Common African Religious Constants and the Establishment of the Values of Moderation and Non-Extremism within the South African Context by Muhammad Milanzi

Common African Religious Constants and the Establishment of the Values of Moderation and Non-Extremism within the South African Context by Muhammad Milanzi

Sheikh Mohammed Dawood Milanzi, Muqadam of the Tariqa Tijania in South Africa
Sheikh Mohammed Dawood Milanzi, Muqadam of the Tariqa Tijania in South Africa


The Mufasirun (Quranic Commentators) have agreed that the Quranic Ayah (Verse) and Ahadith (Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad SAW) above refer to adhering to the principle of coexistence and the promotion of justice, peace, and good relations between those who practice different religions and cultures. The idea of working with others on the basis of common terms is one of the key principles promoted in the Quran, as when Allah (SWT) says in Surah Ali Imran: «Say, O People of the book! Let us come to common terms between us…” (Quran 3:64) This paper will focus on locating and describing these common terms among various African religions, particularly within the South African context. More specifically, it will focus on those commonalities, described herein as African Religious Constants, which may lead to the establishment of values of moderation and non-extremism on the continent and especially in the country. This paper will particularly focus on the three majority religions here in South Africa: Islam, African Traditional Religions, and Christianity and their shared values. I will suggest that Muslims, and particularly the Oulema’ (Islamic Scholars), have a leading role to play in the establishment of these values but caution that this leadership is dependent on the adoption of traditional Sunni interpretations.


First, by way of further introduction, let us locate the relevance of the topic at hand within the aims of the current seminar. Among the stated objectives of this seminar, the two most pertinent to this topic are the following:

  •  -The reinforcement of values of tolerance and peace and the conversation between various religions and cultures.
  •  -The role of Common African Religious Constants in the preservation of humanitarian values. These two objectives are perhaps the most important aims of this seminar as they contain in them the overarching principles of moderation and peaceful co-existence between various communities, which are of utmost importance in today’s global climate.

For this reason, I have expanded the definition of Common African Religious Constants for the purpose of this presentation to include those established beliefs and practices that are common to Islam and other faith communities. South Africa being a non-Islamic majority country, it is important for us to find commonalities with other faith-groups with whom the Muslim community interacts. Mutual peaceful coexistence (and beyond that, establishing productive life) is dependent on finding these commonalities and consolidating them.

Before proceeding with the content of this discussion, I would like to define a few key terms and phrases as they will be used in this paper:

Definition of terms and phrases:

Common African Religious Constants-those universal shared beliefs and practices that make up the various religions or ways of life that are practiced by the peoples of the African continent.

Establishment-setting something up on a firm basis and making something accepted or recognized (Oxford English Dictionary, 2008). In the Arabic language, the term Rasikhuna (Establishment) from the root word Rusukh carries the meaning of solidifying and making something deeply rooted or firmly fixed according to The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Cowan, 2007).

Values of Moderation and Non-Extremism-those values which encourage people to avoid intolerance in beliefs and behavior. In his Tafsir, Tabarani explains that the word Wasatun (Moderation) in Arabic refers to something that is Al-Khiyar (Best) in its selection and Al-Adlu (Fair) in its nature.

African Traditional Religion- “refers to the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the African People” (Bonsu, 2014).

African Religions-in this paper refers to all religions that are practiced in Africa, including those that originated elsewhere, including Islam. Indeed, as P. Josef Stamer writes, “if Africans [who practice a certain religion] consider [that religion] to be theirs and, so, ‘African’, they are the ultimate authorities” (Stamer 1996).

The spread of Islam in Africa and in South Africa:

The history of Islam in Africa goes back to the earliest days of the religion with the Muhajaraat (Emigrations) of groups of companions of the Prophet (SAW) to Abyssinia to escape from religious persecution by the enemies of Islam as documented in the Seerat-ul Nabawiyyah (Biography of the Prophet SAW). From that time, the story of Islam in Africa has largely been one of mutual exchange and gradual conversion. In most of Africa, “Islam was introduced via moderate tolerance and bilateral dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims…The development of Islam and formation of Islamic governments occurred [mostly] without force and violence and Islam was introduced to native inhabitants, [who] found some connection with Islam and their local customs” (Sukdaven & Baheri, 2018, p.14). Islam continues to expand on the continent, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, which by 2050 is projected to make up 24.3% of the world’s total Muslim population according to a Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life Demographic Study (Pew, 2015).

