By Dr Tijan M Sallah
Apart from his married life, what do we know about Dr Nyang’s scholarly and intellectual work? Dr Nyang has published about 11 books and over 70 articles on wide ranging topics on Africa and religion, especially Islam, and on various aspects of the human condition. His books include: Ali Mazrui: The Man and His Works (1981); Reflections on the Human Condition (1984); Islam, Christianity and African Identity (1984); Islam: Its Relevance Today, coedited with Henry O Thompson (1990); Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John Mbiti, co-edited with Jacob Olupona (1993); A Line in the Sand: Saudi Arabi’s Role in the Gulf War, co-authored with Eva Hendricks (1995); and Islam in the United States of America (1999); Muslims Place in the American Public Square, coedited with Zahid H Buhari and Mumtaz Ahmad (2004); Muhamad: The Universal Man of all Times (2012); and The Development of Islam in Bermuda, co-authored with Radell Tankard (2016).
He also served in the editorial board of several scholarly journals, such as Journal of Islamic Studies (Pakistan); Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (US); Current Bibliography on African Affairs (US); Journal of Asian and African Affairs (US); Journal of Negro Education (US); Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (Birmingham, UK); Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (US); Hamdard Islamicus (Pakistan); Journal of Peace (Ethiopia); Islamic Horizon (Indiana, US); Message International (New York, US); and Journal of Third World Spectrum (US). In addition to writing books and serving in editorial boards, Dr Nyang was a frequent commentator on African and Islamic issues on CNN, BBC, A Jazeera, National Public Radio, Voice of America, C-SPAN TV and several local and international TV and radio stations around the US and around the world. He often served as examiner in inter-university dissertation committees and also spoke and provided advice on Africa and Religion issues to the US State Department, to African governments, to International Organizations and to the White House.
He was also a lead player on inter-faith ecumenical dialogue between the Abrahamic faith communities (of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Mormons) but also dialogue with the moralistic religions like the Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. For example, he was the President of the Interfaith Conference of the Metropolitan Washington, DC, and served in several Muslim and Academic boards, such as the African Studies Association, the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (at Georgetown University, US). He led the efforts to develop the Smithsonian Institution 1999 African Voices Project; advised on the development of the PBS 2002 documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet and the Unity Production Foundation 2007 documentary, Prince among Slaves. He was also co-director of the research project, Muslims in the American Public Square funded by The Pew Trust. When President Bill Clinton celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the state of Israel in 1998, Dr Nyang was the only major Muslim scholar invited on stage to speak at the White House. In short, during his life, Dr Nyang was Mr. Africa and Mr Islam in the greater Washington area— the go-to person when one needed clarification or advice on how to handle the complexities of crises arising from these domains.
In assessing Dr Nyang’s intellectual contributions, I will put them in three buckets; that is, his contributions: (1) in analysing the pre-independence and post- independence Gambia politics; (2) to African and black diaspora studies; and (3 to the study of the world of Islam and the Arabs. Many of these writings sometimes intersected. On early Gambian politics, he argued in his papers that The Gambia’s quest for viability involved the ruling party’s (i.e., the then People’s Progressive Party or PPP) pursuit of internal political stability by pursuing a strategy of compromise or cooptation, exploiting gains through the conflicts among big powers (exemplified in membership in the Commonwealth circle, the Western circle vis-à-vis being friendly with the East, and its membership in the African circle), and minimising the likelihood of internal chaos by responding to domestic socio-economic demands. He developed these ideas in subsequent papers by noting that post-independence Gambian politics was characterised by mergers, the decline of the opposition, and the triumph of the PPP under Sir Dawda Jawara as the dominant political party. He later argued that political opposition under Jawara was a “game” and not a “serious challenge” to the ruling PPP. In fact, he noted that the most powerful opposition party in early Gambian politics, the United Party (or UP under lawyer Pierre Sarr Njie) got crippled when Sir Dawda Jawara married the daughter (Lady Chilel Njie-Jawara) of the UP’s main financial backer, Alhaji Momodou Musa Njie. That put a death nail on the coffin of the UP.
Regarding his second bucket of contributions—i.e., African politics, Dr Nyang wrote about major African political leaders, from the pan-Africanism of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah championing a united, federated Africa to the political thought of freedom fighters against Portuguese colonialism as Guinea Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, to Senegal’s Leopold Senghor’s rapprochement with the marabouts to maintain social stability in Senegal, to Guinea’s Sekou Touré’s radical break (if not outright defiance of France) at Independence and his building of alliances with the Muslim world and consistent support of conservative Arab states, such as Morocco’s then King Hassan II. He also wrote articles on culture and African cosmology and published them in the Unesco Courier and also wrote on “millenialism in traditional African thought.” In one paper, he argued that the African sees himself as a citizen of three different worlds: the world of concrete reality (animals, trees and inanimate objects); the world of social values (which governs social relations), and the world of the ineffable self-conscious (spiritual realm). He argued (although this is contestable) that the Western concept of uni-linearity of time is based on an illusion, which is detectable so long as humans chase after the mirage of materiality. To the extent that non-Westerners may not originally subscribe to this Western experience, he argued that it was a mistake to absolutise the concept of uni-linearity as developed out of the Western experience and impose it on the rest of humankind. In other papers on African cosmology, he argued the presence of a supreme deity in African indigenous belief systems, which find expressions in proverbs, epigrams, prayers, stories and myths. This supreme deity, for example in the myths of the Yoruba, Ashanti and Dogon is often portrayed as near humankind but, through man’s folly, the chief deity (or God) withdrew and so humans forfeited their privileges. Of course, similar cosmological narratives are found in the Biblical and Qur’anic narratives of satan’s serpentine temptations which resulted in the Adam(ic) fall.
Apart from his contribution to the analyses of African leaders, African regional issues and to African cosmology, Dr Nyang’s third bucket of contributions was on Islam and the Arab world, and in these– his writings were broad-ranging. He wrote papers ranging from Pakistan’s role in the organisation of Islamic Conference, to Muslim Minority Businesses in the US, to Saudi Arabian foreign policy towards Africa, to the Islamic factor in Libya’s Africa policy under Muamar Qaddafi, to the Islamic concept of sin, to his most ambitious work about the African triadic experience, which constitutes the African’s composite identity—in his book, Islam, Christianity and African Identity (ICAI). In fact, Professor Ali Mazrui once acknowledged at a Howard University event in honor of Dr Nyang that he borrowed his concept of Africa’s Triple Heritage from the writings of Nyang.
In his paper on sin and his ICAI book, Nyang argued that the idea of “sin” is peculiarly Abrahamic, and African ontology says virtually nothing about it. Sin is sanction imposed on the individual as negative remuneration for foul acts or thoughts on earth. For the traditional African, however, the individual lives in a communal, vitalistic universe where success depends on human relations as well as relations with spirits of the universe. He argued that whereas Christians view sin as endemic to our nature, as in Adam’s original sin, and its eventual redemption and salvation through the blood of Christ, the Islamic view is more optimistic. For the Muslim, the human enters the world as a free agent, a tabula rasa. He inherits no sin from Adam and Eve, and his salvation is through faith, good works and good thoughts. In this classic book, Islam, Christianity and African Identity, Nyang argued that both Islam and Christianity have had positive and negative effects on the African. Islam succeeded in creating a community of African believers who assimilation into Islamic culture integrated them into a trans-ethnic and trans-national world community. Christianity, also—(except for Ethiopia and Egypt)—which came through Western European naval and military superiority, drew upon imperial resources and paved the path to African westernization. Both religions, Nyang noted, were linked by the drive by their sending regions to engage in commerce, find spheres of influence, and accumulate wealth. The cultural schizophrenia introduced by these different experiences prompted some African philosopher—kings like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah or Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor to search for a panacea for the African’s “aggrieved soul.” Nkrumah, in his book, Consciencism, resolved the African dilemma not in nostalgic glorification of ancient ways but in Scientific Socialism and Pan Africanism. Senghor, on the other hand, sought the solution to the African identity problem with the cultivation and assertion of Africa’s unique gift—the compassion for others; the gift of fellow feeling as contrasted with the European quest for individuality and hyper-rationality. Senghor’s remedy, however, was perceived by leaders like Guinea’s Sekou Toure as too reactionary—the syndrome of the Frenchified African “puppet” unconsciously playing into the hands of the “neo-colonialists.”
