One cannot generalize about the nature of African religions as he would be prone to making the mistake of homogeneity among all African cultures. Africa, in truth, is vast both in cultural diversity and geographical variation. This has brought about different languages and customs that have different belief systems. With the different histories associated with the over 55 countries in Africa, we see the diversity in their religious beliefs even from ancient times.
Map showing different Regions and their predominant religion (source)
Africa has no single body of religious practice and belief that can be identified with the continent.
Although religion in Africa is quite multifaceted, it has had a great effect on the art, culture, and philosophy of the African people. The African continent is home to both local beliefs and global beliefs. In ancient times, religion provided a glue between all members of society, a link between the ancestors and the descendants, leaders and the community. As Africans mixed across vast distances due to environmental pressures, conflicts, technological changes and cultural exchanges, we have found that among people within particular language groups there remained some core beliefs that followed some Africans.
Niger-Congo (West African) beliefs:
The beliefs of Niger-Congo cultures, mostly comprising of West Africans and the Bantu that expanded into Southern Africa, has been looked into by researchers. At the very core of their beliefs, many Niger-Congo civilizations believed in an all-powerful but distant Creator. This Creator supersedes all known and unknown spirits who were responsible for controlling ‘principles’. The Creator also supersedes ancestors; responsible for cross-generational blessings or curses, and the Creator was finally seen to be above all living things. Most Niger-Congo cultures had a sacral king, who was the mediator between the people, the Creator, particular key gods and the most powerful ancestors.
Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs
The Ancient Egyptians took a different religious view to the Niger-Congo civilizations. They focussed on metaphysical principles, astrophysical principles, and certain outcomes which were controlled by a pantheon of gods. Diversity of gods was permitted to maintain unity within Ancient Egypt. Egyptian religious thoughts influenced many Ancient North Africans and were influenced too by southern African beliefs. Greeks too were influenced by the ancient Egyptians. Some examples of Egyptian deities were a demiurge (Ra), the Sun (Ra), Sky (Horus), fertility (APIs and Hathor), emptiness (Shu), air (Tefnut), day and night (Nut), rams (Ammon), lions (Maahes), lionesses (Bastet), earth (Geb), order (Ma’at), chaos (set), war (Sekhmet), Justice (Ma’at), the Nile (Hapis), vegetation (Osiris), afterlife (Osiris). In the physical realm at the apex of society was the divine representative of the gods, the Pharaohs. A good flooding of the Nile was considered a sign that a Pharoah led the state justly.
The Ennead, also referred to as the great Ennead, was actually a group of nine deities worshipped at Heliopolis. These gods were the sun god Atum, the children of Atum; Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and sometimes Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis. Belief in the Ennead belief rose to great importance during the fifth and sixth dynasties in Egypt. This remained even till the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty established by Ptolemy, successor to Alexander the Great.
Ancient Berber beliefs
The ancient Berber beliefs held mostly by the Berber autochthons of North Africa, was a set of ancient and native belief developed locally in West North Africa and the Sahel.
The ancient Berbers considered the spirits of their ancestors to be gods. They mostly swore, cursed, and prayed to them and awaited their replies through dreams. Another belief of the Berbers and even their forefathers, the Numidians and Mauretanians, was a belief in the afterlife. The Berbers also shared beliefs with the Egyptians. We see this in their worship of Isis and Set who were also Egyptian gods. While this was true, Egypt also shared some deities with the Berbers, for example, the god Neith.
Though some of the beliefs were later in time influenced or borrowed during antiquity. The most recent influence was seen from Islam and pre-Islamic Arab religion around 750 A.D after a failed attempt in 660 A.D through conquest. Some of the beliefs of the Ancient Berber religion still exist today but scarcely in some areas. But before their conversion to Islam, some Berbers had converted to Judaism and Christianity, while some lived their lives according to traditional polytheism. Some gods believed by some Berbers included:
- Gurzil the God of war notable among the Luwata nomads. This god is usually represented by bullhead.
- We also have the Idir the god of unclear capacities also referred to as “the alive God”.
- We also have the Lilu, the rainwater god,
- the Sinifer god, the war god of Luwata.
Other gods included Yur, Yukus, Tililwa, Nabel, and Suggan.
Nilo-Saharan (Middle Nile and Sahelian) religious beliefs:
Nilotic beliefs comprise beliefs unique to people speaking the “Middle Nile” family of languages. These people were mostly found around Southern Sudan, the Northwestern part of the Great Lakes and parts of the Sahelian region. The grouping of people into Nilotes is a linguistic grouping and does not reflect exhaustively cultural and religious beliefs. Pre-Colonial Nilotic people held a mixture of beliefs, including Christianity and polytheism. The Dinka are an example of a society that believed in a pantheon of deities.
Nilotic speaking people may have adopted the age set system from Cushitic speaking people; which is a system of organizing communities, political leadership and judicial leadership based on age.
Age grades in some other cases determined when young adults became eligible to serve in the military and hold social or political positions. These beliefs were mostly held by people around the Middle Nile region of Africa and East Africa.
Some other Nilotes held a belief in a Supreme God called Nhialic who is known as the God of the sky and rain, and ruler of all spirits. The Nilotes believe that the Supreme God is present in all human forms and in all creation. Some areas also refer to Nhialic as Jaak or Dyokin.
Nilotic people today still have various beliefs: some hold to Christian beliefs, some to traditional monotheism, some to traditional polytheism and others have found a middle ground.
