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August 3, 2012

Question:  What are we to think of the destruction of historic shrines in Mali in the name of religion?

Media reports inform that Ansar al Din (“Defenders of the Faith”), an al Qaeda-linked Jihadist group, are responsible for this destruction. Since the democratically elected, pro-U.S. government was ousted last March by a military ruler, Ansar al Din has taken control of northern Mali, and has been ruling by terror. Of course, some readers will want the writers who contribute to this page to say the theologically correct thing: extremism does not belong to Islam alone. So let us state the obvious. But Muslim silence on this destruction must be noted. Turkey is the only Muslim country that has so far condemned this outrage.

What is taking place in Timbuktu, the “City of 333 saints,” an ancient crossroads and seat of Islamic learning, amounts to not only the destruction of a UN World Heritage site, but graphically reveals a striking example of virulent, inter-Muslim sectarianism. In this case, the aggressor has clearly identified himself. Both the living and dead are the targets and victims.

The destruction of these historic shrines is not just an attack on our common humanity. What is being perpetrated in Mali is positively unislamic. These mud and wooden shrines are the resting place of Muslim saints. The Qu’ran forbids the desecration of tombs and enjoins respect and prayer for the souls of the dead, regardless of religion or rite. Muslim history records that the Prophet Muhammad paid homage to a Jew, a member of the “people of the Book”, as a Jewish funeral procession passed by. But here we have the strange phenomenon of so-called “Muslims” desecrating the graves of their co-religionists.

The dead whose tombs are being violated had the misfortune of belonging to the wrong sect. They just happened to be Sufis, the gentle, mystical sect that brought Islam to much of sub-Saharan Africa. Sufis dance (the whirling dervish) and remember God constantly in prayer, while using humour, storytelling and drama.

Bahá’í law formally forbids the destruction of persons, property and books. Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, condemned religious fanaticism which he described as a “world-devouring fire.” Its antidote is interreligious tolerance and love for the followers of all faiths.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen August 3, 2012
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