NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
12 Jan 2003
- Timbuktu; Ahmad Baba Center; Bul' Araf manuscript library
- 16.7758333 -3.0094444
- SONY TCD-D7
- Sennheiser MKH 50
- Sennheiser MKH 30
Decoded MS Stereo
Log of DAT #:3A
Date: January 12, 2003
IM = Issa Mohammed
WD = Wade Davis
AC = Alex Chadwick
Leo = Leo del Aguila
Starts low, then gets louder and becomes prevalent conversation. Conversation in an African language. Gets quiet, fades out.
Ambi. One man reading from the Koran.
Ambi. Rustling sounds. Men speaking. Whispers.
Ambi. Speaking French.
And we have already, uh, attended different levels in different courses.
And this gentleman here must've attained the highest course because he could repeat all that he needed to repeat. These were courses from the Koran that he was repeating?
Exactly. They were¿
That he had committed?
Exactly. He had committed not only the verses of the Koran to memory, but he has also committed the sayings or traditions. They are called Hadifs, narrated by the prophets. So he has committed them to memory. And then he was translating them into Songhai. So that the common person will have a good understanding of these narrations, traditions by the prophet of Islam, or the explanations and meaning, deeper meaning of the Koran.
Man speaks French.
Yeah, he said you come in so he would like to show you the library of their master. It's inside.
Ah, thank you.
Yeah, he's saying that, uh, that they had a good attendance this morning because most of the students are attending to their chores and works, and right now they are working in their fields. Yes, and also because of the cold, you know some of them just stayed to study at home.
Yeah, he said when their master was alive, they constantly, uh, I mean they would keep going until, until evening time.
Exactly. So he say depending the classes were really flexible. So those who had time attended mornings, and then those who have time around noon would come, and then in the evening everybody converges here, around their master, of the church, and the Imam, or Shur.
Yeah, so this is, uh, this is the only and unique higher level of learning in this entire city of Timbuktu, and this is why this is called the Circle of Knowledge. And again we have to understand that all these are also professors and they are very competent and expert in other fields of Islamic studies.
Could you just tell us for on the tape, could you say the name of the place and is it possible to just spell the name of the place because we have to write it.
French speaking, learns to spell it: M-U-L-A-Y A-H-M-E-D.
And it was, this is his kind of school or¿?
Actually, yeah, this is his, uh, his class and this is his dwelling. You can see his quarters, yes.
So he was saying like before there were also other classrooms like this in this city. And even their master used to sit with other masters and teachers. But with the time, the masters, you know, the teachers and professors passed away, and, uh, he was the last one. (Truck starts to roll by on last words, then they speak French). So Malay Ahmed passed away in 1997 and therefore he has appointed Muhamen Hamu as the one to sit on the chair. See that particular chair there.
Um-hm, and this is his, one of his actually.
discussing set up
So Wade this is, uh, the library, this is the study room of, uh, Shahar Mulay Ahmed, yeah, so these are some very sacred texts and blessed grounds.
I would like to ask some questions, if I may, about the, um, the whole history of the Circle of Knowledge.
I noticed that in the prayers the basis of the, the exchange was directly from the Koran.
um-hm. Speaks French
And is the, the Koran therefore the inspiration for all of the teaching?
Um-hm. He said in this particular case, when we quote the prophet, when we narrate what the prophet, peace be upon him, has said, then we go into the Koran to bring supporting evidence.
Yes, he said, like a this morning we were studying some a very rare traditions and sayings (interruption in French over words) of the professors. So, but normally they just, they will just a comb the a the book of venerations and traditions. However they will always look to the Koran as the source to validate.
But the book that he was reading from this morning was not the Koran?
