I’ve been absent for a while, June is a busy month…kind of. It is mostly because there are a lot of parties and like events this month, 11th is the summer boat party, 16th is my college ball, 20th is a night out in London plus I’m meeting up with friends, attending jazz cafes, African balls and what not. Between all this and reading about China in Africa, I’ve been too lazy to write anything up. I know not to give into laziness however because once I do, I may never bother blogging again and I still have much to say ^__^
This is the third and final installment in which I go on and on about religion. The title basically says it all, I wanted to write about traditional religions and instead wrote about our perception of the Most High. All in all I think this post is a suitable ending to this issue after which I’ll probably never ever talk about this again.
The reason I’m interested so much in African traditional religion is because I believe that religion is very important for identity. And when I see Africans with identity crises, I usually wonder if things would have been different if we followed our own religions rather than foreign ones. I have had several identity crises and I found myself wondering about names and how most Africans I know have foreign names. In my case, my both first name and surname are Arabic. Though my first name is weird because it is apparently anglicized (not purely Arabic) and doesn’t sound Arabic anymore. I’ll admit when I discovered this I was enormously pleased because that meant that my name is a sort of hybrid. However there are a few girls from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who do have a variation of my name thus when someone hears my name and hasn’t yet seen me, they are shocked that I’m Nigerian (then again I’m used to surprising people ^__^)
I remember reading somewhere a while ago, a man basically arguing that Africans will never progress unless we learn to accept the religion of our forefathers. The person who gave that speech was a practitioner of a traditional African religion and I remember being so shocked at what he was saying (I’ll try to find a transcript of the speech and post a link to it here). To me it made no sense at all, him saying that we should immediately start following the religion of our ancestors when most of us do not even believe in them and consider them ‘false’. I know I love learning about Orishas yet I cannot imagine myself worshipping them. I think this is because of my upbringing, it kind of makes it difficult to worship the way practitioners of traditional religions do.
I do love learning and discovering new stuff about African traditional religions (ATR). I do not like it when people call ATRs pagan, they are not pagan. Not at all, I advise people to learn more about their respective traditional religions (it depends on your ethnic group people). Paganism was practiced in Europe not in Africa and while I don’t have any problem with paganism, I still maintain that ATRs are not pagan. I also find it disturbing when people describe these religions as pagan because to me that person is also (indirectly) damning all their ancestors to hell. Am I the only person who finds something wrong with that?
I also do not understand (actually I do understand but it is upsetting) why practitioners of African traditional religions are discriminated in their own countries. This is just as crazy as Africans being discriminated in Africa. I do understand that there are misunderstandings of ATR and I personally think they should be more vocal in educating the people about their beliefs and more active in eliminating the bad seeds in their religion. However I’ve heard this said about Islam too, these days people say ‘where are the moderate Muslims? where are their voices?’ thus I seem to be among the few people who hears their voices. Maybe that’s because I search for them, one Muslimah feminist I really admire is Mona Elthawy, mind you this is just one (another great one is Fatima Mernissi whose book ‘The Veil and The Male Elite’ was eye-opening to me).
I have been reading about Yoruba history and law and order in ancient Yorubaland. Apparently in those days any person suspected of witchcraft or sorcery (is that how to spell it?) was immediately killed sometimes without a hearing. Similarly any ‘witch doctor’ (for lack of a better term) who sold juju to criminals etc when caught faced a death penalty. Obviously this doesn’t happen much in these days with the stories one hears now and then of people been killed for rituals and what not. Perhaps if such laws were still in enforcement our perception of ATR would be different. Please note that I’m not telling people to start killing these bad seeds at all, that happened in the past now they should handle these people democratically and be louder in denouncing them. I just hope this makes sense.
I’ve been asked how I manage to combine my interest in African traditional religions with my being Muslim. It is really easy for me, firstly my mother did not bring up a child that was intolerant and close-minded. I mean she sent me to a Catholic school all while her in-laws basically insulted her for this (you know predicting that I would convert and using this to belittle my mother). My mother also always encouraged my curiosity, now I look at it, I’m really lucky because I could have been stuck with a parent who didn’t want me sticking my nose where they felt I shouldn’t. Now, I think I scare my mother a little with my more controversial ideas but she still accepts me and that is what matters. Secondly, Africans have been combining their traditional religions with Islam for years. From my readings the acceptance of Islam in some parts of Africa were gradual, as in it was there but there was this expectancy that Islam will eventually be adopted and the ATRs would die out ‘naturally’. Where I’m from it wasn’t until a few years (okay maybe 50 years or so but it is still happening today) ago that people started to practice ‘proper’ Islam. Remember Usman dan Fodio’s jihad in Sokoto? That was partly caused by people not practicing ‘proper’ Islam. In my family, my own great grand-uncle was a serious Ifa priest. Then he decided to start practicing Islam ‘properly’ and built a mosque that still stands today. Most people have Muslim names but some don’t practice and it is just little by little that they have started. Personally I blame 9/11 for this because it caused Muslims to look into their faith to learn more regarding the violent act of their (our?) fellow ‘Muslims’ and some people liked what they saw and decided to start practising Islam ‘properly’.[I have to explain why I keep on putting ‘properly’ in inverted commas. That is simply because there are different sects within Islam and for example, a Shia’s definition of proper may not be a Sunni’s or my definition of proper may not be the next person’s. However I’m not here to argue who practices Islam ‘properly’, I’m here to talk about traditional African religions.]