Khoisan religious beliefs:
Khoisan religious beliefs can be traced back to the earliest South Africans. The religion had five major elements: the high god, a trickster, a destructive god, lunar, and transmigration of the souls of the dead. The high god is seen as the supreme creator and maintainer of all life and elements on earth. The high god had a figure of infinite goodness. The trickster figure referred to as Heitsi-Eibib by the Khoikhois, is thought of as a three-faceted personality; creator, destroyer, and prankster. This deity figure maintains the balance between good and evil. The destructive god was usually thought of like an opposite to the high god, as it was his duty always to cause evil. He was referred to as the evil god responsible for all sickness, war, and death. Other mythical figures existed in Khoi Khoi and San belief systems such as xu, Hai-uri, Ga Gorib, and Aigamuxa. The Khoisan communicated with the spirit world by first dancing until they entered a trance.
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
Statistics were taken on how important religion was to Africans. Most of the respondents answered in the affirmative, believing in one form of religion or another, the main religions being Christianity and Islam.
When asked about their belief in God, respondents in over 75% of the countries responded in the affirmative with over 95% of them stating that they were certain about their belief in their God. On the frequency of prayer, a country like Senegal had no Christian data on prayer as most of them were Muslims who affirmed to praying five times a day. For the most part of the continent, there are religious people who dedicate themselves to prayer on a daily basis. The Christians for instance, pray anytime in the day, Sunni Muslims pray five times, while Shia Muslims pray three times a day.
In the aspect of fasting, Africans hold fasting very high especially for the Christians; during lent and general fast by churches, and the Muslims during their Ramadan fast. When asked if they have experienced divine healing, over 40% of Christian respondents said yes, and 25% amongst the Muslim religion also said yes. In regards to exorcism, most Muslims in Africa have not seen devils been driven out of a person. Affirmation is mostly seen amongst the Christian community in Africa.
Africans, especially the traditional worshippers, tend to hold high certain concepts and beliefs. For instance, a survey was taken on the use of Juju, shrines and other sacred objects to protect them from harm. In a country like Tanzania, over 44% agreed, while a country like Kenya had only about 10% agreeing to that, while about 87% in Kenya disagreed with the notion of Jujus and charms giving protection.
In terms of ancestral ceremonies, most Africans in sub-Saharan regions barely participate in such events and ceremonies. Very few participate in honouring ancestors through ceremonies. But when it comes to beliefs in traditional healers, more than 50% still use traditional healers for their families. We see another traditional concept in Africa held by our distant ancestors who were involved in artistic thinking as part of their tradition. This is seen in the archaeological discovery of the oldest human drawing in the Blombos Cave, Cape Town, South Africa. The art had been dated to over 73,000 years ago.
BELIEFS ABOUT MORALITY
A study by the Pew Research Center shows us the responses made by some Africans on their belief on God and morality. They were asked if it was necessary to believe in God to be moral, and over 80% of Christian respondents said yes, and over 75% of Muslim respondents said yes as well.
On the issue of polygamy as wrong, close to 85% of both Christian and Muslim respondents saw polygamy as morally wrong.
Another survey conducted by the Pew Research center shows the response of Africans on certain questions based on inter-faith relationships. When asked on the knowledge of Christianity, more than 80% knew a great deal in most African countries. Closer statistics was recorded when asked about their knowledge of Islam. This stood around 75% for most countries. On the association of Christianity or Islam with violence, less than 20% associated Christianity with violence while less than 50% for some countries associated violence with Islam. On the association of Christianity or Islam with honesty, about 90% associated Islam with being honest while close to 95% for Christians. Finally, less than 50% of Africans really see extremist religious groups as a concern for the continent from the survey taken.
ADVANCES RELATED TO RELIGION
Africa has experienced great advancements in different areas, including religion-related areas. Right from ancient times, religious thinking, inventions and discoveries were always a part of the African community. Some of these advancements driven by religions included:
The invention of Calendars
One great invention in Africa is the dating system established by the Egyptians several thousand years ago even before the Common Era. The Egyptians made use of the lunar calendar which consisted of 12 months with the difference in duration based on the lunar cycle. This was later followed by the solar calendar or the Egyptian civil calendar that comprised of 365days shared into 12 months of 30 days each. This later became the yardstick for modern day calendars. Other African societies also invented their own calendars to maximize the dividends to society from tailoring the start of the year to the best time for sowing, and harvesting.
The Ancient Egyptian calendar (source)
Africa’s astronomy has been discovered to be older than astronomy practiced anywhere in the world. It dates back to 6,000 BCE in the Nabta basin in the Southern Egyptian desert. It was an arrangement of stone megaliths which described solstice and cardinal intentions.
In Africa, precisely Egypt, advancements in medicine date back to 3,000 BCE to around 525 BCE in Egypt. Male and female physicians were trained in a medical school in the ancient city of Sais. The school was renowned for its specialty in gynaecology and obstetrics.
A pharaonic female physician (source)
Ancient Egyptians were known for their great mathematical prowess in counting goods, measuring lands, and even determining taxes. They developed skills to keep up with the population growth, the intricacy of architecture, and an advancing economy. Mathematics in Egypt dates far back as 1,800 BCE to 1,600BCE. They majorly borrowed from hieroglyphic writing system in writing the hieratic scripts which were used to write numbers. This script later evolved into demotic. The Egyptians were amongst the first culture to develop a base 10 number system. The Egyptians mostly saw a religious need for mathematics.
An image that depicts the religious need of mathematics (source)
Imhotep was one of the earliest architects in the history of World, Egyptian and African engineering. He designed and supervised the construction of the Djoser Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt. This was far back as 2630 BCE to 2611 BCE. He is also attributed with the first use of columns in Architecture. The only wonder of the world still standing was credited to Imhotep.