African Religions: New Religious Movements

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Modern African religious movements are best understood if interpreted as creative and innovative responses to the historically unprecedented levels of upheaval and change in every area of lifecultural, economic, environmental, social, political, and religiousthat followed the imposition of colonial rule, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. The primary aim of these movements has not been to return in fundamentalist fashion to the past and remain there but rather to review critically the traditional cultural and religious processes with a view to constructive engagement with the new.

Although the focus here is on modern African movements of Christian, Muslim, and neotraditional derivation, or combinations thereof, to illustrate something of the range and variety of Africa's modern religious tapestry, there is also discussion of modern religious movements that have entered Africa from abroad including those created by African diaspora communities, neo-Hindu movements, Buddhist-Shintō healing movements from Japan, and secular religions from the West.


Modern African movements vary greatly doctrinally, structurally, and liturgically, and Bryan R. Wilson's (1973) system of classification is possibly the most suitable for dealing with this variety, primarily because it is free of theological, organizational, historical, and cultural bias. Wilson's typology is based on movements' responses to the world and interpretations of the sources of evil and how it is to be overcome. From this perspective modern African religious movements can be fit with one or a combination of Wilson's seven types of modern or new religious movements: These are: (1) the conversionist response, which insists that individual and collective salvation can only come about through a profound, supernaturally wrought transformation of the self; (2) the revolutionist response, which believes that evil can only be overcome and salvation assured by divine action, thus no subjective change however profound will affect the state of the world for the better; (3) the introversionist response, which seeks salvation by withdrawing to a separate, purified community set apart from what is perceived to be an irredeemably evil world; (4) the manipulationist or gnostic response, which seeks salvation and the conquest of evil though the acquisition of the right means and techniques to deal with the problems of life; (5) the thaumaturgical response, which relies chiefly on miracles and oracles to attain salvation, which is identified as something specific such as the relief from a particular illness; (6) the reformist response, which aspires under divine guidance to overcome evil and save the world by transforming existing social structures and arrangements; and (7) the utopian response, which aims to reconstruct the world according to a set of divine principles that, if correctly applied, will result in the establishment of a world without evil. The main limitations of Wilson's typology are its inability to capture the dynamics of religious change and development movements undergo and their espousal of more than one orientation simultaneously.

Harold Turner's typology (1991), which is based on different kinds of criteria (doctrinal, organizational, and historical) uses the term neo-primal to refer to modern movements that seek to remain close to the traditional religionalbeit in a discriminating manner by rejecting certain elements such as magic and, at the same time, making monotheism the core of their belief systems. Turner's second category is the hebraist movement, so defined because members believe themselves to be descendants of the ancient Israelites and place great store by biblical prophecies. His label synthetist covers those modern religious movements that developed from a combination of traditional and Christian elements, examples include the African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). The last of Turner's categories is the deviationist, which he applies to churches and religious movements that give the appearance of being Christian or Islamic but deviate markedly from these religions in fundamentals. Turner's system of classification has little application to non-Christian movements, and this makes it increasingly less useful as the scope of religious innovation and interaction expands to include not only increasing numbers of modern Muslim and neotraditional movements in Africa but many new Asian religions as well.

Roy Wallis's (1984) typology of modern or new religions into world-denying or world-rejecting, world-indifferent, and world-affirming types, although widely used, requires considerable refinement. The world-indifferent category is largely redundant, and the world-affirming category would make a better fit with the response to the world of the modern religions of Africa and elsewhere if replaced by world-transforming.

AICs in Southern Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

AICs were as much concerned with transforming both mission church Christianity and traditional religion and culture as the preservation of the latter. A brief account of a select number of southern AICs illustrates this. However, first a word about Bengt Sundkler's (1970, pp. 52ff.) terminology. He describes the AICs of southern Africa as either Ethiopian or Zionist. The former are AICs that seceded from white mission churches chiefly on racial grounds or those that, although sharing the same concern for African-led churches, are also keenly motivated by the desire for African leadership. The term Zionist is applied by Sundkler to those AICs of southern Africa that refer to themselves as ama-Ziyoni (Zionist; the meaning has nothing to do with the Jewish Zionist movement), pointing to their origins in Zion City, Illinois, where the millenarian Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion was founded in 1896 by John Alexander Dowie. This church teaches divine healing, baptism by triune immersion (preferably in a river), and the imminence of the second coming of Jesus and holds tenaciously to the flat Earth theory. As will be seen, Zionist and Ethiopian churches shared many common features. Both demanded greater autonomy and placed great stress on the veneration of ancestors and rituals of purification.

One of the earliest, largest, and most influential of southern Africa's AICs is the amaNazaretha (Nazareth or Nazirite Baptist Church) founded in Zululand, South Africa, in 1913. The aims and ideology of this AIC are paradigmatic of AICs in general. Its founder Mdlimawafa Mloyisa Isaiah Shembe (18671935), once a member of the African Native Baptist Church, which had seceded from the white-led Baptist Church, believed in the idea of continuous divine revelation and guidance through dreams and visions. He interpreted sacramental rites as essentially rites of purification (ashes were retained as purgative symbols), modeled his mission on that of the prophet John the Baptist, and forbade the use of Western medicine, believing instead in healing through faith and blessed water.

