John Hunwick

Photo by Bill Arsenault

Images above, the last and first pages of a copy of the Koran copied in 1423. These pages and others like them make up the more than 2,000 manuscripts housed at the Fondo Kati Library in Timbuktu, Mali.

Courtesy of John Hunwick


A Lasting Legacy

John Hunwick works with a researcher in Timbuktu.

Photo by Alida Boye/Courtesy of Fondo Kati Library

Take one look at the eclectic group of people gathered in a conference room at Norris University Center, and it’s clear this isn’t your standard student-group gathering. An African woman with braids twisted up in a bun chats in French with a frizzy-haired, fair-skinned woman. An undergrad wearing a tank top, shapeless floral skirt and flip-flops settles into a chair behind a woman wearing a head scarf and a long-sleeved, knee-length tailored jacket over a long skirt; her nametag announces that she is from Senegal.

This gathering is part of a two-day colloquium organized by the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, a division of Northwestern’s Program of African Studies. This afternoon, John Hunwick, professor emeritus of history, is scheduled to lead a panel, but it’s 2:40 p.m., 10 minutes after the panel was supposed to begin, and he still hasn’t appeared. Hushed conversations continue as people glance discreetly at the door, wondering where he is.

Then Hunwick bustles through the door, pausing a moment to lean on a cane and catch his breath. His slightly disheveled outfit — a worn herringbone jacket over a polo shirt — is that of the stereotypical academic. But from the neck up, he could pass for the soldier he once was: close-cropped white hair, an immaculately trimmed goatee, eyes that dart through the room from behind his glasses, taking it all in.

“Sorry to be late coming to Purdue,” he says, referring to the Purdue Room, the space where the conference is being held. “Mais je n’ais pas perdu [But I didn’t get lost].” His French pun provokes laughter from the group, setting a relaxed mood for this afternoon’s session.

The colloquium’s title, “Gender and Islam in Africa: Discourses, Practices and Empowerment of Women,” seems to promise the sort of dense academic jargon that induces snores in all but the most devoted Africanist experts. But when the three panelists — all female academics — begin to speak, their stories are powerfully human. One woman discusses how popular music in Somalia reflected that country’s growing modernization in the 1960s and ’70s (one songwriter sang disapprovingly about “modern” women: “You tuck up your dresses baring the backs of your knees”). Another tells the story of a woman in Niger who has become one of the country’s leading religious figures thanks to her commentaries on TV and radio shows. The third panelist talks about the steady erosion of women’s rights in Sudan in the 1990s — which she witnessed firsthand, at some danger to herself. These panelists have studied different women in different countries, but their work shares common themes: the role of religion in traditional cultures and the changing nature of African society. And thanks to Hunwick, Northwestern is one of the few universities in the United States where these kinds of stories are regularly heard.

Hunwick, who has taught both religion and history at Northwestern since 1981, is known internationally as one of the foremost experts on Islamic Africa. According to Christopher Murphy, a specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, Hunwick’s work “certainly forms a basis for any discussion of Islam in West Africa.” (Hunwick was a panelist for a Library of Congress symposium on “Islam in Africa” in 2002.)

These days, with Muslim regimes at the forefront of current events, most Americans associate Islam with the Middle East — and some erroneously think of it as a “primitive” religion that somehow promotes terrorism. But in fact, there is a rich Islamic history in Africa, and Islamic writers there were producing scholarly manuscripts while most of Europe was still stuck in the Middle Ages. Hunwick has made it his mission to not only bring the history of Islamic Africa to light, but to preserve it for the future.

“There’s a lot more to Africa than song and dance,” he says. Despite almost 25 years in the United States, his accent is still recognizably British, as is his understated way of describing his groundbreaking work. He considers his words carefully before speaking; at times, he rubs his hand over his forehead as if literally massaging his thoughts. He certainly doesn’t come across as a trailblazer. But perhaps his low-key manner is what makes African historians open their libraries to him and entrust him with conserving their treasures. “We think of Africa as a culture of talking, not writing,” Hunwick says. “Part of my ambition has been to show that many black Africans wrote and thought. They had educational traditions.”

Not that he knew anything about those traditions when he first went to Africa 50 years ago. Back then he was Lt. Hunwick, fresh out of officer training camp in his native England and stationed in Somalia. Son of a Methodist minister, he had already been accepted to St. John’s College at Oxford, where he planned to study French and German. But while serving what was then required military service, as a British officer supervising Somali troops, something happened that sent his life spiraling in another direction. He became friendly with some of the Somali troops and gradually learned to talk to them in their native language. And he found himself fascinated by both their language — which was similar to Arabic — and their religion.

“The Somalis were very pleasant people,” Hunwick says. “They seemed to be very genuine about their beliefs. They said prayers five times a day. They recited parts of the Koran in a special way — it was all very sincere.” He wanted to know what was in the Koran that inspired such devotion and decided that if he was going to read the Koran, it might as well be in the original language. So after leaving the army, he decided to study Arabic. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says, “I just wanted to learn it.”

