world council of churches

Muslim-Christian Relations in Ghana:
"Too Much Meat Does Not Spoil the Soup"

John Azumah

Ghana is a former British colony in West Africa with an estimated population of 18 million, comprising about 64 different language and people groups. On the religious front, the population is made up of adherents of African traditional religion, Christians, Muslims and more recently, pockets of religions and sects of Eastern origin. Christianity, Traditional religion and Islam are, however, the three dominant religions. The latest survey conducted in 1993 estimated that Christians make-up 62% of the population, traditional religious practitioners 20%, and Muslims 16%. A Ghanaian proverb which says "too much meat does not spoil soup" typifies the Ghanaian and indeed African ethno-religious environment.

Islam and Muslim Missionary Activities in Ghana
Historically, Islam preceded Christianity in Ghana. Islam entered present-day Ghana in the 14th century, mainly from the north. Muslim religious experts, popularly referred to as malams, exerted influence on some northern chiefs mainly through the practice of fortune-telling and the preparation of charms and amulets for healing and war purposes. Some militant campaigns were conducted by slave raiding Muslim groups in the late 19th century in parts of the northern regions. These campaigns however only succeeded in making the affected tribes averse to Islam. Muslim traders’ brought Islam into contact with the Ashanti Kingdom around the 18th century. In the coastal areas the presence of Islam was first felt in the 1830s through resettled freed slaved from the East Indies.

The overwhelming majority of Ghanaian Muslims are Sunni who would subscribe to the Maliki legal tradition, whilst a significant minority follow the Shafi’i school of thought. Sufi orders that are popular in Ghana include the Qadariyya and Tijaniyya. These are prominent in the north and the major cities of the south. The Qadiani faction of the Ahmadiyya Movement is also very active in the country with a vociferous minority. The Movement was invited into Ghana in 1921 by a section of coastal (Fanti) Muslim converts. Membership and leadership of the sect remains dominated by the Fanti and Asante ethnic groups and has come to be known locally as "Fanti or Asante Islam" in contradistinction to Sunni or mainline Islam which is dominated by northern Ghanaians and other West African nationals. The movement is known for its anti-Christian as well as for anti-mainline Muslim polemics in public preaching.

In the last three decades, there has been a significant increase in Muslim activity in Ghana, resulting in a proliferation of Islamic organisations. In 1971, a Muslim missionary organisation known as the Islamic Reformation and Research Centre was started in Accra. Activists of the Centre refer to it as a Wahhabi missionary order. The organisation is financed by the Dar al-Ifta of Saudi Arabia and has since produced hundreds of students who have been to Arab universities for further studies. This and numerous other Muslim groups and organisations including the Ahmadiyya all embark on missionary activities. They undertake to establish schools and other social services, and carry out public preaching within the urban centres to propagate Islam. Muslim missionary activities are more intense in Kumasi, the second capital of Ghana, where the Ahmadiyya movement has an unparalleled record of anti-Christian and anti-Sunni polemics dating back to the early 1930s.

Another Islamic wave in Ghana worth mentioning here is that of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam was literally invited into the country in the early ’90s by the then PNDC military junta. In October 1996, the Movement organised a national convention in Ghana with the national television, radio and print media placed at its disposal. The Nation of Islam however has little following by way of membership in Ghana and its impact hardly goes beyond the emotional outburst evoked by the rhetoric of Farrakhan during his visits.

There have been instances of tension and violent confrontations between different Muslim groups in Ghana, especially between Ahmadis and mainline Muslims. The bloody confrontations of the early days of Ahmadiyya have largely given way to mutual suspicion, contempt and non-cooperation. There have been instances in which mainline Muslims have walked out of meetings in protest against Ahmadiyya presence. Another level of tension is that between indigenous Ghanaian Muslims and other West African nationals over leadership. The latter see themselves as the right custodians of the Islamic tradition and resent taking subordinate roles to indigenous Ghanaian Muslims. This has resulted in a number of violent confrontations during Friday prayers and the closure of mosques by the authorities.

More recently there have been a number of bloody confrontations between missionary minded Muslim groups made up of graduates from Arab universities and the majority traditional Ghanaian Muslim groups. The most notorious of these groups is what is known locally as the Ahl ul-Sunna, a Saudi trained wahhabi inspired group. They attack and publicly condemn traditional Muslim practices like production of charms and wearing of amulets as un-Islamic. The brand of Islam they see as "pure" or "orthodox" Islam is that which they were exposed to in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Arab-Muslim world. Another level of tension and sometimes violent confrontation is that between Muslims with Tijaniyya inclinations and those of Qadariyya persuasion. Numerous public appeals from government officials, traditional rulers and leading Muslims have helped in reducing the tension between Muslim groups in the country in 1999.

