Using Ali Mazrui’s triple religious heritage as a lens, this article looks at the interplay between Islam, indigenous religion, and Christianity in the experience of colonial northern Nigeria. It finds out that characterizing modern Nigeria as a nation with three religious traditions – Christian, Islamic and indigenous, is to simplify a highly complex and pluralistic religious situation. Thus Mazrui’s triple heritage, while helpful in explaining the nature of Christian- Muslim encounter in Yorubaland, does not represent the full experience of Muslim-Christian encounters in Nigeria. The article concludes that the British colonial policies created unhealthy relationship between these religions, and in order to achieve peace, scholars and peace activists should work towards promoting inclusive religious pluralism.


Muslims and Christians have encountered each other and interacted in various ways in Africa for centuries.  The roots of their encounter go back to around 613 when the first group of Muslims was forced to move from Arabia and found refuge in the Christian kingdom of Axum (present day Ethiopia). According to Ibn Ishaq, the Ethiopian King wept profusely when he heard the leader of the Muslims, Jafar ibn Abu Talib, recite some of the verse of the Quran about Jesus. It is reported that the King later declared that there was a small difference between what he professed about Jesus and what Muslims believe. Consequently, the King rejected a Meccan decree to extradite the Muslims probably because he had been influenced by an awareness of an affinity between Christianity and Islam.[1] This account marks the first Muslim-Christian encounter in the heart of Africa, an era of relatively stable relationship and limited impact.[2]

Commenting on this encounter, Benjamin Soares noted that the boundaries between Muslims and Christians have not always been rigid, fixed or unchanging.[3] Nothing explains this phenomenon better than the story of Yarima Inusa, a Muslim, baptized by Charles Dudley, a Christian missionary in Nigeria. Inusa maintained both Islamic and Christian beliefs. In his private diary, the convert, one entry reads: “I gave a Quran to Zarafi and to Jibo a New Testament.”  Inusa’s story, in many ways, beclouds the boundaries that appear so rigid in the history of Christian-Muslim encounter in Africa.[4] Studies on the nature of the early Muslim-Christian encounter in Africa indicates that followers of these two religions lived side by side, converted to each other’s religions, learned, appropriated, and borrowed from each other. Among the scholars who have written about these encounter is Ali Mazrui, a prominent Kenyan scholar who passed away in 2014. Mazrui used a concept he termed as “Triple heritage”, which refers to African Indigenous religions, Islam and Christianity to explain the nature of Muslim-Christian relations in Africa. He argued that indigenous religions have often mitigated the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam.[5]  Using Mazrui’s concept of “Triple Heritage” as a lens, this paper will examine Muslim-Christian encounter in colonial Nigeria.

Triple religious heritage

Triple religious heritage was first articulated in 1967 by Edward Blyden, a Pan-Africanist and a Liberian politician.[6] It was later developed in 1970 by another pan-Africanist and founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In his book, Consciencism, Nkrumah traced the origin of the contemporary African religious heritage to three major forces: Indigenous traditions, Islam, and Euro-Christian impact.[7] Ali Mazrui expounded and propagated this concept with great eloquence, passion, and persistence. Most of his writings are informed by this world view.[8]

In his seminal work, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Mazrui explained that contemporary Africa’s triple heritage is composed of indigenous, Islamic and Christian legacies, and that indigenous African religion is the most tolerant of the three religions. He attributed this to the communal nature of indigenous religions, which is different from either Islam or Christianity – the two religions are universalist in aspiration and are always seeking to convert others. He further asserted that the best embodiments of this heritage are Nigeria and Sudan.[9]

Scholars have discussed how much Christians and Muslims in Africa (excluding North Africa) owe to Indigenous religions – though ‘encounter’ implies a meeting of rivals,[10] Muslim-Christian encounter in colonial Africa was not necessarily combative because distinctive local African elements gave to distinctive synthesis.[11] For instance, unlike North Africa, which was Islamized through conquest and was subsequently Arabized, much of West Africa especially Nigeria retained its African identity.  Using Nigeria as a case study, this paper seeks to dissect this triple religious heritage concept with the aim of explaining the nature of Christian-Muslim encounter in Colonial Nigeria.

