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Interrogating the approaches of Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa.


Since academic discourse on Christian-Muslim relations in tropical Africa began, a number of contributions have been made by historians and commentators of religions, using various approaches and models. Many of these scholars have explored the origins and developments of Christianity and counts of these religions and their impact on the continent. (1) Much has been written on Islam and Christianity, and useful contributions have been made to that effect. Thanks to these works, many in Africa and beyond have access to useful information on the main features of Christian-Muslim encounters in the sub-region.

This notwithstanding, Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa are usually associated with instances of intolerance, tensions, and conflicts. Violent clashes between Christians and Muslims have been witnessed in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Sudan, and Cote d' Ivoire leading to the death of innocent people and property destruction. (2) In view of this, reports on tension and conflicts often claim that Christian-Muslim intolerance is the main cause. Such frequent associations, though in most cases legitimate, could also be due to the misinterpretation of the history of encounters, as well as the media characterization of Christians and Muslims as enemies who are almost always at each other's throats.

This essay does not intend to investigate the persistence and severity of religious conflicts in the sub-region. Rather, it seeks to explore the many positive Christian-Muslim encounters and interactions taking place in West Africa. In other words, there are many areas in West Africa where peaceful and harmonious exchanges do take place on a daily basis between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, such positive exchanges have received little attention in the study of religions in Africa. Furthermore, some people often either deliberately or inadvertently fail to see the very complex underlying issues involved in Christian-Muslim tensions and conflicts.

A number of approaches underline the encounters of Christianity and Islam in West Africa. This essay explores and critiques the traditional, postindependence, and postmodern models on the continent of Africa that have not only contributed to strife and conflict but have also ensured harmonious and cohesive Christian-Muslim relations that safeguard religious liberties and respect difference and particularities. It also attempts to highlight, in the course of the discussion, some of the indigenous African values that could provide a strong foundation for meaningful encounters between Christians and Muslims, thus helping to deal with many challenges that ensue. This essay is motivated by the message of Pope John Paul II to the bishops of Ghana and Burkina Faso and students of Cote d'Ivoire in 1980, which described the values of their cultures as "real treasures from which you can and must draw something new for building up your country, on an original and typically African model, made up of harmony between the values of its cultural past and the most acceptable elements of modern civilization." (3) With these words, the pope urged Africans to safeguard and preserve the values of their cultures, using them to seek solutions to the enormous problems confronting the continent, including challenges of Christian-Muslim encounters.

I. Traditional Approach

An aspect of the debate that has been predominant not only in academia and the pastoral field but that has also sustained Western and Arab imperialism in West Africa is the traditional model. This model centers on the impact of Western/Christianity and Arab/Islam on the sub-region. The traditional model endeavors to discover which of these great religions and cultures has dealt kindly with African culture and so is more poised to lead Africa to much needed civilization. Thus, it is an approach that consolidates the cultural and superiority wars of Christianity and Islam and, by extension, the European and Arab worlds in the West African sub-region.

A. A Case in Favor of Islam

Advocates of the traditional model demonstrate how Islam has been more "flexible" and "compromising" with the African heritage than Christianity has been. (4) In his book Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, E. W. Blyden pointed out, for instance, the positive effects of Islam on the African continent by claiming that "as an eliminatory and subversive agency, it [Islam] has displaced or unsettled nothing as good as itself." (5) In his bid to paint Islam "white" in order to champion the "Black African Cause," Blyden, a Christian, discussed its positive influences, such as the prohibition of intoxicating drinks; the promotion of superior intellectual, moral, and unifying character; disdain for caste distinction; and the introduction of teaching and learning. In his travels Blyden even found in the ranks of Islam-established areas the most energetic and enterprising tribes.

These perceptions and observations consequently claimed that Islam, in contrast with Christianity, is an African religion that has been more in tune with the African personality and heritage than its Western/Christian competitor. According to people such as Blyden, Christianity instilled servility, docility, and dependence in Africans in order to promote white domination on the continent. Much as we have no justifiable reason to deny the truism of these positive elements of Islamic presence on the African continent, the loud silence of historians such as Blyden on the many negative Islamic influences is a cause for concern. An attempt to glorify Islam and to present it as a wholly sacrosanct entity undermines the principle of objectivity, which is the bedrock of academic discourse. Blyden went further to propose emphatically that the future of the African continent lies in Islam.

