Traditional African religion

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The indigenous religious beliefs and practices of African peoples include various traditional religions.[1][2] While generalizations of these religions are difficult, due to the diversity of African cultures, they do have some characteristics in common. Generally, they are oral rather than scriptural,[3][4] include belief in a supreme being, belief in spirits and other divinities, veneration of ancestors, use of magic, and traditional medicine.[5][6] The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural.[7][8]

While adherence to traditional religion in Africa is hard to estimate, due to syncretism with Christianity and Islam, practitioners are estimated to number over 100 million, or at least 10 percent of the population of the continent.[9] African diasporic religions are also practiced by descendants of Africans in the diaspora in the Americas such as Candomble, Umbanda, Quimbanda in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and the United States, Lucumi in the Caribbean and Vodun in Haiti and the United States.[3][10]


African traditional religion, African traditional religions, Indigenous African religions are all common terms used to discuss the subject of indigenous faiths found within Africa. Each term is debated among scholars. Some challenge the word "traditional" and prefer "indigenous" since traditional can also include traditional African Islam[11] and Christianity, and are established traditions in African societies.[12][4]Some, such as Mbiti, contend that while using the singular "religion" a plural understanding is needed.[4][13] Others suggest that these thousands of "religions" are only differing expressions of the same basic "religion."[14][15] The argument posited is that a centralized structure of rituals and beliefs run the entirety of the African continent. Some suggest this is problematic as there is no "genetic" relationship between these plural beliefs to create ideological homology, and the observed similarities can subjectively also be found outside of Africa.

Classification and statistics[edit]

An early 20th century Igbo medicine man in Nigeria, West Africa lists African Traditional & Diasporic as a major religious group, estimating some 100 million adherents. They justify this combined listing of traditional African and African diasporic religions, and the separation from the generic primal-indigenous category by pointing out that:

the "primal-indigenous" religions are primarily tribal and composed of pre-colonization peoples. While there is certainly overlap between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious adherents, there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated by focusing specifically on Yoruba, which is probably the largest African traditional religious/tribal complex. Yoruba was the religion of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed before European colonialism and its practitioners today – certainly those in the Caribbean, South America and the U.S. - are integrated into a technological, industrial society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout the world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups such as Fon), to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized religions, not simply tribes.[16]

Practitioners of traditional religions in Sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and were estimated to number over 100 million, [9] although the largest religions in Africa are Christianity and Islam.


West African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies and/or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashe, nyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or mantric drumming and/or singing. One religious ceremony practiced in Gabon and Cameroon is the Okuyi, practiced by several Bantu ethnic groups. In this state, depending upon the types of drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity or ancestor), participants embody a deity or ancestor, energy and/or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness, or, in Eastern terms, excite the kundalini to a specific level of awareness and/or circulate chi in a specific way within the body.[17] When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, culturally educated observers are privy to a way of contemplating the pure or symbolic embodiment of a particular mindset or frame of reference. This builds skills at separating the feelings elicited by this mindset from their situational manifestations in daily life. Such separation and subsequent contemplation of the nature and sources of pure energy or feelings serves to help participants manage and accept them when they arise in mundane contexts. This facilitates better control and transformation of these energies into positive, culturally appropriate behavior, thought, and speech. Further, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words which, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate or diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions which the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goal.[18]


Main article: African deities

Followers of traditional African religions pray to various secondary deities (Ogoun, Da, Agwu, Esu, Mbari, Thiorak, etc.) as well as to their ancestors. These divinities serve as intermediaries between humans and the primary god. Most indigenous African societies believe in a single creator god (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.).[19] Some recognize a dual or complementary twin Divinity such as Mawu-Lisa. For example, in one of the Yoruba creation myths, Olodumare, the 'Supreme', is said to have created Obatala, as Arch-divinity, who then created humans on earth. Olodumare then infused those human creations with life. Each divinity has their own priest or priestess."[20]

Practices and rituals[edit]

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions.[21] Often, the supreme god is worshiped through consultation or communion with lesser deities and ancestral spirits. The deities and spirits are honored through libation, sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, or precious metals). The will of God is sought by the believer also through consultation of oracular deities, or divination.[22] In many traditional African religions, there is a belief in a cyclical nature of reality. The living stand between their ancestors and the unborn. Traditional African religions embrace natural phenomena – ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought – and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. According to Gottlieb and Mbiti:

The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of traditional African religions and culture. This is largely because cosmology and beliefs are intricately intertwined with the natural phenomena and environment. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightning, rain, day, moon, sun, stars, and so on may become amenable to control through the cosmology of African people. Natural phenomena are responsible for providing people with their daily needs.[23]

For example in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir the (Star of Sirius).[24] With a long farming tradition, the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue) deliver yearly sermons at the Xoy Ceremony (divination ceremony) in Fatick before Yoonir's phase in order to predict winter months and enable farmers to start planting.[25]


Further information: Divination
Early 20th century Yoruba divination board

One of the most traditional methods of telling fortunes in Africa is called casting (or throwing) the bones. Because Africa is a large continent with many tribes and cultures, there is not one single technique. The practice of casting may be done with other small objects, such as cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood. Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood[26] or performed on the ground (often within a circle). They are classified in two ways::

In African society, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Those who tell fortunes for a living are also sought for their wisdom as counselors in life and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.

Duality of person and divinities[edit]

Most indigenous African religions have a dualistic concept of the person. In the Igbo language, for instance, a person is said to be composed of a body and a soul. The Yoruba language includes a tripartite concept: in addition to body and soul, there is said to exist a spirit or an ori, an independent entity which mediates or otherwise interacts between the body and the soul. Some religious systems have a similar duality, with a specific devil-like figure (e.g. Ekwensu), who is believed to be the opposite of God.

Virtue and vice[edit]

Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with carrying out obligations of the communal aspect of life. Examples include social behaviors such as the respect for parents and elders, raising children appropriately, providing hospitality, and being honest, trustworthy and courageous.

In some traditional African religions, morality is associated with obedience or disobedience to God regarding the way a person or a community lives. For the Kikuyu, according to Mbiti, God, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience. But so could the Devil and its messengers. In indigenous African religions, such as the Azande religion, a person is said to have a good or bad conscience, depending on whether he does the bidding of the God or the Devil.

In many cases, Africans who have converted to other religions have still kept up the Traditional African customs and practices, combining them in a syncretic way.[27]

Holy places and religious activities[edit]

While there are man made holy places (e.g. altars, shrines, temples, tombs, etc.), very often sacred space is located in nature (e.g. trees, groves, rocks, hills, mountains, caves, etc.).[citation needed]

These are some of the important centers of religious life: Nri-Igbo, the Point of Sangomar, Ile-Ife, Oyo, Dahomey, Benin City, Ouidah, Nsukka, Akan, Kanem-Bornu, Mali, and Igbo-Ukwu.


Many indigenous religions, like most religions, have elaborate stories that explain how the world was created, how culture and civilization came about, or what happens when a person dies (e.g. Kalunga Line). Other mythologies are meant to explain or enforce social conventions on issues relating to age, gender, class, or religious rituals. Myths are popular methods of education; they communicate religious knowledge and morality while amusing or frightening those who hear or read them. Examples of religions with elaborate mythologies include the native religions of the Yoruba (see Yoruba mythology) and Serer people (see Serer creation myth).

Religious persecution[edit]

Traditions by region[edit]

This list is not exhaustive, and is limited to a few well-known traditions.

Central Africa[edit]

Horn of Africa[edit]

North Africa[edit]

Southeast Africa[edit]

Southern Africa[edit]

West Africa[edit]



Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Dr J.O. Awolalu, Studies in Comparative Religion Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring, 1976).
  2. ^ "African religions". 
  3. ^ a b Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook Of Global Religions. ISBN 0-19-513798-1. 
  4. ^ a b c S. Mbiti, John (1991). Introduction to African religion. ISBN 0-435-94002-3. 
  5. ^ An African Story BBC
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of African Religion (Sage, 2009) Molefi Asante
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of African Religion (Sage, 2009) Molefi Asante
  8. ^ What is religion? An African understanding
  9. ^ a b Britannica Book of the Year (2003), Encyclopædia Britannica (2003) ISBN 978-0-85229-956-2 p.306
    According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 480,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (1996) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture (see Amadu Jacky Kaba). The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, (June 2005), discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopediae, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed on figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World's Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
  10. ^ Anthony Appiah, Kwame; Louis Gates, Henry (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. ISBN 0-19-533770-0. 
  11. ^ 1000-year cohabitation and the resulting compromises Josef Stamer
  12. ^ Theology of African Traditional Religion, Dr. Oyeronke Olademo University of Ilorin Ilorin, Kwara State
  13. ^ African religions: a symposium Front Cover Newell Snow Booth, NOK Publishers, 1977
  14. ^ African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective By Richard J. Gehman, Page 24
  15. ^ Matthew Clarke (2013) Handbook of Research on Development and Religion p 145 (2013) Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA, in his chapter "African Traditional Religion" writes: "So what distinguishes African traditional religion? What practices, beliefs and institutions underpin its spiritual cosmology? How possible is it to treat such a diverse and geographically diffuse number of traditions as a single religion, and just how 'traditional' is ATR?"
  16. ^ "Major Religions Ranked by Size: African Traditional & African Diasporic Religions". Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  17. ^ Karade, B. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, pages 39–46. Samuel Weiser Inc, 1994
  18. ^ Annemarie De Waal Malefijt (1968) Religion and Culture: an Introduction to Anthropology of Religion, p 220–249, Macmillan
  19. ^ Willie F. Page (2001) Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, Volume 1, p55. Published by Facts on File, ISBN 0-8160-4472-4
  20. ^ Peter C. Rogers (2009) Ultimate Truth, Book 1, p100. Published by AuthorHouse, ISBN 1-4389-7968-1
  21. ^ John S. Mbiti (1990) African Religions & Philosophy 2nd Ed., p 100–101, Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  22. ^ John S. Mbiti (1992) Introduction to African Religion 2nd Ed., p. 68, Published by East African Publishers ISBN 9966-46-928-1
  23. ^ Roger S. Gottlieb (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, p. 261, Oxford Handbooks Online ISBN 0-19-517872-6
  24. ^ Henry Gravrand (1990) La Civilisation Sereer Pangool, PP 21, 152, Published by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, ISBN 2-7236-1055-1
  25. ^ Simone Kalis (1997) Médecine Traditionnelle, Religion et Divination Chez les Seereer Siin du Sénégal: La Coonaissance de la Nuit, L'Harmattan, ISBN 2-7384-5196-9
  26. ^
  27. ^ Resolving the Prevailing Conflicts Between Christianity and African (Igbo) Traditional Religion Through Inculturation, by Edwin Anaegboka Udoye

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