Tribute: Remembering Professor Lamin Sanneh: Scholar above ordinary levels of excellence

Friday, January 18, 2019

Seventy six short years years ago, in the small island of Janjangbureh, in the middle reaches of the River Gambia, a child was born; a genius.  From Georgetown Primary School he quickly made his way to Armitage School where I met him. That was 63 years ago. At Armitage, he also distinguished himself early and became a firebrand and provocative debater with great intelligence, wit and humour.  He was a first class orator and an outstanding cheerleader in sports. He was editor of the School Magazine and president of the Debating Society longer than any other Armitage School boy or girl since the school was founded in 1927. In his final year he sat for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination, among the first to do so, and won a prize in the English Language paper.

M.D. Salla, G.L. Goddard, A.A. N’Jai, M.L. Drammeh, E.O. N’Jai, E.T. Jeng, H.I. Jagne, M. El-Hafiz Fye, S.S. Jobe, G.W.L. Thomas, M.O.J. Sise, N.S.Z. N’Jie, Kekoto Maane, I.S. Khan, S.B. Jobe, and Serign Macumba Jaye were among our teachers.

They gave us a fascinating insight into the joy of scholarship. This is not the ability to quote the Wolof philosopher, Kocci Barma, or the hero of Manding, Sundiata Keita, or the jihadist, Sheikh Omar Taal of Futa Toro. It is not the ability to know the periphrastic conjunction, or solve the Pythagorean theorem, or understand the principles of heat, light and sound, or verify the mystery of quadratic equations.  These are all most important, but they do not indicate true academic scholarship. They do not make for a dynamic social order. Creativity, emulation, initiative, originality and intellectual rigour are the earmarks of scholarship.

We are very grateful to Armitage School for helping to mould our outlook at the formative stage of our intellectual and physical development. It was there, along the Tumani Fatty Road, that we learned the wonders of the earth as an object in space and as an object for investigation. It was there before the Njelo Forest that our bodies were made beautiful as temples to house the intellectual currents to be generated after our school days.

The emphasis in Armitage has always been the development of the human mind and the improvement of moral and spiritual discipline without which, intellectual discipline - the main concern of modern education - would be meaningless. The objective in our dear old school has always been to produce responsible and conscientious citizens who would be well aware of their rights and conscious of their duties - while remaining attached to the community, loyal to its values, and integrated in its social system.

When we proudly passed out of Armitage some 58 years ago, the question we were asked was: “Has Armitage failed you?” The determination we made and the promise we gave was to make Armitage one day to be proud of us also. There are innumerable practical examples before us, for in spite of the limitations of the academic training that the school had offered in the past, its alumni have distinguished themselves in all walks of life: education, medicine, law, politics and academia.

And this brings me directly to the life and career of our distinguished professor. In his final year at Armitage, Lamin Sanneh also passed The Gambia Civil Service Entrance Examination with distinction and was employed for a time at the office of the Financial Secretary. He resigned his job after two years to return to school in 1960 when he enrolled at the Gambia High School in Banjul.

His intention in returning to school was to complete work for university matriculation for which he subsequently passed examinations in the University of London Ordinary and Advanced Levels of the General Certificate of Education in two-and-a-half years.  During his time at the Gambia High School he continued with his interest in literary activities, history and community life. He founded and edited the school literary magazine and also founded the Debating Society. It could be said of Lamin Sanneh even at this early point in his academic career that he showed signs of intellectual flair, with an interest in ideas and their connections. The signs were evident that for him “education is not simply a process to be used to achieve only educational ends, but, fundamentally, a supreme personal gift to a unique human being to help him to become what he has in him to become”. After Gambia High School, Lamin proceeded to the United States in 1963 to pursue his undergraduate studies. In the course of that he obtained a certificate in 18th century British History at the University of Edinburgh.

Every age needs its heroes. They may be prophets or priests, kings or warriors, discoverers or poets, but some extraordinary people for the ordinary men and women to look up and in their own fashion to admire and to emulate there must be. When we look at the distinguished academic career of our friend and old mate and more particularly during the last 50 years, we can see maverick genius without whom others would not have had their capacities brought into greatness.

Lamin Sanneh received his first degree in History and Political Science with magna cum laude at Union College, New York, in December, 1966. He then moved to Britain where he took a master’s degree in Classical Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham in 1967. He followed that up with a year studying at the Near East School of Theology and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. He returned to Ibadan, Nigeria in 1969, as Resident Tutor at the study Centre for Christian Muslim Relations. He taught the diploma course in Islam for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan.