Here’s an anecdote; I attended a talk during my undergrad years. It was the university’s Islamic Awareness Week and a scholar was invited to talk about Prophet Muhammed. Anyway after his talk, it was time for questions, a man stood up, I remember he had a strong Nigerian accent and I remember feeling a little embarrassed. I wasn’t embarrassed because of his accent but because of his question. He asked the scholar accusingly ‘Why did God only send his prophets to the Middle East? Why did he ignore the other parts of the world?’ I’m someone who doesn’t really like confrontation but now I look back at it, I must have admired the man that was so bold to stand in a crowd of Muslims to ask that question. I also like the scholar’s answer, the scholar explained that Muslims believe that God sent other prophets to other regions and we just don’t know about them, these prophets sent to other regions. Some of them are mentioned in the Quran, others are not, yet they existed. By my estimation, any ‘holy person’ from any religion could potentially be (genuinely) sent by God. And there is no way for you to know, so (to me) the best thing to do is show equal respect to all religions. Though I do not remember this scholar’s name I totally accepted his answer and it may or may not be the truth or the way I have interpreted it may be wrong. I still like his answer though because it was just a way to justify my interests to Muslims as totally Islamic. Though I gave up trying to justify myself to anyone a while ago.
I remember another scholar who talks a lot about Africa and Islam, he praised our African ancestors saying that traditionally Africans have always believed in one God. Luckily I remember his name, it is Hakim Quick, I watched him on a show on Huda (which is an Islamic channel), he has some videos on Youtube so I’ll go through to see if the particular one I watched made it to the internet. What this man said about Africans worshipping one God is the truth. I think most people don’t know but this idea of a Supreme Being is present in almost all African religions. As a Yoruba I shall use our example, Olorun is the God in the sky, yet Olorun is too busy to concern himself with human issues, thus we have minor gods and goddesses Orisha most of whom actually existed but were venerated after their death and our ancestors.
I personally like the African idea that God is not concerned with the trivial affairs of humans, I know some don’t like this yet the reason I do is because it kind of provides an answer to suffering in this world. People lose religion because of suffering in this world and they ask why God lets children starve, wars happen etc when they have this image of God as someone caring and loving who always watches over what S/He created. However if you look at suffering in the world as being a direct result of God not been here, it becomes a coping mechanism (and makes some sense, you know just a tiny little bit).
I don’t know how to identify false religions yet I don’t think any religion as practiced in this world today is the ‘true’ one. If I am to accept the argument that God sent enlightened people that we may not know about all over the world, that makes every religion a candidate for authenticity. To me, it is either that all religions are true or all religions are false. However, I should also state that I do not believe religion ages over time like fine wine. Religion is left in the hands of man, man is not perfect so inherently religion can never be perfect. God may be perfect but that doesn’t mean religions are. I feel religions get corrupted and manipulated over time.
The issue of the ATR perspective of God and the state of ATRs today brings up the issue of forgotten gods. The website I linked to in my first post called God is imaginary, argues that the reason we don’t worship Ra (the Egyptian sun god) or Zeus is because they are all imaginary. This issue of forgotten gods is important to me ever since reading Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, I’ve come to develop a kind of sympathy and interest in forgotten religions. In fact I tend to admire them more than Abrahamic religions though I have an immense interest in Judaism.
That website also mentions that by believing in Allah, I’ve rejected thousands of other gods. However I don’t think that the God of other religions is imaginary. They may think mine is but it is not reciprocal. The argument is that if you believe in your own God, you are consciously rejecting other people’s gods thus you’re still essentially an atheist.*Sigh* You see why I don’t bother thinking about religion at all, I always get a headache afterwards. It is still fun though or I may just be a masochist.
Regarding the naming of God, I remember I attended a Baha’i meeting once and there was this very outspoken Chinese girl. She mentioned that though she doesn’t follow any religion, she believes in a ‘Superpower’ and in destiny (all things happen for a reason). I liked her naming of a Superpower not choosing ‘God’ or anything else. However I believe that our perceptions of this Higher Being are very cloudy. I think that is what makes it so easy for others to use our perceptions to disprove this Being. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that I don’t like referring to God as a ‘He’, I’d rather type God ten times in a sentence than refer to God as male. Muslims believe that God does not have a gender, God is not a human being, he is different from all of us. So technically we can refer to God as She as well but you should see the way some people foam at the mouth like rabid dogs when God is called She (‘How dare you refer to God as a female!’). Yet I’ve heard the argument that the only reason God is referred to sometimes as He is because He is the highest most respectful pronoun in this patriarchal world we live in. So technically if we lived in a matriarchal world, God would be a She right? As for me, I accept different names of God but I’m not happy with God being identified as male at all. I’ve got to discuss this further but I don’t think here or now is the best place, I’ve got that boat party in a few hours and I’ve been writing this post for days and just want to publish it already.
Today, I tend not to think about religion at all. I prefer it that way because when I think, I delve into things and there are just some ‘truths’ that I may or may not be ready to discover. I am currently reading Chimamanda Adichie’s new collection of short stories. One story that stood out to me was ‘Ghosts’ now I think about it, the story is more complicated that I realised at first. In the story the man stops going to church after his wife died because seeing her ghosts took away the uncertainty with death that he had which had made him religious in the first place.
*Most pictures in this post are of African religion as practiced in South America
**This may be unrelated but I liked this interview with voudou practitioners in Haiti, I feel the woman makes some good arguments and that they can be applied to Africa as well.