No, that wasn't the Koran, it's called Hadif. (French over words). Exactly, Hadif the prophet. (lots of French over explanation in English). Whereas the Hadifs are the narrations and commentaries and sayings and interpretations of the prophets that¿any given situation. (French speaking). So the Hadifs are really, in a brief summary, whatever comment the prophet of Islam has made about a particular issue, a particular situation, or how to handle this particular case, what is the proper way of doing this, or that. This kind of religious practices. So practically he's there to bring more light on these concepts. (more French). Yeah he said like this morning we have the Hadif we have narrated had to do with peace, conflict resolutions and peace and harmony, cultural diversity, accepting each other and embracing each other. And then how to educate our children. And also the proper manners one has to observe in approaching religious duties.
And so when the president is reading form the Hadif, what is the respondent saying from memory?
Yeah, uh, when he's reading, uh, when the Imam Hamu was reading the Hadif, he, um, his assistant or also he's a professor also, he's also competent, so practically he is making sure that everybody understood what the exact wording of the prophet, peace be upon him, are saying. So this is why, although they all speak Arabic, he makes sure that they all explain it in their own native tongue.
So he is literally translating, the Imam reads from Arabic, and then the assistant translates it into the local language.
So it's a strict repetition of what was read from what was read from the Hadif?
So, also each one of us here has also his own disciples, that after here we go and train also for the future. (French). So therefore it's all in degrees. There are some that are training right now so that they will be able later on to attend these classes. And there are some right now that are almost about to be able to sit in this gathering. And also they are doing this so that they make sure that knowledge is being communicated to the basic mind.
When he is reading from the Hadif, when were those words layed down?
asks in French
So he said you can think of it just like, you know, the disciple of Christ. (speaking in French). Yeah, so therefore, right after the death of the prophet, peace be upon him, the disciples saw that it was important to collect the sayings and the narration of the prophet, peace be upon him, before they got lost. Just like the companions and disciples of Jesus Christ did. (French). Yeah and these narrations (French) are classified around 30 headings (French).
So within his own school does Imam have the opportunity to interpret or reinterpret the Hadif in any way or is it simply taken as the word of the prophet?
Well, uh, yes, uh, this is exactly why they are at this level, because given this understanding because the Koran is the basic, the base, the source of everything. So that is why everybody has to know the Koran, one to memorize it, to understand it, and to be able to apply it in any given circumstance or condition, this is one. So when he will lead the Hadif, he will expound on it, based on the Koran, and then he will bring in verses of the Koran that will support his basis, his analysis of that particular view of the tradition.
But this morning, for example, we didn't see any give and take with the various members of the Circle of Knowledge with the given text. Is that the normal nature of things?
Yeah, so he's saying yes, uh, it's this is why it's called the Circle of Knowledge, it's really open, you see, the students can interject anytime and also what we were reading this morning these were very rare Hadif's or traditions where most of them have really few commentaries. However anyone can come in and interject and ask explanation and clarification about the¿
So this morning, for example, while we were listening to the Imam in his ceremonial chair, anyone could have interrupted him and said ¿excuse me, explain this more'?
Exactly, exactly. And he's saying it didn't happen because all of his students who were standing there pretty much had a very good understanding of the subject at hand. Now, if they were with other students there training, so that they would be able to bring them up to this level, those most of them would say, ¿excuse me, Imam, I didn't understand, can you elaborate on this?' But most of the companions, this is a group of companions, as I said, each one is an expert in some other fields of Islamic knowledge.
52: 48 WD
So can you give us an example of the range of knowledge that was there in that room this morning?
Well, uh, you know, you may have grammarians, you may have historians, uh, specialized in geography, specialized in, uh, the commentaries and explanations.
But did we have this morning. Are you saying in general or literally today?
Uh, yes today, including himself, for instance. Including the son of the Imam, the son of the Sher. They have been trained. You know some of them are more versed in just, you know, the Koran, its interpretation, uh, different ways of applying it depending the circumstances, some of them are more of the historians or scientists, mathematic, history, geography, and so forth, yes.
And this morning when you said this is the last Circle of Knowledge, there always was one Circle of Knowledge in Timbuktu.
And is the strength of the Circle, is it getting more or is it getting less?
