Catholic monks part of a secret mission to Islamic treasures

Posted by Katie Loftus
Sunday 24, April 2016 | Category:   Ecumenism,Church History,Scripture,Consecrated Life
More than 370,000 manuscripts were secretly smuggled out of Timbuktu to save them from destruction by militants. A monastery in Minnesota is digitizing the texts to preserve them.

The Benedictine Monks of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN, led by Fr. Columba Steward, O.S.B. and the staff at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Libray, are helping to preserve precious Islamic literary works that were threatened with destruction by militants in Mali, reports The Economist.

The secret evacuations began at night. Ancient books were packed in small metal shoe-lockers and loaded three or four to a car to reduce the danger to the driver and minimise possible losses. The manuscript-traffickers passed through the checkpoints of their Islamist occupiers on the journey south across the desert from Timbuktu to Bamako. Later, when that road was blocked, they transported their cargo down the Niger river by canoe. 

The man behind the project was Abdel Kader Haidara. In 2013 he put out a request for help to digitize the more than 370,000 manuscripts, including Korans, Hadiths, and studies on grammar and rhetoric, that were brought to safe houses. He received an answer from a monastery on the other side of the world.

Father Columba sees digitizing these sacred texts as part of the Benedictine tradition of literary preservation dating from the sixth century when St. Benedict of Nursia set down his Rule. “We had scriptoria for very practical reasons,” referring to the “writing places” of medieval European monasteries. “You can’t do theology without philosophy,” he says, standing in his own 21st-century equivalent. “You can’t try to be a self-sustaining monastery if you can’t take science seriously.” So, as a policy, any relevant text was copied. Over one and a half millennia, knowledge has been a matter of survival for the Benedictines, allowing one collective to pick up where another left off, in low times and in high. Today, thanks to machines, the library is copying more efficiently.

“Benedictines are fundamentally optimistic about the human project, says Fr. Columba. "That’s why we’re not frightened by science or novelty. When people look at what we’re doing with Muslim communities, they say, why do you do this? I say, this is the time God has given us. We can’t pretend we live in the sixth century when Benedict wrote his rule, or the 13th, or the 1950s. 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.” 

And so, "guided by a Christian teacher from the sixth century, monks of the 21st century archive texts about an Arabian prophet from the seventh." 

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