B. A Case in Favor of Christianity

A number of historians have also argued in favor of Christianity. A. P. Atterbury in his work Islam in Africa adopted the traditional approach or style of Blyden but ended up with a contrasting view that considered Islam opposed to civilization and, therefore, "a hindrance to [the] real civilisation" that Africa seeks. (6) Atterbury even suggested that Islam should not be considered a factor in progress toward the ideal for which Africa hopes, since, according to him, Islam in Africa is "characterised by ... superficiality, a selfish and materialistic greed, a combination of all that has been proved bad" and "aggressiveness." (7) It is no wonder that his chapter on "The Great Solution" asserts emphatically without equivocation that "[t]he civilisation of Africa must be accomplished by Christianity and commerce--hand in hand," (8) thus leaving out Islam entirely. As with Blyden, Atterbury's objectivity is undermined by his refusal to see anything good in Islam.

What is most worrying is that both Blyden and Atterbury are widely known to have undertaken serious research on both Christianity and Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. It is strange that they should attribute the future of Africa solely to either of these religions, when both of them have made significant inroads, have substantial influence, and above all have made and are still making laudable contributions to the sub-region. It is also surprising that Blyden and Atterbury should arrive at conclusions that completely contradict each other. We cannot but question the bases of their conclusions and the authenticity of their research, but we can observe biases in their works. Rather than telling the stories of Christianity and Islam critically and objectively, these traditionalists heighten the big gap between these two world religions.

In line with Atterbury, P. Baudin, a missionary on the Slave Coast of Africa in the late nineteenth century, discredited the valuable contribution of Islam in Africa, characterizing it as a dangerous obstacle to the future of the African. He observed that "there is a lower and still viler being than the black fetichist, and that is the fetichist turned Mussulman. To his former brutishness and superstitions he adds two new vices: fanaticism and pride ... the Mussulman Negro is unapproachable." (9) The criticism of Baudin, and others like him, of the African Muslim should be understood in the context of their absolute and general disregard, disdain, and contempt for Islam, which Baudin viewed as an obstacle to the rapid expansion of Christianity. Apparently influenced by a medieval Christian perception of Islam as evil, Baudin did not see how Islamic expansion could engender in Africans the needed moral and spiritual growth that would propel them on the path of development and progress. Baudin contended further that
   The rapid progress of Mahometanism in these [African] countries
   alarms all the friends of Africa, all those who take an interest in
   these unfortunate people, and follow the march of events. It is
   only in the circle where the influence of the Christian missions is
   felt that fetichism has lost credit, and this fact indicates to us
   the remedy of evils of which we have only been able to give a faint
   idea. In Catholic evangelization and the charity of Christian
   nations rests the only hope of the salvation of the black
   fetichist. (10)

As indicated in the above statement, Baudin, like many who hold the traditional view of interreligious relations, acknowledged unreservedly that Christianity is the only way forward for Africa, thus discounting Islam. On the whole, this traditional approach needs to be reassessed critically. In the first place, neither Christianity nor Islam has succeeded in completely eroding the African heritage. In fact, although both religions have considerably impacted the continent, traces of traditional African culture still persist even in these world religions, thanks to the resilience of the culture. Second, this model, as particularly championed by Blyden, Atterbury, and Baudin--and recently upheld by modern extremist organizations--indirectly suggests suppression, if not complete elimination, of one religion or the other. This may sow seeds of suspicion among Christians and Muslims and ultimately destabilize the continent. Both Islam and Christianity, needless to say, have become integral parts of the cultures of Africa, as each has made inroads into the sociocultural interstices of Africa, and each commands a significant following. The fact that the two religious traditions have survived on the continent for centuries is an indication of their having been indigenized. Thus, the future of Africa lies neitherwith Islam nor Christianity exclusively but with both. Both Christianity and Islam have to learn to accommodate each other, and studies in this area should concentrate on developing and highlighting models of harmonious coexistence.

In spite of the wealth of information that the works of historians and commentators such as Blyden, Atterbury, and Baudin have provided readers, they have received mixed reactions from later generations of historians and commentators. While some, such as Sulayman Nyang, consider them to be faithful and objective accounts, (11) others describe their accounts as "shameful" for trying to glorify, romanticize, and idealize one religious tradition by hiding the atrocities it inflicted on the African. (12) In his book The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-religious Dialogue, John A. Azumah, in the name of exploring possible appropriate models of dialogue in sub-Saharan Africa, ventured to reveal what he described as evils of the Arab-Islam past or, more appropriately, to challenge the romantic perception of a "glorious Islamic past" (13) in Africa. In view of this, Azumah treated at length, among other things, what he considered to be the jihadists' attempt at "overthrowing and overhauling the indigenous African and his/ her heritage" by anathematizing and demonizing them as elements of kufr and the socioreligious dimensions of Arab-Muslim slavery in Africa. Azumah's main objective was "to level the historical playing field for a more honest and sustainable interfaith dialogue and peaceful co-existence between Muslim and non-Muslim Africans" (14) in a pluralistic environment such as Africa.