Which he did. But graduating with an honors degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London wasn’t enough. He was proficient in written “classical” Arabic, but the spoken language was something else entirely. “Every area speaks a different dialect,” he says. “A Moroccan farmer meeting an Iraqi farmer couldn’t talk to him. They could barely even greet each other.” To really be proficient in Arabic, he would have to go somewhere and learn how to speak it. Hunwick spent a year in the Sudan teaching English, then took a job as a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He was on his way to an academic career. Then came the discovery that changed everything.

In the early 1960s, Hunwick came across an Arabic manuscript collection in the northern Nigerian town of Kano. Amazed by the extent of the writings, he began microfilming the manuscripts, knowing that with time these delicate papers could deteriorate and eventually disappear. He would do his part — however small — to preserve them for future generations. Through future teaching positions in Accra, Ghana; Cairo; and London, Hunwick kept thinking about those manuscripts, wondering how many more collections were hidden out there, waiting to be studied. Eventually, in 1981, he was recruited to Northwestern by John Paden, then director of the Program of African Studies, whom Hunwick had known in Africa. For Hunwick, the University’s Arabic and African manuscript collections in the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies were a major draw. (Herskovits, the library’s namesake and legendary anthropologist, founded Northwestern’s Program of African Studies in 1948.) “The African library here is the best one I can ever imagine,” he says.

But even as he admired the manuscripts at Northwestern, Hunwick remembered the papers he had seen in Africa: stored haphazardly, uncataloged, overlooked by many scholars because no one had ever published information about them. Previous catalogs of Arabic writing had mostly ignored Africa (as Hunwick admits, “Even throughout the Arabic world, they don’t think of Africa as being Muslim.”) Why not, he thought, right the imbalance by putting together a catalog of West African Arabic writers? He would be able to do that in a one-volume book.

He had no idea.

Forty years later, that one-volume bibliography has grown into a massive six-volume masterpiece. As more and more manuscripts have come to light, the project — now known as Arabic Literature of Africa — gradually expanded to include more works and more territory. Hunwick teamed up with R. Sean O’Fahey, professor in non-European history at the University of Bergen, Norway. The two men divided up the work between them: Hunwick would cover the writers of western Africa; O’Fahey would tackle eastern regions. (In addition to his position in Norway, O’Fahey is now an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern.) The first four volumes — two of them around 800 pages long — have been published, and Hunwick will spend the next few years completing volumes five and six. This decades-long project has been daunting, exhausting and demanding — truly a life’s work. “It’s been the most important part of my career,” says Hunwick.

But that career has held a number of other highlights as well. He has taught undergraduate classes (including Introduction to Islam) and worked with graduate students who today are scattered all over the globe. His book Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Ta’rikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other Contemporary Documents, a translation of a 17th-century history of the Songhay empire in western Africa, won the best text prize from the African Studies Association in 2001. Then there were the conferences throughout the world, along with visits to Africa. In the 1970s, he was part of a group that helped establish the first research library in the legendary city of Timbuktu, in present-day Mali. But most historic Arabic literature still remained hidden (a recent New York Times article estimated that Timbuktu’s library held only 10 to 15 percent of the region’s historical manuscripts.) During a 1999 trip to Timbuktu, Hunwick made a thrilling discovery. Ismaël Diadié Haïdara, a descendant of the 16th-century historian Mahmoud Kati, invited Hunwick to see his personal library, a collection of manuscripts that had been passed down in his family and were now stored in a trunk.

Hunwick was astounded. The trunk contained Arabic manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, including everything from prayers and poems to legal documents. Because the price of paper was so high, one writer scribbled random notes about the weather and local current events in the margins — providing historical tidbits that hadn’t been recorded anywhere else. The manuscripts provide glimpses of history that were previously unknown — but they had never been cataloged, organized or studied by anyone outside the family.

Hunwick agreed to help preserve the manuscripts, and today the collection is housed in the Fondo Kati Library in Timbuktu. Alida Boye, an American who oversees the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Oslo in Norway, describes Hunwick as “a marvel.”

“When we are in Mali, particularly in Timbuktu, there are always scholars waiting in the hall outside his room to get a word with him,” she says. “He always takes the time to pay a visit to their libraries, discussing in Arabic every small detail in the manuscripts — a date, a reference, a marginal note — those small details which can only be interpreted by someone who knows and understands the context. When I visited Rabat [the capital of Morocco], everyone I met at Bibliothèque Générale, Mohamed V University and the Institute for African Studies had worked with John for years and had enormous respect for him.”

Through all his work — the teaching, the travel, the books — Hunwick has worked toward the same goal: helping others appreciate the rich intellectual traditions he has admired for so many years. Although he retired from teaching this spring, he won’t be disappearing from campus. He plans to continue his research, work with colleagues at the Program of African Studies and make his expertise available when needed. “I want to continue helping graduate students whenever possible,” he says. He will stay involved with the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa.

These days, Hunwick is passing on his knowledge to an even younger generation. A father of five, he says his most rewarding off-campus role is that of grandfather. He and his wife, Uwa, a dramatist and artist whom he met in Nigeria, have four grandchildren who live in Evanston, and 12-year-old Jessica has already shown an interest in African history. Hunwick enjoys sitting with her in his basement library, showing her souvenirs of his African travels. He even gave her a copy of his 400-page book Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. “It’s a bit much for her now,” he says with a smile. “But she seemed fascinated by it. I hope she will read it one day.”

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

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