The Very Short Introductions Series of Oxford University Press offers many opportunities to expand one's thinking and experience. For example, I read and reviewed John Parker's and Richard Rathbone's short, challenging "Very Short Introduction" to African HistoryAfrican History: A Very Short Introduction. As a result, I became interested in pursuing a new book in the series about Africa: "African Religions: A Very Short Introduction" (2014) by Jacob Olupona. (While thinking about Olupona's book, I also heard for the first time a song, "Africa" by the rock group Toto which speaks of the fascination Africa exerts on a young man from a different culture. The song helped me understand my interest in the two "Very Short Introductions" to Africa that I have now read.) Born and raised in Nigeria, Jacob Olupona received his advanced degrees in the United States. He has written prolifically on indigenous African religions with a particular emphasis on the transmission of these religions to the African diaspora. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School and also holds an appointment as Professor of African and African American studies at Harvard.
As does the book by Parker and Rathbone, Olupona's study describes the difficulty of making generalizations about Africa and about religions in Africa given the size and diversity of the continent and its peoples and the nature of the historical record. He begins his book with a brief discussion of the historiography of the study of African religions. The goal of his short study is "to provide a fuller picture of what these traditions are and do for their practitioners in order to inspire intellectual curiosity in readers who are encountering these traditions for the first time, while also encouraging scholars and educators to think creatively about how to introduce these traditions to their students."
Olupona proceeds by offering broad observations on the subject of religion, followed by informed generalizations on African religions followed in its turn by specific examples. He notes several differences between how religion is conceived in the West on one hand and in indigenous African religions on the other hand. In the West, with Christianity, religion and politics have been separated with the Enlightenment into separate spheres, the personal, and the secular and public. Indigenous African religions tend not to make this sharp distinction between the religious and the secular. Further, Christianity and Islam, which have come to be predominant in Africa, view religion in universalist terms while indigenous African religions tend to be local and particular Olupona writes: "Religious worldviews, often unique to different ethnic groups, reflect people's identities and lie at the heart of how they relate to one another, to other people, and to the world at large.". African religions tend to be practice oriented rather than oriented to doctrine and belief. Olupona draws other distinctions and parallels between indigenous religions and religions imported to Africa throughout his study.
The successive chapters of the book become increasingly more specific and move from worldview and myth in indigenous religion, to gods, ancestors, and spirits, to the role of figures such as kings, diviners, priests, and witches, to religious ceremonies and rituals, such as rituals for marriage, rites of passage and death, to the use of art, music, and dance in the service of religion. Much of the material is fascinating. It also tends to become difficult to follow in a short book as Olupona offers highly specific examples from a number of separate indigenous religious practices. The individual detail in the book tends to overshadow the broader picture, and probably necessarily so.
The focus of the book is on indigenous religion. Olupona also devotes a short but learned chapter to the histories of Christianity and Islam in Africa, to the manner in which they spread, and the way in which they compete with each other in current Africa. Olupona also explores how various indigenous traditions tended to blend with Christianity or Islam, creating some unique practices in various African versions of both religions.
In a final chapter, Olupona examines the continued influence of African indigenous religions in the African diaspora. He offers discussions of churches and other institutions in the United States, Britain, Ukraine, the Caribbean and elsewhere showing the spread and increasing popularity of these religions, both as practiced by sincere believers and, in some cases, as exploited by charlatans. Olupona concludes: "[I]f in our world of increasingly hyphenated and hybrid identities, it has become more challenging to say what African religion is, it has become perhaps even more challenging to say for certain what it isn't. If we look more carefully, we can find manifestations of it everywhere."
Olupona's book offers a thoughtful, detailed introduction to African religions in the scope of about 120 pages. The book fulfilled its goal of making the subject interesting to a curious reader with little prior knowledge. Readers with an interest in comparative religion will particularly enjoy this "very short introduction" to African religions.
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc; 1 edition (10 February 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199790582
- ISBN-13: 978-0199790586
- Product Dimensions: 17.3 x 1.8 x 11.2 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 141 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 89,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)