By Alik Shahadah, Kofi Asare Opoku + Tasha…..
Nowhere in Africa is there a “spirituality” outside of a culture to contain it and govern its application to a community. And most have vehicles (symbols, arts, etc) for institutionalizing beliefs for posterity. The key difference is most native faiths are usually ethno-specific and generally lack a written tradition, and a prophet. (Awolalu) Like Judaism, are less into proselytizing compared to Islam and Christianity. Beyond this, even Indigenous belief systems share elements in common with each other (Baldick), as well as with the Abrahamic faiths and other indigenous belief systems around the world. The religious/spiritual fabric of Africa is a subjective discourse, and those looking to see ideological homology will discard difference in their political outlook.
The Eurocentric anthropological grouping titled “African Traditional Religion” is a misnomer, but some acknowlege this while still drawing arguments from it. It assumes a unitary portrait of the religions of African people, as well as denying that “world religions” can form “traditions” in African lives; especially when Islam and Christianity in Africa pre-date many modern ATRs. The more accurate label is Indigenous African Religions (IAR), to reflect the plurality within the continent’s religious landscape. (Olademo)/(Booth,1977)/(Mbiti,1969). And it must be overstated that this term is only a box for discussing the subject, not the name of a belief system.
One pervasive misconception is that native faiths are all polytheistic. Religions in Africa may be henotheistic (Uduk), nontheistic (Khoi Khoi), or monotheistic (Maasai). And this error is ironic since the concept of monotheism had its genesis in Africa (see Akhenaten). In many belief systems there is still one creator with different energies that are revered are aspects of the divine force, which can be found in nature. It is not that different to what Muslims call the 99 names of Allah, which are attributes of the one God (in Arabic Allah).
Another erroneous idea is that all Africans had/have one religion at some point in time. There is no “original” genetically related religion for an entire continent of people, which is static over 60,000 years of African history. What agent would create that sameness? Diffusion? But there is no evidence of this. Africa is home to more language and genetic diversity than any other continent, what is subjectively seen as “commonality” or a centralized structure of rituals and beliefs running the length and breath of Africa can be argued, with equal vigor, to be existent in most folk religions across the entire globe. (Campbell)
There is no gene which can create uniformity in belief and religions all over the world are invariable tied to lifestyle so as people move from nomadic to sedentary, from chiefdoms to city state, from hunters to agriculturist—religion evolved to suit. And if there is language variation in Africa, and deep cultural and genetic diversity what process would make an entire continent—at any junction—share one anything? Maybe 500 years ago until now, Africans share the same problems, but that is the limits of it. And we should remember for 1000’s of years most Africans did not know their neighbors beyond 1000km, especially prior to Bantu expansion.
Religion in Africa, as with everywhere else, has a profound relationship to culture, and more often than not, cultures are not destroyed by new faiths but modified to accommodate the tenants of the new religion. We see this in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The greater the cultural agency of the group, the more they Africanize the incoming faiths into their political-cultural domain.
African spirituality is the essences of the divine connection African people (pan-African) have as a diverse group. It is just as varied from Ethiopia to South Africa, as it is varied from Sudan to outside Africa in India. There is no essentialist quality or genetic relationship that binds all African religions; no unique exclusive spiritual appreciation that holds “African spirituality” into one empirically definable block. The term “African” in the context used here, is the theatre of study; with no suggestion of a monolith or exclusivity, bound by some phantom forces to the skin color of Africans, or the geography of Africa. That religious or spiritual experience is locked to culture, and culture is locked to identity, and where one varies— so to does the other.
“African spirituality” is therefore the spirituality of African people, independent of the naming systems given to the cultures/rituals of those spiritual beliefs: it is not a denomination, African spirituality lives inside of Islam (e.g. Tijāniyyah), Judaism (e.g. Hebrew Israelite), Christianity (e.g. Tewahedo) as much as it does inside of Voodoo, or Odinani. And Outside of the Abrahamic faiths, and faiths found in the African Diasporas, many African religions are inseparable from the ethnic identity and culture. So the religion of the Serer is historically part of Serer identity; the religion of the Masai is part of Masai cultural identity.
