Timbuktu: A Paradise in Shambles

Colonialism is one fettered wound that time has failed to heal. And what else can heal a wound which has defied the soothing balm of time except the sustained efforts of the truly committed whose only goal in life is the pleasure of their Lord and Creator, Allahu Subhanahu wa ta’ala.

Pitiable is the situation of the Muslims today, especially the French colonized regions of West Africa. Indeed, the effects of colonialism is more telling on today’s Muslims, relative to the great heroes who confronted the army of exploitation and disbelief. Cut from the past and denuded socially through language and cultural impositions, the Muslims in colonised regions are deprived of a meaningful life in the present thus becoming a bad imitation of what our spiritual ancestors used to be.

I was blessed with a visit to what used to be the spiritual capital of the West Africa sub-region, the great city of Timbuktu. Decadence and disappointments we met as the journey progressed, but we kept the ‘joker’ close to our hearts; if all cities embrace laxities, the city of Timbuktu would surely struggle to be above board. Alas, the depth of colonial atrocities is beyond the wildest imaginations. The genocide lives on, as people remain robbed economically, persecuted spiritually and left with an educational system that would produce everything but a true Muslim. My heart bled and with tear-filled eyes, I recollect a famous quatrain, a merger of my couplet with the invaluable couplet of the unique and noble Shaykh, Hadrat Hafiz Zulfiqar Ahmad Naqshbandi (Damat Barakatuhu):

The state of the Ummah is worrisome indeed

Men are rare but for the name

Adrift at sea with no Shore in sight

Emptiness we see wherever we turn

Tears and lamentations can never be enough for these sinking nations which used to be the lands of the most advanced Islamic minds and hearts. Niamey is crippled though still showing some signs of life. Gao, the noble city of Askia the Great, exhibited the vacant look of a ten year old who would not believe the news of his father sudden death. The great mosque of Shaykh Muhammad Askia (rahimallahu ta’ala alaihi) dating centuries is still standing, though more as an historical monument than a beehive of Islamic activities. In and around Gao, women nakedness and wanton licentiousness known with the French and citizens of other western nations are visible every where. The Mosque is there as a witness to what the past used to be, but the light of Hidaya has taken its leave, Subhanallah!

The old, valiant and glorious Timbuktu, aptly described by our Malian interpreter and guide as, the most difficult to reach of all Malian cities is now less than a shadow of its ancient self. Located 195km off Mopti – Gao high way, it takes a very fortunate four wheeler about four to five hours to arrive. The unfortunate ones may need days. The muddy road is intercepted by the Niger River few kilometres to Timbuktu, so vehicles and passengers would have to join the very efficient ferry service to get across and then move inside Timbuktu.

We arrived Timbuktu extremely spent but the urge to see the ancient Islamic Spiritual Headquarters and the old grand mosque of Timbuktu dulled our pains. And here is Timbuktu carrying very uncomfortably its ancient structural simplicity along with the ever offensive French sophistication. ‘Timbuktuans’ look truly out of place in their French suits and shirts. The whole atmosphere is that of a chicken stripped of its feathers, desperate for a place to hide from the cold French wind. Timbuktu and indeed the entire Malian Federation is wounded, badly wounded by the colonial robbery gangs. People are truly socially denuded. Youths have gone wayward while the old still passively patronize the mosque. French music, dance and immoral wears and outright licentiousness announce saliently to visitors and tourist that the French were and are still in control.

The first place of call was the ancient mosque of Timbuktu, Grand, Solid but sad at heart. A signboard close to the mosque places it among the antiquities of the culture ministry. You perceive in the great structure the figure of a traveller lost in the wide desert. Where has the caravan gone? Handful of old men still survive on the history and memories of their glorious past, the youths have gone with the French wild winds.

We met the Imam of the Timbuktu grand mosque. He was hospitable, and light hearted, reflecting something of the old traditional learned men of past centuries. A mention of the glorious past evoked some sense of sobriety. Almost everything was swept away in the colonial current. ‘We are just making effort to start a standard Madrasah with the help of a Nigerian Governor.’ Submitted the Imam who presented a picture of a mother sitting at the bed side of her only son who is in coma. The future is truly bleak.

A visit to Markaz Shaikh Ahmad Baba revealed more perplexing facts. First, the institute is not for teaching the Deen rather it is meant to preserve the great writing of Islamic sages (alaihimur ‘r-rahma) some dating over 1200 years. Second, over 30,000 volumes of books and manuscripts are being preserved to show the world of our great past. You wonder what use is proving the greatness of our history if our present is so wretched and our future so precarious. We all seem to have forgotten that history, no matter how great, benefits its inheritors only if translated to good story in the present and serves as a dependable pivot for the future. The shelves, the hearts and the characters are the three main ways the knowledge and accomplishments of the Islamic nobles are preserved. To be rich on the shelves and empty at heart and action is truly a calamity. We are a generation totally deluded.