Why Nigeria

This paper contextualizes this study in Nigeria, first, because Mazrui has used it to validate his theory of triple heritage. Secondly, because Nigeria has almost equal population of Christians and Muslims and has a unique ethnic composition with three major ethnic groups that have played a major role in Christian-Muslim encounter – Hausa (majorly Muslim), Igbo (majorly Christian), and Yoruba (equally divided between Muslims and Christians). Of the three, it is arguable that the strongest and most resilient indigenous culture is the Yoruba. [12] The Yoruba culture has absorbed both Christianity and Islam, and still insisted on the supremacy of the indigenous. According to Mazrui, the Yoruba are the best illustration of the triple heritage at work – with the indigenous as the first among equals. Moreover, Mazrui has stated that Christianized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Christian second, and Islamized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Muslims second.[13]  Thirdly, Nigeria has a significant number of people who still subscribe to indigenous religions. In fact, research shows that even those who confess to either Christianity or Islam, still incorporate elements of indigenous religions in their daily life.[14] One wonders, if the indigenous religions are the glue that ties Muslims and Christians, why is Nigeria experiencing interreligious violence? Those are the factors that make Nigeria a perfect case for studying the triple heritage concept. The next section will briefly describe the origin of the three religions (Indigenous, Islam, and Christianity) in Nigeria and highlight early encounter.

Origin of Indigenous, Islamic and Christian Religions in Nigeria

Majority of the Christians in Nigeria live in the southeastern geographical zones while majority of Muslims are concentrated in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the country. The southwest and north-central zones have reasonably balanced numbers of Muslims and Christians; except for Benue State, which is entirely composed of Christians and followers of Traditional Religion.[15]

Nigerians were religious people long before the coming of Islam and Christianity. They followed the traditional religion of their ancestors and traditional religion in this sense does not refer to primitive practices, but rather to the indigenous religion that has been handed down from generation to generation.[16] This is a religion embedded in the people’s myths, folktales, songs, dances, liturgies, shrines, proverbs, and pithy sayings. “It is a religion whose historical founder is neither known nor worshipped; it is a religion that has no zeal for membership drive, yet it offers persistent fascination for Africans, young and old.” [17] It is at the backdrop of these religion that we examine the emergence and expansion of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria.

Scholars believe Islam first entered northern Nigeria around the fourteenth century,[18] when the Wangarawa from Mali brought Islam to Nigeria.[19] Initially, indigenous religions were a huge road block to Islam in Nigeria. It thus took a long time before Islam got a foothold in the country and even this was only possible because Hausa Kings chose to embrace both Islam and indigenous religions – not wishing to offend powerful cult priests, they continued to practice ancient rites. Consequently, Muslim converts tolerated indigenous practices. But it was not until the seventeenth century that Islam got well established in several northern cities. Whereas the original expansion of Islam from the fourteenth century to eighteenth century was mainly achieved through the activities of traders, missionaries, brotherhoods, and political leaders, the nineteenth century ushered in a new era of expansion in the form of jihad of Usman dan Fodio who believed he had a mission to reform Islam.[20] Dan Fodio saw himself as the “Renewer of Faith” sent by God.[21] Interestingly, his jihad was first aimed at the Hausa Muslims who he accused of practicing a corrupted Islam due to their tendency to incorporate indigenous religious practices into Islam. Hence, he sought to purify Islam by ridding it elements of indigenous religion and he successfully managed to establish Nigeria’s first caliphate, Sokoto. Fodio’s determination to seek the islamization of entire Nigeria was put to a stop by the British.

When Lugard’s army captured the territories he had conquered, Dan Fodio’s Islamic empire came to knees. However, Lugard was very keen not to antagonize Muslims. He pledged to preserve their freedom to practice Islam (I will talk about the effect of this in the next section). Nevertheless, he forced them to pledge allegiance to his majesty King George V and his representative the Governor-General of Nigeria, hence, highlighting the political subordination of Muslim leaders.[22] This event marked the beginning of special consideration accorded Islam and Muslims by colonial administration. As Islam was spreading in the second half of the nineteenth century, Christianity was just laying its foundations.

