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Religious Pluralism And Tolerance Among The Yorubas

Source: BY Professor J.F ADE AJAYI
Ade Ajayi is a Emeritus Professor of History, University of Ibadan

RELIGIOUS tolerance and pluralism are usually discussed in the context of a major politically dominant community having to tolerate and extend religious freedom to a number of minority religious groups. The western historical experience is to move from the exclusivity of eius cuius religio and seek to create a secular state where politics and religion are kept apart. Examples of two major religious communities inhabiting two different regions of the same country, such as we find in Nigeria and the Republic o the Sudan call for a different approach.

Traditional Yoruba Religion

As in most traditional African societies, the Yoruba regarded religion as an aspect of culture that required no controversy, competition, or crusades of evangelisation. There was a common belief in one Supreme God who manifested his essence in variety of spirits and natural phenomena. God was worshipped through various deities, who controlled these spirits and natural phenomena. Each individual, family or state had its own deity, which was worshipped, and pacified.

The worship of the different deities did not constitute denominations and there were no complex organisations or centrally planned liturgies. Each individual, family or state had its on role in religious activities to pacify the deities, ward off evil and achieve peace and sustainable development. Besides the common believe that the deities were but agents of the Supreme God, there was mutual respect among the different devotees of the different deities. Among the Yoruba, the most important unifying substructure of the different deities was Ifa, the divination deity, and its corpus of divination chants, which became the summation of Yoruba beliefs.

Every man is a part of the society and every man has a role to play in achieving the societal goals. Religion is regarded as part of the make-up of the entire society and, like roles, each man worships deities of his fancy in the general duty of serving the one true God. Therefore, the need did not arise to crusade, to evangelise and win converts to the cult of another deity. Peaceful coexistence thus became a social commodity that can be willed into optimal existence as the direct sum of uncoordinated individual actions, where everyone works for common goals. Thus it became possible for a husband to worship Orisa Oko (deity of Agriculture), or Ogun (deity of iron and war) while his wife worships Oya, Osun or Yemoja. No need arises for the wives to seek the soul of the husband for Osun worship.

The worshippers do not see themselves as belonging to different religions, sects or denominations. Ifa as an oracle through each of these divinities works in consonance with one another and never in discordant tunes. The oracle is their court, their judge, and their arbiter and its declarations and judgements binding since disobedience carries sanctions from the deities, which are instantaneous most of the time.

As part of culture, religion interweaves with politics but the common believe in one God neutralises the use of religion to persecute other people. The Obas and Chiefs who hold political offices are the same who preside in religious matters and this gives whatever political and administrative pronouncements that are made the backing of religious sanction.

Long Cohabitation with Islam

In Yorubaland today, there exist the natural admixture of religious faiths within individual families, which, nevertheless, live happily together, and, this level of tolerance is the direct effect of tolerance inherited from the traditional religion whose accommodation and toleration paved way for Islam and Christianity. In fact, it is the tolerance of Yoruba traditional religion that metamorphosed into religious cohabitation between Islam, Christianity and traditional religion that this paper seeks to recommend as a standard practice for the attainment of peace, stability and sustainable development and the realisation of common goals in religiously plural societies.

Nowhere is this tolerance and peaceful coexistence exhibited more than in the accommodation and mutual coexistence of traditional religion, Islam and Christianity in Yoruba religion. Contacts between the Yoruba and Islam date back into antiquity, probably between 11 and 12th centuries, when Oduduwa and Lamurudu (Nimrod) a certain Phoenician of Coptic background is said to have entered Ile-Ife. Lamurudu was said to be a Mecca prince, although we have no corresponding accounts of such people and events in Mecca. Trade relations brought the Yoruba into contact with the Kanuri of Borno as similar 'tribal' marks on their faces would suggest.

The practice of divination, as seen in Ifa, which is closely akin to the system of divination through sand writing as practised in Medieval Islam, attest to early contacts between the Yoruba and Islam. Also, reference has been made to a History of the Yoruba written in Yoruba with Arabic lettering in the 17th century although no copy of the book has yet been found. The implication of this is that traditional Yoruba religion developed an aptitude for toleration and adaptation to Islam even before the 19th century. In the Ifa corpus, Ifa was said to have supported the coming to Abeokuta of a certain Shehu, a Muslim malam from Ilorin and enjoined that he be allowed to settle for missionary activities. The Egba were to give him wives and allow their sons and daughters to join him in the practice of his religion.

The Accommodation of Christianity

Although Christianity spread in North Africa before it was established and began to spread in Europe, it was not until the time of Ajayi Crowther that Christianity came to Yorubaland. Ifa had predicted its coming to Abeokuta and had favourably declared about Christian religion and pleaded that white missionaries be allowed to establish and practise their religion. with the coming of the missionaries in the 1840s, Ifa not only reaffirmed the plea but also pleaded for tolerance.

