His books include Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (2009); Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (2008); Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (I2000); and The Crown and the Turban: Muslims and West African Pluralism I(1997); and Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (2012). His upcoming book is Beyond Jihad: Pacifist Impetus in Muslim West Africa and Beyond. In this edition of Bantaba, The Standard editor, Mr Sainey Darboe talks to him about his work, spiritual odyssey of conversion from Islam to Christianity, the decline of his native Georgetown and his essay on twenty years of Jammeh’s rule, among others.
You are perhaps the highest ranking Gambian academic in the world. Are you considering coming back home at some point and what would you do if you did?
I am not sure of the premise of your question, whether all Gambians who are living abroad for whatever reason should return home just because returning home is what people do, and if so, what are they being invited to return to? Who will arrange for their repatriation? What would be their role individually and collectively after they return? If Gambians are successful living and working abroad, I doubt you can entice them back simply by suggesting that they serve the role of sitting decorated trophies in their retirement.
If my memory serves me right, Professor Lamin Sanneh Foundation was years ago launched with much fanfare. However, not much has been heard of it afterwards .In what way are you contributing to the development of The Gambia?
That’s a complex question. You asked what happened to the Professor Lamin Sanneh Foundation, and that’s a fair question. After several years of good work, the foundation finally folded, not for lack of funds, but because of distractions that impeded the work of the committee. It’s a familiar Third World story: the will and capacity to carry out a project often falter against personal issues. Yet it is relevant here to say that there are many other opportunities to help Africans and others have an opportunity to improve their chances in life, and it is a privilege to be involved in that work – without fanfare. I hold no position, official or otherwise, for the development of any country, including The Gambia.
In your book Summoned from the Margin you talked about your spiritual odyssey of conversion from Islam to Christianity. Decades after the fact, do you have any sense of regret or gratification for this and why?
Conversion is a religious experience in which a person turns to God freely without duress, fear, or favour. One does not convert to oneself, and for those involved in the conversion process the question is not about self-gratification or even about seeking favour or approval. It is simply a step toward being right with God and with one another. In sum, conversion is a step that sets the direction for the journey of life. To live a carefree, idle life seems to me to diminish the value of life. Conversion changes that calculus by demanding initiative and personal responsibility.
In the Summoned from the Margin you also talked about being on the receiving end of racial epithets from some colleagues at Yale. How do you feel about this and what is your take on the state of race relations in the US as well as the wider world? What do you see as key to achieving better race relations in the world?
Human beings are tied up in a bundle of loyalties, natural and acquired. People use those loyalties to try to gain advantage over others, and in the course of that create distrust, ill-will, and prejudice. People’s sense of superiority and entitlement treats others as inferior and undeserving. Racial identity is one marker of the superiority-inferiority complex, and when it is backed by power and prestige it leads to racial discrimination, making race an ideological weapon in the hands of its advocates. It has caused terrible harm in relations among different races, with the black-white racial divide one of the most enduring and destructive. It is as if God made a mistake at creation, and it is the job of the white races to correct the racial deficit, either by supervised pacification or by controlled sequestration of the black race. Of course, this is nonsense, and will not solve the problem. The question about how to achieve better race relations requires work by all sides. In this cause, united we succeed, divided we fail. I have tried to indicate in my books and essays the contribution religion can make in this area, including the contribution of Christianity and Islam with all their complex and ambiguous legacy on the subject.
The Gambia recently celebrated 20 years of the July 22nd Revolution. What is your essay of 20 years of Jammeh’s rule?
Obviously, that question is beyond my pay grade. I left The Gambia effectively after I finished at Gambia High School in the 1960s, and have never held a job there from that time. My present academic obligations have left me little time to study events in The Gambia, and as a historian of religion my work has been focused on religion, culture, and civil society, not on politics, governance, and the state. In that regard it would be more appropriate and more credible, say, for your paper to offer an exposé of political life in The Gambia than for an arm-chair, fly-by-night academic like me. In this matter, my limitations precede me, unfortunately.