Scholars such as Azumah go to lengths to explore and actually "to rake up the thorny and potentially hostile bits of the past as a kind of therapy for dialogue and reconciliation." (15) This, he hoped, would "deal with the legacy of resentment, fear and sometimes hatred that some aspects of the history has engendered within some African communities." (16) To this effect, Azumah contended that Muslims organized, institutionalized, and justified slavery in sub-Saharan Africa long before the Christian West came onto the scene. He observed that
   The most fundamental difference that sets slavery in Muslim Africa
   apart from non-Muslim Africa can be found in the justification of
   the practice. Muslims right across ethnic, racial and geographical
   boundaries, like the Christian West, had a systematic religious and
   racist justification for enslavement.... [T]he main justification
   of slavery in classical Muslim thought, borne out in practice by
   generations of Muslims, is non-belief in Islam, kufr. The basis for
   Arab-Islamic ideology of enslavement includes, of course, the
   Qur'an, Prophetic traditions, the legal codes according to the
   various madhahib such as the Maliki in West Africa, and a corpus of
   literary works written and commented upon by eminent Muslims from
   the heartland of the Muslim world. (17)

Muslims, to Azumah, were less involved with slavery for economic reasons than as a religious duty or a response to unbelief. The raids, slaughter, kidnapping, trade, and enslavement of millions of Africans by Muslims were considered an attempt to assist unbelievers in converting to Islam.

Thus, the traditional approach--which not only frankly addresses and acknowledges the evils of the past but also, where possible, attempts to level out all past misfortunes, mischief, and atrocities as championed by Azumah and the rest--is at present unnecessary. For, the findings of such models bring humanity back to the era when Christians and Muslims engaged in prolonged negative polemics. Under these circumstances, Muslims and Christians tried in their own ways to discredit each other's religion in a bid to prove how wrong, if not demonic, the other was in essence and how right and godly their own religion was. Consequently, these polemics tended to keep Christians and Muslims apart from each other and, more importantly, deepened the acrimony that characterized such encounters. (18)

This approach opens wounds and eventually dwells unduly on differences with crippling effects on interreligious dialogue. Regrettably, this approach, which thrives on the blame game by finding faults, is counterproductive to dialogue and becomes practically misplaced especially when it is allowed to take center stage in Christian-Muslim discourses. Such an approach, in our view, obviously cannot achieve the well-intended goals of promoting Christian-Muslim relations. If anything, it will certainly hinder or be an obstacle to good relations. The outcome of this blame-game approach cannot deal with the legacy of antipathy, fear, and sometimes aversion that aspects of history have created within African societies. That mistakes have been made in the past is undeniable, but should we continue painstakingly to look for such mistakes, however deliberately made, and highlight them, especially in academic circles, with a view of leveling the playing field?

II. Modern Approach

The modern approach to Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa is identified on three main fronts. There is the noninstitutional, integrative model championed by successive governments that attempts a purposeful blending of available religious traditions for collective identity of the young African independent states. There is another noninstitutional approach, a product of secularization that renders religion a private affair and renders the individual the center of his or her own religion. Lastly, the crisis-driven approach seeks to calm rather volatile situations of Christian-Muslim encounters. These approaches have implications for Christian-Muslim relations in the sub-region.

A. Postindependence Approach

The traditional approach, despite its attendant problems, continued to play a prominent role in Christian-Muslim encounters, until it was strategically confronted by the introduction of the postindependence approach. Accordingly, soon after independence and even until now, African leaders have consistently rejected the divisive, problematic, and impractical positions of such commentators as Blyden, Atterbury, and Baudin and have adopted a comprehensive modern approach in dealing with African sociocultural challenges. This rather new approach sought to bring the positive ideals of the various religious traditions into a complex whole. The resultant fusion of mainly the Traditional Religion, Islam, and Christianity, "a new mixed legacy," was ultimately to usher forth an African principle and identity. (19) In his book Consciencism, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, spelled out a political ideology that was based on all the various religious traditions. It was meant not only to decolonize Africa but also to pave the way for its strong and prosperous future. Nkrumah noted: "With true independence regained, however, a new harmony needs to be forged, a harmony that will allow the combined presence of traditional Africa, Islamic Africa and Euro-Christian Africa, so that this presence is in tune with the original humanist principles underlying Africa society." (10)

By this statement, Nkrumah--like his counterparts in other West African countries, such as Sekou Toure of Guinea and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria--threw overboard the divisive, tactless, and short-sighted traditional approach championed by people such as Blyden, Atterbury, and Baudin in privileging one religion over the other. These leaders demanded an ideology created within the framework of the three main traditions of Islam, Christianity, and the traditional African way of life. In this way, the West African leaders hoped to transcend religious particularism and exclusivism in order to create a plurality of religions that would support their integrative revolutions. (21) Hence, while acknowledging the laudable contributions of both Christianity and Islam in West Africa, the leaders also called for a second look at the traditional philosophy of life, which, they believed, would be a necessary foundation for a viable and strong society. (22) Nkrumah's positive view of the three main religions of the continent resulted from his recognition of the unique role that religion can play in forging an ideology for a unified people under one government.

