UNDER my stewardship as minister of arts and culture, SA funded the construction of modern archive facilities at the Ahmed Baba Library, trained several Malian archivists and provided the storage boxes to help preserve the fragile medieval paper. The department also sponsored conferences and a task team bringing together North African, West African, South African and European scholars to translate and study the manuscripts. Translation, under the leadership of Shamil Jeppie of the University of Cape Town, will teach us much about the late Middle Ages in Africa.

I was, consequently, filled with intense anxiety when unconfirmed reports about the pillage of that library reached us last week. I was equally relieved watching French President Francois Hollande inspecting it in the presence of TV cameras.

The emergence and rapid growth of the new religion founded by the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century was probably one of the more important transformative movements that shaped world history. Islam left an indelible impression on what was then known as the "old world" of the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and Africa.

Its effect on these societies may be measured by the extent of the empire the Muslims established. Within 50 years of the prophet’s death in 632 CE, Islam spanned two continents, from the shores of the Atlantic in the west to the borderlands of India in the east. Contrary to a view prevalent in the West, Islam’s abiding historical influence owed more to its cultural effects than to the sword. The speed with which it was adopted betrays the moribund character of the societies it penetrated. Islam was the religion of thriving urban-centred communities inhabited by merchants, guilds of craftsmen and artisans, scholars, jurists, poets and writers.

The teachings of the prophet extolled industry, thrift, cleanliness, imposed a number of disciplines and enjoined charity among his followers. The Muslims were also avid traders who dominated both the Indian Ocean trade routes as well as the land routes across Asia and Africa into western Europe. The Mediterranean, once dominated by the fleets of Rome and Byzantium, was transformed into a Muslim lake for 500 years. The opulence of the courts in Andalusia, Spain and those of the sultanates of Indonesia, were possible thanks to indigenous artisans but also to the rich transcontinental trade routes controlled by Muslim merchants. Africa is the site of one of the earliest Muslim communities, predating the prophet’s emigration from Mecca to Medina. Many more African lands, north and south of the Sahara, came under the sway of Islam during its westward expansion. The Maghreb became the staging post for the invasion of the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, Corsica and parts of Italy. From 711 CE until late into the 1400s, Spain and various parts of the Iberian peninsula were under the domination of the Moors from Africa.

During its golden age, the community of the faithful embraced blonde Caucasians from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia; Africans of a multitude of hues from pitch black to tan; Mongoloid Uighurs, Indonesians and Malays; Indians, Persians as well as the Arabs. The peace, prosperity and progress of these Muslim territories was disrupted by Christian aggression, orchestrated from Europe, during the Crusades in the 12th century. It was armies drawn from this tapestry of humanity that faced the equally diverse Crusader armies at the gates of Jerusalem.

As part of this multiracial, cosmopolitan Muslim world, the intellectuals of the kingdoms of Africa, including Mali and Songhay, contributed to its scholarship and research in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, zoology and botany. They engaged in its philosophical debates and participated in the jurisprudential disputes amongst Muslims scholars.

Situated at the crossroads between the eastern and western savannah and along the camel routes that connected the Mediterranean with the Gulf of Guinea, Timbuktu, in the Songhay Empire, grew into a prosperous centre of learning, where scientists, mathematicians, physicians, jurists and philosophers congregated to practise their craft and hone their skills. They preserved their ideas, the results of their work and their thoughts in leather-encased manuscripts, which have survived the ages. These manuscripts are a small sample of wealth of human knowledge debated, studied and stored by the intellectuals of West Africa during a gilded age.

These historic manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba library of Timbuktu came to international attention thanks to the intervention of former president Thabo Mbeki, who launched an international appeal for funds to rescue these treasures from Africa’s past from the termites and the elements that threatened to reduce them to a pile of dust.

Because he immediately recognised their significance both to Africa and to humanity at large, Mbeki committed SA to the preservation and dissemination of these writings as one of the first projects of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

An outer veneer of piety conceals the barbarism latent in all religious fundamentalism. "Ironic" does not capture the paradox of a secular South African government spending millions of rand to preserve the best examples of Islamic scholarship in Africa against threats from a movement that claims to advance an Islamic agenda.

Jordan is former arts and culture minister.