John Willis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies, dies at 69

John Willis

John Willis Photo: John Jameson

John Willis, a longtime faculty member in Princeton's Department of Near Eastern Studies whose research and teaching focused on West African history and Islamic law, died of a heart attack Nov. 25 at his home in Hightstown, N.J. He was 69.

Willis joined the University faculty in 1972 and transferred to emeritus status this past July. His fields of research included: the history of Islam in Africa; the Islamic concept of jihad; Islamic concepts of revivalism and revivalist movements; Sufi orders and Islamic mysticism; and the sources of legal opinion in Islam.

Willis' 1988 book, "In the Path of Allah: The Passion of al-Hajj'Umar," dealt with an important Muslim reformer and warrior in 19th-century African history. Willis also edited and contributed to books on African history, such as "Studies in West African Islamic History: The Cultivators of Islam" (1979) and "Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa" (1985). His most recent research was devoted to fatwas in Islam, which was the subject of a successful conference he organized at Princeton.

"His undergraduate courses and graduate seminars on the societies, institutions and Arabic literature of Islamic Africa were extraordinary in their range, covering their material from the 16th century to the dawn of the 20th," according to a statement issued by the Department of Near Eastern Studies marking Willis' retirement. The statement noted that Willis' students were dedicated and "grateful for the high intellectual demands Professor Willis was known to set."

Andras Hamori, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies and former department chair, added, "He always took an active part in departmental deliberations, held strong opinions about how the department should develop and how it should educate its graduate students, and was passionate in advocating them."

Willis came to Princeton as an associate professor of Near Eastern studies and was named a full professor in 1984. He served as director of the University's Program in African American Studies in 1972 and was a member of the interdepartmental committee of the Program in African Studies.

Willis was the founder and original editor of Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Comparative Studies, a member of the African Studies Association and a fellow of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. He also served as an editor for and adviser to the Cass Library of African Studies, a publishing venture focused on the history and culture of Africa. In addition, Willis contributed to the biography of Ignatius Sancho -- an 18th-century African-British writer, poet and musician -- and he organized and wrote a catalogue for a Princeton University Art Museum exhibition of paintings by seven major African American painters of the 20th century.

Born on Aug. 1, 1938, in Lorain Ohio, Willis earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, his master's degree from Boston University and his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, which he attended as a Marshall Scholar. Prior to joining the Princeton faculty, he was a faculty member at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Birmingham. He also worked as an administrative officer for the Peace Corps, where he helped establish programs in the Ivory Coast, Niger and Dahomey (now known as Benin).

Willis lived for 34 years in Hightstown. He was a member of St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church and enjoyed his hobby of landscape architecture. He is survived by his wife Anne, their daughter Avery, and their sons Kingsley and Goreleigh. He also is survived by his daughters Ashley and Courtney from a previous message.

Memorial contributions may be made in Willis' name to the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, c/o ACU, Woburn House, 20-24 Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9HF, United Kingdom.