of Gnosticism) allowed in essence creating a contradictory belief system. The orthodox ulama developed their theology borrowing and changing what they viewed as their ‘Judeo-Christian’ roots (including Chrisiam heresies), while the Sufis were largely influenced by Eastern mystics.

Sufism, with its radical mystic concepts, is  for orthodox Islam not a legitimate part of Islam, if Islam is narrowed to a logically coherent set of beliefs. For Sufism not only points to a lack of spirituality in Islam, but also contradicts orthodox Muslim teachings – in the process clearly opening the door to all the world’s religions. One more door of many, now was violently shut by orthodox Islam in Timbuktu which goes deliberately back to its origional  political and ideological purpose as mean of expansion.“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.” After Islamists seized Timbuktu last April they began imposing a strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali, carrying out amputations and public executions. Women could be whipped for going out in public without wearing veils.


The golden age of Timbuktu came to an end with the collapse of the Songhay empire following the invasion by Morocco, when an Arab-European army invaded Songhay in 1591 and destroyed it. The invaders confiscated gold and other resources, enslaved the Songhay scholars – including Ahmed Baba, who was deported to Morocco – and attempted to confiscate Timbuktu’s archives. The “Liberation of Libia” hailed by the Western press, threw what was once one of West Africa’s most stable democracies once again into chaos: the rebellion in the north gained ground with Gaddafi’s fighters and weapons moving over the border into Mail and effectively capturing half the country afterwards splintering on religious lines, with Salafist factions clashing with more secular elements. Western military intervention dimly disguising economic interests started after hundreds of thousands of Malians have been forced to flee their homes as refugees. Fears of an escalating humanitarian crisis have been publicized but the writings on the wall have been ignored. You see a pattern of wisdom and ignorance here? Yes, I do too. Please note, this is an essay out of general interest (and sympathy) to religion even if not my belief. I am neither Muslim nor scholar.