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The Sanneh Institute comes from a longstanding vision for establishing a West African center for the advanced study of Islam and Christianity. In April 2017, Dr. John Azumah shared this vision with a team of majority world Christian scholars of Islam at a meeting in Beirut convened by ScholarLeaders International with funding from the Blankemeyer Foundation. The purpose of the meeting was to reflect and set priorities concerning what must be done to equip the Church intellectually for engagement in Muslim-majority contexts. The vision was warmly embraced by the group and voted as the top priority.
In the fall of 2017, the Blankemeyer Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation approved funding for a feasibility study on “Engaging the Mosque and the Church in West Africa.” The eighteen-month study was led by Dr. Azumah in partnership with ScholarLeaders International and involved team visits to a number of West African countries and meetings with several academic and religious leaders in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Mali. The formation of The Sanneh Institute was announced in the fall of 2018 as a direct outcome of the feasibility study. Out of the consultations in the region, it became apparent that the University of Ghana, Legon, is the ideal place to house the institute. A memorandum of understanding was signed with the University of Ghana in January 2019 establishing The Sanneh Institute as an independent institute registered as a company limited by guarantee to work in collaboration with the Department for the Study of Religions.
The decision was made to name the institute after the late Professor Lamin Sanneh – D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and a professor of History at Yale University in recognition of his distinguished scholarship in the histories and missions of Islam and Christianity in Africa. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has described Professor Sanneh as “probably the most significant theologian of mission in the English-speaking world today.” Prof. Sanneh was a Gambian national who taught at the University of Ghana in the mid-70s where, in his own words, “We made great friends at the university, and through them, we got to know and love Ghana; it became our spiritual home.”
A favorable cultural, academic, and political climate made Ghana an ideal host for the institute. For one, followers of different religious traditions have long coexisted in harmony in the country and often within the same family. Even though the institute is Christian-initiated and Christian-led, Ghanaian Muslim leaders, including the National Chief Imam, received the formation of the new institute warmly, expressing their best wishes and commitment to the work of the institute. A regional gathering of Muslim and Christian scholars as well as religious and institutional leaders was convened in Accra in December 2018 where the vision, mission, and plan for the institute were shared with participants and developed by a team of advisors.
Work at The Sanneh Institute commenced in July 2019 under the leadership of Prof. John Azumah as the Founding Executive Director. The institute held its inaugural lectures and academic conference in February 2020 at the University of Ghana on the theme: “Territoriality and Hospitality: Christians and Muslims sharing Common Space”. Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Prof. Farid Esack, a leading South African Muslim scholar, gave the inaugural lectures. The event was chaired by Prof. Samuel Agyei- Mensah, Provost of the College of Humanities, who represented the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana. A Representative of His Excellency, The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II was in attendance as well as the widow and Son of Prof. Sanneh; Sandra and Kelefa Sanneh and Dr. Greg Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School.