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.

Sources

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