Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism

In the Beginning God Created Iskoki

According to the Mawri people of Dogondoutchi in The Niger Republic, in the beginning, God created a man and woman who procreated and bore fifty sets of twin babies. God was pleased and wanted to marvel at children and so asked the man and woman to see them up close, however, doubting God’s motive, the woman told her husband to hide the better-looking twin from each set in a cave. Knowing what they had done and displeased by it, God decided to punish the man and woman by cursing the children who were hidden in the cave. These children were cursed to disappear (become spirits) and remain in the unseen world, forever invisible to their parents and siblings, yet, dependent on them for sustenance. The children who remained on the human plane of existence were, on the other hand, bound to their invisible siblings to seek protection and guidance and placate them with offerings (the origin of sacrifice) or risk being haunted (Masquelier, 2001)1

This story establishes the presence and importance of spirits by centering them in the creation story of the Mawri people. Indeed, spirits are an essential aspect of belief in Hausa Animism as can be seen in the story of the Maguzawa from Kano who, even though they believed in Ubangiji, the supreme being, were never known to worship nor seek his help (Danfulani, 1999)2. Rather, they interfaced strictly with spirits, known as iskoki or Bori, through various ways and particularly through spirit possession, a practice that has endured over the centuries and is perhaps the most notable spiritual practice in Hausa Animism. It is also worth noting that the Mawri people in Dogondoutchi do not worship a supreme being, however, like the Maguzawa, they believe that each person comes into the world with an Iska (singular of iskoki) or multiple attached to them. The Mawri also believe that certain iskoki can be inherited from the family one is born into and these familial spirits often have physical influence over the family, like the line of work a family might be known for (Masquelier, 2001). 

The Maguzawa and Mawri people also believed that spirits inhabited the physical natural environment and as a result, they had a deep reverence for the natural environment which influenced the manner both peoples interacted with the land, trees, and rivers they encountered in their daily lives. The Maguzawa, for instance, centered their religious activities around Dalla Hill in Kano where their first leader performed religious rites and ceremonies to Tsomburburai, a pantheon of spirits who inhabited a sacred tree known as Shamuz. Likewise, the Mawri believe their ancestors were led by Sauraniya, a woman possessed by a spirit of the same name, who led them from the Hausa State of Daura to their current location in Niger. The Sauraniya (Hausa for queen), was also a spiritual leader who was said to be devoted to land spirits and thus helped her people connect to these spirits. The Mawri also used stones as anchorage for their spirits. These often doubled as altars to the spirits and it is believed that each spirit chose the stone to be used on its behalf.

Things Change but Spirit Remains the Same

Even though Hausa Animism experienced a tidal wave of change with both the arrival of Islam and colonization, like many resilient cultures across the African continent, adherents found ways to incorporate these changes into their belief systems. It has been argued that for both the Mawri and Maguzwa, syncretizing with Islam is one of the main reasons both people have not completely lost their indigenous beliefs (Danfulani, 1999; Masquelier, 2001). Both the Mawri and Maguzawa peoples indeed adapted elements of Islam into their beliefs and localized practices, however, one thing remained the same, the existence of iskoki/bori. 

The Maguzawa, for instance, introduced Muslim bori into the pantheon of spirits that already existed. The Maguzawa even went so far as to differentiate Muslim bori from pagan bori who were believed to be village dwellers, in contrast to the Muslim Bori who were city dwellers (Danfulani, 1999). This contrast is believed to have represented the emergence of cities and urban living among the Hausa and its association with trade and commerce, and subsequently with Islam (Danfulani, 1999). Consequently, the Muslim bori were perceived to be light-complexioned (farfaru), indicating the divine, holy and pure nature of the light and truth of Islam, while the so-called pagan Boris were dark-complexioned, malevolent and relegated to the world of pagans and infidels (Danfulani, 1999). 

Elsewhere in Mawri, Masquelier (2001) claims that the interaction between Islam and Bori was extensive and complex such that it was nearly impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Masquelier (2001) cites the example of known Bori practitioners who travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as those who were present at and participated in bori possession ceremonies. The influence of Islam can also be seen in the initial story of the first man and woman narrated earlier. Versions of the story told among the Mawri claim that the name of the first woman was Hawa (or Adama) and her husband, Adamu. It is not a coincidence that these are the names of the first man and woman in the Islamic version of the creation story.

A Double-Edged Sword

According to Danfulani (1999), one of the reasons the Maguzwa belief system (simply referred to as Bori) has survived so long is because it converted spirits into Islam and Bori practitioners accepted that iskoki were also creations of Allah. This notion was somewhat easily accepted because iskoki were then categorized alongside jinns, the supernatural beings that predated Islam but were co-opted by it. Whereas the Maguzawa simply categorized spirits based on whether they were malevolent or benevolent, the categorization into fairer and darker spirits was representative of the Islamic notions of dar-al-harb and dar-al-Islam, meaning the abode of war (the world of pagans and infidels) and the abode of Islam, respectively (Danfulani, 1999). This simple yet profound misrepresentation of iskoki would become one of the reasons why more Bori practitioners would forsake the belief system.

