Ali Mazrui: Friend, Scholar, Visionary

Burjor Avari MBE studied Honours History at Manchester University. He taught the subject in Kenyan and British schools between 1962 and 1987, before joining the Manchester Metropolitan University as Principal Lecturer in Multicultural Studies. In this role he invited Ali Mazrui in 2002 to give two talks at his university. The talks – one on Kenya, and the other on Palestine – stimulated much discussion in the academic community of Manchester.  Since his retirement in 2003, Burjor has continued to work for the University, and is now Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History. He and his daughters flew to New York in 2003 to attend Ali Mazrui’s 70th birthday celebrations, and he kindly provided BD with permission to post his tribute to the esteemed Professor Ali Mazrui on the news of his recent passing.

Ali Mazrui: friend, scholar, visionary


 Burjor Avari

Honorary Research Fellow

Manchester Metropolitan University

Ali Mazrui and I were very close friends while we were undergraduates studying at Manchester University, UK, between 1957 and 1960. We were again together at Oxford between 1961 and 1962 when I was training as a teacher on the Diploma in Education course, while he was at Nuffield College researching for a doctorate in Political Science. We had both come to Britain from Mombasa, Kenya; and, we could share many memories of the town where we had grown up.

Ali, five years older than me, had come to Manchester as a mature student; and so I always looked upon him as an elder brother. Today I remember with great affection and gratitude the four years that I was in his company. My nearly daily meetings with him, along with his girl friend Molly (later to be his wife) and his innumerable friends, were replete with all the conversations, jokes and banters that one enjoys during university life.

First and foremost, through Ali, I learnt to respect the African peoples, their cultures and civilizations. My social and cultural world before coming to UK had been very different from that of Ali. I was brought up within the milieu of Indian cultural space in Kenya. While certain groups of Indian Muslims co-mingled extremely well with the Muslim Swahilis of Mombasa, only a few Indians in general in colonial Kenya had empathies with the Africans of that country. For the vast majority of them Kenya was a land where they could find jobs, make money in business and live far more comfortably than they would have ever done in India. My introduction at a relatively young age to Britain, a country where humiliating treatments of working class people had ceased before the Second World War, had already opened my eyes to the sort of inequalities that I had earlier accepted as a matter of course. My encounters with Ali led to further insights into the relationship between Indians and Africans in a typical colonial setting. Some of my in-built racial feelings came to an end once I began to appreciate the warmth and friendship that I enjoyed in the company of Africans. Ever since those days of the late 1950s my love and respect for Africa has never ceased.

The second crucial way Ali exercised a profound influence on my mind was through his amazing intellectual sharpness and capabilities. His humility hid a genius that eventually erupted in his life like a volcano. By his ready wit and intelligent line of questioning he broadened my intellectual and cultural horizons. For me he was the epitome of a person who would have been cherished by that great seventeenth century philosopher, Francis Bacon. Ali followed Bacon’s advice to the letter: “Reading maketh a full man; writing an exact man; and conversation a ready man”. We used to discuss all manner of subjects and themes, and I was made to think more rigorously by Ali’s logic and innumerable cross-cultural examples and case studies for discussion.

An important trait in Ali’s character that I have continually admired ever since he and I went our separate ways is his unbounded moral courage. He has had more than his share of problems over the last half a century with the authoritarian governments of his mother country, Kenya; and there were years when it was truly dangerous for him to enter the country. Nevertheless, Ali has never shirked from his duty in saying things that have needed saying about various issues, such as the lack of democratic accountability, particularly in the days of Arap Moi, the former President. His courage was sorely tested during the time when Idi Amin ruled Uganda. From his base at Makerere University, as a highly respected scholar of wide sympathies, Ali exhorted Amin at every opportunity to become a merciful and benevolent head of state: but the evil in Amin was so primeval and ingrained. Amin had some of the most distinguished people in Uganda murdered and decapitated; and it was only when Ali sensed an existential threat to him and his family that he left Uganda for the USA. He has been greatly honoured and showered with many awards in the USA; yet, even in that great democratic country, Ali has had to suffer humiliations owing to his faith of Islam that has come under a cloud of suspicion since the Islamist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001. He has not shown any bitterness on his part. Perhaps the most striking example of Ali’s moral courage can be shown by his stern refusal to cow down to pressures from unthinking pro-Israeli extremists on the matter of elementary justice for the Palestinians. While many other academics, normally writers of fulsome articles on democracy, peace and justice in international journals, have shied away from discussing the sufferings of Palestinians, Ali has fearlessly continued to make an articulate and rational case on behalf of the Palestinians.

