By African religion is meant the traditional religions on the sub-Saharan African continent. In the history of religion, African religion has often been placed at the bottom of the ladder of religions. Terms such as “primitive religion”, “tribal religions”, “animism” or “ancestral cult”, which were previously commonly used, reflect the Christian missionaries’ view and thus Europe’s general image of African religion up to the middle of the 20th century.
Two factors have proved crucial for both the previously prevailing interpretation and for the breakthrough in the understanding of African religion that has occurred since the years around 1960. First, African religion has existed in a culture without written language, i.e. it has primarily found expression in actions, rituals, and in myths handed down by oral tradition. It was Christian missionaries who, after acquiring African languages, collected the orally transmitted myths and gave an initial description of the religion in their area. Secondly, these descriptions, which have since been followed up by anthropologists and especially African religious scholars, have focused on the frequently debated question: Are there a number of individual religions, each with its own distinctive features that reflect the natural environment and ethnic groups?
Some often overlooked unity-creating factors on the African continent are the reason why the answer to this question now points in the latter direction. Recent archaeological studies and studies of the migration pattern dispel the myth of small isolated communities. Both internal communication and external influences have been significant. Music and dance are of central importance for the practice of religion, and the spread of musical instruments reveals a high degree of mutual influence between the population groups. The religious myths also reveal that ancient connections to North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and even across the Indian Ocean have not gone unnoticed across the continent. Draw in the notions of the supreme god suggests such a filtering process, and there are in the myth-like accounts of the myths memories of Judeo-Christian and Muslim tradition. Among virtually all population groups is the idea of the supreme god, who is the cause of all life’s resurrection (a creator god), and with whom an explanation of all life’s creations must be sought. African religion thus has a clear monotheistic character, although the supreme god in the individual areas may assume different forms, such as the Kikuyu Ngai who live on Mount Kenya, or the Yoruba Oludumare who live in the clouds.
Central to human relations with the supreme god is the question of the nearness or remoteness of the god. It is widely believed that God has withdrawn from direct and close contact with humans; the withdrawal is explained by the fact that man in a distant past violated the precepts given by God; from several places are known myths that contain accounts of a kind of fall.
The religious universe necessarily includes divine figures or powerful persons who can mediate the contact between god and humans. There is a faceted world of gods populated by “functional gods”, to whom the highest god has delegated certain functions, such as rain, fertility or war. They play a significant role in the rituals, but they act on behalf of God and thus do not violate the basic monotheistic principle. Closely connected with the needs of the tribe or lineage are its founders, the ancestors, who, as mythological figures, as a result of their closeness to the supreme god, possess a special power and are able to intervene on behalf of the descendants.
Furthermore, the religious universe is populated by the recently deceased ancestors, who are referred to as “the living dead”, as long as their names are retained in the memory of the living today, preferably four to five generations back. Their close relationships with and sanction options towards living family members make them extremely present in people’s life course. Their task is to maintain the survivors in their duties towards the family and to ensure that the inherited precepts are observed. Sickness, death, obsession, miscarriage and other unexplained events are attributed to the ancestors, which the living have to constantly seek to appease, e.g. by gifts on the graves, shedding of the first crop, slaughter of livestock, etc. In particular, has led to the talk of ancestral worship. It is important to establish that the ancestors are not the object of actual worship; by virtue of their control over the resources of the family, they stand as the co-players and opponents of the present-day in the religious universe.
The notion of the supreme god is one side of the breakthrough in the interpretation of African religion. The other side consists in the pointing out of a particular spiritual force, sometimes called the life force, which binds the different parts of the religious universe together and creates the dynamics. This power, which emanates from the supreme god, has people in it, but at the same time it is a universe where it is for man to keep the spiritual forces in balance. This is done primarily through rituals and symbols that are perceived as highly realistic and transcend the normal distinction between reality and symbol for Western thought. This is behind the use of fetishes and amulets and emerges not least in connection with the important rites of passage – birth, puberty, marriage and death – also called “parties of life”. Explanation of the destinies of life must be found within this world of thought and with the use of its particular rationality.
People with special insight into the spiritual universe play a powerful and absolutely necessary role. The medicine man is such an expert who manages to read the workings of the forces and to advise on the means to be used to restore the balance of forces. This is also true when evil in the form of witchcraft threatens to undermine life by attacking the community and the network of mutual obligations that are essential to human existence.
According to this modern view, African religion is a fully-fledged, logically coherent system, in which the power emanating from God is the governing principle, and in which man through his actions is the central actor. Therefore, daily life on Earth becomes crucial, not – as in Christianity and Islam – the longing for life after death; nor is the goal to get away from the down-to-earth life, as is the case in Hinduism and Buddhism. The work of the spiritual power, ie. god, belongs in the everyday life of man, and the quality of life depends on the relationship with God. The life-affirming therefore remains the fundamental feature of African religion.
In Africa, religion has fostered a collective mindset and strengthened the sense of community, which has often determined how the encounter with an immigrant religion such as Christianity has turned out.
Africa religion (Islam)
Islam spread from the Arab world to North Africa and from the 1000’s. further across the Sahara to West Africa. Knowledge of Islam was especially prevalent by Islamic scholars who traveled with the trade caravans.
In West Africa, Islam predominated in the cities until the end of the 1700’s. Subsequently, West African Muslims, most often organized into Sufi fraternities (see Sufism), launched an armed campaign, a jihad, which led to the Islamization of most of West Africa’s savannah areas. A number of Islamic states – such as the emirates of northern Nigeria – were established and the Malikit law school became dominant. Often the political elite closely followed the Qur’an and Islamic legal traditions, while the general population united Islam with local religious features, for example in connection with healing.
Islam came from the 800’s. to East Africa from the Arab world and followed – as in West Africa – the caravan routes. In East Africa, Islam was concentrated along the coast and has only penetrated into the country in a few places. Islam is dominated here by the Shafiti law school. From the 1800’s. Asian Muslims have immigrated to eastern and southern Africa.
The spread of Islam in Africa has probably been strongest during the colonial era in the 1900’s, and by the end of the century there are probably more than 150 million people in sub – Saharan Africa. African Muslims. North Africa – from Morocco to Egypt – is predominantly Islamic, but Islam also has great political and cultural significance in countries such as Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Somalia.