The amaNazaretha and other AICs also introduced liturgical changes. For example, the sacred wooden drum, seen by mission churches as a separatist symbol, became the main instrument in worship. Also radically changed was the import of the hymn, which was transformed from a verse about certain religious ideas into a sacred rhythm expressed through the medium of sacred dance. AICs were not simply bridge builders between the new religious culture and the old but sought to transform both. Just as the meaning of hymns was changed so was the meaning of traditional dance festivals, which were turned into major liturgical innovations both to deepen (as in the case of the Zulu) awareness of oppression and colonization and to promote greater awareness of their status as God's chosen people. The realized eschatology of the amaNazaretha emphasizes this last point by declaring that the holy mountains of Inhlangakazi, eighty miles from Durban, and Ekuphakameni (the elated place), nearer Durban, are God's most desirable earthly temples and the location of paradise on Earth.

Despite the harassment and persecution from governments, several AICs developed into highly complex organizations with considerable assets. Among the largest and most structurally complex is the Kimbanguist Church (Église de Jesus Christ sur la Terre par Le Prophète Simon Kimbangu; EJCSK), founded in 1921 in what was at the time known as Belgian Congo, later Zaire, and finally the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Simon Kimbangu (c. 18871951). Kimbangu, like Shembe, was selective in his approach to tradition and preaching (e.g., against the use of traditional rituals to combat evil forces). However, unlike Shembe, he stressed the importance of monogamy and spoke of the duty to obey the government. Like AICs generally, the EJCSK lays great store in purification rituals and the use of blessed water for healing and protection. Like many churches of the western African Aladura movement (independent churches characterized by prayer, divine healing, and baptism in the Holy Spirit), the EJCSK has become a huge enterprise with schools, hospitals, factories, and commercial companies.

Although generally not overtly political, AICs often made colonial governments nervous by their wide appeal. Kimbangu's popularity and growing following were such that the colonial government decided to have him court marshaled without any defense in 1921 on charges that included sedition and hostility to whites. Found guilty, Kimbangu was sentenced to 120 lashes and deatha penalty that was commuted to life in solitary confinement in Lumumbashi, two thousand kilometers from his home in the village of Nkamba in the western region of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kimbangu's remains were reinterred at Nkamba (then called Nkamba-Jerusalem), an important place of pilgrimage, in 1960. The EJCSK operated underground until 1959, six months before independence, when it received official recognition.

AICs are to be found in great numbers elsewhere in southern, central and eastern Africa. In Kenya alone there are over two hundred AICs with several million members between them; the largest of these is the African Independent Pentecostal Church, founded in 1925 and composed mostly of Gikuyu. Also predominantly Gikuyu is the African Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Alexandria.

AICs in West Africa

As in southern Africa, the pursuit of independence in church matters began in West Africa as early as the late 1880s, the point in time when many of the historic or mission churches began to abandon their goal of establishing self-governing, self-supporting African churches. In the 1890s the decision to remove the Nigerian-born Anglican bishop of the Niger Delta, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, from his post fueled the drive for ecclesiastical autonomy. The investigation and subsequent dismissal by the London-based Church Missionary Society of Crowther had the psychological effect of putting on trial the capacity of a whole race to govern itself.

By this time many African Christians were already questioning the predominantly European leadership of the Christian churchesopposed at the outset by the Church Missionary Society, the missionary wing of the Anglican Churchand began to form their own denominations. In 1888 in Lagos, Nigeria, the African Baptist Church split off from American Baptist Missionary Society over the question of leadership. African spiritual and cultural identity were also pressing issues. Opposition grew over the imposition of European names at baptism, the wearing of European dress, the exclusive use of European musical instruments and the English language in worship, and to solely white icons of Christ. The West Indian Edward Wilmot Blyden, an educator and Christian pastor in Nigeria at the time, implored mission church Christianity to take a lesson from Muslims on how to adapt Christianity to Africa by, for example, respecting (at least for the foreseeable future) such important social and economic institutions as polygamy.

Also questioned was the missionary claim to be the sole guardians and defenders of immutable moral laws, including those that imposed monogamous marriages, which were perceived to amount to foreign social arrangements. A Nigerian founding member of the African Baptist Church, Mojola Agbebi (baptized David Vincent), expressed the anxieties over cultural and personal identity and the undermining of African self-esteem in his attack on the foreign character of mission church Christianity: "Hymn books, harmonium, dedications, pew constructions, surpliced (sic) choir, the white man's names, the white man's dress, are so many non-essentials, so many props and crutches affecting the religious manhood of the Christian Africans" (cited in Clarke, 1986, p. 160).

The most successful AIC in the early twentieth century in West Africa was led by the Liberian Grebo prophet William Wade Harris (c. 18501920). Harris's this-worldly interpretation of Christian baptism as the most effective remedy for both moral and social evil, his preaching of a gospel of prosperity, and his allowing full participation to the polygamous, thereby alleviating the social and economic distress of conversion, account for his success and made for a clear contrast with the more socially and economically disruptive approach of mission church Christianity, widely known as the "Church of children."

Mission church Christianity attempted to counter the success of Harris and other local prophets by labeling them as charlatans and sorcerers. Although he could be strongly critical of traditional customs and religious practices, Joseph William Egyanka Appiah, the founder of the Musamo Christo Disco Church (also known as Army of the Cross of Christ Church), a Ghanaian spiritist church, was dismissed as a sorcerer by the Methodist Church in Ghana. Appiah preached an apocalyptic message mostly derived from the Old Testament. Following the biblical account of Exodus, one of his first acts on constructing the Holy City of Mozano, where he took the name Prophet Jemisimiham, was to smear the entrances to the homes of his followers with the blood of a sacrificed animal.

