The Church and Islam in Africa

The opening statement of a landmark document issued in 2009 and signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and Christian scholars, titled “A Common Word between Us and You,” states: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” Hans Küng, the renowned Swiss theologian, is convinced that there is

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions; No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions”1

In a recent survey, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life notes that “Africa is clearly among the most religious places in the world. In many countries across the continent, roughly nine-in-ten people or more say religion is very important in their lives.” The survey found that more than 95% of Africans claim adherence to the Islamic or Christian faith. After highlighting the favor­able views Muslims and Christians hold of each other in Africa, the Pew survey also notes:

On the other hand, the survey also reveals clear signs of tension and division. Overall, Christians are less positive in their views of Muslims than Muslims are of Christians; substantial numbers of Christians (ranging from 20% in Guinea-Bis­sau to 70% in Chad) say they think of Muslims as violent. In a handful of countries, a third or more of Christians say many or most Muslims are hostile toward Christians, and in a few countries a third or more of Muslims say many or most Christians are hostile toward Muslims.2

In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins examines population growth of key Christian- and Muslim-majority countries against the background of prevailing socio­political, ethnic, and religious tensions, economic, and political challenges, and then ominously talks of the “Next Crusade,” singling out Nigeria as a ticking time bomb.3 If peace between Muslims and Christians is crucial for world peace, it goes without saying that peace between Christians and Muslims in Africa is something the rest of the world cannot afford to ignore. Indeed, the first al-Qaida bombs ever against United States targets exploded on African soil in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania.

Consequently, when talking about Christian-Muslim relations and world peace, Africa is critical— not only because of the potential for conflict, but also the prospects for peaceful coexistence between the two faith communities. As the first church to have been in contact with Islam, the African church experience in this encounter should be of interest to the global church. In this article, I will first outline the different phases of the spread of Islam in Africa and how these contributed in shaping the nature of the relations between the two faiths. To help the church reexamine its engagement with Islam over the years, I will outline the different faces or configurations of Islam in contemporary Africa and suggest ways the church has engaged and can engage with Muslims.

Phases of Islamization in Sub-Saharan Africa

A common stereotypical perception is that Islam spread by dint of arms or through violence. To counter this percep­tion, others have tried to show that Islam spread mainly by persuasion through peaceful means. As we shall dem­onstrate in the first part of this paper, the history of the spread of Islam in Africa does not fit into any one single mold. The spread of Islam in Africa can be divided into phases; different Muslim groups used different methods, both intentionally and by default, to spread the faith in different parts of the continent.

Muslims as Immigrants, Merchants, and Clerics

In 615 C.E., about eighty male followers were advised by Muhammad to seek asylum in Abyssinia with their families to escape Meccan persecution. This is described as the first hijra. Upon their return, they reported, “When we reached Abyssinia the Negus [the king] gave us a kind reception. We safely practiced our religion, and we wor­shipped God, and suffered no wrong in word or deed.”4 The African church provided refuge to nascent Islam by extending hospitality to vulnerable converts facing severe persecution in Mecca. William Muir (and others) has speculated, “If an Arab asylum had not at last offered itself at Medina, the Prophet might happily himself have emigrated to Abyssinia.”5

Even though Islam made little to no impact on Abys­sinian society during the first contact, in the ensuing centuries (7th to 19th), migrant and migrating Muslims became the principal bearers of Islam throughout sub-Saharan Africa. During this period, Muslims were generally itinerant groups who spread out into sub-Saha­ran Africa as traders and clerics. They sought patronage from the traditional courts, formed special relationships, and were accorded special privileges by the rulers. Some of the chiefs flirted with Islam, employed Muslim clerics in their courts, adopted Arabic names, and incorporated Islamic rituals into traditional ones. These Muslims were not missionaries; rather, the saving of souls was a by-product of the quest for gold, ivory, and slaves. During this period, Muslim settlements represented “islands of Islam in a sea of paganism.”

