‘Beyond Jihad’: A conversation with Divinity School Professor Lamin Sanneh

The terrorism perpetuated by ISIS and other extremist groups reinforces the perception that Islam, a religion with more than 1 billion believers worldwide, has spread over the course of its 1,400-year history through violent conquest. A new book by Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and professor of history, offers a different perspective, one drawn from the historical record.
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Lamin Sanneh

The terrorism perpetuated by ISIS and other extremist groups reinforces the perception that Islam, a religion with more than 1 billion believers worldwide, has spread over the course of its 1,400-year history through violent conquest.

A new book by Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and professor of history, offers a different perspective, one drawn from the historical record.

Sanneh’s book, “Beyond Jihad,” explores the pacifist tradition of Islam in West Africa, describing how the religion took hold peacefully there — promoted by clerics who relied on religious scholarship and persuasion, not the sword.

Sanneh, director of the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, recently discussed his book with YaleNews. An edited version of the conversation follows:

“Jihad” is a complex and often controversial term. Can you define it and explain how it fits in the context of your book?

Jihad in the Islamic tradition means “struggle” or effort, and the way it is used in the Quran, in the phrase “struggle in the path of God,” is often with a militant connotation. It has a military implication. However, Muslim religious scholars use the term to mean spiritual struggle in oneself for discipline, devotion, and centering one’s will in remembrance of God and the Prophet. Those two senses of the militant and the spiritual have come to dominate the interpretation of jihad in Islam.

I use the term “Beyond Jihad” in a historical context. I inquired into movements of radical reform that reputedly launched Islam into the world and felt there must be more to the issue. I saw that the military use of the term jihad became, in the historical process, secondary to the spiritual, which is contrary to most people’s image of Islam as a conquering religion that compelled people by military means to embrace the religion. The history of Islam in West Africa does not bear that out.    

Historians use the term “transmission” to describe the informal and incidental ways in which Islam spread across time and space. Those informal ways include trading routes, traders, pilgrims, and scholars. In order for Islam to take root in society, you needed a community of scholars, religious agents, devoted to the promotion of the faith. My book is a study of how those communities of scholars developed and took responsibility for promoting Islam.

How did the pacifist tradition of Islam in West Africa arise?

I begin the story in the 7th century when Islam spread across North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, then in the 8th century to Spain. The Spanish expansion has direct relation to the subsequent development of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa so that Islam created a community of religious identity that spanned European and African regions.  In the 8th and 9th centuries, we begin to have reports of traders traveling with caravans and pilgrims going to Mecca on pilgrimage from these places and returning home.

As a historian, I’ve considered how the development of a Muslim community requires education. In time a class of educators and teachers emerged to inculcate the religion to help fulfill the obligations and requirements of the religion. It is important to bear in mind that Islam is a religion of practices prescribed in the cycle of the lunar calendar. However limited, literacy is a basic demand of the religion. Carrying out the injunctions involves learning the religion and attending the mosque. I began to think about the scholars who taught Islam and about their residential lives. I looked at the Empire of Ghana, which was founded in the 5th century, long before Islam. Scattered populations in Ghana adopted Islam soon after it was introduced sometime in the 9th or 10th century. In my mind, that created a mixed community, Muslim and non-Muslim, living peacefully cheek by jowl — there are no reports of religious violence as a consequence of this mixed picture.  

Sanneh met with Muslim scholars in remote towns and villages in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and adjoining countries while writing his book.

Thus I came upon a class of religious scholars and traveling instructors who identified themselves as professionals living by offering religious services for a fee. Thus emerged the class of educated clerics who distinguished themselves from the warrior class and political elites into whose hands they left the affairs of empire. This clerical class was constituted of a branch of the people who founded the Ghana Empire. The impulse of clerical autonomy and clerical independence from politics and from warfare goes back to this time.