Nothing was predictable and permanent about the history and development of AICs. Often they began not as sects but as movements within the mission churches only eventually to become independent. In some cases, movements that became sectarian, such as the Native Baptist Church in Nigeria, would later be reintegrated into the main body. The Aladura movement in Nigeria began within the Anglican Church at the end of World War I. Warned in a dream that the world would be ravaged by the influenza epidemic, the Nigerian Anglican pastor Joseph Shadare from St. Saviour's Church in the city of Ijebu Ode, joined with a young teacher, Sophia Adefobe Odunlami, to combat the epidemic through the means of blessed water and prayer. In 1920 they formed the Precious Stone-Faith Tabernacle prayer association, which marked the beginnings of the Aladura or prayer movement in Yorubaland.

The Aladura stress on the power of prayer to heal resonated with traditional ideas. Just as early Yoruba Christians, known as Onigbagbo, believed that faith in Jesus bestowed on them "word power" that would affect what they prayed for, traditionalists believed that the chanting of the invocations recommended by the babalawo (diviner) would resolve problems of health, relationships, material distress, and so on.

The Aladura movementin most respects indistinguishable from the southern African AICschanged the situation of believers from that of passive to engaged participants and soon became widely associated with empowerment. The principal vehicles in the spreading of the movement were local prophets, including Christianah Abiodun Emanuel (1907198?), also known as Captain Abiodun Emmanuel, who were hailed by followers as direct evidence of the Gospel's authority. Like Kimbangu, these prophets were perceived by the colonizers as potential threats to the stability of the colonial order. Some of these prophets, such as the founder of the Church of the Lord (Aladura), Josiah Oshitelu (1902?) were directly political and spoke out against unlawful taxation by foreign rulers and against price increases and issued warnings of the dire consequences to come if whites continued to oppress blacks.

The Aladura response to mission church Christianity and traditional religion was selective. The Aladura Cherubim and Seraphim movement, for example, retained the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Sunday worship, and several of the sacraments. Differences were obvious in worship, however. Aladura churches encouraged the practice of hand clapping, stamping on the grounda way of obtaining spiritual power, prosperity and peacedrumming, and demonstrations of the efficacy of sacred words through such exclamations as hallelujah, hosanna, and iye (life). Few, however, went as far as the World Christian Soldiers Church, a Kenyan (mainly Luo) movement, founded in 1942, which required all members to use musical instruments in worship. With regard to traditional religion, bans were imposed on the eating of pork, the meat of an animal that had not been slaughtered, the ritual drinking of the blood of animals (a practice acceptable to traditionalists), and the use of alcohol and tobacco.

While colonialism, aided by mission church Christianity, was hastening the process of the decoupling of traditional beliefs from the traditional political, economic, and moral structures to which they had for so long lent plausibility, the rise and rapid growth of the Aladura movement and AICs generally revealdespite each one being composed mostly of one ethnic groupa preoccupation on an Africa-wide basis with the cultural moral, social, and spiritual limitations of imposed forms of religion in a colonial context.

Political Independence and Modern Movements

New religions and churches continued to emerge in Africa as independence approached as well as since independence was achieved (between 1957 and 1973 for most countries). Started mostly by charismatic leaders or prophets, one of the more striking characteristics of many of the modern movements has been their stridently apocalyptic and millenarian preaching, which has brought them into conflict with the newly independent governments. This was the history of the Lumpa church in Zambia founded by the Bemba prophetess Alice Lenshina (c. 19191978) in 1954. Claiming to have been entrusted by God with the secret of success, which the whites had hidden from Africans, and to have been raised up to prepare the world for the second coming of Jesus, Lenshina built the New Zion in the village of Kasomo. A nervous government was suspicious of this burgeoning state within the state, which opposed taxation and political authority, and confrontation led to the death of around one thousand of her followers and the banning of the movement in 1964. Alice Lenshina died in 1978, claiming that the political dimensions of her message had obscured their real content, which was spiritual wholeness and integrity.

Modern Catholic-derived churches and movements also include the Legio Maria, a breakaway movement from the lay Catholic Legion of Mary association. Founded in 1963 in Kenya, the year of independence, Legio Maria's teachings and rituals display the same concerns and preoccupations present in the AICs, which are also evident in relation to traditional belief and practice. The creation of the self-proclaimed prophets Simon Ondeto and Gaudencia Aoko, the Legio Maria, while encouraging their followers to remain Catholics, offered a ministry of deliverance from the evils of witchcraft and spirit possession. Growth was rapid, especially among the Luo, rising to an estimated 100,000 members within two years, a development that the newly independent government did not welcome. Legio Maria's success is in part attributable to the wealth of ritual resources, both Catholic and traditional, which were developed to discern and overcome the forces of evil, such as witchcraft and sorcery.

A very different modern Catholic separatist movement from the Congo (Brazzaville) is the Mouvement Croix-Koma (Nailed to the Cross), which was started in 1964 by the Catholic layman of the Lari tribe, Ta (Father) Malenda. This movement opposed outright such traditional practices as witchcraft, sorcery, and magic and by 1970 had attracted an estimated 20 percent of the population of the Congo, a majority of these coming from the Congo, Lari, and Sundi ethnic groups. At first a movement within Catholicism, this church severed all ties with the Roman Catholic Church in 1976.

