By Chika Esiobu and Lonzen Rugira
Today, August 10, 2022, would have been the 78th birthday of Professor Sulayman Nyang, who taught both authors at Howard University. In life, Professor Nyang was known for his deep regards for the human spirit, whether in manifestation as male, female, yellow, black, Christian, Muslim or other. Professor Nyang was devoted to humanity; in his eyes, a human being is a human being, first, second, third and everything-most, before being a member of any community, professing to any creed or aligning with any affiliation. His non-reductionist view of humanity is a little trudged path by many, and is the desire of seekers of depth.
A committed scholar of religion and Afrocentric intellectual, Professor Nyang felt comfortable, loved and respected in the presence of every human being he came across. That feeling was what he gave out spontaneously to all who crossed his path.
Professor Sulayman can be termed both a progressive and a traditionalist at once. As a progressive, he viewed and celebrated human accomplishments with great pride. Scientific, technological and other such achievements, from the East, the West, Christian, Muslim, white or black, meant a great leap for all of humanity. In his writings and speeches, Professor Nyang gave credit to the West for having “contributed immeasurably to the development and enrichment of humanity.” Yet, he would strongly and respectfully admonish the West to uphold that progress by striving towards a convergence, rather than the present path of divergence. Professor Nyang’s position was that the West should contribute to building a genuine human civilization through the incorporation of the assortment of elements that is “humanity’s diverse moral codes.”
Professor Sulayman’s more traditional side manifested in many ways. In his personality, he cut the picture of a deified African elder, the kind who seats under the Baobab tree, very highly esteemed and very much needed by his community. In an age when hypercapitalism is threatening to divert the noble intentions of many in the academe, Professor Sulayman was untouched, as if operating from another realm. There was not a greedy, profit-centered, egotistical or competitive streak in him. Whatever Professor Sulayman did, he did for the advancement of humanity, starting with his immediate community. He traversed the globe, often without remuneration, giving talks, building bridges, pacifying aggrieved parties and holding out hopes for a peaceful coexistence of humanity.
A Pan-Africanist who encouraged everyone, including those of his faith to be Pan-African, Professor Nyang once wrote in an article that Islam and Pan-Africanism are not opposing ideals. Indeed, for the Abrahamic faith believers of African descent, Pan-Africanism can serve as a pathway for realizing the promise made to Abraham. Abraham was promised an inheritance of nations, Pan-Africanism is about strengthening the bond between Africans world over towards improved all round well-being, to build a nation of Africans with dignity globally.
At a time when his host country viewed the rise of radical Islam as the “senseless” activities of some fanatics, Professor Nyang’s writings tried to provide logical insights into the rise of radical Islam across the world, with emphasis on Africa. He made tremendous contributions to the body of work on Islamic militancy, international terrorism, and the US-led global war on terrorism, as well as providing profound insights about Africa’s place in a changing international system.
Professor Sulayman’s boundless embrace of the human spirit manifested in the egalitarian energy he exhibited in the classroom towards his students, among faculty, colleagues, acquaintances, co-panelists, strangers and anyone at all who ever encountered him. As long as there was a human being standing before or interacting with him, Professor Nyang gave his best. There was not one once of judgment, stereotyping, anger or aggression in him.
Despite spending much of his time in the West since he was about 24 years old, Dr. Nyang, was an African to the core. He was an intellectual in his own right, one from the great tradition of the griots of the Gambia. His Africanness never left him. Whenever he saw young Africans, Dr Nyang was eager to inspire. He saw himself in young Africans [having himself gone to the US as a young man to study]. He had a quality that we rarely see anymore in human beings and which is increasingly disappearing: The desire to shape and mentor young people, to tell them that they can reach for their dreams. It came natural to him. “You will be great,” he always said. It was easy to think you will be great when you were in the midst of Dr Nyang. He didn’t only tell you that you will be great, he would give you the tools to make you great – whatever that means to a person’s life mission. He would make sure that he makes his own contribution that leaves a mark on you.
My mentor and friend has passed. Professor Sulayman Nyang was more than my professor and his impact on my life went beyond the classroom. It was from him that I learned the value of mentorship.
In 2007 he introduced me to Ali Mazrui as the man who had had a great impact on him. pic.twitter.com/gCxBV09uqY
— Lonzen Rugira (@LonzenRugira) November 13, 2018
I (Lonzen Rugira) was very close with him. We had many private conversations. Most of what I learned from Howard University, I didn’t really learn from the classroom. I learned from my friendship with Professor Nyang. His humanity. He was always giving. He was generous to the core and he gave everything; intelligence, wisdom, money. Dr Nyang was always buying food for homeless people at McDonalds. So this is the human being who should be remembered.
Dr. Sulayman Nyang was a bridge builder across faiths, ethnicities, nations and communities. Like minds drawn from diverse backgrounds considered him a mentor. To everyone, Professor Nyang had a smile, an encouraging word, an idea or a plain old well wishes to offer. His life is one that offers a way of escape from the hateful divisions that plague our world today.
Happy Birthday, Professor Nyang!