Nkrumah contended further: "Our attitude to the Western and the Islamic experience must be purposeful. It must be guided by thought... a body of connected thought which will determine the general nature of our action in unifying the society which we have inherited, this unification to take account, at all times, of the elevated ideals underlying the traditional African society." (23) Thus, Nkrumah called for the purposeful blending of these three religious traditions as the continent looked for a common and bright future together. Though Nkrumah believed religion should not intrude unduly in political decision-making, he did not hide his good impression of the three main religions as potent integrating forces. (24) Thus, postindependence African leaders recognized the symbolic and integrative capacities of African religiosity and its potential role of dealing with the tensions between centralization and diffusion of political power.

It must be pointed out that the postindependence African leaders succeeded in blending purposefully the three main religions in the sub-region at legal and ceremonial levels. All of these religions became legal and national religions, and the clergy were frequently invited to offer prayers at public functions. However, at the practical and grassroots levels, young African governments were confronted by the same challenges with which the mission churches dealt at the early stages of planting Christianity in subSaharan Africa. Just as the mission churches eventually came to acknowledge that meaningful change does not take place by mere direct prohibitions from church conferences but will have to grow from within the Christian community and the hearts of individual Christians, so, also for the postind-ependence governments. Meaningful blending of religions does not come from constitutional provisions and display at public ceremonies. Despite its limitations, however, this effort by governments at the early stages of post-independence West Africa to find a viable role for all religious traditions was timely and a necessary first step.

B. Impact of Secularism and Secularization

Furthermore, secularism and the impact of Western education on the religiosity of the sub-Saharan Africans cannot be left out of any serious discussion on Christian-Muslim exchanges on the African continent. With the overwhelming embrace of the Western system of education and its attendant secular philosophy and liberalizing policies by both Christians and Muslims in West Africa, scholars such as Lewis earlier predicted that many West Africans would eventually become secular in their view of life and would relegate religiosity to the background. (25) There is some truth to this assertion, for in most of West Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa one can find some signs of this secular attitude--notably among them the adoption of constitutional governance and a certain Western attitude toward the acquisition of wealth and consumerism. Nevertheless, the religiosity of West Africans seems not to have been impacted by secularism. Religion and religious affairs are still highly upheld by the majority of the people, irrespective of education and exposure to Western life. Obviously, Africans have taken what they want of secularism, while holding on to their fundamental religious tendencies and belief systems.

Furthermore, J. S. Trimingham argued that the obvious consequence of this new secular attitude would be the gradual adoption of religion as what he described as "personal religious allegiance" and the eventual elimination of religion entirely. (26) Trimingham held that many Muslims and Christians would come to adopt Islam or Christianity only as a personal religion with bearing on only the private life, not on daily public life. While this position might be cogent, there is much evidence to demonstrate that it was very much overstated, for many in West Africa--such as John Mbiti, Peter Sarpong, and Justin Ukpong (27)--have pointed out, still regard religion as the heart and soul of their culture, and, most importantly, in their sense of spirituality, which has significant influence on every activity of daily life.

In another vein, Kwame Bediako, writing on secularism and its impact on the religiosity of the African people, argued that secularism does not necessarily mean irreligiosity in Africa: "African Christians have, on the whole, avoided any significant secularization of their outlook. New knowledge in science and technology has been embraced, but it has not displaced the basic view that the whole universe in which human existence takes place is fundamentally spiritual." (28) For Bediako, there was no clear dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual in the African worldview. The sacred and the secular are two sides of the same coin, inseparable. Consequently, such historians as Louis Brenner think that scholars such as Lewis and Trimingham have been "false prophets" for predicting that secularism would finally undermine religiosity in sub-Saharan Africa. In his edited book, Muslim Identity and Social Change in Suh-Saharan Africa, Brenner predicted doom for secularism and posited that the failure of secularism in Africa has, rather, strengthened Islamism, stating that "African Muslims have increasingly been turning to Islam for the resolution of their own social and political problems." (29) Admitting the failure of secularism to address the huge challenges facing Africa--including poverty and malnutrition, diseases (HIV, cholera, malaria, etc.), political instability, and dysfunctional social institutions--Brenner created the impression that African Muslims are craving a regime of Islamic dispensation, a sort of theocracy.