Violence has been a feature of a minority of modern African religions as it has been with modern religions elsewhere. The most notorious example in the African context is the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG), which grew out of a Marian apparition movement in Rwanda in the 1970s. Although visions of the Virgin Mary (many of them concerning the devastation being wrought by AIDS) were not uncommon in the Uganda and nearby Rwanda of the 1980s, two principal visionaries are closely associated with the origins and development of the MRTCG. One was the dedicated and active Catholic who was heavily involved in local politics, Joseph Kibwetere (b. 1932), and the other was Credonia Mwerinde (b. 1952), who claimed that she had been in contact with the Virgin Mary since 1984. About this time, Kibwetere, a father of sixteen, began to be considered by followers as the leader of the nascent MRTCG and allowed his farm to be used as its headquarters until in 1992 when it was moved to Kanungu where Mwerinde's family lived and where relations with villagers, but not the civil authorities, were at times tense. Even before this move, the MRTCG had begun to attract a number of clergy including Father Dominic Kitaribaabo, who had been a postgraduate student in religious studies in the United States and had begun to reject some of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council while still recognizing the authority of the pope. As MRTCG distanced itself from mainstream Catholicism and the local community, it increasingly came to resemble an introversionist movement. Moreover, this growing isolation, reinforced by the apocalyptic messages emanating from the numerous Marian apparitions that had recently occurred, reinforced the belief in the end of the world.

The MRTCG came to depict itself as the ark of salvation, the vessel that would save those who repented from the coming apocalypse and carry them to a place that would be like heaven on Earth. Its teachings, based principally on revelations received by its leaders, were set out in the document, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times, which demanded, among other things, the renunciation of material possessions, abstinence from sexual relations, and stressed the importance of silence. Sign language was to be the main means of everyday communication between the members.

According to some scholars (Mayer, 2001), the end was predicted to come in 2000; others (Levinson, 2001) gave 1999. However, on March 17, 2000, tragedy struck. The newly built church at the movement's headquarters at Kanugu served as the venue for the previous night's all-night vigil. The following morning, fire engulfed the nearby dining hall, formerly the old church, where the worshipers had gathered, and then spread throughout the headquarters, killing and destroying everything in its wake and leaving no one with any chance of escape. Different estimates have been given of the number of those who died in this tragic event and in other instances. Subsequent investigations by the Ugandan police in March and April 2000 uncovered graves in various locations around the country that contained the corpses of MRTCG members who had been murdered. According to Jean-François Mayer (2001) the Ugandan police estimated that there were 780 victims in all, whereas David Levinson gives the total number of victims as 925 adding "perhaps all were murdered" (Levinson, 2001, p. 198).

Also of Ugandan origin is the Lord's Resistance Army, which operates largely among the Acholi in northern Uganda, under the direction of the self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, one-time mentor and cousin of Alice Lekwena but who, after a quarrel with the latter, symbolized the discontinuity between her movement and his by being possessed by new and different spirits. Lekwena brought together several disparate antigovernment groups in 1987 under the banner of the Holy Spirit Movement. Defeated by Kony in a power struggle, Lekwena fled to Kenya in 1987, and the former took over the leadership of these religious rebels. Kony continued on with the complex initiation and cleansing rituals introduced by Lekwena and, like her, was determined to stamp out witchcraft and to eradicate pagan spirit mediums. Prior to engaging in battle, Kony's soldiers are "armed" with malaika (angel; Swahili) to protect them against the enemy. For further spiritual protection, various spirits were placed in various positions of command whereas others, including spirits from other than African nations such as Korea and China, are assigned other tasks, including the direction of government forces' bullets.

Methods of recruitment of soldiers adopted by Kony have included abducting and indoctrinating children who, when trained for combat are encouraged to loot, pillage, and rape with abandon in contrast with the strict moral discipline imposed by Lakwena. The Lord's Resistance Army battle with the Uganda governmentnow an international conflict involving neighboring countries such as the Sudanhas led to the death of an estimated twenty-three thousand people and to the creation of over one and a half million refugees.

Although long present in many African traditional religions including Yoruba traditional religion, what appears to be an increasingly widespread trend in Africa as in the West is the appeal of the notion of reincarnation. This is evident in, among other movements, the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, a millenarian movement founded in 1956 in Calabar, Nigeria, by Olumba Olumba Obu. This new religion, whose goal is the establishment of God's kingdom on Earth by uniting "brothers" and "sisters" in bonds of love, attaches great importance to reincarnation and the belief in the presence at meetings of the "living dead" (a term used for the ancestors whose continued influence over this-worldly affairs is acknowledged), in the sacredness of the earth, and in the all-pervasive influence of sorcery.

Contemporary Forms of Charismatic Christianity

In the 1970s a new wave of charismatic Christianity started from within the existing churches began to sweep across Africa. Essentially composed of young, educated high school and university students, this movement emphasizes baptism in the Holy Spirit, the ready availability for Christians of the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and speaking in tongues (glossolalia ). Among the attractions of this ecstatic, optimistic religion is the contrast it makes with the despair generated by politics that, despite the pledges, seems to be incapable of tackling radically such serious concerns as corruption in public life, managing efficiently and effectively public resources, and guaranteeing safety and basic medical facilities.

Charismatic renewal got under way at different times in different parts of the continent. In Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, it took shape in and was spread through associations such as the Fellowship of Christian Unions (FOCUS), in the mid-1970s. Due to tighter control over students in Ethiopia and Uganda, it was the 1980s before charismatic renewal came to occupy center stage of Christian life among the young. This was also the case in Zambia in central Africa, most of French-speaking Africa, and Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Although distinctive, the charismatic renewal movement shares in common with the AICs the insistence on the need for Christianity to be enculturated. Charismatic renewal, however, is more engaged with issues of growing importance such as gender equality, the use of modern technology, and modern medicine. Although it eschews direct political action, it is not a world-indifferent movement, nor is it an apolitical movement as demonstrated by the response of charismatics and evangelicals in the election of the "born again" President Chiluba in Zambia in 1991.

