This new encyclopedia addresses a long-standing need in reference collections. Even in guides to African studies and comparative religion, African religions have often been given the short thrift. Anecdotal articles examining a multitude of cultures predominate. Some scholars have dismissed the continent’s belief systems as “primitive” or little more than animism. Others see the area as polytheistic until the arrival of Christianity and Islam. However, just as these relatively new world religions diffused their way slowly across the continent, other systems of belief enjoyed this opportunity long before the coming of Christ. The worship of Amen and Ra endured more than 3,000 years in ancient Egypt or Kemet. It is hard to believe that Egyptian religious practices enjoyed no influence on their many neighbors with whom they fought and traded for millennia. Likewise, in the oldest habitat for humanity, it is probable that man first considered here those eternal questions. Where do we come from? What controls the elements of nature and the universe? Distinguishing the answers that indigenous Africans may have had to those questions from the influence of Western and Middle Eastern belief systems is the particular problem of those who would make African religion their field of study. The sources of evidence are legion. The historical record stretches from ancient Egypt to the accounts of early explorers, nineteenth century missionaries and modern anthropologists. The material artifacts of hundreds of cultures indicate elements of worship. The everyday language, rituals and social practices of the living peoples of Africa provide other clues.
With this encyclopedia, Molefi Asante who has long eschewed the biases of Western scholarship and an international team of 98 scholars explore the unifying features of African religion. Their 462 essays demonstrate consistent beliefs in spirits, supreme deities, divine creation and supernatural ancestral figures. Patterns in the diffusion of ideas also emerge from studies of greetings, altars, taboos, family rites and treatment of elders. The religious traditions of more than 100 African cultures are surveyed. Dozens of deities, both historic and contemporary, are defined. From purification ceremonies to funerals, the religious associations of communal customs, agricultural practices and family rituals are explained. African ideas about nature, the afterlife, justice, sacred spaces and symbols are illustrated. Commonly occurring figures in African cosmologies and sacred texts also are introduced. The result is the most comprehensive survey African religions available. This is not to say there are not gaps in the coverage. Direct discussion of the contemporary influence of Islam and Christianity is avoided. The historical impact of Phoenician and Greco-Roman beliefs on Africa is unexplored. The presentation of archaeological evidence for religious practice is thin outside of ancient Egypt and Nubia. However, the editors do not presume that their work be considered the final word on African religions. Their hope is to provide a starting point for research and discussion. This overview is an excellent first step in that direction and is highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.