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333: A Film on the Manuscripts of Timbuktu

(The following is a post by Marieta Harper, Area Specialist, African Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Risalah ila al-Qaba'il al-Mutaqatilin (Letter to the Warring Tribes). Alternative title: An Argument for Peace. Author/Creator: Sayyid al-Mukhtar ibn Ahmad ibn Abi Bakr al-Kunti al-Kabir. The author, a scholar and religious leader, urges warring factions to make peace and live in peace. He supports his argument with quotations from the Koran and allusions to the practice of Muhammad and his companions, which require the faithful to avoid discord, to reconcile, and to live in peace and tolerance.

“Risalah ila al-Qaba’il al-Mutaqatilin” (Letter to the Warring Tribes). Alternative title: An Argument for Peace. Author/Creator: Sayyid al-Mukhtar ibn Ahmad ibn Abi Bakr al-Kunti al-Kabir. The author, a scholar and religious leader, urges warring factions to make peace and live in peace. He supports his argument with quotations from the Koran and allusions to the practice of Muhammad and his companions, which require the faithful to avoid discord, to reconcile, and to live in peace and tolerance. African and Middle Eastern Division.

For almost a millennium, one of the world’s oldest manuscript collections has survived despite the vagaries of the weather, inadequate storage, termites, fire, theft, and wars. These are the manuscript collections of Timbuktu (a city on the edge of the Sahara Desert known as the “City of 333 Saints), which although no longer stored in Timbuktu can still be found today in Mali, in northwest Africa. They were written about every subject and discipline then considered to be important, including astrology, biology, chemistry, ethics, geography, history, jurisprudence, law, medicine, children’s rights, women’s rights, and animal rights.

Some of these manuscripts have been digitized by the Library of Congress. The African Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division in cooperation with Abdel Kader Haidara of the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, and of the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbehar, selected 32 of these manuscripts, digitized them and uploaded them on the Library’s webpage.

“Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library.” Photo by David West for Malian Manuscript Foundation © 2012. Used with permission.

The importance of Timbuktu as a center of a significant written tradition in Africa, came as a result of being situated on the crossroads for trans-Saharan trade and pilgrimage to Mecca. Many individuals traveled to this city to acquire knowledge and important books were written and copied here. As Alexandra Huddleston, a photographer, book artist and publisher who produced a photo book on Mali, observes, among many disciplines long being taught in Timbuktu was “a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism and characterized by tolerance, parity and a deep joy in and respect for learning.” “There is a profound conviction that to be a saint is to be a man or woman of knowledge, whether by long study or by divine inspiration. Therefore, to be a scholar is to be on the path to sainthood,” Huddleston points out.

A documentary film “333,” screened on August 3, 2016 at the Library, presented a view about the importance of these manuscripts in various fields, and more specifically in peace building and conflict resolution, and drew the conclusion that they are therefore relevant to the condition of the world today.

"Groups of women gather to recite hymns in praise of the Prophet Muhammad on the night of the Mawlid celebrations that commemorate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad." Huddleston, Alexandra, 1977-, photographer. Created / published April 5, 2007. Used with permission.

“Groups of women gather to recite hymns in praise of the Prophet Muhammad on the night of the Mawlid celebrations that commemorate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.” Huddleston, Alexandra, 1977-, photographer. Created / published April 5, 2007. Used with permission.

Sponsored by the Malian Manuscript Foundation and Sabatier Film Group, “333” highlights the tradition of Sufi Islamic scholars, known as “Ambassadors of Peace,” who for nearly one thousand years have sat daily before sunrise in a setting called the “Circle of Knowledge.”

According to the film, the road to becoming an Ambassador of Peace is long and arduous. It begins before a child reaches the age of five, when the pupil must pledge to study under the direction of a single scholar for a period of approximately 35 years. By age ten, each of these aspirants will speak several languages and must be able to recite the Koran from memory. By age 40, each of them must have mastered jurisprudence.

The film’s producer, Michael Covitt, explained that, “after each candidate has mastered jurisprudence, he or she must go out into the streets as a beggar in the effort to master humility. And then, provided that the scholar is in total communion with Allah, he or she will be exalted to the status of Ambassador of Peace.”

Photo by David West for Malian Manuscript Foundation © 2012. Used with permission.

According to Covitt, many ancient Malian manuscripts on a variety of subjects were written by Ambassadors of Peace. Between the 12th through 16th centuries, some 25,000 students came from around the world to study at the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). As a result, these manuscripts were written in many different languages, including some that were written in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Today when many Malian heritage sites have been destroyed due to wars and political turmoil, these manuscripts remain as the most enduring symbols of this ancient culture and civilization, and provide deep insights not only in science and philosophy, but also in conflict resolution and the bringing of peace to a troubled world.