Let me now talk about the amazing depth and diversity of Ali Mazrui’s scholarship. We know that he has written over thirty books and at least eight hundred articles and short pieces in both serious academic journals and newspapers. We know that he can boast of a very fine intellectual pedigree from his family. His father was a learned jurist in the rigorous Islamic legal tradition. Despite mediocre school certificate grades he dabbled early on in journalism in Mombasa and gained maturity and easy facility in the use of English language, which secured for him the award of a Kenya government scholarship to study in Britain. Even before he joined Manchester University he had gained the prestigious Gladstone Memorial Prize, one of the great academic awards for would-be historians, philosophers and scholars. His sharpness and clarity of thought must have increased a hundred-fold at Manchester University which has always attracted to it some of the ablest academics in Britain. He was much influenced by the subtle wit and logic of his philosophy professor, Dorothy Emmett, under whom the Philosophy Department was flourishing in the 1950s. But there is also something else contributing to Ali’s intellectual energy that I would like to bring to the notice of the reader. I do not remember a single evening spent in his company when he was not cutting out and referencing every bit of serious information that he elicited from daily newspapers. He could be talking, laughing and joking, while at the same time he could be cutting away the newspapers. He also made detailed notes from various textbooks in a very systematic way.

First and foremost, Ali is essentially a political philosopher, and his scholarly books and articles engage with a variety of theoretical perspectives in the field of political philosophy. In his works he deals with issues concerning political leadership, violence and warfare, resolution of conflict, ethnic and linguistic differences, institutions of world order, human rights, the role of culture in politics, and many other themes, in line with the works of many other political philosophers. However, I have been struck by two particular characteristics: his non-Eurocentric way of looking at the world and the comparative approach that he adopts. The  Eurocentric approach, that has dominated all our intellectual thinking during the last two centuries, marginalises concepts, motivations and actions springing from the non-European world; political philosophy is conceived to be a discipline designed in Europe by Europeans. Ali’s non-Eurocentric approach, built on his profound knowledge of the history of the non-European world, endows parity of esteem to ideas and facts emanating from that world. His comparative approach makes Ali’s articles also very fascinating to read; for him political philosophy is not some dry-as-dust academic subject; it is continually enlivened by his comparisons, contrasts and evaluations of personalities, institutions and ideas from different parts of the world and from different ages of history. The past and the present form a coherent whole and help to explain each other in Ali’s political philosophy.

Throughout his life Ali has been a challenging and controversial political philosopher. He has been courageous enough to articulate sometimes the most unorthodox and conventionally unwelcome ideas. Let me point to one such idea. In his famous BBC Reith Lectures of 1979, The African Condition, he raised the theme of nuclear non-proliferation and dared to suggest that Africa should manufacture her own atomic weapons. He was, and is, aware of all the potential difficulties around this issue, not least being the decision as to who exactly in the continent could have the expertise and final authority to initiate such a programme. Nevertheless, Ali was prepared to shock his genteel BBC audience by asking some fundamental questions: Why should only a few nations have the right to possess nuclear weapons? Why should other nations remain in a position of dependency? Do the nations that possess nuclear weapons behave any more morally or ethically than the rest?