The arrival of Islam in South Africa is a far more recent phenomenon than in North, West, and East Africa. The first two major introductions of Islam to the country were through Muslim political exiles and enslaved people from the Dutch East Indies (current day Indonesia) followed soon after by indentured laborers and merchants from the Indian subcontinent (Mahida, 1993). Due to the legally mandated separation of races during Apartheid, and in some cases personal prejudices, Islam spread quite slowly to the indigenous population which makes it something of an outlier on the continent. After the fall of Apartheid, a third major wave of Muslim emigration occurred through the increased numbers of immigrants arriving to South Africa from around Africa. A recent movement of Africanization of Islam by local Muslim converts and the descendants of past converts has looked to ways Islam has been expressed by indigenous Africans on other parts of the continent for inspiration including through cultural expression and religious understandings, such as by adopting Sunni Turuq (Sufi Paths) and Madhahib (Schools of Thought) common to North and West Africa.

Major religions in South Africa:

According to the General Household Survey, conducted by Statistics South Africa in 2015, 5.4 % of South Africans report following African Traditional Religions, although anecdotal evidence reveals that a far higher percentage mingles some African practices into their stated chosen religions, including Christianity and Islam. The Survey reveals the following breakdown of other religions in the country: 86% Christian (all denominations and non-denominational combined), 1.9% Muslim, 0.9% Hindu, 0.2% Jewish, 0.4% Other Religions, 5.2% Unaffiliated (Statistics SA, 2015).

This paper focuses on the commonalities between Islam, African Traditional Religions, and Christianity since these are the most practiced religions among South Africans. However, noting that we live in a pluralistic society, it should be briefly mentioned that many similar values can be found with other religions such as Judaism and Hinduism as well, but that was outside the scope of this particular presentation.

Commonalities between Islam, African traditional religion, and Christianity:

As we defined it above, African Traditional Religions refers to the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the African People (Bonsu, 2014). “Scholars are not agreed on whether one can talk of one traditional [African] religion or many traditional religions…Africa is wide and no one can be so presumptuous to claim to describe African religions and worldviews in the singular…[but] there are deep underlying affinities running through these cultures” (Zvingowanisei, 2016, slide 3). For the purpose of this presentation we will focus on the commonalities of African religions and their general shared principles rather than focusing on a specific African religion or religions.

There is a plethora of commonalities between Islam and African Traditional Religions. Both Islam and African Traditional Religions are ‘Ways of life’. We consider Islam a Millah, or system of living that governs every aspect of human life. Likewise, “Traditional African Religion, aside from the…diversity of its actual forms of expression, is in reality much more than those in the west mean by the term ‘religion.’ It is a global framework of life, encompassing every human situation and governing the whole society…everything is religious!” (Stamer, 1996, para. 3) SA History Online notes that African Traditional Religion is actually a “way of life” passed on through oral traditions that are not religious principles as generally understood but a “cultural identity” (SA History Online, 2019, para. 6).

Both Islam and African traditional religions are incredibly adaptable and tolerant. “This tolerance has been called the ‘ecumenical element’ of African Traditional Religion” (Zvingowanisei, 2016, slide 6). Islam also has a unique ability to adapt to different cultures so long as those cultural elements are

compatible with Islam as in the case of the judgements on Urf (Customs of Communities) and Istis- hab (Presumption of Continuity) in Usul-ul Fiqh. “As a result of the interaction between Muslim and African civilizations, the advance of Islam has profoundly influenced religious beliefs and practices of African societies, while local traditions have ‘Africanized’ Islam.” (Levtzion and Pouwels, 2000, Preface, para 3).

Zvingowanisei states that” [o]ne point of contact between Islam and African Traditional religion is belief in God or the Supreme Being, a phenomenon which has been called practical monotheism…Both religions share the same attributes of God such as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, Omnipotent, Omniscient and All-present.” She further notes that a key difference between the two belief systems is that “[a]although traditional African religion recognizes a Supreme God, followers do not worship [H]im…directly as they do not feel worthy enough. They therefore ask the ancestors to communicate on their behalf” (Zvingowanisei, 2016, slide 7). While outsiders tend to believe that practitioners of African Traditional Religions worship their ancestors, upon closer examination it is clear that, in the religion’s pure form, this is not the case. It could be said that, although it is not completely analogous, this practice is in some ways similar to the concept of Tawassul within Islam, as when the Bani Israel asked Musa to “call on Allah our behalf” as mentioned in Surah Baqarah (Quran 2:68). See also the related Hadith of Uthman ibn Hunaif in the Sunan of ibn Majah, the Jami’u of At-Tirmidhi and others and the incident narrated by Abdullah ibn Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal from his father when he was lost in the dessert and used Tawassul which has been transmitted by the Hanbali Fuqaha (Jurists).

