When is it OK to burn Islamic texts?

We've been critiquing the good and bad coverage of what's been happening to Mali in recent months. The latest news is about how fleeing Islamists destroyed a library in Timbuktu. Here's the Associated Press:

SEVARE, Mali - Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali's fabled desert city.

Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

"It's truly alarming that this has happened," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali's capital, Bamako, on Monday. "They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people."

The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute , a library rich with historical documents , in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.

Reporting out of Mali has been difficult and I'm so thankful for all those who are doing just that. Here's Reuters:

The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali's desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO said it was trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a modern building that contains priceless documents dating back to the 13th century.

The manuscripts are "uniquely valuable and testify to a long tradition of learning and cultural exchange," said UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan. "So we are horrified."

But if they are horrified, historians and religious scholars are unlikely to have been surprised by this gesture of defiance by Islamist rebels fleeing the ancient trading post on the threshold of the Sahara as French and Malian troops moved in.

"It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world," said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

"It's pure retaliation. They knew they were losing the battle and they hit where it really hurts," she told Reuters.

OK. Do you have the same question I have at this point?

I'm wondering why some Islamists riot and kill over inadvertent Quran and Islamic text burning (such as what we looked at 10 months ago in Afghanistan here and here) while others would set fire to a library containing same.

The Reuters story in particular gives us much helpful information about the religious nature of the conflict in Mali. It tells us at one point:

The militants from the Malian Ansar Dine militant group that occupied Timbuktu (the name means Defenders of the Faith in Arabic) espouse an uncompromising version of Islam that rejects what it sees as idolatry and aims to destroy all traces of it.

This is a good way of explaining the Ansar Dine's position when it comes to the shrines they're destroying. But is that also a defense for the library torching? Is it considered Islamic or unIslamic (compromising or otherwise) to burn these Islamic texts?

I'm not just asking in a way that would seem to be pointing out hypocrisy. It's just a genuine question I have and a huge ghost in this story. Does Ansar Dine have an Islamic defense? What is it? I hope that as the damage to this library is further revealed, we get some answers.

Quran photo via Shutterstock.

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