OBITUARY: Remembering Ali Mazrui, a leading African Muslim scholar

31st Oct 2014
OBITUARY: Remembering Ali Mazrui, a leading African Muslim scholar

Ali Al-Amin Mazrui died on October 12 in New York at the age of 81. Until his recent retirement, he was the Albert Schweitzer Professor and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

A renowned scholar, author and intellectual, Mazrui wrote extensively on a range of subjects including global political culture, African politics, aspects of Islam, and North-South relations.

I first read his Cultural Forces in World Politics (1990) as a college student in the early 1990s and this book opened up the whole field of social science for me. Although he authored and edited more than forty books and hundreds of articles, this was arguably his most widely read book.

Born on February 24, 1933, in Mombasa, Kenya, into a devout Muslim family, his father Shaykh Al-Amin Mazrui, was a leading Muslim scholar and the Chief Qadi (judge) of Kenya. His triple heritage of Swahili culture, Muslim faith, and Western education enabled Ali Mazrui to acquire fluency in Swahili, Arabic and English. After completing his early education, he moved to England where he obtained his BA from Manchester University in 1960, followed by MA from Columbia University in New York (1961); and his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University in 1966. Thereafter he began his academic career at Makerere University in Uganda. He was later forced to resign and move to the US, thanks to Idi Amin’s repressive actions against his critics.

Africa’s loss was America’s gain. After two years at Stanford University, he joined the Political Science Department at the University of Michigan, where he served for 17 years before succeeding Toni Morrison as Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Binghamton University. Here he founded the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and visited many countries delivering inspiring lectures.

Mazrui was one of the leading Muslim critics of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), and he also earned the wrath of the American Zionists for his criticism of Israeli policies against the Palestinian people. He espoused a Pan-African political and cultural view and was a proud Muslim who was highly critical of aspects of political Islam. In short, those who knew him well agreed that Mazrui was very courageous, principled, warm-hearted, charismatic and a man of integrity and decency.

Some of his leading publications include A World Federation of Cultures: An African Perspective (1976); The African Condition: A Political Diagnosis (delivered as BBC Reith Lectures, published in 1980); Cultural Forces in World Politics (1990); The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in Africa’s Experience (co-authored, 1998), Black Reparations in the Era of Globalization (2002), Islam Between Globalization and Counter-terrorism (2006), and African Thought in Comparative Perspective (Seifudein Adem et al, ed. 2014).

Mazrui served as a visiting scholar at numerous universities around the world and in recognition he was awarded many honorary doctorates. He was also the founder or chair of many academic institutions and organisations. His students, family and friends adoringly referred to him as “Mwalimu” (teacher/mentor in Swahili).

He is survived by his wife, five sons, a daughter, grandchildren and many relatives. As per his wishes, he will be buried in the Mazrui Cemetery, Mombasa, Kenya.

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008)

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