Other areas of commonality between Islam and African Traditional Religions described in the literature and through informal interviews include prayer in times of need, belief in the existence of subsidiary powers and spirits (such as angels, jinns and shayateen in Islam and ancestral, tribal, clan and territorial spirits in African Traditional Religions), acknowledgement of the existence of Magic and witchcraft (although prohibited to use in Islam), the wearing of charms and amulets, rituals and ceremonies around birth, death, circumcision, and marriage (accompanied by a monetary payment either to the bride in Islam, or to the bride’s family as in many Traditional African Religions, known variously as the Lobola, Lovola, Mahadi, Magadi, and Roora in different South African cultures), an allowance for polygyny (although limited in number to four in Islam), an allowance for marriage within the extended family, an allowance for divorce as a last resort, the importance of the role of the Imam or Chief in spiritual, ceremonial, and secular matters, the bringing of the first fruits of harvest to the Amir or Chief for blessing before harvesting which was the practice during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and is also practiced in many African cultures including the Amapulani culture of South Africa, and the primacy of oral traditions.

There is also the matter of women’s religious involvement. Despite Islam and African Traditional Religions being defined from the outside as patriarchal cultures (which, as they are practiced by some, certainly carries some truth), both religions in their pure forms have afforded Muslim women a major role to play in religious leadership. In Islam this can be seen in the prevalence of female teachers of all Islamic ‘Ulum (Sciences) as elucidated in Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s works on the subject (among many others) and in the lives of many women who were believed to have reached the Maqamaat (Spiritual Station) of Wilaayah (Sainthood). Women also often play a central role as traditional healers in African Traditional Religions (known as Sangomas in South Africa’s Zulu culture).

One final commonality that should be mentioned between Islam and African Traditional Religion is the importance of community. “Gaining access to the Muslim community has always been very easy: …the recitation, before witnessed of the profession of faith (shahada). The regular fulfilment of the other religious duties and the deepening of religious knowledge will follow” (Stamer, 1996, para. 7). The simplicity of the conversion method makes it very easy to become a part of the Muslim Ummah (Community). Likewise, in African Traditional Religions, simply being a custom-abiding member of the community made one part of the religion. In South Africa, this goes a step further with the concept of Ubuntu, or Common Humanity, which argues that everyone deserves respect, acknowledgment and dignity, simply by virtue of being human.

Since so much has been written in both Islamic and non-Islamic sources about the points of commonality and divergence in Islam and Christianity as belief systems, we need not go into as much detail on that aspect of the subject. For our purposes, we will focus more on the social affinity between Muslims and Christians on the continent that some may find surprising. On the subject of beliefs, suffice to say that it is often stated that there is more in the belief systems of Muslims and Christians that is the same than that which is different, one major point of contention obviously being the divinity of Prophet Isa (AS) and the Prophet hood of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Indeed, there is so much commonality between Muslims and Christians that Allah has said in the Quran that “…you will certainly find those that are closest to them in affection (from among Mankind) to the believers are those who say ‘We are Christians’…” (Quran 5:82). Particularly, the emphasis in both Islam and Christianity on love, neighborliness, congregational brotherhood, and charity bring the two faiths into close alignment.

It must be stated that Christianity, as it was introduced to much of the continent, was used as a major tool of oppression by the colonial powers. However, despite this, Africans managed to extract and magnify the good in religion and also to “Africanize” it in many ways. Just as there are commonalities with Islam, African Christianity has developed many commonalities with African Traditional Religions.

Despite the image of constant religious conflict throughout the continent, research reveals a different image that presents many opportunities for cooperation and mutual benefit. While there are undeniably still far too many instances of conflict between religious groups, for many Africans religion is “a source of hope in sub-Saharan Africa, where religious leaders and movements are a major force in civil society and a key provider of relief and development for the needy, particularly given the widespread reality of failed states and collapsing government services.” This is according to a major public opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2010 involving more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries (including South Africa), representing 75% of the total population of sub- Saharan Africa (Pew, 2010, p. ii).

The results of this survey suggest a real opportunity for inter-faith cooperation. From the study: “Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest. In most countries, relatively few see evidence of widespread anti-Muslim or anti- Christian hostility.” Furthermore, “many Muslims say they are more concerned about Muslim extremism than about Christian extremism, and Christians in four countries say they are more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism” (Pew, 2010, p. 1). I would like to note here that one should not underestimate the role the media can play in painting a different picture in this regard.