The area of the world that has most engaged Ali’s scholarship is Africa. Just about every issue that confronts the peoples of this continent can be found discussed in his great array of scholarly articles and books. He does this, not in a spirit of patronising pessimism in the style of many Western writers, but with a lively sense of hope and appreciation of the continent’s heritage. In perhaps his first published article in a western newspaper, The Times of London, fifty years ago, Ali sought to explain what it meant to be an African and why Africans felt themselves to be a united people in a way that Asians could not be; he also tentatively explored the roots of pan-Africanism that has inspired so many of Africa’s leaders and intelligentsia. Since writing that first article he has gone on to analyse a host of Africa’s predicaments and promises. The nature of African leadership in the last half century has come under his gaze, and he has evaluated the qualities of that leadership in a fair and rational manner. I was disappointed, during the 1970s, to read of Ali’s severe judgements on Presidents Nyerere of Tanzania and Nkrumah of Ghana, my political heroes at that time, but I also knew that his strictures on those two leaders were as a result of not personal malice but of genuine worry that ideological socialism espoused by the two leaders might not work out for their countries: and, to a certain extent, Ali has proved correct.

One of the most original constructs of Africa that Ali Mazrui devised is in his celebrated book and BBC TV series The Africans. Now over two decades old, the book and the series do not at all feel dated, and they have had hundreds and thousands of readers and viewers throughout Africa. Ironically, it was his mother country Kenya that censored the book and the film for many years.

According to Ali, the Africans are inheritors of three great civilizations: indigenous, Islamic and western. While colonialism and western technological superiority have beguiled so many millions of people of the so-called Third World into rejecting the wisdom of their ancestral past, a few courageous people like Ali have cherished this past and continue to pay respect and homage to it. Such native African concepts regarding spirituality, respect for nature and land, village organisation, family and clan bonds, inter-generational relationships and, above all, warm hospitality, have created the African personality in the first instance; and in Ali’s works there is enormous regard for this tradition. The first element, therefore, in the making of Africa is her own indigenous heritage and vitality.

Islam and Islamic civilization are, for Ali, a second important cultural strand firmly embedded within the body politic of Africa. Some African and African-American intellectuals, influenced by Afrocentric ideas, have strongly castigated the role of Islam in the continent. The huge Arab slave trade, carried on even today in different guises in parts of Africa, like Sudan and Mauritania, provides much justification for the misgivings of Afrocentrists regarding the role of Islam in Africa. But this is not the full story. Islam also brought much learning to Africa. Through Islam Africa came to be bonded with Asia; and for many millions of Africans in the west, north and east of the continent the Quran is their solace in a world full of dangers. A rational Muslim and African scholar, Ali has the right credentials to evaluate the role of Islam in African life, which he has done with brilliance and clarity. By popularising his concept of Afrabia he has provided the intellectual backbone for building potential links between Africa and the Arab Middle East.

The third cultural strand in the making of modern Africa, according to Ali, is Western civilization. Ali holds the achievements of the West in profound respect. If Africa wishes to make progress in raising the standard and quality of life of her peoples, then she has to embrace the ideas from the West. And this is what she has been doing for nearly a century. Some of the positive results are beginning to be noticed in fields as diverse as communications, health, education and industrialisation. Both in his book and the film Ali portrays the varied developments with vivid details. However, he also displays a very healthy scepticism over Western commercial and financial interests that have been dispossessing the continent of her enormous material wealth. The benefits of aid granted by Western nations are cancelled out in the aggregate by the enormous flow of wealth in the form of ill-gotten profits and interest charges to places like London, Paris, Brussels and New York. To a certain extent, the Chinese are playing the same game in today’s Africa. While Ali’s book and film, produced in the 1980s, did not anticipate the Chinese onrush into Africa, some of the criticisms he has made against powerful and vested Western interests can also be applied to the Chinese.

I like to conclude this paper with a tribute to Ali’s vision for Africa. He wants the peoples of his beloved continent to enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology and become more prosperous. He wants their leaders to rule with humanity and dignity and not to behave as tyrants. He wants the young people to be proud of their heritage and traditions. All these ideas can be searched for in the millions of words that he has written in the last fifty years. I am sure that his voluminous works will provide guidance and direction for many future generations of scholars and students not only in Africa but in many other parts of the world too. It is important that the Mazruiana collection, that has been compiled and systematised over many years by the South African scholar, Dr. Abdul Bemath, is enriched, expanded and deposited in every major library in all the towns and cities of Africa.



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