However, instances where Muslims are actually turning to Islam as an alternative political tool to constitutional governance and freedom of religion seem to be few and isolated in West Africa. Brenner has actually picked up on these isolated instances and generalized them. Such Muslim-majority countries as Senegal, Burkina Faso, and even Cote d'Ivoire still have time-tested constitutions in place with deeply entrenched religious freedom. Even where attempts have been made to adopt or impose Islamic dispensation, such as in Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and Northern Nigeria, the result has been horrendous and catastrophic. Particular mention could be made in this instance of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, of Nigeria. The general indication is that Christians and Muslims of West Africa wish for and actually want a dispensation that will put religious institutions out of politics and allow both religious traditions (Christianity and Islam) adequate room to thrive.

C. Crisis-Driven Approach

Another approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue in West Africa is a crisis-driven model that focuses on areas and moments of religious tensions and conflicts and tries to restore peace. Such an attempt explores possible factors of intra- and interreligious controversies and proposes models of calming and/or dealing with the tensions and conflicts. In such situations of tensions and strife, various ecumenical bodies such as the Christian councils and Catholic bishops' conferences have been instrumental in spearheading conflict-resolution initiatives throughout the sub-region. The Christian Council of Ghana, for instance, established peace committees at regional and constituency levels in the northern part of Ghana. The peace committees were nonpartisan, nontribal, nonreligious, and nonsectional, presenting a good image to execute their duty with a high level of impartiality. (30)

The Centre for Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies (CECOTAPS), supported by Catholic Relief Services, was founded in 1999 by the Catholic Diocese of Damongo, in response to the growing number of violent conflicts in the three northern regions of Ghana. (31) CECOTAPS is a faith-based, nonprofit, peace-building institution that is committed to the just and peaceful transformation of violent conflicts. In Ghana, for instance, the National Peace Council ensures that peace, both within and without religious institutions, prevails at all times. The council aims to raise awareness surrounding the use of nonviolent strategies in response to conflict through networking, coordination, and campaigning. (32)

On the academic front, J. A. Mbillah, in studying the Christian-Muslim relations in Ghana, followed this crisis-driven approach and identified political, social, and doctrinal causes and issues of Muslim unrest. (33) Likewise, Nathan Samwini delved deeply into the various Islamic doctrinal differences and the role they played in destabilizing the harmonious interreligious environment that characterized the pre-independence era. (34)

Thus, much has been explored and written about religious intolerance and tensions in Ghana, which have rendered efforts at intra- and interreligious dialogue much more complicated and ineffectual. Like all social interventions, crisis-driven interreligious initiatives are situational and are available only when there is a problem or crisis. Such a formal approach to dialogue in West Africa often comes too late, after much damage, human and material, has been done. Focusing on particular conflict areas and situations, the crisis-driven models tend to take for granted and gloss over many areas and times of fruitful and honest exchanges that occur daily among Christians and Muslims.

III. Postmodern Approaches

The postmodern approaches of Christian-Muslim relations in West Africa are trans-institutional models that endeavor to create a social environment that is conducive to the practice of religion in general. These postmodern approaches are pragmatic and communal models.

A. Pragmatic Approach

Academic discourses on the pragmatic model of Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa have been spearheaded by Elizabeth Amoah. In her paper, "African Indigenous Religions and Interreligious Relationship," presented at Westminster College (Oxford), Amoah presented her arguments for the pragmatic model in West Africa. She explained that the pragmatic model involves a meaningful appropriation of positive elements of other religions. In this approach, individuals would see each of the differing religions in the sub-region as having something good to offer to humanity in general and to Africans in particular. (35) The pragmatic model is displayed when the adherents of indigenous religions borrow bits and pieces from Christianity and Islam because they regard the borrowed elements as useful for their existence. It also occurs whenever African Muslims and Christians retrieve some elements that they find useful from the indigenous religious heritage.

A section of practitioners of the indigenous religion of the people of Edina (Elmina) have a shrine in which "Nana Antona" (36) is not only honored but also worshiped as god. It finds expression in the appropriation by Muslims of Christian prayer vigil sessions (popularly known as "all nights"), spiritual counseling, and healing services. When some Christians consult Muslim Mu'allim (mallams) for assistance and adopt an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in imitation of the Muslim Hajj, the pragmatic model is displayed. Because of this model of interreligious relations, both Christianity and Islam have borrowed, appropriated, and benefited significantly from Ghanaian indigenous religions.

