African Studies African Traditional Religion
by
Wyatt MacGaffey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0064

Introduction

The term “African Traditional Religion” is used in two complementary senses. Loosely, it encompasses all African beliefs and practices that are considered religious but neither Christian nor Islamic. The expression is also used almost as a technical term for a particular reading of such beliefs and practices, one that purports to show that they constitute a systematic whole—a religion comparable to Christianity or any other “world religion.” In that sense the concept was new and radical when it was introduced by G. Parrinder in 1954 and later developed by Bolaji Idowu and John Mbiti (see Proponents of African Traditional Religion). The intention of these scholars was to protest against a long history of derogatory evaluations of Africans and their culture by outsiders and to replace words such as “heathenism” and “paganism.” African Traditional Religion is now widely taught in African universities, but its identity remains essentially negative: African belief that is not Christianity or Islam. To understand the issue one must go back to the beginnings of anthropology in the 19th century and follow its evolution (see 19th-Century Background). As the European empires in Africa began to break up after World War II, both missionaries and African nationalists sought to defend Africans and African culture from their reputation for primitivism and to claim parity with Christianity, the West, and the modern world. At the same time a movement that began after World War I and intensified after World War II supported the idea that Africans retained values that the militaristic and materialistic modern world had lost and that Africans individually and collectively were spiritual people. Such generalizations have been challenged by scholars who say that Africa is too diverse to support these notions. Ethnographic studies contradict the simplicities of African Traditional Religion and reveal the complex relations of religion with politics, economics, and social structure (Ethnography). A more radical challenge has been mounted recently by anthropologists and historians who argue that the concept of religion itself has been defined in implicitly Christian terms and that the collection of data to be treated as “religion” depends on an implicit Judeo-Christian template that often radically mistranslates and misrepresents African words and practices (see Criticism). Certain religious topics have proved perennially fascinating to both scholars and the reading public with reference to the world as a whole, not just Africa. They include “witchcraft,” “symbolism,” and “ancestor worship.” These topics, lending themselves to exoticism, give rise in acute form to the problems of intercultural misunderstanding. “Healing,” on the other hand, sounds familiar and beneficial, although in practice what is called “healing” is often far removed from Western ideas of sickness and medicine.

General Overviews

African Traditional Religion is a thriving scholarly business, but a serious disconnect exists between contributions that celebrate a generalized African Traditional Religion and those that describe particular religions and aspects of religion on the basis of ethnographic and archival research. The generalizations begin by citing allegedly negative characterizations of African culture: it is argued that African beliefs and practices are misunderstood and unjustly condemned, that Africans are everywhere and always profoundly religious, and that their religion or religions are comparable to religions anywhere else. On the other hand, historians and anthropologists, skeptical with regard to abstractions and generalizations, focus on the religion of particular peoples to show how belief and practice fit into everyday life. They struggle with epistemological questions such as, “On what evidentiary basis can an individual or group be said to “believe” in anything?”. There is little dialogue between the two points of view, but the readings suggested in this section reveal some of the differences. Chidi Denis Isizoh’s website carries links to a variety of essays on traditional religion and its relations with Christianity and Islam; it also includes Ejizu’s overview (Emergent Key Issues in the Study of African Traditional Religions). More and more material is available on the Internet, notably at African Traditional Religion, but not all of it should be regarded as representative or authoritative. Journals such as the London-based Africa, Cahiers d’Études Africaines (Paris), and the Journal of Religion in Africa (Leiden, The Netherlands) publish articles on religion from time to time, representing the latest thinking. The edited collections Blakely, et al. 1994; Olupona and Nyang 1993; and Olupona 2000 provide essays on specific examples of African religion by leading scholars, while implicitly illustrating the gap between “spiritual” and “ethnographic” approaches. None of this literature, however, deals with the radical objections raised in Criticism concerning the definition of religion, the errors introduced by intercultural translation, and the depth of outside influence on supposedly timeless “traditional religion.”

  • Africa.

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    The venerable journal of the International African Institute offers academic articles on all aspects of African history and culture, including religion.

  • African Traditional Religion. Africa South of the Sahara.

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    An idiosyncratic collection of sources from professional to popular.

  • Blakely, Thomas D., Walter E. A. van Beek, and Dennis L. Thomson, eds. Religion in Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994.

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    A wide-ranging symposium with contributions by major specialists in the field. Unlike Olupona’s collections (Olupona and Nyang 1993, Olupona 2000), this one does not presume or discuss “African spirituality.” One of the three sections deals with “religion and its translatability,” a topic and a problem of concern to both missionaries and anthropologists.

  • Cahiers d’Études Africaines.

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    Offers articles in French and English on all aspects of African culture, often manifesting a distinctly French intellectual approach.

  • Emergent Key Issues in the Study of African Traditional Religions.

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    A historical review and critique of the subject and of major problems and disagreements associated with it, written by Christopher Ejizu. The review suggests that the defensive tone of much writing about African Traditional Religion is directed against outdated studies that no one takes seriously anymore. The main website African Traditional Religions, maintained by Chidi Denis Isizoh, is a useful guide to further reading.

  • Journal of Religion in Africa.

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    Scholarly articles on Islam and on Christian and non-Christian religious diasporas. An excellent source for insights into contemporary scholarly issues and approaches.

  • Olupona, Jacob K., ed. African Spirituality: Forms, Meanings and Expressions. New York: Crossroad, 2000.

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    Olupona identifies African spirituality in myth, and ritual as that which “expresses the relationship between human being and divine being” (p. xvi). Leading scholars cover a wide range of topics and religious practices, including Islam and 3rd-century North African Christianity, rarely questioning the concept of spirituality itself.

  • Olupona, Jakob K., and Sulayman S. Nyang, eds. Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.

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    A collection representative of the “religio-phenomenological” approach to comparative religion, theology, and philosophy, in which religion is conceived of as a phenomenon sui generis, “the transcendent” is universally recognized, and religions are presented in isolation from their cultural and historical contexts. Two chapters concern Islam in Africa.

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