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If religion is defined as a set of beliefs and practices related to moral behavior on earth and to life after death, then each African society developed its own distinctive version. Despite the diversity, several common themes are fairly widespread. One is the belief in a creator, who brings the universe into being and then departs, perhaps to the sky or to some distant place like a mountaintop. Another commonality involves the importance of ancestors. Death does not end one’s existence, rather it moves one to a non-earthly realm to congregate with those who have gone before and those who will come after. Various rituals, including sacrifice, are conducted to honor and placate ancestors, to ensure that they help rather than cause trouble for the living. This is often referred to as “ancestor worship,” which is a misnomer: It is not so much worship of ancestors as it is recognition of the importance of community—past, present, and future. A third commonality is the presence of religious specialists, including rainmakers, healers, diviners, and priests, represented in various proportions depending on the African society in question. Yet another common element is the pervasiveness of religion in everyday life. Spirituality is present in sacred places, art, music, dance, storytelling, and ceremonies such as name giving, initiation, and marriage. Indigenous religions remain widely practiced throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In many countries, adherents to indigenous belief systems make up more than 20 percent of the population, and in some—notably Liberia, Benin, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, and Mozambique—more than 50 percent.
The first world religion to reach Africa was Judaism, which spread into Egypt sometime during the 2nd millennium bc. Subsequently, Jewish people may have converted various Berber communities to the west. In addition, during the 1st century bc Jewish migrants crossed the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in the northern highlands of what is now Ethiopia. Over time, they won converts from the local populations and eventually formed a distinctive Jewish community called Beta Israel (referred to derogatorily as Falashas in Ethiopia).
During the first centuries ad Christianity spread across North Africa, more by conversion than migration. In Egypt, the Christian sect of Monophysitism gained preeminence, and Egyptian Monophysites became known as Coptic Christians, or Copts. From Egypt, Coptic Christianity spread south to Nubia, and reached Abyssinia during the 4th century, becoming the state religion of the Kingdom of Aksum and subsequent Ethiopian states. Catholicism prevailed over rival Christian sects in northwestern Africa with the help of Saint Augustine, an Algerian and one of the framers of Western theology.
In 639 Islam began its march across North Africa. For the most part, even though Islam was brought by conquering armies, conversion was mostly voluntary. Converts were quickly won in northwestern Africa, where many people saw Islam as a vibrant spiritual and material alternative to a decaying Christian world. Scattered Catholic communities did, however, manage to survive in North Africa into the 15th century. Conversion to Islam moved more slowly in Nubia and in Egypt, where the Coptic Church is still strong.
In the 8th century Arab merchants brought Islam to coastal communities along the Horn of Africa, and the religion subsequently spread inland to other peoples, notably the Somali. In the 12th century, and possibly earlier, Islam gained adherents farther south along the Indian Ocean coast in what is now Kenya and Tanzania.
Another wave of Jewish immigration occurred in the late 15th century, when Christian armies reconquered the last Muslim-ruled areas of Spain. Jews in Spain were given a choice between exile or forcible conversion to Christianity, and many Jews crossed into North Africa, where they lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors.
In the mid-19th century, European missionaries reintroduced Christianity to Africa, and the process of winning converts picked up speed during the colonial era. Virtually all of the major branches of Christianity, and many of the minor ones, established mission stations in Africa, leading to an intricate pattern of religious denominations. Africans found conversion to Christianity attractive because the missionaries offered health services and educational opportunities for their children.
However, Christian missionaries made little headway in Islamic strongholds and the continent therefore became divided between an overwhelmingly Islamic north and a more Christian south. Roughly speaking, latitude 10° north serves as the dividing line from West Africa until East Africa, where it swings south of the equator to about 8° south. While Christians are few in number north of the line, Muslims are more common to the south of it. In Malawi and Mozambique, for example, 15 to 20 percent of the population count themselves as Muslims. Violence sometimes erupts between Islam and Christianity along the dividing line. This has been an ongoing social issue in Ethiopia for 800 years. Since 1970 Chad and the Sudan have seen ongoing strife and civil wars between the Islamic north and Christian-indigenous south. Sectarian violence has also occurred in Nigeria since the late 1990s. For the most part, however, the two religions are not in competition with one another and the continental dividing line seems unlikely to change.
New churches combining Christian doctrine and rituals with indigenous African ones are becoming increasingly common. Zambia and Zimbabwe have provided particularly fertile grounds for the growth of these syncretic churches. In Zimbabwe, 40 percent of the population claims membership in a syncretistic church, compared to 22 percent in more conventional Christian denominations.