#YNaijaEssays: The biggest lie that we’ve been told is that religion is as simple as it first appears


Last weekend, a 13-second video of Timothy Owoeye, the Osun State Assembly Majority Leader was released online. In the clip, Owoeye, who was naked was being queried by some individuals on why he was without his clothes at the middle of the night. Several reports say the lawmaker was seen taking a ritual bath with blood, a claim that is yet to be substantiated.


But this is not the first time a politician has been either indirectly accused or directly caught engaging in a traditional religious rituals as a way to consolidate power or curry favour from indigenous deities. In 2003, it was revealed that former Anambra governor, now Minister for Labour and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige in the company of Chris Uba visited the Okija Shrine, where he reportedly swore an oath of allegiance to his political godfathers after winning the state’s governorship election.

It is believed that people resort to indigenous worship and its often powerful rituals in a time of desperation – a position that is debatable. However, before the revelation of Ngige’s visit, Okija housed many shrines and was the port of call for people with unresolved personal disputes seeking the gods for justice. Reports say the guilty party usually died within a year and the priests at the shrine requested that the bodies of the victim and all their material possessions be brought to the shrine. So, when in 2004, the Anambra State Commissioner of Police, Felix Ogbuadu and a team of policemen raided the shrine it was unsurprising that they recovered headless bodies, human corpses, skulls and a register of names of persons who visited the shrine and allegedly participated in its rituals.

So many Nigerians have tried avoiding even mentioning the words – ‘Traditional’ and ‘Religion’ – together as the most likely image that these words conjure is that of a cult group walking past the street holding dark magic while chanting incantations.This ever-present furore is as a result of the ‘single story’ that has been passed on through generations, especially when other religions were introduced and the Traditional Religion termed barbaric. By Traditional Religion, we mean those religions which, unlike other world religions that have spread into many countries and cultures have remained in their original cultural environment.

There is no agreement on a single name to be used when referring to this type of religion. Some names – paganism, fetishism – always and everyday convey a negative meaning and, in addition, do not really describe traditional religion well. Nowadays, even a term such as animism sounds deceptive to fanatics of other religions.

But we must not throw out the conspicuous mystery that shrouds the practice of traditional religion, just like cult groups. More reason why anyone not in the practice of a traditional religion will always categorise it as ‘too different’ and will always think they are ‘not of the Most High’. After all, African traditional religion has no doctrine that guides worshippers.

Religion is a double-edged sword. All religion in practice, bends to the will of the adherents, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. Traditional religious practices in Nigeria are not immune to this phenomenon. Politicians, desperate youth, fraudsters and greedy persons turn to the worst parts of our traditional religions because orthodox religions are essentially neutered, and offer little to no options for adherents to take their lives into their own hands. Years of structure have built orthodox religions around central figures, incorrigible beings whose rules must be adhered to. Traditional religions are more flexible, allowing the person insert themselves into the role of arbiter. Traditional religions terraform to match the worshipper’s need.  

There are numerous reports of kidnappings where the kidnapped are never found and are believed to have been used for money rituals by influential individuals and politicians. The situation worsened when security agencies, particularly the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) began clamping down on internet fraudsters. The fraudsters used to a luxurious lifestyle and not wanting to return to penury turned to traditional religion as an extra layer of assurance that their fraudulent activities would remain successful and evade the scrutiny of security operatives. Because of these and many more incidences, our traditional religions bear a stigma, but if we can drop our biases and look objectively, we’ll see that our religions are no worse than any other religion. 

Religion in practice is and has always come with its fair share of bloodletting. For instance, the spiritual and religious roots of jihad can be traced directly to the Qur’an. Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim explains that Prophet Muhammad lived a life of religious extremism and urged all Muslim faithful to do likewise.

“Consider two well-known hadiths from the anthologies of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, considered to be the two most authentic collections of hadith. In one, Muhammad says, “I will expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and not leave any but Muslim.” In another, he says, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshiped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger… then they save their lives and property from me.”

Nabeel argues that radicalisation of Islam under umbrellas like the Islamic State (I.S)  and Boko Haram can be traced directly to the teachings of the prophet who all Muslims are enjoined to emulate and in fact “the Quran itself reveals a trajectory of jihad reflected in the almost 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Muhammad’s message featured violence with increasing intensity, culminating in Surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran, and its most expansively violent teaching. Throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Quran culminates in its ninth chapter.

Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians (9.29) so that Islam may “prevail over all religions” (9.33). Muslims who do not heed the call to fight are regarded as hypocrites (9.44-45) but those who heed have the promise of martyrdom or paradise awaiting them.

“Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits (9.111)”.

Here are some specific references in the Quran ordering the extermination of Jews and Christians and “infidels”.

  • Fight the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)… until they pay the ransom tax and feel subdued.”
  •  “The Jews say Ezra is the Son of God and the Christians say the Messiah is the Son of God… May Allah destroy them!” (Surah 9.30:)
  • “Slay the infidels wherever you find them” (pages 617-619).