Neo-Pentecostalism from abroad

Running parallel to, and sometimes overlapping with, the charismatic renewal movement in Africa is a new wave of missionary activity involving evangelicals from other parts of the world, including Korea, Brazil, and the United States. The objective is to engage in what is presented as the real, authentic conversion of Africa to Christianity, as opposed to that incomplete and harmful form accomplished by the historic churches. Moreover, in contrast to the more ecumenical and conciliatory spirit of the historic churches to other non-Christian religions, the evangelical and charismatic religions are, paradoxically, on the one hand denouncing all forms of belief and practice that diverge from their own and, on the other hand, reinforcing the traditional worldview by insisting on the power and hold of the devil and evil spirits over those involved in false religion and superstition.

The Brazilian Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) is but one of the new Pentecostal churches to enter Africa since the 1970s and is growing rapidly not only in Lusophone or Portuguese-speaking Africa but also in Anglophone and Francophone Africa, for example, in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Quick to adapt and employ local ministers and ready to use the local language, this church insists on the reality of the spiritual world and on its direct influence on success and failure. As is the case with many other new churches of its kind, the Universal Church gives priority in its practice to the rite of exorcism of evil spirits, which are said to block progress to the kingdom of God. This psychologically uncomfortable theology is balanced by the prosperity doctrine, not unfamiliar to African traditional religion, which promises that turning to Jesus can lead from poverty and sickness to wealth and well-being.

Modern Islam-derived Movements

Modern Muslim movements vary greatly, and even within the same movement there are often what appear to be strongly opposed tendencies. The Murid tariqa (brotherhood), founded in Senegal in the late nineteenth century by the Wolof Muslim cleric Ahmadu Bamba (1850/11927) who developed his own Muslim version of prosperity theology, combined Sufism or mysticism with an unrelenting commitment to hard and continuous agricultural work. The work ethic instilled by Bamba, similar in substance to Max Weber's (18641920) notion of the Protestant work ethic, has produced a thriving entrepreneurial movement with considerable assets and political influence in Senegal, the Gambia, and elsewhere in Francophone West Africa, and a trading diaspora that extends to Europe and the United States.

Millenarianism, more commonly known among Muslims as mahdism, is also a feature of several modern African Muslim movements, including the eclectic Layenne movement, also of Senegal; the exclusive, scripturalist Bamidele movement founded in Ibadan in the 1930s by a former Christian, Abdul Salami Bamidele; and the Mahdiyya movement, founded in the early 1940s in Ijebu-Ode, in southwestern Nigeria, by Al-hajj Jumat Imam who, perhaps uniquely, endeavored to develop a theology that would integrate Muslims, Christians, and traditionalists.

The zaar cult is a largely female, international, and modern Muslim movement that flourishes in Ethiopia (from where it gets its name), Somalia, Djibouti, and the Sudan, and to a lesser extent in Egypt and the gulf states. In Ethiopia, this worship cult involves both Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia; elsewhere, only Muslims. Spirits (zaar ) are believed to have the power to invade human bodies and to possess them. Those possessed are the marginal and the powerless and, to be placated, the possessing spirits must be given food of good quality, perfumes, and other luxuries: the spirits often articulate the concerns and grievances of those they possess.

The victims of the spiritsnumerous categories exist and are constantly being expanded and updated showing the link between religion and social changeare also obliged to dance in their honor at cult group rituals that take the form of séances, which in Somalia are called "beating the zaar. " Ioan M. Lewis (1996) suggests that this cult serves primarily to alleviate the conditions of the oppressed and, in particular, women for whom it functions as a mystical weapon in the war between the sexes. This perspective has been constructively and interestingly critiqued by a number of scholars including Janice Boddy (1989), who does not see participation in spirit possession such as zaar in the Sudan as primarily an oblique strategy by means of which women bid for attention but as expressing both the conflict between village women's experiences and their self-image as defined by the gender ideals of their society and their historical consciousness of relations with outsiders. Noting that mediums are often selected from the powerful and strong lineages, not from among the weak and powerless, Jean-Paul Colleyn's (1999) study of the Nya cult in Mali also rejects Lewis's narrow interpretation of the function of spirit possession as an oblique means by which the downtrodden seek to escape from humiliation.

Whereas pacifism is a distinguishing feature of most modern Muslim movements in Africa, outbreaks of violence have also occurred, one involving the Maitatsine movement. Originating in northern Cameroon, this movement spread to northern Nigeria, where it ended in catastrophe in the 1980s when an estimated six thousand people lost their lives in riots in Kano City. This was a movement of the "lonely" poor, the displaced and marginalized (the street vendors, water carriers, and so on) who had received no benefit whatsoever from the oil boom of the 1960s and 1970s and who were without any protection against dire poverty.

