Sunday, March 20, 2005

Interesting Article

Islam and African Traditional Religions
by Josef Stamer

Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa has known a thousand years of cohabitation with traditional religion and adaptation to it, even to the extent of intermixture. In many areas it has little-by-little substituted itself for it, without too many clashes or ruptures. Today this experience is rejected by a significant number of African Muslims, who instead turn consciously to the Arab model of living Islam, as they imagine it to have been instituted by the Prophet Muhamed and lived by the founding community in Medina. In Africa, perhaps more than elsewhere, the islamising tendency in whatever form it presents itself, is a challenge to an entire way of being, behaving and living in community - a challenge to the very roots of the African way. Can there still he a valid African way of being Muslim or not?
The mass adoption of Islam by the Africans is a relatively recent fact. It was preceded in most cases by a long period of co-existence during which Islam remained a minority religion. It was not the superiority of the religious message of the Koran that finally tipped the balance in Islam's favour but rather purely sociological factors which, as in the case of colonialism and the arrival of modern technology, were completely external and foreign to both spiritual universes.

Traditional African religion, aside from the disconcerting diversity of its actual forms of expression, is in reality much more than (those) in the west mean by the term «religion». It is a global framework of life, encompassing every human situation and governing the whole of society. It is closely linked to the ancestral soil and places each African both in the succession of the generations (the ancestors), in his relationship with his fellow creatures and in his productive activities. Everything is religious!

The direct relation with God is rarely explicit but the belief in one God, Who is Creator and Good, underlies everything else. God does not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of life. These are governed by other invisible forces, good or evil, from whom it is possible to win favours through the ritualised experience of the ancestors. Strict observation of the rites and taboos and total solidarity within the group are the best guarantee of group survival and the transmission of life to numerous descendants. Seen from the outside, constraint and fear seem to be the dominant notes of traditional African religion, but this would be to forget that it offers an overall framework of security in an often very hostile environment, where only the survival of the group ultimately counts.

In many regions of Africa Islam has gradually substituted itself for the traditional religion, sometimes under the influence of external factors and in the overwhelming majority of cases without any violence. One could cite a whole series of factors that show a degree of cultural and sociological proximity between these two religious worlds. But at the same time there are other respects, equally fundamental, in which the two religions seem irreconcilable. Ancestor worship, for example, is something fundamental to traditional religion if ever anything was, and yet it is completely foreign to Islam. The real proximity of Islam with traditional religion lies far more in the fact that both are more than a religion pure and simple, in the sense of one dealing solely with the relationship of man to the Spiritual.

And indeed, in all the difficulties of life for the African uprooted or disillusioned with his traditional socio-religious universe, Islam offers a new framework, as all-embracing, as secure and as reassuring as the old one. A new solidarity within the Muslim community replaces the village and tribal solidarities without changing the laws and habits of life of the group. New prescriptions and prohibitions replace the old ones, without the need to try and understand their deeper meaning. The only real novelty is the centralisation of the worship on God, especially in the ritual prayer. But this does not exclude other ritual practices from existing alongside - and for a long time - in order to appease the intermediate powers. African Islam has never expressly forbidden these. On the contrary, given the central place of the sacred Koranic text in Islam and the impossibility for most Africans of gaining direct access to it, since they do not know Arabic, the more or less qualified custodians of the Scriptures have themselves become the new intermediaries, sought out and feared, who replace the healers, the fetishists and the other members of the secret societies without which traditional religion could not function.

In the process of islamisation the primary motive is clearly the desire to belong to a community, far more than the interior assent to a new religious message. In this respect has demonstrated great flexibility and patience over the centuries. Gaining access to the Muslim community has always been very easy: a change of name and the recitation, before witnesses, of the profession of faith (shad√Ęda). The regular fulfilment of the other religious duties and the deepening of religious knowledge will follow perhaps only a generation or two later. There is no real break in the passage from one community to the other, but simply a progressive disengagement from the one and a progressive integration into the other.