Well, as we said, the strength of the Circle is really getting less. And why? Because of the economic conditions. The harshness of life itself. And viscosity of economic resources and economic means. Before, the city used to be very prosperous in terms of trade. So the scholars had their own shops, and they had their own income and they had their own revenues, so there was prosperity before, and that really has created an environment where one can spend most of the time studying instead of worrying about how to provide for the basic needs of the family. So right now they are under pressure. And as we said, um, Mulay Ahmed, you know, the great Imam, scholar and teacher, or sher or master, passed away in 1997 and now this is the last link with that great tradition called the Circle of Knowledge in Timbuktu which was started back in the 12th century, 13, 14, 15, 16 up to now. And even when the French occupation has happened in the city, still they met secretly and kept, you know, the tradition. And this is how we are very fortunate today to see that link. So if this link is not being supported by us, then we will really see a situation where we will almost be sure that we will be losing this cultural heritage. And this is one of the most pressing issues that the Timbuktu Heritage Institute is trying to, to handle and create awareness around it.
Well, let's ask the Imam directly whether he thinks the Circle of Knowledge is in danger of being lost.
So he said already you can just see given the level of attendancy, the attendance itself is dwindling, and before we also had many centers like this. There was a main Circle of Knowledge, however, each professor also has his own place where he can, you know, his teaching. So you will find the students roaming around all day long around the city coming to one professor to the other and then going back to classes. So he said yeah, already the Circle of Knowledge is in danger because already the attendancy is already declining.
And also, one of the most critical things is really that most of the scholars, olama, is what we call them, the learned men, the masters, and the shers, they are all passed away. They are gone
So he said that most of the descendants really had to migrate toward the major cities and that is creating a problem because these are the link between these scholars and the common people, but given the harshness of the lack of economic sources, they are forced to migrate to go to Bamako, to go to Berger(sp?)¿
French (interrupts over last few words)
Um-hm, he said, uh, that right now we can show you families where everybody is gone. You just find the manuscript and there is nobody because¿
Yeah, and so it's not that they don't have, you know, the expertise or the passion or the knowledge to preserve this legacy that has been handed down to them by their ancestors, but there is, uh, I mean, financial, they are lacking financial means.
Yeah, so he said we are very well aware of the impact that the Circle of Knowledge has on us and also has on the common people. Because it's really setting the moral, the spiritual standards, you see. And, however, since now the scholars have passed away, and the immediate link that their descendants also, most of them migrated, looking for better life in major urban cities. So we are surfacing a situation where really we can say there is a crisis right now and if we don't get the immediate help, uh, we may as well be disconnected and lose this legacy forever.
Um-hm, and also the level of educating itself right now has dropped.
Yeah, he said before, when, you know, the people really were absorbing and taking in, you know, the teachings of this great legacy, you can leave your doors open, your shops open the whole night and no one would take anything.
He said that before, like you know the um shop keepers, you know, the merchants, when it's time to go pray or go have their lunch, they would just leave their doors open and go. And if a client comes in he will just simply sit and wait for them. But today you cannot do that.
And when does he see the decline having begun?
Yeah, so he said they really started with the colonization of the city.
Yeah, so he said that, exactly, he said, uh, not only, you know, with, uh, because you know, not only with, uh, before the French, because, you know, there was some invasions by some of the African kings or leaders, etc. So in really when he sacked the city back in the 1500's he probably killed a lot of scholars. And then after him, the Moroccan king back in 1593, 1595, and also they practically burning the entire city and their libraries and that's within the leadership of Pasha Juter (?). They came and burned the city, destroyed the manuscript, and put to death, uh, a lot of the scholars. And then we also have a lot of the natural elements such as drought that created famine. So therefore a lot of people died and some of them migrated away. And then also we have political job, political tensions. Which also created a civil strife, and, uh, even a civil war, there have been a civil war, there had been a rebellion here back in '92, '93, up to, um, '95, '96. So all these are major factors and forces that have caused the decline of this great legacy.