While the syncretization of Islam and Hausa Animism might have influenced its survival so far, it is also worth noting that Islam has also significantly contributed to the suppression of Hausa Animism most notably through the jihad led by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio which resulted in a predominantly Islamic empire around the region that is now northern Nigeria. The consequence of this crusade is still seen today in the marginalization and almost complete disappearance of Bori practitioners across northern Nigeria where they initially thrived. Still, there are pockets of practitioners to be found in Nigeria, and indeed across the continent. As Masquelier (2001) puts it, Bori has continued to reassert itself through its capacity to become a multifaceted belief system that addresses a variety of needs and expectations, even when that means containing contradictions paradoxes. 


  1. Masquelier, A. (2001). Prayer Has Spoiled Everything. Duke University Press.
  2. Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270434

About African Religions

Our ancestors prayed, believed, worshipped, and called on God in various ways before the first mosques and churches were ever established on the continent. Just as there are currently diverse people and cultures on the continent, with over 3000 ethnic groups, so were the beliefs and spiritual practices of pre-colonial Africans diverse, such that we could spend lifetimes studying them and we would never exhaust them all. 

Because of the diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs on the Continent, many researchers who have previously studied them have done so by observing a few, making comparisons between them, and then making broad conclusions and generalizations about the basic tenets and characteristics of what they collectively refer to as “Traditional African Religions”. 

While the generalizations perhaps allowed for easier access to and analysis of  African religions, they have also inadvertently allowed for the reduction of African religions to a monolithic set of beliefs and practices. This reductionism is exemplified in the attempt to use the name “traditional African religion” to imply a single religion, much like Christianity and Islam, which is expected to encompass all the beliefs and practices of non-Christian and non-Muslim religions on the continent1. This reductionism is problematic because — perhaps without intending to — it erases certain unique aspects of African religions on the continent by focusing simply on the similarities between them.

Jacob Olupona, a leading scholar of African religions, asserted that a truly indigenous understanding of African religions has to begin with understanding the history of Africa before colonization because our current knowledge of African religions and their accompanying practices are deeply rooted in non-African paradigms and Eurocentric ideas2

So then, the question becomes, how do we begin to seek this understanding of pre-colonial Africa which is not rooted in Eurocentric views? And how do we dislodge African religions from the Eurocentric point of view which has so far demonized, reduced and attempted to erase them? 

These are some of the foundational questions that have led to the creation of this platform. This site is intended in to be a space that fosters an understanding of African Religions which, as much as possible, is not centred in Eurocentric views. This attempt to dislodge African beliefs from the Eurocentric view is depicted in the chosen name for the site; African Religions, rather than ‘African Traditional Religions,’ because when we talk about Christianity or Islam, for instance, we do not refer to them as Hebrew or Arabic  Traditional Religions, or perhaps even collectively as Middle Eastern Religions. If we are specific when we talk about those religions, we ought to begin to adopt a similar approach when we speak about and study African religions. And although the term ‘African Religions’ still refers to the diverse spiritual beliefs and customs as a collective, it is not done in an attempt to categorize them all as a single religious entity. Additionally, erasing the word ‘traditional’ is an attempt to centre these beliefs and make them less of an ‘other’ in our discourse. 

As scholars continue to emphasize globalization and the emergence of “new African religions” — which include African beliefs syncretized with either Islam or Christianity and those that made it to the Americas as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — it is imperative to understand how these ‘older’ beliefs have influenced the so-called new religions.  An ancient principle which this work is based on is Sankofa, from the Akan people of Ghana. The concept reminds us that “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” 

One might wonder why it is necessary to preserve these spiritual beliefs, or at least what is left of them, and a response to that is culled from the work of Kofi Asare Opoku (2006) who has asserted that African religion is inextricably linked to all aspects of African life3. Opoku highlights that the word ‘religion’ is missing from many African languages because these African cultures do not make a distinction between their spiritual beliefs and other key aspects of life including ways of organizing society, governance, etiquettes and customs, etc. And so, by abandoning these spiritual beliefs, many African societies are at risk of losing their identities; the very principles and tenets which give meaning to their existence. 

The goal, therefore, is to help those already on the path to remembering by providing various resources about the different beliefs and practices that existed, and still do, across the Continent. The information available here is also aimed at people who are not yet on the path to remembering but wish to be. It is hoped that the resources here will fuel your curiosity about your Ancestors and spark within you a desire to know more about how they lived and what they believed for the ultimate purpose of enriching your life and freeing your mind. The overarching goal is for the site to be a digital catalogue of resources and information for scholars and researchers whose works are centred on African religions. 

The site will be updated monthly with new resources and articles and I invite you to subscribe to receive them directly in your inbox. Also, send me questions about the ideas, concepts, myths and misconceptions you are curious about. I am making it my mission to dig deep into as many topics on African Religions as possible.


1. MacGaffey, W. (2012, October 25). African Traditional Religion. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199846733/obo-9780199846733-0064.xml

2. Olupona, J. (2006). Thinking Globally about African Religion. In M. Juergensmeyer (Ed.), . Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195137989.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195137989

3. Opoku, K. A. (2006). Traditional African Religious Society. In M. Juergensmeyer (Ed.), . Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195137989.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195137989