Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Religion In Africa

Muslim and Christian relationships

Without a doubt Christians and Muslims have at times clashed violently.  Over-all, according to a PEW foundation study in 2010, tolerance characterizes Christian Muslim relations in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The study is the result of face to face interviews with 25,000 people from 19 Sub-Saharan African countries.

Researchers and students of African religion, or just those wanting to broaden their knowledge of the peoples of Africa will benefit from reading this entire report (Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, April 10, 2010.).  I have included belo:

  • some important facts from the Preface
  • Executive Summary
  • Links to Reviews and Commentary on the PEW report

Some important facts in the Preface to the document:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa now is home to about one-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) and more than one-in-seven of the world’s Muslims (15%).
  • The survey findings suggest that many Africans are deeply committed to Islam or Christianity and yet continue to practice elements of traditional African religions.
  • Since northern Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is heavily Christian, the great meeting place is in the middle, a 4,000-mile swath from Somalia in the east to Senegal in the west.

Executive Summary

The vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to the practices and major tenets of one or the other of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. Large majorities say they belong to one of these faiths, and, in sharp contrast with Europe and the United States, very few people are religiously unaffiliated. Despite the dominance of Christianity and Islam, traditional African religious beliefs and practices have not disappeared. Rather, they coexist with Islam and Christianity. Whether or not this entails some theological tension, it is a reality in people’s lives: Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions.2

Christianity and Islam also coexist with each other. Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest. In most countries, relatively few see evidence of widespread anti-Muslim or anti-Christian hostility, and on the whole they give their governments high marks for treating both religious groups fairly. But they acknowledge that they know relatively little about each other’s faith, and substantial numbers of African Christians (roughly 40% or more in a dozen nations) say they consider Muslims to be violent. Muslims are significantly more positive in their assessment of Christians than Christians are in their assessment of Muslims.

There are few significant gaps, however, in the degree of support among Christians and Muslims for democracy. Regardless of their faith, most sub-Saharan Africans say they favor democracy and think it is a good thing that people from other religions are able to practice their faith freely. At the same time, there is substantial backing among Muslims and Christians alike for government based on either the Bible or sharia law, and considerable support among Muslims for the imposition of severe punishments such as stoning people who commit adultery.

These are among the key findings from more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted on behalf of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 sub-Saharan African nations from December 2008 to April 2009. (For additional details, see the survey methodology.) The countries were selected to span this vast geographical region and to reflect different colonial histories, linguistic backgrounds and religious compositions. In total, the countries surveyed contain three-quarters of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa.

Other Findings

In addition, the 19-nation survey finds:

* Africans generally rank unemployment, crime and corruption as bigger problems than religious conflict. However, substantial numbers of people (including nearly six-in-ten Nigerians and Rwandans) say religious conflict is a very big problem in their country.

* The degree of concern about religious conflict varies from country to country but tracks closely with the degree of concern about ethnic conflict in many countries, suggesting that they are often related.

* Many Africans are concerned about religious extremism, including within their own faith. Indeed, many Muslims say they are more concerned about Muslim extremism than about Christian extremism, and Christians in four countries say they are more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism.

* Neither Christianity nor Islam is growing significantly in sub-Saharan Africa at the expense of the other; there is virtually no net change in either direction through religious switching.

* At least half of all Christians in every country surveyed expect that Jesus will return to earth in their lifetime, while roughly 30% or more of Muslims expect to live to see the re-establishment of the caliphate, the golden age of Islamic rule.

* People who say violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is rarely or never justified vastly outnumber those who say it is sometimes or often justified. But substantial minorities (20% or more) in many countries say violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is sometimes or often justified.

* In most countries, at least half of Muslims say that women should not have the right to decide whether to wear a veil, saying instead that the decision should be up to society as a whole.

* Circumcision of girls (female genital cutting) is highest in the predominantly Muslim countries of Mali and Djibouti but is more common among Christians than among Muslims in Uganda.

* Majorities in almost every country say that Western music, movies and television have harmed morality in their nation. Yet majorities in most countries also say they personally like Western entertainment.

* In most countries, more than half of Christians believe in the prosperity gospel – that God will grant wealth and good health to people who have enough faith.

* By comparison with people in many other regions of the world, sub-Saharan Africans are much more optimistic that their lives will change for the better.

Links to Reviews and Commentary on the PEW report:

Faith In Africa by Elizabeth Dickinson in Foreign Policy Magazine, April 15, 2010

Many African Christians, Muslims Hold ‘Apocalyptic’ Beliefs
By Michelle A. Vu, in the Christian Post, Apr. 16 2010

Dyron Daughrity on Christianity, Islam and Africa – an interview by Erik Tryggestad in the Christian Chronicle, July 2010

Christians, Muslims almost equal in numbers in Africa, in Washington Times, April 16, 2010

Report shows broad tolerance among religions, by Kevin J. Kelly in New York Post and Reprinted in the Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya) April 16, 2010
Christian and Muslim Beliefs in Africa: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy, by Jeffrey Weiss, in Politics Daily, April 2010
A short video of a segment of the PEW study.

Christianity in Africa –
Uploaded by cbnonline. – Watch the latest news videos.

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