Anthropological Insights for Gospel Communicators in African-Muslim Contexts

A Swahili Muslim woman goes into the state of
spirit possession trance, immediately after which
a powerful jinni speaks through her voice to
people in that séance.

Islamization and Islamic Expressions in Africa
Anthropological efforts have uncovered a significant, historical fact that Islam was the result of indigenous inhabitants on the eastern coast of Africa rather than a dogmatic implantation by outsiders.1 What is characteristic of the history of the spread of Islam in East Africa is that the process of Islamization was an Africanization of Islam in an anthropological sense. It was principally a mutual accommodation (or acculturation) between two religio-cultural entities, that is, between indigenous African traditions and the Islamic ideology. Such a culturally localizing process in the expansion of Islam is also palpable when we look into the history of other Muslim societies in Africa. In the acculturating process Islam had naturally affected the deep level of African traditional worldviews to the great extent that it eventually became their own religion. In other words, Islamic beliefs and values were gradually incorporated into the extant structure of African traditions.2  This is how Islam had been welcomed, nurtured and expanded in sub-Saharan Africa. For this reason, we often observe that most Muslim societies in Africa still maintain their local traditions while also keeping official Islamic beliefs and practices.

Often times we differentiate between “official Islam” and “folk Islam” for our convenience. Official Islam refers to the ideological dimension of Islamic faith, focusing on Islamic theology (tawhid meaning “the unity of God”) and traditions (sunna referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s deeds and words),3 while folk Islam (or “popular Islam”) designates the Muslim beliefs and practices that are apart from the official aspect of Islam. Folk Islam deals with everyday human problems that are seldom touched or resolved by official Islam.4 However, these two categories do not mean that there are two different kinds of Islam in the Muslim world. Rather, these two terms should be understood as referring to two dynamic, religio-cultural dimensions of the Muslim faith.

Throughout the history of Islamic expansion in Africa, Islam as a religion has been embraced by local people without them losing their ethnic identity, traditional beliefs and cultural values. This is not to say that puritanical attempts to remove idolatrous elements from their umma (Muslim community) have been absent. Therefore, it should be noted that both folk-religious and “orthodox” elements are always present in most Muslim societies. In other words, Islam has been expressed not only through its universal tenets but also through diverse local cultures that host the Islamic faith.

An Illustration of Local Islamic Features
Islam that has been accommodated into a particular locality can be labeled a “local Islam;” this is differentiated from the Islamic faith that is universally observed by all Muslims. On the eastern coast of Africa, Islam was accepted by the local population as the fulfillment of their old religions and traditions; thus, it was fundamentally restructured within old African worldviews. East African Muslims express their faith in a way that integrates both official Islam and their African traditions. Let me give an illustration on this type of synthetic feature of Islam.

 A Swahili practitioner shows a “spiritual
device” that controls possessing jinn
in his patients.

On the Swahili coast of East Africa many Swahili Muslims perform a therapeutic ritual that synthesizes both official Islamic and folk Islamic elements. In such a ritual, what can be called “orthodoxy” becomes a magical means to bring baraka (blessings) to those in need. One of the rituals called ngoma ya kupunga masheitani/majini (literally meaning “a dancing ritual to reduce [power of] jinn”) always begins with official-Islamic rituals, such as adhan (calling for prayers), Quranic recitation, takbir (claiming that Allah is great) and so forth. Although worshipping Allah is an essential part of the ritual, its ultimate goal is to solve the problems of the patient brought in the séance. At the outset of the ritual, African traditional practices, such as tambiko, are also observed. Tambiko is originally a traditional offering to ancestral spirits or nature spirits; however, in this Muslim context it is employed to deal with the possessive spirits (jinn) that are believed to have afflicted the patient under treatment with incurable illnesses. As the Muslim practitioner leads the therapeutic service, he or she often adopts from Sufism (Islamic mysticism) a ritual called dhikr, which was long ago invented by Muslim mystics in the attempt to flee from the rigidity of Islamic legalism toward experiencing a sort of mystical union with God. During the course of the healing ritual, the Swahili Muslims flexibly move between the official-Islamic elements and African traditions.

As seen above, what seems very distinctive in the sub-Saharan Islam is the power of cultural accommodation and absorbency. Despite frequent challenges from puritanical Muslims, the African “hospitability” was always able to digest Islam into its traditional metabolism.5 In a generic sense, African Islam is more practical than dogmatic. African Muslims are capable of adopting any element (even from other religious sources) if it is deemed useful to bring a desired effect to their community.6

Suggesting a Culturally Relevant Ministry to Muslims in Africa
For the presentation of the gospel to be meaningful and effective to the local audience, it needs to be done in a culturally understandable way. Any message can sound foreign to the recipient if it is communicated in a way that is familiar only to the communicator. It has to be contextualized in a way that the audience can see the validity of the message through their own cultural components. In the case of gospel communication, even the “religious” outfits in the audience’s culture can be employed in delivering the meaning of the gospel, as long as this does not offend locals or compromise the gospel truth. In other words, the gospel message should be not only heard; it should also be seen in a culturally appropriate way. Then, the gospel communicator should consider as many religio-cultural elements as possible that would positively affect the local perception of Christian meanings. The church that is to be planted among Muslims should also be contextualized by employing cultural forms that are not unfamiliar to local Muslims; these forms could be used to convey the redemptive meaning of the gospel.

