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Religion in Africa

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Religion in Africa is multifaceted and has been a major influence on art, culture and philosophy. Today, the continent's various populations and individuals are mostly adherents of Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent several traditional African religions.[1] In Christian or Islamic communities, religious beliefs are also sometimes characterized with syncretism with the beliefs and practices of traditional religions.[2][3][4]

Traditional African religions

A Vodun altar in Abomey, Benin
A Vodun altar in Abomey, Benin
An early 20th-century Yoruba divination board
An early 20th-century Yoruba divination board

Africa encompasses a wide variety of traditional beliefs.[5] Although religious customs are sometimes shared by many local societies, they are usually unique to specific populations or geographic regions.[6] All traditional African religions are united by a shared animistic core with special importance to ancestor worship.[7]

According to Dr J Omosade Awolalu, The "olden" in this context means indigenous, that which is foundational, handed down from generation to generation, meant as to be upheld and practised today and forevermore. A heritage from the past, yet not treated as a thing of the past but that which connects the past with the present and the present with eternity.[4]

Often spoken of in the terms of a singularity, deliberate; yet conscious of the fact that Africa is a large continent with multitudes of nations who have complex cultures, innumerable languages and myriad dialects.[4]

West African

The essence of this school of thought is based mainly on oral transmission; that which is written in people's hearts, minds, oral history, customs, temples and religious functions.[8] It has no founders or leaders like Gautama Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammed.[9] It has no missionaries or the intent to propagate or to proselytise.[10] Some of the African traditional religions are those of the Serer of Senegal, the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria, and the Akan of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and the Bono of Ghana and Ivory Coast. The western coast is also consisted of the Yoruba and Anglican religion of syncretism.[11] The religion of the Gbe peoples (mostly the Ewe and Fon) of Benin, Togo and Ghana is called Vodun and is the main source for similarly named religions in the diaspora, such as Louisiana Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, Cuban Vodú, Dominican Vudú and Brazilian Vodum. Many of these religions still hold strong in today's society, but there is a rise in diversity for established religions.

East Africans and Horners

Some distinctions between West African and East or Horn African traditional religion often includes considering the supernatural and natural or tangible as being one and the same, and using this stance to incorporate divination. Clergymen from this region who would historically catechize to the masses was often referred to as waganga.[12] Another distinction of East African and Horners is the greater prevalence of prophets within the oral traditionas and other forms of generational transmissions of traditional African religion.[13]

The most prominent indigenous deity among Cushitic Horners is Waaq, which continues to be manifested into the modern era with religions such as Waaqeffanna and Waaqism.[14] According to the author Lugira, the Traditional African religions are the only religions "that can claim to have originated in Africa. Other religions found in Africa have their origins in other parts of the world."[15]

Abrahamic religions

The majority of Africans are adherents of Christianity or Islam. African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions.[16][17][18][19][20] Abrahamic religions are widespread throughout Africa. They have both spread and replaced indigenous African religions, but are often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems. This adaptation of both has raised grown to raise issues for some families as they start to focus on one. The World Book Encyclopedia has estimated that in 2002 Christians formed 45% of the continent's population, with Muslims forming 40%. It was also estimated in 2002 that Christians form 45% of Africa's population, with Muslims forming 40.6%.[21]


Christianity is now one of the most widely practiced religions in Africa along with Islam and is the largest religion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Several syncretistic and messianic sects have formed throughout much of the continent, including the Nazareth Baptist Church in South Africa and the Aladura churches in Nigeria. There is also fairly widespread populations of Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. The oldest Christian denominations in Africa are the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church (which rose to prominence in the fourth century AD after King Ezana the Great made Ethiopia one of the first Christian nations.[22])

