Religion in Nigeria

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In Africa, religion takes the centre stage and is firmly integrated into people's lives. Ancient studies show that countries like Egypt practised religion since antiquity. Some scholars hold that the modern religion in Egypt is greatly anchored on the previous religious practices and that Egypt is considered to be the cradle of religion in Africa. Initially, the dominant religion in Egypt was polytheism. The Egyptians worshipped many gods which represented various phenomena in the society. The gods manifested themselves in form of idols moulded either from clay, gold or any other malleable metals. Currently, the religion is Egypt is mixed and Islam is dominant while Jewish is the least. Equally, in Nigeria, religion has been part and parcel of the Nigerians. Before modernism, the indigenous communities in Nigeria practiced native religious practices. They offered sacrifices to the gods in sacred places and believed that their ancestors acted as intermediaries between them and the gods. Therefore, this paper aims to examine the aspects of religion in both Egypt and Nigeria. The study will revolve around both the ancient and modern religious practices in the two countries.

The aspect of Religion in Egypt

Religion in Egypt could be better understood from two perspectives; the ancient and modern religious practices.

Ancient Religion in Egypt

Ancient Egyptian religion dates back data to 3000 years ago and was solely under the custody of the pharaoh. The Pharaoh defended the religion and liaised with religious leaders to lead people into rituals that characterized the prayer session. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the ruling Pharaoh to inculcate the act of spiritualism in his subjects and ensure that necessary gifts and requirements of the religion were strictly adhered to. In that regard, there was a person who was tasked with the responsibility of solely collecting the best product for the sacrifice to the gods. Quirke (2014) report that the collector of the household produce and livestock acted on a signed decree from the Pharaoh. Therefore, the religion was solely monitored by the king and chosen religious leaders who formulated and enforced the religious laws accordingly.

The ancient Egyptian religion was premised on beliefs and practices. As opposed to the current religious practices, the ancient religious practices were characterized by mythology, spiritualism, science, medicine, mental health and magic. Religious leaders carried out varied roles in these fields and each of them specialized in different discipline within the religion. The specialization is based on a famous mythology that claimed that religion should be employed in every aspect of human life since life on earth is the start of an eternal journey that would last even after death. Bard (2015) hypothesize that based on this mythology as well, science and medicine were practiced and deceased remains were carefully preserved and treated with utter respect since they believed that the life of the deceased still continues even after death. Therefore it was incumbent upon those he/she lives behind to give them a life worthy of continuance.

On the other hand, the religion was polytheistic in nature. Ancient Egyptians worshipped gods who were moulded out of wood, expensive metals or stone carvings. The gods were given different names and performed different functions.. The gods were not only seen as creators but also as custodians of law and order and the providers to the people. There were wide-ranging names that were given to the gods. They include Heka who symbolized magic, Nu was the god of chaos, Ashu who was the god of air, and other gods in the religion. Women who had problems in conceiving and getting suitors prayed and offered sacrifices to Bastet who was the goddess of home affairs, women’s health and fertility, and cats.

Religious festivals were carried out in sacred places and preceded by religious rituals. Ancient Egyptian religion had rituals that integrated sacred aspects of gods in its practices.  The religious festivals were regarded as sacred and in some cases, the gods also attended the festivals. According to Frankfort (2012), the Wadi festival was done to celebrate life, community and wholeness. During this festival, people pray for physical vitality and bodily integrity. The rituals that preceded such ceremonies included the gods being carried around in arks, ship or sail in river Nile. The ritual was based on the assumption that the gods must visit people and it was the responsibility of the religious leaders to ensure that selected villages have been visited by the gods.

Modern Religion in Egypt

Currently, the Islamic religion is widely practised in Egypt. Owing to the fact that polytheism was abandoned during civilization, various religious believes mushroomed in Egypt. Initially, the most dominant religion was Christianity that was imposed on people by the Roman rulers. However, the Muslim scholars conquered Egypt and forcefully converted individuals to Islam.  In the modern era, 90% of the entire population are Muslims while the remaining populations are either Christians or Jews (Asad 168). The Jewish population in Egypt are the lowest with an estimated population of 20,000 believers around the country. Sunni Islam is widely practiced in Egypt. In 1971, the constitutional promulgation declared Egypt a Muslim state.