A Swahili Muslim healer instructs his patient on how to take
the “spiritual drugs” that he prescribed.

Using Three Local Elements to Establish a Church
The gospel communicator should consider the following local elements when establishing a Christian community (or church) among or around African Muslims.7

First, consider the umma element, which is a crucial component of the universal Islamic premise. Muslims live in a politico-religious society (umma in Arabic), in which all cultural subsystems, such as education, social relations, economy and sports, operate under the banner of Islam. In the umma, the members are strongly bound to one another in cultural cohesiveness and religious unity. For this very reason any convert to Christianity is liable to face unsympathetic challenges from his or her own society. Changing their religion means betraying their religion and culture; thus, it is regarded as “apostasy,” which deserves the death penalty according to the Islamic law (shariah). If, therefore, gospel communicators believe sincerely in the work of the Holy Spirit, they should not use artificial methods to urge any candidate to convert hastily to the Christian faith, nor should they impatiently try to make any convert look and behave immediately like “Christians.” The Christian community established among or around Muslims must be one that is committed to a strongly cohesive communal life where members feel secure and protected.

Second, the contextual church must be started at the level where Muslims can understand and appreciate Christian meanings. For this purpose, the mosque element should be considered. The original Arabic word for mosque means “a place for prayer or worship.” The form of the worship service also needs to be contextualized in a way that can help Muslims to know that Christians worship God seriously. I have often witnessed that few Muslims believe that Christians sincerely seek and worship God. Christian communicators should creatively introduce a religious form that can function as a communicational channel through which worshippers demonstrate their sincere “surrender/submission to God” (the word “Islam” literally means this). Perhaps they may use bodily expression (such as prostration) to communicate that worshipping God is the most important part of Christian life. The preacher or the worship leader may read scripture in a way that God’s words are seriously respected and recited. However, a relevant form of worship should be created under attentive scrutiny of each particular situation.

While these two elements are related to the dimension of official Islam, there are also many folk Islamic elements to be considered. For example, kilinge is the Swahili word for the ritual place where patients afflicted with jinn (evil spirits) are treated. Kilinge is centered in the notion of “healing” (uganga in Swahili). Healing, however, in the African context, does not simply mean a physical cure of illness. It indicates a comprehensive remedy, including looking after patients in a holistic manner. A kilinge usually operates as an institution that combines the functions of both religious community and spiritual clinic. The contextualized church among folk Muslims should attend to this dimension of the spirit world as well; the Christian community must do more than a kilinge. To this we must look back to the time of the apostles.

Third, we must consider sufism, which refers to Islamic mysticism. Christianity seems to have lost its inherently mystical dimension to rational theological explanations in the modern era. However, the Bible is full of mysteries, such as God’s manifestation (theophany), miracles, signs, wonders, the union with Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit among believers and so forth. According to the Apostle Paul, the gospel is par excellence a great “mystery”8 and so is the body of Christ! Unfortunately, secularism that has encroached on modern churches has deprived Christianity of its original mystical dimension, while only “oriental religions” are usually regarded as mystical. Even Muslims often seek God in a mystical way, whether in a folk context or in an official Islamic situation. The church planted among Muslims should demonstrate the mystical aspect of Christianity by letting them witness how faithfully and seriously Christians seek and experience God in both communal and personal prayers.9

1. For more details, see Kim, Caleb. 2004. Islam among the Swahili in East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers.

2. To learn more about worldview theory from a Christian perspective, see Kraft, Charles. Anthropology for Christian Witness. 1996. New York: Orbis Books. chapters 3-4.

3. The principal tenets of official Islam are found in the basic beliefs (the six articles of Iman) and the five pillars (five basic duties). The six articles of Islamic Iman are: belief in Allah, Allah’s angels, Allah’s books, Allah’s prophets, Allah’s predestination and Allah’s Last Judgment. The five pillars in Islam consist of Shahadah (Muslim witness of Allah and Muhammad), Salah (prayer), Sawm (fasting in the month of Ramadan), Zakat (almsgiving) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

4. These three elements of the expression of Islamic faith (that is, “official Islam,” “popular Islam” and “folk Islam”) are not simple to grasp in our Christian frame of reference. For more detailed discussions of their complication, see reference in endnote 1.

5. Cf. Sanneh, Lamin. 1997. The Crown and the Turban. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. 15-29.

6. We need to understand the practicality in light of the African ethos. The practicality in African Islam is based upon social relationship. This is unlike the Western society, where the pragmatism is more related to individualism than collectiveness.

7. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, churches have been planted among Muslims, or at least in the vicinity of Muslim communities. This is unlike Middle Eastern countries, where even a Christian presence may arouse aversion to Muslims.

8. See Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-4, 6, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Colossians 26-27; and Revelation 1:20; 10:7.

9. For more extensive discussions on this topic, see Musk, Bill. 1989. The Unseen Face of Islam. MARC. Or see Love, Rick. 2000. Muslims, Magic and Kingdom of God. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2000.

Caleb Kim is a fulltime professor at a graduate school in Africa.