Academic career

Humphrey’s academic career from the early 1960s until the beginning of the 21st century was based entirely at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.  Throughout his time he showed extraordinary dedication to his students, many of whom would not have progressed their careers without him, and who bacame life-long friends of Humphrey as well as his wife Helga.

Humphrey’s formal expertise was the history of Islam south of the Sahara, starting with his PhD on one Muslim group, the Ahmadiyyah, in west Africa.

His academic interests often extended well beyond his formal expertise (see the bibliography of many of his writings), in particular meticulous attention to primary historical sources (see, for example, here) as well as significant interest in comparative religious studies. Six highlights were:

  1. demonstrating from primary sources that a key event in West African history, the Almoravid conquest of Ghana in 1076, in fact never happened (see herehere and here).

  2. translating, with his father, one of the most significant primary sources on 19th century Africa: the huge travel account, Sahara and Sudan, in four volumes, of the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal.

  3. Nachtigal’s account also provided deep historical insights into slavery within Muslim society in Africa, which led to a significant book by Humphrey and his father Allan first published in 1970, and extensively revised by Humphrey in 2001 (see also here)

  4. writing his own extensive African journals of his trips to Africa, for research or as an external examiner, to serve as primary historical sources for future generations of historians.

  5. locking horns with a leading social anthropologist, Robin Horton, on  religious conversion in Africa (see here and here)

  6. founding and developing the inter-departmental undergraduate programme in Religious Studies at SOAS. You can read about the history and the organisational structure that led to the notable success of this programme here; not only as a historical record, but also as a casestudy in organisational policy.

Other topics included rural and urban Islam in West Africa, comparative studies of booty (in the Bible, and in the history of Muslim black Africa), and of religious toleration in Black Africa; research on the pilgrimage to Mecca from Black Africa, prayer and military history, symbolism, dreams and healing, the Songhay conquest of Hausaland, horses and locusts.

Humphrey also retained an interest in social anthropology.  His PhD supervisor, Prof Kenneth Kirkwood, was a social anthropologist and the first Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at the University of Oxford.  (It was also through Kenneth Kirkwood that Humphrey came to meet his future wife Helga!)  And Humphrey was one of the editors of, and contributors to, The Politics of Cultural Performance, a volume in tribute to a close colleague at SOAS, Abner Cohen, also a social anthropologist.  Extracts of Humphrey’s contribution (pp. 237-256) appear in the Google preview of the book.

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From Africa and the Americas to Wales: explorers, slaves and war children; religions, pilgrimage and sermons.

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