Throughout African history, God, Creator, Chuckwi, Allah, Yahweh, Modimo, Mudzimu, etc, in various configuration has been a central aspect of identity. (2002 Pew survey) There is no concept of an African atheist in antiquity. There is also no concept of a “personal religion.” It is an oxymoron and removed from all African paradigms. It is Eurocentric to allow man to replace divinity as the highest authority. This sense of belief in God is a key aspect of African identity, and is contrasted from other continents, such as Asia, by the high function divinity plays in ordinary life.
While generalizations are difficult due to the diversity of African native religions, some do share some common features: a belief in a supreme deity above a host of lesser gods or semi-divine figures; a belief in the power and intercession of ancestral spirits; the idea of sacrifice or libation, to ensure divine protection and generosity; the need to undergo rites of passage to move from the different stages of life (childhood to adulthood, from life to death). Many African religions have a creation stories which speak of the framework for the self-identity of these communities in a universal context. The role of humanity is generally seen as a harmonizing relationship between nature and the super-natural forces.
The thing that makes us distinctively African is our spirituality — And we are not talking denominations or names for various religious systems in living Africa. We are talking about that distinctive personality found everywhere in Ancient and modern Africa. It was this centrality of a reverence for a higher deity that traveled with us to the America’s that survived the boat and the plantation. That reformed itself into Nation of Islam, Christianity, modern Voodoo, and so forth.
Some of these elements are cultural traditions misidentified as religion. The Dagomba dance of the Zulu found its way into many of their Christian faiths, this is not syncretism, because it is culture– not an alternation to the Christian tenants. There has also been an over emphasis on syncretizing, which seems to paint Africa’s own orthodoxies as not pure; discounting that Africa can produce them. But when it comes to Europe syncretizing is just called Catholic Church. Indigenous faiths (globally) have always been part of the core ideology behind the Abrahamic faiths. I.e. Abrahamic faiths are the product of mixing with local “Middle Eastern” traditions with African traditions. (Black God, 1994)
After the Jews left Egypt (according to the Torah) they took with them the African systems to the Levant. Even in Islam the African “saint” Bilal referred to Islam as the “old religion” he knew in Africa. Per the same Qur’an God created man out of “black” mud, and a chapter (sura) in the Qur’an goes on to describe the African prophet Luqman as the wises man to ever live. This repels the binary view of an Ancient world segregated allow contemporary race lines. Parts of Africa, the Middle East, were in a constant state of influence and cross-fertilization.
Islam is also a traditional African religion (Mbiti, Mazuri)  in many parts of North, East and West Africa, while not indigenous, but because of its long coexistence within the last 1434 years of African history, far older as a contained religion than much of the 11th and 15th century native religions that came with the Bantu expansion into Southern Africa and West Africa. And so would Christianity and Judaism in Ethiopia. Islam in Africa is diverse and made up of two processes; the Islamization of African people, and African people’s Africanization of Islam. Both forces create a diverse reading of Islam with its own plethora of “orthodoxies.” A discrete study of components of the various faiths of Africa (native and introduced) vs. the faiths of the broader world prove that there is not one single identifiable characteristic, or rituals exclusive to Africa.
Animism is not a religion, it is a way of describing a characteristic inside of a religion; or across religions. ‘Ancestor worship’ is also not a religion, it is a theological aspect of a religion; just like monotheism is not a religion. These categories exist due to A. a lazy Eurocentric anthropological tradition inherited by many African scholars, B. a lack of historical record, which gives way to guesswork and romance. Moreover in most ATR Ancestors are not “worshiped” they are venerated. This is the legacy of misunderstanding of Western anthropologist, which has created deeply erroneous notions based on subtle misunderstandings.
Another erroneously canard is the concept of organized religions, which was another way of Eurocentrism assigning primitive and savagery to so-called pagan religions. The minute you have a religion you also have organization; the two concepts are inseparable, and one creates the other: Organized rituals makes culture, organized spirituality makes religion. But this categorization has been found just another outcrop of demonizing “the other.” The argument Eurocentrism presents is that nothing in any African religion could be seen in the context of being sophisticated, organized, or with a structured process and a creed.
Only by a paradigm shift can we begin a holistic discourse on native African religions. Traditionally the study by African scholars has been defensive, reactive and to focused on differentiating and explaining “Africa” by external criteria. The focuse was measuring African faiths against what they saw as foreign: definitions from negation, without any substance. Very little work has been done to compare native African faiths to the other folk religions across the globe. And as such comparisons have often been dictated by politics, desperation but very rarely dialectics.