When in 1974 he returned from London with a Ph.D. in African Islamic History, he was appointed at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, as Research Scholar and Visiting Lecturer. In 1975 he was appointed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

After three years he went back to Britain from where he was invited to return to Beirut to a professorship at the Near East School of Theology. Instead he went to a permanent tenured appointment at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, a position he held until 1981 when he accepted an invitation to be a visiting professor in History of Religion at Harvard University. He left Harvard in 1989 as Associate Professor to accept the long established Chair of the History of Missions and World Christianity at Yale, the first non-American to hold that position. He was also appointed Professor of History at Yale, and Chairman of Yale’s Council on African Studies. He remained a life-long member of Harvard’s Centre for the Study of World Religions.

Professor Sanneh’s academic activities show the wide range of his interests. They include a stint as member of the Executive Council of the London-based International African Institute, as co-editor of the Journal of Religion in Africa published in Leiden, Holland, and as a member of its editorial board. He was contributing editor to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and editor-at-large of the Ecumenical Missionary Research, both published in the United States. He was a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He had attended numerous scholarly and religious conferences and seminars throughout the world, and had himself organised several international conferences in Africa, Europe, and the United States. He was organiser of an inter-university series of conferences on the study of conversion jointly sponsored by Harvard, Yale and the School of Oriental & African Studies in the University of London. He had lectured at the Free University of Amsterdam, Holland and the University of Basel in Switzerland. He has held many distinctions, including as external examiner for the Ph.D. at London and Harvard universities, and was invited to present a paper on contemporary African political development at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by the Royal African Society meeting at St John’s College, Cambridge.  His study of Muslim immigrants in Britain, undertaken in 1974, prompted the British Council of Churches in London to establish a standing committee on relations with Muslims in Britain.

Professor Sanneh has published over 200 articles and books that reflect his wide professional and vocational interests. Among these publications are: The Jakhanke: The History of an Islamic Clerical People of the Senegambia, the enlarged edition of which is in several reprints. That work was the first major study of the subject in any language, and it appeared to general critical acclaim. His second book, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact, came out in 1983 in three simultaneous editions in Britain, Africa and North America. Again critics on both sides of the Atlantic described it as a classic, and it was listed by the British Book News as one of the 15 outstanding books of 1983 in its field. It has appeared in several reprint editions. Then came Encountering the West, another classic. In 1989 his groundbreaking book, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, was published in the United States. It advances an original thesis on the roots of religious change and indigenous cultural revitalisation. This is first worldwide attempt to investigate the impact of the study and use of vernacular languages on socio-cultural and political transformation. It also looks at the classical Greek heritage, Jewish influence, Slavic experience, and examples in ancient Egypt and Ethiopia extending to the early modern period in India and Japan before turning to Africa in the 19th  century. Its challenge to standard scholarly interpretations was immediately recognised with many describing it as one of the most original conceptions in recent times. A scholarly colleague described it as having ushered in a Copernican revolution that will determine how others approach the field. In what was the first such recognition extended to a book, The Journal of Religion in Africa devoted a special issue to considering the impact of the work with reviews and responses by scholars. It was listed in 1989 as one of the 15 outstanding books in its field.

An example of our distinguished professor’s wide interest is an article he wrote on US involvement in the war with Iraq in the Persian Gulf. First published in The Christian Century, the article was reprinted in the mass circulation newspaper, The Dallas Morning News as the lead front-page article in the Sunday Reader of 20th  January, 1991 under the title “Islam, Faith & Politics”, with a Sunday circulation of over 587,000. A sub-committee of the United States Congress asked for a copy of the article.

Professor Sanneh described himself as having a deep interest in the intellectual and religious aspects of human history, in the facts and mystery of human existence, and in the forces and resources that promote and shape human community.

Lamin Sanneh was an unusual man, far above the ordinary levels of excellence. A man who was by most standards remarkable, by any standards a great scholar and by all standards, a distinguished son of Africa. But even this, does him less than justice. He was a man whose life bore out the adage that truth is stranger than fiction – stranger, and richer, more terrifying, more hopeful and more exciting.

In recognition of his profound scholarship and outstanding contribution to the study of history and the religious factor in man’s life, the Armitage School Alumni Association in 1992 established the Professor Lamin Sanneh Foundation. So that his great example shall be a source of great inspiration to present and future generation of Gambian students in particular, and of African scholars in general.

We feel in common with the rest of the world and especially his wife Sandra and their son Kelefa and daughter Sia Manta, uncles: Musa and Lamin and all the good people of Janjanbureh and all those who were privileged with his gracious acquaintance, a desolation of the spirit and a sense of despair and loss at the sudden passing of our dear old school mate and friend Professor Lamin Sanneh.

FaFa Edrissa M’Bai is a veteran lawyer, former Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Sanneh’s lifelong friend.