Cover photo of the film trailer. Photo by David West for Malian Manuscript Foundation © 2010. Used with permission.

As this film is now part of the Library’s motion picture collection through copyright deposit, I should mention a number of other resources in the Library’s collections concerning the historical contribution of Islamic scholarship in Timbuktu. They include:

12 Comments

  1. charles benti
    October 26, 2016 at 9:13 am

    I have seen this film & it is a treasure. congratulations on the acquisition.
    charles / brooklyn

  2. Ritch Gaiti
    October 26, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    This film is an eye opener. The subject is fascinating and it is clear to me that history needs to be preserved.

  3. Bonnie Stone
    October 26, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    The movie “333” is a beautiful documentary about an extraordinary history of deep scholarship and spirituality in Mali that can still teach the world about peaceful conflict resolution.

    Instead of violence this film can teach us that a peaceful tradition is centuries old

  4. Doug Yeager
    October 26, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I had the privilege to attend the screening of “333” at the United Nations. It is a powerful, revealing, educational, uplifting and vitally important film. After years of exhaustive research by the team of producers and their advisers, this story and film enlightens the viewer to the peace- loving culture that has flourished in Mali for centuries (prior to the invasion in recent years from the North by terror-driven Al Quaeda-led groups that practice a bastardized and violently distorted interpretation of the Quran). Of great educational importance — for all Muslims, Jews, Christians (and other peoples around the world) to learn is how the historic Muslim society in Mali and its ancient Timbuktu ancestors have practiced a loving, peaceful and harmonious Muslim culture that values a relationship among all peoples for many centuries. Their Muslim culture teaches peace, no wars, equality among women and men, and how to resolve all disputes within the community or between different communities through a time-tested process of conflict resolution. These practices were written in ancient times, onto what is now known as the “Mali Manuscripts,” and are taught daily to the young children of Mali (girls and boys alike). Hundreds of these manuscripts were destroyed with the Al-Quaeda invasion, but many were saved by the peoples of Mali, who buried them deep underground. The teachers of the words and practices found in these manuscripts, have been referred to through the centuries, as “The Ambassadors of Peace.” All peoples around the world, needs to see and learn from “333,” and spread the word that there is a beautiful form of Islam that has been practiced for centuries that is diametrically opposed to what Wahhabism teaches and what Al-Quaeda, Boco Haram, ISIL practice. I urge everyone to go out and see “333,” wherever it may be playing…and spread the word.

  5. Sharon Marantz Walsh
    October 27, 2016 at 6:13 am

    Bravo Michael Covit, your film has captured a moment in time, both past and present.
    In these times of turmoil, we must pause and embrace the lessons taught by these ancient manuscripts if we are ever going to live in peace and in harmony with one and other.

  6. Chris Mitchell
    October 27, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    After viewing the film, all I can say, is that it has portrayed ancient African history. that has been lost but know comes to life.

  7. Kenny Mann
    October 27, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    RE: Library of Congress.

    I want to thank you for the article & information, it was very informative. I appreciate your efforts in collecting this information and getting it out to the public. The information provided is both informative & enlighten, we in Las Vegas, NV appreciate the material, it will be very useful in helping us better understand.

  8. Michael J. Weber
    October 27, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Some things are as obvious as the nose on your face. But you have to look in a mirror to see it. Such is the case of Michael Covitt’s 333. The Malian culture diagnosed the pitfalls of competitive religeosity centuries ago and exemplified how coexistence can nullify war.

  9. Sandy Gooch
    October 27, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    “333” is an inspiring film that educates and informs people about important ancient history by showing the content and meaning of the centuries-old Malian Manuscripts. This amazing film shows that the platform of the Quran is one of peace, humility and, eventually, jurisprudence.

    Producer of “333”, Michael Covitt, is a dedicated genius and has brought to viewers a rare opportunity to learn and understand the true history and platform of Islam.

    With the knowledge, information and passion that Michael Covitt has provided in ‘333’ there is the ability for anyone who sees the film to share with others the profound message of harmony the film offers.

    Thank you, Michael, for your brilliant and penetrating film.

  10. Ted Henderson
    October 27, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    “333” is an important film – displaying the roots of Islam as a true religion of peace. Eye opening. Sad. Hopeful. All kinds of emotions come into play when watching this film. Certainly relevant in today’s difficult global landscape. Bravo Michael Covitt for your long and dedicated passion to this project.

  11. Thomas Volpe
    October 29, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Michael your dedication to this project to bring important awareness to the Malian Manuscripts has been incredible . Lets hope the world hears this and takes action to protect them .

  12. Georgette Dorn
    November 18, 2016 at 9:34 am

    This is a remarkable resource. Thanks for sharing it with the whole world.

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