Africism is the term coined by Aloysius M. Lugira to refer to the system of African religious beliefs, ritual practices, and thought concerning the Supreme Being, suprahuman beings, human beings, and the universe. Africism is the autochthonous religion and philosophy of Africa. It is autochthonous because, from time immemorial and independently from developments in other cultures, it intrinsically pertains to Africa.
In this age of growing globalization, attention has been increasingly directed to the acquisition of objective knowledge about the religion of Africa. In pursuit of an objective understanding of the religion of Africa, African scholars have been encouraged to adopt the African American approach pioneered by Maulana Karenga, as stressed by the principle of Kujichagulia. This Kiswahili term means “self-determination,” that is, Africans' ability to “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.” This entry describes the geo-ontological approach to the naming of the religious and thought systems of Africa, highlights the salient features of Africism, and describes the development of the concept.

Africism: A Geo-Ontological Approach

For many years, the religious and thought system of Africa was perceived through the highly subjective and often contemptuous lenses of outsiders and failed to reflect the African reality correctly. The geo-ontological approach has as its goal the adequate naming of African religion and philosophy, the concepts behind the religious and thought system that is indigenous to Africa.
The components of the term geo-ontological are the prefix geo-, which means “Earth,” and onto-logical, an adjectival form of “ontology,” the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of being or existence. A geo-ontological approach to the naming of the religious and thought system of Africa, therefore, means naming it on the basis of the origin and relationship of its being, within the context of its geographical reference point. A name is a point of identification for the bearer of the name. Africism reflects a geographical belonging-ness to Africa because this is where the religious and thought system of concern here originates.
An etymologically clarifying note about Africa may be helpful. Africa is the name of the continent. It is derived from the people of North Africa, whose name was Afer (sing.)/'Afri (plur.). After the homeland of the Afri was colonialized by the Romans in 146 BC. the name of the homeland was changed from Carthage to Africa to mean “the land of the Afri.” Afric- stood as the root word to which suffixes are added to determine the meaning. The suffix-ca added to Afri-results in terra Africa, that is, “land of the Afri.” Originally, Africa signified what today is called the former Roman province in North Africa. In the course of time, through metonymy, the figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of a part for the whole thing, the term Africa was applied for the whole continent of Africa.
Similarly, the suffix -ism can be added to the root word afric-. Linguistically, it is sound to employ the suffix -ism in forming the name of a system, of a theory, or of a practice that can be religious, ecclesiastical, and philosophical depending on the situation at hand. Thus, the term Africism was coined. It is an umbrella term that, by essence, represents the oneness of African religion, as manifested in the diverse religious expressions observed in Africa.

Salient Features of Africism

The salient features of Africism include concepts about the Supreme Being, suprahuman beings, human beings, and the universe. They are the springboard from which a substantive reflection on Africism is made.

The Supreme Being

In Africism, God is the Supreme Being. This supremacy is recognized through the numerous African primary sources that, from time immemorial, have consistently been handed down, in African folklore, from generation to generation. Until the globalization of literacy started taking effect in Africa, most Africans depended primarily on oral methods and visual texts to convey and transmit knowledge about their religious and thought system. The end result of all this was the promotion of African sagacity and sages.
Within the context of Africist authenticity, a sage is a person whose upbringing qualifies him or her to be regarded as an educated person. The two main ingredients expected to be found in such a personality are religion and wisdom, which have been acquired through the oral depository of African mythology, legends, proverbs, riddles, tales, songs, names, artfulness, ritualistic performances, and so on. Out of such cultural storehouse, Africans have drawn conclusions that have directed them to the sensing of the hierarchical orderliness around them. They have identified the source and origin of such orderliness to be what they regard as the Supreme Being above which there is no other being. In Africism, the Supreme Being is the pyramidal apex of the African concept of God.
However, this one God is known by many names, according to the cultural peculiarities of African peoples. The many names by which Africans express themselves about the uniquely one Supreme Being do not, in any way, turn their understanding of the Supreme Being into many Supreme Beings. Here the concept of the Supreme Being enjoys the unity of essence, on the one hand, while it entertains the diversity of the manifestations of the names, on the other hand. By unity, the Supreme Being is expressive of Monotheism in the religious and thought system of Africa. Because monotheism is the recognition of the existence of one God, so, Africism is a monotheistic religion.