So he's saying also one of the greatest contributions that the scholars have made to this legacy is that they didn't just keep it in highly intellectual environment or circles, but they also created activities for the common people to come out into the street in the form of a festival that you can enjoy that will practically take on the street, that will be a very big Islamic, uh, devotional, devotional parade. Where these scholars will expound on the verses of the Koran, on the meaning of the Hadif, and also an example is the month of Ramadan. You see, where in the morning they will concentrate on the Koran, and then in the evening they will concentrate more on the Hadifs on the prophet, you know, the traditions. So this allow the common person to get direct applied knowledge. And also what made Timbuktu distinguished from the rest of the world is that Timbuktu was more interested in the application of the teachings of the Koran and how to acquire that solemn, that spiritual character that is being painted in the Koran. So this is what people in Timbuktu were after. And to do that they were, everybody is trying to emulate and duplicate and walk in the moccasin, in the footsteps of the prophet of Islam.
Yeah so he's saying even at a basic, uh, limitary level, in mornings with kids, you know, the boys and girls will go and sit with the Imam, the Imam is the spiritual leader, he's versed in the Koran and so forth. So he will impart the teachings to them. And then in the afternoon they will disperse and go to the different workshops and learn this particular kind of trade, or this particular kind of activities, or how to master this particular discipline of Islam and so forth. But he said we lost those things. And we are continually losing that kind of hands on type of learning and approach, which is really what made the city of Timbuktu and it's scholars different from the rest of the Islami, you know, world.
Yeah he's saying, uh, like you know, one of the examples right now that is really impacting this tradition, this heritage, is the openness to the rest of the world. TV's everywhere. Not that we are against, you know, TV. However, we feel that TV needs to be monitored. There are certain things that kids should not be watching on TV. And this is what they are emulating right now instead of their basic Islamic education and so forth and also that the authorities of Mali need to sensor, to edit some of this. Just like the internet so that kids do not go to the pornographic section and things like that. So there is a lack of control. Everyone has a satellite dish and the kids are there following these new ways. And that is creating a clash, you know, with the old traditional, conservative¿
He said we are not preventing, uh, kids to have an openness, you know, to the world, but we feel they need to be guided.
This is exactly the role of tradition is that tradition was not always the force of conservativism is that tradition is a code of moral order, of coherence in a society. And when that tradition is lost what you have in its wake is a form of chaos. And when the wave of chaos come over the society then you have all those other outside influences. And that is really under threat here it seems to me.
Yes, exactly. Yeah so um¿speaks French
Yeah, he said we even have some kids that will go on the roof because they see a Hollywood actor or actress jumping from the roof and they think it's reality so they go and jump from the roof and break their legs.
Yeah, or he takes a knife and punctures his friends stomach because he¿
He saying that right now, you know, we do have also have other phenomenons you know teeth, you know people are stealing things, you know things we did not have before. I can be walking in the street and suddenly find an object in the street, but I realize that this object does not belong to me. So my responsibility is to take it and to find the owner. And that is gone today, you see.
You know, this is so interesting because in the West, in America, people are completely confused by why the Islamic world appears to be so angry. And yet from this perspective it's so obvious that's what's going on is that this world feels itself being encroached upon by values that are threatening the very foundation of what it is. So let me, you can mention that to the Imam, but I'd like to have him tell us what kind of message would he like to send to the world that is sending him those movies and those influences. What is it doing to his people?
Yeah he said one is to really monitor education.
So therefore, you know, those Western movie makers need to understand that the key to our children need to have some ethical standards as opposed to destructive images on their brain. We need to record something positive on their brain.
Yeah and even peace it has to be s¿? (interrupted by French speaking)
Yeah so he said it's not like when there is an explosion we suddenly starting to bring peace. It has to be planted and it has to be groomed (interruption of French speaking). Yeah so, (interruption of French). Yeah, so therefore this is part of the education, that we would like to see because most of the Nintendo games and the movies, it's all war, destructions (more French). So the prophet Samabad Salah, peace be upon him, he said diversions, diversions create frictions and there is fire, and this is what creates conflicts. (more French). And that he even prayed that, uhm, Allah curses whoever tries to instigate or inflame differences to get to a point where there is war.
