Since 2003, Father Columba Stewart has traveled to conflict zones in a race to preserve, first through microfilm and now through digitization, the world’s most threatened religious manuscripts. Recently Fr. Stewart has focused his efforts on Mali, where traditional Islamic manuscripts are threatened by extremists. In an effort to build trust among local religious leaders, Fr. Stewart plans to travel to Gao and Djenné, both cultural centers of North African Islam.
Reporting for Harper’s, Fred Bahnson will follow Fr. Stewart into the dusty mosques of the Sahel, where Sufi scholars pour over brittle calfskin pages, sip mint tea, and debate whether or not to trust the stranger in their midst, a monk who is offering to digitize, and thereby protect, their most sacred books. They know that if the U.N. were to withdraw from Mali, another incursion by militants would soon follow, and the texts they hold dear could be destroyed.
When at his home monastery of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he directs the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (www.hmml.org), Fr. Stewart wears the traditional black habit, but as he describes it, “the Benedictine tradition of preserving human thought for the contemporary world requires a more versatile wardrobe, one adapted to the desert of Timbuktu, the combat environment of Mosul, or the secular environment of the modern academy.”
This is a story about Christianity and Islam, and how a centuries-old standoff is being overcome through the collaborative protection of texts. A Benedictine monk and his Islamic counterparts are partnering to preserve these “arks of culture,” as Fr. Stewart calls them, and in so doing they are pointing toward the humanistic impulse of word-care that lies at the heart of both religions.