Dr. Nyang Remembers Prof. Mazrui

avI7yJgUKJuF-3AoM2AMiuNy5JWruVK3t9Lg1vs_3zLR49gXUDwWuyY-TSY8mJ4Ql2BpTXRZIAX4j-TlujRLJ8Tg-lUpmCOH0ED6hd83DsgZAoRZ=w177-h163-ncBy Professor 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 benefitted from his writings and other forms of sharing knowledge and memories. In writing this brief obituary it is imperative for us to educate the reader 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 learn to negotiate between Arab, Swahili and the English language. This dictatorship of a linguistic troika determined in opinions on and attitudes towards colonial rule in Kenya. Not only he faced colonialism but he 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 this developments in his life and how it affected his encounter with Britain and the impact of the English language in Africa.


Again, in talking about Ali Mazrui and his education in Kenya and abroad, seven things can be highlighted for the un-informed and perplexed. First of all, Ali came out of Kenya with a firm background in Swahili culture and this fact remains 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 debate.


Thirdly, one could list the fact that Ali was an engaged intellectuals. 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 evergrowing 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. His two instances provided him with the environment 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, 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 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 Ghaddafi 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 latter in his life and scholarship deeply invested in Islam and the Muslim experience in the West. A careful Goggle search will point to numerous pieces from which many essays and commentaries could be constructed by future students of Ali Mazrui and his contributions.


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 Sttaes 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 tried 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 Sulayman S. Nyang 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 his legacies will be much remembered because he 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 P.O. Box 590113 Washington D.C. 20059


  1. Luntango/Gann

    Hasante Sana, Bwana Nyang, a very good review. Just to add: Tom Mboya was my alma mater’s Patron (followed by Njonjo when Kenyatta killed Mboya; Njonjo in turn followed by Kibaki when Moi “knee-capped” Njonjo!). But, Hakuna Matata, the review of Mazrui is broad and excellent. Al Baraka.

  2. Luntango/Gann

    Here is another good review from Nairobi today:

    Rejection and bans paved Mazrui’s path to greatness

    By AUSTIN BUKENYA (from Nairobi’s Daily Nation, 17/10/2014)

    Early this week, Ali Mazrui, that iroko of African scholarship and persuasive eloquence, crashed down to Mother Earth with a thud that resounded throughout the world. Inna lillahi! It’s natural to be saddened at the departure of such a pillar of inspiration. (“iroko” is the spiritual Yoruba tree endowed with mystical powers, a tree which must not be cut down, like Mazrui! – Dida)

    At Makerere, where Mazrui first rose to scholarly eminence, and where he last made an emotional “homecoming” just about two years ago, his death was initially received with a kind of stunned silence. But Ali Mazrui was over 80 years old, and there was hardly an academic honour in the world that hadn’t been conferred upon him.

    So, his departure should, rightly, be an occasion for celebration of the man’s achievements, his phenomenal contribution to African Studies and our own part, as Africans, to his success. Rising eyebrows? Yes, one cannot help wondering what part we played in Mazrui’s fame when Makerere denied him undergraduate admission, Idi Amin hounded him out of Uganda and Kenya banned his TV series, The Africans: a Tripartite Heritage.

    First, we must dispel a misperception. Most of us have known Mazrui only as a celebrity, and we may be tempted to concentrate only on the glamour, ignoring the man’s colossal struggle to make it even to the lowest ranks of Kenyan colonial society. Though nobly descended from the famous Mazruis, Ali was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was a Mswahili and a Moslem, and that was not an easy combination in East Africa under British colonialism.


    The colonial system was based on strict divisions of society along racial lines, like: Europeans, Asians, Arabs and Africans. Of the Waswahili, there was no mention, meaning that officially they “did not exist”. For people like Ali Mazrui, it was left to the observer and policy-maker to decide whether they were “Arabs” or “Africans”, depending on the colour of their skins. As for Mazrui’s faith, a little narrative may help to illustrate the point. Early in his lecturing days at Makerere, Mazrui went to teach, clad in a kanzu and a skullcap. He dug into his topic with his characteristic fluency and enthusiasm.
    Soon, however, a little crowd had gathered outside, gazing at the rostrum through the windows of the lecture hall. Apparently a cleaner had spotted Mazrui in action and he had called his colleagues to come and see the marvel of “a Muslim who spoke English”! This tale may well be apocryphal, but it’s symbolic of the expectations that society had of people of Ali Mazrui’s background, even as late as the early 1960s. Anyway, when I first got up close to Ali Mazrui in 1968, he was already a well-established academic at Makerere, the very institution that had rejected him for undergraduate study many years earlier.

