African Traditional Religion Illustration

Ancient African

The people in the villages in the ancient African kingdoms believed that one god ruled, but because obviously no one god could do everything by himself, they believed their god had many assistant gods. These lesser gods might drop by at any time and check on them. To catch the eye of a passing god, so that he would stop in and make sure they had what they needed, they danced and sang and shook rattles and beat drums and carved masks and held feasts. Surely the gods would not wish to miss such a good time! The people believed their method of talking to the gods worked because they were mostly very happy in ancient times.

They also believed their ancestors could talk to the gods on their behalf. They did many things to please their ancestors so that their ancestors would help them in their daily life.

They believed in magic and magic amulets. They believed the local witchdoctor could perform feats of magic. People would visit the witchdoctor to find help for their problems. The witchdoctor might give them something magical to wear, or bury, or give away. Witchdoctors knew a great deal about herbs and homemade medicines. Their magic spells sometimes worked. The witchdoctors also knew a great deal about the power of suggestion, and that helped as well.

People who lived in villages were members of a clan, a family group. Everyone worked together for the common good. Their first thought was NOT supposed to be, "I want to do this my way." Rather, their first thought was supposed to be, "I want to do what  is best for the people in my village." This was more than a way of life. It was part of their religion. If something could be used for the betterment of the whole tribe, it was not right to keep it for yourself. If you did keep it for yourself without sharing with others, your ancestors would no longer help you and your magic amulets would not work.

Each village ruled itself. All villagers were able to express their opinions before the chief or the elders made a ruling. All villagers were treated the same. Each villager had a job to do, and all jobs were designed to help each other. Each individual family had its own home, and although there might be 50 or 100 or 500 homes in the village, they all looked the same. That too was part of their religion - helping each other to keep their gods and their ancestors proud of them and happy and willing to do their part to help.

But as traders arrived, men who had traveled across the Sahara Desert in camel trains, things began to change. The traders brought gorgeous silk and spices and iron tools to trade for gold. They also brought their religion with them. Most of the traders were Muslims. A Muslim is someone who follows the teachings of Islam. Islam is a world religion based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was not a magical being, but a man who lived about 1300 hundred years ago, around 700 CE.

Their Islamic culture suited many West Africans. Islam stated that all people were brothers. Africans had always worked together for the common good. Islam did not tolerate thieves. Neither did the West Africans. Many of the teachings of Islam fit their lifestyle. These were teachings they believed in already. The religion of Islam gave them a structure. It also gave them a written language and a respect for formal education. They loved the colorful festivals and holidays. Islam suited them far more than Christianity or Buddhism.

But the Islamic culture did not allow for a belief in one god with assistant gods, or a belief in the power of magical amulets, or a belief that your ancestors had the power to help you in your daily life. Islamic culture has to do with behavior. It is a way of behaving so that you are a good Muslim, one who follows the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. If you follow these teachings, this ensures you will make it to heaven one day.

There are many teachings is the Islamic culture. This is one of them. Muhammad said: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim that belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not therefore do injustice to yourselves. Remember one day you will meet Allah (God) and answer your deeds. So beware: Do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.”

Although the Islamic culture was similar in some ways, it was not the same. Many Africans did not wish to give up their belief in magic. When they died, they did not expect or want to meet Allah. They fully expected to join with their ancestors and help to watch over their living families for generations to come. Many Africans began to say they were Muslims, but simply adopted what they liked about Islam, and ignored the rest.

Today, many villagers live and worship as they did in ancient times. They still live as part of immense families that collectively work the land, raise the kids, honor their ancestors, and depend on their witch doctor's wisdom. Their homes are made of thick mud walls decorated with designs, by design. The thick walls keep their homes cool in the blazing heat. Homes on stilts protect homes from flooding. There are modern cities in Africa as well, with restaurants and buildings, but it's still Africa, and many tribal people, even in the cities, still believe in the power of ancestors and magic and in some cases even in many gods, whether they call themselves a Muslim or not.

What is a Muslim?

What is Islam?

What is Islamic Culture?

Ancient Africa for Kids

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