West African Belief Systems Thematic Essay

Side by side with their high levels of commitment to Christianity and Islam, many people in the countries surveyed retain beliefs and rituals that are characteristic of traditional African religions. In four countries, for instance, half or more of the population believes that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm. In addition, roughly a quarter or more of the population in 11 countries say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets), shrines and other sacred objects. Belief in the power of such objects is highest in Senegal (75%) and lowest in Rwanda (5%). (See the glossary for more information on juju.)

In addition to expressing high levels of belief in the protective power of sacrificial offerings and sacred objects, upwards of one-in-five people in every country say they believe in the evil eye, or the ability of certain people to cast malevolent curses or spells. In five countries (Tanzania, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Mali) majorities express this belief. (See the glossary for more information on the evil eye.)

In most countries surveyed, at least three-in-ten people believe in reincarnation, which may be related to traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits. The conviction that people will be reborn in this world again and again tends to be more common among Christians than Muslims.

The continued influence of traditional African religion is also evident in some aspects of daily life. For example, in 14 of the 19 countries surveyed, more than three-in-ten people say they sometimes consult traditional healers when someone in their household is sick. This includes five countries (Cameroon, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal) where more than half the population uses traditional healers. While the recourse to traditional healers may be motivated in part by economic reasons and an absence of health care alternatives, it may also be rooted in religious beliefs about the efficacy of this approach.

This chapter includes information on:

  • Traditional African religious beliefs, such as belief in the protective power of sacrifices to ancestors
  • Traditional African religious practices, such as owning sacred objects

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Photo credit: Sebastien Desarmaux/GODONG/Godong/Corbis

Part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project


 

Multiple Trajectories of Islam in Africa
Islam had already spread into northern Africa by the mid-seventh century A.D., only a few decades after the prophet Muhammad moved with his followers from Mecca to Medina on the neighboring Arabian Peninsula (622 A.D./1 A.H.). The Arab conquest of Spain and the push of Arab armies as far as the Indus River culminated in an empire that stretched over three continents, a mere hundred years after the Prophet’s death. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab traders and travelers, then African clerics, began to spread the religion along the eastern coast of Africa and to the western and central Sudan (literally, “Land of Black people”), stimulating the development of urban communities. Given its negotiated, practical approach to different cultural situations, it is perhaps more appropriate to consider Islam in Africa in terms of its multiple histories rather then as a unified movement.

The first converts were the Sudanese merchants, followed by a few rulers and courtiers (Ghana in the eleventh century and Mali in the thirteenth century). The masses of rural peasants, however, remained little touched. In the eleventh century, the Almoravid intervention, led by a group of Berber nomads who were strict observers of Islamic law, gave the conversion process a new momentum in the Ghana empire and beyond. The spread of Islam throughout the African continent was neither simultaneous nor uniform, but followed a gradual and adaptive path. However, the only written documents at our disposal for the period under consideration derive from Arab sources (see, for instance, accounts by geographers al-Bakri and Ibn Battuta).

Islamic Influence on African Societies
Islamic political and aesthetic influences on African societies remain difficult to assess. In some capital cities, such as Ghana and Gao, the presence of Muslim merchants resulted in the establishment of mosques. The Malian king Mansa Musa (r. 1312–37) brought back from a pilgrimage to Mecca the architect al-Sahili, who is often credited with the creation of the Sudano-Sahelian building style. Musa’s brother, Mansa Sulaiman, followed his path and encouraged the building of mosques, as well as the development of Islamic learning. Islam brought to Africa the art of writing and new techniques of weighting. The city of Timbuktu, for instance, flourished as a commercial and intellectual center, seemingly undisturbed by various upheavals. Timbuktu began as a Tuareg settlement, was soon integrated into the Mali empire, then was reclaimed by the Tuareg, and finally incorporated into the Songhai empire. In the sixteenth century, the majority of Muslim scholars in Timbuktu were of Sudanese origin. On the continent’s eastern coast, Arabic vocabulary was absorbed into the Bantu languages to form the Swahili language. On the other hand, in many cases conversion for sub-Saharan Africans was probably a way to protect themselves against being sold into slavery, a flourishing trade between Lake Chad and the Mediterranean. For their rulers, who were not active proselytizers, conversion remained somewhat formal, a gesture perhaps aimed at gaining political support from the Arabs and facilitating commercial relationships. The strongest resistance to Islam seems to have emanated from the Mossi and the Bamana, with the development of the Ségou kingdom. Eventually, sub-Saharan Africans developed their own brand of Islam, often referred to as “African Islam,” with specific brotherhoods and practices.

Local Mixes of Islamic and African Aesthetics
Because of its resistance to the representation of people and animals, the nature of Islam’s interaction with the visual arts in Africa was one in which Islamic forms were accommodated and adapted. Muslim clerics’ literacy and esoteric powers drew scores of converts to Islam. Sub-Saharan Muslim clerics known as marabouts began fabricating amulets with Qur’anic verses, which came to displace indigenous talismans and medicinal packets. These amulets are featured in the design of many traditional African artifacts.

Islam also reinforced the African fondness for geometric design and the repetition of patterns in decorating the surface of textiles and crafted objects. Local weaving may have been transformed with the importation of North African weaving techniques.

Islam has also often existed side by side with representational traditions such as masquerading. Such practices have often been viewed as supplemental rather than oppositional to Islam, particularly when they are seen as effective or operating outside of the central concerns of the faith. An early example of this was noted by Ibn Battuta, the Maghribi scholar who visited Mali in 1352–53 and witnessed a masquerade performance at the royal court of its Muslim king. In many areas of Africa, the coexistence of Islam with representational art forms continues today. But although Islam has influenced a wide range of artistic practices in Africa since its introduction, monumental architecture is the best-preserved legacy of its early history on the continent. Mosques are the most important architectural examples of the tremendous aesthetic diversity generated by the interaction between African peoples and Islamic faith.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001

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