PARIS (AFP) ― The mausolea of Timbuktu, known as the “city of 333 saints,” are shrines in the Sufi brand of Islam dominant in Mali but a heresy to the fighters who follow the radical Wahhabi tradition, experts say.
Fighters from the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) group which controls large swathes of northern Mali on Tuesday started hacking away at two tombs that are part of the ancient Djingareyber mud mosque, the city’s largest.
Equipped with pickaxes and shovels, the fundamentalist group started wrecking other shrines in the fabled city, whose cultural treasures are listed as endangered World Heritage, on July 1.
Many moderate Muslims across the world visit the tombs of saints as “a sort of door to heaven” where someone in difficulty can ask for divine intervention, French anthropologist Jean-Claude Penrad explained.
Residents of Timbuktu restore the City of 333 Saints’ Great Mosque April 10, 2006 prior to the Maouloud festival, marking the birth of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. (AFP-Yonhap News)
But Wahhabists deem the shrines to be “haram,” or forbidden in Islam, because they believe that there can only be one God in Islam and that worshipping other deities is idolatrous and an attack on Islam’s purity.
In their eyes “other veneration is a sort of heresy, a way of stepping away from the oneness of God,” Penrad explained.
The tradition started in the Middle Ages with a fatwa, or religious decree, from the theologian Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) that said tombs of saints should be destroyed.
Centuries later, followers of Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), the founder of the tradition, took on these principles which are nowadays particularly prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.
Ansar Dine and other Al Qaeda-inspired groups follow the orthodox Wahhabi strain of Islam, in which the focus is on respecting and enforcing Islamic laws as a way of pleasing God.
In Mali, the Wahhabi tradition is the exception to the widespread Sufi brand of Islam which has dominated the region for years.
Sufis focus on developing an inner, personal relationship with God. Their more heterodox, mystical faith recognises divine manifestations in pre-Islamic traditions and is less exclusive of other cultures.
The motives of groups such as Ansar Dine are not religious but political, said Penrad, explaining that their aim is to “exercise maximum control over people” and instill “a global vision of Islam.”
The Wahhabi tradition is not alone in history in opposing the worshipping of saints, it is something common to all religions, historian Odon Vallet said.
“We can draw parallels with the Calvinist Protestants in the 16th century who ransacked Catholic churches, looting and destroying statues and buildings,” he said.
“It’s always the same ― if you have saints and next to that God, the saints diminish the saintliness of God.”
And, what does the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at teach about praying at shrines?
On 6th May 2011, Hadrat Khalīfatul Masīh V delivered the Friday
Sermon at Baitul Futuh Mosque, London.
After reciting verse 256 of Sūrah Al-Baqarah, which is translated as
“Allāh — there is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting
and All-Sustaining. Slumber seizes Him not, nor sleep. To Him
belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the
earth. Who is he that will intercede with Him except by His
permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind
them; and they encompass nothing of His knowledge except what
He pleases. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth;
and the care of them burdens Him not; and He is the High, the
Hudur said: In this age there is a growing tendency towards
worshipping saints and seeking favours by visiting their shrines. Some
people believe that the dead saints can fulfil all their wishes and some
even go to the extent of prostrating before their graves. Some women say
their child was not given to them by God but by the blessings of such and
such a saint. We, however, are fortunate for we have found the Promised
Messiah and he has guided us away from these superstitions and
onto the right path.
Hudur negated the Christian concept of salvation through
Atonement and said: For a Shafi‘, or intercessor, it is necessary that he
should first establish a perfect relationship with God and absorb His
favours before he can benefit mankind. One cannot be an intercessor
until his relationship with God and with His creation reaches the
pinnacle. In this sense, our Holy Prophet is a perfect example, for
he saved the world from spiritual and physical inferno and dragged
people out of sin and brought about a great transformation. He was the
perfect intercessor who rid his people of idolatry and transgression and
made them into a highly moral people.
Elaborating on the true philosophy of Intercession, according to the
teachings of Islām, Hudur said: The verse I have recited is known as
the chief of all verses of the Holy Qur‟ān, because it contains a very
beautiful portrayal of Divine attributes. Allāh sends His blessings on
those who gain awareness of His attributes and endeavour to purify themselves, and such are the people who merit the Holy Prophet’s intercession. It is no use depending on intercession if one does not have
full faith in God, does not offer prayers and pays no heed to Divine
commandments. To put one‟s faith in saints is also a form of idolatry. In
this verse, Allāh says that intercession can only work with His
permission and requires much worship and prayer that is performed
with utmost devotion.
Hudur said: We can only be loved by God if we follow His
Messenger . Unless we follow him, it is no use calling ourselves
believers. In order to merit his intercession we must follow his example
and place ourselves under the Qur‟ānic injunctions. The Promised
Messiah says that true purpose of intercession is to cool down the
passions of the self and to eradicate sin and disobedience and replace
them with good deeds. In short, intercession does not negate the need
for good actions—as is envisaged in the Christian doctrine of
Atonement—on the contrary, it encourages virtue and righteousness.
The Promised Messiah says, “Praying for someone can only be
helpful if he tries to improve his condition and establishes direct
communion with God. The intercession of a Prophet cannot be of use to
one who does not reform himself. The Promised Messiah has taught
us to pray, “O Allāh, send down Your blessings upon the Intercessor
whose intercession is accepted by You and who is the saviour of
The Promised Messiah says, “Now there is no Prophet and no
Intercessor for mankind other than the Holy Prophet . So do your
utmost to love this glorious Prophet .” Again he says, “Who has
attained salvation? Only he who believes truly in God and in the Holy
Prophet as the intercessor between God and mankind. There is no
Prophet like him under the heavens nor is there a book like the Holy
Hudūr prayed that may Allāh enable us to be among those who
receive Allāh‟s favours and merit His blessings. Āmīn.
Tahrīk Jadīd Anjuman Ahmadiyya Pakistan,
Dated: 12 May 2011
NOTE BY THE EDITOR: Although we do not appreciate the praying at shrines, we would not support their violent destruction. Rather we would like to explain to the Muslims (as above) our teachings and pray that Allah may open their hearts.