Religion and society


One of the most striking features of Yoruba religion is its tolerance of pluralism. This was already a feature of traditional religious organisation. The choice of cult group was left largely to the individual, and the following of a particular orisa cut across descent-group boundaries. Membership of the various denominations and sects of the world religions has been dealt with with the same tolerance. The rapid spread of Christianity and Islam means that young members of the same household often belong to different world religions, while the older people alone keep the traditional cults alive.

It may be that the cleavages between Christians and Muslims, and between members of individual sects or denominations, are widening. This is predictable, given that wives normally follow their husband’s religion, and children follow that of their parents. Christians and Muslims are becoming endogamous groups, a trend which is reinforced by the importance of religious egbe in social life in many towns.

Nevertheless, Yoruba of all religions have much in common. There is a body of customary law which all groups follow in matters of marriage, succession and inheritance. In other ways, the world religions have themselves had to adapt to Yoruba social organisation, and this produces other similarities and a degree of ritual and institutional convergence in the world religions.

A good example of this is in the organisation of rites of passage. Naming or ‘outdooring’ ceremonies, ikomojade, are the simplest of these. They take place early in the morning, a week after the birth of the child. The main ritual element is a short Muslim or Christian service, attended by the members of the compound and other friends and relatives of the parents. This may take place in the room of the bale if it is large enough, in a courtyard or in front of the house. In the Muslim case it is attended only by men, and it is conducted by the Imam for the town or quarter, or one of his deputies. Verses of the Koran are recited, and the Imam announces the Muslim name of the child. A series of prayers follow: for the child itself the parents, relatives, friends, or for anyone else. The person requesting the prayers places a sum of money before the Imam, and he and his followers divide it between themselves after the ceremony.

The Christian service is also very simple. Both men and women attend, and the local minister or pastor officiates. It consists of a Bible-reading, the blessing and naming of the child, prayers and a hymn.

In some cases, as with Muslim namings during the fast of Ramadan, the religious service is all that happens. But usually food and drinks are provided for the guests and these may be lavish. In the Muslim case, a goat of the same sex as the child is slaughtered to mark the occasion. Part of the meat is reserved for the Imam and his followers, and part is sent to senior relatives. But a well-to-do father of either religion might decide to slaughter a cow, provide beer, palm wine and soft drinks for the guests, and call in drummers. The food is prepared by the women in the compound. If either of the parents is an egbe member, the whole egbe will be invited and will receive special treatment, with a room, food and drinks reserved for them. The members make a contribution towards the parents’ expenses.

The egbe are also involved in wedding celebrations. A relatively uniform pattern had developed in the towns where we worked. Formal invitations are circulated well in advance, printed in English and Yoruba, and they provide a major item of trade for the local printers. They set out in great detail the programme of events: entertainment at the house of the bride, the religious ceremony, a reception at the house of the groom, and possibly an all-night dance, with an imported band. A large proportion of the marriages take place, one after the other, at Christmas, after the harvest and when many salaried workers make their annual visits home. Members of the younger egbe are involved in several marriages in succession, so they are arranged consecutively where possible.

Many elements of traditional Yoruba marriage ritual (cf. Bascom, 1969a: 59ó64) have survived, with the addition of the Christian or Muslim service, though each town, and sometimes each compound, has its own variants. The festivities usually start in the house of the bride, where the guests are distributed in rooms throughout the compound according to age, sex and status, and are served with food and drink by members of the bride’s egbe. This is followed by a blend of old and new elements. To give an Igbeti example, after the feasting the bride and her two closest friends were driven to the church for a service, complete with ring and presentation of a marriage certificate. A short reception at the church was followed by the traditional procession with drummers to the husband’s house, accompanied by relatives and egbe members in their uniform (aso egbe). These processions usually take a roundabout route, and it may be hours before they reach their destination, with frequent pauses to greet relatives and dance en route. The celebrations had already started at the groom’s house, and they continued for several days. Two cows were slaughtered, and drummers appeared each day, singing the praises of the guests and their descent groups, and collecting money. The following day the bride returned to her own compound to greet her parents in another procession, and there was an all-night dance at the husband’s house with a band brought in from Ilorin.

Islamic marriages among the Yoruba follow a similar pattern of feasting and involvement of the egbe, though the bride usually leaves for her husband’s house at night. The difference lies in the religious service. Marriage in Islam is a secular contract, requiring the presence of representatives from both compounds, not necessarily the bridegroom or bride. Usually, the father of the girl invites the Imam and his followers to the house, and the Imam satisfies himself that both parties agree to the match. He then recites from the Koran and declares them man and wife. This is followed by the usual round of prayers and contributions by those assembled. This rite, isoyigi, is only performed for four wives at any one time. In some cases, the ritual is modified, and the Imam insists on the presence of the couple so that he can deliver an address on marriage.

