Mysticism in African Thought

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Mysticism in African Thought

The term mysticism typically denotes a complex of beliefs and practices related to the personal experience of the divine. Much, although not all, mystical thought and practice derives from or draws upon formal religious doctrines, emphasizing reflective, introspective, and meditative practices as the keys to cultivating perception and awareness that will ultimately lead to knowledge of and communion with the divine.

When one turns to mysticism in African thought, and specifically to the mystical tenets extant in indigenous religious beliefs and practices, the common Western definition is necessarily altered. Mysticism continues to describe the realm of interaction between humanity and the divine or supernatural, but owing to the prevailing nature of indigenous African belief systems, the orientation and manifestations of mystical practices are of a different character. The orientation is social and utilitarian, and the manifestations occur within the structure of indigenous rites; mystical practices aim to fulfill needs in society, and they do not exist as a separate body of practices. This reflects the general African cosmology and understanding of arenas of interaction between humanity and the divine or supernatural.

Cosmology and Interaction

African cosmology, in general, posits three categories of agents: God, spirits, and man. A supreme God, who is the creator of the universe and all that is in it, is acknowledged and revered in indigenous practices, through libations, praises, and proverbs. Although knowledge of his existence is present, the majority of indigenous beliefs and rites do not focus on God, nor do they aim to bring the individual closer to him. God is an acknowledged reality, but a distant, somewhat nebulous one.

Mysticism in indigenous African thought is:

distinct from conceptions of mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam;

characterized by a social, worldly orientation;

united with indigenous religious practices;

primarily focused on interaction with spirits, rather than the supreme God;

preserved in and transmitted through oral traditions; and

not aimed at unification with the divine through eradication of or purification of the self.

In addition to God, there exist other agents, typically referred to as spirits. These spirits are part of the creation, as are humans, but they possess certain powers and abilities. They interact with human beings and have agency in the world.

Man, the third category, is created by God and coexists with the spirits in the world. Human orientation in the world is social, and action to uphold social ties and foster social cohesion is held in high regard and even seen as the primary goal of life. Humans can, through reciprocal affiliation with and worship of spirits, gain access to their power and channel that power for positive or negative ends.

Man does not, in mystical and spiritual endeavors, aim solely to gain knowledge of the supreme creator God through contemplation and negation of worldly existence and self; rather, being socially oriented, a person seeks to obtain utilitarian agency that will foster change in the world. Mystical and spiritual practices in indigenous African traditions do not, therefore, center on the individual in isolation; they maintain social orientation and purpose. The goal of the mystical endeavor is not to obliterate individual consciousness or physicality; it is rather to garner knowledge and power that can be used in the human world.

Individuals and spirits interact with each other. Laypeople may have encounters with spirits, and they may also seek guidance and physical assistance from them. Individuals who are initiated in specific indigenous traditions may mediate the latter form of interaction; individuals can experience the divine or supernatural to only a certain extent without an intermediary. Furthermore, the role of the intermediary is of central importance because that experience alone is not the end; the goal is to acquire and use knowledge to bring about change in human society. In many cases, these practitioners, commonly referred to as priests, are "chosen" by the spirits, as evidenced in physical or spiritual crises. Such crises are seen as signs that the individual should be initiated into the service of a particular spirit. Initiation is characterized by intensive ritualistic, spiritual, physical, and intellectual training, which is carried out in seclusion, under the supervision of an elder priest. Mystical traditions and knowledge, preserved and transmitted orally, are passed from the priest to the initiate and onward.

Once initiated, priests and other practitioners interact with and seek assistance from the spirits for themselves and others. One common method is the possession trance, typically induced through music and dance or consumption of herbs or intoxicants, in which the spirit enters the priest's body and communicates information to those present. Another common form of interaction is divination, the best-known example being the complex Ifa system among the Yoruba of Nigeria.

Indigenous Religions Compared with Christianity and Islam

The impact of Christianity and Islam on the African continent has been and continues to be profound. In most places, indigenous religious and practices coexist with, and may form new syncretic traditions with, Christianity and Islam. This results, increasingly, in the overlap and combination of mystical practices and trends. Many of these manifestations, readily observable today, take on a form that departs from the "pure" manifestation of African mysticism and is more in line with the common understanding of mysticism. Nevertheless, in trying to isolate mysticism in indigenous African thought, it becomes apparent that African mysticism is of a different variety than mysticism in Christianity and Islam. To begin with, whereas mysticism in Christianity and Islam primarily focuses on knowledge and communion with the divine, African mysticism focuses on interaction with spirits. Mysticism in Christianity and Islam involves practices such as meditation and asceticism that require the individual to withdraw from the physical world in order to undergo a subjective experience of the divine and the resultant transformation. African mysticism retains a social, worldly focus, deriving its purpose and value from its functionality in effecting change in the society, rather than in the individual only. Christianity and Islam are based on prophetic traditions and written texts. Their respective mystical practices and beliefs have evolved as specific "paths" within the larger traditions, sometimes differing drastically from mainstream practice. These paths have been documented in written form and have developed into types of theology. Indigenous African mysticism is derived from oral traditions that have been evolving over many millennia. In most cases, these traditions are not contained in formal texts and are not associated with prophetic traditions. Mystical practices and beliefs are integrated into the larger, dynamic belief structure, which has no prophetic ideal.

See also Personhood in African Thought ; Religion: Africa ; Religion: African Diaspora .


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Jerusha T. Lamptey