Yeah, so this is why Islam has understood that grooming, and cultivating this is the number one and basic ingredient that we as human beings need to live for peace. (interruption in French). Yeah that the stronger one should not prey on the weaker one. That we should leave them in peace.
Yeah, so they teachings of Timbuktu are saying it is not because you know we have a power that we should aggress other people. In fact, once we are aware that we have such power that can even destroy, this is even when we need to master ourselves.
So therefore today, uh, the, uh, cultivating peace, I would say ¿grooming¿ peace. I mean everybody, this should be our number one priority to set the steps and standards that will lead to peace. Not a step and a standards that will lead to conflicts and violence and fires that will lead to death and killings all around the world.
Yes, so is therefore its very vital and important that the authorities around the world get involved with the movie making you know processes to make sure that these images are more of positive images on the mind of young people and on the mind of everyone actually. As opposed to images that are promoting violence and bloodshed and killing, and racism.
Yeah, he said yes we understand that everybody wants to have a decent life standards, but also people also need to be in peace so that they can enjoy that progress.
Yeah, he said also the problem is most of the people who are handling these peace issues actually did not experience a situation where there were themselves involved in a situation where there was no peace. Otherwise they would be more eager to solve this situation.
Do you mean, do you mean the leaders? The leaders haven't been in these situations of conflict so they don't know¿
Yeah, it's always like a far away played movie, as opposed to, in example for instance those who were involved in Vietnam war, for instance. They are the first ones to oppose what it can do.
And the Imam, of course, has known war here. (interruption). The Imam has known war here in recent years.
Uh, exactly, just, uh, just, uh, last, uh, three to four years.
Yeah, he said to rely on weapons, on mass destruction weapons to solve problems is really a very, um, not commendable steps. Conflicts should be resolved by dialogue. By¿
So he said the scholars of Timbuktu have long time ago understood that problems cannot be solved by force. It's only through peaceful means that problems can be solved in a way that's permanent.
Yeah, he said that this is what we were just reading this morning. He said that one of the prophets of Islam, peace be upon him, tradition is that if you want to ask something from Allah, just ask him to give peace, ask him for peace, ask him for peace for everyone, ask him for peace for the entire universe, because really this is where the beauty of this universe of this life is, is to live it in peace, is to live it in harmony, is to live it in a place where we can tolerate cultural differences and in fact, look at these differences as opportunity to be closer than to be far away from each other.
Exactly, so how could we enjoy this life, how can we live in this world and enjoy it when we see poor woman with two or three children, one on her neck, one on her back, and she's holding one, and suddenly she falls down because she is completely weakened and depleted and dies and she leaves those two or three children?
Yes, what have they done to humanity?
Yeah, they did not participate in negotiations, they didn't (interruption in French) Yeah, they didn't manufacture, you know, weapons of mass destructions. And yet they become victims of this, this is not what they have chosen, this is not the future that these children have chosen.
So he's saying that if aggression continues, instead of bringing peace, instead of breeding peace, is going to breed a reaction. There will be groups that will be created to oppose that aggression.
Yeah, so therefore, we come to the conclusions that the only best and civil way is through communications, is through dialogues. Let me put myself in the shoes of another person, let me see what they see, see their perspectives and so forth and then we can come to what we call enreprochma(?), as opposed to a polarization. Uh, were we to¿
Yeah, so he said even if you take a knife or you are offering a knife to someone, you don't offer the knife, you know, pointing the sharpest end to them. You give them the head of the knife or what do you call it?
The handle of the knife. Then that conveys safety, it conveys security
Yes, so, there is one of the great scholars who really has written a lot in the area of conflict resolution. That's Sherha Alqahber Elconti (?). So he's saying if there is one single person in the city that has a weapon, that weapon needs to be taken away from that person because that person poses a serious threat to that city.
