Home Away from Home
Summoned from the Margin, then, is not the dramatic biography of a soldier or statesman. Instead, it's the story of a scholar and thinker who, through very long, patient, and disciplined work, rises to the highest reaches of his profession. Driven by a hunger for education and learning, Sanneh clawed his way into an outer world that repeatedly rejected him on account of his conversion, his new faith, and his race. Most of the story concerns his inner life—spouses and children enter only intermittently, though lovingly.
Another level is a kind of personal anthropology, wherein his life's experiences and choices are weighed and connected. Sanneh analyzes his thoughts and carefully compares the multiple languages that he needed to make sense of his life's journey. There are many references to scholars, but his purpose is not to enter scholarly debates. Sanneh is after something deeper: an examination of his own heart. To wit, he chooses more quotations from poets, novelists, and other literary figures (Virgil, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Gray, Elizabeth Browning, John Masefield, Oscar Wilde, Helen Keller, and C. S. Lewis) than from scholars. The largest source of quotations is the Psalms.
A third level is confession, in the sense of Augustine's confessions: how a boy raised in a Muslim family, in a Muslim village, almost in a Muslim world, came, with little human intervention, to become a Christian. This story deserves careful consideration, since it comes from a man with a doubly unique vantage point. Not only is Sanneh highly regarded as a scholar of both Islam and Christianity, he has also lived reflectively within cultures profoundly shaped by both faiths. His conversion narrative shows a sharp awareness of what he has come from, and to—and why. Clearly, Sanneh has loved his Muslim family and friends. He is deeply aware of what draws them to Islam, and keeps them within it.
Sanneh writes critically, however, of the church's relation to Islam, portraying with keen sensitivity the formidable pressures that confront converts to Christianity. At the risk of making his perspective on Christian-Muslim relations seem unduly harsh, it's worth exploring some of his trenchant observations.
"Islam," he writes, "encourages conversion—just not from it …. Muslims honor and celebrate their converts as trophies of faith, while Christians take their converts as charitable rations with a pinch of shame. It forces Christian converts underground to keep their faith quiet, or else makes them propitiatory tokens of a grateful church for Muslim forbearance. This arrangement gives Muslims the confidence that they hold the high ground vis-À-vis Christians; after all, only the inferior religion would agree to such terms."
As a convert to Christianity, Sanneh felt the crushing weight of these dynamics. Churches, beset by the "Western guilt complex," welcomed former Muslims only reluctantly, as they threatened to "upset the status quo." Between Islamic self-confidence and Christian self-doubt, "the border crossing with Islam was a one-way street," and Sanneh was "moving against the flow of traffic, and in the process setting off alarm bells all around the ramparts."