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In Memoriam: R.S. O'Fahey

Read tributes to Professor O'Fahey from former students and colleagues around the world.

ISITA is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of its cofounder, Rex Seán O’Fahey (1943-2019), Professor Emeritus ofahey-current.jpgof History at the University of Bergen, Norway. An internationally recognized authority on the history of the Sudan and a scholar of Sufism, Dr. O’Fahey died on April 9 in Oslo.

O’Fahey obtained his B.A. in African and Middle Eastern history from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), followed by a PhD in 1973, also from SOAS, with a thesis on the history of the Keira Sultanate of Darfur (17th to early 20th centuries). He taught African history for three years at the University of Khartoum and for one year at the University of Edinburgh. In 1972, O’Fahey arrived at the University of Bergen as the first research fellow in non-European history. He remained in Bergen for the rest of his career, becoming Reader and then Professor (in 1985) and helping transform the university into a vital hub for Sudan studies and for the study of the Islamic societies of eastern Africa more generally.    

O’Fahey’s collaboration with John O. Hunwick brought him frequently to Northwestern beginning in the late 1980s. He and Hunwick shared a commitment to documenting and studying Islamic intellectual traditions in Africa—their collaboration eventually yielded the multi-volume Arabic Literature of Africa (Brill) reference series (of which O’Fahey edited two volumes on eastern Africa), and the journal Sudanic Africa (now Islamic Africa published by Brill). 

Ultimately, the O’Fahey-Hunwick partnership culminated in the creation of ISITA at Northwestern--the first research institute focused uniquely on sub-Saharan Africa's Islamic intellectual traditions. O’Fahey co-wrote, with Hunwick, the proposal to the Ford Foundation that established ISITA in 2001 and served as ISITA’s Executive Director in the crucial early years. During frequent residencies at Northwestern, where he held an adjunct professorship, O’Fahey helped to build ISITA’s foundations—organizing conferences, hosting visitors, and especially, mentoring early career scholars from Africa who participated in ISITA’s fellowship programs.

When the Darfur conflict erupted in 2003, O’Fahey’s research on land and property rights in Darfur became important to understanding that conflict; he was eventually engaged by the United Nations in the peace talks in Khartoum. For an example of the public-facing side of O'Fahey's scholarship, see his op-ed in the New York Times from 2004.


Photo: R. S. O'Fahey in Darfur, circa 1969.

Upon retirement from the University of Bergen in 2013, he donated his unique and substantial collection of photocopies of manuscripts and documents from the Sudan and others parts of Islamic Africa to the Bergen University Library. Once cataloged and digitized, the R. Sean O’Fahey collection will be available online.

Among O’Fahey’s many publications are (with Jay Spaulding) The Kingdoms of the Sudan (London 1974); State and Society in Dār Fūr (London 1980); (with M.I. Abu Salim), Land in Dār Fūr (Cambridge 1983); Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition (London 1990), The Darfur Sultanate (London 2009), and Darfur and the British: A Sourcebook (London 2016). For the Arabic Literature of Africa series, he edited Volume 1, The Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa until c. 1900 (Leiden 1994), and Volume 3a Writings of the Muslim Peoples of Northeastern Africa (Leiden 2003).

ISITA will publish a more comprehensive reflection on O’Fahey's contributions in the coming months and organize an event in his memory during the 2019-20 academic year.

We invite those who crossed paths with Professor O’Fahey to share reflections, memories, or stories by sending an email to The comments we have received are posted below  and we welcome others.

Our sincere condolences to Professor O'Fahey's family, friends, and colleagues throughout the world.

The ISITA community remembers R.S. O’Fahey

Read tributes from:

Alfadoulou Abdoulahi, Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba de Tombouctou, Mali

I am deeply saddened to learn that Professor Rex O Fahey has left us.