The University of The Gambia is expanding and introducing more courses which have made university education available to more Gambians. What is your take on this experiment of The Gambia’s in higher education and would you ever come to teach there?
“Almost thou persuadest me,” but, again, I am not qualified to answer that question. I know very little about the history of the founding of the university or about its mission and curriculum. From hearsay, I gather from what you say that the university has been active in several fields and is making steady headway. I am, however, completely in the dark about the workings and directions of the institution itself. I am not even aware if my work is known there to create a corresponding audience.
Islam is generally seen as a religion of violence with the professed belief in it of terrorist groups as Boko Haram, the Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood and so forth. Do you think this perception has basis in reality and why?
Thank you for a question that is reward for patience! The prevailing perception of Islam as a religion of violence is untrue and undeserved, and the historical record is eloquent testimony of that fact. Unfortunately many Muslims are unfamiliar with the sources to offer a persuasive and a non-defensive riposte to the reigning stereotype. Despite the constraints of space here, I may perhaps be indulged in offering a few examples based on the sources on an important current issue. The qualified opinion of one legal authority is worth invoking here. “If there is one quality distinguishing above all others the legislative work of the Prophet of Islam it is the quality of moderation. ‘Truth lies in the middle (khayr al-umúr awşatiha)’. Muslims are assured: “Thus have We made you a middle community” of moderation (kadhálika ja’alnákum ummatan wasatan) (2: 137). Believers are summoned to proclaim the faith “with wisdom and fair exhortation and to reason…in the better way” (Q 16: 126), so that they can be “securers of justice, witnesses for God. Let not detestation for a people move you not to be equitable.” (Q 2: 11.) It is a much tougher job to be a judicious promoter of peace and reasonableness than to wage war for religion. Muhammad is enjoined in situations of disagreement to give the assurance that “between us and you let there be no strife: God shall make us all one.” (Q 42: 14.) God’s witness is not to compel but to commend the message, and if people “turn their backs, thine it is only to deliver the Message.” (Q 3: 19; also 22: 66-67.) In what amounts to a rule of granting asylum to one’s opponents, Muhammad is directed to extend to idolaters safe passage: “And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security.” (9: 6.) The peaceful way is not because violence and coercion are impractical or untimely, but because it is the right way. “And bear thou patiently what they say, and forsake them graciously.” (73: 10.) “Yet is there any other duty of the Messengers than to deliver the manifest Message?” (16: 37.) Even treachery deserves to be met with pardon and leniency because “God loves those who act generously.” (5: 16.) Asked whether anyone can be saved simply by “loving the prophet though he be disobedient and neglect some of the obligatory acts,” Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, the sixteenth century Egyptian legal scholar, responds that such a person can. Al-Suyuti elaborates on this, saying it is better not to fight even when loss of life and property are at stake. In al-Suyuti’s hands, reform must proceed at the pace of a convoy. It is a case of if you want to walk fast you walk alone, as a radical extremist would; if you want to walk far you walk with others, as you would as a member of the ummah. The sentiment is expressed in the Mishkat al-Masabih (“A Niche of Lights”), a collection of hadiths by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Tabrizi (d. 1340/41), thus: “The hand of God is with the community (jama’ah). He who stands alone stands alone in hell.” This peaceful theme strikes close to home, for it inspired a remarkable movement in Muslim West Africa when in the thirteenth century al-Hajj Salim Suware emerged to lead his peaceful community from Diakha-Masina to Diakha-Bambukhu, making the pacifist vocation a necessary and required commitment of religion. These people of Diakha, hence the appellation “Diakhanke,” or Jakhanke, infused their pacifist teaching into the fabric of Muslim society from the time of ancient Mali to the present day – the Suware qabilah established in Jarra-Barrow Kunda are descended from the original clerical communities of Diakha-Bambukhu. In The Gambia the Jakhanke established a major centre at Wuli Sutuko as described by Diego Gomes who was the first European to visit the town in the 1450s. He says that Wuli at the time had ascendancy over Kantora, and that the whole area was under the suzerainty of the king of Mali. Ahmad Baba (d. 1627), a leading scholar of Timbuktu, testifies to the religious influence of the Jakhanke, commending them and their communities for the moral power of their witness.
