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CMRM pays tribute to Professor Ali Mazrui

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The following tribute was delivered by Imam Rashied Omar, during his Jumuah Khutbah at the Claremont Main Road Masjid, on Friday the 17th October 2014:

The Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) extends its deepest condolences on the passing of one of Africa’s foremost public intellectuals and scholars, Professor Ali Mazrui. Professor Mazrui died at his New York home on Monday 13 October 2014, at the age of 81, surrounded by family and friends. He will be buried in the place of his birth Mombasa, Kenya on Saturday 18 October 2014, as was his wish.

Professor Ali Mazrui was born on 24 February 1933, in Mombasa, Kenya. He hails from a prestigious Muslim family in East Africa, who ruled over coastal East Africa for much of the 18th century. His father, Shaykh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui, serviced as Chief Qadi of Kenya, the country’s chief Islamic judge, for almost ten years, until his death in 1947.

As the son of an eminent Muslim scholar, Ali Mazrui was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He broke with tradition, excelled in the study of the social sciences, and rose to become a towering public intellectual and academic. His prolific writings and pioneering thinking sought to give voice to a continent emerging from the wounds of imperial dominance and exploitation. He advocated for Africans to pursue indigenous solutions to its problems without succumbing blindly to established hegemonic orthodoxies. Professor Mazrui spoke truth to power and condemned corrupt African leaders as well as hypocritical western statesmen.

He authored and co-author more than 20 books and hundreds of articles in major scholastic journals and for public media, including, “Islam Between Globalization and Counterterrorism” (Africa World Press, November 2004). At the time of his demise, Ali Mazrui, was the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies (IGCS) at Binghamton University in New York.

Early on in his career Ali Mazrui was appointed at the prestigious Makerere University, rising to the level of Dean of Social Sciences. In 1973 he was forced to flee Uganda following his outspokenness against the regime of Idi Amin and in particular his questioning of the disappearance and eventual murder of the university’s vice chancellor Frank Kalimuzo

Ali Mazrui became a well-known figure outside of academia in 1986 when he wrote and hosted the nine-part television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, broadcast in England on the BBC and in the USA on the Public Broadcasting Service. The show’s subtitle refers to the three legacies – Islamic, Indigenous and Western heritage – that have been most apparent in the formation of modern African identity.

He has undoubtedly been one of the world’s most prolific writers on Africa, its people, history and future and has profoundly influenced ideas about Africa among scholars and members of the general public alike.

In 2011, Professor Mazrui was awarded the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) Distinguished Scholar Award for his lifetime, distinguished contributions to scholarly work on Islam and Muslim world affairs. He was honoured for his outstanding service to the American Muslim community as an engaged public intellectual and a strong voice – with unrivalled courage – in defense of the oppressed and the pursuit of justice.

Professor Ali Mazrui visited South Africa several times on lecture tours during the past two decades. We have fond memories of Professor Mazrui’s very first visit to South Africa in 1990 when he delivered the 6th Annual Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture as part of the National Interfaith Conference on Religion and State Relations in Johannesburg. It was a struggle to get Professor Mazrui to agree to visit South Africa at the time because he was concerned about breaking the academic boycott which was still in place against the apartheid regime. Only after we had managed to obtain several letters including one from Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself to reassure him did he finally accept the invitation to visit South Africa.

His keynote address was titled: “Africa’s Pro-Democracy Movement: Indigenous, Islamic and Christian Tendencies”. In his lecture Mazrui argued that Africa was currently experiencing a second liberation struggle for social democracy and social justice and that religion was playing an important role in supporting this process. He also reminded us that: “Only in Africa (referring to Senegal) can you find a Muslim country which accepts a Christian as a head of state, not for one or two terms, but for twenty years without riots on the streets or objections about being dominated by an “alien” religion.” Mazrui challenged Western democracies to become as accepting of a Muslim leader as is the case in Africa.

We also warmly recall one of Professor Mazrui’s last lectures delivered on South African soil in 2008 at the University of Cape Town, titled: “Barack Obama and the Black Atlantic: Towards a Post-racial Global Africa.” Though in his UCT lecture Mazrui lauded Barack Hussein Obama as the first Black American President as a breakthrough in race relations he subsequently revised his position. In a lecture delivered in 2009 titled “Fighting Evil from Nuremberg to Guantanamo: Double Standards in Global Justice”, Mazrui criticized Obama’s so-called war on terror as being racially motivated when he rhetorically asked:

“One question which the (Barack) Obama war on terror has posed is whether the drone has become a weapon of ethnic-specific targeted assassinations? He posed the question: “If the alleged terrorists against the United States had been Europeans, like Russian communists or Austrian Nazis, would any American President have chosen targeted assassinations as an answer to the problem?”

Mazrui was also very critical of the United States of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East in particular its support of the unjust policies of Israel. Mazrui was one of the first scholars to link the treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s treatment of Blacks during apartheid.

In 2007 Professor Ali Mazrui was bestowed The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Gold by former President Thabo Mbeki. In motivating the award the South African presidency proclaimed the following:

Professor Ali Mazrui is one of the greatest minds ever to have been produced by the African continent. His prolific writing, coupled with the variety of fields he has been covering in his academic life proves the versatility of his intellect. He has put the African continent on the pedestal, unearthing and laying bare the grandeur of Africa to a world that had been but paying marginal attention to the intellectual depth of the African continent.

Africa has indeed lost one of its greatest intellectuals and champions in the demise of Professor Ali Mazrui, but his ideas and thoughts will remain as his lasting legacy. His impact is summed up fittingly by a colleague who taught with him in Uganda, Tanzania and the USA, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, who describes Professor Mazrui thus:

“We should think of Ali Mazrui as a long-distance runner from a continent that specialises in giving the world some of its best …Ali ran to his last breath: the ink kept flowing and the corpus kept growing, and the voice was as booming as ever.”

“Full of zest and fearless… (Ali) was a public intellectual who defined the terms of political debate for his generation!”

In the Qur’anic verse (3:18) with which we began this tribute the true scholars who are worthy of our utmost respect and reverence are described as not only possessing great intellectual knowledge but also scholars who are fearless witnesses to justice. Al-Murhum Ali Mazrui was not without his contradictions but was an eloquent and courageous African Muslim voice for global justice. As such he was an embodiment of a scholar fearlessly witnessing to justice.

We pray that God, the Most Compassionate, pardon him, have mercy on him and grant him salvation in the hereafter.

Our prayers and condolences go out to his family and loved ones during this sorrowful time.

May they find strength in their beautiful memories, his immense scholarly contributions and most of all in the warm embrace of family and friends.

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