I knew him through his research on the Timbuktu manuscripts and the collaboration with Professor John O. Hunwick whom I always called "Father Hunwick" and who called me "my Son Alfadoulou." We met in Lyon (France) in 2004 in the context of a workshop organized on the Timbuktu manuscripts by Mrs. Alida Jay BOYE, a great admirer of the Timbuktu manuscripts, engaged in the project for their conservation and enhancement.

Professors Rex O Fahey and John O. Hunwick were both explorers of African thought, references among those who helped dust off African history. They explored the writings of Muslim scholars and helped to make known the immense literary and intellectual production of the Muslim elites of black Africa.

So, I mourn them as a scientist, as a collaborator on the Timbuktu Manuscripts, as a son and friend and as an African. But their death is vain, without victory over the work they left:
·         their valuable intellectual contribution,
·         friendship and scientific collaboration they initiated,
·         the ISITA institution they co-founded, etc.

French version :
Je suis profondément attristé d'apprendre que le Professeur Rex O Fahey nous a quitté.

Je l'ai connu à travers ses recherches sur les manuscrits de Tombouctou et la collaboration avec le professeur John O Hunwick que j'ai toujours appelé mon Père Hunwick et qui m'appellait "mon Fils."
Nous nous sommes rencontré à Lyon (France) en 2004 dans le cadre d'un atelier organisé sur les manuscrits de Tombouctou par Madame Alida Jay BOYE, une grande admiratrice des manuscrits de Tombouctou, engagé dans le projet devisant leur conservation et leur valorisation.

Les professeurs Rex O Fahey et John O. Hunwick étaient tous les deux des explorateurs de la pensée africaine, des références parmi ceux qui ont contribué à dépoussierer l'histoire africaine. Ils ont exploré les écrits des érudits et contribué à faire connaître l'immense production littéraire et intellectuelle des élites musulmanes d'Afrique noire.

Aussi, je les pleure en tant que scientifique, en tant que collaborateur sur les manuscrits de Tombouctou, en tant que fils et ami et en tant qu'Africain. Mais leur mort est vaine, sans victoire face à l'oeuvre qu'ils ont laissée:
·         leur valéreuse contribution intellectuelle, 
·         l'amitié et la collaboration scientifique initiée,
·         l'institution ISITA qu'ils ont cofondée, etc.

Jörg Adelberger, Offenbach, Germany

It is with deep sorrow that I learned about the untimely passing of Seán.

While I was working on my Ph.D. thesis in the late 1980s, he invited me to Bergen to consult his vast collection of material and documents on Darfur. I came to know him as a truly outstanding person - a scholar in the true sense of the word: the extent of his knowledge was awe-inspiring, and he could always surprise you with a reference to an utterly obscure source.

Modest in his manner, always helpful and encouraging, I remember Seán as a warmhearted, friendly person with a good sense of humour.

He will be sadly missed by all of us.

Mukhtar Umar Bunza, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Nigeria

What a great loss to the academia! I always remember O’Fahey, saying "John and I,"  "I and John," especially in taking us through their life experiences as intellectuals at the weekly John Hunwick Graduate Seminar, PAS, Northwestern University, Evanston. The Two Icons and African Islamic intellectual builders, John Hunwick and Sean O’fahey, though left us physically, their spirits remain alive and active in us - Young African Researchers.  I sincerely send my/our condolences to the family, friends, and students of Professor Rex Sean O’Fahey--a Complete Gentleman.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Columbia University

It is with great sadness that I read the news of the passing of Sean. I have such a wonderful memory of conversations with him and Shaykh John Hunwick during which I would learn so much! Condolences to the ISITA community.

Sondra Hale, University of California, Los Angeles

I am so saddened by Sean’s death, and send my condolences to friends and colleagues there.  As for me, as a Sudanist, I am indebted to Prof O’Fahey for his valuable contribution to Sudan Studies. He also contributed a fine essay to one of my co-edited books. I feel lucky to have met him at one of the ISITA conferences.  Again, my condolences. 

Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo

Obituary Rex Seán O’Fahey (1943-2019) — forthcoming in Sudan & Nubia 23

Darfur and R.S. O’Fahey—these names will forever be intimately linked. R.S. O’Fahey was and remains the Western historian of Darfur. He literally put Darfur on the map of African history and was among the driving forces recognising that African historiography needs to take seriously the continent’s written heritage. For all his love of writing and of books, however, he was far from being a book worm. Seán (or Rex, as some of his oldest friends called him) was a thoroughly conversational person, he lived in and for dialogue and exchange with others. As consummately as he collected documents, manuscripts, and books and brought his readings of these materials to fruition in his writings, he brought together people—researchers, friends, students, aspiring scholars, black, white and yellow—and fostered a productive multidimensional network greater than the sum of its parts. He generously shared his materials with them and his ideas; he kindled their curiosity and promoted their hidden potential; and many were those he hosted in his home and helped to grow in academia.

This is how I shall always remember Seán—inviting me over, to a leg of lamb and a glass of wine, to a symposium, a conference or a celebration, to a scholarship, to a joint article. Inviting me in and helping me out, writing letters introducing me to key contacts that made possible my fieldwork in the Sudan in the first place, seeing through my dissertation with unusual engagement in the topic as well as a keen eye for the intricacies of the English language. In many ways, Seán was a craftsman rather than a theoretician, a detective, a researcher who knew how to read (he loved to read), to listen to people (he really could listen), and then put it all together and present a persuasive story. A good historian, he said, was someone who can tell stories. That is what he always wanted to do (he never considered another profession)—and he was a great story-teller. Many were those whom he fascinated in class by his first-hand experience, whom he won over to Sudanese studies, whom he nurtured into taking up the many leads he had laid out. In short, Seán was a firework of ideas and the fulcrum of a lively research community. The energy for all this he drew from his boundless and genuine intellectual curiosity, a curiosity that he kept alive until his last days. 

Born into the world of the late British Empire, he learned to love Africa as a child on the Swahili coast of Kenya; this love translated into enthusiasm for the anti-colonial struggle and led the nineteen-year-old in 1962 to enrol as one of the first students of African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Two years later, SOAS sent him as an intern to Nigeria to work with John Hunwick (1936-2015), a slightly older SOAS graduate who had just set up the Centre for Arabic Documentation at the country’s oldest university in Ibadan to collect and document microfilm copies of Arabic manuscripts from Nigeria and the wider West African world. John and Rex became best buddies for life; the rest, as they say, is history. The two young men shared a passion for the exuberant life around them as much as a desire to honour Africa by helping to debunk the myth that its history was limited to artefacts and oral traditions. Continuing and systematising the work of a handful of pioneers, they carried on their cooperation for decades regardless of where their career paths would take them, and their efforts eventually culminated in the monumental, multi-volume Arabic Literature of Africa (Leiden: Brill, 1993-), known as the “Brockelmann for Africa” after the standard bio-bibliographical reference work for the history of the Arabic written heritage until the 20th century.

 Before getting that far, however, academic ladders had to be climbed. Upon O’Fahey’s graduation in 1967, SOAS professor Peter Holt (1918-2006), who had built up the government archives in Khartoum prior to independence, arranged for him to became Lecturer in African History at the University of Khartoum (1967-70) to support his doctoral research on the pre-colonial history of Darfur. Holt’s former assistant and successor as director of the government archives, Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Abū Salīm (1927-2004), took the young scholar under his wings (O’Fahey has described Abū Salim as his “mentor”) and granted him generous access to the Central (later: National) Records Office’s holdings — an attitude O’Fahey himself later liberally displayed towards the next generation of scholars. During several field trips, O’Fahey collected legal charters and land documents that formed the basis of his PhD thesis, “The Growth and Development of the Keira Sultanate of Dār Fūr” (University of London, 1972).

