Islamic and Christian Influences on African Literature

An old saying goes, “To know who you are is the beginning of wisdom”. That is the basis of African literature and has been for many centuries. Myths, legends and songs are all considered a part of passing on traditions dear to the African culture.

This in itself, is also a way for generations to be able to understand their identity as an individual. The traditions that are passed on in Africa also serve as a blueprint for the people to understand the past so that their lifestyles may thrive presently and in the future. For example, a story may be passed on so that someone may cultivate their crops appropriately in order to survive. This essay will take the reader through an extensive background on African literature and later into how both Islamic and Christianity practices have influenced African literature.

African literature comes in many forms such as verses, proverbs and folktales. These stories may be told in single sentence fragments or over the course of a few days. There are myths that also are a part of the oral traditions in Africa. Some believe that myths and legends are essentially the same method of storytelling when really that is not so. African myths explain Earth’s creation whereas legends explain periods of events after the era of gods, heroic events or serve to prevent future disasters. Myths are generally recited during religious ceremonies (“Africa“). This would be the case of divinations in the practice of cults. Ancestral worship in the African community is another form of literature. Worships such as these serve to recognize the community’s past, present and future occurrences. Another form of literature is known as folktale which comes from collective works of orature. Folktale stories employs trickster characters that feature a small but sly animal who uses its wit against bigger predators. Almost every African culture has one trickster tale to it. For example, Nigeria has a tortoise named Ajapa, Central Africa has a hare by the name of Sungura, and the people of Nigeria have Anansi, a spider (“African Literature“). Music also is a part of the oral traditions through songs.

Traditional music and storytelling serve to reinforce existing cultural practices and also serve in spiritual ceremonies. Those who tell these stories are gifted people of the village but are also ordinary people. For example, the Manding culture of Guinea values blacksmiths, potters and leatherworkers as some of the best narrators (Akyeampong 75). This is because it has been their experience that the finest narrators have come with that background. Prior to the 20th century, the African oral works were memorized and recited only. Because there was no written documentation of these stories, European culture did not fully recognize the oral traditions. However, Islamic literature was written down early on unlike African literature.

It was the year 639 when Islam was introduced into the North Africa region (“Africa”). Soon thereafter, Arab merchants were bringing Islamic culture to the coastal region of Africa. Unlike African literature, Islamic literature was scholarly and well respected through out other cultures including the Europeans. Arabic literature arrived in the Ghana region around the 11th century and was introduced by a Saharan tribe called the
Tuaregs. Between 1100 and 1600, the Islamic culture spread throughout North and West Africa (Akyeampong 151). Most African cultures that accepted the Islamic customs have blended traditional African customs with that of the new culture. For example, the Swahili culture is made up of Arab and Bantu components.

The introduction of Islam into the Swahili territory produced some of the most leading scholars. These scholars were able to document the region’s history quite well (“Oral Traditions”). Furthermore, the Swahili language is comprised of Arab phonetics but follows the grammar rules of the Bantu culture (Bravmann 104). In addition, Swahili literature makes constant reference to the Koran, the holy Islamic doctrine. The spread of Islam into the Sudanese area resulted in hosting some of the oldest manuscripts in the mosques and universities for over four hundred years (“Oral Traditions”). Arabic has also made its way into the African culture by way of teaching Arabic in the schools since around the 14th century. In addition, Western African regions have educated many young scholars over the centuries in Muslim philosophy and the writing art of calligraphy. At this point, wooden writing boards and charcoal had been introduced into the schools so that students were able to complete multiple assignments with one board.

Christianity has also become a part of the African culture through the European colonization starting in the 19th century. By introducing Christianity, missionaries also were able to introduce literacy (“African Literature”). Around 1820, written literature was introduced to the African civilization by missionaries from the East Cape Province. Literature that was introduced by Christian missionaries was then produced in English, French and Portuguese languages. Although literature from Christian missionaries was slowly adopted throughout Africa, the new African literature became more prominent during the slave trade era.

In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “And so by fateful change, the Negro folksong, the rhythmic cry of the slave, stands today not simply as the sole American music but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.” He goes on to add, “it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” (“African American Culture through Oral Tradition”). This has remained true for the at least the last two hundred years of history. Spirituals are a mixture of African American culture with the Christian faith. For example, slaves would refer to the biblical story of David defeating Golliath, as means of motivation towards freedom. Although slaves were forced to convert to Christianity, they held on tightly to their roots of African literature. They later incorporated Christian influences with old traditional African songs and the result was Gospel songs that are found today here in America.

In today’s society; art, music and literature can be found in a vast number of forms and languages. Furthermore, traditional African literature has not died down but has rather shaped other cultural literatures and vice versus. Nonetheless, the world will continue to be a melting pot of literature despite any attempts to overtake a culture much like history has shown us. In addition, no one can take away a person’s identity even if it means physically beating that person. People are who they are and they will continue to adapt to changes that come their way just as they have for millions of years.

Works Consulted

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Akyeampong, Emmanuel Kwaku. Themes In West Africa’s History. Athens, OH: Ohio

University Press, 2006.

Bravmann , Rene A. . African Islam. Washington D.C. : The Smithsonian Institution

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Courlander , Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore. New York, NY: Crown Publishers,

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Oral Tradition.” The George Washington University 16 November 2007 .

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