Ali Mazrui, Scholar of Africa Who Divided U.S. Audiences, Dies at 81

Ali Mazrui, a scholar and prolific author who set off a tsunami of criticism in 1986 by writing and hosting “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” a public television series that culminated in what seemed to be an endorsement of African nations’ acquiring nuclear weapons, died on Oct. 12 at his home in Vestal, N.Y. He was 81.

His family announced the death without specifying a cause.

Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, where Professor Mazrui was born, said at the time of his death that he was “a towering academician whose intellectual contributions played a major role in shaping African scholarship.”

His books and his hundreds of scholarly articles explored topics like African politics, international political culture, political Islam and globalization. He was for many years a professor at the University of Michigan, and since 1989 had held the Albert Schweitzer chair at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Reflecting his habit of provocation, Professor Mazrui wrote an article in 2012, posted on Facebook, accusing Dr. Schweitzer, the revered medical missionary in pre-independence Gabon, of being “a benevolent racist.” He wrote that Dr. Schweitzer had called Africans “primitives” and “savages,” and had treated Africans in a hospital unit that was separate from, and less comfortable than, one for whites.

Professor Mazrui’s courage transcended ideas. When he was a political-science professor in Uganda in the early 1970s, the country’s brutal dictator, Idi Amin, invited him to be his chief adviser on international affairs — “his Kissinger,” Professor Mazrui told The New York Times in 1986. Instead, he publicly criticized Amin and fled Uganda.

“The Africans,” a nine-part series that was originally broadcast by the BBC and later shown on PBS, portrayed Africa as having been defined by the interplay of indigenous, Islamic and Western influences. Professor Mazrui had acquired the perspective by growing up speaking Swahili, practicing Islam and attending an English-speaking school in Mombasa, Kenya.

“My three worlds overlapped,” he said in the interview with The Times.

The series glorified the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, saying he inspired Africans to have a sense of destiny and become actors on the world stage — a stance that set off storms of criticism. In the last episode, Professor Mazrui predicted a “final racial conflict” in South Africa that would end with whites’ shrinking from using nuclear weapons for fear of killing themselves and then being defeated in an armed struggle, ending apartheid. Victorious blacks, he said, would then inherit “the most advanced nuclear infrastructure on the continent,” and nuclear weapons would become a bargaining chip in a worldwide black-white struggle.

He told The Los Angeles Times that he was “uneasy” that the United States and the Soviet Union could start a nuclear war, without Africa having the same capability. “I want black Africa to have the bomb to frighten the system as a whole,” he said.

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The National Endowment for the Humanities, which had contributed $600,000 toward the making of the series, was so upset with Professor Mazuri’s message that it removed its name from the credits. Lynne Cheney, the chairwoman of the endowment, called the series “worse than unbalanced,” noting that it included no interviews giving divergent views.

Professor Mazrui’s answer to Mrs. Cheney was that he had intended from the beginning to represent the views of one African — “a view from the inside,” he called it. “There are many parts that are anti-imperialist,” he told The New York Times. “Africa is concerned with past domination and afraid of redomination.”

Reviewing the series for The Times, John Corry called its scholarship “empty” and said it was “a vehicle solely for Mr. Mazrui’s feelings.”

But Clifford Terry, writing in The Chicago Tribune, suggested that this personal perspective was in fact a strength: “It is obvious, through it all, that here is a man who deeply cares about what he likes to call a ‘remarkable continent.’ ”

Tom Shales of The Washington Post applauded the shows’ abrasiveness. “The alternative,” he wrote, “would be an innocuous, safely ‘balanced’ documentary on Africa that made no ripples, provoked no discourse.”

Ali Al’Amin Mazrui was born on Feb. 24, 1933, in Mombasa. His father was an eminent Muslim scholar and the chief Islamic judge of Kenya.

As a boy he was not a good student and studied typing at a technical school. He stayed on at the school as a clerk and kept unsuccessfully applying to university, he said in a 2009 interview with The Observer, a Ugandan newspaper.

The Observer reported that the school’s governor had heard him give a speech on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and had been impressed. That led to a series of interviews and a scholarship to finish secondary school in England. He ended up earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Manchester, a master’s from Columbia in New York and, in 1966, a doctorate from Oxford.

The next year he published three books on African politics. In 1973, he began teaching at Makerere University in Uganda. When he fled Uganda, he went to the University of Michigan to teach political science. In addition to teaching at Binghamton, he held an at-large professorial appointment with Cornell and lectured at many schools around the world.

He was president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America and president of the African Studies Association of the United States. He advised the United Nations and the World Bank.

Professor Mazrui’s marriage to the former Molly Vickerman ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Pauline Uti; his sons, Jamal, Alamin, Kim, Farid and Harith; his daughter, Grace Egbo-Mazrui; three grandchildren; and a sister, Alya.

In editing “The Africans” for American television, Professor Mazrui deleted his description of Karl Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets” because producers feared it might be taken as anti-Semitic.

In Britain, where the line was used, he had worried that Marxists might be offended by the reference to Marx as a prophet.

“My life,” he once said, “is one long debate.”

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