ISITA Honors John O. Hunwick with Symposium on Textual Cultures in Islamic Africa

The African Studies Association will showcase the events and activities of one of our coordinate organizations in each issue of ASA News. The Summer 2016 edition features an update from the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa. The ASA thanks Rebecca Shereikis for sharing ISITA's update with the association.

From April 21-22, over twenty scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America converged at Northwestern University to take part in an interdisciplinary symposium coorganized by ASA coordinate organization the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), Northwestern’s Program of African Studies, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for African Studies, and the American Islamic College, Chicago.  Titled “Sacred Word: The Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa” the symposium was dedicated to the memory of ISITA cofounder and Northwestern history and religion professor emeritus John O. Hunwick (1938-2015).  Among Hunwick’s many honors and achievements are the ASA’s Best Text Prize in 2001 for Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire (Brill, 1999) and the Distinguished Africanist Award in 2005. 

The symposium honored Hunwick’s groundbreaking scholarship on the intellectual traditions of Muslim West Africa by exploring the meaning(s) of textual cultures in Muslim societies in Africa and the changes that have taken place in those cultures during the last two centuries.  The joint NU-UIUC organizing committee made a special effort to include junior scholars, many of whom spoke movingly of Hunwick’s role in shaping their intellectual development, even though they had never met him.  As such, the symposium showcased the next generation of scholarship in the field of Islamic manuscript and textual studies in Africa, and the organizers anticipate that many of the papers will be published.

Six panels held over two days progressed from investigating the meanings of the physical elements of hand-written manuscripts (including script, calligraphy, colophons, and visual patterns) to exploring how African Muslims give form to the sacred word beyond the page—in sound, music, and performance. The significance of market literature and print editions and their relationship to handwritten texts was also addressed. Papers involving close readings (or rereadings) of texts were balanced by papers that explored the multi-faceted uses to which texts are put in social and political life. The significance of Ajami in Muslim Africa’s textual and aesthetic traditions was a major focus of the symposium. 

A special reception to remember John Hunwick brought forth many moving testimonials from his former students, colleagues, friends, and especially, members of his family.  A full report and photos of the event will be available on the Program of African Studies website (

The event was partially supported by a US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant to the Illinois-Africa Consortium, which joins Northwestern’s Program of African Studies and the University of Illinois’ Center for African Studies in activities to strengthen the study of Africa on both campuses. Generous cosponsorships from the American Islamic College, Chicago and other Northwestern units provided additional support.

Submitted by Rebecca Shereikis