Nigeria is no stranger to Jihad. In 1804, the Muslim cleric, Shehu, Uthman dan Fodio, a native of the Toronkawa tribe of Fulani descent led a holy war against the pre-existing Hausa nations, who were polytheists and traditional religious worshippers in order to purify Islam among the Habe states of Northern Nigeria. Besides purging the land of paganism, dan Fodio’s Jihad was waged for often undiscussed socio-political and economic reasons. Fulanis had remained aliens in Hausa land and Borno despite the fact that they had lived there for centuries, disenfranchised from participating in government. It’s also been said that the cleric bucked against corruption, perversion of justice and the illegal, erratic and excessive taxation imposed on the masses by the governments of the Habe states, which included cattle tax (Jingali), market tax, rent for the use of grazing lands imposed on the Fulanis and the collection of increased tributes from farmers. The holy war lasted a bloody 6 years (1804-1810), with Uthman dan Fodio eventually emerging victorious. As a result, the old Hausa aristocracy was replaced by a Fulani aristocracy (through the Sokoto Caliphate), dispossessing the Hausas of political authority and Islam was instituted as the only religion of the North.

Christianity has not fared much better. Since its emergence over 2,000 years ago, Christianity has routinely turned to violence as a tool to propagate itself. Prominent on the list of violent surges are the Crusades (1095–1291). The Crusades began as a means to take back territory that Islam had taken when it conquered a region that spanned from India to the Holy Land, Jerusalem. In 1095, “Pope Urban II promised the knights of Europe forgiveness of their sins if they went on a Crusade to win back Jerusalem for Christianity. Many responded by taking the cross and showed this act by cutting out red crosses before sewing them into their tunics.” Jerusalem was eventually captured in 1099. The first crusade was so violent, a Latin chronicle written in 1100-1101 records that “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.” However, because Christians could not retain control over the territory they’d re-captured, several more crusades took place with the aim of reclaiming land or driving out marauding Ottomans altogether lasting for a period of around 200 years.

There was also the Spanish Inquisitions, a tool used by civil authorities and the church to cleanse Spain of non-believers, which included Jews and Protestants. “Accused heretics were identified by the general population and brought before the tribunal. They were given a chance to confess their heresy against the Catholic Church and were also encouraged to indict other heretics. If they admitted their wrongs and turned in other aggressors against the church they were either released or sentenced to a prison penalty. If they would not admit their heresy or indict others, the accused were publicly introduced in a large ceremony before they were publicly killed or sentenced to a life in prison.” The Spanish Inquisition lasted over 300 years, during which time at least 2,000 Spaniards were executed or exiled. The Spanish inquisition also had a long lasting impact on the people’s on South America, erasing their culture and killing a major part of their population at the time.

Even more terrifying were the witch trials which occurred between 1550 and 1700, saw at least 80,000 people tried for witchcraft and half of them burned alive or executed. Interestingly, the witch trials appeared to have been a result of competing “market share”, between Protestants and the Catholic Church.

Even outlier religions like Buddhism have been known to actively incite violence against other religions like Islam. Even today, we have the Rohingya Crisis, where the Buddhist majority Myanmar is slaughtering its Muslim populations for refusing to convert. 

Issues surrounding religion have always been hot-buttons, spanning across generations and geography. Where ever one finds themselves, they are either conforming or rebelling against a religious idea. The sensitivity surrounding religion is not for naught. For generations religion has either being a source of hope and love or a source of misery. Many have found God through a doctrine while many have found demise through the same source.

Religion not only builds or destroys, it also plays an essential role in shaping humans. Throughout history, religion has been responsible not only for building or destroying but also for bringing some form of progress to society. Many kingdoms, empires and even modern civilisation have been greatly influenced by religion, and these religions could sometimes be very fluid.

Often time, religion changes in accordance with propaganda, for example, the Romans adopted Christianity when they saw the power it wielded. It could be argued that the emergence of Christianity in the region was no coincidence. Patently the religion was adopted soon after the fall of the Roman Empire and many believe that the Romans used Christianity as a medium to regain dominance in the world. This is evident in the sheer power and influence the Pope possesses. A man whose influence rivals powerful heads of states.

But Christianity did not stop there, while the Roman Catholic is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian religion, it is certainly not the only institutions. Protestantism was created the original Martin Luther, a former Catholic priest who became disillusioned with the corruption within the Catholic Church and chose to break away. The cause he championed, Protestantism turns 501 years old this year. The Anglican Church was created by the King of England who felt the Catholic Church’s restrictive laws on divorce and annulments too much to bear and sought an alternative by breaking away from the old order. Since then several thousand denominations have sprung up, emphasizing the irony of sectarian divisions in a religion that greatly believes in and preaches unity.

Today, there is so much division among Christians that even within churches, there are factions who choose what to believe in. It could be argued that propaganda is the reason for the diversification of the Christian faith. It could also be argued that the diversification is no mere more than a misguided ideology that there is a special and exclusively unique way to worship God.

