Both Islam and Christianity were not initial religions in Africa but they were adopted later having been introduced by foreigners from other parts of the world. Both religions entered African continent from the northern side. Islam entered North Africa from Middle East and spread to western and eastern Sudan via trade routes. The traders and Islam missionaries followed the Indian Ocean routes to bring Islam to the Eastern Africa and the coast. Christianity entered North Africa from Palestine and spread through the Sahara to other areas like Ethiopia in the first century. However, Christianity in North Africa was replaced with Islam during the Islam conquest in seventh century and only a few churches survived this transformation. Later in fifteenth century, African Christianity was reintroduced to the west coast and east coast regions by Portuguese and later reinforced by Italian and Jesuit missionaries whose efforts led to massive conversion to Christianity. Both African Christianity and African Islam are phenomenal religions having historically and theologically similarities as well as their own modifications in their development which is highly significant.
Both African Christianity and African Islam were viewed to be theologically similar in that they both preached of a one supreme deity (Allah for Islam and Jehovah for Christians). Although it took time and various phases for the teachings to be upheld, it is obvious that both teachings revolved around One God as the Supreme Being above all. In both religions, God is said to have direct impact on people’s daily lives and the occurrences they face in life. According to an ancient poem translated to show the myths of Swahili people and their understanding of the Islam religion, it says that the Giver/God created everything including humans, demons, life and even death. Also, He created destiny to guide the lives of his people from beginning to the end (Ray 145).
African Christians also believed that God was involved in their lives. A good example is the prophetic and healing powers of Prophet Simon Kimbangu who was said to heal the sick through the power of Holy Spirit bestowed upon him by God. Through his actions, people who had traditionally believed and worshipped various gods were drawn to the new faith of African Christianity. Many who had initially used protective charms and beads to reach communicate to their gods abandoned those practices and discarded their rosaries to adopt the new Christian faith. It is said that some traditional healers and diviners converted to Christianity after witnessing the powerful works of God through his Prophet Kimbangu (Ray 174,175).
While both African Christianity and African Islam theologies were developed under One Supreme God, there were human intermediaries who connected God and the people. People did not have the same level of faith at the same time but some were more rooted in the religion and through their strong faiths, others were attracted to the respective religion. For example, Islam Sheikh Bamba was more rooted in the Islam faith and he started a brotherhood that restored hope to the Wolof people of Senegal. He was exiled by the colonial government. It was believed that committing to an Islamic religious guide like Sheikhs was a way of committing to Allah. African Christians believed through the human intermediaries like Kimbangu of Senegal who performed miracles to remind people that God and Jesus were still thinking about them. In South Africa, the man seen as the African Messiah was Isaiah Shembe who also performed miracles like healing the sick thus drawing many people to conversion.
Therefore, it is obvious that African Christianity and African Islam were both introduced by foreigners mostly through trade relations and missionary efforts. The two religions reached Africa from the Middle East through North Africa. Both taught of a One God who was above all and who was the creator of everything including life and death.
In the development of the two religions in Africa, one main difference noted is that of the tolerance towards the African traditional religious practices. It has been revealed that African Islam is by far more tolerant to the African traditional practices such as those dealing with misfortunes and fortunes like rituals, divinity etc. In African traditional religion, people practiced various rituals and ceremonies to appease their gods depending on the circumstance they were facing. For example, in Kenya, traditional elders could offer sacrifices of burnt animals under a certain tree believed to have been holy to call for rain during the draught seasons. In Nigeria, people conducted a yam festival to ask for favor before the god of harvest before planting their yams. Others used charms to keep off evil spirits and avoid bad omen or misfortune.
When the Islam was introduced in Africa, it did not take all these traditional practices away but rather found a way to incorporate them in the religion. According to Abrahim Tahir, African traditional religion and African Islamic religion co-exists with each been molded alongside the other. Tahir observes that trying to change the African religion and replace it with pure Islamic religion could be disastrous. In a novel entitled The Last Imam, he tells of a Muslim Imam who was against accommodation of the African religious practices and was determined to abolish it and uphold pure Islam religion. The result was a division and resistance from the people and later a great storm, lightning and prolonged drought causing great tribulation to the locals. Non- accommodating Imam was replaced with more accommodating ones who allowed the African traditional practices to co-exist with the Islamic religion (Ray 159)
This is very different from the African Christianity. History reveals that once the people converted to Christianity, they abandoned their earlier ways and fixed their trust in Jesus. A good example is that of Nigeria where although Moses in Chinua Achebe’s book-Arrow of God could accommodate some of the traditional rituals in Christianity, the success was short-term. Also, believers abandoned their traditional rosaries and healers and relied on Christianity to solve their live problems through people like Prophet Simon Kimbangu and Shembe of South Africa.
Influence of Christianity and Islam on African Traditional Religion
There has been many studies and scholarly work debating on whether African Traditional religion influenced Christianity and Islam or whether Islam and Christianity influenced African traditional religions. This is a controversial topic because different scholars have shown different inclination and the best way to respond to this question is to look at it realistically. For example, a paper by Acquah, (2011), states that it is African traditional religion that influenced Christianity and Islam. On the other hand, (Ibenwa, 2014) clearly argue that it was Christianity and Islam religion that influenced African traditional religion.
Although African traditional religion had some impact on Christianity and Islam, it is evidenced by most scholars that indeed Christianity and Islam impacted greatly on the African traditional religion. The slight influences of the African traditional religion on the Christianity and Islam could be termed to be facilitators so that the Africans could understand the message being preached to them using some traditional cues such as replacing protective charms with holy water. According to Anyeidu, African traditional religion was a system of rituals and taboos that were passed from one generation to another to guide the traditional Africans. Christianity and Islam are on the other hand considered as the foreign religions that were introduced into Africa from foreign lands (1999). However, looking at the contemporary African society, it is easy to see how much things have changed with the people now affiliating themselves with either Christianity or Islam.
Some of the greatest influence of Christianity and Islam on African traditional religion is the abandonment of traditional rituals and customs that distinguished Africans from other cultures. For example, in some cultures, widows were victimized and forced to sleep with their dead spouses or even drink the water used to clean the corpse. Other African Traditional religious practices included killing of twins as they were regarded as a bad omen but with introduction of the foreign religions, such customs were abolished (Ibenwa, 2014).