As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Ayodeji Ogunnaike. Ogunnaike is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College where he teaches interdisciplinary courses on Africa and the African Diaspora highlighting the important role religion plays in these communities. His research focusses mostly on Yoruba oriṣa worship in Nigeria, but also addresses Islam in Africa, Christianity in Africa, and diaspora religions—Brazilian Candomblé in particular. Having studied Ifa divination with a high priest and diviner in Nigeria, he has a keen interest in indigenous African intellectual traditions and mythology, the subject of a forthcoming book entitled Yoruba Mythology: Stories of the Oriṣa, Ijapa, and Yoruba Heroes co-authored with his brother Oludamini.. His article is “What's Really Behind the Mask: A Reexamination of Syncretism in Brazilian Candomblé.”
Roberto Sirvent: You’ve written extensively about Yoruba orìṣà worship in Nigeria, religions of the African diaspora, Islamic architecture, and indigenous African intellectual traditions. How did you become interested in these topics?
Ayodeji Ogunnaike: The main factor in cultivating my fascination with religious traditions in and from Africa was a year I spent on a traveling fellowship as the apprentice of Chief Ifarinwale Ogundiran, the high priest of Ifa (Yoruba deity of divination and wisdom) in Modakẹkẹ, Nigeria after I graduated from college. My experience observing and learning from him not only made me realize that the lived reality of many African traditions did not fit neatly with much academic theory on religion, the myths and philosophy he taught me in that one year had a much more profound effect on me than my four years in college, and his practice of Ifa divination and healing quite literally changed what I believed was possible and how the world works and operates.
Something that always fascinated me from the time I was young was the way Yoruba people’s religious practice frequently ignored the rigid boundaries that are often assumed to separate religious traditions in the modern world. For example, my family’s landlady in Lagos was Muslim, but she happily patronized traditional diviners, and would regularly go to pastors to ask for prayer. At the same time, the Yoruba have been traditionally known for a high level of religious pluralism and harmony, rarely letting religious diversity be a reason for conflict let alone violence—although this is changing now. Having been offered models of religion from the Western world, these central aspects of Yoruba life were always intriguing and puzzling to me, and working with Muslim, Christian, and traditionalist clients with Chief Ogundiran forced me to start coming up with new theories that could explain what religion was and how people could practice it from an indigenous Yoruba perspective. This formed the basis of my forthcoming book, Forms of Worship: How Oriṣa Devotion Became Religion in Nigeria and Brazil.
My undergraduate and graduate advisor, Jacob K. Olupona, always stresses that to understand the full complexity of any religious tradition in Africa, you have to understand the others around it and the ways they interact. Both my studies and experience in Nigeria reinforced to me that the rich history of Islam and Christianity in Yorubaland are incomplete without an understanding of indigenous traditions and vice-versa, but I also realized that the movement of people, practices, and ideas between Yorubaland and the Atlantic diaspora—especially Brazil—and back again had and continue to have a profound impact on the religious landscape. I have found in working with religious specialists and conducting research that operating across Yoruba religious traditions is fascinatingly more productive than dealing with them in isolation and in fact improves the depth of my research and interactions. Applying my background with oriṣa worship in Nigeria to the Brazilian context has been very fruitful, as has an understanding of the diaspora experience in Brazil been very helpful in analyzing developments in Nigeria.
In your article, you make a careful distinction between “religion” and “forms of worship.” Why is it so important to clarify this distinction in your research?
These are both ways one could translate the Yoruba term ẹsin, a nominal form of the verb sin, meaning “to worship”. The term “religion” is actually quite unique to modern, Western languages and rarely translates directly into non-Western languages, with important ramifications for the assumptions that accompany Western notions of “religion”. For example, one would assume in a Western context that religion is separate from secular spheres of life, that there are in fact many religions, that each individual person should in theory practice only one (or none), that this is a personal and perhaps even private choice that cannot or should not be forced as primarily a matter of personal belief. All of these assumptions would be inaccurate of the way ẹsin has been practiced in traditional Yoruba settings.
