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April 15, 2012

Timbuktu librarians, scholars, and citizens preserving ancient documents and Islamic heritage

On April 1, rebels overran Timbuktu, so, according to a Reuters article, librarians, scholars, and citizens in this important site of Islamic learning are hiding away thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts. “Estimates for the total number of historic documents in the city, some of them from the 13th century, range from 150,000 to five times that number,” says Pascal Fletcher, the article’s author.

In fact, citizens lined up to deny armed rebels access to the archives where 20,000 ancient manuscripts are stored.

From the article:

ome texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists. Now many fear the rampaging rebels, who carry AK-47s instead of muskets, lances and swords.

Brittle, written in ornate calligraphy, and ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, the documents represent a compendium of learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare them in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(I came across this article in the really useful aggregation site Library News, which (disclosure) comes out of our Harvard Library Innovatino Lab.)

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March 16, 2011

Episcopalian Rector prohibited from adopting Muslim rituals for Lent

According to an article at St. Louis Today by Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Steve Lawlor, a part-time rector at an Episcopal church took up elements of Islamic ritual for Lent.

On Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing salah five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol, pork and fish. During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.

He avoided rituals that would have conflicted with church doctrine; for example, he skipped the prayers declaring Mohammed to be G-d’s prophet.

Steve did this as a way of understanding Islam, especially in the light of the McCarthyite hearings being held by Rep. Peter King.

But, Bishop George Wayne Smith considered it to be a forsaking of his Christianity, and to be play-acting. The Bishop forbade Steve from continuing, saying:

“I believe what he’s trying to accomplish or says he’s trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable,” he continued. “But you dishonor another faith by pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim.”

Not an unreasonable statement, nor an islamophobic one (although we could have done without the “or says he’s trying to accomplish” statement of distrust). But, it’s a false disjunction. You can build bridges both ways. More important, what Steve was doing was not quite pretending. Rather, it was enacting the rituals and finding in them similarities of meaning. I can understand the Bishop’s discomfort with this. For example, as I understand it, Jews are forbidden from kneeling while praying, and thus could not perform the five daily prayers the Muslim way, for ritual has meaning. That’s why performing — enacting — another religion’s rituals can help in understanding that religion. Performing another religion’s rituals thus is subject to contradictory objections: (a) The performance of empty gestures is mere play-acting and thus disrespectful. Or, (b) the performance of ritual is never mere play-acting because ritual always carries inner meaning, so performing the rituals of another religion is transgressive of one’s own religion.

Yet, between these poles of negativity there can be respectful intent, the possibility of genuinely furthering one’s understanding, and make a statement of shared humanity in the face of the shameful fear-mongering of Rep. King and his followers.


Two references, of very different sorts. First, there’s Stephen Colbert’s bit about giving up Christianity for Lent. Second, Islamicate mentions (in the post where I found the link to the “Muslim for Lent” story) that s/he has spent the past six weeks in an Episocpal seminary. Fascinating.

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