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15 facts on African religions

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African religions cover a diverse landscape of ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and worldviews. Here, Jacob K. Olupona, author of African Religions: A Very Short Introduction shares an interesting list of 15 facts on African religions.

By Jacob K. Olupona


1. African traditional religion refers to the indigenous or autochthonous religions of the African people. It deals with their cosmology, ritual practices, symbols, arts, society, and so on. Because religion is a way of life, it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people.

2. Traditional African religions are not stagnant but highly dynamic and constantly reacting to various shifting influences such as old age, modernity, and technological advances.

3. Traditional African religions are less of faith traditions and more of lived traditions. They are less concerned with doctrines and much more so with rituals, ceremonies, and lived practices.

4. When addressing religion in Africa, scholars often speak of a “triple heritage,” that is the triple legacy of indigenous religion, Islam, and Christianity that are often found side by side in many African societies.

5. While those who identify as practitioners of traditional African religions are often in the minority, many who identify as Muslims or Christians are involved in traditional religions to one degree or another.

6. Though many Africans have converted to Islam and Christianity, these religions still inform the social, economic, and political life in African societies.

7. Traditional African religions have gone global! The Trans-Atlantic slave trade led to the growth of African-inspired traditions in the Americas such as Candomblé in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, or Vodun in Haïti. Furthermore, many in places like the US and the UK have converted to various traditional African religions, and the importance of the diaspora for these religions is growing rapidly. African religions have also become a major attraction for those in the diaspora who travel to Africa on pilgrimages because of the global reach of these traditions.
Religion_distribution_Africa_crop

8. There are quite a number of revival groups and movements whose main aim is to ensure that the tenants and practice of African indigenous religion that are threatened survive. These can be found all over the Americas and Europe.

9. The concerns for health, wealth, and procreation are very central to the core of African religions. That is why they have developed institutions for healing, for commerce, and for the general well-being of their own practitioners and adherents of other religions as well.

10. Indigenous African religions are not based on conversion like Islam and Christianity. They tend to propagate peaceful coexistence, and they promote good relations with members of other religious traditions that surround them.

11. Today as a minority tradition, it has suffered immensely from human rights abuses. This is based on misconceptions that these religions are antithetical to modernity. Indeed indigenous African religions have provided the blueprint for robust conversations and thinking about community relations, interfaith dialogue, civil society, and civil religion.

12. Women play a key role in the practice of these traditions, and the internal gender relations and dynamics are very profound. There are many female goddesses along with their male counterparts. There are female priestesses, diviners, and other figures, and many feminist scholars have drawn from these traditions to advocate for women’s rights and the place of the feminine in African societies. The traditional approach of indigenous African religions to gender is one of complementarity in which a confluence of male and female forces must operate in harmony.

13. Indigenous African religions contain a great deal of wisdom and insight on how human beings can best live within and interact with the environment. Given our current impending ecological crisis, indigenous African religions have a great deal to offer both African countries and the world at large.

14. African indigenous religions provide strong linkages between the life of humans and the world of the ancestors. Humans are thus able to maintain constant and symbiotic relations with their ancestors who are understood to be intimately concerned and involved in their descendants’ everyday affairs.

15. Unlike other world religions that have written scriptures, oral sources form the core of indigenous African religions. These oral sources are intricately interwoven into arts, political and social structure, and material culture. The oral nature of these traditions allows for a great deal of adaptability and variation within and between indigenous African religions. At the same time, forms of orature – such as the Ifa tradition amongst the Yoruba can form important sources for understanding the tenants and worldview of these religions that can serve as analogs to scriptures such as the Bible or the Qur’an.

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A noted scholar of indigenous African religions, his books include African Religions: A Very Short Introduction, City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination, Òrìsà Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yorùbá Religious Culture, co-edited with Terry Rey, and Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals. In 2007, he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit, one of Nigeria’s most prestigious honors.

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Image Credit: A map of the Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of today. Map shows only the religion as a whole excluding denominations or sects of the religions, and is colored by how the religions are distributed not by main religion of country etc. By T.L. Miles via Wikimedia Commons via the Public Domain.

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