The pragmatic model, though highly recommended for effective Christian-Muslim relations toward self-enrichment and peaceful coexistence, is not without challenges. These challenges are mostly felt at the institutional, confessional level where the mandate to convert into religious institutions is paramount. The possibility of appropriation of elements from the other religion tends to downplay the need to convert to and belong to it. These borrowings, to a large extent, explain why in Ghana and also in West Africa conversion does not necessarily translate into abandoning one's religious tradition. Conversion actually means pragmatism or trans-religiosity. The question is: Why convert, when a Muslim or a Christian can appropriate every positive element there is in the other religion? The practice of appropriation of positive elements of other religious traditions, though unacceptable officially or at the institutional, confessional level and almost tantamount to apostasy, is a well-known phenomenon at the grassroots level in sub-Saharan Africa.

Furthermore, the trans-institutional approach of interreligious encounters takes place at the social level, to which Samwini refers as "dialogue of life." (37) In West Africa, involuntary lineage and kinship institutions bring Muslims, Christians, and adherents of other religions together, establishing a real, active, spiritual bond among entire peoples. The sweet encounter that takes place between Christians andMuslims of sub-Saharan Africa was earlier highlighted by scholars such as Trimingham, when he noted, "Many Yoruba families [of Nigeria] have Muslim, Christian, and pagan members and all join happily in each other's religious festivals." (38) This harmonious encounter still takes place daily and is also true of the Fante families of Ghana, the Wolof of Senegal, and the Creoles of Dahomey.

There are countless "interfaith households" in the sub-region where traditional, Islamic, and Christian relatives live and share in common in the same house. (39) Religious differences, according to these people, should not, in any way, undermine family solidarity and cooperation. Significantly, such cognate bonding every so often supplants the religious fanaticism and extremism that is sadly perpetuated by some puritan Muslims and Christians. People united by descent group, common totem, or common ancestry, however putative, are more likely to hold and stand together to resist any force or institution, even religious, that might attempt to disintegrate and tear them apart. Furthermore, mutual helpfulness, which cognates offer one another without regard to religion, also forms an important foundation and a practical model for interreligious cooperation for peace, security, and provision of much-needed social amenities. This approach, however, needs to be recommended with caution, because it tends to overlook differences in religious traditions and the significant roles they could play in enriching one another. It is worthy of note that the model--though a positive and fruitful approach with regard to Christian-Muslim relations--could undermine religious institutionalism. Thus, apart from enabling different religious viewpoints to exist side-by-side, the model also generates a general attitude of doctrinal, confessional, or religious apathy in sub-Saharan Africa. (40)

B. Communal Model

Approaches of Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa cannot be adequately interrogated without reference to the communal model. The communal model is also a trans-institutional model grounded on the communitarian system of the African people, which postulates that the interest of the larger society is paramount and so must supersede sectional interests of the various religious traditions and communities. This model is particularly brought to bear in communities of West Africa where there are strong Christian and Muslim communities based on ethnic affiliations. In southern Ghana, for instance, Muslim communities are largely found in the zongos at the outskirts of the villages and towns. These Muslims are mainly the descendants of resettled groups following the abolition of the slave trade and immigrants of Wangara, Kotokoli, Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani from the northern part of the country. (41) Upon arrival, the Muslims set up their quarters in the urban trading and mining towns and villages, which later came to be called "Zongos" or "Sarkyi Zongos." Unlike their counterparts in the northern parts of the country, the Muslims in the south lived in their quarters and did not get involved in the local politics and socioreligious affairs of chiefs and people. (42) The indigenous southerners were mainly Christians, and adherents of indigenous religions live in the villages and towns. A clear boundary between the Muslim and Christian communities and the constant mistrust and tension that ensued and has existed till today--often leading to tension and conflict among the Muslims and the locals (largely Christian)--has been a challenge to intra- and interreligious relations.

In such situations, some Christians and Muslims, particularly those with a fundamentalist orientation, engage each other in rather confrontational and polemical ways, sometimes burning churches, Bibles, or Qur'ans. As a result, we have experienced violent eruptions between Christians and Muslims, and among Muslims, in towns such as Agona Nyakrom, Takoradi, Kumasi, Oda, and Wenchi. (43) According to Anquandah, between 1987 and 1989, there were twenty reported cases of intra- and interreligious clashes in Ghana, which resulted in the loss of human lives and property. Some examples included riots between Christians and Muslims at Walewale, Sekondi, Kumasi, Tamale, and Mampong-Asante. There were other cases of riots between Christians and Traditionalists at Half Assini, Labadi, and KorleGonno. Strangely, there have been reports of intra-Muslims clashes among Muslims in 1995-98 at Akim Oda, Atebubu, and Kwesimintsim. (44) It is this militant understanding of religious relationship that often gives rise to terrorist network organizations such as Boko Haram of Nigeria, Ansar Dine of Mali, and Al-Shabab of Somalia, campaigning to impose their version of religion on the other even when they acknowledge there is no compulsion in religion. Such organizations eventually embark on a campaign of bombings, massacres, and abductions to champion their cause. (45)

The phenomenon of distinct religious communities that live in isolation from one another is confronted by the engagement of the indigenous African communal value system, which constantly enjoins them to place a premium on the continual survival of the larger community and consider its interest supreme. (46) Consequently, the activities of the various societal and Christian and Muslim groups ought ultimately to gear toward advancing, first and foremost, the interest of the society in general. This sense of communitarianism is well placed to resolve the problem of excessive competition and tension by molding Christian and Muslim communities into recognizing themselves as partners or associates whose activities ought to complement each other for the common interest in the spirit of peaceful coexistence.