Christian entry into Nigeria can be traced back to around 1848 thanks to the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Earlier attempt to evangelize Nigeria by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century had failed because the Portuguese were more concerned with business than evangelization. Unlike Islam, they failed to take into account the importance of Indigenous religion, hence failed in their mission. [23]

The fact that Islam had already gained a foothold in northern Nigeria made it difficult for Christians to evangelize. When Samuel Ajayi Crowther and other freed slaves or returnees (as some preferred to call them) from Sierra Leone, Latin America and Brazil made their way into Nigeria, It was believed the era of Christianity had finally come. The European missionaries saw this group as reliable instruments for evangelization in Nigeria and beyond. However, the group met a strong resistance when they tried meeting the Emir of Kano around 1891. They had assumed that the high population of uneducated northern Nigeria will embrace Christianity and missionary education but were disappointed when the Emir repudiated their plans.[24]

Whereas in the north, Christianity had to confront Islam as established religion, it was different in many Yoruba towns because both religions appeared around the same time. Christianity’s appropriation of Western education was to give it an edge in Yoruba land. Mazrui argues that Islam had a strong hold in northern Nigeria because it was more culturally accommodating and less subject than Christianity to ‘disafricanization’, and also because of its flexibility in leadership structure – no formal head of global Islam.[25] Thus, Muslim missionaries in northern Nigeria could indulge particular departures from mainstream Islam.

We will now look at how colonization impacted Muslim-Christian encounter in the early twentieth century.

Impact of colonization on Muslim-Christian encounter

Before the merger of 1914, present day Nigeria was two entities, northern and southern. The merger gave it much the form it has today, and created a colonial entity that was much more religiously diverse than otherwise would have been the case. The northern with its predominantly Islamic majority and the southern which was composed of people who practiced animism, but who under the pressures and enticements of colonial and missionary education, were gradually becoming Christianized.[26]

Colonial policies in northern Nigeria benefited Islam and antagonized Christianity. Sir Fredrick Lugard, the steward of the colony, operated with the false assumption that Islam was by default the religion of the people, even though the presence of indigenous religions was evident. Lugard and his team assumed that non-Muslim indigenous people would become Muslims eventually.[27] Therefore, based on the scheme to sustain this assumption, Lugard pledged to the Sultan the commitment of the British administrators to protect the Muslims of the north from Christian evangelization. His successors upheld this pledge, which by implication meant that Christian missionaries would not penetrate northern Nigeria. Of course Lugard was not interested in preserving Islam, he was interested in the economic gains and the existing political structure of the Fulani political leaders were ideal for the success of the Indirect Rule system, which he favored strongly toward a successful British control of the vast land in northern Nigeria.[28]

Lugard gave the emirs of the north the power over granting access to the Christian missionaries. He was cautious not to antagonize northern Muslims. For instance, he did not press hard for introducing Western education into these Muslim areas or for teaching English language. This policy defined the nature of Muslim-Christian encounter during the colonial era and it set the tone of conflict between these two religions.

Several failed attempts by Christian missionaries to evangelize northern Nigeria proved that Muslims in northern Nigeria had deep-seated resentment toward Christianity and Christians.[29] But one thing that was to rattle these social conditions of Islam-dominated northern Nigeria was the significance and necessity of Western education. Colonial administrators soon faced one challenge: Quranic schools, which were the only ones allowed to operate in the Islam-dominated territories, could not provide the skills needed to run the colony. For instance, the railway services, which connected the north to the south, needed engineers and other Western educated skilled workers and professionals. Thus, Lugard allowed Christian missionaries to introduce schools in the north since they were the only ones with the funds to establish the kinds of schools needed. Soon Christians started engaging in proselytization. A large group of their converts were “nonindigenous” native Christians, who had immigrated to northern Nigeria to provide the skilled and civil service jobs needed in the north. The second group consisted of indigenous people of the north who embraced Christianity because of the western education and the opportunities it offers. The third group of Christians consisted of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.[30]

Over time many of the emirs and northern aristocrats who came to understand the importance of western education approved it for their children and ward. In time those who accessed western education became new leaders of the society. Minority ethnic Muslims embraced western education since they could not access Quranic education.[31] Overall the impact of western education on these non-Muslim minorities of northern Nigeria will be felt decades later and become even more widespread in post-independence northern Nigeria.

