Lecture 18: Yoruba, Maguzawa, Key Observations
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Yoruba, Maguzawa, Key Observations
Folk Islam is a popular expression of Islam which has synthesized indigenous beliefs and customs into the religion. Two expressions of this in Nigeria are the Yoruba and Maguzawa.
II. Islam in Nigeria (part 2)
When we go to Yoruba land in the western part of Nigeria, here we have another world altogether among the Yoruba. You have Ibadan which is one of the great Black cities of Africa, I think the largest Black city in the whole of Africa. There is where you have a major population center in Africa.
The origin of Islam among the Yoruba goes back to the fourteenth century. In some ways it is very similar to the situation with the Hausa; but the actual
practice of Islam has been very weak through much of at least the early eighteenth century. It has gained a lot of ground in the nineteenth and twentieth
However, the Islamization in Yoruba was very, very different from what happened in Hausa Land. What happened in Yoruba was that you have a massive turning to Islam. If you stop one hundred Hausa on the street and say, “What is your religion?” They say, “Islam,” or 99 of them will say “Islam.” One will say, ”I’m a Christian” or whatever. Actually, it is not that high, you wouldn’t find one out of a hundred who would say “Christian;” but you would find one that is a
traditionalist, or whatever else. If you have one hundred Yoruba on the street and say, “What are you?” a huge percentage of them, not quite as high as Hausa, but a huge percentage would say, “Islam, I’m a Muslim.”
B. Historical Summary/Theological Analysis (part 2)
So on kind of like a David Barrett, statistical analysis, David Barrett will not distinguish from these statistics between a Muslim in Hausa Land and a Muslim in Yoruba land. What I am telling you is that the difference is quite profound. Among the Yoruba it is primarily a veneer, it is an Islamic veneer over a very deep commitment to Yoruba culture. The Yoruba and the Tiv have something in common in the sense that they very highly value their own indigenous culture; but the Yoruba have accepted Islam as a religion, but not as a culture.
You see, the Hausa accept it as a religion and a culture. The Tiv reject both the religion and culture. The Yoruba accept the religion of Islam, but they are
rejecting any kind of Arabic culture type influence. So they are not going to be, and have not been, very receptive to these pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movements which sweep across the Middle East that get Africans all agitated.
I was in Yoruba land when the Gulf War began. It was quite amazing because all of these Muslim groups were trying to agitate people to join in with Saddam Hussein and there was all kinds of sentiment going on. In Hausa Land they all responded with anti-American and all the typical stuff. The Yoruba were not nearly as influenced by them and it was the safest place to be as an American, even though they were fully Islamic because you see, they are not nearly as influenced by the cultural side of things. Let me give you a few examples.
The use of the term “Allah.” Everybody knows this has to be a bedrock Islamic thing, that you will refer to God as “Allah.” What I found in my research among the Yoruba is that this is not entirely consistently used by Muslims in Yoruba land. They did use “Allah” to be fair; but they also used the term, Olodumare. Olodumare is a term, their name for the supreme God before Islam ever arrived. This is their name for the supreme deity. They also use a term called Olorun which just means “lord.” Olodumare and Olorun: These terms, especially Olodumare, were used interchangeably with Allah. By the way, Christians do the same thing, I have found. Christians also refer to God as Olodumare. I interviewed a Yoruba. “Why do you use Olodumare rather than Allah?” “Because Olodumare is the Yoruba word for God.” Just like the Arabic word for God is Allah.
So their view of the word “Allah” is a cultural, linguistic word. That is a very, very different thing than the traditional view of the word Allah which is essentially portrayed by the Muslims as a spiritual word, a personal name for the Muslim God. Christians in Arabia call God Allah and there are all kinds of issues with that kind of belief; but nevertheless, I think you can see Nigeria, among the Yoruba at least, is breaking down.