To conclude, Christian-Muslim encounters and relations in West Africa have been discussed along various approaches: traditional, postindependence, and postmodern models. In particular, the advantages and the disadvantages of the various approaches have been examined. It is observed that Christian-Muslim encounters and relations in West Africa--and, indeed, the whole of sub-Saharan Africa--are many-faceted. A critical study of the approaches that underpin the religious encounters brings out their varying natures and challenges and the prospects for peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. The traditional approaches, which ultimately seek to promote religious institutionalism, present mounting challenges to interreligious dialogue and peaceful co-existence. Grounded on the WesternChristianity and Arab-Islam cultural tussle, the traditional model engages in a blame game, perpetuating suspicion and tension with a penchant for a negative, polemical attitude to other religious traditions.

The modern approach to Christian-Muslim encounters in West Africa is noninstitutional but integrative. It is led by successive governments and nongovernmental organizations that aim at achieving a collective identity and unity for the young independent states, using religion. The noninstitutional approach to Christian-Muslim encounters results from the liberalizing policies of secularization, urbanization, and the resilience of the indigenous culture. The trans-institutional approaches, such as the pragmatic and the communal models of Christian-Muslim encounters, are the postmodern approaches motivated by the ideal that religious traditions in a particular community ought to enrich one another toward peaceful coexistence.

Cosmos Ebo Sarbah (Catholic) holds a B.A. from the University of Ghana, Legon, and a diploma in education from the University of Cape Coast (Ghana). He also studied at the Pontifical Institute of Dar Comboni for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Cairo, 2003-04; received an M.Phil. from the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome; and received his M.Phil. and Ph.D. (2010) from the Centre for ChristianMuslim Relations at the University of Birmingham (U.K.). He has been an assistant parish priest, priest-in-charge, and chaplain, serving in Ghana and in Birmingham, 2000-03, and since 2006. He is Director of Interreligious Dialogue for the Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Coast; founder of the Inter-Faith Youth Core (20x2 till now) for Muslim and Christian youth in Central Ghana; and since 2012, a lecturer at both the University of Ghana and St. Peter's Regional Seminary, Pedu. A participant in the annual conferences of the International Conference on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Relations in Wuppertal, Germany, since 2007, he also took part in the Study of the U.S. Institute on Religious Pluralism at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in June-July, 20x6. His articles have appeared in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, Trinity Journal of Church and Theology, and the Journal of Applied Thought; several of his articles are forthcoming in professional journals.

(1) See Hans W. Debrunner, A History of Christianity in Ghana (Accra: Waterville Publishing House, 1967). Also see Nehemia Levtzion, Islam in West Africa: Religion, Society, and Politics to 1800 (Aldershot, Hamps., U.K., and Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1994).

(2) See Wande Abimbola, "Religion, World Order, and Peace: An Indigenous African Perspective," Cross Currents 60 (September, 2010): 307-309. Also see Esther O. Ayandokun, "Beyond the Religious Crisis: Building a Tension-Free Society in Nigeria," in Edison M. Kalengyo, James N. Amanze, and Isaac Deji Ayeghoyin, eds., Our Burning Issues: A Pan African Response (Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches, 2013), p. 285.

(3) John Paul II, "Preserve the African Roots," address to students of Cote D'Ivoire, Yamoussoukro, May 11, 1980.

(4) Edward W. Blyden, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (Edinburgh: University Press, 1967; orig.: London: W. B. Whittingham, 1887), pp. 11-12. See also I. M. Lewis, ed., Islam in Tropical Africa, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN, and London: Indiana University Press, 1980; orig., 1966), p. 74; and Sulayman S. Nyang, Islam, Christianity, and African Identity (Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1990), p. 46.

(5) Blyden, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, p. 2.

(6) Anson P. Atterbury, Islam in Africa: Its Effects--Religious, Ethical, and Social--upon the People of the Country (New York: G. P. Putnam's Son, 1899; repr.: New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), p. 182.

(7) Ibid., p. 161.

(8) Ibid., p. 186.

(9) P. Baudin, Fetichism and Fetich Worshipers, tr. M. McMahon (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1985; orig.: New York and Cincinnati, OH: Benziger, 188s), p. 103.