From a Yoruba perspective, ẹsin is just the formalized way people worship or are devoted to the powers that are greater than they are. Because there is no secular/sacred binary, the verb sin can also be used in reference to a political leader or lineage head but is most frequently used in the contexts of the oriṣa (traditional deities). Before the advent of Islam and Christianity, it would have been odd to speak of a “traditional” religion as that described every indigenous tradition, but the term ẹsin was used to refer to each individual oriṣa tradition, indicating that there was already a high degree of religious pluralism before Abrahamic traditions came on the scene. Furthermore, they all inhabited the same cosmology rather than generating competing cosmologies, and practitioners of one ẹsin could easily get involved to various degrees in the traditions of others—with some ritual restrictions. Each ẹsin or “form of worship” was understood as its own unique way of reaching Olodumare (God) through a divine intermediary (oriṣa) that had a special type of sacred power and position in the cosmos that was useful for its own particular purposes. Furthermore, all people are born with a predestined form of worship that is most appropriate for their own nature, and while it was almost always passed down through the family lineage, when it differed, one would still be engaged with the familial form of worship as the collective nature of that worship was essential. Many people I interviewed described ẹsin as a bit like language in that one is usually born with a mother tongue, but there is no reason why another language cannot express the same ideas in different idioms, or that one could not learn as many languages as necessary for one’s specific purpose in life.
This is critical for understanding the religious lives of Yoruba people, and particularizing common assumptions about “religion” and religious practice that are frequently taken to be universal. I also found it to be of immense help in understanding why it traditionally would not occur to a Yoruba person to fight with someone over religious differences as well as the comfort in crossing what may appear to be religious boundaries from the outside.
You challenge dominant understandings of the concept of syncretism in Candomblé, especially as it relates to the mask’s function – i.e. what it hides and/or what it reveals. Can you please elaborate on this for our readers?
The dominant theory of Afro-Catholic syncretism is that enslaved Africans and their descendants hid their true devotion to African deities behind a “mask” of Catholic saints who shared certain similarities to the deities in order to fool colonial authority and evade religious oppression. While indeed useful, this framework never fully satisfied me in part because I am so accustomed to many Yoruba people having a sincere adherence to/engagement with multiple religious traditions, but also because while there was certainly widespread religious repression, colonial authorities also at times encouraged African religious practices, turned a blind eye to them, or were very aware that the saints were being worshipped like/as African deities. In addition, Catholicism was integrated into many aspects of Afro-diasporic religious traditions to an extent that did not seem necessary to evade the colonial gaze.
Using the theory of ẹsin as “forms of worship”, I found the very concept of syncretism to be problematic because it rests on the idea of two distinct “religions”. If one viewed Catholicism rather as a European form or way of worshiping God or spiritual powers, it became more like a new way of performing the same functions, much like speaking the same cosmic message in Portuguese, Spanish, or French. Both today and in history in Nigeria and Brazil, I found many practitioners simply identified a saint as the Christian/European articulation of a corresponding oriṣa, making the veneration of the saint a new and compatible form of worshipping the same spirit. In this way, Africans and their descendants would be—and frequently were—confused by the academic distinction of devotion to a saint or and oriṣa as they were ontologically linked and devotion to one implied reverence for the other. One way this issue was explained to me by practitioners was that the oriṣa have lived multiple lives all over the world, and they take new names and forms in each location, so Saint Anthony was the name Ogun had in Portugal for example: the name and appearance are different, but the being is the same.
Roger Bastide is the figure primarily responsible for developing the theory of the “mask” to solve this multiple religious affiliation, although he himself recognized that it was not a problem for many of his informants. Without rejecting the utility of “masking” devotion to African deities, I invoke the Yoruba tradition of ancestral masquerades that do “hide” or rather “house” the identity and nature of a spirit, but the elaborate costumes or masquerades that adorn them actually help to render them more relatable and intelligible to devotees and the public. New layers are constantly added to these masquerades so they keep pace with the times and remain culturally legible. In this way, the saints could indeed be a mask for African deities, but by adding another, context-specific layer that in fact reveals a new manifestation of its nature rather than being a disguise that hides true devotion—although this delicate theological process was largely unintelligible to outsiders.