The Islamic view of umma. I have already alluded to the fact that in the Islamic community the community of faith – that is, the umma – takes priority over your own family, cultural or human ties. That way there is ideally this seamless garment of Muslim unity around the world that transcends cultural barriers. People have the same view of Catholics. This is why when John F. Kennedy became a candidate for president, people were upset, saying “Wait a minute, is he loyal to the Catholic faith, what if he is contrary to the Pope?” They were concerned that the Pope might transcend his commitment to the Constitution. That was a big controversy in the 1960s. In the same way, many Muslims have the idea that we are all universally committed to the Qur’an; and therefore, if the Qur’an contradicts a cultural law or whatever, then you of course go with the Qur’an. That is why Sharia law is being imposed in Hausa Land.
I talked to many Yoruba. I spent more time in Yoruba than anywhere else in terms of energy. Some of the Yoruba have found that consistently I would ask them, “Are you a Muslim first, a Yoruba second? Are you a Yoruba first, or a Muslim first? What is the relation of your being a Yoruba and being a Muslim?” They all said, “I’m a Yoruba first, Muslim second.” That would not happen in Hausa Land. They are Muslims first there.
The Yoruba, even if they are a Muslim, continue to offer up sacrifices to deceased ancestors because it is culturally required that you do so if you are a Yoruba. It is not really a concession to Islam at all because they are accepting the ideas of Allah, the prayers, the basic tenets of Islam. But they are not prepared to let an area of the culture – dress, certainly language that is used and things like that – encroach on them too much. There is a wall there, that is important.
The third example is divination. Divination is very important across West Africa. People will not plant crops. People will not go on a journey, they will not enter into a business deal without consulting divination. In the case of West Africa, the most dominant form of divination is called the Ifa Cult, the Ifa Divination Cult. I have a lot of photographs of the forming of the Ifa Divination Cult. There are many ways this works. The simplest way of divination is if you have a very simple question to ask somebody. They have a little chain and it goes out and you have four little, actually kola nuts. On top of the half shell of a kola nut there is a ball; there are eight of these, four on each side. If you have a simple question to ask a divination priest, you would pay money to ask him and he would take this thing and throw it on the ground. This will either turn up or down, down or up, up or down. Mathematically there are 256 possibilities of how this thing could fall. Many of them don’t know all 256, but there are 256 what they call “odu’s,” that cause each of these patterns. This one up, this one down, this one down, this one up, on and on, all of these possibilities. They will recognize a pattern, then they will recite a hymn for you. That hymn they use to interpret basically whatever you said.
That is an African thing. It does not really concern us so much in this class except for what the Muslims do in Yoruba land. Because the other thing they do is, you have a more complicated odu, let’s say you have a very serious question to ask, more complicated. They will do the same thing, but they will take 16 kola nuts in their hands and the priest will try to grab all 16 of them in his hand at one time. It is really impossible to get all 16 because of the size of kola nuts. If you can get all of these and just drop one of them, you get 15 of the 16, then if you lose one, you make two marks on a board and stand on it. If you drop two, you make one mark on the sand. You do this eight times. Doing that you have a pattern of some kind and what this may look like, you look for the odu. That involves eight different times going through this process.
The Muslims, when they saw this whole divination, they realized that this is such an integral part of Africa that they could not forsake it as Muslims. In Hausa Land this is rejected under Eastern tradition as an aberration. This is something that had to be eliminated. This is pagan. But in Yoruba land it is still practiced. So they take the board and they will say, “This sand is from Mecca.”
The other thing they do which is more simple is, they have a thing that is called “Kallah Mose” in Yoruba land. Kallah Mose means “Moses says” like “Simon says,” “Moses says.” You will find this in different parts of Africa. Kallah Mose is a form of divination based on the “Urim and Thummim” in the Old Testament. You will recall, there are a half-dozen references to this in the Old Testament: Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Deuteronomy 33:8, Ezra 2:63, Nehemiah 7:55. These are some examples of the use of the Urim and Thummim.