The long cohabitation of Islam with traditional African religion has also had an effect at the cultural level. The African languages are in general languages with a concrete vocabulary, rather limited in the expression of more abstract realities or more developed reflections. With the Arabic language Islam has been able to fill a gap. Many African peoples, some scarcely touched by Islam, have borrowed a complete abstract, and especially religious, vocabulary from Arabic, with no more than the changes proper to the structure of each language. The actual islamisation has come later, confirming and assembling within a coherent structure these scattered modes of thought and expression that were from Islam in the first place. Thus the inculturation of the religious message has in many cases preceded the islamisation itself

Islam was brought to Sub-Saharan Africa in the first place via the trade routes from the Arab countries and North Africa. The African Muslims have always maintained quite close links with the Arab world, from which a number of reformers came. But islamisation was essentially carried out by Africans themselves, who shared the same life, spoke the same language, lived in the same cultural world entirely. There is no doubt that, for African Muslims, «Africanicity» and Islam are in no way opposed. For them Islam is not an imported religion. For many, abandoning the Muslim religion is equivalent to the rejection of all their family and tribal traditions, so intermingled are the two socio-religious universes. One must conclude that Islam, in its traditional African form, is entirely a part of the African cultural heritage and thus an African reality.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Lessons with the Master

Panic in Detroit - June, 2003


It occurred to me - after this last time hitting the ground at a speed which seemed to defy gravity - this may not be a human being, the one I am facing right now. I recall a slogan, a creed scrawled on the locker room wall at the gym by some devout adherent of physical culture “Pain is Just Weakness Leaving the Body.” If this is true, I feel the weakness draining from my body along with an uncomfortable amount of sweat, blood, and my once steeled resolve into a black void meshing with the night sky under which this drama is taking place. I am desperately searching for my Center- the Core that’s supposed to be there when you run out of options and your back is to the proverbial wall. I am too unfocused to go there on my own. So, I have no choice but to let the kicks, slaps, and guntings that are breaking down my body carry me to it. I’ve found it to be a source of strength in the past against overwhelming odds. Now I’m just hoping to pull together enough to find an escape route.

My body is no longer mine to command. It has been hit and damaged with a callous precision, so that although my mind tells it to raise up and attack again, the neurological pathways (specifically created through years of meditation) lead to dead channels. My limbs are rebelling against me. They refuse to comply on the grounds that I have so wantonly put them in harms way - allowed them to be subjected to such cruel torture. At this point I also have to deal with an annoying interjection by my rational mind (the meta-program I have come to call “The Professor”) who assails me with theories and conjectures as to why this shouldn’t be happening. “Shut up!” I tell him. “You know nothing after all!” “Use the blitz!” he exhorts, “It has always worked before.” I drag myself up from the ground, and dig into the dirt with my feet for traction. Somehow I felt it would be useless. But better to die standing, I suppose.

The blitz failed, predictably and miserably. My arms are wildly hammered down yet again. I am caught in mid-step, actually chambering for a kick. Momentum spins me 180 degrees before he kicks out my supporting leg. The numbness prevents me from immediately feeling the ankle lock now being applied. I am unable to counter this as I have been unable to counter anything else he’s thrown at me during this nightmare. As my hands flail the ground in pain, I perceive another figure other than the one I am trying to survive against. It’s hovering actually, shimmering like a mirage. At once... a vestige of hope! Surely this is an agent of The Other Side. Perhaps the khodam of an amulet or jimat come to fulfill its obligation in return for all of the sajen I have provided every malam Jumat. No such luck. I realize it is merely the spectre of my own arrogance and pride given form. I don’t hold anything against it, though. I created it myself. I was a fool for trusting it.

