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John O. Hunwick

John O. Hunwick, pioneering scholar of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, died at his home in Skokie, Illinois, on April 1. The professor emeritus of history and religion was 78. Among his many groundbreaking achievements were cofounding the first research center devoted to the study of African Islamic culture at an American university, Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), and producing the multivolume Arabic Literature of Africa reference works.

Hunwick’s enduring interest in Islam in Africa was sparked during his service as a British officer with the Somali-land Scouts in the mid-1950s. Upon returning to England, he altered his plan of studying French and German at Oxford and enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London to study Arabic. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he told a reporter in 2004. “I just wanted to learn it.”

After he graduated with first-class honors in Arabic in 1959, Hunwick held a series of academic positions in Africa, starting with a one-year stint teaching English at the Ahfad School for Boys in Omdurman, Sudan. Then as a lecturer in Arabic at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, from 1960 to 1967, he helped establish a Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies and the first of what would be many documentation projects: the Centre of Arabic Documentation and Research Bulletin. For eight years beginning in 1969 Hunwick was at the University of Ghana, Legon, as associate professor, professor, and then history department chair. During that time he completed an external PhD in Islamic studies from SOAS. From 1977 to 1981 Hunwick directed the Arabic language unit at the American University in Cairo.

Hunwick came to Northwestern in 1981 as Herskovits Visiting Professor of African Studies, and a permanent position followed. He was a professor of history and religion until 2004, advised 14 students who completed PhDs in history or religion, jointly supervised another 4, and served as PAS associate director and interim director in the 1980s. He also nurtured an enduring friendship and intellectual collaboration with history department colleague Ivor Wilks; they anchored weekly gatherings of African studies faculty and graduate students.

Hunwick was fond of saying, “There’s a lot more to Africa than song and dance.” As he documented, collected, analyzed, and translated Arabic texts from Africa, he not only overturned assumptions that Africa lacked written traditions before the arrival of Europeans but also pioneered a major field of study and research within African studies. His seminal translations and close readings of Arabic texts have laid the foundations for the study of Islam and its intellectual formation in the Niger Bend region of West Africa.

Hunwick was also determined to provide a comprehensive mapping of Muslim intellectual production across a wide swath of Africa. This effort began at the University of Ibadan in the 1960s with the Research Bulletin, gathered steam when he joined forces with friend and colleague Rex Sean O’Fahey of the University of Bergen in the 1980s, and culminated in the multivolume Arabic Literature of Africa (Brill) reference works that Hunwick and O’Fahey produced with their collaborators. Arabic Literature of Africa, which Hunwick described as “the most important part of my career,” now comprises five volumes and more than 3,500 pages, including the most recent two volume work on Mauritania compiled by Charles Stewart.

Among Hunwick’s most influential publications are Shari’a in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghili to the Questions of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad (1493–1528) (Oxford, 1985) and Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Ta`rikh al-Sudan down to 1613, and other Contemporary Documents (Brill, 1999), winner of the African Studies Association Best Text Prize in 2001. With O’Fahey and Knut Vikor, Hunwick cofounded Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources (now Islamic Africa) and served as editor for book series published by the International Academic Union, Northwestern University Press, and Brill. Hunwick was named a fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976 and received the African Studies Association’s Distinguished Africanist Award in 2005.

Hunwick’s name is inextricably linked with Timbuktu, which he visited for the first time in 1967 as part of a UNESCO delegation that established the Ahmad Baba Center, Timbuktu’s largest repository of Arabic manuscripts. Hunwick remained engaged with Timbuktu’s manuscript libraries over the ensuing decades, cataloging portions of collections and publishing translations of important texts.

In 2000, with generous support from the Ford Foundation, Hunwick and O’Fahey established the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at PAS. The first research center in the United States specifically devoted to the study of African Islamic culture, ISITA institutionalized the study of Islam in Africa—a field marginalized within both African and Islamic studies—within a major university.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2000, Hunwick continued to direct ISITA for many years while writing, researching, and traveling, especially to Timbuktu, where young Malian scholars had established a “John O. Hunwick Club” to honor his work and stimulate interest among local youth in the Arabic manuscript tradition. He collaborated with his photographer son Joseph Hunwick and Alida Boye to produce a volume of text and photographs titled The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

News of Hunwick’s passing triggered an outpouring of tributes from colleagues, library owners, and former students around the world. They praised his meticulous scholarship, generosity in sharing resources, enthusiasm for mentoring young scholars (who dubbed him “the Shaykh”), and not the least his wit and unabashed punning in multiple languages.

“We may take consolation in the fact that the Shaykh lived a very productive life,” observed Hamidu Bobboyi, a Hunwick PhD student at Northwestern in the late 1980s. “He set the highest standards for all to emulate. He expected rigor and precision from students as well as colleagues; and when these were trampled upon, he did not hesitate to use the might of his pen to guide aright. Above all, he exuded humor and cheerfulness and, thanks to the puns, lightened the burdens of the usually demanding and serene environment of the ‘Arabic Room.’ Professor Hunwick’s passing was a great loss to the immediate family and indeed to his extended family of colleagues, friends, and the talaba.”

Hunwick is survived by his wife, Uwa; sons Joseph and David; daughters Maryam, Yvette, and Ann-Clare; and sisters Muriel and Mary. He has 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Obituary by Rebecca Shereikis. Originally published in "Program of African Studies News and Events," Fall 2015, vol. 26, no. 1.