In Darfur in 1969 he met Gunnar Håland (1938-), then a lecturer in development anthropology at the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway where noted social anthropologist Fredrik Barth (1928-2016) had initiated Sudan- and specifically Darfur-related research since 1964. To add a historical dimension to their Sudan milieu, Barth and Håland got O’Fahey invited by UiB’s Department of History where Alf Kaartvedt (1921-2013), UiB’s first history professor, was eager to expand the department by making it a home for non-European studies. Thus, after a brief lectureship at the University of Edinburgh (1971-72), O’Fahey moved to Norway. First as Research Fellow, then as Reader (1976), and finally as Professor of non-European Studies (1985), he became a vital force in developing Sudanese studies in Bergen, helping to turn the university there into a world-renowned hub of Sudan studies and cooperation with Sudanese institutions. Formalised through agreements with the University of Khartoum in 1973 and 1983, this cooperation came to encompass the disciplines of social anthropology, history, archaeology, philosophy, geography, botany, dentistry, medicine, and psychology. The Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies that O’Fahey established in 1988 together with social anthropologist Reidar Grønhaug (1938-2005) was the first of its kind in Scandinavia and served as a physical and intellectual haven for many of these activities, including as the home for Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources that O’Fahey, Hunwick, Knut Vikør (plus later: Stefan Reichmuth) edited 1990-2005/7 (it was succeeded by the journal Islamic Africa, Leiden: Brill). In his own field, O’Fahey produced a series of books that remain standard works to this day: Kingdoms of the Sudan (with Jay Spaulding, London: Methuen & Co. 1974); State and Society in Dār Fūr (London, Hurst, 1980); Land in Dār Fūr (with Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Abū Salīm, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); The Darfur Sultanate (London: Hurst, 2009); and Darfur and the British (London: Hurst, 2013). Anders Bjørkelo and Endre Stiansen explored aspects of Sudanese political and economic history under O’Fahey’s supervision, and Bjørkelo’s own PhD student Ahmed Abushouk may be regarded as O’Fahey’s ‘academic grandchild’ in this connection.

Serendipity and intellectual curiosity led O’Fahey to another research front: the life, teachings, and influence of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs (c. 1750-1837), a seminal figure for modern Islamic reform movements in the Ṣūfī tradition. In the early 1980s, ʿAlī Ṣāliḥ Karrār, who had been one of O’Fahey’s research assistants for his work on Darfur and who had written his MA thesis on Aḥmad ibn Idrīs’ impact in the Sudan, came to Bergen for his PhD thesis. He introduced O’Fahey and a growing circle of Bergen and international scholars around him to the writings of Ibn Idrīs, and the weekly reading seminars held in Bergen led to O’Fahey publishing an “account of the life and travels of Ibn Idrīs and of the spiritual networks at whose centre he sat” (Enigmatic Saint, London: Hurst, 1990). The scholarly network at whose centre O’Fahey himself sat produced a substantial number of studies related to the Idrīsī tradition: doctoral theses by ʿAlī Ṣāliḥ Karrār, Knut Vikør, Albrecht Hofheinz, Mark Sedgwick, and Anne Bang; an edition of the Letters of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs (London: Hurst, 1993); and several in-depth analyses of Ibn Idrīs’ thought and teachings that were the fruit of O’Fahey’s encounter with a scholar of “classical Sufism”, Bernd Radtke, during the latter’s stay as Associate Professor of Arabic in Bergen (1989-92) (“Neo-Sufism Reconsidered”, in Der Islam, 1993; The Exoteric Aḥmad Ibn Idrīs: A Sufi's Critique of the Madhāhib and the Wahhābīs, Leiden: Brill, 2000; to name only two titles where O’Fahey and Radtke cooperated).

O’Fahey was fortunate to be based at a very supportive Department that allowed him great freedom to do what he was best at. He paid back by really making Bergen an important name in African history as a vital part of a global network. His old friendship with John Hunwick helped to strengthen the university’s trans-Atlantic ties. In 2000, the two men co-founded the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, where Hunwick had moved in 1981 as professor of African history and of religion and where O’Fahey held a visiting professorship. ISITA soon developed into a vibrant hub of research that continues to play a crucial role in advancing the study of African Muslims’ intellectual heritage. 

Meanwhile, Darfur erupted in violence (2003), and O’Fahey’s historical documentation of land rights and legal practices there suddenly acquired an eminently political dimension. The United Nations and the African Union engaged him as a consultant, and realising that much of the archival material in Darfur had been destroyed due to natural or political causes, O’Fahey began to make the legal and administrative documents he so painstakingly had collected over the years more accessible to the public (“Darfur Historical Documents: A Catalogue”, Bergen 2006). His annotated copies of British colonial records of customary law and administrative practice under the sultans (Darfur and the British, v.s.) “could easily be titled ‘Understanding Sudan’s Sahelian crisis’, so helpful [they are] in explaining why the Nilotic giant is choking on his undigested western colony” (G. Prunier). Upon his retirement in 2013, O’Fahey donated his huge collection of documents—the largest body of indigenous Sudanese material now in a public collection outside the Sudan, as well as precious material from other parts of Sudanic and East Africa—to the University of Bergen library: material hand-copied, photographed or photocopied from originals in private or public archives, pamphlets, research notes, and grey literature. UiB’s Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is in the process of cataloguing and digitising this material; in the spirit of its former owner, it is made it freely accessible to the interested public.

After his retirement, Seán “Ó Fathaigh” was happy to be able to devote more time to his passion for Irish history, but contemporary Sudanese and, increasingly, American politics kept him alert. Surrounded by his family, he passed away in Oslo on April 9, 2019. We mourn the historian who has left us; we miss the uniquely welcoming, curious, generous and inspiring mind. His writings, his archive, the scholarly community that he created are his lasting memory.

Robert S. Kramer, St. Norbert College

Prof. O'Fahey was a major reason for my leaving the University of Chicago in the early '80s to pursue a Ph.D. at Northwestern: he, John Hunwick and Ivor Wilks formed a scholarly troika that no serious student of Islamic Africa could ignore.  Although known as Sean to colleagues overseas, he was always "Rex" to us, and the name suited his kind and accessible personality.  It was Rex who suggested the history of Mahdist Omdurman as my dissertation topic; Rex who guided me through two years of often-arduous preparations; and Rex who provided valuable contacts for me in the Sudan.  Having him as essentially a second doctoral advisor benefited me in ways I will never be able to express.

I remember with special fondness the late Friday afternoon gatherings at the Norris Center (discretely referred to as "the Friday prayers"), where Africanist graduate students and faculty would assemble over drinks to discuss their work.  This was, I suppose, our version of the Oxford-Cambridge "sherry hour," and it played a vital (and pleasurable) role in clarifying our ideas.  Often discussions continued over dinner, late into the night; fortunately, the weekend immediately followed.

When it came time to turn my dissertation into a book, it was Rex's numerous and detailed comments that guided my revisions; and when I was a young history professor, it Rex, along with John, who continued to mentor me.

The two are connected in my mind, and are frequently in my thoughts, with the greatest gratitude, affection and admiration.

Ghislaine Lydon, University of California, Los Angeles

I will always remember Sean with great affection; his kindness, humor and brilliance. Although I was not in contact with him in later years, there was a period in the early 2000s during which time we became close friends, sharing great conversations in Evanston, but also at conferences, starting with a meeting in Al-Akhawayn University in 2000. I was already acquainted with his best buddy, the late John Hunwick, with whom Sean shared a June birthday. Like his slightly older twin, Sean was a wonderful storyteller. I relished in his retelling of his early years growing up in Mombasa, where his remarkable Irish mother placed him in Quranic school. His father worked the passenger ship that traveled though the Suez Canal, and once a year, he took his son and wife to Europe (Sean fondly remembered his first visit to the Scala opera house in Milan). For years, Sean insisted I should visit him Bergen, and regrettably I never did.