When did this go awry? It began simply enough as a sparring session. The last session two days ago had been much different. We barely even touched hands then. The videotape showed two players moving, turning, shifting with grace and artistically accentuated movements in time to an implied gamelon. The younger one (none other than your friend and humble narrator) appeared focused and concentrated - to mask his own uneasiness in the face of the unknown. The Elder, glided so effortlessly through his footwork, in what could best be described as a good-natured ‘caricature’ (or maybe mockery) of the younger’s movements, with the smile of someone clearly enjoying the novelty of the experience. Not the grimacing Demon I am facing now. It had finished on an appropriately dramatic note, followed by the resounding applause of the other sixty or so seminar participants. In the span of time between then and now, what had I missed? There had been no discernable change in the atmosphere. Somewhere along the line, had there been some transgression that would warrant such a painful rebuke?

Today, in the pre-dawn hours we had gone out to engage in what I thought would be a relaxed continuation of the past two days group training. I was certainly not expecting this battle. In an appallingly short period of time, I was back on the edge of a spiritual precipice I had previously traversed a long time ago. The physical pain, like years of memories faded in the face of the broader implications for my training now. Almost at the same time that this moment of clarity comes upon me, I am lifted from the ground. The sun is rising. The Demon is gone. The Wise Man in his place offers some agonizingly simple counsel “You need to work on your timing. Lets have some coffee.”

In the initiatory process, Rebirth is always preceded by Death.


A famous General once said “War is any movement in a medium of resistance.” With this in mind, you realize that the agents of resistance (i.e. your foes) can take limitless forms: individuals; corporations; ideologies; the government; nature Herself; even the fractured emotional/impulsive “selves” which vie for control of the consciousness of man against the rational mind may set themselves against you. Carlos Castaneda put his redoubtable mentor Don Juan on record as saying something to the effect of “every experience in life is a Battle of Power.” As martial artists, we study and train for a very specific type of battle, our task being to integrate the higher principles of The Art into our souls in a manner which elevates us above the level of violence-loving sociopaths. To think, act, and live, as it were, like WARRIORS. If you’re like the majority of people privileged enough not to have to fight out of sheer necessity to survive, you get it out of your system by the time you reach green-belt and then move on to the next hobby. A select few adopt Warriorship as a lifestyle. Even fewer attain to anything beyond mediocrity. Only a precious few refine It to the point of establishing a legacy for generations to come - giving to the martial arts what Coltrane and Bird gave to Jazz, by way of analogy. As you live your path, you will meet and greet others who are following the same road. And if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and your path is an elevated one, you may be fortunate to cross paths with one of the Great Ones of your discipline. As the saying goes “When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”

Now, what they don’t tell you is that He may in fact appear as The Adversary - if only for a moment - and that The Adversary is very likely to be your greatest Teacher. Consider this: what forces you to grow...comfort or conflict? What is the surest test of one’s mettle, ease or adversity? That which forces you to grow must often forcibly dislodge you from your complacency. In my experience, if you want a student to stop growing, give him a certificate. In West African metaphysics, there is a spiritual energy called Obara Meji. An acceptably descriptive mnemonic for this force is “The Resting and Hovering One.” It is an unstable energy. Think of the ‘spent’ feeling that usually follows an important test, or highly anticipated event. Inertia compels you to turn your back to the wind, to rest on your laurels, as it were. The danger at this stage is to fall asleep instead of moving forward. If you choose to rest, you have enlisted the help of the divine Trickster to set you back in motion. His urging will be gentle at first. Then, depending on your degree of inertia, Trickster will have to increase the intensity.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Komusta Ka - Apa Kabar - 'Wasalaam - Greetings

This seems like an appropriate place to put some of the material that I have taken off of my main site I select the articles/stories to put here based on the amount of reader feedback - which has been overwhelmingly positive. I don't mind negative feedback, so long as it then leads to informed discussion between open minds. I'm learning as I go here, so please bear with me!

The following story was originally related to my Brother-In-Arms Ustaz Hussein Udom of and then on my website in the "Combat Journal" section:

A Challenge in West Africa

In August of 2000, I traveled to Ogun State, in Southwest Nigeria in order to study with some of the indigenous healers in the village of Ode Remo. Ode Remo is a remote place far removed from urban Lagos, where the tradition of martial arts is still very strong. In fact, it is about the only town that the Nigerian army and police steer absolutely clear of. Even Nigerian taxi drivers - who seem to fear nothing at all - will take you just about anywhere in that country except for Ode Remo.