The top-down approach ensured that Islam had greater impact on communities with more structured political systems, that is, chiefly societies, than on the less stratified and loosely knit ones (i.e. those without chiefs). Up until the sixteenth century, Muslim groups posed no direct threat to traditional political institutions from which they sought patronage. On the contrary, in West Africa, the most influential clerical tradition during this period was the Jakhanke, which is known for its suspicion of political power, avowed pacifism, and aversion to militancy as a means of religious and political change. Nevertheless, Muslims exerted much influence upon African societies, some rising to become kingmakers and to hold very powerful positions. During this period, Islam spread mainly by appeal as a higher civilization through trading networks. The art of literacy on the part of the clerics, the production of charms and amulets for blessings, healing, and war purposes, all contributed to the appeal and spread of Islam. Islam nevertheless remained a largely urban phenomenon, a stranger religion, and a cult for the ruling class, with little impact on wider society. From this peaceful encounter developed what some scholars have derogatorily referred to as “African Islam” or “Islam Noir,” i.e., the appropriation and blending of Islamic rituals with African traditional religious elements. Sufi orders champion this form of Islam in which the five pillars are observed and Islamic law haphazardly applied in family and personal matters. The vast majority of Muslims who subscribe to this face of Islam are against ideological and militant Islam. This form of Islam is inclusivist (syncretistic) and tolerant and is still widespread in much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in West Africa to much of East Africa.

The storage of Islamic rituals in African wineskins goes back to the very beginning of the adoption of the faith. From the very beginning, Africans adopted Islam from a position of authority and power, adapting the religion to suit their context. The ruling class adopted and adapted Islamic practices and ritual and divested the religion of its political and legal content, or so they tried to. Through this process, Islam was thoroughly Africanized.

During this phase, Islam in Africa developed a non-ideological, apolitical, and pacifist tradition. Consequently, Muslims in Africa have a longstanding history of living and even flourishing as minorities under non-Islamic political systems. In many parts of Africa where this tradi­tion persists, there are cordial relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially Christians, at the family, regional, and national levels. This remains the trend in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of places like northern Nigeria, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Today, Islam is no longer a foreign religion in many parts of Africa. Together with African traditional religions and Christianity, Islam is an integral part of the African heritage and reality.6 This is not just a heritage with adherents who live side by side, but an authentic African worldview that in many places forms the basic identity markers of individual Africans! Negotiating these identi­ties continues to be a challenge in Africa today.

Muslims as Invaders, Slave Raiders, and Rulers

During the caliphate of Umar (634–644 C.E.), Muslims invaded and captured Egypt (640 C.E.). Muslim con­quests spread westward to the rest of North Africa as far as Mauritania. With Muslim rule firmly established in Egypt, Muslim rulers signed a treaty known as the baqt with Christian Nubia. This allowed Nubia to retain its sovereignty in return for allowing free passage and settle­ment for Muslim traders. The treaty also included the payment of an annual tribute in the form of 360 slaves to their Muslim overlords in Egypt. This arrangement lasted for centuries until Nubia was attacked and overrun in 1275 by the might of Mamluk Egypt, thus introducing the first direct Muslim rule into black Africa.

In 1493, Askiya Muhammad Ture, of the hitherto immigrant Muslim groups, took up arms against the ruling class of the Songhay Empire, overthrew Sonni Ali, and took over the reins of power. In 1529, Ethiopia, which had experienced sporadic attacks from Muslim groups, came under a full-scale jihad led by Ahmad Granj. His movement was defeated with the help of the Portuguese in 1543. These were followed in the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries by a series of jihad movements around present-day West Africa—the most celebrated being led by Uthman Dan Fodio, which covered present-day northern Nigeria.

When Uthman Dan Fodio unleashed his jihad on Gobir in 1804, the ruler, or Sarkin Gobir, sent messages to other Hausa chiefs telling them that he had neglected “a small fire in his country until it had spread beyond his power to control. Having failed to extinguish it, it had now burnt him.” The chief’s letter ended with a dire warning: “Let each beware lest a like calamity befall his town too.”7 The battle cry of the jihadists was “the religion of the ruler is the religion of the land.” In other words, if the ruler is “Muslim” as the jihadist defines Muslim, then that land is dar al-Islam and cannot be subjected to jihad. However, if the ruler of a particular land is not a Muslim, that land is dar al-harb and therefore a legitimate target for jihad.

The Sokoto Caliphate was established and Islamization was accompanied by aggressive Arabization, which included the implementation of Islamic law and the banishment of traditional African customs and prac­tices. The jihad movements degenerated into slave raiding on a massive scale, first by the Fulani on the Hausa, and later by the Hausa-Fulani on other tribes in the middle belt of present-day Nigeria. Islamization during this period had much to do with the destruction of traditional structures, dislocation of communities, and the conversion of slaves to Islam in massive numbers. The slave trade escalated during this period through the trans-Saharan routes, across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean into North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and Muslim India.8

Many leading Muslim clerics of the time opposed the jihads and paid with their lives. Ordinary Muslims across the western Sudan were therefore just as pleased and relieved as their traditional counterparts with the emer­gence of European colonial powers, primarily the French and British, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. They brought an end to much of the jihadist mayhem and dev­astating slave raiding and trading. It is worth pointing out at this juncture that post-colonial mainstream Western scholarly works on Islam in Africa branded the militant Islamic tradition of the jihadists as “normative”, “official”, “orthodox” Islam while the Islam espoused by Muslims who argued for co-existence with traditional believers was branded as “mixed” and “corrupt”.

