The symposium honored Hunwick’s groundbreaking scholarship on the intellectual traditions of Muslim West Africa by exploring the meaning(s) of textual cultures in Muslim societies in Africa and the changes that have taken place in those cultures during the last two centuries.  The joint NU-UIUC organizing committee made a special effort to include junior scholars, many of whom spoke movingly of Hunwick’s role in shaping their intellectual development, even though they had never met him.  As such, the symposium showcased the next generation of scholarship in the field of Islamic manuscript and textual studies in Africa, and the organizers anticipate that many of the papers will be published.

Six panels held over two days progressed from investigating the meanings of the physical elements of hand-written manuscripts (including script, calligraphy, colophons, and visual patterns) to exploring how African Muslims give form to the sacred word beyond the page—in sound, music, and performance. The significance of market literature and print editions and their relationship to handwritten texts was also addressed. Papers involving close readings (or rereadings) of texts were balanced by papers that explored the multi-faceted uses to which texts are put in social and political life. The significance of Ajami in Muslim Africa’s textual and aesthetic traditions was a major focus of the symposium. 

Photo Credit: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University

A special reception to remember John Hunwick brought forth many moving testimonials from his former students, colleagues, friends, and especially, members of his family.  A full report and photos of the event will be available on the Program of African Studies website (

The event was partially supported by a US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant to the Illinois-Africa Consortium, which joins Northwestern’s Program of African Studies and the University of Illinois’ Center for African Studies in activities to strengthen the study of Africa on both campuses. Generous cosponsorships from the American Islamic College, Chicago and other Northwestern units provided additional support.

Submitted by Rebecca Shereikis