Mar 13, 2010


Religion 20 [1990] contains some articles on the study of African Religions that are worth reading. Rosalind J. Hackett as a guest-editor has been responsible for those pages. My favourite piece is by Rosalind Shaw: “The Invention of African Traditional Religion”, a thorough analysis of the categories used for lumping together religious traditions and one of the best critiques of the concept of „World Religions“ I have ever read. Arguments she brings forth range from comparing the classification systems used in typologies of religions with a mixture of categories that could be used by a butterfly collector – historical and geographical criteria interspersed by categories taken from classifying languages and the like – to a critique of the criteria given for a religion to be rendered as a „world religion“, for example:

„A religion is sometimes described as ‚universal’ if its membership is not restricted to a singkle ethnicity (in which case Judaism after the Christianizing of the Roman Empire would be excluded and the cult of Mwali in southern Africa included), and/or it may also be so described if it has an all-encompassing cosmology (in which case much of Christianity and Hinduism as actually practised […] would be excluded, while many cults and ritual forms within Africa would be included)” [p.340].

Her main point is, that this concept brings forth the need for a residual category in which to put the rest (from Amerindian through Aborigines and African to Siberian and the like). She clearly shows, that the very category is used to construct the „other“. In the course of her essay, she shows, how „Western“ scholars have shaped the image of African Religions even in the eyes of their adherents: missionaries, scholars more or less engaged in the colonial enterprise and last, not least, African Christian scholars that have eagerly tried to prove that Africans have been „monotheists“ before contact with Christianity or Islam. She deconstructs these claims using the arguments widely known, and goes on to show, how the classical rendering of „Igbo Traditional Religion“ has been shaped after the model supplied by E. Bolaji Idowu’s seminal work on Yorùbá Religion, Olódumàrè – God in Yorùbá Belief. She goes on to interpret the underlying data in a totally different manner.

This comes close to Robin Horton’s critique of the „devout school“ (see: his, Judaeo-Christian Spectacles: Boon or Bane to the Study of African Religions? In his: Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West. Essays on Magic, Religion and Science. Cambridge 1997, 161-193; 409-420, and him on the right side), albeit on other grounds and more universally. And it comes close to what I have been teaching before getting to know the fine essay of R. Shaw.

Other essays deal with the image of „African Religions“ as given in text books on so called „World-Religions“, that one would use in the introductory course on a General History of Religions. In this context, James R. Lewis gives an instructing quotation from Lewis M. Hopfe’s „Religions of the World“ (from 1983):

„African Nations have become a vocal and active segment of the so-called Third World. Many of them control raw materials that are essential to the industrialized nations of the world. The leaders of today and of the future must learn to deal with Africans on both political and business levels if there is to be peace and prosperity in the world. Essential to understanding the leaders of black Africa is a knowledge of their culture. A major step in understanding customs and values is a basic knowledge of religion“ [taken from Lewis, p. 313].

At first sight, this sounds like the author would try to convince General Motors to supply grants for field-work in Africa. It is even worse: the first opposition we find in the text is between „raw materials“ (the other) and „industrialised nations“ (we). The way control of these others over those raw materials is rendered suggests, that they are not the proprietors, but we are. Furthermore, their control over the raw materials in question endangers „peace and prosperity in the world“. In order to cope with this dangerous situation successfully we have to understand, what I would call „the savage mind“ of the other. This is blunt colonialism, and it sounds like it had been written 100 years earlier than 1983.

But, sadly enough, to some degree, it also reflects the economic reality of Study of Religions: since some radical Muslims have begun to try to destabilise the economic order of the "West" by acts of a more or less terrorist character, Islam (erroneously conceived as a unity – the reasons for that are partly reflected by Rosalind Shaw - and even more falsely thought of as being a „radical“ or „extremist“ movement in its entirety) has become the other in control of raw materials we need to prosper further. This danger to "peace and prosperity in the world" cannot be confronted solely by military means, as the good ones among us think, but only by understanding how the other ticks. This way, a more "humanist" attitude in sharing a commonly held prejudice leads to a situation in which those who want to get research funds for studying religions should at least include some hint of Islam-relatedness in the application, more useful: put it on the cover. May I ask the simple question, whether this is what we need the Study of Religions for? If it was that way, the best strategy to foster our field of study would be to incite as many religious groups as possible to become militant.

1 comment:

  1. Being a big fan of constructive criticism I miss new ideas and approaches in this volume. Especially Shaw criticizes the terms used in the study of African religions a lot but won't offer better ones. This leaves the reader of this volume, well, at least me, quite stranded and confused.