Unit Three: Studying Africa through the Humanities
Module Fourteen: Religion in Africa
Introduction to Religion in Africa
"Africans are notoriously religious, and each people [society in Africa] has its own religious system with a set of beliefs and practices. Religion permeates into all the departments of life so it is not easy or possible to isolate it [from other aspects of African society and culture.] A study of these religious systems is, therefore a study of the peoples themselves in all the complexities of traditional and modern life."
This is a quote from John Mbiti a professor from Kenya who is recognized as one of the leading experts in the world on religion in Africa. According to Professor Mbiti, all African cultures and societies, traditional (pre-colonial) and contemporary (post-colonial), across the continent and regardless of differences in national origin, language, or ethnicity are deeply religious.
Given the centrality of religious beliefs and practices in African societies and cultures, the study of religion in Africa is important in building a better understanding of African peoples, cultures, and societies, and of events in Africa.
Africa is home to many different religious traditions. All of the great world religious traditions are in Africa including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. However, the vast majority of Africans from across the continent identify themselves with one (or more) of three religious traditions: indigenous African religions, Islam, and Christianity. (Click here to see a map of religions in Africa) If you want to learn more about the rich diversity of religious traditions in the world, you should check these web-sites:
The learning activities in this module will focus on these three religious traditions in Africa.
Before going on to the first learning activity, it is important to clarify two issues. First, we will use the term indigenous African religions and not traditional African religions; a term often used to identify and describe religious traditions that were found in Africa prior to the arrival of Islam and Christianity. We don't use the term traditional because of what this term means to many people. Tradition, to many people, means something old, something that has not changed-or that is resistant to change. Indigenous African religions are not "traditional" in this sense, they are dynamic (they are not resistant to change) and they are adaptable. Indeed, African religions have been influenced by Islam and Christianity, and, in turn, African religions have had an influence on the way Islam and Christianity are practiced in Africa.
Secondly, many African peoples identify with more than one religion. That
is, Africans who follow Islam or Christianity often will retain beliefs and
practices from an indigenous African religious tradition. It is not unusual
for an African Christian to participate in a Christian ritual by going to
church on Sunday and then to participate in an African religious ritual later
on in the same week.
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