I know how to assess this from a Christian point of view. I will say from a religious point of view, it is a form of divination. That is a pejorative term in places and I do not mean this in a pejorative way; but it is a form of consulting something where you get an answer back. In that sense, it is done. If you could find a way to get a “yes” or a “no,” then you can clear the divination thing. What they have done in the Qur’an is, they have taken, rather than a Urim and Thummim as a “yes” or “no,” they take two ayahs from the 99 th Surah, Surah 99:7 and Surah 99:8. If you read those two Surahs, they go like this: 99:7 says “Whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it.” 99:8, “Whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it also.” So you have this good/evil, yes/no type thing. They will take these two verses, they will write them out or they will take the number, the reference, on pieces of paper or threads of cloth. Then they will attach them into their Qur’an, the divination portions, to go to different verses that cover everything imaginable that you may have questions about. So you simply go to a passage, you tease one of the pieces of cloth, there are different ways that can happen, and if it says “yes,” it’s yes, and “no,” it’s no. It is a form of divination. It is all done out of the Qur’an. It is essentially a capitulation to African practices that is done in Yoruba land where they allow it.
Some cases also include sorcery. Sorcery is a difficult word. I’m not sure quite how to properly use the best word for this. It is a great debate among Hausa vs Yoruba. Right now it is China. We have this thing about being sorry or being regretful. It is amazing, it is coming down right now to, how these words translate into Chinese. These Chinese linguists, what is the word? How is that person filled with regret vs sorry? Isn’t it amazing? In Islam sorcery is forbidden. This is key in the Arabic. But magic is allowed for. The problem is, where does magic end and sorcery begin? It is very, very difficult.
Again, I asked Muslims about this, who were performing things that appeared to me to be basically sorcery. They said, “Oh well, if it’s white magic, it’s okay; if it’s black magic or black sorcery, it’s not.” They basically use that to say, “How do you determine white or black? If it is to help somebody, it’s okay.” But usually, if you are trying to help somebody, that could be, to help X is to hurt Y.
On the one hand, the call to prayer goes out five times a day all over Yoruba land. The vast majority of Yoruba consider themselves Muslims. But their practice of Islam has been dramatically tempered by indigenous practices, such that it is nearly impossible to study Islam and the Yoruba without also knowing a lot about African culture, Yoruba culture and its influence on people’s thinking and their traditional beliefs. I had to go through this explanation of African practices just to explain how their Islam works. This is an example of this. You cannot really uncover the Yoruba world without an appreciation for the underlying cultural impact of what it means to be a Yoruba.
The fourth people group in our brief survey here is a group called Maguzawa. They are indeed a relatively small group. In fact, you will notice they don’t really have a territory of their own. They are scattered in villages between Katsina in the north and Kano in the southern part of their villages. You can see the space where they are located. They are right in the heart of Hausa Land. They live in towns which did receive the Usman Fodio jihad in the nineteenth century. They effectively resisted the jihad and they were given protected status, the dhimmi status that we talked about. They had to pay alms tax, which of course is called the jizya rather than the zakat. The Muslims called them Magians which is another whole history of why they did that and gradually came to a place called Maguzawa.
This is a whole other kind of cultural example because you are right in the middle of Hausa Land. The Maguzawa in every way looked like the Hausa. When I was driving through this territory – again, my plane landed in Kano, I’m taken up through the Maguzawa villages – I couldn’t tell the difference between a
Maguzawa village and a Hausa village. They speak Hausa. They look like Muslims. They eat like Muslims. If you were to roll down your window and ask one of them, “What is the name of your God?” They would say, “Allah.” So in that sense you would not necessarily think that these were any different. But if you actually ask them the question, “What is your religion?” They would never say “Islam,” absolutely not. They are the ones who fiercely resisted dan Fodio’s whole attack. They believe in 3,013 deities. They are divided into black deities and white deities. The Muslims, if you ask them In Hausa Land, you say, “What are these people in these villages between Kano and Katsina, who are they?” They would say, “They are those who refuse to say prayers.”
This is another very interesting thing about Muslims, how they define Islam in Nigeria in general. If you ask, “What is a Muslim?” Answer, “Someone who
performs prayers” rather than “Someone who believes X, Y, Z.” That becomes a very important difference.
