January 2012
Capstone January 2012  
Leading Islamic Scholar Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

By Raven Padgett, Editor, Capstone; Publications Manager, Office of University Communications


Professor Nyang was honored in November for his exemplary scholarship and research. (Justin D. Knight)
Eight years ago, Sulayman S. Nyang, Ph.D., lay in a hospital bed in Maryland, reflecting on life’s fragility. After suffering a near-fatal heart attack, followed by a six-hour surgery, the professor of African Studies suffered a relapse. A few days later, he heard shouts of “Code Blue” and felt himself fading away. He doesn’t recall the next few moments, but his family told him that a doctor rushed in and resuscitated him, sending shockwaves through his body.

Today, he calmly recounts the experience—one that he wrote about for the Washington Post (“What Near Death Taught Me About Life”)—and explains how it intersected with a renewed appreciation for life and a reinforcement of his faith.

“That experience had serious consequences for me and the meaning of life,” he says. “And that’s why I always say now that ‘God is the ultimate moviemaker.’ We are all characters in this drama called life, and we never know what is going to happen next.” “You only hope that while you are here you can touch as many people as possible in a positive way.”

What Nyang would characterize as his ‘drama’ includes a nearly 40-year career in academia and activism that has helped shape perceptions of Islam in Africa and inspired countless scholars. His unassuming manner belies the fact that he is one of the foremost scholars on Islam. Students flock to his classroom hungry for knowledge and leave content knowing that they can return for more. In November, he received the Howard University Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his outstanding career. 
“He is one of the ‘go-to’ scholars when it comes to teaching and scholarship on Islam in Africa, the African Diaspora and other parts of the world,” says Mbye Cham, Ph.D., chair, Department of African Studies. “The courses on Islam that he has been teaching here over the past 30-plus years, coupled with the prodigious volume of writings he has produced, have shaped and influenced much of the knowledge and thinking on this subject.”
“You must take risks in life. If you don’t, then who will?” When I think of Dr. Nyang, I think of a person committed to interfaith dialogue. I think of a man who believes in King’s Beloved Community,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of Howard’s Afro-American Resource Center. “So it is fitting that here at this Hilltop, this place some call Mecca, that we honor a man who is a Muslim scholar, a man who is a believer not just in his faith, but in us. A man who believes we can build a better world and that faith can be made visible.”
A native of The Gambia, West Africa, Nyang has spent much of his career working to foster a greater understanding of Islam in the U.S. He has written and spoken extensively on Islam, Africa and Middle Eastern issues, publishing 11 books, including the 1999 highly acclaimed Islam in America. He is a former deputy ambassador of The Gambia in Saudi Arabia, where he was responsible for seven Middle Eastern and North African countries. He was the lead developer of the Smithsonian Institution’s 1999 African Voices Project and an advisor on the award-winning PBS documentaries Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002) and Prince Among Slaves (2007). He has also served as an advisor to the White House and international organizations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations.

Nyang started teaching at Howard more than 30 years ago, after being invited to give a lecture on campus. His interests include how the scriptures, philosophy, mythological narratives, poetry and social science affect the way human beings relate to the changing circumstances of life. He frequently speaks with members of different religious denominations, including a group of students and faculty—led by Dean Bernard Richardson—who meet regularly on campus to maintain an open dialogue.

Trying to foster religious understanding is why, immediately following 9/11, he gave a lecture at a Jewish synagogue in Baltimore, organized by the Center for Christian-Jewish Relations, at a time when relations remained strained between Muslims and members of other faiths. He dismisses the notion that it was not the right time.

“You must take risks in life,” Nyang says. “If you don’t, then who will?”

Nyang has received numerous honors over the course of his career, but the award from Howard, he admits, is “special.”

“In this lifetime, we experience many transformations,” he says. “You only hope that while you are here you can touch as many people as possible in a positive way. And as a professor, you hope that your students have gained some knowledge from you, and that they will pass that knowledge on to others. You hope you will have an impact, but again we are just characters in this drama God calls life.”

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