On the other hand, Egypt has a history of religious intolerance. Though there are some religious practices within the Egyptian populace, they face instances of religious intolerance. The government of Egypt have been blamed on the infringement of religious freedoms and holds a belief that any teaching that contravenes sharia law is prohibited. Khashan (2016) highlight that through penal codes and legislative amendments, the government have cracked down on the religious activities that are considered an insult to the heavenly religions. Similarly, through executive orders, the government has meddled in religious activities of the minor religions. For instance, in 1981, Anwar Sadat ordered an arrest of Coptic Pope and consequently stripped him of his temporal powers. Religious intolerance is still in existence up to date in Egypt.

Christianity manifests itself through denominations. Unlike Islam, Christianity in Egypt is based on denominations. There are various forms of Christianity such as evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, and Armenian apostolic. The denominations have varied teachings and most of their religious practices are closely monitored by the government and they are constantly subject to harassment. Saeed (2017) points out that proselytizing Christian values is prohibited by law and the Christian believers are confined into preaching to the existing believers but not to try to win new believers. The act is seen as a contravention of the Egyptian law which derives its tenets from the sharia law.

Aspects of Religion in Nigeria

Before the advent of the missionaries, both Christians and Muslims practiced traditional African religion. Taking into consideration that Nigeria is a heterogenic society, the spread and diversity of religion have widely spread from time immemorial to the current times. Currently, Nigeria has the largest number of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa while Christianity still dominates in the country. The understanding of the religious aspects in Nigeria would be clearly understood if the traditional and modern type of religion is discussed in isolation.

Ancient Religion in Nigeria

Prior to the missionary advent in Nigeria, the indigenous tribes of Nigeria practised their traditional African religion. Different ethnic groups had their own religious practices that had different rituals. For instance, the Yoruba had a completely different religion from the Igbo. However, the underlining factor that they shared in common is the belief that they were all answerable to the ancestors and the supreme God. The Supreme God was a manifest to the names they gave their children and they were represented by the lesser gods that represented varied natural phenomena (Mbiti 34). The ancestors whom they regularly offered sacrifices, libations and farm produce acted as intermediaries between the gods and the people. Though the religious practices among the ethnic groups are different, they had some shared attributes.

Ancient Nigerian religion was polytheistic. In the Igbo culture, there was a belief in supreme God who was incomprehensible and transcendental. However, they believed in lesser gods too. The gods represented the natural phenomena among the Igbo and people offered sacrifices through the high priests and other religious leaders. Parrinder (2014) affirm that the gods include Idemili (god of water), Ala (earth goddess), Agu (god of medicine and divination). Apart from the gods that united the ethnic group, Nigerians also had personal deities (chi). The personal gods brought them luck and determined their fortunes. Bad luck was often tied to the personal gods. However, an individual would decide the fate of the personal god, change it or abandon it if it is not beneficial.

The ancient religion emphasized the worshipping of ancestors and primordial spirits. Apart from the gods, the Nigerian ancient religion worshipped the ancestors and their spirits. The art is tied to a belief that there was life after death and their ancestors looked over them. Agbedo (2017) highlights that the spirits were often worshipped and appeased through libations, naming children after them and giving sacrifices in their names. The ancestors and spirits were believed to be occupying various sacred geographical and natural localities. Similarly, various ceremonies were held to appease the spirits. For instance, Egwugwu was a ceremony where masked men impersonated dreaded spirits and unleashed terror in women and children during the festival.