A second way in which the world religions have been adapted to Yoruba society is religious leadership, especially where the boundaries of religious groups and descent groups coincide. In traditional Yoruba religion, the bale was usually responsible for rituals in honour both of the ancestors and of the main orisa worshipped by the descent group. The principle of seniority operates in the world religions as well. Lay leadership in many congregations is based on age, wealth, seniority and a large following of descentgroup members. The pattern of leadership means that a congregation may divide into factions, reflecting other major disputes and cleavages in the community, or it may break up completely, in a series of schisms.

Another common form of dispute reflects disagreement over the criteria for leadership. In both Christianity and Islam, this can be based either on seniority within a descent group, or on religious expertise. In northern Ghana, trouble arose in a Yoruba Baptist Church when a group of literate evangelical Christians, supported by the junior egbe in the church, came into conflict with a group of wealthy elders over church policy (Eades, 1977). The evangelical group saw the main role of the church as the conversion of other ethnic groups. The elders regarded it as a means of establishing their own leadership in the migrant community. There are parallels with the struggles in the African churches in the early part of the century. A similar conflict has developed among Muslims over the selection of the Imam: should he be chosen on the basis of scholarship alone, or should the office, like other Yoruba titles, become hereditary in a single descent group (Gbadamosi, 1972)?

Given the importance of the elders in the large congregations in many towns, it is not surprising that much innovation has taken place among smaller, more marginal groups, such as groups of immigrants. In Ibadan, the first Aladura congregations to be established were mainly in the immigrant areas: only more recently have they spread to the indigenous quarters.

One result is that there is some correlation between church membership and social status. The most influential men in a community are usually staunch members of either the largest mission church or the central mosque. Oba Akinyele of Ibadan was unusual in that he was both a member of the Christian establishment in the town and an Aladura leader. In the same way, a generation before. Z.W. Thomas was unusual in that he was an African church leader and a member of the Lagos elite. The African churches have gradually acquired more of an ‘establishment’ image, but the Aladura churches are still viewed with suspicion by many of the mission Christians. Certainly the level of education among Aladura leaders is probably lower than that in the missions. They also make extensive use of drumming and dancing, and accept many aspects of the Yoruba worldview. But the Christ Apostolic Church in particular has tried hard to improve its image through its involvement in education, and as the number of second generation members of the Aladura churches grows, the stereotypes held by other Christians will gradually be modified.

The status hierarchy within Islam is more complex. There are two routes to high status: the first is through adopting a more distinctively ‘Islamic’ lifestyle, often based on Hausa Islamic models. This may involve Tijani membership, the intensification of ritual activity, knowledge of Arabic and the Koran, and the seclusion of women. The second is through membership of the AUD, the Ahmadiyya or similar groups, the encouragement of western education, the modernisation of ritual, and a more liberal attitude to the role of women. It is members of these groups who have the most in common with the Yoruba Christians.

But at the level of individual belief, how have the traditional Yoruba world-view and those of the world religions been reconciled? For many this has been little problem. Yoruba religion is instrumental in its emphasis. If imported elements appear to work, they are retained. There is no coherent and systematic theology with which to measure of reject them. Before the colonial period, the If a system had come to terms with Islam, treating it rather like another orisa cult. If a remains a body of lore which many Christians and Muslims still consult.

There are two main ways in which Yoruba belief and the world religions have interacted. The first is syncretism ó the blending of the new beliefs with the old. There have been syncretist religious movements among the Yorubaó reconciling the Bible with Ifa, or fitting Christ into the Yoruba pantheon ó but these are of minor importance. The second, and more usual, pattern is for those aspects of the world religions to be emphasised which are most in line with traditional beliefs. Olorun becomes God or Allah, while Esu can be identified with Satan. Christians can see witchcraft as the work of the devil, and continue to accept its reality, while the archangels take over the roles of the orisa as messengers of Olorun. The parallels extend to ritual. Passages of the Bible or the Koran can be used instead of Yoruba incantations, while Aladura prophecy and Islamic divination provide alternatives to Ifa. The Yoruba have succeeded in adapting the world religions to meet their needs, while at the same time retaining their own cultural identity to a remarkable extent. The traditional cults may have lost their power, their adherents and much of their vitality, but religious institutions and beliefs among the Yoruba still show many continuities with the past

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