Christian-Muslim encounters in Ghana
In contrast to Islam, Christianity largely entered the country through the coastal areas in the 19th century. As a result of the endeavours of the various missionary groups, many Christian denominations now exist in Ghana. They include the Roman Catholic Church and denominations of mainline protestant traditions such as the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian; and in addition, churches of the mainline Pentecostal tradition such as the Church of Pentecost, Assemblies of God and the Apostolic Church. There are also countless indigenous churches founded by Ghanaians, and, more recently, numerous charismatic ministries.

The British colonial administration on arrival in northern Ghana in the late nineteen century recognised the presence of malams in the traditional courts. As they had decided to rule through the chiefs, and most, if not all chiefs, at the time were under some Islamic influence, the British inadvertently imposed "Muslim" rulers from some ethnic groups on others. They also debarred Christian missionaries from operating in the north, arguing, albeit erroneously, that the North was Muslim. The British policy was apparently aimed at mitigating Christian-Muslim conflicts. It did, however, delay the introduction of Christianity and the formal education that went with it into the northern parts of the country. The same policy coupled with the fact that Muslims’ first contact and influence was with northerners, led people of southern Ghana to perceive every northerner as a Muslim. In the same way, northerners see Christianity in general and mainline Protestant Christianity in particular as a southern domain.

Although this misconception still lingers on in the minds of many, the situation on the ground is certainly different. Apart from a few tribes in the north like the Wala, Dagomba, Gonja, and Mamprusi who have strong Islamic influence in their urban centres, northern people groups have largely remained traditionalists. Some of these are open to Christianity and have converted in significant numbers. In the south, as already indicated above, the Ahmadiyya Movement is dominant amongst southern Akan speaking groups. The repealing of the British "mission-proof" policy for northern Ghana after independence, coupled with migration, has brought Muslims and Christians to live in closer proximity than ever. There is hardly any town or village in Ghana today where one cannot find both Muslims and Christians, either as minorities or majorities.

At the grassroots level Christians and Muslims have on the whole lived in peace. It is very common to find members of the same family adhering to different religious traditions. Muslim relatives and friends visit Christians at Christmas to wish them well and Christians also visit their Muslim friends and relatives during the festivals of Idd-ul-Fitr and Idd-ul-Adha. On these occasions gifts and meals are shared. On occasions such as weddings and child naming ceremonies, and even the ordination of priests, Muslims are known to come to church and vice versa because the ceremony involves a friend or relative. And so what some people have called the "dialogue of life" is going on at the grass-roots level.

Until the last two decades Christians in Ghana did not take to evangelising Muslims. This has changed and Christian groups have sprung up with the sole aim of converting Muslims to Christianity. The most popular of these ministries is the "Converted Muslims’ Christian Association". This ministry was started in the late ‘80s in Kumasi by a convert from Islam and now operates in many parts of the country. Public anti-Islamic polemical preaching is conducted by this and similar groups. Muslim converts are paraded in churches and at conventions to give "testimonies" about Islam and their conversion, most of which involve exaggerations and blatant distortions. Muslim-Christian polemics have led to occasional confrontations and violence between members of the two faiths, thus threatening to undermine the wisdom of the adage that "too much meat does not spoil soup".

Many factors account for these tense Muslim-Christian relations. These range from external to local, and from religious to political. The external factors include global Muslim self-assertiveness backed by the wealth generated from petroleum products under the control of Islamic governments. Muslim countries such as Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia, under the guise of offering financial support to different Muslim organisations, are in fact transporting their own politico-religious rivalries into the country. This is very much evident in Tijaniyya -- Qadariyya controversies, the former enjoying Iranian support and a Saudi backing for the latter.

In our local situation, the PNDC military government, which started out with pro-Communist policies, apparently fell out with the mainline Christian leadership in the country, and in the eyes of some Ghanaians, seems to have lurched towards Islam and Muslim countries as possible alternative allies. In 1989, certain steps were taken by the Government which were widely viewed by the Christian population as attempts to undermine religious freedom in general and Christianity in particular. First came an attempt to ban all broadcasting of Christian gospel music over the national radio and television. Then followed the taking control over administration and replacing "religious instruction" with "cultural studies" in the curriculum of Christian Mission schools.

