When is it OK to burn Islamic texts?

We’ve been critiquing the good and bad coverage of what’s been happening to Mali in recent months. The latest news is about how fleeing Islamists destroyed a library in Timbuktu. Here’s the Associated Press:

SEVARE, Mali – Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city.

Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Monday. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute , a library rich with historical documents , in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.

Reporting out of Mali has been difficult and I’m so thankful for all those who are doing just that. Here’s Reuters:

The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO said it was trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a modern building that contains priceless documents dating back to the 13th century.

The manuscripts are “uniquely valuable and testify to a long tradition of learning and cultural exchange,” said UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan. “So we are horrified.”

But if they are horrified, historians and religious scholars are unlikely to have been surprised by this gesture of defiance by Islamist rebels fleeing the ancient trading post on the threshold of the Sahara as French and Malian troops moved in.

“It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world,” said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“It’s pure retaliation. They knew they were losing the battle and they hit where it really hurts,” she told Reuters.

OK. Do you have the same question I have at this point?

I’m wondering why some Islamists riot and kill over inadvertent Quran and Islamic text burning (such as what we looked at 10 months ago in Afghanistan here and here) while others would set fire to a library containing same.

The Reuters story in particular gives us much helpful information about the religious nature of the conflict in Mali. It tells us at one point:

The militants from the Malian Ansar Dine militant group that occupied Timbuktu (the name means Defenders of the Faith in Arabic) espouse an uncompromising version of Islam that rejects what it sees as idolatry and aims to destroy all traces of it.

This is a good way of explaining the Ansar Dine’s position when it comes to the shrines they’re destroying. But is that also a defense for the library torching? Is it considered Islamic or unIslamic (compromising or otherwise) to burn these Islamic texts?

I’m not just asking in a way that would seem to be pointing out hypocrisy. It’s just a genuine question I have and a huge ghost in this story. Does Ansar Dine have an Islamic defense? What is it? I hope that as the damage to this library is further revealed, we get some answers.

Quran photo via Shutterstock.

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  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

    I suspect this sect/group of militants/terrorists will say that if its not in the Quran, its not holy.

    • mollie

      Well, are we to assume that this library of Islamic texts did not include the Quran? Seems a safe assumption that it did. But if not, I’d love more info on why not. Further, the deathly riots in Afghanistan last year were not just about Quran’s but other sacred texts.
      These are the types of questions I have.

  • Chuck

    It’s in Africa. Who cares?

  • Jerry

    Your basic question is a good one, Mollie, and gets to a fundamental question: have the terrorists, in this case Ansar Dine, gone beyond the bounds of Islam. http://islam.about.com/od/quran/a/Disposal-Of-Quran.htm and http://www.inter-islam.org/Quran/disposingscripture.htm talks about how to respectfully dispose of a Quran. The facts here are that they did not follow this practice.

    Regarding disposing of unwanted religious and Islamic literature the great classical Hanafi Jurist Allamah Haskafi states:

    “Those books that are no longer wanted: One should wipe away the names of Allah, his Angels and His Messengers and burn the rest. There is nothing wrong with casting them into a flowing river as they are (i.e without wiping the names away) or burying them and burning them (excluding the Qur’an, see below), is advised.

    Thus, if one decides to get rid of religious literature, the right thing would be to bury them by wrapping them in something pure first, in a place where people would not walk very rarely. Similarly, it would be permitted to tie the books and papers with something heavy and cast them into a flowing river. You may also burn them, but in this case, only after erasing the names of Allah, his Angels and his Messengers (peace and blessings be upon them all).

    As far the old and unusable Qur’ans are concerned, it is not permitted to burn them unless there is no other way to dispose them.

    Because one question that naturally arises is what the basic principles of Islam are, this is a VERY key area to highlight in news stories. If a supposedly religious group violates the principles of their religion, should they even be called Muslims (or Christians for that matter)?

    • Will

      Or, should they be called BAD Moslems (or Christians?)
      Christians (and presumably Moslems and Jews) violate the principles of their respective religions every day. Is this really equivalent to excommunication latae sententiae?

  • Ben

    Ha, I assume that you are kidding, Chuck, but boy, you aren’t far off the mark when it comes to the website traffic we’ve seen on stories posted about Mali. Sad.

    Mollie, if there was a religious rationale (rather than just revenge for the military intervention), it would likely center on the idea that Salafis see themselves as emulating an “unadulterated” form of early Islam — one that eschews later Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence. The manuscripts come from that later period: “There are around 180,000 medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu … covering topics from Quranic exegesis to philosophy, mathematics, and law.” See a CSM story from a month back about copyists who were working to save the manuscripts: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2012/1225/The-men-who-would-save-Mali-s-manuscripts

    • mollie

      Ben — what a fantastic story! I have absolutely no idea why I’ve gotten so interested in Mali but I’ve been reading everything I could find. And yet I missed that very interesting story (presumably because of its publication date).
      It even pre-addresses the issue we’re talking about here (as you note):
      Last summer Islamist militants in Timbuktu destroyed graves and shrines that were associated with Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition. The militants called them blasphemous. While no threat – Islamist or otherwise – has emerged specifically against manuscripts, the sense of lawlessness has some in Timbuktu worried.

      “The Islamists have said they don’t want to harm the manuscripts,” says Abdel Kader Haidara, a specialist in manuscript cataloging and director of one of Timbuktu’s largest family libraries. “But other people could take advantage of the situation to attack our heritage.”

  • Suburbanbanshee

    You often see this sort of ambivalence in Islamic history. There are Muslim scholars and rulers who collect and preserve manuscripts and books, and then there’s Muslim rulers and scholars who seem to think you don’t need anything except the Quran, and probably not even an old Quran. And of course it’s easier to push your own understanding of Muslim life if nobody remembers any other version.

    Sadly, we don’t have anything like complete photographic or digitized records of most manuscripts in the Muslim world, so it only takes one fire or bomb to do huge amounts of damage.

  • FW Ken

    The Reuters article drew a picture of a rich intellectual and architectural heritage, then ended with a drab physical description. I enjoyed that. The history was interesting as well. The destruction of the cultural is revolting, of course, and to my mind is the big story here. Barbarians should always be called-out.

    I doubt the burning of Qu’rans by westerners is so much a religious objection as a geo-political reaction. We are the Great Satan, after all.


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