Many religions, be it an Abrahamic faith or paganism, have a set of doctrines guiding them. Some of these doctrines in the past have served as law. Many of which still guide human morality. Doctrines are not the only thing that guide religion, other factors also determine religious operations, such as relics and attires. But religion is a matter of perception and our traditional religions have fallen victim to a plague of public relations A golden cup is usually used as a visual representation of the Holy Grail, has been marketed to Africans as more appealing and acceptable than an eerie looking, red stained, toothed, fetish mask. While both of them serve as relics to a time, period and the culture of a people, one gives a sense of pure divinity amongst a people of good will and guidance, while the other screams of a time of barbaric and inhuman practices.

It now becomes inevitable that if a religion outside the Abrahamic faith is to be generally accepted then it must strip itself of context and culture, and it must do this to a general acceptability, narrowing the choices and human freedom of its believers, so as to guide them towards a path of predictability and a satisfying end. We already see this happening with Religious African Art that is stolen and exported to the West where it is feted and lauded for its abstraction and creativity but not for its divinity.

More so, quite a number of persons see the two major religions in Nigeria today as an experiment forced on West Africans by colonial plunderers, who stole precious art from South America, Asia and Africa. Unlike Europe for whom art was valued currency, these other countries made art for practical reasons, often as historical repositories or religious artefacts and iconography. This is especially true for Egyptian historical artefacts, where coffins and burial vases were a literal guarantee that a dead person would get to see the afterlife, were plundered and moved without respect for their religious and symbolic meaning. The ancient equivalent of refusing to let a Muslim be buried on the day of their death, or denying a Catholic their last sacrament. Stripped of their context and cultures, these art pieces have had to take on a different, more transparent divinity, appreciated solely for their rarity, their value and their connection to a now lost culture and religion.

This path of predictability is often time influenced by culture. It is funny to think about, but if Christianity had emerged from Africa, particularly eastern part of Nigeria, maybe kola nuts will be used to administer the Holy Communion. This is the influence culture has on religion. But some cultures have been deemed outright barbaric and unacceptable by law, that they can have no influence on a mainstream religion. On the other hand culture is very susceptible to religion, and so is the religion of old. Customs, rituals, symbolism and even religion could be greatly influenced by another religion so much so that the culture is almost entirely overrun, only pieces of the traditions remain to serve as a reminder of what once was. One thing is clear, there seems to be a monopoly of people who decide which religion is acceptable and which isn’t, and these dictators are not among the people who they so desperately wish to guide.

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A quick point of reference, however, is the recent Met Gala, held in the United States where a number of celebrities gathered on the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum dressed in appropriations of and homages to Catholicism. Though this year’s edition retained its usual nature of pomp and pageantry, it also had a layer of authenticity that was a problem that previous iterations of the gala lacked. The imagery displayed during the Ball had been sanctioned by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic diocese who even lent Met Gala chair, Rihanna part of his personal vestry.

He revealed that he lent Rihanna a formal mitre for the occasion. “The news said she was wearing a tiara,” he said, noting that it was actually one of his hats. “She gave it back to me this morning…She was very gracious.”

In spite of the Catholic Church’s support, which donated rare pieces to this exhibition that celebrated clothing art of Catholic origin, many Catholics called it blasphemous.

While it is believed that the church did this because it had realised that there is more than one way through which a religion can remain sacred, even when stripped of its context and culture.

When Islam and Christianity was first visited on Africans, their proponents and champions talked about the indispensability of their own gods and when resistance seemed like a threat, they brought in the philosophy of an evil religion and the promises of better lives; with it, doctrines and Holy Books that have been acting as a guide. There seemed to be more transparency in these new introductions and people began to see reasons why traditional religion was not ideal. Besides, because traditional religion was only passed on through oral traditions, so the frenzy has always seemed legitimate.

There is an argument that contrary to the accusations of polytheism, Traditional African religions do recognise the existence of a Supreme Being, same as orthodox religion. They also do share the similiarities of depending on third party messengers to communicate with the Almighty, such as ancestors or chief priests. There is also a belief in other beings which are above humankind but are less than the Supreme Being. They may be called spirits and some experts on the Traditional Religions sometimes call them “deities” or “gods”, with a small “d” or “g”. Deceased adult relatives, i.e. ancestors, are also objects of belief.

Worship in Traditional Religions is directed generally to the spirits and the ancestors and sometimes to God. It takes the form of prayer at shrines and communal sacrifices. Fear of the evil spirits or ancestors motivates many acts of worship.

Traditional Religions do not generally lay claim to revelations as some other religions. Nor are they enunciated in hypothetical declarations of a theological or philosophical nature. The resources of their contents are more often found in their celebrations, stories and proverbs, and conveyed through attitudes, customs and codes of conduct.

Traditional Religions have in the past formed one piece with the cultures of the people who practised them. Among these peoples, the same word was often used for religion, custom and culture. These forces and values held their societies together. The meeting with Christianity, other religions and also with western culture, and especially with modern science and technology and urbanisation, has affected these societies and their Traditional Religions. Nevertheless, the influence of Traditional Religions remains strong, particularly at moments of crisis.

Perhaps it is time we investigated our biases against our traditional religion and help them evolve into contemporary iterations that reflect our current world.

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