In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Religion and Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies and Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Collections
  • African Arts

Atlantic History African Religion and Culture
David Northrup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0003


Africa has been home to a great variety of religious and other cultural practices and beliefs, including the many that developed within particular African societies and those that were introduced from outside the continent. Those originating within the continent are generally termed traditional, although it would be wrong to think of traditional beliefs and practices as static or unchanging. Cultural borrowing from parts of the Middle East and Europe began in North Africa well before the beginning of the Common Era, twenty centuries ago. Because of the absence of written records outside the Nile Valley, little is known about the early history of traditional cultures in Africa other than that they had millennia to develop and spread. Detailed descriptions of some African societies south of the Sahara occur in Islamic accounts from the later Middle Ages and from the 1400s in European accounts of the Atlantic coasts. These descriptions make it clear that by 1500 sub-Saharan African societies exhibited great differences in their languages, beliefs, and customs and that many in these societies were curious to learn about the outsiders’ religions and cultures. Consequently, pockets of African Muslims and Christians came into existence south of the Sahara. Although some Africans learned languages and beliefs from abroad, Islam and Christianity were also Africanized as they spread. Those Africans whom the slave trades transported across the Sahara, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic brought their cultures with them and, in turn, their cultures were altered by contact with other societies. The greatest cultural changes within Africa have come within the last two centuries under the influence of European colonial rule and Muslim and Christian missionaries. Despite profound changes, Africans maintain and cherish strong cultural continuities with their past.

General Overviews

The systematic, comparative study of African religion and culture largely began in the colonial era, when Western anthropologists were preceded by Christian missionaries. Historians took up studies even later, but the important introduction and case studies in Ranger and Kimambo 1972 show what historians should and can do. Vansina 1985 is a guidebook to recovering history from oral traditions, while Herbert 1993 uses physical objects as a basis for exploring ideas and beliefs. Horton 1993 is an intellectual rigorous effort to define the cultural boundaries of African religious thought, though nonspecialists may find the account of African religions in Ray 1999 more accessible. Lapidus 2002 places African Islam in the larger Islamic world. Mintz and Price 1992 is essential reading for the development of African-derived cultures in the Americas.

  • Herbert, Eugenia W. Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    A sophisticated cross-cultural study that explores the underlying gender symbolism in African iron making and pottery and their connections to beliefs about power.

  • Horton, Robin. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion, and Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166232

    Taking off from an attempt to understand African religion, these essays by an influential anthropologist range over many aspects of African intellectual life and propose an original way of thinking about religion.

  • Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This sweeping history of the entire Islamic world allows one to understand the Islamization of African societies and the Africanization of Islam.

  • Mintz, Sidney W., and Richard Price. The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

    This reissue of a classic, brief introduction to the issues of cultural continuity and change among African-derived societies in the Americas in the era of slavery is the starting point for all subsequent debates.

  • Ranger, T. O., and I. N. Kimambo, eds. The Historical Study of African Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

    A pioneering work on religion from antiquity through the colonial period, this scholarly collection is primarily concerned with traditional religions in eastern Africa.

  • Ray, Benjamin C. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

    This wide-ranging, well-organized introduction to African religious history focuses primarily on traditional African religions but also includes substantial treatment of religion, nationalism, African Islam, and African independent churches.

  • Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

    This classic study explores the utility and limitations of recovering African cultural history from oral poetry and epic tales as well as from dramatic performances and music.

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