In Africa, Islam and Christianity are growing - and blending

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At first, it seems a surprising sight: inside a two-story mosque in sub-Saharan Africa's largest metropolis hangs a life-size portrait of Jesus Christ.

Yet worshipers at "The True Message of God Mission" say it's entirely natural for Christianity and Islam to cexist, even overlap. They begin their worship by praying at the Jesus alcove and then "running their deliverance" - sprinting laps around the mosque's mosaic-tiled courtyard, praying to the one God for forgiveness and help. They say it's akin to Israelites circling the walls of Jericho - and Muslims swirling around the Ka'ba shrine in Mecca.

This group - originally called "Chris-lam-herb" for its mix-and-match approach to Christianity, Islam, and traditional medicine - is a window on an ongoing religious ferment in Africa. It's still up for debate whether this group, and others like it, could become models for Muslim-Christian unity worldwide or whether they're uniquely African. But either way, they are "part of a trend," says Dana Robert, a Boston University religion professor.

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Amid intense sectarian violence in this half- Muslim, half-Christian country, these groups serve as tolerant peacemakers. Also, with widespread poverty and health concerns here, people are seeking practical, profitable religion more than rigid doctrine.

Before Islam and Christianity arrived in Africa, people here "believed in deities being close" - in gods who resided in trees or rivers and helped or hurt locals daily, explains Kamaldeen Balogun, an Islamic studies professor at Olabisi Onabanjo University in southeastern Nigeria.

"You in the West are satisfied with one hour of church on Sunday," says Mr. Balogun. But for people in Africa, who he says need so many solutions, "This is about a practical way of life," about a willingness to combine Christianity or Islam with their own traditions to "see if they can make something new" - something that will help.

Worshipers at the "True Message" mission say unifying the two theologies has made a major difference in their lives.

A slight woman with a quick smile, Kuburat Hamzat says she came here in 1998 with a severe menstruation problem. She was embraced by the mission's "man of God," a soft-spoken, bald man named Samusideen Saka. He told her, "Dancing will not kill you" and prescribed 91 laps of "running deliverance" each day. He also explained the commonalities of the great faiths to Ms. Hamzat who had grown up in Islam. That understanding, she says, changed her. "Because I understood that in my mind, I got healed," she says. Her problem hasn't recurred, she says. Others say they've been cured of barrenness, mental illness, and other troubles.

Pastor Saka explains that his father was an herbalist and that both Muslims and Christians would come to him for healing. Although he grew up Muslim, and has been to Mecca on pilgrimage several times, he couldn't comprehend Nigeria's sectarian strife. He now considers himself a Christian, "but that doesn't mean Islam is bad."

Quite the opposite. Next to his mosque is a televangelist's dream - an auditorium with 1,500 seats, banks of speakers, a live band, and klieg lights. On Sundays the choir switches easily between Muslim and Christian songs, and Pastor Saka preaches from both the Bible and the Koran. His sermons are often broadcast on local TV.

The broader context here is Africa's dramatic shift in recent decades to Christianity and Islam. During the 20th century, fully 40 percent of Africa's population moved from traditional religions to "different shades of Christianity," says Philip Jenkins, a history and religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It is, he adds, "the largest religious change that has ever occurred in history." There are debates about whether Christianity or Islam is spreading faster in Africa, but clearly they're both on the rise - and sometimes are the source of tension.

In Nigeria's religious city of Jos (short for "Jesus Our Savior") the government says 50,000 people died between 1999 and 2004 in sectarian clashes. Until a peace deal last year, Sudan's northern Muslims and southern Christians were at war for two decades.

Clearly, the religious revolution is still shaking out. "People are converting rapidly, but they don't necessarily have instruction" in the details of their faiths, says Boston University's Professor Robert. Nor have they had "time for their belief system to solidify." It is, she says, "still shifting." She argues that eventually the faithful will choose one religion or another, and the hybrids will fade away.

But the ferment is quite evident on the chaotic streets of Lagos, which is home to some 10 million people. Hundreds of church-sponsored banners scream out, "It's your day of RECOVERY @ LAST where life's pains are healed" or "Jesus Christ: A friend indeed! Even in times of need!!"

Healing is a regularly promised feature of churches across Africa. It's symbolic of a key element of the continent's religious explorations - fusing faith and rationality, Professor Balogun says. According to Western thought, with its emphasis on rationality, "Everything that goes up must come down," he says. But a more African approach is that, "By divine intervention it may not come down." In fact, his university is initiating a degree focusing on the religion-science nexus.

Meanwhile, it's not just Saka who's exploring the common ground between Christianity and Islam. Sitting in a wrought-iron throne, swathed in silky white fabric, the founder of "Chrislam" has these words for followers of the two great faiths: "The same sun that dries the clothes of Muslims also dries the clothes of Christians." Stroking his beard, the man named Tela Tella says, "I don't believe God loves Christians any more than Muslims."

His followers calls him His Royal Holiness, The Messenger, Ifeoluwa or "The Will of God." Since the religion's founding two decades ago, this small band has been gathering almost daily to hear his message of inclusiveness - that Christians and Muslims, "who are sons of Abraham, can be one."

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