The jihadists version of Islam, made accessible largely through the works of Western scholars, con­tinues to inspire an ideological, political, and militant Islam that is now championed by graduates from Islamic North Africa and the Middle East as well as the wind of global Islamic resurgence. This revivalist, reformist face of Islam comes with a clamor for the implementation of Islamic criminal code. The objectives include, in the words of Ali al-Khatim of Cameroon, “to Islamize the political authority.” Proponents of this face of Islam harbor and express strong anti-Sufi sentiments, are very antagonistic towards non-Muslims in general and Chris­tians in particular, and generally associate the West with immorality. The militant manifestation of ideological Islam is represented by the Boko Haram of Nigeria, who are responsible for violent attacks in northern Nigeria. The legacy of this ideological and militant phase of Islamization accounts in large part for frosty relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in places where the jihad met with success. Such relationships include present-day northern Nigeria where the Hausa- Fulani look back to the jihad period as the golden age of Islam. The vast majority of other tribes, who were victims of Muslim raids and are now largely Christian, look back to it as a period of barbarism and wanton destruction of their way of life. Chritians in Nigeria generally perceive Muslim calls for the implementation of Islamic Law as signs of Muslims trying to re-enact the jihadist rule.

Islamization under Colonial Rule

Direct colonial rule started in Africa from the 1880s. European military interventions, the abolition of the slave trade, and attempts at controlling the powerful marabouts all contributed to increased social dislocation. Sufi orders provided alternative secure social networks for the dislocated and displaced. Islamic civilization was viewed by the colonial rulers as having a higher standard as compared with indigenous traditions, and consequently Muslims were given preferential treatment during colonial rule. In places like south Sudan, northern Nigeria, and northern Ghana, the British, under the policy of indirect rule, extended Muslim rule over non-Muslim communities. Missionaries were barred from operating in predominantly Muslim regions. These colonial policies were predicated on the philosophical premises that Islam, while too low a civilization for European minds, was more suited to the “untutored” native Africans.

During the colonial period from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Islam made dramatic gains in Africa. In 1900, Muslims made up about 32% (34.5 million) of the total African population, while Chris­tians constituted about 9% (8.7 million). By 1962 when Africa had slipped out of colonial control, the Muslim population had risen to 145 million, while the Christian population had grown to 60 million. In effect the Muslim population in Africa more than quadrupled during the hundred years of colonial rule. Since then, the number of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa has increased more than twentyfold, rising from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010. The exponential growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, soaring to 470 million in 2010, took place during the postcolonial era.

This point is made to establish the fact that despite popular notions that Western colonial powers deliberately impeded the spread of Islam in Africa the evidence on the ground shows that Islam spread more during the one century of European intervention in Africa than it did in more than a millennium.

Other Manifestations or Faces of Islam in Africa

“Islam means PEACE” is the often-heard mantra. We also often hear people say or write things like “Islam teaches X, Y, Z” or “Islam does not permit X, Y, Z.” These kinds of statements are often made by Muslims and non-Muslims, advocates and opponents of Islam alike, especially fun­damentalists on both sides for their particular agendas. In such situations, Islam is often talked about as one unified monolithic system. For Muslims who use these clichés, Islam is presented in totalitarian terms with no room for differences. Those who dare to be different are either deviants at best or heretics and unbelievers at worst. For opponents and critics of Islam, these clichés are used to tar Islam with one big brush to justify such statements as, “Islam is a violent religion,” the “Qur’an inspires violence (jihad),” and therefore explain suicide bombings, and so on.

There is no denying the fact that there is indeed some consensus among Muslims in the profession of their faith. Broadly, Muslims agree on and share one Qur’an, belief that Muhammad is a prophet from God, the five articles of faith and the five pillars of Islam, the qibla or prayer direction (i.e., towards Mecca or the ka’bah), the practice of saying liturgical prayers in Arabic, and others. At these basic levels there tends to be agreement.