Not unrelated to the rise of charismatic renewal, neo-evangelical, and neo-Pentecostal movements has been the rise of Muslim reform and missionary-minded movements composed mainly of fervent young educated high school and university students, guided by Muslim scholars of considerable intellectual repute and sanctity. These movements are dedicated to the advancement of a more orthodox, more assertive Islam and have been aided in this with spiritual and financial support from elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Strong influences include the writings of the Indian Muslim reformer Abū'l Aʾla Mawdūdī (19031979), founder of the Muslim revitalization movement the Jamāʿat-i-Islāmī. Mawdūdī encouraged Muslims to consider the vexed question of the relation between Islam and Western culture and urged them to work for an Islamic state. Prominent activists such as Sayyid Qub (19061966), a leading member of the militant Al-Ikhwan al-Moslemoon (Muslim Brotherhood), were inspired by Mawdūdī's writings, as they were by those of the Egyptian teacher and scholar Al-Imam Hassan al-Banna (19061949), who founded the Ikhwān al Muslimūn in 1928, which like so many modern or new Islamic movements, rather than rejecting older institutions, go beyond them. Al-Banna understood his mission to be the countering of the corruption of Islamic society and, in particular, the corruption caused by Western influence in the face of which the Muslim leaders, he believed, remained passive. Al-Banna, who rejected the use of force as a means of reform, stressed the comprehensive and inclusive nature of Islam. The doctrine of the oneness of God (tawīd ), he believed, made Islam the reference point for all aspects of life and was the prime religious reason for engaging in the transformation of society. He also rejectedand on this point his influence is evident almost everywhere there are radical Muslim reformerswhat he saw as blind traditionalism, which meant essentially following the opinion of medieval Muslim scholars. Instead he insisted on the need for informed independent judgment (ijtihād ) as the basic principle of action.

Although Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949 and his movement suppressed by Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1954, it continued clandestinely under Qub whose treatise Maʿalim fi al-Tariq (Milestones; 1965), written in prison, called for Muslim opposition to Western decadencea Leninist approach to an Islamic revolution that would bring down non-Islamic regimes. Although executed by Nasser, Qub's writings have become essential reading for the growing number of radical Muslims in North Africa, Africa south of the Sahara, and beyond.

Thus, various Muslim associationssome of them the mirror image of evangelical, neo-Pentecostal and charismatic renewal movementsstrongly influenced by Muslim revivalism in the wider world, began to embark on a dawʾa (mission), ignoring the traditional boundaries between Christian and Muslims, an attitude that was implicitly encouraged by the new context of nation-states in which, in principle, all regions were open to all faiths. In this new context, it was possible for Muslims to demand their constitutional rights, including sharīʿah law administered by sharīʿah courts.

There are a number of Muslim missionary movements from outside Africa that are well established on the continent. The Amadiyah movement, founded in what is modern Pakistan by Ghulām Amad (18351908) and regarded as heretical by mainstream Islam for its refusal to accept the prophet Muammad as the last of the prophets, is particularly strong in West Africa. It is a pacific, modernizing movement that promotes a balanced school curriculum of Islamic and Western subjects and accepts Western dress and conducts marriage ceremonies in the Western Christian style.

Asian, African Diaspora, and Modern Secular Religions

Although present for over 150 years, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism have exercised little direct influence on African culture and spirituality. Until the late twentieth century, there were few African Hindus and even fewer Jains and Sikhs. This situation began to change with the arrival of the neo-Hindu and other modern Asian movements that demonstrate a desire for greater inclusiveness, a characteristic also in greater evidence in twenty-first century Muslim movements, such as the Daudi Boharas and the various branches of the Ismāʿīlīs, which are also present in East Africa. The lay Bahā'ī faithfounded in Iran in 1853 by Mirza Husayn-Ali (18171892; known as Bahʾuʾllah) whose teachings are summarized as the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humankindhas innumerable spiritual assemblies across Africa made up of African members.

Many neo-Hindu movements are marked by their engaged, applied spirituality, inclusiveness, and insistence on the need to give technology a spiritual underpinning. Among those active in South Africa is the Divine Life Society founded by the South Indian medical doctor turned ascetic Śivāndanda Sāraswāti Māharāj (18871963). Although its philosophy is based on the Hindu bhakti (devotional) and yogic traditions, this movement, like so many other neo-Hindu movements and modern movements whatever their cultural and spiritual origin, generally seeks to promote a practical, nonsectarian form of spirituality. To this end, its teachings embrace material from the prophets of many different faiths, including Zoroaster, Moses, the Buddha, Mahāvīra (Jainism), Jesus, Muammad, and Nānak (14691539; Sikhism). The Sri Sathya Sai Baba movement, widely known for the extraordinary thaumaturgical gifts of its leader and present in Ghana among other places, is also eclectic and committed to educational and social development.

Although there is evidence of Buddhism, mainly in the form of Indian Buddhists but also some Chinese in South Africa in the early part of the twentieth century, a Buddhist sagha (community) did not emerge until the 1970s. In 1979 a Buddhist Retreat Centre and a Buddhist Institute were opened in Natal, and from that point on various Buddhist traditionsZen, Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Pure Landstarted to open centers in all the main towns of South Africa.

Since the 1970s modern forms of mainly lay Buddhism of Japanese origin have been making an even greater impact than these older traditions on African culture and spirituality. These new movements include Sōka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), present in Nigeria and South Africa, among other places. Philosophically Buddhist but ritually Shintō, movements from Japan such as Sekai Kyusei Kyō (Church of World Messianity; SKK) entered Africa in the early 1990s via Brazil. SKK started to disseminate its message of divine healing (johrei) in Lusophone Africa (Angola and Mozambique) before moving into South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Clear parallels exist at the level of belief and ritual between the African traditional religions, modern African movements, and Japanese new religions. The Japanese movement SKK not only emphasizes the importance of dreams and visions as guides to action and the fundamental importance of pacifying the ancestors but also offers both a spiritual explanation of the causes of sickness and faith healing as a remedy. Moreover, Japanese movements act, paradoxically, as pathways to African identity. Through the SKK several African Brazilian missionaries have discovered their African roots in Angola, which Catholic Christianity in Brazil was perceived to have destroyed.

