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John Hunwick, Esteemed Scholar of Islam and Africa, Dies at 78

World-renowned professor worked to save Africa’s Islamic History

  • Discovered, preserved precious manuscripts of Islamic Africa
  • Created Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa
  • Debunked stereotypes: Revealed Timbuktu was once a haven for high literacy

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern University Professor Emeritus John Owen Hunwick, who discovered a treasure trove of historic Arab literature stored in trunks in Timbuktu, Mali, died April 1 at his home in Skokie. He was 78.

Hunwick was a pioneering and world-renowned scholar of Islam and Africa who worked to change the perception that Africa was a continent lacking written records, a hallmark of civilization. The significance was akin to the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a colleague told the Chicago Tribune in 2001.

“There’s a lot more to Africa than song and dance,” Hunwick told reporters after finding the precious documents.

His startling and monumental 1999 discovery included 3,000 manuscripts, ranging from letters and fragments of works, to complete books covering a range of subjects, including theology, jurisprudence and history.

“His lifelong work and passion was in uncovering the manuscripts of Timbuktu that have proven to the world that Africans have indeed written their own history and that 'Arabic is the Latin of Africa’,” said his wife, Uwa. “He was very committed to his work and liked everybody -- all the human races. He was a very gentle person and very humorous; he made puns of almost every word.”

Hunwick suffered a stroke in 2000, but never let physical limitations slow him down, Uwa said. “His left hand and left leg were both affected but he continued to write a big, mighty book, with one finger,” she said. Hunwick also kept traveling on his own, returning to Mali and Timbuktu, where he was well-known and well-loved.

At Northwestern, Hunwick founded the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) and served as its director. He was a professor of history and religion from 1981 until 2004 and is credited with turning Northwestern into a preeminent center for the study of Islamic Africa.

Among his many achievements and honors, Hunwick also served as the director of the Program of African Studies, was a fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the African Studies Association’s Distinguished Africanist Award in 2005.

He was known as a generous scholar and mentor, whose passionate interest in Arabic manuscripts from sub-Saharan Africa and pioneering research into West Africa’s Islamic intellectual traditions inspired and shaped the careers of students and scholars worldwide.

“I still remember the many times my fellow grad students and I were stunned to silence at the depth and breadth of his knowledge,” alumnus Larry Poston wrote in a 2004 letter, published in Northwestern Magazine. “To be able to study for several years at the feet of such a person was a privilege indeed.”

Poston’s favorite memory of the time, however, was of Hunwick sitting with Poston’s three-year-old daughter on his lap, “shrieking with laughter as he recited limericks and nursery rhymes to her. A world-class scholar who can also delight the heart of a child -- such is the mark of true greatness,” Poston wrote.

Hunwick, the son of a Methodist minister, was born in 1936 in Chard, Somerset, England. After serving in the military, he volunteered for the Somaliland Scouts, a Brigade in the British Army, which sparked his passion for Africa and its people, his family said.

In 1960, after receiving a degree in Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Hunwick began teaching Arabic at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, where he established a department of Arabic and Islamic studies and helped establish a Centre of Arabic Documentation to catalogue Arabic manuscripts.

He first visited Timbuktu in the 1970s as part of a UNESCO delegation that established the Ahmad Baba Center. Hunwick remained engaged with Timbuktu’s manuscript libraries over the ensuing decades, cataloging portions of collections and publishing translations of important texts.

When he started the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), it effectively institutionalized the study of Islam in Africa -- a field marginalized within both African and Islamic studies -- within a major university.

“John Hunwick’s combination of erudition and generosity earned him the respect of scholars and colleagues around the world, especially in Africa,” said Rebecca Shereikis, who worked on her Ph.D. under Hunwick and currently serves as interim director of ISITA. “Since news of his passing was circulated on the internet, tributes to Professor Hunwick  have been pouring in from across the globe, all testaments to his intellect, generosity, and wit. He will be sorely missed.”

Hunwick is the author of “Shari'a in Songhay” as well as numerous other books and texts. He has edited Religion and National Integration in Africa and is a founder-editor of Sudanic Africa: a Journal of Historical Sources.

In addition to his wife Uwa, Hunwick is survived by his sons, Joseph and David; daughters, Maryam, Yvette and Annie; and sisters Muriel and Mary. He has 13 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

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