Courtesy of Ismaël Diadié Haïdara
A Lasting Legacy
It’s a long way — physically and mentally — from the tree-filled Northwestern campus to the dry, dusty streets of Timbuktu, Mali. But Professor John Hunwick has shifted easily between these worlds throughout his career, and now he’s helping others do the same.
He was the driving force behind the creation of the University’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, the first research center of its kind in the United States. Recognizing that the study of Islam often ignores Africa — and that African studies programs often ignore the role of Muslims — Hunwick sees the institute as a way to shed light on this neglected part of religious history.
Started in 2001 with a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation, the institute has raised the profile of Islamic African scholarship by hosting seminars and conferences, fostering the publication of academic work and providing fellowships for Africans to study at Northwestern.
“We’re making people look at Africa in a different way,” says Hunwick. “It’s not only a reflection of my own work. It has brought in so many other people, and I’m very happy with the contacts we’ve made.”
Richard Joseph, director of Northwestern’s Program of African Studies, says that this intellectual give-and-take has been an integral part of Hunwick’s career. “During the many years he spent teaching in several African universities, he helped nurture two generations of scholars,” says Joseph. “Because of his legendary accessibility to scholars right up to the present, his influence has spread far and wide.”
The institute has been so successful that it is expanding its mission beyond Islamic intellectual traditions and writings. This fall the newly renamed Institute of the Study of Islam in Africa will examine the complex role of Islam in African societies and the relationship between Africa’s Muslim communities and the rest of the Muslim and non-Muslim world.
The institute’s focus is more relevant than ever, says Joseph. “At a time when world events have brought to the awareness of many Americans their lack of knowledge of Islam and Islamic societies,” he says, “Northwestern is playing a leading role in addressing an even more woeful area of ignorance: the deep history of Islam in Africa and the diversity and vitality of Muslim communities throughout the continent.” — E.C.B.