Suprahuman Beings

Suprahuman beings are spiritual inhabitants of the spirit world. Some of them are deities and/or secondary gods, others are specified as ancestors. Others are considered to have been deified to assume the spiritual positions of guardians and intermediaries between the Supreme Being and human beings. Spirits of the departed inspire a sense of superhumanity. For that reason, the presumption in Africism is to handle the spirits of the departed with care.
Among some Africans, superhuman beings are recognized as ancestors. Among other groups, spiritual entities are specifically and honorifically grouped in pantheons. Pantheon is the term under which gods of a particular African people are grouped and recognized together as the gods of that particular people. Some of the most recognizable pantheons in Africism include the Orisa (i.e., the Yoruba Pantheon), the Lubaale (i.e., the Baganda Pantheon), and the Vodun (i.e., the Fon Pantheon).
Some have argued that Africism is polytheistic because of the existence and veneration of lesser divinities and ancestral spirits. It must be noted, however, that Africism recognizes the Supreme Being to be the one God, above all gods without any admixture. Africism is more correctly understood as henotheism, that is, the acceptance of the existence of secondary deities and lesser spirits, without being distracted away from monotheism, that is, the idea of a Supreme Being.

Human Beings

Speaking about human beings in terms of Africism brings to mind the African concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu has to do with compassion and consideration for others. It is summed up in religious philosopher John Mbiti's frequently cited observation about the African view of man/ woman: “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” This is a dynamic statement that accentuates the communalistic disposition of Africans. Within the context of Africism, Africans are by nature communally religious.
Their hierarchical identification with the Supreme Being, the suprahuman beings and the ritual activities around them, are visibly expressive of their religiosity. The rites of passage and other communal rites are clear instances of how religion saturates all aspects of African life. The rites of passage are practices, customs, and ceremonies that people perform to move people smoothly through stages of life, from beginning to end. The stages include birth, childhood, puberty, initiation, marriage, aging, death, last funeral rites, and processes of reincarnation.

The Universe

In Africism, the foremost attribute of God is Creation. Creation is the Universe. When the Buganda of Uganda look around and observe the orderliness that surrounds them, they conclude by calling the originator of the Universe Kawamigero to mean “the Greatest Dispenser of Orderliness.” Religiously and philosophically, Africism identifies the World and/or the Universe to be the base of sacred space, sacred time, and all sacred elements therein.

The Development of the Concept

Sserinnya bbi lissa nnyini lyo is a Luanda proverb that means “An inadequate name disadvantages its bearer.” Inadequate names, which reflect inadequate understanding, have not done justice to African religion. Even today, Western mainstream newspapers may continue to misrepresent Africism. An article on religion in Sudan, for example, may indicate that its residents include Muslims, Christians, and “Animists.” Animism, according to the original definition given by the creator of the concept, the British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, is “the religion of lower races.” It is precisely because of such challenges that the term Africism was coined, as an attempt to redress the imbalances of past and erroneous approaches.
In 1950, Edwin William Smith published African Ideas of God, the proceedings of a symposium on the religious system of Africa. Ten years later, in 1960, the International African Institute of London published African Systems of Thought, also the proceedings of a seminar on the subject. During that period of time, these pioneering activities led to serious academic studies on religious and thought systems of Africa. African universities also participated in the rigorous study of African religion under the leadership of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, the University of Legon in Ghana, and the University of Makerere in Uganda. Since then, there has been a vigorous study of the subject, and this has helped bring about a renewed awareness and appreciation of the dignity of the African religious and thought system. African religion today enjoys dynamism because it is regaining followers in both Africa and the Diaspora.



  • religious thought
  • African religions
  • Africa
  • suffixes
  • monotheism
  • gods
  • spirits


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Idowu, E. B. (1973). African Traditional Religion: A Definition. London: SCM.
  • Karenga, M. (1989). The African American Holiday of Kwanza: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
  • Lugira, A. M. (2001). Africism: A Response to the Onomastic Plight of African Religion and Philosophy. In Religion and Theology: A Journal of Contemporary Religious Discourse (pp. 3–9). Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
  • Lugira, A. M. (2004). African Religion: World Religions. New York: Facts on File.
  • Mbiti, J. S. (1999). African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers.