Dr. Ermin Sinanović, the Director of Research and Academic Programs at IIIT, welcomed guests at the Mazrui Seminar, making special mention of the late Dr. Jamal Barzinji and his warm friendship with Dr. Mazrui, may God have mercy on both of their souls.Pauline Utimazrui then shared reflections of Dr. Mazrui’s life and the time she shared with him. Calling him “Mwalimu” (Mu’allim, teacher), as he was respectfully known by family and friends, she spoke of a man who always put others before him, who did not flinch from speaking the truth, and who wanted people to think beyond the norm. “Mwalimu had a very soft spot for IIIT,” she said.
Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool delivered the keynote address, titled, “Ali Mazrui – Beacon at the Intersection of Islam and Africa.” He eloquently spoke of Dr. Mazrui’s commitment to justice and his uncanny ability to juxtapose and harmonize two seemingly opposite concepts. He quoted Dr. Mazrui as saying, “My life is one long debate,” and praised him for his courage, his capacity to bring complexity and nuance to any given topic, and his tendency to provoke thought even at the cost of controversy as apparent in his documentary series, The Africans.
The keynote address was followed by a panel of reflections in which distinguished guests such as Dr. Sulayman Nyang, Dr. Seifudein Adem, and Bernadette Paolo expressed the tremendous influence of Dr. Mazrui, his amazing foresight on a variety of African and world issues, and his loyalty, humility, and brilliance, respectively. Dr. Abubaker Al-Shingieti, Executive Director of IIIT, chaired the panel and shared anecdotes from Dr. Mazrui’s life, remembering his prophetic vision and his steadfastness in the face of opposition.
The second half of the daylong seminar was devoted to paper presentations on Dr. Mazrui’s life and legacy. In “Making Africa Legible: Kiswahili Arabic and Orthographic Romanization in Colonial Zanzibar,” Caitlyn Bolton, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, talked about the missionary insistence on the adoption of Roman letters for Kiswahili at a time when Kiswahili was written in Arabic. In an effort to make Africa legible to Europeans, this switch actually created a generational rift between children and their parents who could no longer read each other’s languages. Bolton equated the history of the Kiswahili language to Mazrui’s triple heritage, bearing the stamps of the African, Islamic, and Western influences.
Youssef Carter, doctoral candidate at University of California at Berkeley, presented his ethnographic study in “Muhajirrun wal Ansar: Mobilities and Memory among Muslims of African Descent.” In mapping the transatlantic interactions between adherents of the Mustafiyy tariqa – the mostly African American Muslims affiliated with the Muhajirrun wal Ansar Mosque in Moncks Corner, South Carolina and their West African compatriots in in Thiès, Senegal – Carter seeks to parallel Mazrui’s triple heritage notion with the tripartite black-American-Muslim experience.
Dr. Naveed Sheikh, lecturer in International Relations at Keele University, UK, gave his talk on “Can the Subaltern Act? Mazrui on the Error in ‘Terror.’” He convincingly countered what he called an “ill-founded” allegation that Mazruian contributions in relation to political violence and terrorism are only marginal by discussing in great detail Dr. Mazrui’s perspective that terrorism “relates to, and flows from, the entirety of structural, historical and cultural forces that have shaped Muslim societies since the advent of imperialism.”
In sharing “Mazrui’s Islamic Scholarship: Expanding Horizons, Meeting Challenges,” Dr. Ahmed Salem, associate professor at the Institute for Islamic World Studies at Zayed University, UAE, shared Mazrui’s intellectual journeys, from political science to cultural studies and from African Studies to Global Studies. He also talked about “Afrabia,” highlighting Dr. Mazrui’s emphasis on not just common victimization, but common identity.
In “Values between Islamic and Western models: Mazrui’s Struggle for a System of Universal Values,” Dr. Rachid Mrani, researcher and teacher assistant at the University of Quebec at Montreal, sought to show Mazrui’s brilliance in reconciling the Western and Islamic value systems and “how he managed to create a space for meeting and living together” between the two worlds that are at once different yet dependent on each other.
The Mazrui Seminar was a rich mix of personal reflections and academic research, combined with lively discussion among the participants. Once revised, the five papers presented in the Mazrui Seminar will be published, together with Amb. Rasool’s keynote address, by IIIT.