Adriaan van Klinken about his new book, Religions in Contemporary Africa

Dr Adriaan van klinken – Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds – is co-author of the recently published book, Religions in Contemporary Africa: An Introduction. Here he answers some questions to introduce the book to the readers of Religion in Public.

How has this book come about?

When I joined the University of Leeds six years ago, I inherited the module “Varieties of Religion in Modern African Societies” from my predecessor, Kevin Ward. It was an introductory course for first year undergraduate students, aiming to give them a general introduction to the main religious traditions on the African continent. As soon as I started preparing for the teaching, I realised that there was no up to date text book available to refer students to, and I started playing with the idea of possibly writing one in the future myself. In subsequent years, I revised the content of the module, balancing the attention paid to indigenous religions, Christianity and Islam, and including a stronger focus on the role of religion in contemporary African societies, politics, and cultures; the module was also renamed as “Religion in Modern Africa”.

In a meeting with the Routledge commissioning editor for Religious Studies, Rebecca Shillabeer, I once mentioned the need for a textbook on religions in Africa, and she immediately asked whether I would consider writing it myself. For the next two years or so, she kept asking me that question, and after some time I thought that maybe I should give it serious thought. I realised however that I could not write such a book on my own – Africa is too big a continent, and its religious diversity and vitality is more complex than I could ever adequately capture.

I approached two colleagues: Laura Grillo, an expert of indigenous religions in west Africa, whom I knew from the African Religions Unit in the American Academy of Religion, in which we are both involved; and Hassan Ndzovu, an expert of Islam in Africa, especially in east Africa, with whom I had previously collaborated in a writing project. Their expertise complemented mine, as I mostly work on Christianity, with a focus on southern and east Africa. They both responded very enthusiastically, and this book is the fruit of what turned out to be a very stimulating and productive collaboration.

What is the key argument that your book develops?

The main argument developed throughout this book is that studying religions in Africa is pertinent to both understanding Africa – its peoples, cultures and societies, value and belief systems, and also its political and economic realities – and understanding religion – as an academic concept, a contextual phenomenon, and a lived reality in our contemporary globalised world. In African Studies as an academic field, religion is often marginalised, reflecting Western secular assumptions, while Religious Studies has a long tradition of “othering” African religions and seeing them as marginal to religion more generally, reflecting Western orientalist tendencies.

Our book aims to provide insight into the rich diversity and vitality of religious belief and practice in Africa, and to demonstrate how “religion” is deeply intertwined with other spheres of life in African societies. It does so on the basis of the premise that understanding African religious traditions is key to understanding religious cultures worldwide, and is of critical importance to thinking about what “religion” is and does.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

The book consists of two parts. The first part includes six chapters introducing the three major religions of Africa – indigenous religions, Christianity and Islam – from historical perspectives and in their contemporary manifestations and dynamics. The second part consists of nine chapters exploring the social, public and political role of religious thought and practice in Africa. These chapters examine the relation between religion and topics such as power and politics, conflict and peacebuilding, development, human rights, illness and health, gender, sexuality, and media. These chapters are particularly relevant to understanding the relationship between religion and public life, as they question the usefulness of western ways of categorising and organising religion on the basis of a separation between religious and secular spheres.

We make a strong case that in order to understand African popular culture, political dynamics, and social life, one has to engage with the role of religion as a source and site of power, meaning, agency, and creativity. Each chapter includes short case studies to illustrate and explore the issue under discussion with reference to specific contexts.

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?

I’m tempted to quote here from the chapter about religion and sexuality, which includes a discussion of penis enlargement as a religious concern (it was good fun writing that!). Yet for the purpose of this blog, let me quote from the book’s introduction, which reads:

“We are convinced that studying religions in Africa is essential for understanding Africa, whose young and growing population has an ever-increasing influence in world affairs. Thus, we hope that this book will be read by students in religious studies and African studies, as well as fields like global studies, women and gender studies, development and political studies.”

Bibliographic details

Laura S. Grillo, Adriaan van Klinken, and Hassan J. Ndzovu, Religions in Contemporary Africa: An Introduction, London and New York: Routledge 2019 (244 pages).

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