On Christian-Muslim relations in Ghana: reflections on the inaugural conference of the Sanneh Institute
Rev Dr Martin Olando Wesonga is the Principal of the Bishop Hannington Institute of Theology, Mombasa and is active in interfaith work in Kenya. He is an alumnus of the Woolf Institute, having completed several online courses on religion and society.
The Sanneh Institute of Research, Religion & Society in collaboration with the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, Oxford held its inaugural conference in Accra, Ghana in February 2020. The Sanneh Institute was named after the renowned Christian-Muslim scholar Lamin Ousman Sanneh who was born in Gambia in 1942 and died in 2019. Sanneh was born into a Muslim family whose members later converted to Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism.
The theme of the conference was 'Territoriality and Hospitality: Christians and Muslims sharing common space'. The theme 'territoriality' outlines that tension between Christians and Muslims is normally occasioned by the idea of who is in control or dominant in a particular place. Created in 2018 at the University of Ghana, the Sanneh Institute aims to enhance scholarship in this area by researching religion and society in Africa.
At time of his death, Sanneh was a professor at Yale Divinity School, having been there since 1989. He authored and edited more than 20 books and 200 articles. Among his books included Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam (2016) which argues that Islam was adopted in the region because of peaceful traditions and not military conquest as stated by some historians. Importantly, Sanneh emphasised that Muslims see their religion as one of peace and not violence.
As part of this inaugural conference, Christian-Muslim scholars gave presentations based on sharing common space among Christian and Muslims. For instance in Madina Zongo, a quarter hosting Muslims on the outskirts of Accra city, there is respect among Christians and Muslims in handling food. Christians know it is haram to sell pig hooves to Muslims, so it is a common occurrence to see Christians selling the pig hooves to Christians only and not Muslim members of the community. There is no conflict in the buying and selling of food and commodities in relation to religious taboos. Another example of co-existence in Ghana is the case of a university owned by Muslims but which admits students of various denominations, including Shias, Sunnis and Christians who are given the freedom to worship in their own traditions.
There are examples of Christian-Muslim co-existence across different parts of Africa. For example, in Zimbabwe, Christians and Muslims share land and farm together. In spite of different religious beliefs, they grow crops and sell the produce in the market as a cooperative society. In Kenya, Muslims and Christians live in one of the informal settlements in Nairobi as neighbours. Despite previous tensions between Muslims and Christians, Christians work in abattoirs owned by Muslims and during Muslim festivals they share meals together. This has led to peaceful co-existence and understanding.
During the inaugural lectures held in February, guest speakers including former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and Prof Farid Esack, author of Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression, emphasised respect of space as a way to enhance territoriality.
The conference celebrated diversity in religious practice, sharing of space and coming together to respect and learn about each other's traditions. The future of the Sanneh Institute seems rather bright indeed.
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