So he said, in a very clear way, Timbuktu needs to regain its face. ¿Face¿. Meaning its cultural past.
Yeah, so he's saying that, uh, really there is a need right now, there is a cry for people to reconnect with that Timbuktu legacy because the scholars were trained and formed at a time where there were no aggressions. And at the time they did not come in contact with colonization with the Western world with weapons of destruction, and so forth.
Yes, and the main philosophy of the French colonial people who came here was to really destroy the culture.
Yes, so therefore, they made sure that they shut down the intellectual institutions. The university, the elementary schools¿
Yes, he said, yeah, they have closed, they have shut down the elementary schools, the learning centers, the learning associations, the clubs, and so forth.
Yeah, so there is tragedy, so therefore is really to suffocate that education because an educated man would not let people subjugate him to a certain negative treatment of life.
Yeah, he said in 1914, when French really implanted their authority in the city, they would send a French soldier out in the city, collecting these manuscripts, taking them away, and also calling the scholars and threatening them, and even incarcerating them, so that they need to bring these things to an end and embrace the French civilization and embrace the French way of life.
Yeah, so therefore now this legacy of Timbuktu has been replaced by the legacy of French. First of all the brother here is also a scholar. So he has been trained on both sides, from an Islamic point of view as well as from a Western academic point of view. So he used to be one of the deans of the school. So he's retired right now. So he's politically aware, so he has educated both the French, the Western system, and the, uh, the Islamic, and the Timbuktu model.
Yeah, so he said instead of talking to us in classes, like, you know, the French curriculum, they were teaching as that the, uh, French were our ancestors.
And, uh, they were trying to convince us or at least trying to make us believe that we did not have a culture, that we did not have a past, we did not have a history, and therefore it would be better for us to accept the Gaul, the Gaul, these were the original inhabitants of France, that the Gaul were our ancestors.
Yeah, so their whole aim is really to portray this legacy as something negative, as something that has no, um, contribution, in French we say apore(?), that doesn't bring anything to humanity that doesn't bring anything to the civilizations of the, of the world.
You know, what's interesting is that you realize how recent that was, 1914. I mean it's not a hundred years ago, and the devastating impact of colonization, which we always think as being older than that. Now we have another force coming in which is modernity. It's almost like having surviving the impact of the French, having secured their independence in 1959 and in 1960, now the tradition is faced from a whole nother wave from Europe or from the West. Having survived the one, does he think they'll be able to survive the second?
Yes, so he said the first thing the people of Timbuktu have realized after they gained their political independence in the 1960's that they needed to put the train back on track. Meaning, to get back to their culture and connect with their past.
Yeah, so this is why right now there is, um, uh, an educational campaign in, uh, opening Islamic, you know, learning centers, and opening the libraries, you know, to the, uh, to the scholars, you know, of the world, and sharing this culture with people so that we can revive it.
So this is why right now, as he said again, there is really an effort, you know, to revive this culture. And this we cannot do just by ourselves. We do need some friends, we do need people like you, who can help us, and really see what is positive in our culture, also, and really bring, you know, to this table, as opposed to someone who is trying to suffocate our cultures and telling us we are not even human beings. And this is what's interesting because there are some professors from Europe and from the U.S. who came and saw these libraries and one of them said after I opened up a third trunk in Timbuktu, my eyes popped out of my head and I was convinced we have everything we need to correct this bigotry that has been perpetrated about African people as people who do not have civilizations and who do not have a written record. And the legacy of Timbuktu is in position to prove the contrary today.
Yes so therefore, right now the main message that Timbuktu wants to put out is tell everyone that Timbuktu has been a multicultural legacy built up by people of different cultures and traditions and therefore we are extending our arms and hands, you know, to the world so that together we can revive this legacy. And we are sure once this legacy has been revived and studied we will find solutions to the many, many problems the world is facing today.
Everyone says goodbye in another language.
Someone asks Bul' Araf to spell his name.