Thinking About Religion
Volume 4 (2004)

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Understanding African Traditional Religion

Kofi Johnson
Fayetteville State University


The scholarly study of African religion began nearly a century ago with the first extensive accounts by anthropologists and missionaries. Over the decades, it has passed through several phases, each involving different purposes and points of view. These developments may be reviewed briefly by examining the meaning and the implications of the words African, traditional, and religion that have shaped the study of the subject. In recent years, scholars have recognized the important ways in which “African” and “religion” are western constructs involving both misconceptions and changing perceptions, especially concerning religion (Ray:2000).

In the West, the adjective “African” has generally been used in a racially oriented way to refer to the darker skinned, black peoples who live south of the Sahara and have been assumed to possess the same culture. The assumption that this region consists of the same culture originated with the slave trading colonial powers who believed the vast area of the sub-Saharan Africa to be single- as if it were a single country occupied by one people. The perception of “cultural uniformity” was developed in the late 19th century, and significantly ignored “the separate linguistic; cultural and ethnic identities that African societies had developed for thousand of years and that continue to define cultural life today (Ray, IX).” It must be emphasized that the word “traditional” does not connote that African religion is static or unchanging (ibid). It is used to identify indigenous African religion and the common thread of values and experiences that are uniform among Africans. Opoku clarifies this, stating “To call the religion ‘traditional’ is not to refer to it as something of the past; it is only to indicate that it is undergirded by a fundamentally indigenous value system and that has its own pattern, with its own historical inheritance and tradition from the past" ( Opoku, 1978, p. 9).

The present study is designed to provide an understanding of traditional African religion in sub-Saharan Africa. The study presents the unity and diversity of the religions of sub-Saharan Africa. Most importantly, the study strongly recognizes African “religious traditions in terms of broad unifying themes” that are intensely diverse at local levels and are profoundly similar when seen in regional and comparative perspective.

As Ray points out:

The word religion is a late-comer to the scholarly discourse about Africa, and it is still noticeably absent in most popular description of African culture. Today western news media continue to use the old anthropological term animism to refer to the indigenous religions of Africa. (p.xi)

In his ground breaking book, African Religions and Philosophy, Mbiti says, “These earlier descriptions and studies of African religions left with terms which are inadequate, derogatory and prejudicial.” He adds, “They clearly betray the kind of attitude and interpretation dominant in the mind of those who invented or propagated the different theories about traditional religions.” (ibid)

For example, animism is the word media use to describe African religion. Animism is derived from the Latin “anima” “which means breath, breath of life, and hence carries with it the idea of the soul spirit. The man who coined this term was an English anthropologist, E.B. Taylor (Mbiti. p7).” Taylor thought that “the anima to be capable of leaving the body and entering other men, animals or things; and continue to live after death. In pursuing his theory further, he notes that the so called primitive men considered every object to have its own soul, thus giving rise to countless spirits in the universe.” (Mbiti, p. 7) In Taylor’s analysis African religions are the same in appearance and primitive in nature. Significantly, these labels differentiate African religion from Islam and Christianity. The rationale is to designate African traditional religion as inferior to Islam and Christianity.

For this reason, the disciples of Taylor conclude that African religion is said to be polytheistic, meaning that Africans serve several gods which further puts African religion at the bottom of religious evolution. Other negative connotations that characterized African religion are: fetism, idolatory, superstition, heathenism, magic and primitive religion. These terms are culturally biased and derogatory to Africans.

It was only in the late colonial period of the 1950s that scholars began to use religion to characterize African religion in a positive way. For this turn in perceptions we may give thanks for the work of Anthropologists such as Edward E. Evans –Pritchard, Mercel Griaule, and Victor Turner and theologian Placide Temples, and to African theologians such as John Mbiti and E. Bolaji Idowu , who brought African religions to their height. Their books shaped theological discourse about African religions among Christians in both Africa and the West. The two theologians, Mbiti and Idowu, have set out to refute missionary’s claims about the inferiority of African religions. As Christians, they maintain that the traditional religions are the foundation upon which Christianity gained roots in Africa. What is significant about this movement is that these theologians maintain that Africans had known God before the missionaries came. Mbiti explains and unfolds the arrogance of the West:

The missionaries who introduced the gospel to Africa in the past 200 years did not bring God to our continent. Instead, God brought them. They proclaimed the name of Jesus Christ. But they used the names of the God who was and is already known by African peoples-such as Mungu, Mulungu, Katonda, Ngai, Olodumare, Asis, Ruwa, Ruhanga, Jok, Modimo, Unkulunkulu and a thousand more. These were not empty names. They were names of one and the same God, the creator of the world, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ (quoted by Paris:1985).

The pioneering works of these scholars gave life and integrity to the indigenous African religions that had long been denigrated by missionaries.

It should be noted that the word religion is a western concept. Ray says, “It is true that that religion is neither an African word nor an indigenous concept.” Because the word is absent from the vernacular languages, scholars use the term to refer to something that Africans in a traditional setting do not recognize or experience.

Therefore, the concepts that guide this study are broad. “By religion is meant a complex of ideas and practices that gives ultimate meaning to human existence and enhances the quality of life” (Ray:2000p.xii).

As Ray explains it:

In Africa, such ideas and practices are found not only in the worship of gods but also in a wide range of cultural creation, such as stories of origin healing rituals, funerary rites, divination séances, public festivals, and sacred sculptures, as well as witchcraft and sorcery practices. (Ray, p. xii)

This means that traditional African religion cannot be separated from daily life. It is an amalgam of moral ideas and practices that permeates all of life at personal and social levels (ibid.). In support, Iwuoha points out that traditional African religion cuts across economic, sociology, politics, and arts. He concludes that, “It is about a people and their life" (Iwuoha: 2002, p. 3).

