Ali Al’Amin Mazrui (1933 – 2014)

Ali Al’Amin Mazrui (1933 – 2014)

[Obituary by Prof. Sulayman Nyang]

Professor Ali A. Mazrui is dead. We hereby call upon the Almighty Allah to grant him mercy and the best of his rewards to his servants. His death is a shock to many of us and to the countless numbers who knew him personally and benefited from his writings and other forms of sharing knowledge and memories. In writing this brief obituary it is imperative for us to educate the readers about the man and his works. Born to an Afro-Arab family with strong roots going back to the Middle East, he fulfilled in his life what is now called “the triple heritages.” This is to say, Ali was a Muslim child who learned to negotiate between Arabic, Swahili and the English language. This linguistic troika framed his opinions on and attitudes towards colonial rule in Kenya, Not only did he face colonialism but he also shared with other Kenyans the pangs of settler colonialism.

Being a contemporary of the late Tom Mboya, he carried with him all the agonies and frustrations known to the Kenyans of his days. The fact that a colonial governor intervened early in his life, in the sense that his education at the University of Manchester, where he received his Bachelor’s degree, was an act of goodwill, was never forgotten. Many a time Ali spoke about these developments in his life and how this act affected his encounter with Britain and the impact of the English language in Africa.

In talking about Ali Mazrui and his education in Kenya and abroad, seven things can be highlighted for the uninformed and perplexed. First of all, Ali came out of Kenya with a firm background in Swahili culture and this fact remained with him throughout his life. Secondly, Ali was a Muslim and in both his speeches and lectures, echoes of Islam and Africa reverberated in the firmaments of his public debates. 

Thirdly, one could list the fact that Ali was an engaged intellectual. Not only did he look at the learning systems of the West, but he also carried with him the critical tools for careful and formidable inspections of words and deeds from the West. His books and videos on Africa are now a part and parcel of his ever-growing legacies for all of us.

Fourthly, Ali Mazrui was a public intellectual who had the required training and audacity to stand up and speak for Africa and Islam. Certainly, he had the nerve and the verve to make a big difference. The fifth point to note is the fact that Ali Mazrui went to Columbia for his Master’s degree and to Oxford for his doctorate. These two instances provided him with the environments and personalities that changed and affected his life.

Tom Mboya, a rising star in Kenyan politics when Mazrui was a budding university professor, is a memorable partner in the telling of Kenyan history. Both of them owed a lot to Jomo Kenyatta. Not only were they impressed by the Mzee (Elder), they also helped in their own different ways to contribute to Kenyan struggles for independence. Tom’s book on Kenya and Ali’s book on Uhuru formed a part of the narratives with countless contributions from other Kenyans, Africans and others beyond East Africa.

The sixth point about Ali Mazrui and the Kenyan experience is related to his encounters with the political leaders in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. His scholarship led him to inquiries about political life and times in this region of the continent. Witness is relationship with Idi Amin, which led to his flight from his beloved campus in Uganda; what about his verbal combat with Obote; how can we miss his political dance with Julius Nyerere, whose followers despised his creation of the term, Tanzaphilia, to define those local and foreign scholars singing praises to the old man from Arusha. 

How can we forget the relationship between Ali and Yacubu Gowon on Nigeria; how can we ever forget his relationship with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya? Both were seen during the Cold War as political lepers quarantined by the West. Ali belonged to those scholars who demonstrated courage and determination to speak for Africa and Islam. His profile in courage led one Western scholar to describe him this way, as reported in my book, Ali Mazrui: The Man and His Works (1980).

According to this observation: “He was the Muhammad Ali of African intellectuals. Fly like a butterfly, and sting like a bee.”  The seventh and last point to identify hereunder is the fact that Ali Mazrui was later in his life and scholarship deeply invested in Islam and the Muslim experience in the West. A careful Google search will point to numerous pieces from which many essays and commentaries could be constructed by future students of Ali Mazrui and his contributions. Those who knew Ali and his works cannot forget his relationship with fellow Muslims who are public intellectuals in their own right. The leaders of the Minaret of Freedom, which has championed the work of Muslims and others clamoring for freedom and justice in America and abroad, particularly in Palestine, will forever add Ali to their narratives, either as a part of their main texts on Muslims and the American experience or, minimally, as a footnotes in their pages. Ali Mazrui was the first keynote speaker at a Minaret of Freedom Institute annual dinner, addressing the still urgent issue “Muslim Dilemmas from Human Rights to the Right to Nuclear Weapons.”

In writing about the man and his works, it is imperative for us to see the impact of Mazrui in the field of African Studies and Islamic Studies in the United States of America. With respect to the former, we can state here that many reflections on Islam and the American experience came from the pen of Ali A. Mazrui. Future researchers, who will try to understand and document the American Muslim narratives, are going to come across his name. This is evident through the Muslim journals on Islam Studies and in the pages of American and other Western journals on Islam.

When Mumtaz Ahmad and I started the American Journal of Islamic Studies in the early part of the 1980s, the efforts of many of our towering scholars were deployed. Ali A. Mazrui not only contributed through the journal when its name was changed to the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, but he also served as another editor-in-chief for the publication. He was able to relate his achievements in the field of African Studies to the field of Islamic Studies. That is why Ali worked well with John Esposito and a number of other scholars serving in their capacities as members of the academic council of the Center for Muslim-Christian understanding.

From that vantage point, Mazrui met and knew many people. As a result, Mazrui secured another place among scholars writing on Islam and the American experience.

In concluding this obituary on Ali A. Mazrui, it is fitting to revisit the impact of his father and the impact he had on the man and his future residence in the United States of America. His father was a learned jurist who served as a mufti in the Islamic high courts of Colonial Kenya. From him he inherited the deep interest in learning and sharing knowledge with family, friends and strangers. Being colonized by the English, he studied the language of the conqueror and became a celebrity among Third World scholars who deployed the language of the colonial master to defend and strengthen his people in their wars for freedom and independence.

 Not only did he learn and master the English language, but closer to home, he also engaged the Swahili language of his people and in time shared his command with the listeners of the BBC and other outlets where this African language became the vehicle of self-articulation and knowledge-transfer for those who were hungry for knowledge.

Professor Sulayman S. Nyang, Howard University
Minaret of Freedom Institute Board of Directors

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