An intellectual giant: Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)

For the past 50 years, Ali Mazrui dominated the field of African Studies through 26 internationally acclaimed books and hundreds of articles, essays, interviews, and appearances on radio and television programmes. On October 13, the world lost an intellectual giant who helped shape academic and scholarly understandings of Africa during a critical period for not just the continent but global history as well.

Mazrui’s books include the classics “Towards a Pax Africana” (1967) and “The Political Sociology of the English Language” (1975), along with a utopian novel set in heaven entitled, “The Trial of Christopher Okigbo” (1971). His research interests, which ranged from African politics to international political culture, as well as North-South relations, are reflected in his works “Africa’s International Relations” (1977), “Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa” (1978) and “The Political Culture of Language: Swahili, Society, and the State”, co-authored with Alamin M. Mazrui. Two additional influential books were “A World Federation of Cultures: An African Perspective” (1976) and “Cultural Forces in World Politics” (1990).

When examining Mazrui’s contributions, we arrive at an epistemology grounded in pan-Africanist, anti-colonial, and transnational perspectives, which together informed and shaped his scholarly production. Before the 1960s, the field of African Studies was dominated by colonial discourses, and the work of scholars like Mazrui helped us arrive at a different examination of the history of Africa and its present circumstances.

Beyond colonialism

In his article, “The Re-inventing of Africa”, Mazrui engaged both Edward Said and V. Y. Mudimbe in a comparative reading while also constructing a comprehensive view of the forces that influenced African history. Beyond colonialism, Mazrui identified three additional aspects to consider when examining Africa’s history: the classical Mediterranean world, Africa’s interaction with the Semitic peoples, and the impact of Islam on the continent.

Mazrui was born in Mombasa, Kenya, into a prominent Muslim family. His father was the Chief Qadi of Kenya, the highest legal authority on Islamic law.

The Mazrui clan itself ruled Mombasa in pre-colonial times and enjoyed influence during British colonial rule. Mazrui earned a B.A. from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, an M.A. from Columbia University in New York and finally a PhD from Oxford University.

Mazrui was the head of the Department of Political Science and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, until 1973, when he was forced into exile by Idi Amin.

He then taught political science at the University of Michigan, where he was also named Director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. In 1989, he was appointed as the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York, a position he held until retirement.

A widely known public intellectual, Mazrui witnessed the ebbs and flows of local and global events affecting Africa and the Muslim world. The anti-colonial revolutionary struggles across the continent provided a compelling backdrop for Mazrui to project the hopes and dreams of millions of people. While pursuing his PhD, Mazrui served as a political analyst for the BBC.

Relentless challenge

His radio voice was coupled with three books in 1967 that – in a short period – helped redefine African Studies and established Mazrui as an authority. The first, “Towards a Pax Africana”, emerged out of the PhD thesis and retains its relevance today through the dream of a de-colonial, unified, and cohesive Africa. Mazrui wrote before the academic recognition of postcolonial studies and helped establish a southern hemispheric perspective through his relentless challenge of existing paradigms.

In 1986, he became a household name across the English-speaking world by hosting a nine-part television series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”, which was co-produced by the BBC, PBS, and the Nigerian Television Authority. The series came under attack from right-wing groups that accused it of anti-Western bias, resulting in calls for cutting funding of public broadcasting.

Mazrui was also an early critic of the type of African communism that developed in the post-colonial era, considering it to be another dimension of western influence. More recently, Mazrui provided a critical assessment of African neo-liberal economics while remaining committed to the notion of African liberalism as a concept emerging from the historical experiences of the continent and its diverse people. Furthermore, Mazrui offered constructive analysis of Islam’s role in society and the emergence of Islamism while at the same time rejecting the emerging violence in many parts of the Muslim world.

Mazrui was a global figure prepared to take on the world’s most difficult issues. He was among the first to compare Israel’s occupation of Palestine to South Africa and was an early supporter of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was a steady critic of exploitative capitalism; US and European military interventions, including the Iraq and Afghan wars; and western intervention in the developing world.