Discuss the attributes of God (the Supreme Being) in Indigenous Religion.
African peoples define God above all creation, as the most Supreme in the Spiritual realm, but in order to express certain concepts, they employ languages and images about God as an aid to their notion of him whom they have not seen and about whom they confess to know little or nothing. Africans perceive God as an all-pervading reality. To them, he is a constant shareholder in the affairs of human beings. Academics who study religion in Africa tell us that all African communities have a belief in God. This essay aims at an in-depth study of these beliefs.
God is the Supreme entity to the adherents of the traditional religions of Africa and is considered to be the origin of everything in this universe. In Africa, God is viewed in both immanent and transcendent dimensions. This very idea of Oneness of the Supreme Being is core to the followers and this belief creates no place for the atheists in their traditional concept of God.
There is no sacred text in written
form, but the root of this traditional idea of God is mainly taken from proverbs, short statements, stories, religious rituals, prayers, songs, myths, etc. The knowledge of God is a gift given at the time of birth to a newborn baby. According to an Ashanti proverb, ‘No one shows a child the Supreme Being’. Knowing about God is believed to be an instinctive knowledge to the religious adherents.
God is characterized by many prime attributes including concrete knowledge. According to John S. Mbiti, “It is tough for a person to be detached from his/her religion, for to do so is to be served from his roots, foundation, his context of security, his kinship and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence”2 . There are several examples of this thought. Human beings are limited in all aspect, but God is designated to be great, supreme, omnipotent (Almighty), omniscient (All-Knowing), Sustainer, Transcendent and Immanent, Self-Existent and Pre-Eminent, etc. No entity or being is comparable to God.
Greatness and Supremacy of God
God is supreme and great over all visible and invisible beings or things that we believe to exist. One of the best Zulu names of God is ‘Unkulunkulu’, which means ‘the Great-great-One’ and like them the neighboring people call God as the ‘Ndebele’, which also means ‘the Greatest of the great’.3
Like them, the Tonga, the Ngoni, the Akan, the Baluba and some other tribes designate God as ‘Great God’, or Great One’, or ‘the Great King’.
God as both Transcendent and Immanent
Many religions see God as transcendent or immanent dimension, but in African traditional concept, ‘He is both transcendent and immanent’. He dwells inside human souls and He is also beyond any reach. People cannot even appreciate Him fully in their imagination.
Transcendent Nature of God
God’s transcendence outlook stretches over and beyond the whole Zamani period. He is the prime reality of being without lacking any incompleteness. According to a Bacongo saying, ‘God is made by no other; no one beyond Him is’.4The Akan refer to God as ‘He Who is there now as from ancient times’ and the Tonga people express Him as, ‘the Ancient of Days’.5 The Ngombe encloses this feature of God to the forest and that’s why they call Him as ‘the everlasting One of the forest’.6 God’s existence is never ending and it preceded the beginning of His creation too. He transcends all boundaries and all things we ever know. African people think that, the sky is beyond human reach and God dwells somewhere above.
Immanent Nature of God
God has His immanent feature too for the need of His people. That is why, religious followers address Him through prayers, invocations, offerings and sacrifices by thinking Him near to them. God is contemporaneous to the traditionalpeople of Africa. He exists in all objects and He manifests through natural phenomena. The Ngombe prefer to designate God as the One Who fills everything.7
important concept is that, God’s immanence here cannot be mixed up with pantheism8
because His immanent character is associated with the acts of worship or in
Supremely Wise God
God holds the supreme position and wisdom as well. He is absolute and
beyond all knowledge. The Sona and the Ndebele report God as ‘Father, Mother
To the Akan people, ‘God is He Who knows or sees all’ and according to
the Zulu and the Banyarwanda, ‘God is the wise One’. The Yoruba people say that,
‘Only God is wise’ and ‘He is the Discerner of hearts’ Who ‘sees both the inside and
outside of man’. Among the Barundi, ‘He is the Watcher of everything’ and the Ila
society utter ‘His ears are long’. So, God knows, hears, sees, observes and controls
everything in this cosmos and beyond.