I have gone on long enough without, however, addressing the crucial question of why, despite all this impressive evidence, jihads became so widespread in Africa and elsewhere. Time is a constraint, but suffice it to say that both Uthman dan Fodio and al-Hajj Umar al-Futi as architects of jihad were deeply conflicted about waging war, and considered it the exception to the rule. In the end Dan Fodio repudiated jihad because, he says, jihad corrupts religion with political power. He wrote: “I give you proofs a thousandfold and more [that] I did not accept temporal office in any way. I have accepted nothing from the rule of temporal office.” The campaigns of violence, suicide attacks, kidnapping, massacres, blackmail and division pursued by Boko Haram and other scofflaws are a fundamental violation of the letter and spirit of Islam, and a rejection of the ummatan wasatan, the community of moderation, the Qur’an indicates for Muslims.
In Summoned from the Margin, you talked about life in Georgetown which used to attract a lot of people and expatriates but seems to have fallen on lean times, reducing it to a ghost town as most of the population left for better job opportunities or other related reasons. How will this have differed with the time of your childhood and what are you doing to arrest this decline?
Georgetown in my time was a mid-size bustling administrative headquarters; together with the groundnut trade it made the town attractive to traders in the country and beyond. The road system was fairly rudimentary and not much developed, making the river became the principal means of transport and communication. As a consequence, Georgetown became a prominent staging point of the riverain transport system. I left before the decline set in, and so was not present to witness the waning of the town’s role in the post-independence period. I was unprepared for the extent of the fall of the town when I saw it in 2008. Although the road to Georgetown was fairly good on the north bank side I felt tied up in the proliferating dragnet of armed checkpoints that slowed the journey considerably. It was not how I wished or imagined I would be introducing my children to the country of their father’s birth, and I hoped they carried generous memories of their visit despite the checkpoints. As in any situation like this, the remedy of decline and falling standard of living is revival of trade, investment in education and structural development, accompanied by government liberalisation as a spur to private enterprise and tourism.
Finally, the extended African family system seems to have been functioning under extreme stress. You pointed out in your book that this kinship business is ‘motivated by the profit motive’. What would you say, in defence, to those who observed you are ‘one of the lost kinsmen’ who have taken the path to individualism after years in the West and how do you balance personal needs and those of your extended family?
You are right to note that the family system has been strained by modernisation and by the accompanying mobility, and what remains of it is a poor representation of its once vigorous life. Given the inexorable nature of the changes society is undergoing, it would be futile and wrongheaded to think that the traditional family can be retrieved and preserved in whole. Indeed, one may say that what made the family a valuable asset in the past was its capacity to be flexible and to adapt. That is how the extended family idea came about in the first place, thanks to the ability of society to flow and turn with the tide. Seen in that perspective no one is a lost kinsman in the sense that the lessons learned in the circle of the larger family can be applied to the wider world of mutual interdependence and reciprocal rights and obligations. My own interest in civil society, for example, is informed by lessons I learned from the extended family concept, which was how the foundation bearing my name was created. One of the conditions for anyone receiving an award was that he or she would not be a relative of mine, for that would be nepotism. I remember in my own life the kindness of strangers as I set out to pursue my academic goals in the West, and I want to give back something to society as token acknowledgment of that kindness, much of it from people who are no relatives. Such kindness shows me that goodness and compassion are not limited by race, tribe, nationality, creed or kin, and that upholding such values is the key to inter-cultural openness and appreciation. Anyone who wants to play a role in the human family broadly defined must extend a generous hand to others besides one’s kith and kin rather than withdraw into a racial or national cul de sac. What is right, good, and true cannot be defined by racial, tribal and national interest, which is where this interview started. The extended family must turn into a mutual admiration club, but must look outward to affirm our common humanity in order to be worthy of itself. In that way Gambia and Africa will have something worthwhile to contribute to the larger world.