Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Islam and Yoruba: Two Johnny-Come-Lately Copy-Cat Religions?

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD (c) 2012


The late Dr John Henrik Clarke has stated:

“From the great Nile Valley religions came Judaism, Christianity, and the elements that went into Islam. Islam came out of the Nile Valley. All these great religions are derivative religions…If I wanted a great religion I would bypass all of them and go to the original…Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all carbon copies of African religions. We need to go back and take the original and deal from the original rather than the carbon.”[1]

This statement by our great teacher Dr. Clarke is factually correct, as far as it goes. That the substantive elements of the Judeo-Christian (Biblical and extra-Biblical) tradition derived from the Nile Valley, Kemet in particular, has been well documented. That substantive elements of Islam have parallels in Kemet has also been documented by Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop and by myself (, and I have further argued that the peoples of Arabia who are likely responsible for the religious tradition of ancient Arabia that later morphed into Islam ultimately derived from the Nile Valley regions (though not necessarily from Kemet).

So there is nothing historically problematic about Dr. Clarke’s claim. His judgment that seems to derive from these facts, however, warrants reconsideration. Is Islam, which originated with Africans in Arabia and which shows such remarkable similarities to Ma’at, a derivative and therefore “carbon copy” religion? And is it necessary that Africans, in order to be culturally authentic, bypass Islam (the carbon copy) and go straight to Ma’at, as Dr. Clarke suggests? I suggest that this is not the case, and that by this logic we are required to equally abandon the great West African spiritual tradition Yoruba, another derivative African religion.       

Yoruba is a Traditional African Religion (TAR), concentrated today primarily in southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. Many traditional Yorubas claim ancient Egypt as their original homeland. Some oral tradition claims that Odudua, the Yoruba’s primary royal ancestor, himself originated in the Nile Valley. Such native traditions have been dismissed by a number of scholars. Dr. A.O. Adesoji from the Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, writing in the Nigerian publication Osun Defender, suggested that “the claim of Arabian or Egyptian origin is not more than an attempt to associate the Yoruba with a more popular civilization of the Near East as done by the Kanuri to Ibn Yazan or the Igbo to the Jews.”[2] But the weight of the archeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence points to the Yoruba as in fact being to some degree derivative from ancient Egypt (Kemet).  

In 1948 Dr. Olumide Lucas, Nigerian Archdeacon of Lagos, published his book, The Religion of the Yorubas, which attempts to trace the history of the Yoruba as a civilization back to ancient Egypt. Dr. Lucas shows that there were similarities in language, religion and customs between Yorubans and ancients Egyptians.

“Abundant proof of intimate connection between ancient Egyptians and the Yoruba may be produced under this head. Most of the principle gods were well known, at one time, to the Yoruba. Among these gods are Osiris, Isis, Horus, Shu, Sut, Troth, Khepera, Amon, Anu, Khonsu, Khnum, Khopri, Hathor, Sokaris, Ra, Seb, the elemental deities and others. Most of the gods survive in name or in attributes or in both (religions)."  

Many writers before and since Lucas have noted these remarkable similarities between Kemetic and Yoruban culture and religion, and most agree that there are elements of pre-colonial Nigerian technology that diffused from the Nile Valley. But Lucas’s claim went much further: the evidence of these remarkable similarities led him to conclude that the Yoruba themselves were expatriate Egyptians who left north-east Africa before the end of the Roman Period (4th cent. CE). “The Yoruba,” Lucas argued, “migrated gradually from Northern Egypt to Southern Egypt and then to the Sudan until they reached their current home” on the Atlantic coast.

While his evidence is indeed impressive, Lucas’s theory of an Egyptian origin of the Yoruba has been criticized by some scholars who point out that Lucas was trained as a theologian, not as a linguist or ethnologist, though he relied on these sciences to make his case. R.W. Wescott, for example, while acknowledging that “In fact, every Yoruba religious practice has an Egyptian analogue,” tries to dismiss the importance of this circumstance by claiming that such analogies are nearly universal and phenomenological, and thus do not necessarily indicate a specific Egyptian-West African nexus.[3] But surely Wescott’s phenomenological theory cannot account for the fact that more than 50% of Yoruban vocabulary today can be deduced from ancient Egyptian (Medu Neter), directly or indirectly. Add this to the religious, cultural, and technological affinities, it is clear that the Yoruba people and religion are derivative from earlier Nile Valley peoples and religions. As Dr. Jacob Carruthers, in his work MDW NTR: Divine Speech, explains:

The Yoruba scholars at Ibadan…have presented a convincing case for the historical connection between the ancient Kemetic civilization and the living Yoruba tradition.”

 “Throughout this chapter we have pointed to similarities among various African systems of thought (including Yoruba) with a special focus on Kemet…In comparing the Deep Thought of Kemet with that of Basic Africa, the patterns are too complementary, the resemblances too striking, the parallels too extensive, the connections too intimate to be other than indicators of a profound unity. The question is one of anteriority. The age-old wisdom is that the pattern of Nile Valley civilization first emerged in Basic Africa and then traveled down to the area later occupied by Kemet, developed to a remarkable level and then returned to and influenced further developments throughout the continent.”

