Members of the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) community expressed surprise and sadness at the passing of Lamin Sanneh, a renowned expert on global Christianity and African religion. Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School (YDS), died suddenly of a stroke on Sunday, January 6 at the age of 76.
Dean David N. Hempton said that Sanneh, who taught at HDS as assistant and associate professor of the history of religions from 1981 to 1989, was a groundbreaking scholar whose work had far-reaching impact on HDS and on the study of religion.
“Though it’s been 30 years since Professor Sanneh taught at HDS, we still feel the impact of his work and presence,” Hempton said. “He was at the vanguard of the movement to study Christianity as a global religious tradition—one with deep roots in Africa and with communities of immense diversity around the world. I met Professor Sanneh myself on several occasions and knew him as a very distinguished scholar whom I deeply admired.”
Professor of African Religious Traditions Jacob K. Olupona told Religious News Service that Sanneh’s death was a great loss to academia.
“[Sanneh’s work] transverses the two dominant religious traditions on the continent, Islam and Christianity, and has provided significant insight into how they define contemporary politics, identities and civil society,” he said. “I have lost a dear friend, a senior colleague and a fellow sojourner in the common quest for African religious space in the global religious community.”
Although Professor Sanneh was known as an expert on Christianity, Ousmane Oumar Kane, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society, noted that the YDS scholar was also a pioneer in the study of Islam in West Africa.
“Professor Sanneh’s book The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics. A Religious and Historical Study of Islam was the first comprehensive study of the Jakhanke in any language,” Kane wrote from Dakar, Senegal. “It provoked a paradigm shift in the study of Islam in Africa in the 1970s when most historians emphasized the study of trade or the role of jihad in the spread of Islam in Africa. His 2016 book, Beyond Jihad. The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam, argued that Islam was successful in Africa, not because of Jihad but because Africans adopted it.”
In 2016, its bicentennial year, HDS commemorated Sanneh’s contributions by including him in Faces of Divinity, an exhibit that charted the School’s development from liberal Protestant seminary to a “multireligious, multidisciplinary center of academic excellence, religious scholarship, and service to the community and wider world.” The exhibit’s curator, Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, said that she was “shocked” to hear of Sanneh’s passing.
“Although I never met Professor Sanneh, I know that he did seminal work not only on global Christianity and Islam, but also on African indigenous religions,” she said. “He was a critical part of the School’s opening to new voices, new perspectives, and new knowledge. He will be missed.”