We mourn the passing of a great Islamic scholar Dr. Sulayman Nayang (1944 - 2018 CE).
Always polite, always respectful, always optimistic, and always progressive. That is how I like to characterize Dr. Sulayman Nayang. He was a professor and former chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was a co-principal investigator of the Project MAPS and also a former deputy ambassador and head of chancery of the Gambia Embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He also served as consultant to several national and international agencies and on the boards of the African Studies Association, the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, America's Islamic Heritage Museum, and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. He wrote extensively on Islamic, African and Middle Eastern affairs. He had a master's degree in public administration and a Ph.D. in government from the University of Virginia. He was an advising scholar for the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentaries Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002) and Prince Among Slaves (2007), produced by Unity Productions Foundation.
But to many of us, who came to this country in the early eighties, he was a pillar of the Muslim community who pioneered the development of Islam in the US. He was an academician, but he transcended his role and became of the most rational public intellectual and a traditional Muslim teacher with all humility that one often hears about the earliest generation of the believers.
I had numerous encounters with Dr. Sualayman Nayang, the last time in Las Vegas, where we along with interfaith leaders shared the podium discussing the essentials of a pluralistic and democratic society. We were together in several conferences and seminars, but the most memorable time that I had was spent in the Fish Camp in Yosemite National Park, where we both attended the Muslim Family youth camp organized by the Central California Muslim society. The four days that we had together were spent in discussing everything including theology, jurisprudence, history, and the current affairs of Muslims. He was well versed in western political thoughts, religious pluralism, American history, and Muslim struggles for their identity throughout history. Like a traditional teacher, he would hold discussions on various topics and invite the participants to express their opinions fearlessly.
He believed that the American Muslim community was unique as it has the best opportunities to live Islam the way it should be lived combining modernism with traditionalism. He also believed that Muslims in American would have to evaluate the jurisprudence and build on it. He believed in the unity of Islam with diversity, and often argued that Muslims should learn to live with their differences even on theological issues as long as the goal is to serve humanity.
Dr, Nayang suffered a stroke in June 2016. His school honored him by instituting a formal scholarship fund established in his honor. Some of his friends launched a fundraising campaign to take care of his medical bills. Almost $100,000 were needed but the collections did not reach the $40,000 marks. It’s really sad to see the man who dedicated his life and work to serve the Muslim American community, suffered apathy even from those who learned from him and grew under his shadow.
But this is how communities act. They often ignore those who serve it but after their departure, create great monuments for them. The legacy that Dr. Nayang left would continue to inspire hundreds of his students throughout the world and the ideas that he propagated would continue to influence the Muslim minds for generation to come.
The least we can do is to remember him in our prayers and thank God for his intellect and service.