The island was a former British colonial outpost in the Gambia River, about 125 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. Settled by Methodist missionaries, the island had been a refuge for escaped slaves and for Muslims fleeing religious oppression . Its history would influence young Lamin, who, when he left Islam, first became a Methodist.
His father, Ousman Sanneh, who was descended from African royalty, was an administrator for the provincial government, but the family was poor. His mother, Fatoumatta Sidibeh, who was one of Ousman’s two wives, traded produce and textiles in the local marketplace. Lamin was one of 11 children in the family.
Curious and intellectually restless, he was inspired by Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life” (1903), which taught him that education and faith could help overcome physical and personal hardships. “I made the mental journey out of my world long before I made the physical journey,” he wrote in his memoir.
He gained entry at 5 to the Armitage High School, a competitive government-run Islamic boarding school on his island. He excelled there, but by the time he graduated, his family had broken up. He found a job in the capital, Banjul, where he converted to Christianity despite the reluctance of any Christian church to baptize him.
After winning a scholarship for African students to attend college in the United States, he started at a historically black college in Virginia, which he declined to name in his memoir because, he said, he had a bad experience while there. He had arrived in the midst of the civil rights movement and said in interviews that he had been a target of “bigotry, hatred and divisiveness.” He quickly transferred to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1967.
He then moved to England, where he earned a master’s from the University of Birmingham and a doctorate in Islamic history from the University of London. He held teaching posts at the University of Ghana, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Harvard Divinity School and, since 1989, Yale Divinity School. He was a naturalized United States citizen.
Dr. Sanneh was on an endless quest for knowledge. “He always described himself as a thorn in the side of his teachers and imams and professors — he just had so many questions,” his daughter, Sia Sanneh, said, and he was grateful for mentors who encouraged his curiosity. “He wasn’t from a place where you questioned doctrines and teachings.”