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Opinion | Mar 14, 2015

Secularism, Islam And Ghana: The Views Of A Student Of Religions

Secularism, Islam And Ghana: The Views Of A Student Of Religions

As a friend and student of Islam, am interested in the perceived religious tension in Ghana. But we need to clarify what appears to be a covert tension between the 'impinging' religions in the country. First of all, it must be stated that the two religions, Islam and Christian, are competitors and not complementary:

The two religions are missionary oriented that have the intense desire to win souls for their respective gods. Next is the fact that because these two religions are competitors, they defy Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi's dictum that 'The lamps different, but the light is the same.' In other words, these two religions, contrary to popular opinion, believe that they worship different deities. Thus, the Allah of the Qur'an is different from Yahweh of the Bible.

The liberalist attempts to palliate these two religions by claiming that they worship the same god would rather heighten the tension between these two religions. Lastly, we need to acknowledge the fact that the seeming religious tension between these so-called Abrahamic religions in Ghana is a reflection of global resurgence and revivalism of religions since the 1970s. Since the beginning of the 1970s, we have witnessed a worldwide proselytization, based on a revision of eschatological teachings, to redeem the souls of humanity from the pit of hell.

The other issue that needs clarification is that while Ghana is constitutionally a secular country, thus advocating for a separation between the religious space and secular space, this binary is not caste in iron, since Ghanaians are not irreligious. Religion plays a central role and forms the fulcrum of activities within the Ghanaian community. In pre-colonial Ghana, there was no distinction between religion and politics: the two were inextricably blended to provide meaning to life. Religion was the strong pivot around which life revolves, and it also energized all activities in the society.

The religiousness of the Ghanaian provided the linchpin for the missionaries to readily spread their faith. The pervasiveness of religion in pre-colonial Gold Coast, now Ghana, justifies the assertion that the Ghanaian is born to religion, initiated into religion, marries to religion, dies to religion, and buries to religion to enter the metaphysical world.

In consequence, the missionaries did not have a tough time telling the people of Gold Coast about the existence of God: the idea of the existence of God was a given reality and it found expression in the Akan proverb that, 'No one teaches the child about the existence of God.' Colonial administrators recognized the omnipresence of religion in the repertoire of life in Gold Coast and further deepened it by legislating the bishop of the Anglican Church, the official Church of England, to preside over all ceremonial events in the country.

During the struggle against colonialism, Nkrumah, who had had missionary education, and was at the threshold of becoming a priest, appropriated Christian text to reify the fight for emancipation of black Africa. His popular expression: 'Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you,' is a manifestation of how he appropriated the Christian text to spur the people of Gold Coast on to fight for liberation.

Religion did not wane in post-colonial Ghana. Virtually all the post-colonial political elites deployed religion to achieve socio-political end. Professor John Pobee has ably articulated this aspect of Ghanaian history, and so I will not want to delve deep into that. But the point I must emphasize is that religion is deeply couched in the psyche of Ghanaians. It is because of the pervasiveness of religion that virtually every major national event in Ghana begins from prayers: from the Christians, Muslims and African Traditional Religion.

Thus, though Ghana is a secular country, the preamble of the 1992 Constitution begins with, 'In the name of Almighty God.' Again, though a secular country, the state recognizes some religious festivals in the country: religious festivals such as Christmas (December 25), Boxing Day (December 26) and Easter are recognized as public holidays and observed as such in the country. In 1995, the Muslims, under the aegis of the national chief Imam, Sheikh Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, also had two festivals: Id Adhar and Id Fitir recognized as public holidays.

It is the centrality of religion in everyday life in Ghana that explains the rapid response of Christians to Rawlings when he had wanted to temper with religious freedom in the country. Thus, in 1989 when Rawlings passed the Religious Bodies (Registration) law, PNDL 221, that required all religious bodies to register with the state, the Christian Council fought fiercely against the law. The law, however, succeeded in excluding two religious groups from the Ghanaian society: The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint (also known as Mormons).

Notwithstanding, Rawlings' attempt to melt and tone down the influence of religion, religion bounced back forcefully in the Ghanaian society to the extent that it finds expression in the law court, parliament, football pitch, schools etc. It is, hence, the high religious consciousness among Ghanaians that explains the furor that welcomed the attempt by the late President Evans Atta Mills to perpetually exclude the pouring of libation in state ceremonies. Again, it is the sense of religion that provides reason for the battle against the attempt by the erstwhile NPP's government when they had wanted to expunge the teaching of Religious and Moral Education from the curriculum of basic schools in 2007.

