The Monk who helps Muslims preserve their sacred texts

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SHAFAQNA – In 2012, Islamist militants overran northern Mali, and an al Qaeda affiliate took control of Timbuktu and started destroying things. Some of the ancient structures, dating back to when Timbuktu was a center of Islamic culture, have been rebuilt, but you can’t revive burned ancient manuscripts. Luckily, a huge number of the Islamic texts Timbuktu was famous for — more than 370,000 manuscripts — were spirited out of the city in a daring rescue operation spearheaded by Abdel Kader Haidara, one of Timbuktu’s most active private librarians. They are now stored in unmarked safe houses around Bamako, Mali’s capital.

Today, a team of men and women is creating digital copies of the manuscripts, some dating back to the late 1500s, and if Haidara is one hero of the story, the other is Fr. Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in northern Minnesota and the executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. The monks of St. John’s have set up six photo studios in Bamako where Haidara’s team make digital copies of the manuscript pages, then send them on hard disk to the Hill Library, where they are backed up in multiple locations around the world.

Anyone familiar with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose knows the importance Benedictines attach to manuscripts, but Stewart tells The Economistwhy he decided to answer the call from Malian Muslims. “Benedictines are fundamentally optimistic about the human project — that’s why we’re not frightened by science or novelty,” he said. “This is the time God has given us…. We live now. And part of the reality is cultures which are threatened trying to figure out how to work together on this fragile planet.” You can read about the ecumenical partnership to save Timbuktu’s manuscripts.

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