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Rebacca Shereikis

Exploring the Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Africa

The Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University


Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)
Program of African Studies
Northwestern University
620 Library Place
Evanston, IL 60208-4110
external linkWebsite

ISITA Coordinator:
Rebacca Shereikis
phone +1 (847) 491-7323
fax +1 (847) 491-3739
emailafrican-studies @northwestern.edu

1 The Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) was founded in 2000 by John O. Hunwick (History and Religion, Northwestern University) and R. Séan O'Fahey (History, University of Bergen and Northwestern), who have collaborated for many years to achieve a better understanding of African Islamic thought. Over ten years ago, they embarked on the Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) project, and in the mid-1990s published the first two volumes of this guide to the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa. Encouraged by the international network of scholars with whom they came into contact, and inspired by the enormous potential of Arabic manuscript collections in Africa, they decided to create an Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa. ISITA's primary goal is to make the study of Africa's Islamic intellectual tradition a regular element in African studies, and in the process, reshape our understanding of African and Islamic history.
2 This work could also inform and contribute research on African philosophy and its history. Its provides references to historical and contemporary texts by African Islamic thinkers, thus documenting various schools of thought within Muslim Africa, and also specific reflections of individual intellectuals on social life. Philosophers engaged in African and comparative philosophy could find this very useful, either to follow up on the full scope of the African intellectual heritage, or to explore particular strands of Islamic discourse and debate in Africa.
3 In January 2001, ISITA received a grant of just over one million dollars from the Ford Foundation to fund a four-year project entitled, »Exploring the Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Africa.« ISITA is housed at the Program of African Studies (PAS) at Northwestern University, which provides meeting and office space and administrative support. Hunwick and O'Fahey serve as Director and Executive Director respectively.

Project Significance and Goals

»Very large collections of written sources do exist, going back for a millennium or more. And unlike most of the Christian (with the exception of Ethiopia) and oral historical sources, these are the direct and contemporary expressions of the faithful themselves.« 4 Islam is the most widely practiced religion in Africa, having first been brought to sub-Saharan Africa more than a thousand years ago. It has had active scholarly and literary traditions in this region since at least the fifteenth century. Yet, the study of Islam in Africa as a religion and a system of thought and belief has been neglected by comparison with research on the history and sociology of African Muslim polities or movements. Additionally, until very recently, sources in the Arabic language, and in African languages written in the Arabic script, have played a minor role in scholarly syntheses of the continent's life of the mind and heart, even though they express the concerns and aspirations of millions of Muslims all over the continent. Very large collections of written sources do exist, going back for a millennium or more. And unlike most of the Christian (with the exception of Ethiopia) and oral historical sources, these are the direct and contemporary expressions of the faithful themselves. They therefore offer unique opportunities, not only to study written work from what has often been depicted as an »oral continent,« but to trace out the voices, the intellects and the communities of belief of those who created the Muslim intellectual tradition in Africa.
5 The project goals, as stated in the original grant proposal, are as follows:
1. Continuing the preservation, cataloging and preliminary study of the manuscript collections recently recovered in Timbuktu, Zanzibar and elsewhere.
2. The creation of international collegial networks and collaborative scholarship on aspects of Muslim intellectual and spiritual creativity in Africa, as distinct from its political history.
3. The publication of works on key themes in African intellectual history, and thereby the re-examination of the internal dynamics of Islam in Africa, its changing relationship to Islam elsewhere, and its influence on the continent as a whole.
6 Regarding the first goal, it is important to note that while ISITA hopes to help coordinate the physical conservation of Africa's Islamic literary heritage through the scholarly exploitation of that literature, funding from the Ford Foundation has been provided primarily to support a program whose focus is visiting fellowships and scholarly colloquia. While ISITA's directors may act as consultants for preservation projects, at this point, ISITA's mandate does not itself include undertaking the preservation, cataloguing, or digitizing of African Islamic manuscripts.

Areas of Inquiry

J.O. Hunwick / R.S. O'Fahey (eds.):
Arabic Literature of Africa.
6 volumes.
Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Brill Academic Publishers:
external linkSeries
7 The Ford Foundation grant covers a four-year period (January 2001 through June 2004). Each year focuses on a major theme, chosen both because of its intrinsic importance, and its relation to other projects:
Year 1 (January 2001 – June 2001): The Constitution of Islamic Traditions;
Year 2 (September 2001 – June 2002): Muslim Commentaries on the State;
Year 3 (September 2002 – June 2003): A Muslim Intellectual Elite: Innovation and Leadership in the Sudanese Tradition;
Year 4 (September 2003 – June 2004): Mysticism, Gender, and Popular Islam.
8 Each theme is approached by holding a series of seminars at PAS, led by invited fellows from Africa. Each year culminates in an international colloquium devoted to the yearly theme and designed to produce a book. ISITA's activities are also designed to support Hunwick and O'Fahey's work on their Arabic Literature of Africa series. Certain fellows are selected because they can contribute to these volumes, and they spend part of their time in residence consulting with the directors.

Other Accomplishments

»Islam first made its presence felt in sub-Saharan Africa more than a millennnium ago, and since then Muslim scholars have debated social, legal, and political issues, as well as spiritual concerns, through the literary medium of Arabic, as well as in more recent centuries, a number of African languages written with the aid of the Arabic script, the medium also for a rich, but little-known, poetic tradition.«

ISITA Website
  • Increasing awareness of Africa's Islamic intellectual heritage and the urgency of preserving Arabic manuscript collections. Since 2001, ISITA has attracted high profile publicity, including major articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Black Issues in Higher Education, and the Chicago Tribune.
  • Developing and strengthening networks of collaboration between scholars on the African continent and elsewhere. ISITA's fellowships and colloquia have brought together scholars who work in a range of disciplines, represent a variety of academic cultures, and specialize in different regions of Islamic Africa. These researchers have few opportunities to exchange ideas or information systematically, and the colloquia have provided them with a forum for personal interaction and a basis for cooperation that will further intellectual progress on the study of Islamic thought in Africa.
  • The training and encouragement of a new generation of African researchers and their integration into international scholarly networks. One of the most encouraging aspects of the Junior Fellowship program was that it fostered a strong network among the fellows themselves, and also exposed them to wider scholarly networks—through the Directors, the Senior Fellows, and the colloquium. Before the end of the Institute, the Junior Fellows had already made plans to sustain their collaborative efforts, and are currently pursuing funding for their research agendas.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://agd.polylog.org/4/psr-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Rebacca Shereikis, Evanston, IL (USA)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.

ISITA's Publications

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