In the first few centuries of Christianity, Africa produced many figures who had a major influence outside the continent, including St Augustine of Hippo, St Maurice, Origen, Tertullian, and three Roman Catholic popes (Victor I, Miltiades and Gelasius I), as well as the Biblical characters Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian eunuch baptised by Philip the Evangelist. Christianity existed in Ethiopia before the rule of King Ezana the Great of the Kingdom of Axum, but the religion grasped a strong foothold when it was declared a state religion in 330 AD, becoming one of the first Christian nations.[23]

The earliest and best known reference to the introduction of Christianity to Africa is mentioned in the Christian Bible's Acts of the Apostles, and pertains to the evangelist Phillip's conversion of an Ethiopian traveller in the 1st century AD. Although the Bible refers to them as Ethiopians, scholars have argued that Ethiopia was a common term encompassing the area South-Southeast of Egypt.

Other traditions have the convert as a Jew who was a steward in the Queen's court.[clarification needed] All accounts do agree on the fact that the traveller was a member of the royal court who successfully succeeded in converting the Queen, which in turn caused a church to be built. Tyrannius Rufinus, a noted church historian, also recorded a personal account as do other church historians such as Socrates and Sozemius.[24]

Some experts predict the shift of Christianity's center from the European industrialized nations to Africa and Asia in modern times. Yale University historian Lamin Sanneh stated, that "African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come."[25] The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) illustrate the emerging trend of dramatic Christian growth on the continent and supposes, that in 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa.[26]

A 2015 study estimates 2,161,000 Christian believers from a Muslim background in Africa, most of them belonging to some form of Protestantism.[27]


The Great Mosque of Kairouan, erected in 670 by the Arab general Uqba Ibn Nafi, is the oldest mosque in North Africa.[28] Kairouan, Tunisia.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, erected in 670 by the Arab general Uqba Ibn Nafi, is the oldest mosque in North Africa.[28] Kairouan, Tunisia.

Islam is the other major religion in Africa alongside Christianity,[29] with 45% of the population being Muslim, accounting for 1/4 of the world's Muslim population.[citation needed] The faith's historic roots on the continent stem from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, whose early disciples migrated to Abyssinia (hijira) in fear of persecution from the pagan Arabs.

The spread of Islam in North Africa came with the expansion of Arab empire under Caliph Umar, through the Sinai Peninsula. The spread of Islam in West Africa was through Islamic traders and sailors. The religion had also began influencing Harla Kingdom in the Horn of Africa early on.

Islam is the dominant religion in North Africa and the Horn of Africa. It has also become the predominant religion on the Swahili Coast as well as the West African seaboard and parts of the interior. There have been several Muslim empires in Western Africa which exerted considerable influence, notably the Mali Empire, which flourished for several centuries and the Songhai Empire, under the leadership of Mansa Musa, Sunni Ali and Askia Mohammed.

Africa By Muslim Percentage
Africa By Muslim Percentage

The vast majority of Muslims in Africa are followers of Sunni Islam.[30][31] There are also small minorities of other sects.[32][33]


Adherents of Judaism can be found scattered in a number of countries across Africa; including North Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Southern Africa.

Baháʼí Faith

Baháʼí House of Worship, Kampala, Uganda.
Baháʼí House of Worship, Kampala, Uganda.

The Baháʼí Faith in Africa has a diverse history. It especially had wide-scale growth in the 1950s which extended further in the 1960s.[34] The Association of Religion Data Archives (relying on World Christian Encyclopedia) lists many large and smaller populations of Baháʼís in Africa[35] with Kenya (#3: 512,900), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (#5: 282,900), South Africa (#8: 238,500) and Zambia (#10: 190,400) among the top ten numerical populations of Baháʼís in the world in 2010, and Mauritius (#4: 1.8% of population) joining Zambia (#3: 1.8%) and Kenya (#10: 1.0%) in the top ten in terms of percentage of the national population.

All three individual heads of the religion, Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi, were in Africa at various times. More recently the roughly 2000[36] Baháʼís of Egypt have been embroiled in the Egyptian identification card controversy from 2006[37] through 2009.[38] Since then there have been homes burned down and families driven out of towns.[39] On the other hand, Sub-Saharan Baháʼís were able to mobilize for nine regional conferences called for by the Universal House of Justice 20 October 2008 to celebrate recent achievements in grassroots community-building and to plan their next steps in organizing in their home areas.[40]


A Hindu Temple in Durban, South Africa.
A Hindu Temple in Durban, South Africa.

Hinduism has existed in Africa mainly since the late 19th century. There are an estimated 2-2.5 million adherents of Hinduism in Africa. It is the largest religion in Mauritius,[41] and several other countries have Hindu temples. Hindus came to South Africa as indentured laborers in the 19th century. The young M.K. Gandhi lived and worked among the Indian community in South Africa for twenty years before returning to India to participate in India's freedom movement.[42]

Buddhism and folk religions

Buddhism is a tiny religion in Africa with around 250,000 practicing adherents,[43] and up to nearly 400,000[44] if combined with Taoism and Chinese Folk Religion as a common traditional religion of mostly new Chinese migrants (significant minority in Mauritius, Réunion, and South Africa). About half of African Buddhists are now living in South Africa, while Mauritius has the highest Buddhist percentage in the continent, between 1.5%[45] to 2%[46] of the total population.

Other religions

Other faiths are practiced in Africa, including Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Rastafari among others.[47]


A Gallup poll found[when?] that the irreligious comprise 20% in South Africa, 16% in Botswana, 13% in Mozambique, 13% in Togo, 12% in Ivory Coast, 10% in Ethiopia and Angola, 9% in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Algeria, 8% in Namibia and 7% in Madagascar.[48]


Syncretism is the combining of different (often contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. In the commonwealth of Africa syncretism with indigenous beliefs is practiced throughout the region. It is believed by some to explain religious tolerance between different groups.[49] Kwesi Yankah and John Mbiti argue that many African peoples today have a 'mixed' religious heritage to try to reconcile traditional religions with Abrahamic faiths.[50][51]

Jesse Mugambi claims that the Christianity taught to Africans by missionaries had a fear of syncretism, which was carried on by current African Christian leadership in an attempt to keep Christianity "pure."[52] Syncretism in Africa is said by others to be overstated,[53] and due to a misunderstanding of the abilities of local populations to form their own orthodoxies and also confusion over what is culture and what is religion.[citation needed] Others state that the term syncretism is a vague one,[54] since it can be applied to refer to substitution or modification of the central elements of Christianity or Islam with beliefs or practices from somewhere else.

The consequences under this definition, according to missiologist Keith Ferdinando, are a fatal compromise of the religion's integrity. However, communities in Africa (e.g. Afro-Asiatic) have many common practices which are also found in Abrahamic faiths, and thus these traditions do not fall under the category of some definitions of syncretism.[55]

Religious distribution

Religion in Africa by country and region, as percentage of national populationn1
Coun­try Population Islam Muslim Population Chris­ti­an­i­ty Christian Population Other Other
 Angola[56] 29,250,009 1.0[57] 292,500 95 27,787,508 4.0 1,170,000
 Cameroon[58] 23,794,164 25[59] 5,158,082 65 15,466,206 10 2,787,508
 Central African Republic[60] 4,737,423 15 710,613 50 2,368,711 35 1,658,098
 Chad[61] 15,353,184 58 8,904,846 41 6,294,805 1 153,531
 Democratic Republic of the Congo[62] 84,004,989 10[63] 8,404,989 78 65,523,891 12 5,880,349
 Republic of the Congo[64] 5,399,895 1.6 86,398 79 4,265,917 19.4 1,047,579
 Equatorial Guinea[65] 1,222,442 10[66] 122,2442 86 1,051,300 4.0 48,897
 Gabon[67] 2,067,561 10 206,756 73 1,509,319 17 351,485
 São Tomé and Príncipe[68] 197,700 3 5,931 96 189,792 1 1,977
 Burundi[69] 5,341,186 5 1,068,118 70 6,942,770 25 2,670,296
 Comoros[70] 850,688 98.3 836,226 0.7 5,954 1 8,506
 Kenya[71] 50,000,000 11 5,500,000 85 42,500,000 4 2,000,000
 Madagascar[72] 26,262,810 10[73] 2,626,281 40 10,505,124 4.5[74] 13,131,405
 Malawi[75] 17,931,637 20 3,586,327 79.9 14,327,377 0.1 17,931
 Mauritius[76] 1,264,887 17.3 218,825 32.7 413,618 50 632,443
 Mayotte[77] 256,518 98.8 253,439 1.2 3,078 N.A N.A
 Mozambique[78] 28,861,863 20[79] 11,544,745 60 14,430,931 10 2,886,186
 Réunion[80] 865,826 4.2 36,364 84.8 734,220 11 95,240
 Rwanda[81] 12,001,136 4.8 576,054 93.4 11,209,061 1.8 216,020
 Seychelles[82] 94,205 1.1 1,036 93.1 87,704 5.8 5,463
 South Sudan[64] 12,323,419 20[83] 2,464,683 60.5 7,455,668 19.5 2,403,066
 Tanzania[84] 55,000,000 35 19,250,000 61 33,550,000 4 2,200,000
 Uganda[85] 38,823,100 14 5,435,234 81 31,446,711 5 1,941,155
 Zambia[86] 16,887,720 1 168,877 87 14,692,316 12 2,026,526
 Djibouti[87] 1,049,001 97 1,017,530 3 31,470 N.A N.A
 Eritrea[88] 5,200,000 36 1,872,000 63 3,276,000 1 52,000
 Ethiopia[89] 105,000,000 34 35,700,000 63 66,150,000 3 3,150,000
 Somalia[90] 15,181,925 99.8 15,171,925 0.02 10,000 N.A. N.A.
 Algeria[91] 42,200,000 99 41,780,000 0.28 119,128 0.02 8,509
 Egypt[92] 97,521,500 94.7[57] 92,352,860 5.3 5,168,639 N.A N.A
 Libya[93] 6,470,956 99 6,410,956 1 60,000 0.1 6470
 Morocco[94] 34,779,400 99.1 34,466,385 0.9 313,014 N.A N.A
 Sudan[95] 40,810,080 97 39,585,777 3 1,224,302 N.A N.A
 Tunisia 11,446,300 99 11,423,407 0.5 50,000 0.6 43,150
 Botswana[96] 2,302,878 0.6 13,817 79.1 1,821,576 20.3 467,484
 Lesotho[97] 2,263,010 0.1 2,263 80 1,810,408 19.9 450,338
 Namibia[98] 2,413,643 0.4 9,654 85 2,051,596 15 362,046
 South Africa[99] 57,725,600 1.9 1,096,786 79.7 46,007,303 18.5 10,679,236
 Eswatini[100] 1,300,000 1 13,000 90 1,170,000 9 117,000
 Zimbabwe[61] 14,848,905 3 445,467 84 12,473,080 13 1,930,357
 Benin[101] 11,362,269 27.7 3,147,348 48.5 5,510,700 22.6 2,567,872
 Burkina Faso[102] 20,244,080 61.5 12,450,109 29.8 6,032,735 8.7 1,761,234
 Cape Verde[103] 544,081 2 10,881 85 462,468 13 70,730
 Ivory Coast[104] 24,571,044 42.9 10,540,977 33.9 8,329,583 23.2 5,700,482
 The Gambia[105] 2,163,765 95.7 2,070,723 4.2 90,878 0.2 4,327
 Ghana[106] 29,614,337 18 5,330,580 71 21,026,179 11 3,257,577
 Guinea[107] 11,883,516 86.2 10,243,590 9.7 1,152,701 4.1 487,224
 Guinea-Bissau[108] 1,584,763 45.1 714,728 22.1 350,232 32.8 519,802
 Liberia[109] 4,382,387 27 876,477 70[110] 1,752,954 1.5 1,752,954
 Mali[111] 19,107,706 95 18,152,320 2.4 458,584 2.6 496,800
 Mauritania[112] 3,984,233 99.9 3,979,733 0.01 4,500 N.A N.A
 Niger[113] 21,466,863 98.3 21,101,926 1 214,668 0.7 150,268
 Nigeria[114] 216,730,000 50.77 110,300,300 48.12 104,300,080 N.A N.A
 Senegal[115] 15,726,037 96.1 15,112,721 3.6 566,137 0.3 47,178
 Sierra Leone[116] 7,719,729 78.6 6,067,706 20.8 1,605,703 0.5 38,598
 Western Sahara[117] 567,421 99.99 567,321 0.01 100 N.A. N.A
 Togo[118] 7,352,000 20 1,470,400 29 2,132,080 51 3,749,520
Total 1,251,919,791 45.5 571,453,892 48 599,688,699 6.5 81,204,817
  1. ^ The most recent census data are used.

See also


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  2. ^ Restless Spirits: Syncretic Religion Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D. Associate Professor of African American Religion & Literature
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  8. ^ Leo Frobenius on African History, Art, and Culture: An Anthology, 2007 ISBN 1-55876-425-9
  9. ^ Bolaji Idowu African Traditional Religion: A Definition, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books (1973) ISBN 0-88344-005-9
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  14. ^ Aseffa, Abdi, Bula Sirika Wayessa, and Temesgen Burka. "“I have to Resemble My Ancestors through Modification of Midline Diastema”: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Dental Modification among Karrayyu Oromo, Central Ethiopia." Ethnoarchaeology 8.1 (2016): 57-68.
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  17. ^ Riggs, Thomas (2006). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Religions and denominations. p. 1. ISBN 9780787666125.Although a large proportion of Africans have converted to Islam an Christianity, these two world religions have been assimilated into African culture, and many African Christians and Muslims maintain traditional spiritual beliefs
  18. ^ Gottlieb, Roger S (2006-11-09). The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology. ISBN 9780195178722.Even in the adopted religions of Islam and Christianity, which on the surface appear to have converted millions of Africans from their traditional religions, many aspect of traditional religions are still manifest
  19. ^ "US study sheds light on Africa's unique religious mix". AFP.t doesn't seem to be an either-or for many people. They can describe themselves primarily as Muslim or Christian and continue to practice many of the traditions that are characteristic of African traditional religion," Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum, told AFP.
  20. ^ Quainoo, Samuel Ebow (2000-01-01). In Transitions and consolidation of democracy in Africa. ISBN 9781586840402.Even though the two religions are monotheistic, most African Christians and Muslims convert to them and still retain some aspects of their traditional religions
  21. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica Book of the Year 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica, (2003) ISBN 9780852299562 p.306
    According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 376,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham,(A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.) is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture. See Amadu Jacky Kaba. The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, June 2005. Discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedium, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
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    According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 480,453,000 Christians, 479,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham, (A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.) is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture (see Amadu Jacky Kaba). The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, June 2005. Discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedium, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
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Further reading

  • Bongmba, Elias Kifon, ed. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions (2012) excerpt
  • Engel, Elisabeth. Encountering Empire: African American Missionaries in Colonial Africa, 1900–1939 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2015). 303 pp.
  • Mbiti, John S. Introduction to African religion (2nd ed. 1991) excerpt
  • Olupona, Jacob K. African Religions: A Very Short Introduction (2014) excerpt
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. (3rd ed. London: Sheldon Press, 1974) ISBN 0-85969-014-8
  • Parinder, E. Geoffrey. Africa's Three Religions. (2nd ed. London: Sheldon Press, 1976). The three religions are traditional religions (grouped), Christianity, and Islam. ISBN 0-85969-096-2
  • Ray, Benjamin C. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community (2nd ed. 1999)

External links

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