The Yoruba and Triple heritage effect

Christian-Muslim encounter in Nigeria was not uniform, it differed from one region to another. For instance, eastern Nigeria has never been won by Islam which explains why it is free of Muslim-Christian violence. North-central Nigeria has a large Christian population, and the rest of the region is predominantly Islamic, and in the west, both religions have a long history of peaceful coexistent. Both Islam and Christianity failed to displace many aspects of Yoruba culture, enabling the Yoruba to moderate their tensions and competitions in constructive ways. Unlike dan Fodio who decried the prevalence of Islamic practices in the Hausa states, the Yoruba Muslims found they had to accommodate and incorporate indigenous religions that have tended to give Yoruba Islam a different orientation to the present day. In Yoruba many aspects of traditional religions came to influence Islamic practices, or at least became tolerated to a degree that enabled people of different religions to coexist. In the words of Mazrui: “The Yoruba managed a successful case of accommodation in the nineteenth century, which has minimized tension and violence in the region.”[32]

J.D.Y. Peel’s studied Christian and Muslim presence in the nineteenth century Yoruba land and revealed that Yoruba people “responded to Christianity and Islam as alternate variants of the same phenomenon, to be assessed by a common criterion of their effectiveness in mediating between God and man.”[33] Peel’s assertion emphasizes the ecumenical character of African culture. Thus, it is not reasonable to speak about the encounter between Christians and Muslims within African societies without reference to the cultural standards that guarantee and condition this relationship. For instance, in Yorubaland, Christians and Muslims live side by side, celebrate their differences and do not see doctrinal differences as constituting a formidable barrier to interfaith encounters and relations. Theirs is not lazy pluralism, where the particularity of each faith is obliterated for the sake of ‘getting along’ but rather a de jure religious pluralism – “which holds that the existence of multiple religions is not only a defacto social reality but also a de jure divine-human relationship.”[34]

One of the significant points of departure in interfaith encounter among the Yoruba people is the acceptance of the presence and legitimacy of other religions as symbolic mediators of the sacred encounter.  This understanding of other religions, according to Akinade Akintunde, is not derived from an evaluation of them as abstract systems or structures. Rather, it is based on an unequivocal appreciation of the experience of people who practice and the activity of God in their lives as portrayed in their ethical and spiritual commitments.

It was easier for the Yoruba to accept other religions because theirs unlike Christianity and Islam, which tend to be universal, is of a communal nature. For instance, as Mazrui pointed out, the Yoruba do not seek to convert the Ibo to Yoruba or vice versa. Nor do either the Igbo or Yoruba compete to convert a third group like the Hausa. Thus, by not being proselytizing religion, indigenous religions never fought each other. Instead they mitigated the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam, which were seeking to convert the whole humankind.[35]

Mazrui further points out that due to their accommodating nature, indigenous religions were easily combined with either Christianity or Islam. This means that a Yoruba traditional worshiper could embrace Christianity or Islam but a Christian cannot be a Muslim at the same time and vice versa.

John S. Mbiti, a renowned African religious scholar, takes the centrality of indigenous religions in Muslim-Christian encounter to another level by asserting that Islam and Christianity had made very little ideological penetration into the African mind. That the two are religious for one day of the week, for the other six days and for all times of crisis the African traditional religions predominate.[36]

Inclusive religious pluralism in Nigeria like the one the Yoruba practices may be the key to solving Christian-Muslim violence.


The British colonial policy on Islam and Christianity discouraged followers and leaders of both religions in maintaining healthy relationships, for they tended to see each other as rivals. They were not encouraged to conveniently coexist, their negativity toward each other became even more glaring in the post-independence era. These policies sowed unhealthy regional politics that sought for what was best for each region rather than what was in the best interest of Nigeria as a country. Despite this, Yoruba land has enjoyed relative peace and positive relationship between Muslims and Christians not just because of the centrality of indigenous religion in their beliefs, but because of their inclusive plurality.

