Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)

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Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa
Northwestern University
620 Library Place, Evanston IL 60208

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Welcome to ISITA—the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, located at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA. ISITA sponsors and facilitates collaborative interdisciplinary scholarship on the Islamic tradition of learning in Africa and promotes a broader awareness of the role of Islam in African societies, past and present.  By sponsoring field research, conferences, visiting scholars, and publications, ISITA encourages intellectual exchange, especially with Africa-based scholars, and produces new knowledge on Islamic thought in Africa.

If you would like to receive updates on ISITA news and events, we encourage you to subscribe to the ISITA e-mail list.


Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts: A Training Workshop
ISITA, the Center for African Studies (CAS) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg will hold an innovative training workshop at at Northwestern University from August 14-20, 2017. View the provisional schedule here.

Call for Papers: The "Caliphate of Hamdallahi": A History from Within (NEW DEADLINE)
An international conference co-sponsored by the Center for African Studies (CAS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and ISITA and the Program of African Studies at Northwestern. The conference will be held at UIUC from April 6-7, 2018. Deadline to submit a proposal is November 1, 2017. View the full Call for Papers here.

Arabic Literature of Africa volume 5 receives prestigious award
The Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 5 - The Writings of Mauritnaia and the Western Sahara (Brill, 2015) won the African Studies Association's 2016 Conover Porter Award recognizing outstanding Africa-related reference works, bibliographies, or bibliographic essays published in any country during the precedin two years. View the details here.

ISITA receives grant in support of African manuscript curators
The German-based Gerda Henkel Foundation has awarded a $43,360 grant to ISITA to support the participation of Africa-based manuscript curators and calligraphers in an interdicsiplinary manuscript training workshop in 2017. View the details here.

ISITA Sponsors Four Panels at African Studies Asociation 59th Annual Meeting, Washington DC, December 1-3, 2016
ISITA-sponsored panels at the 2016 ASA includeD one in a four part series dedicated to "John O. Hunwick's Legacy"; two panels showcasing younger scholars' work ("New Voices in the Study of Islam in Africa"); and a panel on "Race, Racecraft, and Racism in Islamic Africa." View the details here.

ISITA, the Center for African Studies (CAS) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg announce a workshop on Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts, to be held at Northwestern University from August 14-16, 2017.

View the full Call for Applications including eligibility criteria, cost, and instructions for applying here.

Due to funding restrictions, applicants must be US citizens or live in the United States in order to be eligible to participate. Permanent residents or foreign nationals enrolled in or working at an American institution of higher education, library, museum, or archive, are eligible to apply.

Application deadline was December 11, 2016. Applications now closed.

The ISITA community mourns the passing of ISITA's "founding father," John O. Hunwick, who died at his home in Skokie, Illinois on April 1, 2015 surrounded by family. Hunwick served as professor of history and religion at Northwestern from 1981-2004 and founded ISITA in 2001 with a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. A generous scholar and mentor, Hunwick’s passionate interest in Arabic manuscripts from sub-Saharan Africa and pioneering research on West Africa’s Islamic intellectual traditions had a profound impact on students, scholars, and the academic world.  ISITA will organize an event in the 2015-16 academic year to celebrate and honor Professor Hunwick's career.

Read the tributes published by Northwestern University: John Hunwick, Esteemed Scholar of Islam and Africa, Dies at 78 and in the Program of African Studies Fall 2015 newsletter.

News of Professor Hunwick's passing triggered an outpouring of tributes sent by email from colleagues and library owners and former students in Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, South Africa, China, Germany, France, England, Norway, Canada, all over the US, and of course, from Timbuktu. ​Below is a sampling of these message--a testament to impact of Professor Hunwick's life and work.

"We have learned today, April 2, 2015, of the death of our dear friend and long-time collaborator, Mr. John Hunwick. To his loyal family, to his close friends and collaborators, we address our most saddened condolences, imploring the Lord most powerful to welcome him in his immense Paradise. We will remember his as a wise and courageous man who loved the study of sub-Saharan manuscripts.  To these manuscripts he consecrated an important part of his efforts.  We owe him much in this area.

We support all initiatives to honor his memory and immortalize his works."

Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, Director, ONG SAVAMA-DCI, Mali

"This is a sad day. My sincere condolences to Uwa and the Hunwick family for their loss.  All my sympathy also to John's friends, colleagues, collaborators and students. We lost in John a great scholar, a generous collaborator and a benevolent mentor and teacher. I am privileged to have had the chance of knowing and working with John. He not only introduced me to African Studies but also to his scholarly network and gave all his support to the Moroccan Institute of African Studies. John's generosity and capacity for friendship were truly exceptional.  
May he rest in peace."

Fatima Harrak, University Mohamed V, Morocco and President, CODESRIA

"We have lost a great scholar who was truly committed to our fields and the continent. I was fortunate to have hosted him in South Africa on two visits here and my family, students and colleagues all fondly treasure those visits and the times we spent learning from John and just enjoying his company. Our condolences to his wife and family. Hamba Kakuhle."

Shamil Jeppie, Director, Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, University of Cape Town, South Africa
ISITA Senior Fellow, 2002

"The passing of our dear teacher, mentor and father was a great loss to the immediate family and indeed to his extended family of colleagues, friends and the talaba. We may take consolation in the fact that the Shaykh lived a very productive life. He set the highest standards for all to emulate. He expected rigour 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 humour and cheerfulness and thanks to the puns, lightened the burdens of the usually demanding and serene environment of the 'Arabic Room'.
May God, in His infinite mercy, grant the family, nuclear and extended, the fortitude to bear the loss. May the standards he set serve as a guide to us all as we delve into the complexities of Africa's Islamic intellectual heritage.
We look forward to attending the conference proposed by ISITA."

Hamidu Bobboyi, Nigeria, Former Student, ISITA Senior Fellow, 2001

"John Hunwick’s passing is a source of pain for Africanists and Islamicists the world over.  I will mourn his passing, remember his dedication, and extend my strongest condolences to his family.

Northwestern has his imprint in so many ways, and will always be a center for the study of Islam in Africa with unparalleled collections and human resources.

For half a century John has been the leading scholar of Muslim societies in Africa.  He acquired an unmatched mastery over the Arabic literature of North Africa, Egypt, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahara and West Africa, and made that knowledge available in a stream of publications (bibliographies, translations and interpretations).  He was a role model and mentor to younger scholars studying the same subjects, and his disciples continue his work and teaching the world over. 

He published many seminal works that will stand the test of time.  Those that come first to mind are the bio-bibliographies of the Arabic literature on my Africa, the Shari`a in Songhay, a translation of a work produced in the early 16th century and an elaborate commentary on the relations of Muslims and non-Muslims in West Africa, and a new translation and commentary of a chronicle composed by a Timbuktu-based scholar in the 17th century (the Ta'rikh al-Sudan). But others will remember other publications, and indeed the many other ways in which he has enriched our lives.   May he go with God."

David Robinson, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University

"The death of John is a great loss to scholarship but his footprints in the field of African Arabic/Islamic studies will forever remain indelible. Those of us who had the unique fortune of passing through his hand at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria in the 1960s will always cherish his sense of humour and skill in cultivating and nurturing in us a love for academic scholarship. The establishment of the department of Arabic and Islamic studies and the Center for Arabic Documentation in that University owes everything to his foresightedness. My own career as a researcher and university teacher could never have taken off without his continual encouragement and mentoring."

Isaac Ogunbiyi, Professor Emeritus, Lagos State University, Nigeria, Former student, ISITA Senior Fellow, 2002

"A very sad day for the loss of a great scholar, beloved teacher, inspiring mentor and very generous human being. My I extend my condolences to the family, and the entire community of Hunwick’s colleagues, students, and everyone who has been touched by Hunwick's kindness. May his soul rest in peace."

Muhammad Sani Umar, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, Former student and former director of ISITA

"May his soul rest in peace and may the earth lay gently over him; his works will remain forever engraved in the annals of African and Islamic history.  My condolences to the entire family."

 Ali ould Sidi, Head of the Cultural Mission, Timbuktu

CALL FOR PAPERS: "Sacred Word: The Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa." A Symposium dedicated to the memory of Professor John O. Hunwick, April 21-22, 2016. CLOSED.

A symposium titled "Sacred Word: The Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa" will be held at Northwestern University from April 21-22, 2016. It is sponsored by the ISITA and the Program of African Studies at Northwestern, and the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A special evening reception Thursday, April 21st is planned to honor Professor Hunwick. This will involve members of his family, his students, and additional community friends and associates in a time for remembering his many contributions.

Read the full Call for Papers here. Paper proposals are due by December 14, 2015.

During the 2014-15 academic year, ISITA is hosting Fulbright African Research Scholar Ibrahim Haruna Hassan, of the department of religious studies, University of Jos to pursue a research project titled "Orientalism and Islamism: A Comparative Study of Approaches to Islamic Studies."

Islamic Africa now a Brill publication

Brill, the international academic publishing house, is now publishing the journal Islamic Africa. Launched at Northwestern in 2009, Islamic Africa was one of several collaborative publishing projects between PAS and Northwestern University Press seeded by a Global Encounters grant from the Mellon Foundation (2008-14).  NUP published five volumes (ten issues) of the journal in conjunction with ISITA under the leadership of Muhammad Sani Umar, who served as editor in chief until 2012 followed by Scott Reese, who continues as co-editor along with Anne Bang following the journal’s transfer to Brill.

Islamic Africa is a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, academic journal published online and in print. Incorporating the journal Sudanic Africa, Islamic Africa publishes original research concerning Islam in Africa from the social sciences and the humanities, as well as primary source material and commentary essays related to Islamic Studies in Africa. The journal’s geographic scope includes the entire African continent and adjacent islands. Islamic Africa encourages intellectual excellence and seeks to promote scholarly interaction between Africa-based scholars and those located institutionally outside the continent. Submissions can be made through the online portal on the Brill website at

Volume 6, the first published with Brill, is a special double-issue on African Salafism, guest edited by Terje Ostebo, with articles by Ostebo, Sorn Gilsaa, Ousman Murzik Kobo, Abdoulaye Sounaye, Alex Thurston, Roland Marchal, Zakaria M. Sheikh, and Einas Ahmed.  The Sources and Commentary section contains four articles originally presented at an ISITA-sponsored roundtable at the 2013 African Studies Association Annual Meeting on “The Islamic Archive of Africa.”   

Conference Report: The Boko Haram crisis and the Nigerian elections

A February 2015 workshop oganized by ISITA offered multi-faceted perspectives on the origins of the Boko Haram insurgency and its implications for Nigerian democracy. Read the full story in the Spring 2015 issue of PAS News and Events.

Download ISITA's Handbook on Mali's 2012-13 crisis

"A Handbook on Mali's 2012-13 Crisis" by Alexander Thurston and Andrew Lebovitch is available for free download at