Upon my arrival, I was given an audience with the chief and arrangements were made for my apprenticeship in the healing disciplines. In the meantime, I gave a brief martial arts demonstration to the gathering crowd in the chief’s compound, which seemed to please everyone greatly. I demonstrated some very simple techniques and movements in conjunction with a particular dzikr which I had learned previously in Indonesia. Soon, word spread through the village that an American Allaji (local term for Muslim) who was also an akin (warrior) had come to Ode Remo, which is roughly the equivalent of having a being from outer space land in a cornfield midwestern town!

Soon, the local champion of the indigenous martial art of Gidigbo (African wrestling) presented himself at the chief’s compound and greeted me with typically magnanimous West African hospitality. He was a man who I had recognized from a photograph taken years earlier, which showed him throwing an opponent who was at least twice his size about four feet in the air during a competition. I had also heard the story of how he single-handedly faced down a Christian mob during an intense period of the religious turmoil that so often sweeps through that part of the world, and how he given a commendation for this act of bravery by the regional Oba (governor.)

After a sumptuous lunch of palm oil and hot peppers (I politely declined the bushrat soup) the Gidigbo man and I proceeded to the town soccer field to have a friendly match. By the time we arrived there must have been at least 50 men - machetes in hand from the yam harvest - and young boys trampling each other to get a good view. My opponent drew one of the men from the crowd and proceeded to vigorously throw him around the field, demonstrating some of the flips, takedowns, and locks from his Art. Then it was my turn to demonstrate. I decided that discretion, not showboating, would be more strategic so I did some rather innocuous Silat movements (or more accurately pencak) from various animal forms. After the final formalities, and short explanation of the rules - no punching, first one to hit the ground loses - we squared off.

We faced off, arms touching in the traditional form. My opponent went in to clinch immediately. Instead of clinching though, I zig-zaged backward using reverse-triangle footwork. I snaked my right forearm across his throat until I was able to hook the back of his neck. At the same time, I caught his right wrist - and as his momentum carried him forward, I cast him to the ground using the classic puter kepala throw. He came up, and we squared off again. This time he tried to immobilize my arms. I kept my arms extended from my body, so that even though he had my wrists firmly grabbed, I was still able to spear him with my elbows when he tried to crash in and close. My footwork prevented him from rooting into a firm stance from which to throw me.

After about five minutes of countering and reversing his locks, he finally clinched me. I lowered my center of gravity, waiting to “feel” the opening that would surely present itself while he set up for the inevitable takedown. Then the strangest thing happened. I suddenly became aware of him whispering in my ear! Before I could process the situation, I felt myself losing consciousness. I spoke enough of the Yoruba language to recognize that he was using an incantation. As the energy drained from my body, and I slipped rapidly into a dark void, I felt myself being lifted straight up into the air, as if I were made of straw. With the last vestige of my consciousness, I uttered one of the Beautiful Names of Allah. At that point I surged with enough energy to wrap my legs around his chest (he was lifting me straight up!) and came crashing down on top of him. The match was over.

In the aftermath of the contest, I received the adulation of the children, and at least three offers of marriage from the women! The African wrestler and his entourage disappeared from sight. “Nice going” I thought, I’ve made my first enemy here.

He came to the chief’s compound where I was staying three days later. He shook my had robustly, and said in oddly-accented English: “I want to thank you for all that you taught me. I pray that you will become stronger, and that you will never be defeated.” He then presented me with a traditional West African warriors belt - which I wear proudly to this day. We shared a warm Fanta, and he brought me to meet his wives and children.

He took personal responsibility for my comfort and safety for the duration of my stay in Nigeria. I remain his humble student until today. His name is John Abiodun Ogunleye.