Africa and Religion- False Religions and Forgotten Gods

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.


  1. So I totally get you.In Odinani (Igbo religion) Chukwu is the High God that lives in the sky but is too busy to concern himself with the affairs of humans so there are lots of other lesser gods (Alusis) that are worshipped and asked to intercede first before Chukwu. Going to Chukwu is really only a thing of last resort when all other gods in the way have been appeased and nothing else is working.I also wonder what this world would be like if we followed our traditional religions. I think that it says something that religion was endemic to Africa before the Arabs and the Europeans came. It upsets me that indigenous African religions are seen as highly inferior and primitive while very similar religions like Hinduism and recognised and cherished globally.On the other hand, I think that while this is in part due to propaganda from Europeans and Arabs, it is also HEAVILY the fault of Africans themselves. It seems as though in the era of invasion and colonization, Africans as a whole just lost their fucking self esteem and started lapping up all the negative crap that was fed to them by these two groups of people.Africans are HEAVILY responsible for looking down on and mistreating followers of traditional religions and spreading superstitions and fear about them.The point is, we don't know, whether we are Christian or Muslim or Jew. NOBODY knows FOR SURE that THEIR truth is the RIGHT truth. As far as I'm concerned, life on Earth is just one big religious lottery. Most people stick to the faith that they were born into unless forced out of it. Yes, some convert, but most don't. To every person, their faith and their perception of God is just as real to them as our faith and our perception of God. Who are we to claim that we are right and they are wrong? Just because our religion teaches us that we are right? What if THEIR religion teaches them that THEY are right and we are walking around with our heads up our asses? Then what?Nobody finds out who's right until they die. And then, it's fucking too late anyway. I think everyone should just try their best to be a good human being and get off their high horse of crucifying people of other religions. At least be thankful that the person next to you is actively seeking God rather than otherwise. The face of God is in ALL things so human beings need to stop being assholes about God.I haven't always respected people of traditional religions, but I have come to see that this is flawed thinking brought about by the conditioning I received growing up in Nigerian society.All religions seek the face of God, and THAT is what counts.

  2. Really nice comment sugabelly. My father actually was the first person to give me insight into why African traditional beliefs should not be scoffed at. I mostly agree with the sentiments of this post. I guess the one thing that I could add is that the reason why religion (christianity and islam) has lost track is really because of people.Catholicism at one time had a succession of dubious popes and Islam currently has many radical Imams. I think the face of religion is human and herein lies the flaw.

  3. "a man basically arguing that Africans will never progress unless we learn to accept the religion of our forefathers"This is going to sound so obnoxious, but WHICH forefathers? How far back do we have to look for something to be considered a forefather? Are we only looking to pre-colonial religions? But what about the fact Christianity in Ethiopia goes back further than the twelfth century (churches of Lalibela were built in the twelfth and thirteenth century) and that's EXTREMELY pre-colonial? Are they not considered "forefathers? On pagan: I think they mean having multiple gods associated with nature. NOT paganism itself, which doesn't make any sense because PAGAN is a RELIGION not a substitute for many gods associated with nature. @_@ Discussions about religion need specificity which terms like "pagan" when talking about ATR doesn't work. You can't throw terms around like confetti at a birthday party! "the best thing to do is show equal respect to all religions"THIS!I firmly believe that any religion, not matter how new or strange or cult-ish, deserve respect. I don't think ANYONE has the right to insult or harass ANYONE based on what they believe may or may not happen to them in the after life.If they believe in an after life.

  4. I enjoyed reading this, one of the mysteries I want to spend this life unravelling is why Santeria is practised openly in bahia and in Cuba without shame, without a need to apologise. In modern Yoruba land, people want nothing to do with something that is ours, that is key to our past, it frustrates the hell out of me. I am not sure that I can ever belong to any organised religion but to study it from an historical and interested view, I am Yoruba, will mean a lot to me and my children, to show them their history, help them understand that they were not a people of darkness before the white and arab men came, these are the things that'll fuel their sub conscious and shape them as people, you cannot place a value on that.L.

  5. “Why practitioners of African traditional religions are discriminated in their own countries” you forgot to add “and by their own pple” So many Muslims and Christians in Nigeria think all African traditional religions are paganism and this belief has really destroyed our heritage when it comes to the way our traditional relgions are trashed. I know we would have work to do in improving some of the concept but I have come to the conclusion that God truly sent Obatala, Sango, Oya etcWe have got fantastic names that we don’t have to biblicallise or islamicalise them to make us feel or act religious. A lot of people are coming to that realization….Thanks for making a post on this.

