Spirit: Histories of Religion and the Word
- Article written by: Dr Insa Nolte
The history of religion in West Africa is the story of the enduring importance of the word, both spoken and written, which infuses indigenous belief systems as well as Islam and Christianity. While colonialism and literacy in Arabic, roman and other scripts have changed West Africans’ relationship with written and spoken words, all major forms of religious practice place strong emphasis on the word. Words link the past and the present, the everyday and the sacred, the secular and the divine. Incantation, divination, prophecy and prayer all serve as means through which believers communicate with the spiritual world.
Ifá divination board
This Ifá divination board, from what is now the Republic of Benin, was used to consult the Yoruba god Ifá about problems and decisions in life.View images from this item (1)
Historically, indigenous belief systems have relied on oral genres – stories, song, poetry, praise and prayer – as well as ritual and sacrifice to appeal to divine forces. Words were, and are, seen as powerful forces in their own right, and speaking them expresses the importance of human agency, power and reflection in the encounter with the divine. The ability of humans to translate the power of the word into experience also animated communal performances. Beautiful Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masquerades were and are popular in south-west Nigeria and Benin. These ensure the fertility and general wellbeing of the community by encouraging women to use their powers in the service of the community, rather than destructively.
Watch an extract from Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́: A Yoruba masquerade
Copyright © Mark Harper, Jane Harper and Ali Harper (Shelfmark Ref: Peggy Harper Collection C1074/41)
The image below shows elaborately decorated cups for holding the palm nuts used in Ifá divination. While the nuts can be kept in a cloth bag, priests who can afford it may have cups like these carved as a special display of gratitude to the deity Ifá.
Und Afrika sprach
This illustration, drawn by Carl Arriens, shows cups used in Ifá divination rituals.View images from this item (1)
From the 11th century, as Islam expanded in West Africa, the region engaged more and more with the written word. Arabic was valued as the revealed language of the Qur’an. Moreover, knowledge of Arabic allowed West African Muslims to participate in learned debates across the Islamic world, and to document local history and cultural practices. The spread of written Arabic also encouraged the growth of other West African written languages such as Tifinagh (which is known to have been used south of the Sahara at least 1,500 years ago). It also inspired a form of literacy known as ajami, in which West Africans transcribed and recorded their own languages, including Wolof, Fulfulde, Bamanan and Hausa, in Arabic letters. But even for less literate Muslims, Islam’s spoken declaration of faith, five daily prayers and the power of the Qur’an as the word of God, affirmed the importance of the word.
Looseleaf, illuminated Qur’an, together with its original leather bag, folios 1v, 59r, 121r & 185vView images from this item (5)
Pattern-sheet for manuscript illumination
This pattern-sheet shows the rich decorative style used to illuminate Islamic religious manuscripts in northern Nigeria.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © The British Museum. Donated by H.M. Brice Smith
Held by© The British Museum
Qur’an boards in Timbuktu, Mali
Wooden boards used for learning the Qur’an in Timbuktu, Mali, 2007View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © Alexandra Huddleston
Held by© Alexandra Huddleston
When Christian missionaries arrived in West Africa in the 19th century, they brought with them the Bible which they encouraged believers to read for themselves. Colonialism, missionary education and European-type schools all fostered literacy in the roman script.
The Book of Romans in Yoruba
Paul’s letter to the Romans, the first book of the Bible to be translated into Yoruba.View images from this item (1)
St John’s Gospel in Hausa
This translation of the Bible into Hausa uses Arabic letters, because the Arabic script was (and is) widely in use in the Hausa-speaking region.View images from this item (1)
Ghanaian Methodist Church skirt
This printed cloth, which commemorates the inauguration of the Ghanaian Methodist Church, is intended to be used as a skirt.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © British Museum. Donated by Miss M. Dawson
Held by© The British Museum
Although many West Africans have converted to Islam and Christianity during the 20th century, indigenous practices continue to play an important role in many communities, where they are sometimes accompanied by the production of written texts. In recent decades, the desire to assert Ifá’s equivalence with Islam and Christianity has moved some reformers to produce a written Holy Book of Odù.
Despite the rise of the written word, the spoken word has not lost its relevance or divine potency. Muslims continue to privilege Arabic as the sacred language of the Qur’an, and to use Arabic to pray and praise God. Early West African churches such as the Aládùrá church, and more recent Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, encourage oral practices such as prayer, repeated vocalisation of Bible passages, public testimony and speaking in tongues. Thus even while they base their faith and practice on the Bible and the Qur’an, both Muslims and Christians continue to rely on the spoken word to actualise the promises contained within their holy texts.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.