African religion(s)

“I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion”.

I find these words by Pixley ka Seme very befitting of the journey we are about to embark on. Abrahamic religions can be dismissed without further argument. This is not say volumes have not been written to prop them up as being the only true religion, an exercise which in of itself, I find very ridiculous. Why a religion whose writings are supposed to have come from the god itself to need apology, is one of those things that begs to be answered. Did the god do such a bad job that men and women have built careers and empires explaining away what the god meant to say or what it wants.

Most of the early visitors to Africa, because they didn’t understand the ways of the people, claimed we didn’t have a religion nor systems of government and this thinking justified among other things the missionary activities and colonialism.

While there has been much scholarship on African religion(s) by theologians and historians, most of this work remains in the sphere of academia. It is not part of popular culture. One can easily walk into a bookstore and find any number of books on Christianity or Islam and they are cheap too, it is not the same with books on African religion and I hope that it will get as much attention as other world religions.

One of the questions we hope to address in this odyssey is whether we should talk of African religion in the singular or religions. And here, the question is whether they are separate and competing religious ideologies or parts of a greater theistic whole that would support the idea of a central origin that spread out through Africa.

To start of, we define religion not only as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods but as a process of human beings to reconnect with deity or whatever people consider to be a supreme being or cause behind existence. Further, it is argued that religion in its full form encompass ritual, myth and metaphysics. While the Abrahamic religions are monotheistic, the African religion is henotheistic, that is, god appears as personality, as nature and also transcending forms and names, beyond creation itself.

In talking of African Religion(s) we mean here those forms of religion that were developed on the continent of Africa by its indigenous peoples from ancient times, that is prior to the introduction of other religions from outside Africa. We must have note at this early opportunity that most African cultures have no corresponding word for religion as it is in the western world.

The difficulty that has been identified by scholars of religion in Africa is the absence of written material except for the Neterian Religion. We will not get into the dispute of whether North Africa is Africa or belongs in the middle East and whether the ancient civilizations thereof belong to Africa or Middle East. Religion in Africa is passed down from parent to child orally. So far as I can tell, I have found no African religion that was a proselytizing religion. Religion was a living aspect of life. There was no need to look for converts.

As I have already mentioned, African religion can be looked at as Polytheistic monotheism, that is, a system of religion presenting a supreme being and lesser gods and goddesses who serve the Supreme and sustain creation. It is this conception of religion that was earlier on referred to as henotheism. The proselytizing Christians and Muslims argued that monotheism is the advanced concept of religion. Yours truly thinks this is hot air. While there were conflicts between African nations, none of them have been ascribed to a difference of religious opinion as has been the case in most of history of Europe. It can be argued successfully that any religious conflicts on the continent can be linked to conflicts between Islam and Christianity.

The concept of revelation as is claimed by the Abrahamic religions stand in stark contrast to African religions, Hinduism and Buddhism that argue that which is transcendental and unintelligible cannot be related in words, as the intellect cannot fathom the true nature of the Supreme Being. While still on Western religion, we must note here that the claim by practioneers of revealed religions that observance of the tenets of their religions leads to piousness is unfounded and contradicted by the behaviour of missionaries and the general population that ascribe to said religious beliefs.

In concluding this introduction of the general layout of what we shall be looking at, I will mention that the idea of Trinity is of African origin. The three aspects are Amun– the unintelligible and hidden underlying reality which sustains all things; Ra– the subtle matter of creation as well as the mind and Ptah– the visible aspect of the divinity, the phenomenal universe.  So we say

He whose name is hidden is AMUN. RA belongeth to him as his face and his body is PTAH.


This post is informed mainly by the paper by Muata Ashby ‘What is Religion and what is an African Religion.

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