(10) Ibid., pp. 103-104.

(11) Nyang, Islam, Christianity, and African Identity, pp. 34-36.

(12) John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Interreligious Dialogue (Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld, 2001), p. 231.

(13) Ibid., pp. xv and xvi.

(14) Ibid., p. xvi.

(15) Ibid., p. 234.

(16) Ibid., p. 235.

(17) Ibid., p. 117.

(18) See Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Encounters and Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History I (Rome: Pontificio istituto di studi arabi e d'islamistica, 2000), p. 58.

(19) Ali A. Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Boston, MA, and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1986), p. 239.

(20) Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), p. 76.

(21) Mazrui, The Africans, p. 239.

(22) Nyang, Islam, Christianity, and African Identity, p. 77.

(23) Nkrumah, Consciencism, p. 76.

(24) See Obiri E. Addo, Kwame Nkrumah: A Case Study of Religion and Politics in Ghana (New York: University Press of America, 1997), p. 33.

(25) See Lewis, Islam in Tropical Africa, p. 91.

(26) J. Spencer Trimingham, Islam in West Africa (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 221.

(27) See, e.g., John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Chaucer Press, 1969); Peter Sarpong, Retrospect: Some Aspects of Ghanaian Culture (Tema: Ghana Publishing Corp., 1974); and Justin S. Ukpong, African Theologies Now (Eldoret, Kenya: Gaba Publications, AMECEA Pastoral Institute, 1984).

(28) Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion, Studies in World Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), p. 176.

(29) Louis Brenner, "Introduction: Muslim Representations of Unity and Differences in the African Discourse," in Louis Brenner, ed., Muslim Identity and Social Change in SubSaharan Africa (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 1.

(30) See James Anquandah, Agenda Extraordinaire: 80 Years of the Christian Council of Ghana (Accra: Asempa, 2009), p. 75.

(31) See a historical write-up of the Centre for Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies (April, 2013), p. 1. See also Dan Dzide, NCS(a)so: The Church in Ghana in Service of Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace, 1960-2010 (Golden Jubilee Brochure, 2012), p. 2.

(32) The National Peace Council was set up in 2007 by the Ministry of the Interior in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme's Country Office as an autonomous advisory body to assist the government to engage parties in conflict in dialogue toward peace. It consists of eleven members who represent various religious, social, or political groups.

(33) See Johnson Apenad Mbillah, "The Causes of Present Day Muslim Unrest in Ghana," a thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Birmingham for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999), pp. 3-6.

(34) See Nathan Samwini, The Muslim Resurgence in Ghana since 1950: Its Effects upon Muslims and Muslim-Christian Relations, Christentum und Islam im Dialog/Christian-Muslim Relations 7 (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006), pp. 191-208.

(35) Elizabeth Amoah, "African Indigenous Religions and Interreligious Relationship," paper presented at Westminster College, Oxford, autumnal IIC2 lecture, October 22, 1998, p. 7.

(36) This is basically a statue of St. Anthony believed to have been left there by the Portuguese, who first arrived at the shores of the Gold Coast ini4i8 and who built a castle as their residence and place of worship. The people who later found the statue adopted it as one of their "abosom" (gods).

(37) See Nathan Iddrisu Samwini, "The Need for and Importance of Dialogue of Life in Community Building: The Case of Selected West African Nations," Journal of Interreligious Studies, no. 6 (April, 2011), pp. 2-6; available at Samwini.pdf.

(38) Trimingham, Islam in West Africa, pp. 221-222.

(39) See Amoah, "African Indigenous Religions," p. 7.

(40) Underlying the tolerant and open-minded religious attitude is the deep-rooted belief that religious institutions are not enemies but are meant to complement each other, for all of these religions have only one source, the Supreme Deity. In this way, Africans-- Akan, Yoruba, and Igbo--perceive religion or religiosity in a holistic and spiritual sense that enables them to deal with their pluralistic religious environment with relative ease, which is so surprising to the outsider.

(41) See Debrunner, A History of Christianity in Ghana, p. 240.

(42) See Enid Schildkrout, The People of the Zongo: The Transformation of Ethnic Identities in Ghana (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 69-165.

(43) See Amoah, "African Indigenous Religions," p. 4.

(44) See Anquandah, Agenda Extraordinaire, p. 70.

(45) See Wole Soyinka, "Religion against Humanity," Intervention at the 2012 Conference on the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence, United Nations Headquarters, New York, September 21, 2012, p. 2.

(46) See G. F. Kojo Arthur, Cloth as Metaphor: Re-reading theAdinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana (Legon: Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 2001), p. 82.
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Author:Sarbah, Cosmas Ebo
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Geographic Code:60SUB
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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