In addition to intellectual work, Dr Nyang was deeply interested and engaged with the political situation in the Gambia. He was not only an ivory tower intellectual but an activist who advised African politicians on ways to improve their polities. So when Yahya Jammeh and his associates carried out their 22 July 1994 coup against the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara, Dr Nyang summoned a group of Gambian intellectuals and activists into a pro-democracy movement to help steer the young inexperienced military coup makers to hand over power voluntarily and pave the path for a constitutional conference to insert term limits into the constitution and hold free elections. The Gambia pro-democracy movement included, amongst others, Dr. Nyang as Chairperson; Dr Sidi Jammeh, Dr Sukai Prom-Jackson, Dr Karanta Kalley, Mr Yusupha Crookes, Dr Momodou Sohna, Mr Ousainou Mbenga, Dr Momodou Numukunda Darboe, Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh, Ms Sohna Saihou Sallah, Mr Tombong Saidy, Mr Lat Jorr Ndow, Dr Abdoulaye Saine, Dr Ebrima Faal, Mr Alieu Demba, Dr Mbye Cham, Dr Jabez Ayo Langley, and myself. When Jammeh sent a delegation to Washington, DC (comprising Captain Jallow, the late Ousman ‘Koro’ Ceesay, etc) to meet with the Gambia Pro-democracy Movement, it was Dr Nyang, Mr Yusupha Crookes, and Dr Sidi Jammeh who met with them (on behalf of the Pro-Democracy Movement) to impress on them the clear message that the military junta (the AFPRC) should move expeditiously “to re-institute in The Gambia a civilian government based on internationally accepted democratic values and principles, to lift the ban on political parties and their activities, to establish a neutral domestic election monitoring body and to invite neutral foreign observers for the training and deployment of the election monitoring body.”
Whether this made a major difference is a subject for future historians to assess.
I have attempted above to give a brief snapshot of the life, family and contributions of Professor Sulayman Sheih Nyang. I recognise that, in such a brief space, one cannot do full justice to the wide breadth and depth of the life and ideas of a man who may arguably be, as far as I know, the most important scholar and intellectual the Gambia has ever produced. I will miss my friend and brother, Dr Nyang. He was an intellectual polymath. He produced important scholarly work which was widely cited and discussed in academe. He was a master at generating ideas and always open to their contestation. I recall him one time advocating a research program for Senegambia—titled the “Wol-Mande-Fulbeh” civilisation—capturing the similarities and intimate connections between the civilization of the dominant ethnic groups of the Gambia—of the Wolof, Mandinka and Fula. When my good friend, Sidi Bojang, challenged him for being too “royalist” in his theorising—I suggested to him to add also the Jola—and other marginalised ethnic groups—he flexibly agreed and noted— the “Wol-Mande-Fulbeh-Jol” civilisation. In the latter days of his life, he frequently repeated an anthropomorphic metaphor that “God is the greatest movie maker.” The metaphor, I thought, was a limp human attempt to capture the Omniscient, but it was vintage Nyang. I will miss Dr Nyang. He was a brilliant sage— a man who was not only of a vast source of knowledge but also a source of great wisdom. Dr. Nyang thrived on ideas, and lived a life of utter modesty and humility, and of service to others. My good friend, E Ethelbert Miller, the African American poet, described him as “the Mahatma”—a reference to Dr Nyang’s pacificist spirit and care for the needy. He was indeed our “Gambian Mahatma.” When future generations study his life and thought—may they feel, as I have felt, that such a gracious human being walked among us. As I write, I am already feeling our great loss and hope that the great God, who knows His creation more than we will ever know, will magnify his good works and grant him a final abode in paradise.