Gregory Mann, Columbia University

I am writing to express my condolences to the ISITA community in wake of the passing of Professor O’Fahey. Thank you for informing us.

I knew Professor O’Fahey in the late 1990s, as ISITA was being created, when I was a Ph.D. student under Professor Hunwick. I learned a great deal from Professor O’Fahey, in spite of the fact that I never took a course with him. He represented a model of erudition, generosity, and good humor. He was kind enough to sit on my dissertation committee in the summer of 2000, as Professor Hunwick was recovering from his stroke, and he offered incisive and informed commentary on the work. In the years since leaving Northwestern, I have learned ever more from Professor O’Fahey’s work on Sudan, and on Dar Fur in particular. I would never have had the courage to submit to his scrutiny a chapter I wrote on West African pilgrim communities in Sudan and in Dar Fur in particular, but neither would I have been able to make such a modest contribution were I not his student, in the largest sense of the term. It was a privilege to be part of--even a small, peripheral part of--the intellectual community he and Professor Hunwick formed and sustained.

Neil McHugh, Emerius, Fort Lewis College

Professor O'Fahey contributed in so many ways to the scholarship of so many and he was generous with his time, his resources and his company. The notices by Professors Hofheinz and Seesemann are fine summaries of his exceptionally rich career. His fruitful collaboration with scholars and archivists in a number of countries has been foundational to the advance of historical knowledge concerning Sudan, Islamic Africa and Sufism. For that we are grateful.

Mark Sedgwick, Aarhus University, Denmark

I first crossed paths with Seán in Bergen in 1992. He agreed to supervise my PhD, proposed its topic, an Idrisi Sufi order that had then not yet been studied, and suggested that I start by reading the contents of the bibliography to his Enigmatic Saint. He later intervened with the Sudanese embassy in Cairo to get me a visa to the Sudan, and was in Khartoum when I arrived there. He introduced me to his friends at the National Records Office, and took me for walks along the Nile. Having thus been set firmly on the right path, further supported over subsequent years by both Seán's erudition and his continuing kindness, I completed the PhD in 1999. After that, my path crossed Seán's less often, but my path was by then firmly set on the study of Sufism, which is what I have been doing ever since, though generally with reference to areas other than the Sudan, and on orders other than the Idrisi. In the end, Sean's path became my own.

"Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return." Q 2: 156.

My condolences to Seán​'s family, and to all those others who, like me, mourn him.

Rüdiger Seesemann, University of Bayreuth

Read his obituary of R.S. O'Fahey published in Research Africa Reviews Vol. 3 No. 1, April 2019.

Heather Sharkey, University of Pennsylvania

I received your news about Sean O'Fahey’s passing with great sadness.

I owe him many debts of gratitude.  The first time I met Sean, at the Sudan Studies Association Conference in East Lansing, Michigan, in April 1993, was a great stroke of luck for me!  He shared ideas generously, especially when it came time for me to devise a PhD dissertation topic at Princeton.  He welcomed me to Bergen on two occasions, in 1994 and 1995.  And he shared his incredible collection of books – letting me roam and borrow volumes that were quirky treasures (such as Arabic biographical dictionaries of Khartoum luminaries). 

He was a brilliant thinker and marvelous writer.  Everything he said was interesting.  On so many occasions when he spoke, I later wished I had had a pen handy so that I could have written down what he said.  He had a tremendous knowledge of sources, and of course, he brought that knowledge to his Arabic Literature of Africa (“ALA”) project, of which he was rightly proud. 

God bless him!

John Voll, Georgetown University

I am deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Sean O'Fahey. He has been an inspiration over the many years that I have known him.