Ajayi Crowther who, as a growing child, must have come to associate with Muslims and babalawo and other elders as religious experts, did not hesitate to consult them to syncronise religious terminologies in Islam and the traditional religion with those of Christianity. Hence Christianity borrowed names such as Olorun Olodumare, (God), Oga, Ogo, (Lord of glory), and similar appellations of God in the Scriptures of Yoruba traditional religion. From Islam, the malam, Alfa became Alufa, the Pastor in Christian terminology.

Crowther provides examples of an approach to evangalisation that was based on toleration and co-operation. When he visited Britain in 1888 for the Lambth Conference, which proved to be his last visit, he was encouraged to put together a little book published posthumously in 1892 as "Bishop Crowther's Experiences With Heathens and Mohammedans in West Africa." The Bishop said that he quickly learnt his lesson in Freetown that confrontation did not work as no one listened to his arguments. He learnt that the duty of the evangelist was first and foremost to gain a hearing, which came from mutual respect, and it was the Holy Spirit that could touch the heart so that the hearing could lead to conversion. He learnt the best Bible passages that could gain the hearing of a babalawo and those that could arrest the attention of Muslim leaders.

In approaching Muslims, he said, Muslims "can only be argued with upon the ground of what the Koran admits," for example the miraculous conception of Christ and the status of Angel Gabriel who predicted the miraculous conception. In trying to establish a mission at the Confluence of the Niger and Benue after his initial station at Igbebe had been destroyed, he sought co-operation with the Emir of Bida. He carried this into the political field where he persuaded the British government that co-operation with the emir to give oversight to British interests was cheaper and more effective than maintaining a consulate all the year round at Lokoja, Crowther was recognised and respected as a kind of unofficial consul that visited the Niger once a year on the British gunboat and went to Bida to renew the accord and exchange gifts. Crowther had no problems being invited to take land and establish mission stations within the emirates because the mission was perceived as being good for promoting trade and development. His great impediment was shortage of funds.

This approach was in contrast with the more aggressive policy of the Sudan Party who considered the Bishop's methods as too political and worldly. He was pushed out of the mission, and the Sudan Party decided to dress and live like Muslims. They began to invade the Muslim walled cities until the colonial government banned them, but their tradition of aggressive confrontation had replaced the more tolerance and co-operative approach. Crowther's methods which grew out of the culture of tolerance and co-operation of traditional Yoruba religion became the dominant approach in the Yoruba Mission.

As a result, Youraba traditional religion not only tolerated and adopted Islam, but was also favourably disposed to Christianity and offered it similar accommodation. Although this was not without some measure of persecution, but there was a basis for understanding, which led to considerable synretism especially in the Egba division. Some Christians still do not see any reason why they cannot belong to the traditional Ogboni Cult as a social and political institution. This tradition of synretism is still strong in the minds of the Yoruba, many of whom will not fear to swear on the Bible, but will desist to swear on iron for fear of Ogun.

The Yoruba provide us an example of the three dominant religions existing side by side. In a family, there could be a Bishop father, Imam son and a babalawo uncle all living happily with one another.

Towards a Culture of Tolerance and Co-operation

Christians and Muslims claim that they profess universalism in their religions, but in fact, most of the time it is the exclusivity of each faith that they stress. It is the traditional Yoruba religion that provided the context of a concern for universal human values in its religion an this has rubbed off on Yoruba Christianity and Islam. The question is how do we proceed to extend that context of tolerance and co-operation to the whole of Nigeria and the West African region.

First, Muslim an Christian leaders have to accept that there is no alternative to a policy of co-operation and toleration. Politicians have to be persuaded that this is so and national policies need to be put in place to encourage this and to foster toleration and co-operation. Rather than the secular state which has been repudiated, we need to establish practices that ensure the non-politicisation of religion. For example, it is not Muslims as such who encourage the state to sponsor candidates on holy pilgrimage to Mecca at state expense. Rather, it was the Christian politicians seeking policies to endear them to Muslim voters. Sponsoring a few Christians to Jerusalem has merely compounded the problem.

Like the issue of race in the US, it is only gradually that laws will be put in place to make religious discrimination a punishable offence. Similarly, it must be an offence to provoke devotees of other religions by gratuitous abuse and blasphemous comments in public places. Mutual respect and understanding have to be pursued as necessary measures for social stability and sustainable development. Such best practices in inter-religious tolerance and co-operation will need to be fostered through pop music, drama, TV and videos.

They will also need to be institutionalised within our educational system. Perhaps instead of religious studies where Muslims will teach children separate from Christian children taught by Christian teachers, we need lessons in Moral values synthesised from traditional religions and cultures e.g. Yoruba concept of Omoluabi, as w ell as Islam and Christianity and taught by qualified teache r s not determined according to religion.

Source: J.F. Ade Ajayi, Emeritus Professor of History University of Ibadan, Nigeria

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