African Religion

By Laurenti Magesa

The premise of this book is that African religion can only be spoken of in the singular. While acknowledging the diversities of the African people, he says, these are just varieties of expression as we find in other world religions- Islam: Sunnis, Shiites- than basic belief.

In treating of world religions, he argues African Religion has not been treated as a world religion as a result of prejudice of 19th C scholarship, tainted by Darwinism, slave trading and a colonial mentality. He gives an example of Henry M. Stanley’s description of the African person as

Barbarous, materialist, childish and inarticulate creature, almost stupefied with brutish ignorance, with the instincts of man in him, but yet living the life of a beast.

Those who do not recognize African Religion as a world religion argue it has no written scripture. While this is true, it must be noted that all other world religions were orally based before they were codified in writing. The second objection is that it is not a revealed religion. In response to this, the African conceives of his religion as continuing and ever present. It is in this sense more morally based than ethically based. The third objection cited is lack of interest in aggressive proselytizing. This he says cannot hold because Hinduism or Confucianism do not actively proselytize.

In his introduction, the author tells us morality- normative ordering in terms of perceived meanings, values, purposes and goals of human existence- and ethics- the scientific study of such normative order- is of the very nature of religion. Here, religion is described as

A believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore, a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. In short, a system of coordinates by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally and existentially.

If the above definition is true for other religions, then African Religion must be recognized as one. This recognition is not a concession but a reversal of long held prejudice. African Religion is conceived as a way of life where distinction is not made between religion and other areas of human existence. One can conclude only prejudice and ignorance were the criteria used by early travelers to Africa to conclude the people have no religion.

Different African societies have their cosmogenic myths that we won’t care to enumerate. It is important to note however that they all begin with god as the great ancestor or progenitor of life. God is conceived as father or mother, accentuating the positive qualities of fatherhood or motherhood.

It is important at this point to note that African religious behavior is centered mainly on man’s life in this world, with the consequence that religion is chiefly functional.

African Religion underlines the fact that the earth is our home, and the prolongation of humankind is ultimately bound to the earth’s fecundity. The implications of this include the view the earth is a gratuitous gift to humanity who possess an equal claim to it. To callously disturb created order by abusing it disrespectfully means nothing else, ultimately, than to tamper dangerously with human life.

What constitutes misuse of the universe? Greed.

In the African Religion, the purpose of life is to produce and perpetuate more life. Therefore, to fail to perpetuate life in every way possible intentionally is worst moral wrong against self, community and society in general. In this view, a marriage that does not lead to procreation, should not have been entered in the first place. This also explains why different communities allow the brother in law to marry the brother’s widow to sire children if they didn’t have any and to bring them up. These children belong to the deceased and inherit his property. A widow in some societies is considered a ‘man’ and any children she has with any man belong to her dead husband and become members of his clan.

For the African, existence is communal. The implication of this is that without community one no longer has the means of existence. This unity is seen fully in the unity of the living, living dead (remembered dead) and yet to be born.

Morality, as defined above, is presupposed to be life-centered.

When the believes talks of sanctity of nature, they should be understood not to mean nature worship but treating it with respect. There should be no cruelty to animals. One should not destroy forests, pollute the earth, since there is no telling what calamity will befall the community.

Taboos, as they exist in African communities, is to make sure that the moral structure of the universe remains undisturbed for the good of community.

In matters to do with family life, conception is the assurance for parents of their possibility of living after death, of becoming ancestors. That is, in their children, there is the possibility of their being named and thus joining the group of the remembered dead. The communal unity referred to above, is expressed again in conception. Every individual is the outcome of human act, god’s creation and ancestral blessing. When the birth is uncomplicated, then there is tranquility in the universe, the ancestors are pleased, the parents are of good moral standing and finally it is a sign of defeat of bad people. Where the birth is complicated, it is believed the rights of deities have been contravened, there is illegitimacy, a crime has been concealed or some moral wrong among many others.

Death, to the believer is not to be feared. The beginning of life already carries the end. The dead are to be treated with respect. The pregnant woman is sacred. She carries in her future life. And as I pointed out earlier, perpetuation of life is the chief purpose of life, so to treat a pregnant woman badly threatens future life.

