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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 05   16-31 July 2012

Professor A. R. Momin

Mali’s Misguided Iconoclasts

There are unmistakable and distressing signs of a hardening of attitudes, intolerance, extremism and aggression in a section of Muslims across some parts of the world. This was manifested in 2001 when hot-headed Taliban fighters destroyed some giant statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. This is evidenced in the proliferation of global terrorist networks which target civilians and innocent people in the name of jihad. This trend is reflected in the misguided campaign launched by the Boko Haram group in Nigeria to denounce and attack every thing that is even remotely associated with the West. This phenomenon is in evidence in the growing sectarian and denominational violence in some countries, such as Egypt, Pakistan and India. In recent times, some mosques and Sufi shrines have been targeted and desecrated by extremist Muslims who have drawn inspiration from the extremist Salfi ideology.

The scene of devastation at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh, which was the target of a terrorist attack on June 30, 2010 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, scores of Sufi shrines in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya have been attacked or vandalized by extremist Muslim groups owing allegiance to Salafism and Al Qaeda. Since 2005, more than 25 Sufi shrines in Pakistan have been attacked. Between 2005 and 2009, nine Sufi shrines in Pakistan were attacked, in which more than 80 people were killed. In 2010 there were attacks on five Sufi mausoleums, in which 64 people were killed and scores injured. In March 2009, militants in western Pakistan blew up the shrine of Rahman Baba, a renowned 17th century Pashto Sufi poet. On June 30, 2010, suicide bombers struck one of the oldest and most revered Sufi shrines in the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan’s most celebrated Sufi mausoleum, the tomb of Ali ibn Usman al-Hujwiri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh, in Lahore, killing 42 people and injuring more than 175. The Taliban targeted the shrines of Sufi saints Shaykh Nisa Baba and Shaykh Bahadur Baba in the Kyber Agency. The mausoleum of Abul Fazil in Kabul was attacked by suicide bombers, in which 56 people were killed. Since January 2011, at least 25 Sufi shrines in Egypt have been attacked by Salafis.


Mali is a landlocked country in Western Africa, with an approximate population of 14.5 million. The population is divided into several ethnic groups, of which the Bambara are the largest. Other ethnic groups include the Fulani, Berbers, Tuareg, Sonike and Songhai. More than 90 per cent of the people live in the southern part of the country. In the northern part, Mali’s plains stretch into the Sahara. Agriculture and fishing form the mainstay of the economy. About half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. About 90 per cent of the population follows Sunni Islam. Mali’s social and cultural life has been heavily coloured by the Sufi tradition. The Qadiriyah and Tijaniya Sufi orders have been particularly influential in the country and in much of Western Africa.

From the 8th to the 16th century, Mali was part of three empires that dominated trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves, salt and other precious commodities: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. In the late 19th century, Mali came under French control and became a part of the French Sudan. An independent Republic of Mali was established in 1960.

Islam came to Mali in the 11th century. Timbuktu (formerly spelled as Timbuktoo), located in the north of the country, has been the most important city of Mali. From the 13th to the 16th century, Timbuktu was well-known across Africa as well as Europe for its flourshing trade, its fabled wealth and its tradition of learning and scholarship. In the 16th century, it had a population of about 60,000. It was the starting point for African pilgrims going on the Hajj. Timbuktu’s society and culture represent a fascinating synthesis of West African and Arab influences. By the mid-16th century Timbuktu boasted well over 150 Islamic schools and many public libraries. The city is dotted with mosques and the tombs of saints, scholars and renowned teachers. Timbuktu has been known as the city of 333 saints. Historically, madrasas, public libraries and Sufi saints have played a major role in the spread of Islam in Western Africa.

An ancient mosque in Timbuktu

Timbuktu has had an enviable reputation as a city of Islamic learning. Nearly a million manuscripts on Islamic disciplines and on science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine are preserved in the city’s public libraries and pribvate collections. Some of the manuscripts date from the 10th century. Three of Timbaktu’s ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums and cemetries were added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 1988.

The Ahmad Baba Institute of Higher Studies and Islamic Research has a valuable collection of Islamic manuscripts, estimated to be over 40,000, some of which date from the 10th century

During the past few decades, there has been an undercurrent of hostility between the adherents of Sufi orders and social reformers of Salafi persuasion. Occasionally there have been violent confrontations between the two groups. The situation has been exacerbated in the wake of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which has facilitated a heavy movement of weapons across the Sahara. Many extremist Salafis, who were pushed out of Algeria after the end of the civil war in 2002, sought refuge in the northern part of Mali. Many Tuareg, who had long lived in Libya, returned to Mali after the end of the Qaddafi regime, armed with heavy weapons. Military officers seized power from President Amadou Toumani Toure in March this year, leaving Mali’s army in disarray. Since then, large parts of the country have descended into chaos and anarchy and the economy has ground to a halt. The prevailing atmosphere of insecurity has forced thousands of residents of Timbuktu to leave the city. Armed groups owing allegiance to Ansar Deine (Defenders of the Faith) and said to have links with Al Qaeda, have taken control of Mali’s three main cities: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Armed men of Ansar Dine patrol the streets, arrest men for smoking and forcing women to cover their faces. Many Europeans have been kidnapped for ransom.

