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Professor Saine Reviews Professor Lamin Sanneh’s Autobiography

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Professor Lamin Sanneh, Yale University historian Professor Lamin Sanneh, Yale University historian

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming Of An African. BY LAMIN SANNEH. WM. B EERDAMANS PUBLISHING CO., Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, UK, 2012. Pp. 299, $ 24, paper (ISBN: 978-0-8028-6742-1).

Summoned from the Margin is an autobiography of Lamin Sanneh’s early days in colonial Georgetown, renamed Janjajgbureh, in The Gambia; his bold conversion to Christianity from Islam, as well as his religious, intellectual and professional journeys that began at Methodist Primary,  and Armitage High in his native Georgetown, and Boys High Schools in The Gambia’s capital,  Bathurst. Lamin would then proceed to the US for university education- arriving there during the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement and student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. His studies would later lead him to universities and institutes of higher learning in the UK, Africa and the Middle East where he honed his language skills in classical Arabic, as well as explore ancient religious texts to acquire levels of academic excellence, disciplinary scope and depth in preparation for an academic career at elite universities in Africa, Scotland and the US.  This easily makes Professor Sanneh one of the great contemporary scholars of religion and interfaith dialogue- a distinction that few scholars of his generation can rival. 

While Professor Sanneh, is without a doubt, known more for his prolific scholarly writings that include over ten scholarly books and numerous academic journal articles, Summoned from the Margin, is a labor of love- a gift to his children- his son (K)elefa and daughter, Sia, his larger Gambian, African family, as well as his disciplinary, and other colleagues in academia. The book is beautifully crafted and written to capture a multifaceted and deeply sophisticated person who by any measure is a renaissance man- versed in ways of the West: history, literature, philosophy, theology, music, etc., and one who is also firmly rooted in Gambian/African and Middle Eastern cultures. Remarkably, while Sanneh navigates these vistas seamlessly, converted to Christianity at an early age, and traveled the world, the formative imprints of Gambian culture and Islam, remain indelible. Figuratively, he neither abandons Islam, Gambia nor lost his soul to nassarano (Western learning).

He remains firmly anchored in the ancient and contemporary sensibilities of these civilizations- all serving as foundation for both his religious and scholarly life to decisively impact his discipline. Laypersons, as well as scholars, especially, are provided a careful expose of intellectual genealogy, in other words, theological arguments and their contextual base, questions and concerns that both inform and drive Professor Sanneh’s scholarly pursuits- most notably, Islam’s pacifist orientation, which departs boldly from the conventional constructs of Islam and Muslims, as both violent and anti-democratic. A devout Catholic, he is as critical of Christianity, as he is of Islam while at the same time striving to nurture important conversations between the two.

It is clear that Professor Sanneh’s work on world religions is cutting edge. This has earned him much deserved accolades and international recognition among peers- highlighting as he does important yet vexing questions about Islam, the future of Christianity, and its geographic shift from its center in Europe to the periphery- South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “Islam and the West,” is a recurring theme that he so often interrogates not to heap blame on either religion but to help chart a route for deepened understanding and respect- “what this amounts to is the recognition of the need for a religious truce with Islam without that foreclosing on the need of joint action” (P. 188).

Summoned from the Margin is similarly an historical account of the 20th Century, punctuated, in particular, with events that include the Jewish Holocaust, the 1960s civil rights movement in the US, the Vietnam War, and the current US-led war on terror, and continent-wide euphoria over Africa’s (and Gambia’s) independence. Here, though subtly, and at times through another party, Professor Sanneh comments critically on Africa’s contemporary and past rulers. “One day, on a ride to Dugbe market in downtown Ibadan, my young driver offered his opinion about the fate of his country and of Africa.” He said, “we have only politicians, not leaders; only factional chiefs, not statesmen” (p. 149). More pointedly, on Vietnam, Professor Sanneh noted, “it is obvious that America makes war, but it was equally obvious that America makes peace- and is much better at making peace and feeding the hungry than it is at making war” (p. 143).  He is less charitable toward his academic colleagues even if he holds many in high esteem. He notes:

“Academic departments are like co-wives in the university’s paternal embrace with members of the faculty their consummate offspring, complete with sibling rivalry (P. 226). The academic feuds that permeate academic departments can be particularly truculent: academics think they know what their colleagues do much better than the colleagues themselves, and vice versa. In the end, without openness and forbearance, proximity and familiarity can be deadly assets of conflict in religion as much as in other areas of life” (P.194).

Thus, in spite of his international scholarly reputation or perhaps because of it, Sanneh is at times subjected to “cultural” marginalization, and draws occasional criticism from colleagues for not being a “team- player.” Yet, even as a youngster, Sanneh was self-willed with a penchant for independent thinking, and one who often saw himself, and was sometimes perceived, as an “outsider,” (a fang sung mo le ti)-  independent individual, in Mandinka- Gambia’s major ethnic group and language. That he excelled in academia is in no small measure a result of his upbringing and rigorous scholarly training, which until recently eschewed scholarly collaboration. Notwithstanding, Professor Sanneh has ably etched a comfortable niche predicated on his Catholic faith against a backdrop of agnosticism “that has long commanded the world of academia.” Catholicism offers him peace and self-acceptance- concerns that eluded his earlier life as a Christian in Gambia. “He can believe and belong at the same time with equal measure (P. 268).

Summoned from the Margin is a truly remarkable book that unveils a rich and colorful mosaic to capture professor Lamin Sanneh’s life. For many who only know of him through his academic writings, Summoned from the Margin is a warm, humble, and honest welcome into his life and the forces that shaped it. In the end, it is the story of a young man who escapes the clutches of material poverty, suffocating traditions, and blind devotion to Islam. He defies great odds to triumph over religious and sometimes social rejection, institutional and disciplinary slights to reach the most select circles of his profession. While the book reads at times like a graduate thesis on Christian Theology, and pitched to scholars and specialists, its autobiographical thread along with humorous vignettes make the book fun and quite readable for non-specialists.

Abdoulaye Saine is Professor in the Department of Political Science, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, USA.

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