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The People of Nigeria, Religion

Mohammed Marwa Maitatsine, African cultural practices, indigenous religions, Baptist missionaries, Islamic practices

Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religions are central to how Nigerians identify themselves. According to the 1963 census, 47 percent of Nigerians were Muslims and 35 percent were Christians. Current estimates vary and are quite unreliable; further complicating matters, many Muslims and Christians adhere to beliefs and practices associated with indigenous religions.

In the late 19th century, Christianity became established in southern Nigeria. In the Yoruba southwest, it was propagated by the Church of England, while in the Igbo southeast the Roman Catholic Church dominated. Today, close to half of the southwestern peoples and far more than half of the southeastern peoples are Christian, usually along lines established by Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist missionaries. Christianity is also widespread in the middle belt, but it is virtually absent in the far north except among migrant populations. In recent years, Protestant fundamentalism has grown, particularly in the middle belt. Nigeria also has many independent African churches, such as Cherubim and Seraphim, which incorporate African cultural practices such as drumming, dancing, and polygyny (marriage with more than one wife) into Christianity.

Dominant in the north, Islam continues to spread, especially in the middle belt and in southwestern Nigeria. However, Islamic practices such as the seclusion of women and strict fasting tend to be ardently observed only in northern cities. Islamic fundamentalists have increased in recent years, resulting in clashes with other Muslims, with Christians, and with the state. The largest such clash happened in Kano in December 1980 when followers of an outspoken cleric, Mohammed Marwa Maitatsine, seized part of the city and denounced the moral decay of modern Nigerian society. The army quelled the uprising ten days later, with more than 4,000 casualties.

While specific beliefs vary, Nigerian indigenous religions are usually pantheistic, incorporating a supreme god, deities associated with particular elements of the environment, and spiritual entities associated with local physical landmarks, such as rock formations or rivers. Rituals and ceremonies in honor of deities are undertaken with great care, as they are seen to represent the key to security and prosperity. An example of such ceremonies would be ritual sacrifices, conducted at specific places and times to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Yoruba indigenous religion is of special interest because traditional rituals continue to be an important part of that society’s cultural practices.

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