The Spirit of Yoruba Liberalism

Ebenezer Obadare on J.D.Y. Peel’s Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion

J.D.Y. Peel, Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction, University of California Press, 2016, 296pp. $39.95
J.D.Y. Peel, Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction, University of California Press, 2016, 296pp. $39.95
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For three days in June last year, some students of Baptist High School, Adeeke, in Iwo, Nigeria, presented themselves at school in all manner of eye-catching church robes. Each morning, the routine was the same. The students were chaperoned by their irate parents, who then took positions at some distance from the school gate, waiting to see if their wards would be denied entry by the security guards. Inside the school, the “Christian students” had to contend with their female Muslim counterparts who, for their part, were attired in hijabs of various colors. The “Christian” students’ questionable sartorial choice (properly speaking, their parents’) was the farcical dénouement to a Christian-Muslim confrontation which had been brewing since 2012 when Governor Rauf Aregbesola, a Muslim, approved the demolition of Fakunle High School (originally a Christian missionary school) to make way for a shopping mall. He then, shortly after, gave the green light for a school “re-classification” scheme which in practice meant that in at least one instance, male pupils ended up in what used to be an all-girls’ school, and, in the case of Baptist High School, Adeeke, that “Muslim students” were forcibly integrated into a school with a distinct Christian pedigree.

Iwo, a Muslim-majority town in the southwestern Nigerian state of Osun, does not have a history of religious violence. This puts it in the same bracket as other Yoruba communities – reputed for their intense religiosity, yet famed for the evenness of the temper with which religious rituals are performed. Yet, during those momentous three days in June, Iwo came dangerously close to losing this reputation. Ordering their wards to “dress Christian” to school as retaliation for the school authorities’ court-sanctioned decision to allow female Muslim students to parade themselves in hijab, the Christian parents openly accused the state governor of scheming to Islamize the state. In classrooms, fistfights over the protection of religious patches reportedly broke out among students and between students and their teachers. For its part, the state branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the umbrella association for Nigerian Christians, went a step further, calling on Christians throughout the country to pray to “nullify [the] anti-kingdom laws and dealings with satanic forces” that were tormenting Osun state.

In the end, and just like any student of Yoruba history might have predicted, full-blown conflict was eventually averted, and the War of the Robes fizzled out the way religious showdowns in Yorubaland invariably have – with nothing more than verbal volleys fired – absorbed, some might say nullified, by the commanding cultural logic of a Yoruba worldview in which every Yoruba person, irrespective of religious affiliation, remains Omo-Iya (children of the same mother). In this cultural framing nothing matters more than community, allegiance to which always trumps confessional controversy over “imported” faiths. We might call it the theoretical axle of Yoruba religious pragmatism. The point stands, even though what happened in Iwo can be interpreted as evidence of tensions always lurking beneath the surface, or taken as proof that cultural unity, being a work in progress, never completely assuages religious tension.

John David Yeadon Peel, who died 2 November 2015 aged 73, was without question the most discerning and most penetrating scholar-chronicler of what he calls “the religiously-unmarked cultural repertoire of the Yoruba” (I call it Yoruba liberalism), and Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion was his capstone submission and final testament. Casting a quick glance over the landscape of scholarship on Yoruba ethnogenesis and cultural politics, one struggles to name any other scholar who may be considered Peel’s equal in keenness of perception, mastery of the historical sweep, passion for ethnographic data, directness and austerity of language, and overall intellectual judgment; not to mention a certain, unmistakably English, self-assuredness. Peel was that kind of scholar: the one with a sorcerer’s capacity to trick the most trivial-seeming piece of data into surrendering an unexpected illumination. In elaborating the Yoruba being-becoming encounter with the colonial modernity juggernaut, he pioneered a novel socio-historical anthropology in which songs, rituals, poetry and proverbs blended perfectly with archival sources.

