ASA Partner Spotlight: Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)

This edition's Partner Spotlight is on the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA). We are grateful to Dr. Rebecca Shereikis Interim Director of ISITA, for helping us put this article together.

 

What would you like the ASA's membership to know about your organisation, beyond what is immediately obvious on your website?

ISITA is a research institute located at Northwestern University and sustained by a vibrant international network of collaborators.  When distinguished Africanist John Hunwick founded the Institute in 2000, he was working against stereotypes of Africa as  primarily an “oral” continent.  He wished not only to promote a broader awareness of the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa but also to encourage the use of the largely untapped corpus of written source material from sub-Saharan Africa in Arabic or African languages in Arabic script. For over a decade, and most recently under the leadership of Muhammad Sani Umar, ISITA has carried out this mission. Through conferences and workshops in Evanston and African locales, visiting fellowships for African scholars, and publications, ISITA has nurtured the academic field of Islam in Africa and provided an intellectual community for scholars who sometimes find themselves “stranded” between African Studies and Islamic Studies. And the field has developed considerably over that decade, with more young Africanists acquiring Arabic language skills, using Arabic sources, and exploring various dimensions of African Muslims’ experience.  At the 2012 ASA Annual Meeting, I was struck by the number of papers and panels that addressed some aspect of Islam in Africa. It is arguably one of the fastest-growing sub-fields within African Studies, and given the current developments on the continent I anticipate that the field will only continue to grow. And I am confident that ISITA will continue to evolve along with it.  

At the moment, the Institute finds itself in a transitional period, as Muhammad Sani Umar, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern and ISITA Director since 2007, recently announced that he will be leaving Northwestern to take up a position in Nigeria. Sani’s departure is a gain for the Nigerian academic community but a huge loss for ISITA, which thrived under his intelligent and energetic leadership. Among Sani’s many accomplishments as ISITA Director was the founding of the peer-reviewed electronic journal Islamic Africa –the only English language journal devoted to this field, now in its fourth volume year. Northwestern is committed to seeing ISITA thrive and has initiated a search for a new faculty specialist in Islam in African societies at the senior level (to view the job description, see http://www.northwestern.edu/african-studies/position-available---islam-in-african-societies.html).

1.1.  Collaborators on ISITA’s “Tijani Corpus” project examine manuscripts at Al Qarawiyyin university in Fez, Morocco


What activities and/or projects does your organisation undertake to actively partner with and engage scholars working on similar issues on the African continent?

ISITA’s collaborative research projects involve many scholars working on the African continent.  Right now we are bringing to a close a Ford Foundation grant supporting the preparation of four new publications (more on these below). Africa-based scholars have been integral to conceptualizing each of these volumes, and have participated in field and archival research, collection of texts, data entry, translation, annotation, editing, and organization of workshops. Particularly important has been the inclusion of classically educated Islamic scholars who are not products of Western-style university education and who are typically left out of conversations that happen in University spaces.  ISITA has sponsored multiple workshops in Africa designed to encourage the participation of such classically trained scholars in the publications. Bringing together a diverse body of scholars from different intellectual traditions and educational backgrounds, these events have shaped the conceptualization of each volume and brought new source material to light. For example, while preparing an anthology of translated literature by Senegambia Sufi intellectuals, ISITA affiliate Rudolph Ware (University of Michigan) organized a workshop in Dakar in 2010 that explored the historical, biographical, and intellectual contexts which shaped the works under translation for the anthology. Classically trained Muslim intellectuals and university trained academics shared the conference table, and used Wolof as the primary language of presentation and debate. Sani Umar organized a similar workshop in Dakar for the anthology of translated texts on African Muslim responses to colonial rule that he is preparing.

As we wrap up work on these volumes, it is evident that while ISITA’s published output will make a lasting contribution to the academic field of knowledge, equally important is the collaborative process of producing these works.  This process has created linkages between Western and African scholars—classically-trained Muslim scholars in particular—that will transcend the boundaries of these particular projects.

1.2. Mallam Bashir Abubakar of Yola, Nigeria  recites historical poetry in Fulfulde from the Sokoto Caliphate and his own compositions at an event in Northwestern


What are some of the recent significant outputs of your research projects?

All of ISITA’s major conferences have resulted in edited volumes—most recently a volume edited by Margot Badran titled Islam and Gender in Africa: Rights, Sexuality, Law (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2011). Currently in press is Sufism and Literary Production in the Nineteenth-Century, co-edited by Rachida Chih, Catherine Mayeur, and Ruediger Seesemann (Würzburg: Ergon Academic Publishers). 