In another article, you coin the term, the “Muslim Black Atlantic”. How does this analytic help you understand the intersection of religion, migration, and African intellectual traditions?
In his book, Black Atlantic Religion, Lorand Matory brilliantly lays out how the traditional African religion participated in Paul Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic, making a significant contribution to that field as well as African and Afro-diasporic religions. Most other work addressing religion in a Black Atlantic context has dealt with Christianity, and given my training and experience, I was naturally curious about the place of Muslims in the way religious traditions, material culture, and ideas were circulating, particularly because Islam is a very under-studied aspect of Afro-diasporic religious history. By linking the history of Islam in Africa with documentation about Muslims in Brazil specifically, I discovered that not only was a sizeable number of African Muslims forcibly brought to the region, they remarkably were able to reproduce the traditional Islamic educational system to a limited degree, maintained contact with West Africa, and some members of this Muslim, African diaspora were able to travel back and forth for commercial, religious, and educational purposes. In essence, despite the harsh realities of slavery and racial oppression, African Muslims managed to extend their tradition of intellectual and spiritual formation from West Africa to Brazil through the beginning of the 20th century as a result of their participation in the Black Atlantic.
Another way I found the concept of the “Muslim Black Atlantic” to be helpful was in understanding the largely unexplored impact of Muslim repatriates from the Atlantic diaspora on the history and development of Islam in West Africa. Because of their experience in diaspora with the forces of modernity and a proud affiliation with a trans-national religious tradition that had no ties to the growing force of European colonialism, members of the Muslim Black Atlantic occupied a fascinating place in late nineteenth century-early twentieth century West Africa. They frequently spoke multiple languages, had learned valuable modern trade skills, often understood the value of Western literacy and education, built cross-ethnic solidarity, and exercised complete control over their religious communities unlike most Christian groups. In addition, because most of them settled in the rapidly expanding port cities along the coast where their knowledge of modern skills and integration into Atlantic trade were most lucrative, they frequently established some of the first Muslim communities in major metropolises or at least provided the most prominent leaders of the Muslim community going forward. In essence, they created a proud, modern, transnational, and highly successful religious identity that was highly attractive to the local population because it offered many of the benefits of engaging in the new, modern Atlantic world without the European hegemony.
In another article, I use this framework to explain why there are so many mosques (and used to be many more) in major West Africa port cities that look like Iberian Catholic churches. The large number of returnees from Brazil (called Aguda) contained a significant Muslim population that was heavily involved in the creation of elaborate churches in colonial Brazil. This modern form of architecture demonstrated a connection to Atlantic commerce, showcased the wealth prominent Muslims derived from it, and offered an alternative to the architectural styles of the French and English. This “Brazilian” architecture came to represent independent African participation and success in the Atlantic world, and found its greatest expression in mosques because there were no European missionaries to control their architecture.
What role did the “fear of Arabic literacy” play in slave rebellions, police raids, and the general fear of insurrection in nineteenth-century Brazil?
Not unlike some of the Islamophobia present in the US and general Western world today, this fear became a major preoccupation of Brazilian authorities in the nineteenth century. Their inability to read the surprisingly large volume of written material produced by African Muslims made it even easier to project their fears onto it. While a certain level of Islamophobia was carried over from post-conquest Portugal, it was primarily a few smaller Muslim-led rebellions in the early nineteenth century that drove this fear, and the famous 1835 Malê Rebellion transformed it into a full-blown national frenzy. Brazilian authorities were concerned that practically all Arabic writing was political or military in nature and used to coordinate rebellion, stir up dissent, and undermine the social order. While some writing in Arabic script was used for correspondence and a decent amount took the form of protective prayers in talismanic form, the vast majority of it was in fact exclusively religious in nature and had nothing to do with rebellion. Following the Malê Rebllion, police frequently raided the houses of Africans who were even suspected of being Muslim, and any material written in Arabic script was confiscated, frequently destroyed, and often used as evidence of rebellion regardless of its actual content.