Thus, the living tradition of Yoruba shows remarkable similarities with ancient Kemet because ages ago African Tradition descended the Nile River, settling (some of it) in Kemet, and from there it later spread to other parts of Africa, including Yorubaland. Yoruba is likely a synthesis of what these Egyptian migrants brought and what the West-African autochthonous peoples whom they encountered already had. Some scholars have suggested five waves of migration from the Nile Valley regions to Yorubaland:

1st Wave: Between 2000 BCE – 1500 BCE, stimulated by the Hyksos invasion of Kemet
2nd Wave: 500 BCE
3rd Wave: Between 90-30 BCE
4th Wave: 100 CE, stimulated by the Christian conquest
5th Wave: Between 700-1100 CE, stimulated by the Muslim invasion

These upheavals pushed Nile Valley inhabitants deeper in the center of Africa and further west. Some of these fleeing migrations produced the Yoruba.

Is Yoruba a Johnny-Come-Lately, Copy-Cat religion that should be shunned by Africans in the Diaspora who seek cultural authenticity? Based on Dr. Clarke’s above logic as applied to Islam, we would have to say yes. If we inserted ‘Yoruba’ into Dr. Clarke’s above statement, its historical claims are no less true:

“From the great Nile Valley religions came [Yoruba], and the elements that went into [Yoruba]. [Yoruba] came out of the Nile Valley. All these great religions [of the Yoruba] are derivative religions…If I wanted a great religion I would bypass [Yoruba] and go to the original…[Yoruba is] carbon cop[y] of African religions. We need to go back and take the original and deal from the original rather than the carbon.”

This revision of Dr. Clarke’s statement should show how unacceptable his logic is as it relates to Islam, for Islam and Yoruba have similar relations to the Nile Valley:

1.      Both Islam and Yoruba may ultimately be later derivatives from Nile Valley peoples and cultures who migrated from the Nile Valley to their current, respective locations (Arabia/Western Africa), bringing their religious practices with them.  
2.      Both Islam and Yoruba originated with African peoples drawing on their Nile Valley past. 
3.     Despite their ultimate Nile Valley origins, both Islam and Yoruba are distinct from Ma’at and are their own indigenous African traditions.

What about Muslim enslavement of Africans? Surely, this is relevant? 

One particularly valuable discussion of indigenous African slave systems is that of Babatunde Agiri of the University of Lagos. Agiri studied slavery in Yoruba society in the 19th century CE and discovered that the Oyo Empire, which emerged in the 17th century as the principle state in the interior of the Bight of Benin, already engaged in slaving prior to and independent of the encounter with European Christians or Arabian/African Muslims.

“As far as can be determined from oral traditions, slavery was common in 18th-century Oyo. Not only were slave exports one of the major sources of wealth for its ruler (alaafin) and leading chiefs but also aristocrats recruited large numbers of slaves into their households for administrative, economic, and military functions.”[4] 
This was slavery in the ‘Traditional’ African context according to Agiri, i.e. non-Christian and non-Muslim. Nor was this always a benign form of slavery; rather it frequently resulted from conquest and raids.

“From the 1850s, Ibadan chiefs obtained their domestic slaves through a systematic conquest of the Ekiti…The Egba, too, acquired slaves as their main source of wealth and military support. In the 1850s they preyed upon their neighbors…By the middle of the 19th century, slavery was so firmly established in the socioeconomic fabric of Yoruba society observer of the contemporary scene could remark that ‘there are no riches in…[Yorubaland]; slaves and wives make a man great in this country.”

In other words, if the enslavement of Africans by African Muslims (some did so) further de-Africanizes Islam which ultimately may be derivative from the Nile Valley, so too does the enslavement of Africans by Yoruba practitioners de-Africanize Yoruba, which also is derivative from the Nile Valley. In fact, however, neither Islam nor Yoruba can be justly de-Africanized on these accounts. When it comes to our African traditions, we must take the Good with the Bad with the Ugly.

Islam and Yoruba may very well ultimately be derivatives from ancient Nile Valley peoples and cultures: Islam an eastern derivation and Yoruba a western derivation. Neither should on this account be considered a ‘copy-cat’ or ‘carbon copy’ religion that should be abandoned or bypassed for one of the other, earlier documented Nile Valley cultures. The fact of the matter is, Kemetic Ma’at was itself derivative from earlier, non-Kemetic (but Nile Valley) traditions.

One might argue that the critical difference between Islam and Yoruba is that, no Whites have converted to Yoruba, usurped it, manipulated it and used it against the best interests of Black People, as is the case with Islam. While this is certainly true regarding Yoruba, it is certainly not true regarding Ma'at: White invaders did indeed convert, usurp, manipulate, and use Ma'at against the best interests the indigenous Nile Valley peoples. 

Alexander-Helios, son of Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony, as Horus-Harpocrates, Egypt, 1st century BC.


[1] John Henrik Clarke, Africans at the Crossroads: Notes for an African World Revolution (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc, 1992) 260, 358
[2] “In The Beginning…The Yoruba Origin Revisited,” Osun Defender @
[3] R.W. Wescott, “Ancient Egypt and Modern Africa,” Journal of African History 11 (1961): 311.
[4]  Babatunde Agiri, “Slavery in Yoruba Society in the 19th Century,” in Paul E. Lovejoy (ed.), The Ideology of slavery in Africa (Beverly Hills:
Sage Publications, 1981) 123-148

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