Q & A with the Editors of Religious Plurality in Africa

Marloes Janson, Kai Kresse, Benedikt Pontzen

Could you briefly describe what your book is about? 

Benedikt Pontzen: The book covers religious plurality in Africa. Studying African religious traditions, Islam, and Christianity together and in their encounters, the volume sheds new light on how to study Africa’s religiously plural societies. It develops concepts and methods for the study of religious plurality in and beyond the African continent. 

Marloes Janson: In many African countries, Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of African religious traditions live in shared settings and hence interact with and define themselves in relation to one another. Yet, to date only a few studies have been dedicated to the interrelations and modes of coexistence that have grown from this conviviality. Our book maps the complex entanglements between Islam, Christianity, and African religious traditions in Africa’s plural religious settings. We use religious plurality in the book to refer to the existence of diverse religious traditions in a common space and the multiple relations that unfold in this space as different religious actors encounter and live with one another. 

Kai Kresse: We want to provide vivid and accessible case studies and their discussion for a wider interested readership on ‘religion’ in Africa. Hereby, a major focus is on showing, and discussing, the many diverse perspectives and practical trajectories that matter, for an adequate understanding of the roles and effects of ‘religion’ in contemporary African lifeworlds, which are no less complex than the Western ones readers may be more familiar with. 

Another important point for us all was also to counter (and open up) the established but misleading practice of presenting or talking about ‘African religion’ in the singular as a quasi essential or homogenous continental phenomenon. In our introduction, we seek to provide and coin a more adequate analytic language that builds on firsthand observation and subsequent understanding of the plurality and diversity of religious ideas and experiences, and to get away from the problematic trope ‘African Traditional Religion’ which obstructs more than it reveals. 

How did this co-edited collection come about? 

MJ: The topic of our volume originated in the summer school ‘Christians and Muslims in Africa: Towards a Framework for the Study of Multi-Religious Settings’, which was convened by Birgit Meyer, Kai Kresse, Abdoulaye Sounaye, and me at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin in July 2016. The summer school was organized as part of Birgit Meyer’s wider research project ‘Habitats and Habitus: Politics and Aesthetics of Religious World Making’, which was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation as part of an Anneliese Maier Research Award. All of us editors and most of the contributors to this volume participated in the summer school. The lively discussions we had in Berlin inspired us to compile this volume and we are grateful to Birgit Meyer who supported us and who kindly agreed to write the book’s foreword. 

KK: Building on a jointly organized summer school on the topic, we sought out a number of younger scholars whose recent fieldwork based ethnographic (and historical) research illustrates specific in-depth examples of such plurality of religion within different regional life-worlds and linguistic contexts in Africa. We solicited authors who had the combined expertises of long-term familiarity with relevant regions and their languages and social and intellectual histories, and who could bring some original fieldwork observations and materials to the table for further discussion and analysis. 

What parts of the book stand out to you as particularly interesting or surprising?  

BP: In their breadth and depth, the compiled case studies convey that religions do not exist in isolation from each other. In order to understand how people live their religions, we must consider the religiously plural societies and dynamics in which they find themselves. 

MJ: The case studies of the entanglements between various religious traditions in different parts of Africa stand out to me and make the book, I think, a fascinating read. When I started conducting ethnographic research in south-west Nigeria, I was very much intrigued by the pluriform religious movements combining elements from Islam, Christianity, and African religious traditions that I came across, but they also made me feel uneasy. Being raised in a Western tradition that perceives religious traditions as mutually exclusive and being trained in a discipline that expected me to focus on one specific religious tradition, I initially had no idea how to make sense of the movements that I encountered during my field research. With this book we hope to provide readers a toolkit to analyse mutual influences between divergent religious traditions that moves away from conventional understandings of inter-religious encounters in terms of either religious conflict or interfaith dialogue.  

Why is an integrated approach to Islam, Christianity, and African religious traditions important? 

BP: To overcome unfruitful bifurcations in the field of study of Africa’s religions. Currently, the field of research on religions in Africa is bifurcated into studies of either African religious traditions, Islam, or Christianity with scholars focussing on only one of these religions. This fails to do justice to the multiple encounters and coexistence of different religions in African lifeworlds. 

MJ: In many multi-faith settings in Africa and beyond, mutual participation in each other’s ritual festivities is part of social life. For instance, during my field research in southwest Nigeria a Christian told me that during Christmas he asks a Muslim butcher to slaughter a ram for him in the halal way (lawful in Islam), so that his Muslim relatives and neighbours can also partake of the meal. Similarly, Christians took part in the festivities at the end of Ramadan. Some of the chapters in our volume give ethnographic examples of Christians and Muslims visiting traditional healers when they are ill or need ‘spiritual protection’. These narratives illustrate, I think, the degree to which religious boundaries are put to social and practical use and why an integrated approach to Islam, Christianity, and African religious traditions is important.  

What types of research was carried out for the essays in the book? 

BP: The essays in this book are based on archival research, ethnographic fieldwork, media analyses, and interviews. All essays are based on empirical research and make their arguments based on detailed case studies. 

MJ: What the essays have in common is that they are all based on original, ethnographic research conducted by scholars who have in-depth knowledge of their fields, because they grew up there and/or have been conducting extensive field research in these fields. The in-depth case studies make this book suitable for teaching purposes. And while the case studies focus on Africa, they have wider applicability to plural religious fields in other parts of the world. 

What do you hope readers will take away from your book? 

BP: Collating fascinating case studies with conceptual innovations, this volume makes a strong case for the study of religious plurality and encounters in and beyond Africa. Gathering established and emerging scholars from the field, the volume showcases the state of the art. It is a good read. 

MJ: Complementing the typical image of Africa being torn by religious clashes and violence in the media, the case studies that are central in our book illustrate that religious rivalry is just one aspect of Christian-Muslim manifold relations. There is plenty of religious difference in Africa (and beyond), but difference does not automatically lead into violence or polarization; religious divergence could as well be the ground for a range of modes of borrowing and mutual appropriation. To me, that realization has been an eye-opener and I hope to our readers as well! 

Religious Plurality in Africa Book

Edited by Marloes Janson, Kai Kresse, Benedikt Pontzen, and Hassan Mwakimako

July 2024
James Currey
£85 / $125

40% off with code

Expires 31 Aug 2024

Marloes Janson is Professor of West African Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Her publications include Islam, Youth, and Modernity in the Gambia: The Tablighi Jama’at (2013), winner of the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology, and Crossing Religious Boundaries: Islam, Christianity, and ‘Yoruba Religion’ in Lagos, Nigeria (2021).

Kai Kresse is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin, and Vice-Director for Research at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). His books include Philosophising in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam, and Intellectual Practice on the Swahili Coast (2007), shortlisted for the ASA Herskovits Award, and Swahili Muslim Publics and Postcolonial Experience (2019).

Benedikt Pontzen is an anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Islam in a Zongo: Muslim Lifeworlds in Asante, Ghana (Cambridge University Press/International African Institute, 2021; Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2023) and co-editor of a special issue on religious minorities in Muslim Africa (Islamic Africa, 2022).

Hassan Mwakimako is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Pwani University, Kenya. He has authored and co-authored articles published in peer-reviewed journals including Religion CompassIslamic AfricaJournal of Eastern African Studies, and the Journal of Contemporary African Studies.