Maguzawa has completely accepted the Islamic culture, but they have rejected the Islamic religion. On the map, the Hausa had endorsed the religion of Islam as well as the culture of Islam. The Yoruba have accepted the religion, rejected the culture. The Tiv have rejected both. The Maguzawa in this area have accepted the culture, but rejected the religion. So essentially you have the full spectrum of responses to Islam present in Nigeria. You have groups that are completely out like the Tiv, very adamant against everything that even smacks of Islam culturally or religiously. You have the Hausa who endorse Islam wholeheartedly culturally and religiously. You have the Yoruba who call it their religion, but have a priority for their own culture. You have the Maguzawa who are quite happy to become blended in to northern Nigeria and for all practical purposes look like Muslims, eat like Muslims, dress like Muslims and their houses look like Muslim houses. Yet they are very proud that they have maintained their traditional beliefs and they work with a religion which is clearly outside anybody’s definition of Islam.
So in summary, this is why you have four groups in Nigeria which represent four different ways people have responded to Islam. Only one of these groups might really be called Folk Islam; though it might be easy to view Maguzawa as Folk Muslims, but they are actually not. In fact, only the Yoruba really fit in that category.
So when you talk about Islam in Africa, which actually was my original idea, it was to say, “How is Islam practiced in Nigeria?” That was my research question. What I was not prepared for was what I actually found. What I found was that Islam in Nigeria is much more diverse and more complicated than I hoped that it would be. I was taking this to be a simple project, to contrast Islam in Saudia Arabia vs Islam in Nigeria. This was my idea. Once I got there and actually then looked at Islam in Nigeria, of course did a lot of reading, I realized that this is very, very complicated. That is exactly what I want you to realize, that this is the story of Islam in Africa in general. Even in a place as relatively small as this part of West Africa, you have some dramatic differences in Islam based on cultural reasons, historic reasons, past jihad. The Christian influence in Yoruba land is quite profound and influenced things as well there, so it is harder to get Sharia law in Yoruba land because there are so many Christians there. Because of that, it prevents uniformity that you find in the north.
All of these factors should be brought into your thinking when you are studying Islam. This is true in the Philippines, it would be true in Indonesia, it would be true in China, India. This kind of phenomenon is a global phenomenon. By the way, it is also true with Christianity. The other, more troubling side of the Palestinians is that there are groups around the world who call themselves Christians, who are Christians in name only, Christians with a thin veneer, Christians with a cultural practice underneath, a few heartfelt Christians. That same phenomenon is true in our own communities. You have to be aware of that when you look at these vast groups in Africa who are calling themselves Christians today. A lot of this is happening, but the response to Christianity is also quite mixed. Of course, that goes outside of our course of study here.
III. Key Observations /Points for Discussion and Reflection
Let’s focus on at least three observations or points for discussion and reflection based on this discussion that we’ve had about what I am calling “the spectrum of responses to Islam in Africa.”
A. Spectrum of Islamic faith and practice: religious theory vs. practice.
This whole idea of a spectrum in Islamic faith and practice raises the whole question of religious theory vs. practice. When one enters into Africa, you do not find a monolithic response to Islam, but an entire spectrum of responses from full Islamization to mere cultural veneers, to outright rejection of Islam for various cultural or religious reasons.
It is an important point of realization for any student of religion, especially in this case, Islam, to realize that the classical expressions of Islam as we studied in the first half of the class, may not be something that we find actually on the ground in many parts of the world. If you are looking for a particular piece of fabric cut out of a specific piece of cloth with a particular color, you may be disappointed. What you find is actually a range of colors and fabric; but in fact, they may have in some ways resonated with Islam at some level.
One of the real themes of the course should be regarding when a religion is encountered. This is very important for Christians to appreciate when you are
dealing with missions because most unreached people groups today, the vast, vast majority of them, already belong to Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. Pretty much, the missiological task today is at least in part a religious encounter. We are not dealing with a situation where we have vast tracts of people who are in a religious void, waiting for Christians to fill it. Of course, it’s wonderful when you find that; but in most places, people are already previously committed to some other world religion.