At the same time, there are deep and profound differ­ences or different faces of Islam that must be recognized. The obvious differences include the various groups and sects within Islam: Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Nation of Islam, etc. There are four schools of law in Sunni Islam: Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Even more impor­tantly, there are regional and cultural configurations of Islam: West and East Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani, etc. And finally, there are the different orientations of Muslims even within the same school of law and same region or even same family (e.g., fundamen­talists, traditionalists, cultural Muslims, secular Muslims, and those who will call themselves progressive Muslims).

Therefore, Islam in Africa is not only made up of dif­ferent colors of the African soil; African Islam is made up of different threads, new and old, woven together into an African fabric. Taking it apart will not only mar its beauty, but will tear the fabric into pieces. But understanding the tapestry of the Islamic component of the African heritage is crucial for the church’s response to Islam and engage­ment with Muslims.

One such face of Islam is the missionary and polemi­cal Islam that seeks to propagate Islam by employing Christian missionary tactics such as public preaching and debates; establishment of Muslim educational, health, and agricultural institutions; translation of parts of the Qur’an into vernacular languages; use of Islamic songs; formation of Muslim youth and women’s organizations, and imitation of Western-Christian wedding styles. In east and southern Africa, the use of polemics is their hallmark. Polemics have caused problems within Muslim communities and with Christian communities.

The progressive face of Islam is the least known. We can safely credit Mahmud Taha of Sudan who was executed in 1985 for “blasphemy” as the godfather of progressive Islam in Africa. Among other things Taha argued for the reversal of the theory of abrogation, that is, for the more peaceful face of Meccan Islam to abrogate the more belligerent face of Medinan Islam. The progres­sive face of Islam in Africa is now championed by a new generation of Western-educated South African Muslim scholars like Ebrahim Moosa and Farid Esack. They undertake a critical reading of the Qur’an, are openly opposed to all forms of discrimination and injustices inherent in Islamic law against non-Muslims and women, and support democratic principles of governance.

It is only in light of the different phases of Islamization and its resultant configurations and colorations in contemporary Africa that the following various Christian responses can be understood.

Various Church Responses to Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

Church responses to Islam in Africa are no different from those in other parts of the world. African Christian engagement with Islam has tended to be reactive more than proactive. There is a consequential lack of system­atic or coherent church responses to Islam in Africa, mainly also because, just like Islam itself, the church is very diverse. On the whole the responses seem to be determined and driven by the type of Islam or Muslims Christians encounter.

Hospitality and Hostility

Muslim tradition claims that the very first meeting between Islam and the African church in 615 C.E. was more than just a hospitable reception and provision of asylum for a vulnerable minority religious group—it was a meeting of minds. The traditions recount that upon further questioning by the Ethiopian Christian monarch on what they believed about Jesus Christ, the leader of the Muslim asylum seekers proceeded to quote some passages from the Qur’an: “Verily Christ Jesus, son of Mary, is the apostle of God and his word which he conveyed into Mary and a spirit proceeding from him.” And when the emperor asked him about Mary, he recited the Qur’an 19:16–34. When the emperor heard this, in the words of the Muslim chroniclers, “he wept so that his beard was wet with his tears” and then exclaimed with joyful astonishment, “Verily this and that which Moses brought emanate from one Lamp, go, for by Allah I will not suffer them to get at you, or even contemplate this.”9

In a reciprocal gesture, a tradition attributed to Muhammad states: “leave the Abyssinians alone as long as they leave you alone,” which came to represent the Muslim attitude towards Christian Abyssinia during the early Islamic period. Abyssinia was granted the special status of “Territory of Neutrality” (dar al hiyad) in the classical Muslim division of the world into dar al Islam and dar al-harb.

The sixteenth-century jihad by Ahmad Granj purposed to change attitudes on the part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Kingdom. By the late seventeenth century, a royal decree of religious discrimination forced Ethiopian Muslims to live in ghettoes in order to contain the “Muslim threat.” This policy continued and an even harsher edict was issued in 1878, requiring all Muslim subjects to convert to Christianity or be killed. Militant Islam seems to have radicalized large sections of the Ethiopian society, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, of which large sections had become very schizophrenic in its relations to Muslims.

The same can be said of sections of the Nigerian and Sudanese churches that have encountered various forms of militant Islam. Some Nigerian Christians now strongly believe in what some term “speaking the language the Muslims best understand” (i.e., use of violence). Some have even gone further to propound what is called the “Third Cheek Theology,” which argues that Jesus’ teaching of turning the other cheek no longer applies in their context, since they have been slapped on both cheeks and have no third cheek to turn! Radical and militant Islam, therefore, has the potential of radicalizing not only young Muslims, but Christians as well, a fact Christians everywhere need to be mindful of.