Although many of the new Japanese modern movements are unconcerned about how they are interpreted by othersif seen as a philosophy rather than a religion, more Catholic than Buddhist, it makes little difference to leadersthere are some including the lay Nichirenist movement Sōka Gakkai and the Shintō-derived movement Tenrikyō (Religion of Heavenly Wisdom) who resist adaptation at all costs. Interestingly, although Sōka Gakkai's growth appears not to be affected by its exclusive position, Tenrikyō, whose main activities are the provision of health care and spiritual healing, has made little headway. Active in the Congo since 1966, it has only attracted an estimated two hundred adherents.

Several new Korean Pentecostal churches and new religious movements are also engaged in the new plan to evangelize Africa, including the Unification Church (formally the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, more popularly known as the Moonies). Founded in 1954 in Seoul, South Korea, by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon (1920), this millenarian movement, although dedicated to mission, has attracted relatively few adherents in Africa.

Also unsuccessful in this respect have been the modern movements developed by African diaspora communities that have found their way back to Africa. These include the Rastafarian movement from the Caribbean, which has established a model of paradise at Shashamane in Ethiopia, and Candomblé, originally from the Yoruba regions of western Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, but now being carried back home by African Brazilian devotees on pilgrimage to the traditional Yoruba homelands in southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.

Modern secular religions such as Scientology also remain numerically small, despite the fact that Scientology, which became engaged in a variety of educational and social projects in Zimbabwe and other places, shares much in common with the scientific and empirical outlook of many traditional African religions and spiritualities.

Neotraditionalist Movements

With hindsight African traditional religions have shown a remarkable capacity for survival under the impact of modernization and the spread of the Christianity and Islam. Traditional philosophies, rituals, and symbolsreconstructed or otherwisehave proved an effective and efficient means of legitimizing the social order and of garnering resistance to political cultural and economic domination, as seen in the case of the Maji-Maji and Mau-Mau uprisings and in the independence struggle in Zimbabwe. They continue to perform important cognitive, explanatory, psychological, and healing functions. Also, as Dominique Zahan (1979) has shown, they contain a deep, mystical, spiritual dimension that has great appeal but is often overlooked in explaining their persistence.

It was widely thought, nevertheless, that they would be quickly undermined by the advance of Christianity, Islam, and secularism. But the predictions of this kind have been proved entirely wrong, including the prognosis of that landmark 1910 missionary conference in Edinburgh that declared: "Most of the people will have lost their ancient faith within a generation, and will accept that culture-religion with which they first come into contact" (Groves, 1958, p. 292). The reality is that these traditional religions have remained strong and vibrant in many parts of Africa, as elsewhere, and have greatly influenced the form and, to a lesser extent, the content and ethos of Christianity and Islam. Although initially nonproselytizing and confined by their content and ritual to a specific ethnic group, in the twenty-first century they are becoming ever more diverse in their ethnic composition and international in their outreach.

Concern about the cultural, moral, and social consequences of losing contact with the past explains the central importance attached to the veneration of the ancestors in many neotraditional movements, including the Dini Ya Msambwa (Religion of Ancestral Spirits) of Kenya founded in 1944 by Elijah Masinde (19101987). The Karinga initiation guilds started in Kenya in the 1920s with the aim of preserving traditional rites of passage, including female circumcision, and although they have taken on the structure and appearance of a church (there are now bishops and rural deans), these remain their distinguishing characteristics. Neotraditional movements are often concerned with clarity, that is, with separating authentic tradition from its entanglement with Christian missionary culture.

This is the principal objective of the Mungiki (masses) movement, also Kenyan, which began in the 1980s as the Tent of the Living God movement for the purpose of extracting authentic Gikuyu culture from the ambiguity to which it had been reduced by Christianity. A youth movement with a minimum of 300,000 members, most of whom are between fifteen and twenty-five years old and disadvantaged, the Mungiki are greatly influenced by Mau-Mau ideology and, like the latter, proclaim that they are fighting for land, freedom, and religion.

In the 1930s a movement of Nigerian (Yoruba) Christians formed the neotraditional church of the Ijo Orunmila to ensure that core elements of their religious culture were not destroyed. Again in Nigeria in the 1960s the Arousa cult (Edo National Church; a development from Bini traditional religion) merged with the neotraditional National Church of Nigeria, to form Godianism, which focused on belief in a single God of Africa as understood in ancient Egyptian sources.


Modern African religions provide students of religion with abundant material for exploring theoretical and methodological issues relating to the dynamics not only of African religious culture but of religious culture in general. As sources of spiritual insight and knowledge derived from particular historical and cultural experiences, they address core issues relating to personal and cultural identity, autonomy, and independence and offer striking examples of what globalization theorists such as Roland Robertson (1992) refer to as the process of glocalization, that is, the domestication of globalizing religious and cultural forces and the globalization of the local. The future is likely to see more movements emerge displaying the results in form and content of interactions between African religious culture and heritage and Asian religions.

See Also

New Religious Movements, articles on New Religious Movements and Millennialism, New Religious Movements and Violence, New Religious Movements in Japan; Sōka Gakkai; Tenrikyō; Unification Church.


