Culture, Religion, and Colonization in Africa

From my personal experience, I interacted with many informed African sisters and brothers – from the motherland and from the diaspora – who really seem to be very conscious and educated of history and social forces, but can’t get beyond the brittle and one-directional view of history when it comes to Africa.

They usually pause the dilemma as such: either Africa had its own history, its own systems of governance, its own culture and spirituality, or we should simply submit to the alienating argument that Africans learned everything through interacting with outside groups. It is either the first option or the second, and the second suggests that interaction only happened through one-sided oppression. They then argue – using fancy Anglophone and Western-philosophical concepts, ironically – that Africans must ‘return’ to their own belief systems and cultures. They should abandon the religions of the oppressors – namely Christianity and Islam – and other cultural notions and social structures that are not purely ‘African’. This is because ’emancipation starts in our minds’. Some of these African sisters and brothers would even opt for atheism as allegedly more consistent with anti-oppression, forgetting that atheism is historically a relatively modern European construct that is only defined by its position against religious theologies, which makes it a theological ideology too.

One can see that there are some basis to the argument that are quite agreeable, such as ’emancipation starts in our minds’, and that Africans lost many of their ways of living due to external forces of oppression. However, this dichotomy of argument – pure African vs. pure foreign ways – is quite ahistorical (i.e., detached from grounded historical evidence). It either reflects reactionary tendencies or simply misinformed ones.

There are some points and examples to respond with:

1- Ancient Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eastern Sudan) was not only a dominant trading partner with non-African groups – such as the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula – but was also a colonizer of the most historically civilized part of Arabia – Yemen. Abyssinia also was responsible for many big expansive raids the Arabs of the Peninsula faced (and raids always have victims and prisoners/slaves). One of these raids is well-recorded in Islamic history, when the army of Abraha reached Mecca and almost destroyed the Ka’ba, a few decades before the emergence of Islam. The same Islamic history tells us about how the early Muslims took refuge in Abyssinia, how they were well-treated by its people and rulers, and how the prophet of Islam himself was very appreciative and praising of the Abyssinian, Christian king.

The notion that history only records Africans being victims of colonization and enslavement is an ahistorical notion. Africans have their own history of oppressing others and oppressing each other, and there should be no surprise in that. It is the main theme in history: nations interacting with each other, for ages, through trading, wars, and ideas… but mainly through wars. This is not to discredit, however, that the quantity and quality of oppression which Africans endured in the last few centuries have no equal in recorded history.

That is humanity’s history, simply, and just like our present, is not subject to total praise or total condemnation. It is a mix of both, in every phase of it, and it is ultimately the school of life – good and evil interacting and battling each other every day, even within our own selves, and no one has the option of being a neutral observer.

2- The Kushites of Nubia (modern day Sudan and Southern Egypt) have historical records of interacting with groups outside the continent, sometimes peacefully and sometimes with weapons in their hands. Inter-influence and inter-fertilization of ideas and culture happened in that period. In addition, the historical relationship between the Kushites and the ancient Egyptians is not all romantic. Just as much as there were exchanges of ideas (spiritual beliefs, sciences, crafts and arts) there were also exchanges of animosity and military occupation between Kush and Egypt. Slavery was normalized in that environment.

3- As Cheikh Anta Diop explained in ‘African Origins of Civilization’, and as supported by much evidence, monotheism and religions are not strangers to Africans. Diop laid out historical evidence and analysis that the monotheism of Abrahamic religions is our own merchandise, re-packaged and re-presented to us Africans through multiple interactions (which were not all based on domination). Interestingly, and in addition to that, all the Abrahamic religions have intimate historical relations with Africa since their very inceptions. African societies incubated these doctrines since their very early years, to a point that makes these African societies authentic contributors, not mere receivers.

It is quite perplexing for an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian to tell him that Christianity was brought to his/her land by the European colonizers. This is because it is not true. Christianity was not born in Europe, and when Ethiopia knew Christianity most of Europe never heard of it yet, let alone adopted it. (Not to mention that early European Christians endured centuries of oppression in Europe, before the church later inherited the facade and infrastructure of the ‘pagan’ Roman civilization, and then promoted the  emergent version of Christianity, to the colonized peoples, as a ‘white’ religion). We cannot ignore such important historical records.

(source unknown)

4- In addition to all of this, please let’s not forget the original purpose and nature of religions, which is spiritual and ‘human’ in essence. Religions are ideologies about the self and the sublime; the individual and the universe; the conscious being and the surrounding environment. It is not about race or culture per se. This ‘universal’ nature makes religions interactive and dynamic platforms since the beginning of history. They learn from each other and build upon each other, and do not evolve independently or one-directional. One’s criteria for embracing a religious path, of the many paths available, are not the geographical histories. The criteria are rather about how responsive the path is to one’s psychological concerns and holistic sensibilities. It is essentially a personal, ideational, ‘human’ journey; whether some people view it as such or not.

While it is true that many groups in history used religious doctrines as tools of domination, it is quite misinformed to concede the whole religious heritage to these groups. They do not represent but themselves, as do all other groups. It is quite ironic to view, for example, all Abrahamic religions as weapons of oppression when history tells us that all these religions saw the first light by oppressed peoples living under oppressive conditions – be they the early Jews, the early Christians, or the early Muslims. Moreover, if we take a look at the history of anti-colonial resistance in Africa, we shall not be surprised that many religious groups and figures were involved passionately in it for the liberation of African peoples. Islam-inspired and Christianity-inspired anti-colonial movements are many on the record.

5- Although some folks, for ideological reasons of their own, like to reduce the complexity of religions to simple and primitive social structures, organized myth, and what not, it is that ideological drive and bias that these folks have which make them create crude images of religions and then continue attacking and discrediting these images, not the real and complex phenomena. To engage too much with such simplifications means to concede that they carry serious value.

6- Civilization, at any stage in recorded history, is a result of cumulative and mutual learning. There is no civilization that was established from scratch, independently of predecessors. Africans were, and are, part of this vast human heritage. To rigidly define ‘African’ versus ‘foreign’ values and ideas is to alienate Africa from the rest of humanity. This is not ’emancipation’; it is alienation and more limitation.

7- It is a legitimate call to go back to the past… to learn from it, for our present and future. What this needs to happen effectively is to keep a ‘contemporary eye’ on things. I do firmly agree that Africans need to redefine their identity – not to arrest it or limit it to unreasonable boundaries, but to draw strength from it in order to reclaim their rightful place as equal and dignified members of the global human community.

I am neither surprised, nor condemning, that most contemporary pan-Africanist literature is written in European languages, by figures who mostly received Eurocentric education, and even some of them identify with Western philosophies which do not only propose political and economic visions, but existential visions as well. I do not necessarily call these brothers and sisters ‘alienated’ from their true identities; rather I would say that they are in search for their identity, just like the rest of us. It is not an easy process, and it is yet incomplete. I won’t even mind if they try to adopt what they call ‘African belief systems’ – some of which are truly so, and I respect very much, but I don’t think that they necessarily make a person more ‘African’ than other Africans. I just get ‘a bit disappointed’ when all these real internal conflicts are misdirected and miscommunicated into straw-figures and imagined enemies.

(Also published here:

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