The two related questions driving the analysis in Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion are more or less the same questions which Peel formulated early on and returned to time and again during a long and exceptionally distinguished career: why does the imperative of cultural unity always manage to prevail over confessional differences among the Yoruba? How do we account for the continuously peaceable copresence (and not to forget, comingling) in Yorubaland of “traditional religion,” Islam, and Christianity? Peel does not confront these questions directly. On the contrary (and quite aptly, given the subtitle of the book), he sets out to justify what he calls his “commitment to comparison as a tool of analysis.” Peel seems to be signaling here that even though his analysis holds Yoruba historicity as a constant point of reference, the conclusions from such are not intended for merely parochial uses, but can rather be taken as points of departure for an informed understanding of the varieties of social relations within varying geographic and temporal frames.

Yet, though he espouses the comparative method, Peel does not necessarily take its inherent value for granted. On the contrary, not only does he point out that the comparative mode is not one thing, Peel describes and distinguishes among five distinct modes, all apparently differentiated by their respective stances toward history. While the specialist will appreciate Peel’s earnestness in attempting to balance both sides of the academic ledger, the general reader might, for the same reason, find the discussion in this part of the book exacting. True, I relished the put-down of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (“intellectually tedious”), but it seems like a heavy price to pay for parts of the analysis that morph into a recherché account of arcane disputations in mid-century British social anthropology. Nonetheless, the underlying motive is noble: an embrace of the comparative method as expression of a philosophical commitment to an exploration of the richness and diversity of human experience. Anthropologist Peter van der Veer puts this point succinctly when he argues that comparison is “in the first place a question not of the right research design” or “the correct choice of cases to be compared,” “but of an awareness of the conceptual difficulties in entering ‘other’ life worlds” and an attempt “to contribute to radically new and open ways of understanding reality.”

As soon as we emerge from this thicket though, the going gets, well, comparatively smoother, as Peel settles into a fine-grained survey of the deep imbrication of the three religious traditions, all within the contours and undulations of Yoruba, Nigerian, and West-African histories. The reader’s patience is rewarded with a wealth of insights. Peel offers discussion, for example, of why the “memory and ethos” of Yoruba traditional religion continue to exert a large and diffuse influence (though it is now the preserve of a small, if active, minority); the two faces of Yoruba Islam and the persistence of Muslims’ double sense of inferiority and victimhood; the paradoxes of Yoruba conversion and community; the intriguing theological accommodations licensed by the cultural imperative to build “cognitive bridges”; and last but not least, provocative reflections on that ubiquitous and apparently imperishable bogeyman of Nigerian politics – “the Northern-Muslim-military complex.”

But these are arteries expertly channeled into the heart of a larger analytic objective: describing and historicizing the “shared moral framework” of Yoruba community which mandates that all religions, especially the so-called “world religions,” “pursue their conversionary ambitions peaceably before the court of Yoruba opinion.” As Wale Adebanwi has successfully argued, this praxis is foundational to the modern Yoruba political identity and the dominant strand of democratic politics in Yorubaland.

Whence this “court of Yoruba opinion”?  Peel argues (and this is the core answer to the two fundamental questions mentioned above) that this coexistence goes back to the pragmatism of Yoruba Orisa cults, attachments to which were always provisional, subject to “their capacity to deliver benefits.” He explains: “Religious tolerance was a corollary of this combination of personal religious choice and the nearly absolute givenness of community membership.” Furthermore, “Pragmatic considerations – the thought that because there were many powerful orisa, it was imprudent to neglect any of them – as well as a spirit of live and let live between cult groups, underlay the practice of tolerance.” Peel also suggests that, with specific regard to Yoruba Islam and Yoruba Christianity, the incentive to hew to “Yoruba conditions” as closely as possible comes not just from an awareness of the penalty for breaking “Yoruba rules,” but more importantly from a pragmatic acceptance by each that “it has certain weaknesses in relation to its rival.”