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Bromley, David G., and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Cults, Religion and Violence. Cambridge, U.K., 2002. A collection of essays this volume examines the both the internal and external causes of outbreaks of violence involving new religions including the MRTCG.

Clarke, Peter B. West Africa and Christianity. London, 1986. This study covers the development of Christianity in West Africa from the fifteenth century to the mid-1980s. Chapter 6 examines the rise and expansion of the AICs, and chapter 7 examines changes that came with independence including developments in Christian relations with Islam and with the traditional religions of Africa.

Clarke, Peter B. Mahdism in West Africa. London, 1995. A study of Mahdism and Islamic millenarianismpacific and militant, historical and contemporaryin West Africa.

Colleyn, Jean-Paul. "Horse, Hunter and Messenger: Possessed Men of the Nya Cult of Mali." In Spirit Possession: Modernity and Power in Africa, edited by Heike Behrend and Ute Luig, pp. 6878. Oxford, 1999. This article offers a critique of I. M. Lewis's epidemiological account of the status of those who become possessed, claiming that it is not usually the downtrodden and marginalized, at least in the case of the Nya of Mali, a largely Muslim society, in which the androgenous, predominantly female divinity Nya takes possession of anyone she wants but usually of a minority of relatively powerful men.

Geertz, Clifford. "Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight." Daedalus 101 (1972): 137. This article develops the notion of cultural text, which has proved to be an extremely useful methodological concept in scholarly research of, among other areas, spirit possession.

Groves, Charles P. The Planting of Christianity in Africa, vol. III, London, 1958. This three-volume history contains useful historical material on the institutions and personnel that shaped the structures and strategy of the Christian missionary movement in Africa from its beginnings until World War II (19391945).

Hackett, Rosalind, J., ed. New Religious Movements in Nigeria. Lewiston, N.Y., 1987. One of a very few interdisciplinary volumes to cover a variety of types of new religions in an African context, in this case Nigeria, ranging from neo-traditional to Christian- and Islamic-derived churches and movements.

Levinson, David. "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God." In African and African American Religions, edited by Stephen D. Glazier, pp. 198199. New York, 2001. This short account contains useful information on the early history and development of the MRTCG.

Lewis, Ioan M. Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma. Cambridge, UK, 1996. Covers numerous aspects of charismatic religion and includes a fascinating and thought provoking, if controversial, account of the zaar cult as a form of embryonic feminism and a mystical weapon in the war between the sexes.

Mayer, Jean-François. "Field Notes: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God." Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 5, no. 1 (2001): 203210. Informative account of this little-understood Ugandan movement that caused about 780 deaths.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Sulayman S. Nyang, eds. Religious Plurality in Africa, Berlin, 1993. A festschrift in honor of Dr. John Mbiti, this volume provides a comprehensive overview of Africa's different religious cultures: Christian, Islamic, oriental, and traditional.

Ojo, Matthews. The End-Time Army: Charismatic Movements in Modern Nigeria. London, forthcoming. A detailed study based on the author's doctoral dissertation written at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, of the history, social composition, distinguishing features, purposes, and underlying social, religious, and political background to the rise of charismatic renewal churches and movements as a new religious phenomenon in Africa, with special reference to Nigeria.

Peel, John D. Y. Aladura: A Religious Movement among the Yoruba. Oxford, 1968. Essential reading for all social science students of the Aladura movement, it provides what is widely regarded as the most convincing explanation for its rise and expansion among the Yoruba.

Robertson, Roland. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London, 1992. In addition to the discourse on the meaning of globalization and the outcome of its impact on local culture which is defined as glocalization, there is thoughtful reflection on the response of the modern religions to globalization with special reference to Japan.

Sundkler, Bengt G. M. Bantu Prophets in South Africa. London, 1970. A classic study of Ethiopian and Zionist churches in southern Africa. Although dated in parts by subsequent research, this volume remains indispensable reading for any serious student of modern African religious movements.

Turner, Harold W. History of an Independent Church: The Church of the Lord. 2 vols. Oxford, 1967. The most detailed and informative historical and theological account available of an independent church.

Turner, Harold W. "Africa." In The Study of Religion: Traditional and New Religion, edited by Stewart Sutherland and Peter B. Clarke, pp. 187194. London, 1991. This chapter gives a concise summary with examples Turner's typology of African religions.

Wallis, Roy. The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. London, 1984. A highly controversial but valued and widely used study of new and modern religious movements that, on the basis of their orientation to the world, reduces them to three basic types: world-denying, world-indifferent, and world-rejecting movements.

Wilson, Bryan R. Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third World Peoples. London, 1973. Consists of a critique of the Weber-Troeltsch typology of sects and new religions and subsequent sociological attempts at classification based on this model and offers, by way of a more value-free approach, a typology based on religious movements' response to the world and their perception of the problem of evil and the means they offer to overcome it. Also relevant are the detailed accounts of numerous modern African movements that are classified using this new typology.

Wilson, Bryan R. The Social Sources of Sectarianism. Oxford, 1990. Discusses the relation between sects and the state, sects, and the law and sectarian diffusion, appeal, and classification and provides a provocative and stimulating account of what is termed modern secularized religion.

Zahan, Dominique. The Religion, Spirituality and Thought of Traditional Afric a. Translated by Kate Ezra Martin and Lawrence M. Martin. Chicago, 1979. Rejects a functionalist interpretation and explores the more philosophical and mystical dimensions of African traditional religions, which greatly assists attempts to understand the enduring appeal of these religions.

Peter B. Clarke (2005)

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African Religions: New Religious Movements