Other measures included the enactment of an infamous Religious Registration Law requiring all religious groups in the country to register with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism under conditions viewed by the mainline Christian leadership as dubious. The registration was strongly resisted and aborted by the Christian Council and National Catholic Secretariat. Meanwhile, a policy of positive discrimination was adopted towards Muslim Missionary schools, popularly referred to in Ghana as "English/Arabic schools". The Government provided financial, personnel and material support for these schools. It permitted and in fact paid for the teaching of Arabic in the schools which in the eyes of Ghanaian Christians and Muslims alike is inextricably linked to the promotion and propagation of Islam. The Government also declared Idd-ul-Fitr and Idd ul-adha as national holidays. All these developments raised a sense of concern and alarm amongst most Ghanaian Christians.

Co-operation between Christian and Muslim leaders
In spite of the above instances of tension, Christian and Muslim leaders come together to issue statements on issues of national concern. During the general elections of 1992 when tension mounted between the opposition and ruling parties the Christian Council of Ghana, the National Catholic Secretariat, the Ghana Pentecostal Council and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission met and issued a statement calling upon the political parties to exercise restraint. Similarly during communal fighting in northern Ghana in 1994, the religious bodies met and called upon warring factions "in the name of God and in the name of Allah" to stop fighting. On the 7th December 1994 the same religious groups met and in a nine point resolution called upon Ghanaians to eschew all hatred, ethnic exclusivism and religious extremism, adding "as religious leaders we remain united in our continuing search under God’s guidance of peace and justice".

More recently in February 2000, the religious leaders, this time with traditional religious leaders, met and issued a resolution calling for restraint and respect for the other’s traditions on a controversial traditional ban on drumming and all noise making during the month of May in the Ga Traditional area. However, those involved in the polemics and confrontational evangelism do not recognise the leadership of the religious bodies. On both the Muslim and Christian fronts, the controversialists derive their support from outside the country and do not in any way regard themselves answerable to these religious leaders. In fact most regard the religious leaders and their organisations as religious miscreants if not outright "unbelievers" in need of proper "conversion".

Christian responses to the Muslim presence
There is general lack of awareness and interest amongst Christians concerning Christian-Muslim issues. As far as many Christians (including Church leaders) are concerned there is no need to study Islam. Very few seminaries teach Islam as a small part of comparative religion and the majority do not even have it as part of the curriculum. The notion of a Muslim amongst the majority of Ghanaian Christians is that of a dirty, illiterate watchman from the north or uncouth bunch of strangers living in the dirtiest and filthiest part of the city. These perceptions, though, have more to do with ethnic prejudice than it has to do with religious prejudice. To such Christians, the Muslim presence has little or no relevance to them. It must be said, though, that the recent shari’ah related carnage in Nigeria is awaking some of the Christian leaders from their deep slumber on Christian-Muslim issues.

There are also those Christians who see Muslims purely as objects of evangelism. They are engaged in open air preaching in Muslim areas. As far as this group of Christians are concerned, the only legitimate relationship a Christian can have with a Muslim is in the area of evangelism. There is no need for dialogue just for dialogue sake. Dialogue must have the ultimate end of converting the Muslim and this, to most of them, is an unnecessarily long process. Confront them with Jesus! Muslims cannot be regarded as neighbours. They are either for us or against us! The study of Islam to such Christians is always geared at looking for the "weaknesses" in order to prove to Muslims that there is no salvation in Islam.

There are however those who are seriously seeking to promote a better understanding of Islam and trying to creatively address the Muslim presence. The Christian Council of Ghana has a Christian-Muslim department which seeks to organise Islamic seminars for Christians. Response to this approach is still very low key and even with heavily-subsidised seminars very few people attend. The few who attend are normally from the mainline Protestant Churches. This trend though seems to have some prospects because it was out of these seminars that some of us were first introduced to the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. If we have to uphold the principle that "too much meat does not spoil soup" then more needs to be done by injecting some intellectual dialogue into the dialogue of life for the latter on its own has proven in many instances to be very fragile.

Dr. John Azumah is a researcher and teacher at the Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad, India.

Go to "At the Edge of the Future: Projects in Spirituality and Religious Pluralism in Higher Education" -- Courtney T. Goto
Return to Current Dialogue (36), December 2000

© 2000 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor