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Popular Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

During the nineteenth century, and to an even greater extent under colonial domination in the twentieth century, rapid and widespread islamization touched hundreds of African ethnic groups in West Africa, extending well into the forest zone, and in the interior of East Africa as far as Zaire and Malawi and South Africa. Previously many of these groups had only marginal contact with the Islamic world; in many places active Christian missionary efforts competed with the agents of Islam. As a result, popular expressions of piety in Islamized Africa exhibit rich diversity, both within individual societies and in developments across time. Examples of popular religion in sub-Saharan Muslim societies can be grouped in three categories: culturally specific social behavior and religious ideas that include appropriations of Islamic motifs; the permeation of the Qur’anic word into everyday life; and ritual practice.

Islam and Local Culture. The processes of Islamization beyond the Sudanic belt in Africa that began during the nineteenth century and continue today are among the most dynamic in the Islamic world. Because of the rapidity of this process and because it occurs piecemeal, affecting some individuals and communities and leaving others untouched, it is frequently Islamic dress that most effectively distinguishes converts from non-Muslims living around them. That dress is generally a variation on the jalabiyah and cap (kaffiyah)both sometimes bearing elaborate embroidery that may be an indicator of economic class-ornament in the form of talismans in leather amulet pouches tied to the arm or hung around the neck, tasbih (prayer beads), and, for the traveler, a rolled prayer mat and a kettle of water carried for ablutions. To be so equipped is to be identified as a Muslim in sub-Sudanic African societies where specific local customs relating to diet, marriage, divorce, or inheritance may conflict with Islamic law or where the full weight of orthopraxy may not be felt. [See Dress.]

The decorative arts of local cultures across Muslim Africa, like their music and poetry, reveal great genius in the islamization of local motifs as well as in local appropriation of Islamic symbols. Islamic designs pervade local arts, exemplified by crescent designs on post independence cloth prints, late colonial calabash engraving incorporating symbols of modernity alongside stylized lawh (wooden copy boards for Qur’anic memorization), or elaborate nineteenth-century fans inscribed with one of Allah’s ninety-nine names. Islamic symbols and elements of Muslim material culture have also entered African arts in such forms as elaborately woven prayer mats, amulet-case designs in metal or leather, jewelry, and ornament in mask designs. No single symbol so remarkably conveys this appropriation of the Islamic tradition into folk arts in West Africa as does alBuraq, the winged horse said to have carried the Prophet to Jerusalem. In sculpture cloth prints, amulets, masks, and drum stands, al-Buraq reappears across West Africa as one of the most enduring symbols of the mystical powers of the Prophet. Analogous to these representations in the arts are Islamic motifs in music and verse, woven into such diverse styles as Lagos juju music and-judging from the periodic denunciations by `ulama’-the unholy use of drumming as an integral part of Muslim marriage celebrations and performances on festival days.

Distinctive Islamic dress and Islamic motifs in the arts of many sub-Saharan African societies are the result of centuries of contact with Muslim lands. Beyond material culture, local cultures have also appropriated certain popular Islamic beliefs, perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Mahdist expectations that have swept Sudanic Africa during the past two centuries. The popular belief was that the Mahdi would come from the east, just as the Antichrist Dajjal would appear in the west. At least nine Mahdis are documented during the nineteenth century from the Senegal Valley and Futa Jalon in the west to Omdurman and Somalia in the east, and a like number of Mahdis appeared during colonial rule, as late as the 1940s. The Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah (1843-1898) was the most celebrated, inspiring a flurry of Mahdist claims (and colonial worries) during the opening decades of the twentieth century; well before this, however, each of the West African mujahids was obliged by his followers to explain why he was not the expected Mahdi. Less well-known are the Muslim communities in Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon at the end of the nineteenth century where the reappearance of `Isa (Jesus) was awaited as slayer of the Antichrist, a role for which he competed with the Mahdi in some traditions. Mahdist eschatology was popularly professed throughout the Sudanese communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As late as the mid-twentieth century a Yoruba “MahdiMessiah” invented an amalgam of Christian and Muslim practice that inspired a thriving community of twenty thousand until his death in 1959. [See also Mahdi; Mahdiyah.]

An integral part of historical and contemporary Muslim life in sub-Saharan Africa is spirit-possession cults such as sar (from Gondar, Ethiopian zar, “origins”) in East Africa, the Sudan, and parts of North Africa, and bori in Hausa-speaking West Africa and also in North Africa, sometimes seen as survivals of pre-Islamic practice. I. M. Lewis has argued persuasively that these cults-today largely urban, dominated by women and marginalized male migrant workers-hold special appeal to wives of the religiously minded who condemn the cults (“The Past and Present in Islam: The Case of African `Survivals’,” Temenos 19 [1983]: 55-67). These cults, varying in precise form from culture to culture but retaining the sar or bori appellation, thus become interwoven with orthopraxy, providing women and others alienated by locally constructed ideals of Islamic society with an avenue for participating in a counterculture whose definition is itself dependent upon Islamic orthodoxy.

Qur’an and Popular Piety. The most pervasive example of Qur’anic transcendence in popular usage throughout sub-Saharan Africa is the talisman or amulet industry, the products of which adorn babies, children, and adult men and women and hang in many a home and car. Talismans are mainly utilized for their therapeutic benefits or preventative powers, which underlines the important therapeutic attraction of Islam among peoples on the fringe of the Muslim world. The use of “washings” (typically inked or chalked verses from the Qur’an, washed into a vial to be periodically drunk or dabbed on the body) to cure or at least mitigate a wide variety of ills has long been part of the repertoire of holy men and seers throughout Muslim Africa. In the same fashion talismans hung at a prescribed spot or worn on the body can serve a range of purposes: protection in armed conflict or everyday affairs, for individuals or whole communities; security for safe travel, avoidance of slander, or assurance of success or influence; advantage to protect pregnancies, cure disease, or promote intelligence; and punishment in the form of proactive measures against enemies.

Washings and talismans are at the juncture of medicine (tibb) and esoteric sciences (bataniyah) in Islamic learning, and these specifically Islamic cures compete with other therapeutic remedies readily available in most African societies. Murray Last notes that in Hausa society some Muslim holy men are known today for their success rate in prescriptions for physical illness just as others become specialists in social problems (“Charisma and Medicine in Northern Nigeria,” in Donal Cruise O’Brien and Christian Coulon, eds., Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, Oxford, 1988, pp. 183-204). It is to those specialists in social problems that politicians and businessmen apply for formulas for success, and there are few heads of state, Muslim or Christian, who are not reputed to have a personal mallam or marabout. [See Magic and Sorcery.]

Esoteric sciences that complement the efficacy of washing and talismans are numerology and astrology, both of which emphasize, in I. M. Lewis’s phrase, the “mystical defense system” popularly attributed to Islam in this region. Indeed, numerology is frequently the main science utilized in talisman production, and the propitious alignment of stars is as carefully watched by specialists in Sudanic Africa as by astrologers in the West. The significance of these practices lies not in the sciences themselves, nor in the fact that Islamic remedies are popularly understood to have therapeutic properties that compete favorably alongside non-Islamic medicines; rather, it lies in the symbolic power of the Qur’anic scripture and the demonstrable function of the word in response to everyday needs. [See Numerology; Astrology.]

The Sufi brotherhoods have long been the vanguard of islamization in sub-Saharan Africa, and with them have arisen popular attachments to individual shaykhs that are analogous to the special relation between shaykh and student in many other parts of the Muslim world. Pilgrimage to the tombs of saints may have therapeutic effects, most frequently for women to safeguard pregnancies. The desire for prayers of intervention on behalf of individuals has spawned a minor prayer industry for shaykhs in other settings. With this mediating role, most frequently played by Sufi leaders, has come an iconization of both dead saints and living shaykhs. This is most vividly illustrated by the religious paraphernalia associated with the Muridiyah in Senegal, where postcards and glass paintings commemorating events in the life of the patron saint, Ahmadu Bamba (d. 1927) can be found at most corner dealers in religious wares as well as adorning taxis and trucks driven by prudent followers. [See Muridiyah.] Analogous marketing of local Tijani shaykhs in Ghana, or of the Senegalese (Kaolack) Tijani holy man al-Hajj Malik Sy in northern Nigeria, has become increasingly sophisticated during the past thirty years; today, few homes of the religious who can afford it lack a framed photo of their shaykh.

The Sufi shaykh as a conduit between the supernatural and the common folk has long been an important fixture in the moral economy of Muslim communities. As with therapeutic matters, the shaykh’s possession of at least a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic certifies his authority to mediate between scripture and supplicant in societies where Arabic is not spoken and access to the Qur’an is thus quite restricted. Whether he is a writer of simple talismans or an accomplished jurist, a shaykh’s authority rests largely on his near-monopoly over the scripture, but his barakah (blessing) may also be sought for its own sake. Where a local Sufi tariqah institutionalizes exploitive relationships between shaykh and student, it also makes popular religion a commodity. The Qadiriyah and Tijaniyah in West Africa, the Qadiriyah, Shadhiliyah and `Askariyah in East Africa, and the Qadiriyah, Sammaniyah, Khatmiyah, and Mahdiyah in the Sudan, all fulfill analogous roles at one broad level of orthopraxy. Their ultimate meaning and local impact, however, depend heavily on individual shaykhs and their skills at mediating or manipulating the holy word. The title “al-Shaykh,” like the pilgrim’s title “al-Hajji,” connotes local recognition of the religious, objects of veneration among their followers and subjects of snickers among their critics. In recent years inexpensive cassette tapes of sermons and readings by both Pan-Islamic notables and local preachers have become available on national markets in sub-Saharan Africa, providing an electronic form of mediation and translation of the word in local settings that now competes with the scripture in the economy of popular piety. [See Qadiriyah; Tijamyah; Shadhiliyah; and Khatmiyah.]

Ritual Practice. Piety in most sub-Saharan African Islamic communities, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, is most publicly displayed at prayer and most effectively demonstrated on festival days. These are the occasions for new outfits for children, new gowns for adult members of the household, lavish displays of food for dependents, and generous dispensing of cash gifts-all widely accepted as indices of religiosity. Although the relative importance of individual festival days varies from region to region, `Id al-Kabir (widely known as “Tabaski” in West Africa) and `Id Saghir (or al-Fitr, also known as “Salla” in West Africa) at the end of Ramadan generally compete in importance; in East Africa `Id al-Hajj replaces the first of these as a principal festival. Celebration of the Prophet’s birth, the mawlid, is a minor holiday in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, although it has been appropriated by the Sufi brotherhoods in many countries as an annual display of piety before saints’ tombs. Large followings of some local saints have spawned individual festivals, exemplified by the annual Grand Maggal (Wolof, “to celebrate”) in Touba, Senegal, when Murid followers gather by the tens of thousands to observe the anniversary of the death of Ahmadu Bamba in a festive atmosphere.

The centrality of the visitation of saints’ tombs varies across Africa’s Muslim populations; in the northern Sudan such tombs are a chief source of barakah and popular sites of local pilgrimage. Across the continent in southern Mauritania, gravesites are modestly marked even for holy men, and although visitations take place they are not yet ritualized. Between these extremes, hundreds of African Muslim societies integrate local custom, generally heavily tinged with veneration of ancestors, with Islamic burial ritual. [See Ziyarah; Sufism, article on Sufi Shrine Culture.]

Elements of life-cycle rituals in Muslim societies are popularly understood to be linked to Islamic prescriptions. In sub-Saharan Africa these focus on naming ceremonies (which frequently involve an imam or local shaykh and elaborate displays of hospitality), the acts of circumcision and clitoridectomy, the formalities and types of marriage (dowries, the degrees of proximity permitted in Islamic law, the number of wives, etc.) and divorce, and burial rites. In each islamized society compromise is negotiated among local custom, scripturally sanctioned practice, and orthopraxy in neighboring Muslim communities and lands. It is generally with respect to Islamic laws of inheritance and in particular land that local custom has proven most intractable. [See also Rites of Passage.]

Since the mid-twentieth century, as a result of increased communication between the Muslim heartlands and sub-Saharan Africa and also as a result of increasing numbers of African pilgrims traveling to the Hejaz, there has been a tendency toward a certain homogeneity within national Muslim cultures. This is most noticeable in ritual life, where the political influence of religious leaders has been recognized by national authorities and ritual reinforcement of that influence has been encouraged (in contrast to a definite wariness toward that same influence during colonial times). As a result, national Islamic political cultures have emerged in many countries. These tend to focus on annual rituals such as the mawlid, generally under the supervision of shaykhs in the local (tariqahs), whose mediating roles increasingly extend into the political sphere.


Bravmann, Rene A. African Islam. Washington D.C., 1983. Elegantly illustrated exhibition catalog with extended essays on the material culture of Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa.

El-Tom, Abdullahi Osman. “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic verses in Berti Erasure.” In Popular Islam South of the Sahara, edited by J. D. Y. Peel and Charles C. Stewart, pp. 414-431. Manchester, 1985. This collection also includes six contributions that address aspects of popular Islam in the Sudan, Nigeria, and Senegal.

Le Grip, A. “Le Mahdisme en Afrique noire.” L’Afrique et l’Asie 18 (1952): 3-16. Remains one of the best, brief surveys of Mahdism in Sudanic Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Lewis, I. M., ed. Islam in Tropical Africa. 2d ed. London, 198o. Twenty-five years after its first appearance, this study remains one of the most succinct and comprehensive surveys of orthopraxy and popular piety in sub-Saharan African communities; includes an updated introduction.

Nimtz, August H., Jr. Islam and Politics in East Africa. Minneapolis, 198o. Surveys Sufi brotherhoods in East Africa, with particular reference to Tanzania, and their gradual involvement in national politics.

Owusu-Ansah, David. Islamic Talismanic Tradition in NineteenthCentury Asante. Lewiston, N.Y., 1991. Detailed study of a set of over five hundred folios of instructions on the manufacture of talismans recovered from a non-Muslim state on the Gold Coast in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in West Africa. Oxford, 1959. While the conceptual schema presented in this and other studies by the author may be contentious, the core of his ethnographic material collected on institutional Islam, Sufi orders, and life cycles as observed in the mid-twentieth century remains useful.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Influence of Islam upon Africa. 2d ed. London, 1980.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion-sub-saharan-africa/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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