Because of that, we do in fact have a religious encounter and we generally talk about missions and conversion in the context of supplanting the language that we essentially use, that these people were Muslims, now they are Christian; that is, supplanting language. This guy was converted from Hinduism to Christianity. This guy grew up Muslim, but now he’s a Buddhist or whatever. In many ways, I guess that’s the only way we can talk because, to be simplistic, that’s how we think about things. But in fact, what we see in reality is not that at all. We see a whole spectrum of responses which may in some cases include supplanting. I think it is fair to say that Islam supplanted traditional religion among most Hausa people groups in Nigeria. That is a supplanting theme. Certainly, Christianity supplanted many expressions of tribal religion in ancient Europe.
But when it comes to world religions, which is the main thing we face today when you are looking at major Muslim groups or Hindu groups, unfortunately it is not as clean as that. What we are actually finding is that people who come to Christ sometimes have only a thin veneer of Christianity and their Hindu worldview is unchallenged or they bring in vast amounts of Hinduism into their Christianity. In many ways you will find that the worldview continues to operate, even under the veneer of Christianity or Islam or whatever. It is probably a troubling thing to say, but I think it is a matter of fact. We have to recognize that this is something that is part of what has happened with Islam; and I think it is fair to say it is happening around the world. So there is a gap between the theoretical view of what a religion looks like, your idea or my idea of a pristine Christianity, pristine Islam in the case of Muslims, versus the actual practice.
Think about your own life, quite apart from something way off. In what way is your pure Christian, untarnished Christian worldview that you have in your mind and what it looks like, what it should look like in the life of a community like this? In what way is it influenced and informed by and shaped by various cultural trends that flow through our country? These are questions I think if we are honest, we have to ask.
B. Neglected role of recipients, over-emphasis on religious transmitters.
The second major theme that I think comes through this is the neglected role of recipients and over-emphasis on the role of religious transmitters. Essentially, in any religious interchange you have two groups. You have those who are transmitting a religion, a new religion or new idea, and those who are recipients of this initiative. So Christian missions is about initiating transmitters. That is what a missionary is. You are a transmitter of a new worldview, a new message. I am speaking about this maybe more anthropologically than I am as a Christian. This is essentially what we are looking at. You have communication in theory. You have Christians going to locations to transmit or communicate a new message. What happens is, you come to a place like Gordon-Conwell. You spend a lot of time, you spend years of your life honing your message. You learn and you study about the Bible and about historical background in the Old Testament, New Testament. You learn your languages, Greek and Hebrew. All of these are about the source, these are source concerns: History, theology, everything.
When we start looking at those that we are going to, the recipients, how much exegesis do we do of the world? How much study do we do of those to whom we bring the message? That is why a course like this is important. In many ways, this is a course that in a sense says up front that we are not really here to talk much about Christianity. We talk about it obviously in many ways in the class, but this class is not primarily about Christianity per se. It is much more focused on the other end of the spectrum, what we can learn about and know about and be prepared for those who are recipients of the message.
The problem in communication in general is that most people over-emphasize their preparation in terms of the transmitter side and they underestimate the importance of understanding those who are receiving the message. In fact, in this communication event, the person who is receiving the message always has the last word. They can reject it, accept it, repent, believe, stone the prophet, whatever they want to do. They have all of these choices. You are in the position of having to try to convince them. They are not in a position of even trying necessarily to change you.
I think what this study recognizes is the tremendous role of those who are recipients of Islam. They demanded major concessions from Islam in the case of
the Yoruba, in the case of the Maguzawa. In fact, in the case of the Maguzawa, they demanded so many of these concessions, that you cannot even call them Muslims. In the case of the Yoruba, they were prepared to call them Muslims, but what kind of Islam do you have? You have a fiercely eroded Islam at best.
