Sacred Word Symposium

Sacred Word: Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa
A Symposium Dedicated to the Memory of Professor John O. Hunwick (1936-2015)
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
April 21-22, 2016

From April 21-22, over twenty scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America will convene in Evanston to take part in an interdisciplinary symposium co-organized by the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), the Program of African Studies (PAS), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for African Studies, and the American Islamic College, Chicago. “Sacred Word: The Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa,” dedicated to the memory of ISITA cofounder and history and religion professor emeritus John Hunwick, explores 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.  Papers by junior and senior scholars will address how African Muslims give aesthetic form to the sacred word in a variety of contexts including handwritten manuscripts, printed works, material objects, sound, music, and performance.

This symposium is supported by a US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant to the Program of African Studies, NU, and the Center for African Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is co-sponsored by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Office for Research, the Department of History, the Department of Religious Studies, and the American Islamic College, Chicago.

Preliminary Program

Program subject to minor changes.

Thursday, April 21st
Program of African Studies, 620 Library Place, Evanston IL

8:30-9:00 am: Breakfast

9:00-9:15 am: Welcome & Introductory Remarks

9:15-11:15 am: Panel 1A.  Manuscript Aesthetics: The Arts of Scribes & Calligraphers
Chair: Sandy Prita Meier, School of Art & Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Discussant: Bilha Moor, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Islamic Art & Architecture, Northwestern University

Sara Fani & Adday Hernandez
, Cross-Cultural & Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen
Scribal Practices in Arabic Manuscripts from Ethiopia: The Visual Expression of Fuṣḥā, ʻAǧamī and Esoteric Textual Manifestations

Kenneth Inyani Simala
, East African Swahili Commission
Islamic Calligraphy and Classical Swahili Poetry: A Phenomenological Exegesis

Mustapha Hashim Kurfi
, Sociology & African Studies, Boston University
The Hausa Calligraphic and Decorative Tradition

Mamadou Diallo, Independent Scholar, Abidjan & Bernard Salvaing, History, University of Nantes
Beyond the Script: An Introduction to Futa Toro and Futa Jalo Textual Cultures

11:15-11:30 am: Break

11:30 am-1:30 pm: Panel 1B. Manuscript Aesthetics:  The Significance of Ajami
Chair: Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Block Museum of Art & Department of Art History, Northwestern University
Discussant: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Philosophy & French, Columbia University

Dmitry Bondarev & Darya Ogorodnikova, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, University of Hamburg
Visual and Linguistic Patterns of Ajami Paratexts in Islamic Manuscripts from Central and Western Sudan

Fallou Ngom, Anthropology & African Languages, Boston University
Visual Aesthetics of the Word in the Muridiyya

Nikolai Dobronravin, African Studies, St. Petersburg State University & Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg
Design Elements and Illuminations in the Arabic and Ajami “Market Literature” in Nigeria

Amidu Sanni, Arabic Studies, Lagos State University
Does a Yoruba Ajami Text Carry a Special Status? Yoruba ‘Waka’ between Spirituality and Profanity

1:30-2:30 pm: Lunch at the Program of African Studies

2:30-4:00 pm: Panel 2. Homage to John Owen Hunwick
Chair: Anne Bang, History, University of Bergen

Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, Emeritus, Anthropology, University of Lorraine
Revisiting a Hunwick Translation

Scott Reese, History, Northern Arizona University
Underappreciated Print: Textual Production and Globalized Contexts in 20th Century African Islam 

Mauro Nobili, History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
From the “Primitive City of Timbuctoo” to the “Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu”: Manuscript Culture in the Niger Bend and the Legacy of John Hunwick

Sali Shahsivari, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London
John O. Hunwick’s Contribution to the Preservation and Documentation of Manuscripts in West Africa

5:30-8:00 pm: Reception: Remembering John Owen Hunwick

John Evans Alumni Center, 1800 Sheridan Road, Evanston IL (NOTE LOCATION CHANGE)

Welcome Remarks: Jay Walsh, Vice President for Research, Northwestern University

Moderator: Charles C. Stewart, Emeritus, History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign & Director of Programming, ISITA

Please join friends, colleagues, and members of the Hunwick family in a time for remembering Professor John Hunwick and his many contributions.  Refreshments will be served.