Armed members of Ansar Dine

Cultural Vandalism in the Name of Islam

On June 30, 2012, a group of Muslim men belonging to Ansar Dine, armed with assault rifles and pickaxes, broke down the door of a 15th-century mosque, the Sidi Yahya mosque, in the historic city of Timbuktu. The smashed door has been left sealed as it leads to the tombs of saints buried there. The militant Ansar Dine, who are wedded to a puritanical, Salafi interpretation of Islamic law and have already destroyed several of the city’s Sufi mausoleums, argue that the building of tombs and mausoleums is contrary to Islamic teachings and that they are a form of idolatry. On July 10, members of the group destroyed two Sufi tombs at the 14th century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.

Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu

Ansar Dine’s vandalism has been condemned by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, International Criminal Court and international human rights groups. A prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said that such acts of vandalism constitute war crimes. The OIC said in a statement that the mosques and mausoleums vandalized by Ansar Dine were part of the “rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harm’s way by bigoted, extremist elements.” In April 2011, amidst reports of the desecration of Sufi shrines in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, condemned the attacks and said that such wanton acts of desecration and destruction are in violation of Islamic principles.

Alarmed and anguished by the desecration of mosques, tombs and mausoleums by Ansar Dine, Timbuktu’s Arab community and several citizens’ groups have formed armed vigilance brigades to take on the militant group and to prevent further destruction of tombs.

A still photograph from a video showed the destruction of a shrine in Timbuktu by the hard line Ansar Dine group (Agence-France Presse/Getty Images)

Muslims in Austria: A Legacy of Tolerance and Accommodation

The history of medieval Europe suggests that processes of conflict and cooperation and of confrontation and peaceful coexistence often overlapped and frequently transcended religious and sectarian distinctions. Hostilities between Christian and Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages were often motivated by economic and political rather than religious factors. The process of cooperation between Christian and Muslim rulers was mediated and reinforced through military and political alliances, diplomatic missions, trade and commerce and exchange of gifts.

The Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire were sworn enemies for nearly three centuries. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Ottomans seized large parts of Hungary and Bosnia and began launching attacks on the Habsburg territories from there. A major war took place between the Ottomans and the Habsburg monarchy in 1526, known as the Battle of Mohacs, in which the Hungarian king was defeated and his forces were routed by Turkish troops. Sultan Suleyman laid siege to Vienna in 1529, which was repulsed. A second siege to the city was laid by the Ottoman forces in 1683, which also met with failure. Even at the height of the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict, Christians and Muslims living in the two empires continued to engage in trade and business without any rancour, especially in the Hungarian markets. The Ottomans and the Habsburg monarchs forged an alliance in the 18th century to counter growing Russian expansion into the Balkans and towards the Black Sea. In the 18th century Turkish merchants introduced coffee in the Habsburg Empire, whence it spread to other parts of Europe.

Mosque in Vienna

The Habsburg Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, was multiethnic in character. It included, in addition to Christians of various denominations, 2.5 million Jews and nearly 700,000 Muslims. Emperor Franz Joseph I, who ruled from 1848 to 1916, was an enlightened king.

Emperor Franz Joseph I (1848-1916)

Emperor Joseph introduced what came to be known as the Law on Islam in 1912, in the aftermath of the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The law was initially intended as an instrument for integrating Muslim Bosnian soldiers into the Habsburg army. Austria’s first mosque was built in Vienna in 1887 with government assistance to cater to the religious needs of Muslim soldiers in the Austrian army. The Law on Islam, unique in Europe, gives Muslims the same rights that are available to other officially recognized religions in the country, including Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism and Buddhism. It guarantees them wide-ranging rights, including the freedom of public worship and the right to establish mosques and Islamic endowments, facility for Islamic instruction in state-funded schools and administration of internal affairs. About 60,000 Muslim children attend Islamic instruction classes in Austria’s state-funded schools, taught by about 350 teachers. The Federal Ministry of Defence allows certain concessions to Muslim personnel in the armed forces, such as access to halal food, special space and time for prayer and observance of religious holidays. Muslim soldiers in the Austrian army are entitled to take paid vacations for Islamic festivals. In 1998 the Federal Court ruled that Muslims have the freedom to slaughter animals according to their religious rites and that this freedom is protected by the guarantee of freedom of religion given by the Austrian constitution. Muslim women are allowed to wear the veil at work, in educational institutions and at public ceremonies. The official recognition of the religious and cultural identity of Austrian Muslims and the availability of autonomous spaces have played an important role in the integration of Muslims in the country.

