Hope, Nigeria, and the Sultan

Cambridge, MA. As promised, this is a brief follow-up on the visit of the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of some 80,000,000 Muslims in Nigeria and the surrounding area, to Harvard on October 2-3. Harvard sees many, many dignitaries visit campus, and so the arrangements seemed rather smooth, security real but not ostentatious. The event was of great moment noted in some circles and in the news, but life in Cambridge rolled along as usual.

I was not able to attend all the events in the crowded schedule of his brief visit, but did catch part of a panel discussion on Sunday, October 2 — "Muslim Women's Religious Literacy: The Legacy of Nana Asma'u in the Twenty-first Century and Beyond,” a theme that attracted a standing room only crowd.

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I was at his Jodidi Lecture on Monday, October 3, “Islam and Peace-Building in West Africa.” What was most notable about the lecture is how prudent and sane it was. Few could object to anything he said: Nigeria has a proud history and noble culture, and has been blessed by the presence of Muslim and Christian communities. Its problems are real, and require considerable concerted effort, and reliable, responsible leadership. Religious tensions do erupt, sometimes in violence, but leaders can and should work together to minimize subsequent violent reactions, and to restore communal harmony. Both religious and political leaders need to commit themselves to five goals: knowledge as the basis for effective leadership; the primacy of justice; the fight against corruption; the dignity of labor; improving the status of women, especially by education; religious communities, Christian and Muslim, need to work together.

As for religious cooperation, the Sultan pointed to how it is most apparent in works of charity, peace, and justice: “I have also seen how people of goodwill could make a world of difference; how the right word at the appropriate time could heal an old wound; how a little help to those in distress could rekindle hope in our common humanity, and how people of virtue, courage and determination, could set aside their fears and misgivings to work together to re-establish and strengthen the bases of mutual co-existence within their diverse communities.” On the whole, as a measure, careful statement, the lecture was clearly a work of statecraft, appropriate to his status as a leader of a large community, and presumably it was vetted by his advisors.

At the end of the lecture, many lined up to ask the Sultan questions; the questions were not filtered in advance, but there was time only for a few actually to be posed and answered. Most questions were posed by Nigerians or academic experts with long experience in the affairs of Nigeria, and had to do with particular issues requiring background knowledge of the details of recent Nigerian history. During this brief question period, he was more relaxed, and seemed to enjoy the gentle push and pull of exchange with those asking about his policies and the wider problems of Nigeria.

Throughout the visit, he was accompanied by a number of advisors and local Nigerian leaders, including traditional emirs and government officials. I met some at the dinner, and when I came to the Center the next day, I ended up giving a brief tour to a distinguished group of dignitaries, including the governor of a large Nigerian state.

This was a Harvard event, not a Church event. The tenor was standard and calm, diplomatic and polite. At the various panels, worthy experts spoke wisely of tradition and reform, and the Sultan fulfilled his own role with dignity and wisdom. None of this was what we would normally call an interreligious dialogue; my brief encounter with him at the reception – he in his robes, myself making a rare Harvard appearance in Roman collar – was friendly and warm, but no great interreligious truths were passed back and forth in the moments I had with him.

Unexpectedly, the most lovely, ethereal and spiritual moment came at the very end of the formal dinner concluding the visit. Naila Baloch, a Harvard Divinity graduate and now Muslim chaplain at Tufts, recited in a lilting chant a old poem in honor of traditional Muslim teachers, men and women, who taught wise ways of living, praying, dying. The effect of this chant was mesmerizing; everyone seemed enchanted, drawn into this simple and compelling recollection of religion as a community of women and men who lived the tradition wisely. Recollecting the past, even that of another religion in a far-off place, gives us hope for breathing new life in our own traditions, today.

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