Old Missionary Model: Confrontational Approach

Muslim-Christian encounters in sub-Saharan Africa from the fifteenth to the mid twentieth century were basically the encounters between European Christians and African Muslims. This encounter pitted Islam and Christianity against one another in competition for political dominance, commercial interests, and converts. The Edinburgh 1910 Mission Conference report is littered with competitive zeal and a combative mood. The Commission I Report declares in part:

If we do not counteract the advance of Islam with all our energy and along the whole line, we shall lose not only the large parts of the now Pagan Africa but even the territories already Christianised. The main battle against Mohammedanism in the immediate future will be fought on East African soil. Here the enemy is already before our doors.10

Missionaries made it their duty to undermine the Islamic religious system and sought to prove by argument and controversy that Christianity was superior to Islam. This confrontational and polemical approach was roundly rejected by leading African mission workers at the time such as Edward Blyden (1832–1912) and Samuel Adjaye Crowther (1806–1891). Blyden argued that Islam was an integral part of the African reality and should be engaged with as a partner and an ally rather than demonized as an enemy. Crowther on his part started by using polemics and debates in his engagement with Muslims. The outcome of one debate, in Crowther’s own words, “sobered me down a great deal in my zeal.” He then went on to develop what Andrew Walls calls “an African Christian approach to Islam in an African setting. . . . there was no denunciation, no allegation of imposture or false prophecy. . . . For the future he looked to an African Christian community with an effective knowledge of the Bible.”11 In recent times, however, the competitive and con­frontational encounter has resurfaced in many parts of Africa, further stoked by recent Muslim clamor for the implementation of the Sharia in Nigeria and the Khadi Courts in Kenya. This encounter takes two forms: the missionary polemics and debate (mihadra in East Africa) and political activism on the part of mainly Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians in West Africa, Nigeria, since the 1990s.

In Nigeria, based on an interpretation of Galatians 4:22–31, Islam is often referred to as the “usurper,” the “religion of the bond­woman,” “the religion of the slave,” “the religion of force and violence,” “the slaves,” and “the spirit of anti-Christ.” This biblical vision has become a potent symbol for depicting Islam as the “unwanted” and “violent” religion. Islam is presented mainly as a challenge, a threat, and an enemy to Christians and Christianity.

Aggressive evangelism of Muslims is pursued, led mainly (but not exclusively) by organizations, churches, and minis­tries founded by Muslim converts to Christianity. In August 2010, a female law student is reported to have disguised herself and joined a Muslim assembly in prayer in Ibadan, Nigeria. In the middle of the prayer, she started shouting out that all must accept Jesus in order to be saved and that Allah is not God but Jesus is God. She was saved from lynching by the Imam, but her action sparked violence in the city.

Negative views of Islam and Muslims are presented in sermons, pamphlets, and magazines and taught at seminaries. The activities of Christian anti-Muslim polemicists are promoted and funded by Western anti- Islamic organizations based in South Africa, Germany, Britain, and the United States. The Pew Forum (2010) found that overall 43% of Christians hold negative views of Muslims as compared to the 20% of Muslims who hold negative views of Christians. In Chad 70% of Christians hold negative views, as compared to 40% of Muslims’ negative views in Djibouti. Among Nigerian Christians, 38% have negative views of Muslims as compared to 13% of Nigerian Muslims holding negative views of their Christian counterparts, and 61% of Ghana’s Christians have negative views compared to 11% of negative views from Muslims. In the overwhelm­ingly Christian state of Zambia, 47% of Christians hold negative views of Muslims as compared to 2% of Muslims holding negative views of Christians in the largely Muslim Senegal.12

Institutional and Official Dialogue

At the institutional (continental, regional, and national) levels, mainline Protestant Churches founded the Islam in Africa project in 1959 (renamed in 1987 as Project for Christian Muslim Relations in Africa, and in 2003 as Programme for Christian Muslim Relations in Africa [PROCMURA]), which works closely with but is not part of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC). PROCMURA operates in 24 African countries through the various arms of the National Council of Churches. It organizes various training programs, seminars, and academic programs to give Christians a better under­standing of Islam, engages constructively with Muslims, and develops appropriate forms of Christian witness in Muslim contexts.

The Roman Catholic Church, through the various Episcopal conferences, has invested in Christian-Muslim relations through publications, the training of personnel, and active participation in dialogue and other interfaith programs with Muslims at regional and national levels. Interfaith resource centers are set up for the use of both communities. Local churches also have different levels of engagement with Muslim leadership.

There is active engagement at the institutional and official level between mainline Protestants/Roman Catholic councils and organizations and different local, national, and regional Muslim bodies. African Christians, almost without exception, agree on the need to share their faith with Muslims and, unlike their Western co-religionists, are neither apologetic nor secretive about that. PROCMURA and the Catholic Bishops Conferences all call for dialogue while at the same time insist on the need and freedom for Christians (and Muslims) to share their witness.

A Call for a New Hermeneutic and Theological Framework

In many ways, Africa still serves as a theater for proxy wars and a laboratory for theological and ideological theories from other parts of the world. When a Danish cartoonist draws an offensive depiction of Muhammad, Christians in Nigeria and Pakistan who may never have heard of Denmark—let alone the cartoonist—had to pay with their lives! In other words, African Christians and Muslims still view themselves and each other as exten­sions of the West and the Middle East.

Africa is therefore at the cutting edge of Christian- Muslim encounters and, in places like Nigeria, at the crossroads! This is especially so because the vast majority of African Christians and Muslims share a lot in common, ranging from citizens with equal rights, ethnic bonds, family ties, through relationships forged over the years as class and school mates, and as members of the same professional bodies and political parties, and so on. In their encounters, in contemporary Africa, Islam and Christianity assume the face of a neighbor, relative, an MP, president, teacher, or friend. African Christians can neither afford the Western hermeneutic of guilt which tends to romanticize Islam nor the hermeneutic of hate which seeks to demonize it. African Christians and Muslims have to face the dangers and threats of ideological, political, and militant religion with, not against, each other.

But more importantly, the African church needs to develop a new hermeneutical and theological frame­work in its encounter with Islam and engagement with Muslims. We have inherited from Byzantium a Christ who is on the side of the ruler, the powerful, the victori­ous, and the Christ of empire, exclusivity, triumphalism, and intolerance. A God who is “with us, against others.” A message such as this one has nothing new or radical to offer in an Islamic context. The theological import is that God is aligned with the majority worldview. What is needed in the majority world in general and Africa in particular is the proclamation of a God who is “with us”—not against—but “for the sake of others.” We need a Christ who is on the side of the weak, the marginal, and who is most powerful in self-giving death.

Constantinian Christianity and its creeds were devel­oped in the context of power and expressed through Greek philosophical mediums. Hitherto, African theolo­gians have taken a very critical view of the dismissive and negative attitudes towards indigenous religious heritage. A similar critical approach is needed in developing a new hermeneutic and theological framework for Christian engagement with Islam in Africa. I am by no means sug­gesting a wholesale jettisoning of the creeds as having little value in the African church! I am simply echoing the view that all theology, is by default, contextual. The creeds and dogmas developed in the fourth and fifth centuries were answers to pertinent questions at the time. The creeds and traditions could serve as crucial sign-posts to the African Church in her quest for answers but shouldn’t be the normative touch-stones they are currently held to be in all respects.

For instance, Christology is a theological edifice constructed on the title of Jesus, Christus or Messiah. In African and Semitic contexts, however, the true identity of persons lie in their proper names rather than their titles. It makes sense therefore for the African church to consider developing a theology based on the proper name of Jesus: Immanuel. There is a need to develop an Immanuelogy, that is, a “theology of Immanuel,” a theology that takes on flesh, a face, a name of a Muslim relative and neighbor. And we need a hermeneutic of relationship—a hermeneutic that takes seriously and wrestles with the African reality of religious pluralism. For as an African proverb puts it, if you cannot leave each other behind on a journey, then you better learn to wait for one another.


1Hans Küng, Islam: Past, Present and Future, trans. John Bowden (Oxford: Oneworld Publica­tions, 2009), xii.

2Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population (October 7, 2009),

3Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, rev. and expanded ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 201–4.

4Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 148.

5Quoted in J. S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1965), p. 45.

6Ali Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (London: BBC, 1988).

7J. S. Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 199.

8John Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-Religious Dialogue (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001), 63–107.

9Guillaume, Life of Muhammad, 146–50.

10World Missionary Conference 1910, Report of Commission I: Carrying the Gospel to all the non- Christian World, on, (accessed October 1, 2011).

11A. F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 146.

122010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa (April 2010),