Let me confess at the outset: I don’t know much about Islam. But I read a book by Wade Davis that had a very interesting story about Islam based on his personal experience. It was not based on versions of Islam from its competitors–the worst possible source for information.

After 9/11 Davis wanted to do a story for an American audience on Islam. He felt they had to understand Islam, before they saw Islam as the “infinite other”. To do that he travelled to Timbuktu a port on the southern side of the Sea of Sand that is the Western Sahara. Timbuktu is a remarkable place. At a time when London and Paris were mud hovels Timbuktu had 25,000 University students!

As Davis explained on the CBC show Ideas in 2018,

“The only reason the ancient knowledge of the ancient Greeks survived to inspire the Renaissance was because it was kept alive in the knowledge of the Great Islamic scholars of places like Timbuktu, Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. There was a trade of knowledge up the traditional route. Remember that until the discovery of the New World 2/3 of Europe’s gold came from West Africa overland 52 days across the Sahara and that was the route we decided to follow to an ancient Salt Mine called Pudeni where the salt was not just a condiment, but profoundly curative. Salt that at one day traded ounce for ounce for gold in that west African trade.”


This was an important journey for young men. If they did not complete the journey to the mine they were not allowed to marry. The people believed that the desert honed their senses and in that way they became open to the grace of Allah. The mine itself was a 1,000 km north and they had to travel with a heavily armed escort, which seemed to grow in size everyday.

At the mine Davis met a man who was chronologically younger than him, but physically much older. He was worn out from working in the mine. He was there to pay off a debt he incurred to save the life of a young daughter.  He would have to work in the mine for the rest of his life in order to pay off that debt to a merchant in a form of indentured servitude. He was virtually a slave.  Even in summer he worked when it got so hot in the mine it was said the heat would melt sand. In the 800-year history of the mine he was the only one who had to work summers. It broke his spirit. His entire debt was less than the cost of a dinner for 3 in Toronto so Davis paid it for him, but he never learned whether or not the man found his way back to his family or not.

A little further south Davis encountered a caravan going north. There were 8 young men with 15 camels that consisted of all the wealth of the families. It took 40 days to get to the mine and they had no margin of error. They were completely out of food and down to their last half litre of water and 250 miles from the nearest well. Without food a person can last for up to 2 weeks. Without water a person in the desert will die within a few hours. Yet when Davis came down to their camp, they immediately started a twig fire to brew them a cup of tea honoring the obligation to kill the last goat that keeps your children alive with its milk to feed the wandering stranger who comes into your camp at night. “This is the essence of Bedouin life, because you never know when you’ll be that stranger, cold and hungry coming out of the darkness in need of rescue.  And as I watched this young Mohamed pour me that first cup of tea after all we had heard about Islamic culture in the wake of 9/11, I thought to myself in 50 years or 40 years of doing this kind of travel and field work these are the moments that allow us all to hope.”

Is there a finer example of the Golden Rule than that? Is there a better example of connection, charity, empathy, and fellow feeling than that? Is this not the essence of religion? Or do you think the essence is belief?

3 thoughts on “Islam

  1. a few minor quibbles………..
    the sephardic and maghrebi muslims in spain were also crucial to the rescue of greek philosophy and thought. (and by the way that salvation carried some considerable ambiguity for christians.)
    i don’t think that islam was the only factor at play in desert hospitality. desert societies also recognized that sharing was integral to survival, period. religion was not necessarily the foundation, maybe more like confirmation and elaboration of mutuality.
    all over the world the poorest share in ways that the petit/bourgeoisie do not.

  2. These are very astute comments.I don’t deny that there is more to it than religion, but a religion that is largely reviled in the west has some very good aspects to it. It is odd how often the poorest of the poor are willing to share while wealthy people (like us) are much more reluctant to do that. Why is that? What you say of desert societies can also be said of far northern societies.Even North America when Europeans first contacted the indigenous people.

    1. correction – i articulated my sense of spain poorly, even omitting a key word, jews.
      the thrust of the comment was intended to speak to jews and muslims of north african origin in spain who were crucial to maintaining greek scholarship in europe.

      the issue of mutuality among the disenfranchised is a matter of survival.

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