While this fear was misguided and prejudicial in many ways—and sadly destroyed much of the written legacy of Brazil’s African Muslim population—there were good reasons for Brazilian authorities to be concerned about the place of Islam in their society. One major reason was that colonial policy often sought to preserve ethnic distinctions between African populations as a way to keep them divided and easier to dominate. Islam subverted these efforts by transcending ethnic boundaries and providing a strong sense of unity. Additionally, it posed serious challenges to the supposed racial hierarchy on which Brazilian society was built. Much as was the case in West Africa at the time, the literacy rate amongst Muslims was frequently higher than in the white population, and all European travelers who encountered literate African Muslims noted how impressed they were with Muslim scholars’ intellect, linguistic abilities, and respect they commanded from their peers. Perhaps even more so than other Africans, Muslims—especially those from scholarly backgrounds—were not shy in expressing their disdain for the often illiterate or semi-literate Europeans who were their “masters” or social superiors. The respect lay Muslims had for their intellectual leaders added extra impetus for resistance of various forms when those who had memorized the Qur’an in particular were mistreated or imprisoned. In short, while the practice of Islam and Arabic literacy was not employed directly to incite rebellion nearly as much as Brazilian authorities feared, it did undermine the ideology of white supremacy and domination that undergirded the society.
Which recent books or articles in Black studies are shaping the field in creative and important ways? How do you hope to engage them in your future work?
Although they are not the most recent publications, Jacob Olupona’s City of 201 Gods and Rowland Abiodun’s Yoruba Art and Language are two very influential books in Yoruba studies. In City of 201 Gods, Olupona articulates a concept he calls “indigenous hermeneutics” which is the process of deriving and using theory and concepts from indigenous traditions to interpret those societies rather than relying exclusively on foreign, Western categories and theory as has historically been the norm. Although Abiodun does not use the term “indigenous hermeneutics”, he effectively does the same by using the Yoruba language and artistic traditions to articulate Yoruba theories in the areas of philosophy, religion, aesthetics, and many more. A significant number of scholars of African religions and culture have begun adopting this methodology and insisting on the importance of proficiency in African languages and serious consideration of African worldviews as essential for quality research.
Ousmane Kane’s Beyond Timbuktu is a new classic in the field of Islam in Africa, documenting the astonishing and rich legacy of Africa’s Islamic intellectual tradition through the present-day, dispelling misconceptions about Africa’s perceived marginality in the Muslim world, and bringing one of Africa’s most robust intellectual traditions into the Europhone academy in which it has largely been overlooked. Rudolph Ware’s forthcoming book, The First Atlantic Revolution: Islam, Abolition, and Republic in West Africa c. 1776, analyzes the trans-Atlantic reach of arguably the first large-scale political revolution that deposed monarchy, resisted the slave trade, and asserted a radical insistence on human liberty and dignity but was rooted in Islamic theological principles rather than Western, Enlightenment thought. Among others, these figures have been championing the growing importance and rich history of Islam in Africa on a global stage, and the field of Islam in Africa is becoming increasingly vibrant.
If I can be a bit nepotistic, my brother Oludamini Ogunnaike’s recent book, Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions, brings together much of the above-mentioned work by engaging Ifa and Sufism as traditions that not only have their own, robust epistemologies that are quite distinct from that of the Academy and modern West, but are perfectly capable of and have a history of interpreting each other as well as the Western world on their own terms. It offers a fascinating counter gaze to the often-assumed objectivity and universality of modern academic discourse and work.
I hope to engage the work of Abiodun and Olupona by centering Yoruba traditions to generate theory and understandings of oriṣa worship, particularly as it is spreading rapidly all around the world. Specifically, I am working on a book project about a Yoruba “female king” who is credited with the greatest public works project in ancient Africa, using indigenous hermeneutics to develop new theories in the areas of gender, identity, religion, and politics. Much like Ware is doing by studying the effects of West African Islamic traditions in the political thought of the broader Atlantic world, in my ongoing research on the Muslim Black Atlantic, I seek to highlight the way African Muslims used the practice of Islam to navigate the rapid changes of Atlantic modernity, treating the continent and diaspora as a linked cultural and religious unit.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.