Despite the apparent affinity between faith groups, a major obstacle to working together is a lack of understanding about the commonalities between the different faiths. According to the same study, “by their own reckoning, neither Christians nor Muslims in the region know very much about each other’s faith. In most countries, fewer than half of Christians say they know either some or a great deal about Islam, and fewer than half of Muslims say they know either some or a great deal about Christianity” (Pew, 2010, p. 8). This suggests that the leaders and adherents of all of the continent’s major faiths have much work to do in emphasizing our commonalities.

Islam’s potential role as a leader in utilizing the African religious constants to establish shared moderate and non-extremist values: Potential roadblocks and the way forward

Now that we have established the commonalities and affinity between the religions, let us look at how these commonalities can be used to establish shared moderate and non-extremist values. The shared religious ideals described above including Adaptability, Love, Brotherhood, Neighborliness, Emphasis on Community and Communal Rituals, Gender Inclusivity, Charity, and especially Common Humanity can be determined to be among the African Religious Constants when understood in an interfaith sense. Taken together, these constants (when commonly practiced) will establish in the society a value for principles such as Tolerance, Humility, Forgiveness, Diplomacy, Collaboration, and Inclusiveness. All of which, when widely accepted, lead to a moderate, non-extreme society.

Islam is uniquely positioned to lead the dialogue and consolidation of our shared values and the Oulema’ have a primary role to play in this process. Due to our distinctive systems of transmission and preservation of knowledge, Islam’s primary sources have proven uniquely able to withstand corruption and changes that have entered many other traditions with the passage of time, changes which may deemphasize or even remove some of these values altogether. Humanity is yearning for the dissemination of these principles and I argue that, particularly in this country but also more broadly, these ideals have yet to be fully communicated to the wider population as foundational to Islam. It is here that it becomes essential for the Oulema’ to rise to the urgency of the current moment.

It is clear that simply having access to the primary sources is not enough for Muslims to play their needed role in interfaith value consolidation. Disregard for traditional interpretations, disdain for scholarship transmitted from heart to heart, ill-understanding due to studying without guidance, and simple arrogance have combined in parts of the Ummah to lead to an expression of Islam that is extreme, intolerant, glorifies violence, and is wholly foreign to the system established by our Beloved Prophet (SAW) in his capacity as Mercy to All the Worlds.

The Beloved Prophet (SAW) stated that “Indeed the Oulema are the inheritors of the prophets…” (Jami’u At-Tirmidhi) And from the Quran, we understand that the main functions of a Prophet can be drawn from the ayah which describes “…a messenger reciting your signs, and will teach them the book and wisdom, and will purify them.” (Quran 2:129)

Traditional Sunni interpretation with its three pillars of:

  •  the four Madhahib (Schools of Thought)
  • Ashari and Maturidi Aqeedah (Creed)
  •  the science of Sunni Tasawwuf (Sufism) must be understood, promoted, and taught by the Oulema’ to unleash Islam’s full potential to play a leading role in purifying the people and consolidating these desirable societal values.

The Madhahib facilitate unity within the Ummah through uniform understandings of the Ahkam (Rulings) of Allah as well as tolerance for differing interpretations. The Ashari and Maturidi Aqeedah prohibits Takfir (Excommunication) on the “people of the Qiblah,” as outlined by Imam At-Tahawi (RA) in his Al- Aqeedah At-Tahawiyah and others. This further promotes tolerance for differences of practice and understanding within Islam as long as there is support from the Nusus (Quran and Sunnah). The objective of Tasawwuf is attainment of Ma’arifah (Knowledge of Allah). To reach that goal it is  necessary to kill the Nafs (Ego-self) and enliven the heart by ridding it of all bad qualities (such as arrogance, anger, ignorance, and intolerance) and adorning it with good qualities (such as humility, patience, forgiveness, knowledge, and tolerance) to purify the heart, which is the only way to attain that goal as in the ayah which warns that nothing will benefit a person “except the one who comes to Allah with a pure heart” (Quran 26:89). The good gatherings instructed by the authentic Mashayikh of Tasawwuf for various types of remembrance of Allah further clean the hearts of those present. Implemented together, these traditional Sunni interpretations yield a value system of tolerance in the Ummah and, through interfaith cooperation, in society as a whole.


We live in a unique moment in history which will require much of us both as Muslims and as Oulema to contribute towards the type of society that we seek. The many Constants that can be found in various African religions afford us a unique opportunity to work with members of other faith communities and cultures to establish values of moderation and non-extremism. The three aspects of traditional Sunni interpretation we have discussed in this paper are integral to the reinforcement of such a value system. We as Muslims can and must play a leading role in this process. It is up to the Oulema to seek to understand how best to implement this value system in the context of their particular communities and to strive to extend this understanding to other communities in the broader society.

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