The Inaugural Lectures of the Sanneh Institute

By Sam Nwokoro

The following reflection is from Sam Nwokoro, a PhD student in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the University of Edinburgh. He attended the inaugural events of The Lamin Sannah Institute in Accre, Ghana.

Faith leaders and scholars gather from around the world for the inauguration of The Lamin Sanneh Institute in Accre, Ghana. Photo courtesy of The Lamin Sanneh Institute.

Starting from the big picture, the western region of Africa has had its own historical trajectory with religion and politics. Bound by the Atlantic and the Sahara, visitors first made their way through dry land and sea to local communities, leaving lasting trails of trade, language, and creed. Sooner rather than later, there was the Arabic language and then the English language, and then minarets and crosses piercing the skylines. Protectorate offices were set up to oversee mine holes of gold and oil, having left the nets and chains of slavery on the shore to rust. 

‘As Ghana sits right at the heart of the West African community of nations, the Institute may now assume a special role in spearheading a resourceful project for the future of religion and politics in Africa’

But there were also schools and hospitals, such that the story of growing up in a West African society can be seen as one that cuts across many things. For the likes of the late Professor Lamin Sanneh, it was a story that cuts across Islam, Christianity, and Western education. This underlies the current West African reality and the responsibility it evokes.

Inaugurating The Lamin Sanneh Institute

Today, countries in Africa are often called to shape their own narrative and destiny. Perhaps a crucial aspect of this task would involve exploring the role of religion in civil society. The Lamin Sanneh strongly believed that religion plays a vital role in civic life. With this in mind, the opening of the Sanneh Institute in Ghana can be deemed both timely and strategic. As Ghana sits right at the heart of the West African community of nations, the Institute may now assume a special role in spearheading a resourceful project for the future of religion and politics in Africa.

The Sanneh Institute was inaugurated on Saturday, 29 February 2020, at the University of Ghana, where the institute is now located. The inaugural lectures were delivered by Dr Rowan Williams and Dr Farid Esack, respectively of Cambridge and Johannesburg universities. The inaugural theme was on ‘Territoriality and Hospitality’, a topical coining that already set the tone on how the institute hopes to be a research space shared by Christian and Muslim scholars in Africa. The Institute is named after Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019), a well-reputed Gambian scholar of religion. Lamin Sanneh had begun his academic career at the University of Ghana, and his legacy is now to be carried on from there by the activities of this research institute.

Dr Rowan Williams: A Transcendental Reading of God

Speaking at the inaugural lecture, Dr Rowan Williams explored what a transcendental reading of God might mean for humanity and the cosmic space we occupy. According to Dr Williams’ reckoning, God belongs to a self-sufficient reality in which God depends on himself alone. Hospitality in God’s transcendence would then entail that God alone has what it takes to invite all of humanity into his fullness. Humans, on the other hand, are territorial and temporal beings. This character of mankind can often lead to a tendency toward appropriating God to a particular place or people. Such appropriation of God to finite things can easily result in what Dr Williams considers to be reducing God to our level.

Considering the theme of territoriality and hospitality, it is only natural that Dr Williams speaks of God as beyond territory and as generously inviting to all. It is equally logical to say that there is less trouble in letting a phenomenon which is unbound by space to do the absorbing rather than be broken up into small parts. Dr Williams proposed that rather than see God as being for a particular people; God is for all people. In this perspective, God loses a territorial character. God becomes the One to whom all of humanity belongs.

Dr Farid Esack: A Universal Greeting of Peace

Dr Farid Esack’s lecture was essentially buttressing to Dr William’s main points. Dr Esack began with talking about the most common practice in Islam, which is the universal peace greeting: ‘Peace be upon you and the mercy and blessings of God. He explains how this very generous gesture can equally be excluding, if understood to mean peace and blessings to Muslims alone. Dr Esack indicated that such exclusion can easily be justified by certain readings of the Qur’an. But using many Qur’anic references of God as The Greatest, Dr Esack points out that humanity is indebted to God’s greatness and generosity. Consequently, the most appropriate response to God’s benevolence would be to not reduce God to man-made boundaries but to simply let God be God.

For both Dr Williams and Dr Esack, the implication of God’s transcendence is his self-sufficiency. Dr Williams indicates this in saying that God is not one of us and that God depends on nothing but himself. Dr Esack, in a similar way, underlined that the Greatness of God is compromised if God is thought to be of a particular nation, group or race; but that God is simply not to be associated (shirk). Dr Esack simply sees shirk, not through the lens of its doctrinal baggage, but as thinking of God to be an instrument of prospering the agenda of a particular group in opposition to others. Both speakers would conclude that there can be no end to contention if God is seen as a protector of humanly-defined territories rather than the One in whom all of human reality finds fullness and acceptance. 

It appears, however, that the two lectures safely avoided some of those instances where it seems that God has territorialized revelations of himself. In the Hebrew Scripture, God is cited as referring to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: these being key patriarchs of the Jewish faith. In the New Testament, God is cited to have revealed himself as the father of Jesus the saving Christ. In Islam, God is claimed to have revealed his word exclusively in the Arabic language, thereby identifying with a linguistic expression of a certain people.

‘Lamin Sanneh admonished that no efforts be spared at believing the best in the other’

It could be argued that the peculiarity of these religions suggest something of God coming to humanity with a universal embrace but through the prism of a particular time, place and people. But it remains that there are tangible justifications of revelatory essence behind ascribing particularity to the transcendence of God. A glossing over of these perspectives may not always do justice to a transcendental reading of God. This can be seen as an anticipation of one of the many tasks that lie ahead for the Sanneh Institute.

The inaugural lectures hint at future scholarly responsibilities for the Sanneh Institute and its pioneering leadership under Dr John Azumah. In the opening words of his autobiography, Summoned from the Margin, Lamin Sanneh admonished that no efforts be spared at believing the best in the other. This can be seen as a value and virtue that can underlie how the Sanneh Institute creates an enabling scholarly space for Christian and Muslim scholars, within and beyond West Africa.