After World War II, there was a substantial increase in the population of Muslims in Austria, mainly as a result of the arrival of guest workers from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 1960s and Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s. Now the population of Muslims in Austria is estimated to be around half a million, about 6 per cent of the population. In Vienna, Islam is the second-largest religion after Catholicism. The largest group among Muslims is of Turkish descent, followed by Bosnians and Arabs.

Celebrations to mark the centenary of Austria’s Law on Islam in Vienna

Celebrations to mark the centenary of Austria’s Law on Islam in Vienna The centenary of the Law on Islam was celebrated in July this year on a grand scale. Senior members of the Austrian government and prominent members of Austria’s Muslim community attended the ceremonies in the capital Vienna.

Cologne Court Outlaws Circumcision

The Cologne Regional Court on June 25, 2012 ruled that performing circumcision on an infant violates the constitutional protection of every person’s, including a child’s, bodily integrity. The court ruled that “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents.” The ruling of the court applies to the city of Cologne and the surrounding districts, which have a population of just over 2 million. Cologne is home to 120,000 Muslims. The ruling affects 120,000 Jews and more than 4 million Muslims in Germany.

There have been vociferous protests against the ruling by Jewish and Muslim organizations. The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany condemned the ruling as “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the self-determination of religious communities” and called on the German Parliament—the Bundestag—to pass legislation protecting circumcision as a religious practice. The protest against the ruling by Jews and Muslims has been supported by many Christian leaders as well as quite a few German politicians. An unusual joint statement, signed by leaders of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, the European Jewish Parliament, the European Jewish Association, Germany's Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs and the Islamic Centre Brussels, said” "We consider this to be an affront [to] our basic religious and human rights." The German Medical Association has opposed the ban because it could drive circumcision underground with greater risk of infection through poor hygiene.

Taking note of the widespread condemnation of the ruling by the Jewish and Muslim communities, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman promised Jewish and Muslim communities that they would be free to carry out circumcision on young boys despite the court ban. The government said it would find a way around the court ruling.

FIFA lifts Ban on Headscarves in Soccer

Football or soccer is the world’s most popular game, played by over 250 million people in more than 200 countries. Though it is largely male-dominated, a fairly large number of women and girls around the world enthusiastically play the game. According to the International Federation for World Soccer (FIFA), the world football governing body, more than 29 million women and girls—and their numbers are constantly growing--play the game.

In 2007 FIFA banned women wearing headscarves from playing football for safety reasons and because of rules that stipulate that religious or political symbols should not be allowed on pitch. The Iranian women’s football team had to forfeit a match against Jordan in June 2011 because they refused to remove their headscarf.

The Iranian women’s football team had to forfeit a match against Jordan in June 2011 because they refused to remove their hijab

The ban on the wearing of headscarves on pitch has been contested by many Muslim and non-Muslim athletes, who have argued that the ban promotes inequality in the world’s most popular game and inhibits the potential for it in Muslim countries. The United Nations joined the calls for lifting the ban. In 2011, a group led by FIFA’s vice-president, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, successfully convinced the International Football Association Board (IFAB), of which FIFA is a major member, that the hijab was a cultural rather than a religious symbol and therefore the ban on it on pitch was unjustifiable. Headscarves are allowed in other sports like rugby and taekwondo. At a meeting in London in March 2012, the IFAB agreed in principle to overturn the ban. A meeting of FIFA officials in London in July this year decided to allow Muslim women players to wear a headscarf.

A Dutch designer, Cindy van den Bremen, has designed a new, football-friendly hijab—called “Capsters”-- that looks trendy and meets the requirements of safety. Capsters are basically a plastic wrapper of white fabric with some stitching and a Velcro closing. It requires no knots or pins to tie it around one’s head. It is made in stretchable materials so as to make it comfortable to wear. The Velcro fastening is designed in such a way that if an opponent grabs the hijab from behind, it will easily come off, thereby minimizing the risk of choking or strangulation.

Saudi female soccer players practice at a secret location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo: Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

In a related development, Saudi Arabia has announced that Saudi women athletes would be allowed to compete in the London Olympics. This decision, which has been taken by the highest authorities in the face of growing public pressure and at the urging of FIFA, marks a radical and welcome departure from the earlier government policy which prohibited Saudi women from taking part in public competitions.

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