ISLAM'S RESPONSE
TO AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION
IN NIGERIA

The history of Islam in Nigeria has examples of a wide range of interaction with African traditional belief systems and practices. At certain times, particularly when Muslims constituted a minority, a pluralist response to other cultures and religions occurred. Muslims took the view that different forms of primal religion could exist side by side with them in the same society. Coupled with this was the recognition that the social and political structure of the wider society could be accommodated. Individual Muslims, and whole communities, throughout Nigeria have incorporated into Islam to varying degrees different aspects of traditional life....

In as much as the primal religions of Nigeria are, by definition, not world religions with mission and expansion as goals, they are not competitors with Islam or Christianity. On the other hand, their tenacity and the resilience of their traditional ritual and spiritual life pose a challenge to a religion like Islam with holistic demands on its adherents.... The elimination of "pagan practices" has therefore been a theme of Muslim renewal as much as they theme of early mission diaries. It has been the remarkable ideological achievement of Islam in Nigeria to present itself convincingly as more essentially "African", despite a history of repudiation, sometimes militant, of many aspects of African cultures.

As a universalist religion, Islam has confronted indigenous religious systems whose "solutions" to problems of explanation, social structure, and fertility have often appeared more effective to the local community. The relevance and immediacy of masked cults and the figurative art of shrines, which at least in theory Islam rejects, have clearly not diminished under the impact of Muslim practice. Indigenous religious systems, embedded in particular social formations and economic activities, have therefore rarely been eliminated in contact with Islam. The process of Islamisation has more often produced creative adaptations of traditional categories, the bori cult in northern Nigeria is an example; or wider socio-economic changes have more abruptly destroyed the cultural nexus in which forms of primal religion thrived. In the latter case Islam is often the beneficiary but rarely the sole cause.

Islam does not, of course, reject as false every aspect of belief and practice found in indigenous religion....It accepts a spirit world, and the Qur'an sanctions the belief in mystical powers. In consequence it has been able to accommodate itself to many of the spirit forces found within the primal religions of West Africa. Moreover a number of other important traditional practices, like divination, or magic accepted as sihr, are with qualification and modification recognised by Islam as legitimate. Practioners of divination and experts on traditional spiritual categories bridge the gap between Islam and primal religions burring the edges of Muslim orthopraxis to create a form of popular religion. In this huge penumbra, malams and teachers are able to refine popular understanding of Islam in a progressive process of Islamisation.

The complexity of this process and the capacity of individuals to practice a type of personal religious pluralism is inevitably denied in Muslim discourse which tends towards normative assertions. Thus most Nigeria Muslims would want to stress that they...have a "right" and a duty to convert "pagans" from primal religions to the universal religion. Furthermore, the Qur'an gives a collective obligation, in 9v5, to the Muslim community to wage holy war, Jihad against polytheists and unbelievers in order to subject them to Muslim rule.

(culled from Clark P.B., & Linden I., Islam in Modern Nigeria, (Munchen, 1984), 138-149.)