This is something that we have to be prepared to talk about and think more about when we talk about going to a people group, whether it be secular Americans, a youth group, whether it be a mystical group. What can we learn about them? What is their worldview? What is their perception? If you went to the Tiv for example. Let’s say you are a Muslim trying to communicate Islam to a Tiv. We understand there are no Muslims in Tiv land; but we are now at a great commission meeting of Muslims and they are trying to raise up Muslim missionaries and Muslims are all over the world now. They say, “We have to win the Tiv to Christ. We will put a Muslim in every university in Tiv land, that is a good idea; and let’s pass out tracts to the Tiv. Who will do this?” Someone looks at a map and says, “There are so many Muslims right there in Hausa Land, let’s just send them.” That is actually the worst possible thing you can do. The Tiv would much rather hear about Islam from a Chinese Muslim or a Muslim from Latin America than someone that close by in Nigeria itself.
I think we have to do a more thorough job of studying the recipients of our message because they are the ones who will not only reject or accept it. They also reshape it and redefine it. Ultimately I ask myself the question all the time, “What do we do about Christianity in Africa that is so seriously compromised in many parts of Africa?” I have a lot to say about it, a lot I can say about it. Ultimately the Christian core of Africa that is thoroughly Christianized, like a house that is fully Islamized, that Christian core is going to have to in some way, in response to their own jihad, not the Muslim kind of jihad, but on their own initiative, bring these African groups into fuller orbed expressions of Christianity. It is very difficult for outsiders to always know in what way this is a compromise to Christianity, in what way it is not. Some things are clear, obviously; but in many ways it is not nearly as clear. So we have to do this in partnership with our Christian friends and neighbors in Africa.
C. Inevitability of Islamization vs. resilience of indigenous belief systems.
The third point, of course, is the one I mentioned at the start, whether or not Islamization is inevitable or not. I won’t go into these two writers in detail. We spend several hours on this in my paleontology class, so I won’t repeat that here. But I want you to have these names in front of you. This discussion has largely created two different camps of thought in mission circles. Essentially, one was what Humphrey Fisher says in the second person here is that Islamization is inevitable once Islam gets a foothold in Africa among a peoples group. Initially it is very difficult. They resist, they try to hold onto their African processes. But in time, if Islam just holds on and they keep calling themselves Muslims, in time they will become more thoroughly Islamized. He would argue that the Yoruba are just about one hundred years behind the Hausa because Islam came to Hausa Land first, they came to Yoruba land later; and so Yoruba is on a slightly different historical track than Hausa Land. So if you just fast forward things a little bit, you will see, one hundred years from now Yoruba land will be thoroughly as Islamized as Hausa Land is today. That is a generalization, but basically it is Humphrey Fisher’s idea. He calls it his “juggernaut.” Juggernaut, of course, is a word that means something which starts that cannot be stopped.
Robin Horton, on the other hand, his so-called “intellectualist theory” says, “No, that is not at all the case. In fact, what we do find is that Islam has had to make major concessions to the animas in the African worldview, African cosmology and the Africans are not going to die easily. They are going to essentially live on under the thin veneer of Islam.” He is not going to believe at all this process is inevitable.
I appreciate the story that Laman Sanay shares about this when he says that he was in Africa - of course he is from Gambia himself – and said he was in Nigeria actually at one point and he was in the bush and he saw this young Nigerian boy riding a bicycle through the bush. The boy got a flat tire. Laman was watching this whole event. The little boy takes his tire off right there in the bush. There is no-one near, no filling station, there is no way to get a new tire. You would pull out your little patch kit if you were traveling from place to place. He thinks, what is this boy doing? He notices the boy is taking his tire off now that it is flat. He tells the little boy to gather all of this brush from the bush surrounding them and began to stuff it inside the tire. Once he finally got it all stuffed in there, he pushed the kid away and he had this tire just stuffed with straw and grass and all, then he mounted the tire back onto his wheel. It looked like a regular tire, and he drove off.
He said he just witnessed the parable of Africa. The ingenuity of the Africans, on one hand, to fully utilize western technology or an outside idea like a bicycle. Yet, it is necessary to innovate and to stuff it with stuff that is clearly African. So that a person who just observes the bicycle racing by would observe that here is a person who has obviously been influenced by outside ideas. He is an African riding a bicycle. But if you investigate closely, you may find that in fact, the bicycle is stuffed full of Africanness. It is a metaphor, but I think it is a helpful one to demonstrate kind of the reality of what is happening in this culture.