Modern Religious Aspects in Nigeria

There are two main religions in Nigeria; Christianity and Islam. Most Christians originate from Igbo tribe, this could be due to the coming of missionaries who first arrived at Onitsha. However, Islam is dominant in the northern part of Nigeria where the Yoruba ethnic group occupies. There are other religions such as African traditional religion and Hinduism which are practiced by a relatively small number of people in Nigeria. Modern religion in Nigeria is characterized by the following;

First, there is religious intolerance in Nigeria. In most occasions, there have been reported cases of religious intolerance. For instance in 1985 in Kaduna State, there was a religious conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. Through radicalization and hard stance, the two conflicting groups embroiled in a bloody war which claimed many lives (Hassan and Mohammed 135). Similarly, in Kano, Muslim zealots enforced their rule in order to curb the rising influence that the Anglican Church started having in the region. Similarly, the rise of the extremist group Boko Haram is tied to religious intolerance. The terrorist group constantly bomb targets they feel are opposed to their teachings which are based on radical teachings far-fetched from Islamic doctrines.

Modern Christianity in Nigeria has assumed a corporate identity. There are several denominations in Nigeria which solely preaches prosperity and this has endeared them to the believers. In that regard, Al Chukwuma and Uhembe (2014) report that they have amassed so many resources to an extent that they have established business entities, educational institutions and satellite churches. The practice has completely changed the face of Christianity in Nigeria leading to sporadic mushrooming of churches in virtually all the estates in every town. Critics are of the opinion that the practice is aimed at making the preachers wealthy at the expense of the poor believers in the country.

Religion in modern Nigeria has assumed a competitive nature. Competition for space and expansion between Christianity and Islam is an aspect that has led to constant tensions, upheavals and fear among Nigerians (Marcus 6). The two dominant religions often scramble for space in order to win new followers and converts. In some instances, both Christianity and Islam have gone an extra mile to indigenize religion so as it reflects the traditions and the roots of the people. The initiatives have been put in place by the two religions so as to outdo each other and win many converts. However, these attempts reach an extreme end which regularly leads to religious clashes since there are no clear legislative regulations of religious activities.


Religion in most African countries originated from their past practices. Unlike the popular belief that Africans had no religion, it is evident that there existed religion in most African countries. Though the mode of worshipping was quite distinct from that of the western culture, there was a unifying belief of the existence of supreme God. The modern religion in most African countries is plagued with multiple setbacks such as religious intolerance, dishonesty among religious leaders and limitation of rights to freely practice religious activities. The two African countries studied are reminiscent of the happenings in most African countries.

Works Cited

Agbedo, Chris Uchenna. "Deities and Spirits in Igbo-land: The Elugwu-Ezike Cultural Perspective." (2017).

Al Chukwuma, Okoli, and Uhembe Ahar Clement. "Materialism and commodification of the sacred: A political economy of spiritual materialism in Nigeria." European Scientific Journal, ESJ 10.14 (2014).

Asad, Talal. "Thinking about tradition, religion, and politics in Egypt today." Critical Inquiry 42.1 (2015): 166-214.

Bard, Kathryn A. An introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian religion: an interpretation. Courier Corporation, 2012.

Hassan, Muritala Babatunde, and Muhammad Bello Umar. "Ethno-religious intolerance as an impediment to nation building: the Nigerian experience." International Journal in Management & Social Science 2.1 (2014): 130-150.

Khashan, Hilal. "Religious intolerance in the Gulf states." Middle East Quarterly 23.3 (2016): 1D.

Marcus, Babatola. "Ethnic politics and religion in Nigeria: Implications for National integration." Global Journal of Political Science E and Administration 3.3 (2015): 1-11.

Mbiti, John S. Introduction to African religion. Waveland Press, 2015.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. West African religion: a study of the beliefs and practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, I Magesa, Laurenti. African religion: The moral traditions of abundant life. Orbis Books, 2014. bo, and kindred peoples. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014.

Quirke, Stephen. Exploring religion in ancient Egypt. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Saeed, Abdullah. Freedom of religion, apostasy and Islam. Routledge, 2017.

November 13, 2023

Religion World



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