The Main Characteristics of African Traditional Religion

As indicated above Africa is a vast continent; as a result one runs the risk of generalization. Yet there is a common thread that runs in indigenous values and experiences that show a kind of uniformity. It is that uniformity that we are going to explore in this survey. Religion in sub-Saharan Africa is made up of certain beliefs like any other religion. What are those beliefs?

African cosmological thought can be summarized as follows. In the first place, there is widespread belief in one God, who is known by various local names. He is a Supreme spirit, for this reason there are no images or visible representations of Him. He is recognized as the Creator of the world and all things there in. He is the source of all power. He is the keeper of life and death.

Next to God are the deities who derive their powers from God. In contrast to God, the deities or lesser deities may be treated with respect. They function in a way similar to angels in the Jewish and Christian cosmologies.

In the lower hierarchy are the ancestral spirits who are treated with reverence and awe. They are the souls of our forefathers who have walked in this world. Therefore, Africans believe that they are closer to God since they are dead. Thus the departed occupy an important position in African religion. In contrast that Africans serve their ancestor this is true. It is not worship as the west is made to believe. It can be seen as fellowship and hospitality. Paris says it well:

In African worldview there is no death in the sense of radical separation from either family or the tribal community. Rather, Africans believe that life is eternal and that its motion is not linear but cyclical … they are convinced that the temporal movement of human life is continuous cyclical process from the realm of the spirit to that history…. to speak of such process as death is a misnomer. Rather, departure from physical life marks a transition from the state of mortality to that of ancestral immortality. ( Paris:52)

Mbiti explains that the ancestors live on a realm of the sprit world, in a state of existence that he calls the “living dead”. According to Mbiti, that term connotes both continuity with and transition from temporal life. Interestingly enough, the “ancestor spirit” lives the same length of time as the time they were alive on earth. As Margaret Creel explains:

Ancestors retained their normal human passions and appetites, which had to be gratified in death as in life. Ancestors felt hungers and thirst. They became angry or happy depending on the behavior of their living “children.” The living dead were vindictive if neglected but propitious if shown respect. Just as filial loyalty prevents one from allowing a parent to go hungry, “so must food be offered to the ancestors. (See Paris:1995,52)

According to African traditional religion, ancestors serve as intermediaries between their families and the divinities. Awolalu says ancestors…”are the guardians of family affairs, traditions, ethics and activities….They are regarded as presiding spiritually over the welfare of the family.”(Awolalu : 1979, p.61)

In the African cosmological world, in addition to the ancestors, there are other spirits or mystical powers recognized and reckoned with for their ability to aid or harm man (Opku: 10).” Included in these agents are witchcraft, magic and sorcery. Witchcraft is used in a broad text in African religiosity to mean the harmful employment of mystical power in all its different manifestation (Mbiti, 202). As a result of this, whenever anything happens the blame is cast at the door step of witchcraft. As Awolalu defines it:

… a witch enables her to perform supernatural powers in consequence of forming a league with the devil or evil spirits, and through such an evil alliance and co-operation the possession of craft which enables her perform supernatural acts which, in most cases, are destructive (Awolalu, p. 80).

Idowu explains it better when he says:

Witches are human beings of very strong determined wills with diabolical Bent,.. (they) are the veritably wicked ones who derive sadistic satisfaction From bringing misfortune upon other people…. (See Awolalu, p. 80).

Finally, African traditional religion reveres nature. It does not mean that the African cosmological world worships sun, rocks and trees. As Opoku explains, “animals and plants are said to have played a crucial role in the survival of the forebears…. Thus, a sacred relationship is formed between these objects.” (Opoku,10). This sacred bond is not to be confused with worship as some Western critics have supposed.


In this essay the author explores some ways that African traditional religions have been misrepresented in Western literature. First, most African religions believe in the existence of one God. The difference between the Western and African idea of God may be understood as a difference of names due to languages. Another major point that obscures a true understanding and acceptance of African beliefs is the false Judeo-Christian-Islamic belief that Africans worship many gods and that they have no real sense of the concept of one God that created all existence. Africans are erroneously portrayed as worshiping many gods including trees, rocks, rivers, and inanimate objects. Western scholars have confused the words reverence with worship. Africans never pretend to worship anything but one God. Finally, Africans are described as having a polytheistic religion. In African cosmology it is supposed that sundry deities are worshipped. This is not true. The deities are perceived as intermediaries just as angels in the Judeo-Christian world. As Uka (1991) explains “The general belief about the divinities is that they are created by God to perform specific roles.” Their status is “mediatorial” meaning that deities are intermediaries between God and man, “a means to an end not and ends themselves. Their powers are limited to the performance of specific functions assigned to them by God. None of them enjoys unlimited powers ascribed to God.” (Uka, 1991:45). Thus, this essay serves as a call to a reappraise African traditional religion rather than relying on falsified interpretations of African religion that are being parroted by the news media and western scholars.


  • Awolalu, F.O. Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. London Longman Group Ltd., 1979.
  • Iwuka, Alosius Emeka. Aspects of Ibo Cosmological Ideas. Lagos, Nigeria: Ambix Publishers, 2002.
  • Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Hieineman,. 1969.
  • Opoku, Kofi Asare. West African Traditional Religion. Accra, Ghana: Fep International Private Limited, 1978.
  • Paris, Peter J. The Spirituality of African Peoples. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1995.
  • Uka, E.M. Readings in African Traditional Religions. Bern: Peterlang, 1991.

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