Society and Culture

Towards an Understanding of Igbo Traditional Religious Life and Philosophy -Chp 1

Ndi Igbo have suffered the double misfortune of being misunderstood and having a bad press. In spite of their stupendous achievements in every area of human endeavour, particularly in science and technology, religion and education, the Igbo nation has been deliberately and systematically marginalized. At the risk of sounding patriotic and accommodating, Ndi Igbo have suffered the loss of their human rights and dignity but have also shown great courage and determination to survive as a people.

The questions arise. What is it that keeps Ndi Igbo going despite all odds? What is it that makes them behave, act, and move the way they do? What is the power behind the Igbo? Why was Igbo religion in conflict with Christianity? Why do the Igbo love the Christian way of life? The answers to these questions are the main focus of this paper.

These answers definitely are rooted in the traditional religious life and philosophy of Ndi Igbo. It has been rightly observed that the Igbo are a highly religious people. Writing about the Igbo in the early 1900, Major A.G. Leonard in his book The Lower Niger and Its Peoples remarked that:

They are in the strict and natural sense of the word a truly and a deeply religious people, of whom it can be said that they eat religiously, drink religiously, bathe religiously, dress religiously and sin religiously. In a few words, the religion of these as I have all along endeavored to point out is their existence and their existence is their religion.

This observation is not only true of the Igbo but also of other Africans. Professor J.S. Mbiti (1969:1) more than fifty years later in the opening sentence of the very first chapter of his book, African Religions and Philosophy has re-echoed similar statement which summarized the traditional religious attitude of Africans when he said:

Africans are notoriously religious, and each people has its own religious system with a set of beliefs and practices. Religion permeates into all the departments of life so fully that it is not easy or possible always to isolate it. A study of these religious systems is therefore, ultimately a study of the people themselves in all complexities of both traditional and modem life. Religion is the strongest element in traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned.

Similarly, after observing how religion thoroughly permeated the life of every Igbo, Bishop Shanahan was cited by John P. Jordan (1971:115) as having come to the conclusion that:

The average native (Igbo), was admirably suited by environment and training, for an explanation of life in terms of the spirit; rather than of the flesh. He was no materialist. Indeed nothing was farther from his mind than a materialist philosophy of existence. It made no appeal to him.

In the context of this paper, Igbo religion and philosophy are perceived as two sides of the same coin which Leonard, Shanaham and Mbiti acknowledged. In order to understand and arrive at the meaning of Igbo religion and philosophy, it is not necessary to engage in a definition or analysis of concepts. On this I agree with Kunirum Osia that this is because in Igbo, religious categories are not bound together in a purely ideal order. The categories do not form a system, a bundle of abstractions, as it were. Rather, they define a style of life, and a guide to practical living. Unlike the major world religions, Igbo religion is not codified or formulated into systematic dogmas. It is culturally learned and adopted. It is a tradition. Religion is an intrinsic part of culture. Culture is itself the totality of knowledge and behaviour, ideas and objects that constitute the common heritage of a people in a given society. And as a lifestyle, culture covers every aspect of the society’s life in their efforts to relate with their environment, with one another and as well as the ideational elements within the society. Scholars agree that they are layers of culture. Kato (1976:8) had identified the philosophical level of culture as its core. Philosophical not in the sense of abstraction but in the sense of reality — what is viewed as the real thing that gives answers to life’s problem. The philosophical level is the basic thinking or idea of a community. It answers the question as to what gives meaning to life. Close to this hard core of culture is the mythical level, which is made up of the basic beliefs of the people, which gives meaning to life. In a sense, people’s culture constitutes their beliefs, customs, ethos, and manners which of course enshrine morality. Whereas, on the one hand, cultural elements can be discerned from the people’s religion, the people’s religion itself is an intrinsic part of the people’s culture in a broader sense. Therefore studying one is by implication studying some of the vital elements of the other. Philosophy is therefore the heart of culture.

Religion and philosophy are therefore concerned with the beliefs and practices of the people. T. U. Nwala (1985:26) in his book Igbo Philosophy argues that the best word or concept which expresses Igbo philosophy is Omenala or Omenanị which literally means that which obtains in the land or community and refers to what accords with the customs and traditions of the Igbo people. For Nwala, Igbo philosophy is the philosophy of Omenala, Omenala referring to the spirit, the underlying principal or idea behind a particular custom/act. The inseparability of the two concepts are similarly recognized by Professor N.S.S. lwe when he argued that the African, Traditional Religion is inseparably interwoven with the traditional African society and culture. This is because African traditional religion is essentially a philosophy and a spiritual way of life, which permeates, pervades and animates the traditional social institution, norms and celebrations. Nwala (1985:112-200) also agreed with the inseparability of Igbo religion and philosophy. He rightly noted that generally a people or an individual may have a philosophy but no religion, but no people or individual may have a religion without a philosophy. Religion and philosophy are intimately related both in the belief and practice content. We must note here that every Igbo ritual act – sacrifice, dance, festival, has a philosophy or idea behind it; it is such an idea that motivates such act. Both involve basic belief, a philosophy, an underlying principle, or an idea, which generate actions and behaviours, which influence individual or group. Therefore it is obvious that a discussion of traditional Igbo religion must involve a discussion of Igbo philosophy. The main justifications rest on:

1) That Igbo religion and philosophy are centered on Chukwu, the Supreme God and

2) The fact that the sacred and the secular are held together. In other words, the secular life of the Igbo like all other traditional communities has been inseparable from their religious life. Their cosmology has a deep religious root and their practical life and moral values are interwoven with their religion. The only weakness is that their philosophy has often lacked what Nwala rightly called “critical and analytical content”

The point being emphasized is the appropriateness of the expression Igbo religion and philosophy. Religion and philosophy originated from native African soil (Onyewuenyi, 1993) and therefore indigenous to the Igbo as well. Both are about our way of life, concerned with meaning and explanation.

In other words, the burden of our argument is that one of the challenges of Ndi Igbo in the 21st century is religious. Therefore, our intention is to engage .in a hermeneutical exposition of some aspects of Igbo religion and philosophy from the Igbo African point of view. It is here we find the essence of the reality of Igbo scholarship in the traditional Igbo religion.

I am not, however, ignorant of the propaganda mounted by western writers about the sub-humanity of Africans as a people without history, without religion, (Green, 1964:52) denying them any conception of morality (Basden; 1966:34) and lacking in intellectual and technological accomplishments. I am not unaware of how African religions in general, and Igbo religion in particular suffered neglect, misinterpretations and distortions in the hands of missionaries and colonial government and their agents.

Without any intention to criticize any of these previous writers who had done veritable work in the study of African religions, our position is rather to indicate a positive contribution to the on-going quest for a meaningful and contextual interpretation of some aspects of Igbo religion and philosophy from the African point of view. The work will draw attention to the great potential Igbo religion and philosophy hold out for the unity, peace and progress of the people was well as to argue that Igbo religion and philosophy has been the key to Igbo self-understanding, identity and achievement within the Nigerian State. We will emphasise within that context that the religious challenge of the 21st century is for the Igbo to take a leap of faith and be fully restored in their relationship with ‘Chukwu’ first entered into by Igbo first ancestor and to insist that Christianity and education which act as sources of empowerment remain the only viable option that can equip the Igbo with character and knowledge that can transform us into instruments of change in the 21st century world which is knowledge-based, technology- driven and responsive to environmental concerns. We will begin this study by probing into the origin of the Igbo and their religion.

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