  6. Yea i totally get where you are coming from. But then you have to take into consideration the fact that there is a valid reason Africans won't embrace traditional religions.Basically Islam and Christianity frowns against what these traditional religions promote. Its okay when you are completely unaware of something and you are doing it but then when you find out it is wrong do you still continue with it??? My answer is No. Now i'm not justifying the fact that Africans themselves look down on these traditional religions. Personally i find these traditional religions very interesting to observe, if we look to the basics sef, you would find that they are very similar to other faiths. I advocate for equal respect for all religions, nobody knows for sure that they are doing is the right thing.I love people like you that take an interest in things like this.This was an interesting read.

  7. Sugabelly,thanks for giving the Igbo spin on things. this just goes to further prove how similar African religions are. i personally think African religions are just as spiritual as Hinduism or Buddhism. it's a pity that ATRs are stereotyped to being all about sacrifice and hurting people etc. i think one of the most stereotyped has to be voodoo. and i agree with you in regards to how Africans are still responsible to this mess, so to speak. i still harbour stereotypes about ATRs but i'm open to learning and i'm learning bit by bit. i personally don't think death means it is too late, i find myself questioning our perceptions of the afterlife more and more these days.Jc,my mother is generally open, she has become a more strict Muslim lately yet i can always count on her to explain any part of Yoruba culture to me even the traditional religion. i second you, the face of religion is human thus inherently flawed.Alice,i must say that Ethiopia is a very special case. in my opinion, most Ethiopians are already following the religion of their forefathers. furthermore, i've never heard of Ethiopians facing identity crises, at least not like those i've noticed in other African cases. also imo there is no self-hate in the Ethiopian case. it would be different if all of a sudden Ethiopian left stopped being Coptic and accepted another religion while at the same time debasing the Coptic Orthodox Church.

  8. L-VII,welcome to the planet! i'm also curious as to why traditional religion is openly practiced in the diaspora. i think it may have to do with identity, most Africans feel they are solidly grounded in their culture while in places like Brazil and Cuba, practising these religions may be a way of connecting with their roots. and i'm like you in that i also want my children (if i ever have them) to know their heritage. StandTall-The Activist,welcome! and you're welcome, i enjoyed writing it. i have actually heard that followers of ATR in Nigeria have to lie about thier religion just to get jobs. regarding names, my plan is that when i become a published author (soon i hope!) i will use my Yoruba oriki name to be idenitified.juiceegal,welcome! actually you have a point and elucidated what i couldn't put in words. in my case, i admire ATRs yet i cannot see myself following one of them and i think it is because of my upbringing. i feel that it is okay for others to do this but not me. i also think this idea of God being invisible plays another role while in ATRs there are statues and it is possible for some Orishas to 'ride one of their devotee's shoulders' in other words possess them. thanks a lot!

  9. "it would be different if all of a sudden Ethiopian left stopped being Coptic and accepted another religion while at the same time debasing the Coptic Orthodox Church."This is a really interesting. I'll ask around and see what I can find about Ethiopians leaving and debasing the church after.Thank for for writing this series! I really enjoyed it ^_^

  10. Alice,please excuse my grammar errors >_< and to think i read through my reply. please do share your findings. and i'm glad you enjoyed the series!

  11. It’s a sad thing for people to be forced to hide their religion. It’s nice to know you will use your “oruko oriki” for your publications hubby calls me by my “oruko oriki” and it makes everything feel unique.

  12. StandTall-The Activist, ok i just realised that i read your blog after replying to your first comment. i'll like to say that i'm really honoured to have you on my little old blog. thanks! i agree with you. i love my 'oruko oriki' and i second you on its uniqueness. i didn't even know what it meant till last year which is why i'm so in love with the name 🙂

  13. I really like your blog.It actually stimulates my brain a lot.I like the way you think.Very open minded.I wish I had more people like you around me.I also really don't know about the one true religion thing.Sometimes I sit and think to myself "The other religion thinks we have got it wrong, and we are also meant to believe that they have got it all wrong.So who has really got it wrong!".It's sad to say that a lot of trouble has been caused by religion.Perhaps, if there was nothing like Religion and we all just worshipped God there wouldn't be so much trouble in the world!

  14. Lady X, thanks a lot for liking my blog! i think i'm open-minded because i've been the 'weird' girl for too long. after a while you stop even caring about what others think of others…if that makes any sense at all. i think religion is a kind of bridge towards God. so essentially if you worship God, you do it through religion. though it may not be labelled 'religion' i think it still is. or if we give up labels that would be great as well!

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