Religion, as defined by University of Ibadan’s Michael Nabofa, is man’s effort that is aimed at satisfying certain emotional, spiritual, moral, and material needs by establishing and maintaining cordial relations between himself and the super sensible world and between himself and his fellow men. According to the Pew Research Center, religiously affiliated adults and children accounts for 84% of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion. Of this world population, a third professes Christianity and one-fifth, Islam. Among Nigerian population, both religions are almost equally represented.
On the quest for the original approach of the people of southwest Nigeria to religion one encounters a mystery – for the gods of Oduduwa times had prevailed over those we may imagine to have earlier existed. As affirmed by historian, Adebanji Akintoye, the impact of this glowing Ife king on religion was mostly slim. A long list of his contemporary at least, lends their names to the gods. The imagined divine giver of victory was personified as Ogun, an Ife King. Also, a rich woman contemporary of Oduduwa, named Olokun borrowed her name to the imagined god of corresponding enterprise. Orunmila was a great Ifa priest and Ifa came from Nupe land. Obalufon, an Ife king, lend his name to another god. Even the senior god of Yoruba pantheon, nominally called Orisa-nla simply meaning “the great being” had gotten a more intimate name from Oduduwa’s eminent contemporary, Obatala. It is unthinkable to suppose Oduduwa worshipped or sanctioned the worship of these gods, at least with the names chosen for them, if indeed the historian’s conjecture about the gods pre-existing is right.
It is curious also, that the legacy of the paganism for which Oduduwa was supposed to have been persecuted in Mecca, as history records it, cannot be traced. The pagan Oduduwa would rather tie up, and worship the sacred object of his adversaries. Apparently Samuel Johnson was told by the Atokins, during his research for his classic book of history, that the Idi that was tied up, and hidden belonged to Oduduwa’s Moslem iconoclast pursuers. Samuel Johnson reasoned the Idi may have been a copy of the Bible. One may imply from this that the Eastern immigrant who would become the king of Ife was not a pagan after all. Perhaps it is impregnable, the words of Ife chiefs, who after warmly welcoming the Christian missionary, David Hinderer in 1859, assured his gospel was not anything new, as Ile-Ife, according to them, was the springhead of all religions.
The people of the southwest Nigeria, though animist before the advent of Islam and Christianity, believed in Almighty God which they called “Olorun or Olodumare” and took Him to be the Supreme Being. Rather than worship Olodumare who they imagine to be too far off, they devote themselves to Orisha, or smaller dieties but not mindlessly. There was a saying that the deity that overreach himself would have to look after its own shrine. When Ifa was introduced by Arugba-Ifa, they derided what would later become the main feature of their worship as “common palmnut”. When the pagan king of Oyo, Ajiboyede who in grief killed many Oyo nobles was reproached by a Nupe muslim, he quickly repented. When the missionary, Birchman Freeman met Shodeke, leader of the Egba people, he met a man whose mind has already been exercised in matters of religion. The preaching Muslims from the north had casted doubts in his mind concerning his idolatry. Already, Islam was powerfully represented in the town, and Shodeke, like Ajiboyede, the Alaafin of Oyo who lived many years before, had based his faith on the merit of the message preached, and on logic. He encouraged both the Muslims and the idolaters to display their proofs of the truth of their religion.
The latitudinarianism in the culture of southwestern Nigerians may have had its roots in this sense of reason. As stated by E.A. Alayande, in book, The Ijebu of Yorubaland, religion was not allowed to create tension in the southwest. Muslims and Christians interacted socially, sharing the merriment of each other’s festivals. According to sociologist of the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, University of London J.D.Y. Peel the Yorubaland is very exceptional in terms of religious composition in a lecture on Christianity and Islam through the Prism of Yoruba History. Tracing the origin on Night vigils in the Nigerian Christian circles, Peel said it was borrowed from Islam by the Aladura churches, which originated in central Lagos in the early 20th Century. “This was where the original ‘Egbe Serafu’ used to meet around Bamgbose Street, where most residents then were Muslims. He argued, “the practice of tahajjud or nocturnal prayer, well recognized in Islam as being especially powerful became the source of Christians’ vigils.” Peel said the inter-religious borrowing has not been one sided. Muslims in Yorubaland, he pointed out, taking a cue from the “appeal of born again Christianity” are also establishing groups like NASFAT to serve similar purposes within their own fold[i].
Ancient Igbo people of the eastern region on the other hand regarded their religion with great seriousness. An entire community on occasions, deprived themselves of choice foods, with the expectation that they would be blessed with prosperity and longevity in return. The Igbo conception of Chukwu, taken by them as the all powerful God is highly developed and intricate, yet they believed he blesses only a man’s initiative. It is often said, that all every man should struggle so that their chi may help them.
[i] Westerner May 11, 2009