God as Almighty
In a simple sense, God is all-powerful to the followers of the Ashanti, the
Yoruba, the Ngombe and the Akan. To the Ngombe, the forest is full of struggle and
they think God’s omnipotence is linked up to the forest. They believe that ‘He is the
One Who clears the forest’.10 The Yoruba hold a practical sense about God that
‘duties or challenges are easy to do as that which God performs but difficult to do as
that which God enables not’.11 But the Zulu tribe thinks God in a political way that
‘God is He Who bends down … even majesties’, and ‘He Who roars so that all
nations be struck with terror’.12
God’s omnipotence also manifests in His power to this nature. According to
the Banyarwanda proverbs, ‘God has very long arms’ and ‘the plant protected by
God is never hurt by the wind’.13 God seems as all-powerful also to many other
tribes in Africa, such as the Vugusu, the Teso, the Gikuyu, the Akamba, the Kiga,
etc. The Gikuyu address God in their prayer for rain, the Kiga believe God ‘Who
makes the sun set’ and some hold that ‘He makes quake and flows river’, etc.14 So in
these above mentioned context, God is the sole possessor of all highest qualities and
every being including mankind is lower and limited than Him.
God is Self-dependent, Self-supporting, Self-sufficient and Self-containing
too. Self-existent and Pre-eminent features of God are found mainly among the
Gikuyu, the Zulu and the Bambuti groups. In a biological sense, The Herero say that
‘God has no father and is not a man and does not even eat at all’.15 The Gikuyu
believe that God has,
‘‘No father nor mother, nor wife nor children;
He is all alone
He is neither a child nor an old man;
He is the same today as He was yesterday’’.16
As His theological aspect, the Zulu group thinks God as ‘He Who is of Himself’ or ‘He Who came of Himself into being’.17 The Bambuti designate that ‘God
was the First, Who had always been in existence, and would never die’.18
Spiritual Outlook on God
Along with the greatness of God, African traditional concept also holds the
view that, He is a ‘Spiritual Being’ or a ‘Spirit’. Since the beginning of human
consciousness about God, He remains unseen and thus there is no physical manifestation of God to the people. But God is a never ending creative force, that inspires
people to go for innovative ideals and actions. One of the most explicit Shona hymns
describes God as ‘the Great Spirit’ Who piles up rocks to make mountains, causes
branches to grow and gives rain to mankind.19 According to a traditional Pygmy
‘‘In the beginning was God
Today is God
Tomorrow will be God
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body
He is as a word which comes out of your mouth.
That word! It is no more,
It is past, and still it lives!
So is God’’.20
To support this evidence of God’s spirituality, societies like the Shilluk, the
Ga and the Langi call Him to be like air or wind. Air has no visibility in that sense but
we can feel its presence. Though, there is no one or no intellect can examine Him and
that is why the Ashanti designate Him as the Fathomless Spirit. As God is unknown to
us, some refer to Him like the Lunda which means the God of the unknown or the
Maasai which designates the Unknown or that of the Ngombe which means the Unexplainable. God is not a stranger to the African people. People have personal characteristics, but God’s essential attributes are mysterious and almost totally unknowable.
God as Eternal Being
Eternity of God is very much associated with His nature. According to the
Ngombe, ‘God is the everlasting One of the woodlands’. The Ashanti and the
Baganda assess Him directly as ‘the Eternal One’. The Tonga group compares God
as heaven and thus they expressed His immortality as that ‘The heaven never dies,
only men do!’ Like them, the Baluba, the Ila and some other groups refer God as ‘He
of many suns’ or ‘He of the suns’. But the Yoruba describe Him in a different flavor
like ‘the Mighty Immovable Rock that never dies’. God is unchangeable and will
remain so forever. The Yoruba hold the same idea that ‘one never hears the demise
Moral Features of God
Apart from above manifestations of the African God, He has given numerous moral attributes too. Followers from the Ila, the Bacongo, the Akamba, the Igbo,
the Herero, the Banyarwanda and several others believe Him to be very Kind,
Merciful, Generous to His people, Fortune Provider, Pitiful, etc. In time of personal
and natural problems or difficulties, people feel the need of His urgent help and feel
Him as Merciful.
