Ali Mazrui: A Post-Modern Ibn Khaldun Reflections on the legacy of Professor Mazrui (1933 – 2014) By Shaikh Ahmad Kutty
Professor Ali Mazrui, who passed away on October 12th, 2014, was an outstanding Muslim academic and public intellectual who was genuinely concerned for the future of his community and the human family.
Referred to by some as ‘a post-modern Ibn Khaldun’, he was a scholar of diverse interests, who wrote prolifically on issues of Africa, culture, globalization, and Islam.
A highly accomplished academic and public intellectual, he had a passion for new ideas and was intrigued by the paradoxes of the human condition.
Moreover, he was equally bold on sharing his ideas in his desire to envision a better world. The first time I heard him speak was at an ISNA convention.
As I entered the lecture hall, I was immediately attracted by his welcoming and smiling demeanor; it was one of the best lectures I ever attended at ISNA.
He was truly inspiring. He came across as a remarkable communicator and a highly erudite scholar, full of fresh ideas. He also exhumed utter sincerity and love of his audience.
Since then, I have read a number of his articles, and listened to his recorded lectures and videos, and perused the books he churned out.
In what follows, I would like to highlight some aspects of his scholarship, which I consider are worthy of inspiration and emulation for students and scholars alike.
Let me start with his rise to scholarship. When asked by an aspiring student how to become a scholar, Imam Shafi listed six requirements, namely, intelligence, passion, perseverance, sustenance, guidance of a mentor, and years (of dedication).
Ali no doubt fulfilled all of these conditions. A highly intelligent man, with a precocious mind, Ali’s nature as well as nurture helped make him a scholar par excellence, and an intellectual giant.
Ali was born and brought up in a scholarly milieu. His father, Sheikh al-Amin Ali Mazrui-as well as his grandfather-were accomplished scholars.
His father-the qadhi of Mombasa, Kenya- was a reformer influenced by the ideas of the visionaries like Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.
Ali’s inquisitive mind was sharpened by the frequent scholarly discussions at home.
His father took great care to mentor him morally and intellectually. Thanks to these, he cherished a deep passion for pursuing knowledge. He wanted to become a legal scholar following the footsteps of his father; if not for the untimely death of his father, he would have ended at Azhar (as he remarked).
God’s will for him was different. It was perhaps the financial constraints relating to his studies that brought him to England. He soon ascended the pinnacle of academic excellence.
After obtaining his doctorate at Oxford, he moved to the United States, rising immediately to the status of a full professor holding highly coveted posts simultaneously at a number of universities both in the United States and around the world.
Ali inherited his father’s ethical vision, reform ideas and concern for the future of his community and the world. During his decades-long career as a professor, he produced a rich legacy of books and hundreds of articles.
He earned numerous awards and recognitions. He also travelled widely throughout the continents.
He was perhaps influenced by his father’s legacy and the Prophetic prayer, ‘I seek refuge in you from knowledge that profits not’.
Ali’s boldness as an academic did not sit well with his critics. He was accused of being an anti-Semite because of his incisive criticisms of the Israeli wars of occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
However, unlike some, he never allowed his criticism of Zionism to morph into racism against the Jewish people. In fact, he recognized the genius of the Jewish people and held them out as an example for others to emulate.
His ideas on Islam were equally revolutionary. He was one of those who called Muslims to combine the double readings of the scripture and nature, and exhorted Muslims to take a critical look at the Islamic teachings by stressing the universal ethics enshrined in the Qur’an.
While cherishing the beauty of Islam, he fought against what he considered were the stumbling blocks hindering the progress of Muslims towards building a vibrant society and civilization.
Although one may take issue with his wholehearted endorsement of the ideas of the Muslim feminists like Aminah Wadud, for instance, very few would disagree with his powerful plea for gender equality and the much-needed openness lacking in the Muslim community.
His fascination with ideas drove him to discern paradoxes, which when deeply imbibed would stir the imagination and engender creativity.
During the ISNA speech I referenced above, he wondered out loud how Islam has some of the most open and democratic of institution,yet Muslims seem to be most undemocratic.
So the question remains about the legacy of Professor Ali Mazrui.
It is here I would like to recall the words of a Syrian historian, Abd al-Razaq al-Baytar (d.1916) who was referring to the achievements of Islamic civilization: “These are the footprints we have left behind in the sands of time.
After we are gone, you can learn about us from our footprints.” There are three types of academics who live and die within the four walls of the campuses.
First are those who thrive as the vocal spokesmen of the establishment. They are adept at beating the drums of war. And their ‘scholarly’ works are intended to promote the imperial ventures of the state.
There are no moral qualms as to how their theories end up snuffing out the lives of millions of fellow human beings and scorching the earth. Their faces beam on the media screens with great enthusiasm-invoking the memory of Nero fiddling when Rome was burning.
The second group consists of those who are simply ‘researchers for research sake’. They are interested in winning scholarly accolades.
There is a third group, however, though limited in number, they are imbued with a sound ethical and moral vision. Their conscience is tormented to see the injustice, violence and terrorism ripping apart the lives of fellow human beings.
They are citizens of the world and see the unity in diversity. They see no real conflict between religion and science preferring to treat them as playing complementary roles-revealing the infinite wisdom of the Creator.
Professor Ali Mazrui belonged to the last group, and he never shied away from waging a relentless jihad against the enemies of humanity-those who thrive on war, terrorism and violence.
He will be sorely missed by all those who look to a better world free of violence, a world as envisioned by the Creator.