This is the backdrop to the extraordinary spiritual permissiveness that one sees in Yorubaland today. Peel cites a classic example: the tendency for babalawo (priest-diviners) of Ifa, the Yoruba oracular cult, to “advise clients to become Muslims or Christians.” For Peel, this is because,

… Ifa was a pragmatic and client-centered system of oracular consultation, and not a congregational religion, [so] it worked in practice to embrace a multitude of individual perspectives (albeit within a common framework of cosmology and ritual practice) rather than impose any kind of collective ideology – hence, indeed, its openness to Islam and Christianity.

Elsewhere, we see another example of this remarkable openness and accommodation. In his masterful study of the southwestern Yoruba city of Ile-Ife, the spiritual hearth of Yoruba cosmogony, Jacob Olupona notes the free hand given by the Ooni (in the teeth of opposition by the city’s religious elites and traditional ritualists) to his first wife and recent convert to Pentecostalism, Olori Morisade Sijuade, not only to practice her faith, but also, eventually, to build a chapel within the palace compound.

It bears emphasizing (an emphasis succinctly encapsulated by the opposition to Olori Sijuade’s chapel project) that this openness is not always unconditional, as David Laitin also confirms in his study of the religious backdrop to political change in Yorubaland. Part of the problem, as Peel sees it, lies in the very conceits of Christianity and Islam as world religions:

For while they compete vigorously with each other, they have had to do so under Yoruba rules – which have the tendency not only to domesticate them directly but to draw them into a process of mutual emulation that further enhances their shared Yoruba features… Yet, being the kind of entities they are – global faith communities, conversionary and exclusivist, anchored in scriptures that constantly serve to remind their adherents of how imperfectly they are practiced – they cannot find this situation entirely to their liking. They are compelled by their own traditions to try to realize their own distinctive visions.

This compulsion to impose themselves, and to challenge the religious-truth-equals-point-of-view liberalism of Yoruba society, is one of the distinctive elements of the religious revivalism which has swept Yorubaland, nay the African region over the past quarter of a century. This revivalism, in particular the way in which it has ruffled the collective social feather, is a timely reminder of another of Peel’s observations that religious amity in Yorubaland is “an ongoing accomplishment” rather than a “cultural given,” and that “Yoruba community, as configured by religion, is always historically provisional, never fully realized.”

Peel uses the final part of the book to pursue the implications of these disruptions. I have addressed his treatment of this sub-theme elsewhere. Suffice to say that Peel manages to locate the intersecting nodes of Pentecostalism and Salafism (as reformist modes of Christianity and Islam respectively), while keeping in view their divergent conceptions of state, nation, and culture. He is also strong on the homologies between them – homologies that both encroach on, and are encrusted by – their fierce competition for souls and theological supremacy notwithstanding.

What troubles me, though, is their un-Yorubalike epistemological hubris – this, and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for demonizing traditional religion. Pentecostalism is especially (though not exclusively) guilty of this; a deep irony, given its own roots in, and continuing entanglement with, “the springs of indigenous African spirituality.” Peel is sanguine on the prospect of Yoruba society preserving and carrying its religiously-unmarked cultural repertoire into the foreseeable future. I want to share his optimism, but I struggle to live down some of the clearly reactionary elements of the contemporary Christian and Islamic revivalism.

Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion numbers among a recent harvest of historically-conscious explorations of the dynamic interaction of traditional religion, Islam, and Christianity in Nigeria. A representative example is Olufemi Vaughan’s Religion and the Making of Nigeria, in which, drawing on similar methodological resources, the author demonstrates how, beginning in the nineteenth century, Islam and Christianity in Nigeria have fundamentally shaped and in turn been transformed by local religious, social, and political structures.

Given the Zeitgeist, Peel’s study couldn’t be timelier. It stands as an intellectual corrective to narratives which, blind to their materializations in different cultural and research contexts, intuitively pitch Islam and Christianity as cosmologies doomed to eternal collision. As a study in comparative social theory, it establishes a powerful cognitive framework for finding commonalities and convergences among previously different entities.

Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, and Research Fellow, Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. He is author of Humor, Silence, and Civil Society in Nigeria (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and co-editor of Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century (James Currey, 2014).