The author notes that whereas Africans are monogamous, it is not by choice, but rather is a result of certain constraints. It is a moral requirement that apart from showing material capacity to take care of an extra wife, one should be convinced he is able to treat them equitably. The social/ religious ideal is polygamy. The author notes that active homosexuality is morally intolerable as it frustrates baby making. Paradoxically, homosexuals sometimes do play unique social and religious roles.

While discussing incest, the author gives the range covered by incest to include sex with a parent or child, grandparents or grandchild, sister, half-sister, brother, half-brother, aunt/ uncle, sister or brother in law (while either couple is alive), sister, brother, half-sister/ brother of a man or woman with whom one has had sexual relations and any woman whose milk a man has suckled.

Regarding sin and evil, the author notes these do not exist in human experience except as perceived in people. He notes, regarding morality, that pursuance of right behavior rather than avoidance of wrong is what distinguishes the authentically good person and one who is not truly so. He reminds us everyone is capable not only of harbouring wrong and destructive thoughts but of acting them out as well. This view has, in my opinion, a big part in how we deal with wrongdoers.

It is noted that divination, in African Religion, is a way of knowing. The diviner is sought to explain why things are the way they are and this is done through divination.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, regarding community, entertaining people is both a social and moral duty that affirms and enhances life.

Whilst this review is not comprehensive, it does highlight the major areas of community life that the author addresses. I have not addressed the political life, which the author argues must be seen as not being separate from religion but as interlinked for the end of political organization is to promote life. The author argues, and I think I agree, the African convert to Muslim or Christianity, is only so on the surface. His/ her thinking and action is deeply African.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in comparative religion or who is curious about African Religion as I am.


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

16 thoughts on “African Religion

  1. Looks like a fascinating read. I may have to give it a read. Oh, I like the way the author describes Donald Trump, too: “Barbarous, materialist, childish and inarticulate creature, almost stupefied with brutish ignorance, with the instincts of man in him, but yet living the life of a beast.” Spot on!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yes, I think it seems an interesting read as well. Will at least check into it, thanks!


  3. Barry says:

    While I can see many differences between African religion and indigenous Aotearoa New Zealand religion, there seem to be many similarities. In particular, life and religion are one and the same. There is an understanding that myths and even theology itself rises from the experience of life and how we interpret it. Contrast this to Christian fundamentalism where the myths and theology have become “the truths” on which their religion is built.


  4. Veracious Poet says:

    While many of the issues the author treats are not exactly accurate, I will say that in so far as peaceful coexistence is concerned African religion did not falter in that regard. A religion was a personal thing not organised, one chooses how to worship his or her personal god in his closet and no one puts his god above those of others. No one puts a gun to another’s head or a sword to the belly as the christians and muslims do and say “you must come worship my god or I will kill you.” So throughout African history, there was no record of religious wars prior to European contact. Economic and political wars yes but no proselytisation therefore no religious war. To marry one or many wives was a personal choice. But in Christianity marriage means one wife, 100 other girlfriends. Ah! that reminds of the cardinal who is in trouble for allegedly tasting a woman’s breasts. Concerning the statement that homosexuals perform certain roles in society, I think his or her informant meant eunuchs. Like in ancient Egypt eunuchs served the king’s household. A eunuch could also be a slave to a deity. A slave through exceptional service to the community (warefare) could transition to a very important person. In such a case he enjoys all rights and privileges in the community. He was even allowed to worship the gods of his native land. There was no hell fire, prayer was sacred. Whoever you are in the here and now, that’s what you will be in the afterlife. Everything in the universe was to a greater or lesser extent a manifestation of the supreme god who is so far away that mankind could not undertake to worship him direct except through his creations. There was truth there. Can anyone influence the universe? However there were weakness in African religious thought just as there were in any ancient pantheistic religion:
    1.There were no written records of rules/taboos
    2. It was not an organised religion so the priest did not have absolute control over the people to mobilise them
    3. The true essence of taboos were not communicated directly to the people
    4. Unlike Christianity it lost touch with changing times
    5. It simply remained a religion for peace and not a tool for advancing the lives of its adherents
    6. It was too mystified