That impulse came fully into view with the conversion of the Kingdom of Mali in the 11th century when the king converted, not by jihad, but by seeking prayers to end a severe drought afflicting his kingdom. His conversion persuaded a section of his citizens to follow his example and embrace Islam. Thus jihad play no role in the conversion of Mali, and that was critical because Mali was the most famous empire in medieval Africa. The king of Mali was the wealthiest and most powerful man in of his time and place, and made waves as a world leader. He grabbed the attention of European cartographers who in the 14th century put Mali on maps of the world. And yet this man — a king with the power of life and death over his subjects — was a peaceful Muslim. His faith made him wiling to be subject to the scrutiny of scholars, which acted as a brake on political tyranny and despotism. The ruler did not have complete license to do as he wished because of the moral constraint he felt as a Muslim. The class of clerical scholars played a very important role in fostering political moderation, religious tolerance, and social pluralism. Arabs, Berbers, and Africans from various ethnic groups in Mali mixed together quite amicably.

How can Islam’s pacifist tradition in West Africa inform the current discussion in the United States about Islam?

There is a broader public conversation in which Muslim scholars should take the lead. I am only a pedestrian historian. I don’t as such have an axe to grind. The historical evidence we have of these clerical communities in West Africa makes striking reading. I was fortunate to meet Muslim community leaders in the course of my research and subsequently, and they impressed on me the depth of their commitment to tolerance. I was impressed by their modesty, their humility, and their fidelity to scholarship and learning. They lived — and continue to live — in very obscure towns and villages in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and in adjoining countries. I asked them why they don’t bring their religious vocation into the open, which, among other things, would make searching them out much less onerous and less time-consuming. As it was, I pursued them off the beaten track in four-wheel drive vehicles to follow their trail in remote districts. Their habit of retreat and withdrawal in order to preserve their reputation of avoidance of politics makes it difficult to keep pace with their work. But their professional dedication to religion and scholarship should remind us that Islam’s spiritual power has not diminished with the centuries — however checkered its course. I try to account for this spiritual force and its accompanying Sufi component by separating it from the two other spheres that together make up the great legacy of Islam: the political sphere represented by a contested caliphate and contending scattered dynasties, and ethics and law that spawned the impressive law schools for which Islam is famous.

The caliphate [an Islamic state led by a caliph, a religious and political leader with absolute authority] was moribund even while the dust was settling on the Abbasid Caliphate, for all the strident piety with which it set out. Muslim religious scholars were denouncing the caliphate centuries before the Mongols toppled it. The political heritage of Islam is a contested heritage. Muslim scholars through the centuries, until perhaps now with al-Qaida and ISIS, have questioned the idea of the caliphate as a serviceable concept. The caliphate, these scholars insisted, was an affront to the moral conscience of Islam. We in the West don’t know this as well as we ought to.  

Law and ethics, which some scholars have argued represent Islam’s greatest intellectual achievement, developed independently of the caliphate, often against it. Shari’ah, about which we are so concerned in the United States as an intolerant and oppressive system, was created by some of the greatest scholars of Islam, but not in the way the subject is depicted in the media and the press. All the founders of Shari’ah were persecuted and tormented by the rulers: They were pursued, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and, in one case, murdered.

When you look at the Muwatta of Malik, the oldest law book in Islam and the cornerstone code that has shaped and sustained so much of the religious identity of Muslims from Spain, North Africa, West Africa, and beyond, the bulk of it has nothing to do with government. So much of it is devoted to prayer: the call to prayer; forgetfulness in prayer; what validates a prayer; the prayer at night; how to shorten the prayer; and so forth and so on. Shari’ah is about Muslims’ obligations in undertaking their religious devotions. The point I’m trying to make is that law and ethics were invested not in the state or government but in civil society where religious professionals took responsibility for it.

The religious scholars and Sufi masters were, in the main, the engine of the expansion of Islam. Whenever the state got involved in promoting Islam it created difficulty for Muslims and attracted unease and protest from the scholars. We should have a conversation in the United States with Muslim scholars about how, at a very early age, probably by the 9th century, these demarcations distinguishing Islam’s spiritual heritage in law, ethics, and religion from the affairs of state and rulership were set. The caliphate was a shabby residue of the high moral vision the religious scholars identified with the heritage of Muhammad. Thankfully, these scholars could turn to law and ethics as the organizing force of civil society. In their turn the Sufi orders became the missionary force of the momentum of Islam by using persuasion, teaching, and the exemplary lives of devotees. I think we can have a fruitful conversation about this and how Islam fits in civil society and how that is not at variance with American values.