Friday, April 22nd

Program of African Studies, 620 Library Place, Evanston IL

8:30-9:00 am: Breakfast

9:00-10:30 am: Panel 3. Engaging with Texts: the Page and Beyond

Chair: Babacar Mbengue, Islamic World Studies, DePaul University
Discussant: Sean Hanretta, History & ISITA, Northwestern University

Amir Syed, Anthropology & History, University of Michigan
 “I Am an Inheritor of the Prophet”: Love and Authority in al-Hajj ‘Umar Tal’s safinat al-sa’ada li-ahl du’uf wa najada

Stephanie Zehnle, Modern History, University of Kassel

Geographical Representation and Textuality in Sokoto

Paul Naylor, History, University of Birmingham

Abdullahi dan Fodio and the Arabic-Islamic Literary Imagination

10:30-11:00 am: Break

11:00 am-12:30 pm: Panel 4A. Transmitting Knowledge, Finding Meanings: From Sufism to Salafism

Chair: Robert Launay, Anthropology, Northwestern University
Discussant: Brannon Ingram, Religious Studies, Northwestern University

Abdalla Uba Adamu, Vice Chancellor, National Open University of Nigeria
Blasphemy from Below: Hausa Poetics and the Sacred-Profane Dichotomy in Sufi Performances in Northern Nigeria

Zachary Wright, History & Religious Studies, Northwestern University in Qatar

Hidden Words: Private Manuscripts as Historical Sources for the Origins of the Tijaniyya

Noah Salomon, Religious Studies, Carleton College
Rethinking Scripturalism:  Ethics, Knowledge and Textual Practice in Contemporary Sudanese Salafism

12:30-1:30 pm: Lunch at the Program of African Studies

1:30-2:30 pm:  Free time

Participants may choose to visit the Herskovits Library collection of Arabic Manuscripts from West Africa.

For those who wish to attend Jumah Prayer, it is held at on campus at 1:15 pm in Parkes Hall, Rm. 122, 1870 Sheridan Road.

2:30 pm:  Transport to the American Islamic College leaves from the Program of African Studies.

American Islamic College, 620 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, IL (NOTE LOCATION CHANGE)

3:15-4:45 pm: Panel 4B. Transmitting Knowledge, Finding Meanings:  The Holy Qur’an
Chair: Maimouna Barro, Center for African Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Discussant: Jawad Qureshi, American Islamic College & Islamic Studies, University of Chicago Divinity School

Corinne Fortier, Anthropology, Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique
Power and Embodiment of Qur’anic Sacred Words

Afis Ayinde Oladosu, Arabic & Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan

“Sacred Just Like the Qur'ān?”! Dalāil al-Khayrāt of S.M. al-Jazoulī

Jeremy Dell, History, University of Pennsylvania

Reading the Qur'an in Wolof: The Tafsir of Muhammadu Dem

5:00-6:00 pm: Dinner at the American Islamic College

Hotel Information

Attendees are responsible for arranging their own accommodations.  Hotels fill quickly in Evanston in the spring, so we recommend making a reservation soon.

A group rate for symposium attendees has been negotiated with the Hilton Garden Inn, Evanston, a fifteen-minute walk from the Program of African Studies.

The Hilton Garden negotiated rate is $159/night plus tax at 13.5%.  If you wish to book with the Hilton Garden, please contact the reservations coordinator, Jisi Ochana at 847-492-6548 or A credit card number is required to secure the reservation at booking. Mention that you are associated with the ISITA Northwestern University group.

Other hotel options in Evanston within walking distance of campus:

Hilton Orrington Hotel

Margarita European Inn

Holiday Inn University Plaza

The Homestead Hotel is currently sold out for the dates of April 20-23.


All symposium events are free and open to the public, but registration is required. Register here no later than April 13, 2016.

Register here

Please contact Rebecca Shereikis at or (847) 491-2598 with any questions.