    • makagutu says:

      Which areas do you think the author was inaccurate? I can try to answer specific questions by giving his references.
      1. Why do you think not being codified is a weakness?
      2. How does the priest not having absolute control a weakness? Rather than a strength?
      3. I agree
      4. On the contrary, its power was eroded by the missionaries who didn’t understand it. The African grew up thinking his religion is inferior or primitive
      5. How does peace not advance lives?
      6. Aren’t all religions like that? Shrouded in mystery?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Veracious Poet says:

        1. Not codified leaves room for misinterpretation, written history is better preserved than oral history
        2. The progress of every society depends on ability to organise and control the masses towards a common goal through whatever means possible eg. Rome
        4. The missionaries were colonial instruments who first injected the opium to soften the African. Christianity managed to evolve along the way. The new testament was an improvement on the old testament and that also refined Abrahams belief about God. Every Judeo-christian prophet revised the scriptures. For instance Moses abolished pantheism which was a relief because it is easier to be devoted to a single god than multiple gods. Jesus emphasised abstract qualities like empathy, love, unity etc in contrast to laborious laws and rituals which was another relief. All this teachings were preserved in written form. Because Africans were not in exodus enmass like the Jews the religion evolved very slowly until 18th century when colonialism set in and dealt the final blow. Because the African youth did not understand the real significance of rituals, they defected to the white missionaries and adopted their perspectives.
        5. Any philosophy that easily aids people to fulfil their greedy material needs is undefeatable. People desire virtues but they don’t eat peace and love. They need income, jobs, education an improved self esteem and the missionaries provided exactly that.
        6. With the exception of the book of revelation christianity is filled with contradictions, yes, but generally less mysterious as compared to African pantheism. At least the essence of rules, taboos were clearly stated. The sermon on the mount is something any regular person could read and understand. Lastly with African religion the gods hardly forgive a wrong doer. With Christianity one could steal a thousand times and his heavenly father is sure to forgive him without any recompense to the victim.


        • makagutu says:

          1. The bible, the Koran all get misinterpreted daily. Apart from preservation, I don’t think there is any other benefit. Some scholar argued that codification of culture makes it static. It becomes like a monument that people go to and that’s all. I think by keeping it oral whether intentional or not leaves it a lived experience and open to interpretation with the changing mood. That is, keeps it flexible.
          2. Groups were organised politically. Some had central systems some were disintegrated.
          3. You are right on colonialism and the role Christian and Islam played in the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of Africans
          4. There was no way African religion with its emphasis on peaceful living and admonition against greed would have outmatched Christianity.
          5. I doubt it. How many Christians have you met who having read the sermon on the Mount followed its precepts because they understood it?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Veracious Poet says:

            1. Written history supplements human memory, keeping it oral means if large populations lose their lives, important knowledge is gone
            2. Yes, but not on a large with sophisticated armies and weaponry for protection, as Rome did


  5. shelldigger says:

    From where I am sitting they have a better religion than I’ve seen so far. Except for the divination part. I didn’t see anything there about having to completely kowtow to a murderous, genocidal, petty, maniac.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      There was no room for such a megalomaniac. Religion was/ is a practical affair concerned with life in the here and now

      Liked by 2 people

      • Barry says:

        Religion was/is a practical affair concerned with life in the here and now
        Yes! That’s something that the monotheistic religions have largely forgotten. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand there is an awakening among Pakeha that Maori spirituality/religion/culture is not a primitive belief system but a valid alternative world view that can provide a valuable insight into understanding our relationship with Planet Earth. I’m preparing a post on recent legislation that has given a river the legal status of a living person. It’s something that greatly distresses fundamentalist Christians, but is strongly supported by most NZers regardless of their religious or non-religious leanings, and is joyously celebrated by Maori. It will be interesting to see if the reactions of readers from America and Western Europe differ from readers from other parts of the world.


        • makagutu says:

          In this book, the author argues that the Christian and Muslim missionaries call what is old, that would include African Religion and other world old religions as primitive.

          Liked by 1 person

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