God causes rain during drought, provides fertility to all animals and averts
calamities. The Vugusu consider that material prosperity comes from God; the
Nandi invoke God daily to grant fertility to the women, cattle and fields; and the
Langi believe that rich harvests come only from God.22 God uses to solve difficulties
and that is why, the Akan and the Akamba call God as ‘the God of comfort’.
Most of the African believers think that God does only good to them and
they need not to be worried at all. The Ewe firmly believe that ‘He is good, for He
has never whithdrawn the good things from us which He gave us’.23 But for the evil
deeds, they do not categorically blame God. They think those as the works of spirits,
magic workers or as punishment for their own misdeeds. That is why, God always
seems to be ‘Just’.
The Nuer consider that, God throws things out and He is ever rightful.
According to the belief of the Ila tradition, God can never be charged, since He is
above the level of ‘fault’, ‘failure’, ‘wrong’ and ‘unrighteousness’. The Yoruba think
in the same way that ‘God is the pure King . . . Who is without blemish’.24 So,
African God is ever Holy to them.
God as the Creator
The title ‘Creator’ is very much associated with the ‘Oneness’ of God. God
as a creator appears to be so true through His activities over the African traditional
believers. Two of the four popular Akamba names of God are ‘Maker’ and ‘Cleaver’,
which are complementary to each other. God created this universe and thus
supplied materials for its maintenance too. The Ovimbundu title for God is ‘He Who
supplies the needs of His creation’.25 He provides life, health, rain and other things
for our sustenance.
The Akan consider God as ‘Borebore’, which means ‘Creator,
Carver, Architect, Excavator, Hewer, Originator, Inventor, etc.’26
As a supporting example of God’s creation among the Banyarwanda,
women believe that God shapes their babies in the wombs. Women leave water
ready before going to bed, so that God may use it to create children for them. It is
known as; God’s water’; and He is known as ‘the Giver of children’. During pregnancy period, the Bambuti women offer food to the God and say:
‘‘(God) from Whom I have received this child,
Take thou and eat”! 27
The people believe that ‘there was nothing before God created the world’.
The concept of ‘ex nihilo’ (‘ex nihilo’ stands that God created this every visible and
invisible thing of this universe out of nothing) is very much known to the Nuer, the
Banyarwanda and the Shona. The Lunda describe God as ‘the Father Creator’ and
the Ila hold three designations of God as Creator, Moulder and Constructor.
Regarding the creation procedure, different tribes hold different views. The
Vugusu believe that God created heaven at first with the sun, moon, stars and
clouds; then He created the earth, followed by the creation of man; and lastly
animals, plants and other earthly creatures. But the Nandi, the Lozi and the Mende
consider human being as the last work of God’s creation. Some also believe that
along with the creation God also established laws of nature and human behavior
For example, The Yoruba hold that ‘God is the Author of day and night’ and
regard each day as His offspring.29 On the other hand, the Zulu think that their
marriage custom and circumcision are ordered by God. It is also held that God
continues with His creative work throughout the universe. The Twi say that ‘God
never ceases to create things’.30 Creation needs necessary things to survive as well.
That is why, for example, the Nuba pray for the cattle during their rituals that:
‘‘God, we are hungry
Give us cattle, give us sheep’’!
While making sacrifices, the officiating elder prays:
‘‘God, increase cattle,
Increase sheep, increase men!’’31
Along with God’s own creation, He also determines human destiny as well.
The Yoruba, for example, hold that a person faces God to choose his destiny before
his birth and during creation time God fixes that person’s life span.32 According to
the African traditional concept, everything of human life is determined by God. So,
God creates us and protects us too. He is creator along with the provider or sustainer. As a result, the Ashanti, the Barundi, the Tonga, the Nandi and other people
collectively think God as the Creator, Protector, Guardian and Preserver.
God as the Ruler
God governs all things in this cosmos. He is the prime judge (impartial)
and ruler of everything. The concept of ‘God as the Ruler’ is found mainly among
the tribes which traditionally have or have had kings or king like officials.