Given that most scholars seem to agree that an inclusive religious plurality enabled Yoruba Muslims, Christians and indigenous religionist live harmoniously, peace activists or inter-faith scholars should focus on how the theology of inclusive pluralism can be applied in Nigeria. Scholars contend that Islam has the most explicit inclusivity, evident in sacred scriptures (Q. 29:46; Q. 4:163-164; Q. 30:22-29 and 49:13; Q. 2:148 and 5:48). [37]

Early Christian fathers such as Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and many others may have made it difficult for the church to embrace pluralism[38] but recent developments indicate that the church has made steps in recognizing Islam. These efforts should be taken to a further step where all religions can embrace inclusive pluralism.

[1] Haafkens, J., “The Direction of Christian-Muslim Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa”, in Y. Haddad & Haddad (red): Christian-Muslim Encounters, (University Press of Florida, 1995)

[2] Voll, J., “African Muslims and Christians in World History: The Irrelevance of the “Clash of Civilizations”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill, 18-38

[3] Soares B. (ed). Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa. (Boston, MA: Brill), 13

[4] Shankar, S. (2006): “A Fifty-Year Muslim Conversion to Christianity: Religious Ambiguities and Colonial Boundaries in Northern Nigeria, c. 1906-1963”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill.

[5] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[6] Blyden, E. 1967. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. 3rd Edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

[7] Nkrumah, K. Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-colonization. (London: Panaf Books Ltd, 1970)

[8] Adem, S. “Ali A. Mazrui, the Postcolonial Theorist” African Studies Review, 57 no. 1 (2014), pp. 135-152.

[9] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986)

[10] Benjamin Soares

[11] Voll, J (2006): “African Muslims and Christians in World History: The Irrelevance of the “Clash of Civilizations”, in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, Brill. pp.18-38.

[12] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Tolerance and Tensions: Islam and Christianity in Africa, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010

[15] Sampson, I.T., (2014) Religion and the Nigerian State: Sitruating the de faacto and de jure Frontiers of State-Religion Relations and its Implications for National Security Security, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 3(2). Pp. 311-339.

[16] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)

[17] Awolalu, J.O., “Sin and its removal in African Traditional Religion” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44/2 (1976), p.275

[18] Al-Hajj, C.F.M.A., “A Seventeenth Century Chronicle on the Origins and Missionary Activities of the Wangarawa” in Kano Chronicles, 1:4 (1968), p.11.

[19] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986), 95

[20] Falola, T (1998). Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

[21] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)         , 58

[22] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013)

[23] Okpalanozie, M.J. Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion in Nigeria: Conflicts and Challenges to Peaceful Co-existence. (Germany: eos, 2011)

[24] Kenny, J., “Christian-Muslim Relations in Nigeria” in Islamo Christiana, Rome, 1986), 172.

[25] Mazrui, A., The Africans: A Triple heritage, (Toronto, Little, Brown & Company, 1986) 114

[26] Folola, T., Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998), 34

[27] Andrew E. Barnes, “ ‘The Great Prohibition’: The Expansion of Christianity in Colonial Northern Nigeria,” History Compass 8, no 6 (2010): 441

[28] Folola, T., Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998), 52

[29] E.A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, 1842-1914: A Political and Social Analysis (London: Longmans, 1966), 117ff.

[30] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013), 23

[31] Ibid. 24

[32] Mazrui, A.,“African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.”Third World Quartery, 10  no. 2 (1988), 499-518.

[33] Peel, J.D.Y., Engaging Islam in Nineteeteenth-Century Yorubaland,” (NAMP Position Paper 27), 27-30.

[34] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan), 2013), 156.

[35] Mazrui, A. (1988). African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion. Third World Quartery, 10 (2), pp. 499-518

[36] Mbiti, J. S., African Religions and Philosophy. (London, UK: Heinemann, 1968), 263

[37] Iwuchukwu, M.C., Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Postcolonial Northern Nigeria: The Challenges of Inclusive Cultural and Religious Pluralism. (London, UK: palgrave macmillan, 2013), 160.

[38] Ibid. 160


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