Islam and African Traditional Religions

by Josef Stamer
Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

fetish priest
West African fetish priest with talismans sewn on his hat and "batakari jacket.
Talismans contains verses from the Holy Koran. Usually worn by chiefs.
(African Adorned. Angela Fisher, 1984.)

Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa has known a thousand years of cohabitation with traditional religion and adaptation to it, even to the extent of intermixture. In many areas it has little-by-little substituted itself for it, without too many clashes or ruptures. Today this experience is rejected by a significant number of African Muslims, who instead turn consciously to the Arab model of living Islam, as they imagine it to have been instituted by the Prophet Muhamed and lived by the founding community in Medina. In Africa, perhaps more than elsewhere, the islamising tendency in whatever form it presents itself, is a challenge to an entire way of being, behaving and living in community - a challenge to the very roots of the African way. Can there still he a valid African way of being Muslim or not?

The mass adoption of Islam by the Africans is a relatively recent fact. It was preceded in most cases by a long period of co-existence during which Islam remained a minority religion. It was not the superiority of the religious message of the Koran that finally tipped the balance in Islam's favour but rather purely sociological factors which, as in the case of colonialism and the arrival of modern technology, were completely external and foreign to both spiritual universes.

Traditional African religion, aside from the disconcerting diversity of its actual forms of expression, is in reality much more than (those) in the west mean by the term «religion». It is a global framework of life, encompassing every human situation and governing the whole of society. It is closely linked to the ancestral soil and places each African both in the succession of the generations (the ancestors), in his relationship with his fellow creatures and in his productive activities. Everything is religious!

The direct relation with God is rarely explicit but the belief in one God, Who is Creator and Good, underlies everything else. God does not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of life. These are governed by other invisible forces, good or evil, from whom it is possible to win favours through the ritualised experience of the ancestors. Strict observation of the rites and taboos and total solidarity within the group are the best guarantee of group survival and the transmission of life to numerous descendants. Seen from the outside, constraint and fear seem to be the dominant notes of traditional African religion, but this would be to forget that it offers an overall framework of security in an often very hostile environment, where only the survival of the group ultimately counts.

In many regions of Africa Islam has gradually substituted itself for the traditional religion, sometimes under the influence of external factors and in the overwhelming majority of cases without any violence. One could cite a whole series of factors that show a degree of cultural and sociological proximity between these two religious worlds. But at the same time there are other respects, equally fundamental, in which the two religions seem irreconcilable. Ancestor worship, for example, is something fundamental to traditional religion if ever anything was, and yet it is completely foreign to Islam. The real proximity of Islam with traditional religion lies far more in the fact that both are more than a religion pure and simple, in the sense of one dealing solely with the relationship of man to the Spiritual.

And indeed, in all the difficulties of life for the African uprooted or disillusioned with his traditional socio-religious universe, Islam offers a new framework, as all-embracing, as secure and as reassuring as the old one. A new solidarity within the Muslim community replaces the village and tribal solidarities without changing the laws and habits of life of the group. New prescriptions and prohibitions replace the old ones, without the need to try and understand their deeper meaning. The only real novelty is the centralisation of the worship on God, especially in the ritual prayer. But this does not exclude other ritual practices from existing alongside - and for a long time - in order to appease the intermediate powers. African Islam has never expressly forbidden these. On the contrary, given the central place of the sacred Koranic text in Islam and the impossibility for most Africans of gaining direct access to it, since they do not know Arabic, the more or less qualified custodians of the Scriptures have themselves become the new intermediaries, sought out and feared, who replace the healers, the fetishists and the other members of the secret societies without which traditional religion could not function.

In the process of islamisation the primary motive is clearly the desire to belong to a community, far more than the interior assent to a new religious message. In this respect has demonstrated great flexibility and patience over the centuries. Gaining access to the Muslim community has always been very easy: a change of name and the recitation, before witnesses, of the profession of faith (shadâda). The regular fulfilment of the other religious duties and the deepening of religious knowledge will follow perhaps only a generation or two later. There is no real break in the passage from one community to the other, but simply a progressive disengagement from the one and a progressive integration into the other.

The long cohabitation of Islam with traditional African religion has also had an effect at the cultural level. The African languages are in general languages with a concrete vocabulary, rather limited in the expression of more abstract realities or more developed reflections. With the Arabic language Islam has been able to fill a gap. Many African peoples, some scarcely touched by Islam, have borrowed a complete abstract, and especially religious, vocabulary from Arabic, with no more than the changes proper to the structure of each language. The actual islamisation has come later, confirming and assembling within a coherent structure these scattered modes of thought and expression that were from Islam in the first place. Thus the inculturation of the religious message has in many cases preceded the islamisation itself

Islam was brought to Sub-Saharan Africa in the first place via the trade routes from the Arab countries and North Africa. The African Muslims have always maintained quite close links with the Arab world, from which a number of reformers came. But islamisation was essentially carried out by Africans themselves, who shared the same life, spoke the same language, lived in the same cultural world entirely. There is no doubt that, for African Muslims, «Africanicity» and Islam are in no way opposed. For them Islam is not an imported religion. For many, abandoning the Muslim religion is equivalent to the rejection of all their family and tribal traditions, so intermingled are the two socio-religious universes. One must conclude that Islam, in its traditional African form, is entirely a part of the African cultural heritage and thus an African reality.


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