1. Mbiti, J. S., (1969), African Religions & Philosophy, Morrison & Gibb Ltd, Great
Britain, p. 29.
2. Ibid, p. 2.
3. Hughes, A. J. B., Velsen, J., and Kuper, H., (1954), The Shonaand Ndebele of
Sothern Rbodesia, International African Institute, London, p. 103.
4. Claridge, G. C., (1922), Wild bush Tribes of Tropical Africa, Published by Seeley
Service, London, p. 269.
5. Danquah, J. B., (1944), The Akan Doctrine of God, Boston University African
Studies Center, London, p. 55.
6. Smith E. W., ed., (1961), African Ideas of God, Edinburgh House Press, London,
second revised edition, p. 166.
7. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 33.
8. Matin, A., (2006), An Outline of Philosophy, Noorun Nahar Adhuna Prokashan,
38/2 Ka Banglabazar, Dhaka, p. 296. ‘’Pantheism is the view according to which
God and the world, the creator and the created, are identical. In pantheism God
is wholly immanent. The word pantheism, literally means ‘all is God and God is
all’ (pan = all+theos = God). Here, pantheism identifies that every object is part
and parcel of God, and every event is a divine operation, an exercise of the
divine will, or a manifestation of divine energy.
9. Hughes, Velsen, and Kuper, see above n 3, p. 104.
10. Smith, see above n 6, p. 167.
11. Idowu, E. B., (1994), Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, Wazobia Publication,
London, p. 40.
12. Smith, see above n 6, p. 109.
13. Forde, D., ed., (1954), African Worlds, Oxford University Press, London, p. 169.
14. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 32.
15. Kenyatta, J., (1938), Facing Mount Kenya’’, Published by Vintage, London, p.
16. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 34.
17. Smith, see above n 6, p. 109.
African Traditional Concept of God: A Critical Analysis
18. Schebesta P., (1936), II: Revisiting my Pygmy Hosts, Stanford University Press,
London, p. 171.
19. Smith, see above n 6, p. 127.
20. Young, T. C., (1944), African Ways and Wisdom, Published by Unites Society for
Christian Literature, London, p.146.
21. Idowu, see above n 11, pp. 36, 43.
22. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 37.
23. Westermann, D., (1912), The Shilluk people, Negro University Press, p.197.
24. Idowu, see above n 11, p. 47.
25. Campbell, D., (1922), In the Heart of Bantuland, Trubner and Company, London,
26. Danquah, see above n 5, pp. 28, 30.
27. Schebesta, P., (1936), I: My Pygmy and Negro Hosts, Hutchinson, London, p.
28. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 40.
29. Idowu, see above n 11, p. 39.
30. Westermann, see above n 23, p. 197
31. Seligman, C. G. & Seligman B. Z., (1932), Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan,
Published by Wiley, London, p. 394.
32. Talbot, P. A., (1932), Tribes of the Niger Delta, Reprinted Cass, London, p. 24.
33. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 47.
34. Ibid, p. 52.
35. Smith, see above n 6, p. 194.
36. Mbiti, see above n 1, p. 58.
37. Idowu, see above n 11, pp. 118-25, for details information.
38. Mbiti, see above n 1, pp. 59, 60.
39. Lienhardt, G., (1961), Divinity and Experience, the Religion of the Dinka, Oxford
University Press, London, pp. 10, 21.
40. Little, K. L., (1951), The Mende of Sierra Leone, Routledge & K. Paul Publication,
London, p. 218., and Smith, see above n 6, p. 281.
41. Smith, E. W., and Dale A. M. Dale, (1920), The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern
Rhodesia, Vol. I, Oxford University Press on behalf of the Royal African Society,
London, p. 208.
42. Evans-Pritchard, E. E., (1956), II: Nuer Religion, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 7,
43. Schebesta, see above n 18, p. 235.
44. Huntingford, G. W. B., (1953), The Nandi of Kenya, C. Hurst & Co. Publisher,
London, p. 74.
45. Ibid, pp. 135, 144, 153.
46. Smith, see above n 6, p. 189.
47. Ibid, p. 194.
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