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Strengths of the Yoruba nation: Religious tolerance

Published by Tribune on Sun, 11 Jan 2015

IN the world today, it is being increasingly recognised that there is an African people who have found the secret of religious coexistence, tolerance and accommodation. That African people is the Yoruba nation of the southwestern region of NigeriaMany peoples of the world are regressing into a culture of passionate religious intolerance, hostility and conflict. Daily, hundreds of people are being deliberately and violently killed across the earth because of religion. Even in Nigeria where the Yoruba constitute about one-quarter of the population and inhabit a sizeable region, religion has grown into a trenchantly divisive and destructive force. An Islamic fundamentalist group named Boko Haram holds three states of the Nigerian Northeast, has declared a 'Caliphate', and threatens to expand its mass killings and destruction to the rest of Nigeria. In the rest of the predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria (beyond the Northeast), fundamentalist Islamic orientation is widespread; and Christians and moderate Muslims are from time to time killed in large numbers by radical Muslim activists or mobs.However, in the midst of all this, the Yoruba culture of religious accommodation and tolerance holds its own quite creditably in the Nigerian southwest region. Among the Yoruba, this is not just a modern trend; it is as old as the Yoruba can remember in their traditions. Of the many Orisa that the Yoruba worshipped in their early history, Yoruba people conceded the right of every community and every individual to choose to be a devotee of any, and Yoruba people simply did not argue about individual religious choices. Even if the priesthood of a particular Orisa was hereditary in a family, any child born to that family was still free to choose to be a devotee of any other Orisa. Therefore in the same family compound, there were commonly devotees of different Orisa, and such a situation never created even the smallest tension in the family compound. Whenever it was time for a member of the lineage to perform the rituals, or celebrate the festival, of his or her Orisa, the other members of the lineage supported him or her in love, gave him or her gifts, and happily shared in the feasting. The annual calendar of religious festivities was therefore usually very rich in every Yoruba family compound.With the expansion of Islam, and the coming of Christianity, in Yorubaland in the 19th century, the Yoruba simply continued the old pattern of religious tolerance. Fortunately for the world, they still continue it beautifully today. And this is greatly helped by the fact that Yoruba Christians and Muslims have equally accepted Western education, and share equally in the Yoruba people's very heavy investment in the education of their children. Yoruba Muslim and Christian notables and organisations have contributed about equally to the promotion of education and the establishment of schools in Yorubaland, and Yoruba people commonly brag that their own Muslims are probably the most Western educated Muslim community in the world. For a Yoruba man who desires to convert his Yoruba kinsmen or friends to his religion, success is more likely through a respectful and calm approach; an over-excitable or frenetic approach will almost certainly turn his people off.In a 2013 major study of Nigeria's disunity and decline, two researchers for an important agency of the United States government wrote: 'The Yoruba serve as a modern example of coexistence, since many Muslim, Christian, and animist Yoruba dwell peacefully, not only in the same cities, but also in the same households'. The famous Yoruba writer, Wole Soyinka (Africa's first Nobel Laureate for Literature) wrote many years ago that this religious accommodation of the Yoruba people is an 'eternal bequest to a world that is riven by the spirit of intolerance, of xenophobia and suspicion'.In Nigeria, the Igbo nation, a nation nearly as large and nearly as literate as the Yoruba nation, is a fierce rival of the Yoruba nation in modern developments. It is very uncommon to find an Igbo national saying good things about the Yoruba nation. It was therefore surprising when, recently, a prominent Igbo citizen, Dr. Pius Ezeife, said the following about the Yoruba nation: 'We use Yoruba today as an epitome of proper management of religion in the society. In a Yoruba family, you have Christians and Muslims. I live all my life in Yoruba. A woman died a Muslim but most of her friends were Christians, so she was buried as a Christian. In Yoruba land, whether it is Christmas time, Eid-malud or Eid-Kabir, it's all festivity'. Obviously thinking about the growing threat of violent Islamic fundamentalists of Northern Nigeria to spread their brand of Islam to all parts of Nigeria, he added, 'It is possible to radicalize Yoruba Muslims, but we should do everything within our powers to stop it'.To get a clearer idea of the quality of religious tolerance and accommodation among the Yoruba, let us briefly compare it with religious tolerance in one of the most open societies in the modern world ' namely, the United States of America. The United States is an exceptional land of freedom and respect for the individual. To ensure that public institutions (schools, government offices, and even private work places) will be free of religious frictions, religion is by law kept out of such places. In that way, the laws protect the individual whose religion may be different from that of the majority of people at a public place. With Yoruba society, there is a significant difference. The individual Yoruba is free to exhibit his religious orientation anywhere in the Yoruba nation, and no Yoruba person takes offence about such things. In Yoruba cities, riders in public buses commonly find themselves being loudly preached to by other riders seeking converts for their faiths. In the traditional Yoruba family, it is usual to have bothers who are Christian ministers, Muslim clerics, and priests of some traditional Yoruba god. In terms of religious freedom and accommodation, Yoruba society is perhaps the freest and most relaxed society in the world. The Yoruba have something important to teach the world in this.When considering people for governmental or leadership positions, the Yoruba don't look at the candidates' religious orientations. Being a generally religious nation, the Yoruba don't appreciate a ruler who has no religion; but they don't want any of their rulers (Obas, traditional chiefs, elected officials in modern governments) to intrude his or her religion into the affairs of government. A ruler or leader who intrudes his religion into his public duties will, almost certainly, quickly get into trouble with his Yoruba people.This powerful religious orientation of the Yoruba nation faces serious challenges in Nigeria. The source of the problem is that the Yoruba (nearly 50 million in population) are a nation in a Nigeria of about 170 million population, in which some other equally major nations are not only Muslim, but also radical Muslims with strong jihadist traditions. The Fulani, a small nation of 18th century immigrants into Hausaland in what is now Northwestern Nigeria, owe their dominant position among what is now the Hausa-Fulani nation entirely to their successful jihad against the vastly more numerous Hausa in the 19th century. The large Hausa nation and their rulers had been mostly Muslims for centuries before the 19th century. But the few Fulani immigrants started a movement, based on their claim to have brought a reformed version of Islam. Masses of Hausa Muslims swarmed to the Fulani banners, subdued their own kings, and allowed the Fulani to take over as rulers all over Hausaland. For the Fulani, therefore, jihadism in the service of what they call a 'reformed' brand of Islam is a proud tradition. They despise Yoruba Muslims' religious tolerance of persons of other religions, and they are constantly trying to use the authority of the Nigerian Federal Government to impose their own radical Islam and jihad orientation upon Yorubaland. From time to time, there emerge a few Yoruba Muslims who buy into this radical orientation and who thereby attract some attention for some time. Occasionally too, there are some young Christian zealots making radical Christian claims. But the well-established strength of Yoruba religious tolerance and accommodation has always succeeded in dealing (calmly but effectively) with such threatening storms.Yoruba persons of various religions are copiously interconnected by far-flung, ancient, living, and vibrant ties of family and blood. Theirs is therefore one land in which killing for religion is inconceivable. Some Yoruba may be Muslims or Christians or traditional worshippers; but all are Yoruba in an interwoven way; and none is likely ever to lapse into the madness of killing his kinsfolks because of differences in religion. The Yoruba know that in religious tolerance, as in many other areas of culture, they are a unique and outstanding nation ' and they are very proud of that.
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