Significance of the Manuscripts

The manuscripts shed light on African history and have potential to influence contemporary Malian society and the world beyond. They hold tremendous scholarly, diplomatic as well as economic significance.

1. Scholarly Significance of the Manuscripts

To this day there are living scholars in Timbuktu descended from a long lineage dedicated to the preservation, study and teaching of the manuscripts. These scholars belong to the ‘Circle of Knowledge’ a centuries-old committee comprised of the most knowledgeable Muslim Imams, scholars, and professors in Timbuktu. Also known as 'Ambassadors of Peace' they are best equipped to interpret the manuscripts for our times. These living scholars possess the deepest understanding of manuscripts content and are convinced that their potential usefulness to pressing social issues in Mali have not yet been tapped.

Charles C. Stewart, History Professor at the University of Illinois, USA, noted that materials like those uncovered in Mali support scholars who battle the older image of Africa as a continent where civilization was unknown before the coming of the European. They are the building blocks for redressing the racism still inherent in many Westerner’s views of Africa.

The ‘discovery’ of the Timbuktu manuscripts is like that of the Dead-Sea Scroll, or you could think of it as like coming upon another Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that gave us a new view of the early history of England - Rex Sean O’Fahey, Professor of History, University of Bergen, Norway

I was in Timbuktu, and a young man who knew my interest in African history invited me to see the family library. Leading me into a small room in his modest house, the man lifted the lid on an old trunk filled with manuscripts. By the third one, my eyes were popping out of my head…. I’d never seen anything quite like them before. Nor had any other Westerner-and, precisely for that reason, the contents of that trunk are expected to profoundly alter long-accepted views of African history and civilization, many shaped by racial prejudice rather than scientific inquiry. Even among scholars, Africa often is dismissed as a continent lacking written records, one of the hallmarks of civilizations - John Hunwick, Professor of History and Religion, Northwestern University

2. Diplomatic Significance of the Manuscripts

The manuscripts provide evidence that traditional African thought and Islamic faith, through the efforts of the African scholars, successfully guided leaders of former Malian empires in governance based on tolerance, the multi-ethnic state and peaceful means for resolving conflicts. This cultural legacy in sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly Mali, is predominantly dormant now but poised for a revival through the manuscripts. Today, international recognition of this highly developed, peaceful African, cultural and Islamic legacy is needed perhaps more than ever before in history.

(The manuscripts are) an eloquent testimony of the important role Mali played in regional commerce during the period of the ancient empires. Through our support of this project (‘Day of the Book’ event in Bamako), the government and people of the United States would like to show support for the culture and traditions of Mali and for these treasures of Islam - Michael E. Ranneberger, United States Ambassador to Mali

The Malian government has preserved and translated (a few selected) Islamic manuscripts from Timbuktu written in the 13th and 14th centuries teaching tolerance and conflict resolution. The ancient manuscripts were on display January 10 at the American Cultural Center in Bamako – Statement from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia that chose to celebrate the exhibition of manuscripts in Mali

In a report from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Robin Poulton and Ibrahim Youssouf reflect on the continuing political and ethnic tensions in northern Mali.

Following the 1991-1992 revolution that brought in a democratic government, the new President was faced with … (on-going civil conflict in) the North. Realizing further violence would only dismantle their fragile government, President Konare encouraged a system whereby communities of the region spearheaded a plan to not only disarm rebel troops but also encourage their reintroduction into society. Such community-based peace actions have not only been a source of empowerment for communities but have also encouraged the growth of local peace-building processes to maintain the peace. However, to maintain the peace measures are still needed which can address better management of and access to resources and investment in the infrastructure of the country. By ending insecurity in resources and by building community action, there is potential for a long-term peace.

The writers point out that tensions in the north have diminished but are still simmering. Hundreds of people, predominantly Tamashek but Songhay as well, were killed. Tens of thousand were displaced as refugees to cities and surrounding countries. It was a conflict that created bloodshed among diverse peoples who for centuries lived together in peace and harmony tolerating their differences under the strong guidance of their traditions. Rallying all peoples of the region today around the manuscripts as a common cultural heritage will help them move past differences and cultivate together the economic opportunities that manuscripts preservation and promotion can offer the region. Attention must be placed on the urban centers as well as rural villages and nomadic encampments where indigenous traditions and lifeways are still most evident and best preserved.

3. Economic & Social Significance of the Manuscripts

These texts can be the catalyst for economic development in northern Mali by re-establishing book industry employment in the areas of manuscripts conservation, research and eventually publishing and printing. Stabilizing and rebuilding the cultural heritage sites will provide further employment as well as the improving the capacity of the former university structures to house book-related activities. In addition, increased national and international interest in Timbuktu will result in a dramatic rise in tourism and demand for crafts by local artisans and musicians.

As the physical and human infrastructure re-builds, a revived University of Timbuktu is possible, with both its fixed centers and ambulant scholars. It could provide training to Malians and Africans throughout the continent with specialization, as in the past, on the philosophy and practices of authentic African approaches to fair and peaceful management of governments and commerce. The University would thus fully re-unite the main economic pillars of the Timbuktu economy, namely learning and commerce. Long-term it could be a key to sparking greater integrity, effectiveness and confidence in African governance and business.

Economic activities in manuscripts preservation, publishing, tourism and, commodities exports can indeed begin to flourish in the north on a level perhaps unmatched since the 16th century. While these are realistic expectations, to assure that the peoples of the region benefit rather than just the few or overseas interests, a clear set of economic policies need to be developed and enforced. In its Mandate issued to the THI in June 2002, the Malian government recognizes the risks of inappropriate exploitation, and expects that THI develop and practice such policies.