I am especially excited about the eventual publication of the four volumes I mentioned earlier, each a substantial new contribution to our understanding of the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa. Two will be new volumes in the Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) series launched by John Hunwick and R.S. O’Fahey in the mid-1990s. Charles Stewart (Emeritus, University of Illinois) and his Mauritanian collaborator Sidi ould Ahmed Salim will publish volume 5, The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara—a massive undertaking that has involved data entry on three continents and will provide biographical information on over 1900 authors.  Ruediger Seesemann (Bayreuth University) and his team are preparing volume 6, The Tijani Corpus and its Authors—the first thematically-organized ALA volume, which will unite in one place intellectual biographies of the authors affiliated with the Tijaniyya Sufi order and information about their writings and where to find them.  The other two forthcoming ISITA publications are anthologies of translated and annotated texts from West Africa that will be suitable for undergraduate teaching as well as for scholarly work. The first is on Sufi literature from the Senegambia (edited by Rudolph Ware) and includes poetry and other works never translated into English; the other (edited by M. Sani Umar) addresses the variety of West African Muslims responses to colonial rule as expressed in poetry,  legal opinions, and scholarly exchanges.  These volumes will bring to light and showcase sources heretofore inaccessible to most Western academics.

How have ongoing conflicts in some of your areas of focus (for example Mali, and some other areas of West Africa), impacted your work?

The conflicts in Mali, Nigeria, and in other parts of Muslim Africa, have put Muslim societies in Africa on the international radar and generated much commentary in foreign policy circles and the press.  ISITA organized several events this year in response to interest in the conflicts, most notably a roundtable discussion at Northwestern on “Radical Islamic Movements in Africa: Local Contexts, Transnational Connections.” These current events, as devastating as they are to watch unfold, only reinforce the importance of ISITA’s mission.  The unique knowledge base developed by ISITA—on African Muslims’ religious networks, for example—is crucial background for understanding the events that have pushed Muslim Africa to the center stage of international security discussions.  Moving forward, I intend to explore ways to make ISITA’s expertise more accessible to those outside the academic world. As a pilot effort in this direction, ISITA will sponsor the publication of a handbook on the Mali crisis, aimed at a policy audience but also at scholars, journalists, and the general public. Authored by Alexander Thurston (recent Northwestern PhD in religious studies who blogs at Sahel Blog), the handbook will provide readers with the empirical content they need to understand what happened in Mali and who the important actors are. The publication should appear in August 2013 and will be disseminated widely. 

1.3. Attendees at an ISITA workshop on Islam and the Public Sphere in Africa held at Northwestern


What has your experience as an ASA coordinate organisation been so far?

We are just moving into our second year as an ASA coordinate organization, so we are relatively new to working the ASA, but so far it has been a productive experience that I think will help over the long-run to integrate ISITA better into the broader African Studies community. At the 2012 Annual Meeting, ISITA organized a roundtable on “Reconceptualizing African Islam and the Global Community of Believers,” and we will sponsor a roundtable on “The Islamic Archive of Africa” in 2013 that should be of special interest in light of the recent threats to the manuscript collections in Timbuktu.  Northwestern University Press has also sponsored a booth at the ASA for the past several years to publicize the journal Islamic Africa.  The Annual Meeting is an excellent place to recruit new papers for the journal. 

 

1.4. Cheikhouna Lo (President of Fondation Serigne Ibrahima Lo pour l’Education Islamique) talks with Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University) at an ISITA-sponsored workshop in Dakar


How do you think the ASA as an organisation can better utilise its connections with its coordinate organisations?

ISITA is perhaps an atypical ASA coordinate organization in that we do not have a formal membership structure (e.g., no dues, officers, or annual meetings).  Because of this, we will need to think creatively about how to most effectively use our connections with the ASA in ways that are mutually beneficial to both organizations. ISITA’s extensive track-record in collaborating with Africa-based scholars and institutions could prove valuable to the ASA as it seeks to organize more activities on the continent, and we are very receptive to such collaborative possibilities with the ASA.  Mostly, it is exciting to see the ASA being so energetically revitalized and I am pleased that ISITA will be a part of the ASA’s future.

 

1.5. Cheikhouna Lo  is one of Senegal’s foremost experts in reading, writing, and translating Wolofal.  He spent several months at Northwestern as a visiting scholar in 2008 and is currently collaborating with Rudolph Ware on the anthology of translated Sufi texts.