    He was our Director of Postgraduate Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Mazrui was at that time one of a crop of brilliant young scholars at the Political Science Department, including Yash Tandon, Ahmed Mohiddin, the Sudanese Abu Zayd and my relative Apollo Nsibambi, a future Prime Minister under President Museveni. But Mazrui was already the most prominent among them, mainly because of his gutsy and outgoing engagement with scholarly activity. And this brings us to his view of scholarship and the role of the intellectual.


    At the height of a heated academic debate on the role of intellectuals, Mazrui defined an intellectual as a person fascinated by ideas and with the ability to operate some of them. For Mazrui, fascination meant a voracious and limitless alertness to and interest in all matters human and social. Indeed, some critics of his work have faulted it for being too “eclectic”, difficult to place as either history, sociology, political science or even literature.

    We in Literature had no problem with that, and we accepted Mazrui’s creative work, like his speculative novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, and his verse contributions to our student poetry journal, Makerere Beat, seriously, subjecting it to rigorous evaluation. But that was not always the case with our colleagues in other disciplines. Water-tight compartmentalisation was common among scholars of Mazrui’s generation. This was due to narrow professional interests, ideological “closures” (scholars labelling themselves with one “ism” or another and refusing to look at anything beyond), or simple intellectual limitations. Mazrui rose above these by refusing to be pigeonholed. Being a political scientist would not prevent him from writing on language, religion or interracial marriage.

    In the last two decades, he teamed up with his nephew, the literary scholar Alamin Mazrui, to produce a precious corpus of scholarship on East African coastal history and culture. Indeed, the rise of the “super-discipline” of Cultural Studies has fully vindicated his approach. It’s thus little wonder that one of his last full-time appointment was as Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton.

    But fascination without propagation is sterile, and this is where Mazrui’s “operation” of ideas comes in. Throughout his long career, Mazrui was a producer and a sharer of discourse: always writing and publishing, always debating and always delivering lectures and talks beyond his specific teaching commitments. Again, some critics have faulted Mazrui for this approach, calling it “populist” and likely to “dilute intellectual debate”. But academic studies that cannot be shared with the public are vain and selfish, and Mazrui led the way in countering this. Endowed with spellbinding eloquence and oratorical skills, he set out on an almost ceaseless campaign to illuminate the African condition and experience, to his fellow Africans and to the world.


    Significantly, the authority, passion and persuasiveness with which Mazrui spoke and wrote about Africa arose primarily from his personal experience as an East African, growing up under British colonialism and witnessing the momentous early decades of African independence. It was probably Mazrui’s awareness of this need for first-hand experience that led him to return to Africa to work, despite his long sojourn in England, his distinguished academic performance there, and even his marriage to Molly, an Englishwoman. By the time Mazrui wrote and published his early “controversial” articles, like “Nkrumah: the Leninist Tsar”, that exposed the tragic contradictions between the rhetoric and the actions of the first generation of independent African leaders, or “Tanzaphilia”, lampooning the gimmicks of Western apologists for African political foibles, he was speaking confidently from inside Africa.

    This is where our claim of a share in Mazrui’s triumph comes in. The iconic articles mentioned above, and many others by him, were first published in Kampala, in the prestigious Transition monthly. The East Africa Journal, mentioned earlier and published in Nairobi, also had a fair share of Mazrui’s articles. Even Makerere redeemed itself by hiring Mazrui and hosting him for a decade in the 1960s and 1970s. Mazrui, too, duly acknowledged Makerere’s contribution to his career.

    Inshallah, I’ll one day tell you about the grand Mazrui memorial service held in the Main Hall on Friday, October 17, 2014. Incidentally, Makerere plans to build a Mazrui Centre, which will house a “Mazruana” collection of his works and other memorabilia.

    I wonder what Mombasa will do.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *