By: Gemechis Desta Buba
African Religions and Philosophy
Author: John Mbiti
Mbiti, S. John, African Religions and Philosophy. Second edition. Heinemann Educational Books Inc. New Hampshire, USA. 1989.
African Religions and Philosophy is a direct analytical and scholarly
engagement with traditional concepts and practices in those societies,
which have not been either Christian or Muslim in any deep way, prior
to the colonial era in Africa. Mbiti describes African Traditional
Religion using a present tense, with a due consideration to the fact
that rapid changes are taking place in the African religious dynamics.
This religious dynamism is playing a huge role in abandoning, modifying
or coloring everything traditional. At the same time it would be a
grave error to imagine that everything traditional has been changed or
forgotten so much that no traces of it are to be found. Traditional
religious concepts are still forming essential foundations for the
thinking pattern, language content, mental images, emotions, beliefs
and responses in situations of need.
In this book Mbiti, has emphasized the unity if African religions and
philosophy in order to give an overall picture of their situation. This
approach does not give room for the in depth treatment of individual
religious and philosophical systems of different African peoples.
Therefore this study highlights both similarities and differences
considering the African picture as a whole.
Further more the study devotes a chapter to the study of a modern
change, emphasizing particularly the human aspect of this change and
how this affects individuals and families. The present situation of
Christianity, Islam and other religions in Africa is also very relevant
to the present situation of African Traditional Religion. Mbiti
considers both Christianity and Islam as traditional and African in a
historical sense, and it is a pity that they tend to be regarded as
‘foreign’ or ‘European’ and ‘Arab’.
There are about three thousand African peoples (tribes), and each has
its own religious system. These religions are a reality, which calls
for scholarly, and academic scrutiny and which must be reckoned with in
modern fields of life like Economics, Politics, Education, and
Christian or Muslim work. To ignore these traditional beliefs,
attitudes and practices can only result and lead to a lack of
understanding African behavior and problems. In the wider context of
Africa, Religion is the strongest element in traditional background
and, exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and
living of the people concerned.
In this extensive study Mbiti, considers different religions in terms
of their similarities and differences, to give us a picture of the
overall situation in Africa. Philosophy of one kind or another is
behind the thinking and acting of every people, and a study of
traditional religions brings us into those areas of African life where,
through word and action, one may be able to discern the philosophy
behind. Philosophical systems of different African peoples have not yet
been formulated, but some of the areas where they may be found are in
the religion, proverbs, oral traditions, ethics and morals of the
society concerned. Mbiti states that ‘African Philosophy’ here refers
to the understanding, attitude of mind, logic and perception behind the
manner in which African peoples think, act or speak in different
situations of life.
African Traditional Religions permeates all departments of life, there
is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between
the religious and the non religious, between the spiritual and the
material areas of life. Wherever the African is there is his/her
religion. African traditional religion is taken to the field during
sowing seeds or harvesting new crops, it is taken the beer party or the
funeral ceremony; it is even taken to the University exam halls and the
Parliament. Although many African languages do not have a word for
religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long
before birth to long after the physical death.
African religions have neither founders nor reformers. However,
national heroes, leaders, rulers and other famous men and women are
incorporated into their body of beliefs and mythology. Some of these
figures are elevated to high national positions and may even be
regarded as divinities responsible for natural objects or phenomenon.
These heroes and heroines form an integral part of the religious milieu
of their society, whether or not they played a specifically religious
role in their time.
According to Mbiti, without having a complete knowledge of African
religions, it is difficult to describe their history. However, these
African religions seem to have remained fairly stable, quietly
assimilating new ideas and practices from one another. National crisis
cause a revival of religious activities or innovation of new ones.
People are intimately bound up with their religious life and outlook;
their history constitutes the history of their religion. This is an
area of interdisciplinary scholarly co-operation between historians,
anthropologists and theologians.
The basic approach taken in this book is chiefly descriptive and
interpretive, bringing together in a comparative way those elements
which are representative of traditional religions from all over Africa.
The study gives a lot of detailed illustrations used here and drawn
from many parts of Africa indicating the complexity of African