Cambridge, MA. As readers of this blog know, many of my reflections on religions and dialogue come out of my personal study and teaching. Occasionally, though, as professor and now Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, I get involved in interreligious learning and dialogue of a grander sort. Such is the case at the moment, as Harvard prepares for the visit to campus of Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto in Northern Nigeria. Previously a military officer and peace-keeper, only a few years ago was he called to take his place as the hereditary Sultan. He will be on campus October 2-3, most notably giving on October 3 the Jodidi Lecture, jointly sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Harvard Divinity School. This theme will be "Islam and Peace-Building in West Africa."
But for many of us, it is of particular interest that he will be part of a panel, on October 2, on "Muslim Women's Religious Literacy: The Legacy of Nana Asma'u in the Twenty-first Century and Beyond." Nana Asma'u (1793–1864), daughter of the first Sultan, was a female religious leader and reformer, and this panel will explore her pioneering work and its legacy for today’s Nigeria and Islam. This is a panel indebted particularly to Professor Anne Braude, Director of the Women’s Study in Religion Program, and to Hauwa Ibrahim, a visiting scholar in the Program.
Our role at CSWR was to host a panel discussion on September 26, in preparation for the Sultan’s visit, so that we might think in advance about his significance and message. I was the host of the event, but gladly turned the actual moderating role over to my colleague, Jacob Olupona (professor of African religions), who introduced Professor Ibrahim and two other distinguished scholars, M. Sani Umar (Northwestern) and Benjamin Soares (Leiden). This learned panel offered a short course on Nigeria, the history of Islam there, and an update on the state of religion and/in politics in Nigeria, and on the relationships among religions, particularly Muslims and Christians (each group about 40% of the population of about 150,000,000 people).
See and hear the panel at our site.
The panel and our conversation at dinner afterwards revealed not only how much I do not know — neither Islam nor Nigeria are topics I have studied in any depth — but also how unexpected connections bring something previously unfamiliar to life. It turns out that West Africa is the site for a rather vibrant religious diversity — not only Christian and Muslim, but also older, traditional religions such as the Yoruba, and relative newcomers such as Hinduism. Diversity flourishes here too, but in a particularly Nigerian way. Even the problems of religious tension, discrimination, and violence have their own history and character that are very local. Given how even our more forward-looking theologies of dialogue almost never look to Africa for insight about where we are going religiously today, it was refreshing to do so for a change. Instead of thinking of Africa only belatedly, we might do well also to start thinking about how all these religions can be seen in a new light after we have learned to focus on Africa, and right now, Nigeria.
Moreover, small comparisons abounded that might stimulate our reflection on leadership in the Catholic Church: for instance, Professor Umar pointed out that over the years the authority associated with the sultan’s position has dramatically shifted, changing from “power without influence, to one of influence without power.” Perhaps a Pope too will visit Harvard Divinity?
More on this topic after the Sultan’s visit has taken place.