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ISITA is the first research center in North America specifically devoted to the study of Islam in Africa. John O. Hunwick (1936-2015), professor of history and religion at Northwestern, and Rex Sèan O’Fahey (1943-2019) of the University of Bergen founded ISITA in 2000 with sponsorship from the Ford Foundation. They built upon their career-long efforts to document and study the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa, and also on Northwestern’s longstanding tradition of excellence in this area. A history of distinguished faculty (including Hunwick, John Paden, Ivor Wilks and Robert Launay), combined with the Herskovits Library of African Studies’ unique collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa has established Northwestern as the undisputed hub for research and graduate training in the field of Islam in Africa. 

ISITA’s initial objectives were:

  • to stimulate growth in the academic field of Islam in Africa, which had been marginalized within both African Studies and Islamic Studies; and
  • to encourage the use of the largely untapped corpus of Arabic sources so that their contents could be integrated into existing analyses of African and Islamic history.

Hunwick and O’Fahey also aimed to redress an imbalance they perceived.

“The study of Islam in Africa as a religion and a system of thought and belief,” they noted, “has been neglected by comparison with research on the history and sociology of African Muslim polities or movements.” The latter point explains the inclusion of “thought” in the institute’s name.

The initial Ford Foundation grant funded a four-year program of conferences, publications, and visiting fellowships that fostered collaborative scholarship on Muslim intellectual and spiritual creativity in Africa through exploration of the following themes: the transmission of Islamic learning in Africa; African Muslim responses to the colonial state; Muslim/Christian encounters; and gender and Islam. 

The Next Phase

ISITA’s leadership passed to a new generation of scholars upon Hunwick’s retirement. Muhammad Sani Umar directed ISITA from 2007-2013, working closely with faculty members Rüdiger Seesemann (religious studies), and Rudolph Ware (history). As director, Umar worked to bridge the gap between scholarship produced in Africa and that produced in Western academic circles. He collaborated with Northwestern University Press to secure a grant from the Mellon Foundation that launched Islamic Africa—the only English language journal devoted to this field—and funded post-doctoral dissertation revision fellowships for African scholars. 

Seesemann, Ware, and Umar secured continued support from the Ford Foundation for a project titled “Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge” that explored how African Muslims actively shape religious life through engagement with bodies of religious knowledge, ranging from historical manuscripts to popular contemporary materials. Between 2005 and 2011, Seesemann, Ware, Umar, and their collaborators surveyed private Islamic libraries in Senegal, collected ephemeral religious materials in eastern and western Africa, and compiled texts documenting Muslim reactions to the imposition of colonial rule in West Africa. They shared research findings at multiple workshops in Africa. Visit Publications to view the published outcomes of “Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge.”

The Ford Foundation continued to support the foundational reference works begun by Hunwick and O’Fahey. Mauritania specialist Charles Stewart, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the compilation and editing of the fifth volume in the Arabic Literature of Africa series, The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, published in 2015. An additional volume in the series is in progress, led by Rüdiger Seesemann, which documents the prolific scholarly production of the Tijaniyya, one of Africa’s most important Sufi orders.

Looking to the Future

Since October 2017, ISITA has been directed by Zekeria Ahmed Salem.

Learn about ISITA’s current initiatives.