Timbuktu was a bit hot, so we were therefore, advised to sleep on the roof of the Islamic library named after the father of the current Imam, the late Imam as-Sayaouti. Both the library and the grand mosque fall under the culture Ministry of Mali.

Sleeping on the roof of the library preserving the great works of uniquely exalted sages is symbolic indeed. Directly facing the library is the grand mosque with its ancient and very beautiful minaret within reachable distance. I perceived in the silence of the minarets a passionate longing for the old glorious days of Islamic Scholarship and earth – shaking spiritualism as well as the return of the fearless champions of Islam. With deep sense of sobriety, I knelt to seek the return of light of guidance and moral uprightness to Timbuktu and the entire lands of Islam through the barakat of our noble elders, the great gems who had studied, taught and prostrated in sincere worships on these lands and in this mosque (alaihimu ‘r-ridwan)

Niger, Mali and these Islamic lands are so endearing despite the laxities. One feels real attachment that makes separation difficult, even extremely painful. The love of our Muslim brothers and sisters who are stranded spiritually and derailed morally, the urgent need for the rejuvenation of the light of guidance and much more importantly I believe, the nur of the sages buried all over the forest and deserts of these lands are responsible for such attachment. The sky of Jenne revived the memory of the saintly ‘arif and ‘alim, Shaykh Ahmad Zaruq al-Barnusi al-fasi (rahmatullahi alaihi). That of Timbuktu brought to mind sages like Shaykh Ahmad Ba, Amirs Umar Ta’al, Muhammad Askia and other greats (alaihmu ‘r-ridwan). You can’t help imagining the presence of their lights, virtues and excellences. You can even feel their breaths of life, really!

The mistake of our immediate past and the present in these lands is that things are too bad to be turned around. Yes, things are bad but never irredeemable. Building takes a very long time but destruction comes in moments. The path to restoration is truly difficult and extremely challenging. The home truth is that there is no alternative to starting the long, rough and difficult journey to reconstruction trusting ourselves to Allahu ta’ala and knowing with certainty than hoping for immediate transformation and unchallenged progress is self-delusion and one salient feature of westernization itself.

We have to start by understanding what our primary and most important tools to reformation are. We need to slowly but steadily bring back the basic knowledge of the Deen into the life of people. By this, we mean knowledge that is live-giving in the invaluable books of Islamic sages of the past and not that of confused, self-certifying modern men of Arabic and Qur’an and Hadith. Towards this end, the Darus-Salam is hoping to translate the heart-purifying word of our superior in our mini-mag (As-Salam) and other booklets to French, Wambara and other languages for constant and free distribution across the nations. We request the prayers and other supports from concerned Muslims. May the nur of our mashaikh pervade and reform this land through the rank of the acme for ‘arifs , al-Imam ar-Rabbani (rahmatullahi alahi).

Establishment of result oriented Madrasah that would translate the preserved knowledge of our noble superiors to positive use for channelling a new course for the future is most imperative. Today, there is no single standard Madrasah in Timbuktu. It is a rare occurrence to meet a woman with a even a moderate Islamic dress. Smoking is almost an everybody’s habit, music has comfortably replaced the majestic Qur’an and almost every house has a satellite dish. The time for revival is surely over due.

We should give up blames and lamentation; we need to remove vengeance in our hearts against the descendants of those who for no justifiable reason came to destroy our noble heritage. We should be large-hearted and forgiven enough not to hold them for the sins of their ancestors. We should have complete trust in Allahu ta’ala as we plan the purification of our lands and the restoration of its lights.

The colonialist destroyers had done what they are used to thus fulfilling their ignoble roles as the destiny of Dunya runs its course. The tradition of our great ancestors is to embrace restoration after the havocs of enemies of truth and guidance. They raced to rekindle the light of Tawhid, purity and perfection when the winds of darkness carrying destruction in its wake have subsided. We need to learn how to be pick the bits and pieces in order to restore hope in the future. A Muslim Ummah that is satisfied with marking time or simply running the circle is a dead one. We need to wake up. Our revered and sublime tradition is to stand up to break new grounds altering the circle of disbelief, this-worldliness and moral depravity. This is the challenge before the Muslims of the West Africa sub-region today. The Darus-Salam offers to throw everything into this revival calling on like minds for support. This is an investment towards the Hereafter imperative on all concerned. True Muslims would not rest seeing the Ummah in shambles. Delay or apathy in sacrificing our time, energy, money and wealth for this extremely noble project is surely a great loss in this world and the next. We surely have a date to give accounts of our stewardship before our Lord and Owner, Allahu Subhana wa ta’ala. We shall all, one day, be judged.