How did you come to study this pacifist heritage and how did you conduct your research?

In graduate school, I was interested first in studying the spread of Islam in Liberia. I arrived at graduate school to pursue a doctorate following my studies in classical Islam in the Middle East, and at that point I knew relatively little about African Islam. My professor in graduate school mentioned a community of clerics in West Africa that might be worth looking into. There were few articles published on the subject, mostly by French scholars. I thought, “That’s interesting, I’ve never really thought of a pacifist tradition in Islam.” So I plunged into the research by first going to look at the colonial archives in Paris. After that I set out on site visits in West Africa. Meanwhile I corresponded with scholars working in related fields — one scholar, with whom I maintained contact was working on a scholarly Berber tribe of the Sahara. But in general the pacifist dimension of my work appeared largely neglected by scholars.

See also:

Divinity School story: “Lamin Sanneh: The space for religion to be visible”

Video: A conversation with Lamen Sanneh

The fieldwork was what persuaded me that there was substance to the claim of a pacifist Muslim heritage. The clerical centers were in rural areas difficult to access. I had little by way of grants, and so I asked for help from friends. I was able to secure heavy-duty transport that allowed me to set up field interviews. I was able to photograph the Arabic chronicles of these clerical communities. That way I collected several of these chronicles and translated them. I used that to establish a chronology of clerical lineages, which was crucial for historical reconstruction.

I wrote a report on those chronicles, which was published in a French journal. I faced a lot of resistance from scholars focused at the time on jihad studies. They couldn’t reconcile my pacifist inquiries with the idea of jihad Islam and its revolutionary political overtones. After all, war makes dramatic history while peace appears rather tame and bland in comparison. It was a challenge, but the sources were so strong and the clerical leaders I met were so persuasive that I felt encouraged to persist against the odds. I felt the force of a hidden compact with these rustic clerics to tell their story by allowing the evidence and the personalities they created to stand as vindication of their cause. As in the musical “Oklahoma!” the cowboy for once may yield pride of place to the farmer.

What impressed me particularly was that the pacifist teaching in this case was not sectarian. These Muslim clerics were not saying, “We are pacifists, therefore we are better than other Muslims.” They never condemned other Muslims. In fact, the whole act of condemnation, they say, is a breach of pacifist teaching. Pacifists don’t go around condemning others because anathematizing as such is an act of aggression, beside being a violation of religious teaching. An anathema is an act of violence, and while jihad might be appropriate for it, pacifist teaching is not. Even when a cleric deviates from the practice and engages in warfare, he may be repudiated and shunned but never declared an apostate or a renegade. It’s an impressive sign of clerical maturity as well as a mark of their forbearance. In the book, I try to contrast this version of Muslim African pacifism with the Western tradition in which pacifists went separatist, rejecting government along with society for being complicit. 

What ideas would you most like people to take away from the book?   

I’d want people to understand that Islam in ancient Mali created a community of Arabs, Berbers, and Africans from different ethnic groups who spoke different languages. It created a sense of a common humanity untrammeled by race, color, geography, and ethnicity. I think this is important for debates today in America about religion. We should to recognize that Islam has built into it a tendency toward a cosmopolitan and a more universal view of the human family.

As a historian, I hear echoes in that of Thomas Jefferson in a letter of April of 1803 where he said that the philosophers of the Enlightenment achieved for us what he called “tranquility of mind” by developing intellectual precepts, a kind of assurance and confidence in the powers of the mind, but that those philosophers failed to develop a sense of obligation to a wider circle of benevolence that embraced all of humankind, what he called “peace, charity and love to our fellow men.” The idea that the American Revolution was an errand to the world — as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, any government so constituted shall not perish from the Earth — this conviction that America is not just a parochial, ethnic, clan enterprise, but that it invites the scrutiny of the entire world. America is never more itself than when it takes in the heritage of the world’s peoples. I think Islam has something to contribute to this generous, elevated view of human identity beyond clan, beyond tribe, beyond race. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548