Heritage of Islam faces threat from within
AFTER THE Libyan revolution last year I spent several evenings in an open-air cafe next to the al-Sha’ab al-Dahmani mosque in Tripoli, drinking hot sweet tea with almonds and talking politics with Libyan friends.
Col Muammar Gadafy had fallen and for the first time in their lives they felt free. Now their liberty is under threat. At the end of August, a group of armed, bearded men seized a bulldozer and destroyed part of the mosque because it contains the graves of 16th-century Sufi saints. Such shrines, they said, are idolatrous.
I don’t suppose the men in the bulldozer had heard of William Dowsing. He was a Christian, not a Muslim, English, not Libyan, and he lived in the 17th century, not the 21st.
But as “commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition” he was similarly determined to obliterate objects venerated by a different sect of his own religion.
It was during the English civil war when the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, set about destroying crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary and all emblems of Catholicism (as well as wreaking terror across Ireland – but that’s another story).
“We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells . . . and about a hundred chirubims and angells,” wrote Dowsing after leading his henchmen into Peterhouse college chapel in Cambridge in December 1643. Countless works of art were lost to history.
Today’s Puritans are the Salafists, who follow the strict Wahhabi form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, and equate mystical Sufism with black magic.
They are not restricting themselves to Libya. I have just returned from Mali, where Salafists, led by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, have taken control of the north of the country.
In July they demolished Sufi shrines in Timbuktu with pickaxes and mallets shouting “Allahu akbar” – “God is great”. The shrines, which date back to the 15th and 16th century when Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning, are made of mud, but residents of the fabled city rebuild them after each rainy season and still pray to the Sufi saints whose remains lie inside.
What disturbs people in both countries is the weakness of their governments in the face of these assaults. In Mali, the army ran away from a rebellion in the north. As politicians and soldiers squabble, the Islamists are on the march – last weekend, they took the small town of Douentza, south of Timbuktu, on the road to the capital, Bamako.