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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About makagutu

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

25 thoughts on “African religion(s)

  1. johnfaupel says:

    My uncle was a ‘White Father’, who went to Uganda to try and convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. As a child I admired him greatly; as an adult I soon recognised his narrow-minded ignorance. I didn’t blame him – I blamed (and still do) the self-centred arrogance of all religious bigots whose only real pleasure is the power they obtain from the servitude of innocent people whom they convince they have been specially ‘blessed’ to promote the message of god. It’s the food that feeds what William James referred to as their ‘me-self’ and has tainted naturally evolving cultural beliefs of egalitarian communities everywhere.

    Liked by 4 people

    • makagutu says:

      Did he tell you about the conflict or divisions that the missionaries caused, sometimes between families where one group was Catholic and another protestant? It’s cruel, if you ask me

      Liked by 1 person

  2. foolsmusings says:

    I find it very interesting that Christians find any suggestion that their religious views are silly to be horrible insults yet they treat other religions ridicule

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Definition of pantheism (from Merriam-Webster): A doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe. It presupposes that everything in the universe is connected. The sky, the moon, birds, reptiles, thunder, lightening etc. are all variant modes of god. Therefore god can be evil or good (Isaiah 45:7) and he has many messengers represented in artistic form. African religion is pantheistic not henotheistic. At all times many gods of different hierarchies are worshipped by same individuals or groups.

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    • makagutu says:

      The African is henotheistic not pantheistic. Many gods of different hierarchies are worshipped but this doesn’t exclude the being of an ultimate supreme being. That’s my understanding

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      • Ofcourse not. But Henotheism though it means worshiping one god out of many, it does not equate gods with the cosmos. A Christian who worships Yhwh but admits that Allah or Buddha equally exists is Henotheistic but this does not apply to the African since he does not distinguish between cosmic events or agents and god. I may be wrong though.

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        • makagutu says:

          A Christian or Muslim does not think other gods exist. In fact, when they do, these are considered idols or false gods. It is this kind of thinking that makes the Catholic believe and sincerely so, that the Protestant is headed straight to hell. The African does not consider any of his or her gods false, they are just differently ranked.

          Liked by 1 person

          • “The African does not consider any of his or her gods false, they’re just differently ranked” — You make an excellent point there.
            I too believe Protestants are the problem because they seem not to have any sense at all of religious tolerance.
            Also, do you know many African Christians secretly consult oracles and spiritualists under the cover of darkness?

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          • makagutu says:

            The argument has been that whenever there is conflict between Christianity and African traditional beliefs, the latter will take precedence most of the time. The Christian will still name their child after a dead relative.

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          • True. African Christianity is only superficial. I find the rural folks more clever because most still stick to their culture, traditions and customs whether or not they claim to be Christians. But the average Christian in the city is beyond repair, culturally. They wear European shoes (high heels), European clothes and they pray in English/French. Does the god not understand the local dialect?

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          • makagutu says:

            You can say that again.
            They will be quick to declare something unAfrican while everything about them is borrowed from elsewhere

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          • Hypocrisy, that’s all they know and practice.

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          • makagutu says:

            Well, it will be a long time before they invent a different currency.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. jim- says:

    I think one god is a progression in evolution. In order, Animism, polytheism, hedonism, monotheism, atheism. And sooner than later would be ok.

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  5. renudepride says:

    I’ve sometimes wondered, especially in the last ten years or so, how the Christian extremists would react to scores of Africans (or Asians) coming to this country (USA) for the sole purpose of converting the sinners here to the True Faith. I think they would be highly insulted. But at least they would know how the indigenous peoples felt when the missionaries came to their villages to convert them. Good plan for discussion, my Kenyan brother! Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. john zande says:

    Not sure which is older, but it’s also in Zoroastrianism: Ahura Mazda (the Father), Spenta Mainyu or Vohu Mana (the Holy Spirit), and Asha Vahista (the Logos, or Son)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Eric Alagan says:

    I believe organised religions are good stepping stones to something higher – whatever that might be for each individual, including atheism. It is like primary school going on to secondary and beyond.

    Problem is, many get stuck and refuse to move up. After all, primary school maths is easy and one can keep securing great grades – LOL.

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