From the above, it is obvious that while Ghana is secular, the country is composed of people who are very religious and whom religion provides the worldview to make sense of the world. It is in this light that I want to caution against the attempt at overstretching the arms of the law to jeopardize the religious ambience in the country. I must also say that historically Islam predates Christianity in Ghana.

The religion was introduced to the people of Gold Coast about 100 years before Christianity. But the rapid expansion of Christianity in the 19th Century as compared to Islam could be explained by the fact that, unlike Islam, most of the propagators of the Christian faith were trained missionaries, who knew the dynamism of spreading a religious tradition. Islam in sub-Saharan Africa was, largely, introduced by traders, whose first mission was to trade, while proselytization placed second. As it were, there were a few religious leaders, who followed the traders to provide religious services. These religious leaders established learning centers where Muslim children learnt to recite and memorize the Qur'an and also learn the histories of the religion. The learning of Arabic, the perceived chosen language of God, was prioritized over other languages, particularly English, the language of the imperialist.

No attempt was made to complement religious education with secular education. No attempt was also made to translate the Qur'an into other native Ghanaian languages to boost the spread of the religion: This was because of the conservative stance that the Qur'an would lose its meaning if it is translated into other languages apart from its Arabic language origin. It was the Ahmadiyyah Muslims who were in Gold Coast by the 1920s who first established secular schools, where Muslims could receive secular education in addition to religious knowledge.

But unfortunately, mainstream Islam does not accept Ahmadis as Muslims, so they did not allow their children to participate in the schools of the Ahmadis. Again, mainstream Muslims would not also allow their children to receive Christian missionary education for fear that their children would either become pseudo-Muslims or lose their faith entirely. In contemporary world, there are few Muslims who have trepidation towards secular education, because they consider secular education to be the conveyor of western materialistic culture, which is considered an affront to Islam.

For a very long time, Muslims did not allow their children to receive Christian missionary education until later when a few young Muslims received secular education and yet retained their faith as Muslims. Post-colonial Ghana witnessed attempts by the political elites to secularize education to make it religiously free for people of different religious background. But the drive of secularization of the schools, notwithstanding, most missionary schools retained their religious identity.

It is in light of the above that I want to discuss the current seeming religious tension between Muslims pupils and workers on the one hand, and Christians on the other hand. A close analysis of the contention reveals that Muslims are fighting a contradictory battle: On one hand they are asking for a complete secularization of the education system to free Muslims pupils from taking part in Christian rituals: thus, appealing to the state [secularism] against religion. So, here they invoke the constitutional injunction to incriminate the Christian-oriented schools for 'coercing' Muslim pupils to participate in religious rituals: such as praying, singing of hymns, and reading the bible. On the other hand, they are asking the state to stay away from imposing dress code on Muslim workers, particularly nurses, who are compelled to remove the hijab when they are on duty: thus, appealing to religion against the state [secularism]. The hijab has its own politics, but for the sake of space, I will reserve it for another article, which will follow soon.

I read that some individuals are going to court to press for more freedom for Muslim pupils. The move is in good spirit, because it solidifies and concretizes Ghana's position as a secular state, but we should not forget that Ghana, much as it is a secular state, also has lots of people who profess faith in God. The 2010 Census has it that about 70 percent of Ghanaians claims to be Christians, while 17 percent claims to be Muslims. So, those who do not profess any faith at all are simply in the minority. We, therefore, need to tread cautiously, since unbridled legalism can jeopardize the peaceful religious atmosphere in Ghana.

The good thing about religious-oriented schools is that they provide the opportunity for people from different religious orientation to learn, from the true source, the beliefs and practices of the other religion. I will have no qualms of conscience allowing my children to attend Madrasa to learn Arabic and also Islam. This is expedient because religious bigotry and fanaticism thrive on ignorance and suspicion. The world is becoming essentially pluralistic religiously, and so it will be to the advantage of Ghana, if pupils are exposed to the religious practices of the other religions. I have been to the Hindu monastery to worship with them; I have been to sacred groves and, as a Zongo boy, I have visited the mosques on several occasions. Incidentally, though a Christian, I have specialized in the study of Islam, and both my first degree and second degrees researches were based on Islam. Presently, am learning Arabic to foreground my understanding of Islam.

At the university of Cape Coast, where I had my first degree, I was taught by a leading Islamic scholar and a practicing Muslim, Dr. Mark Sey, who still thinks am a Muslim. I excelled in my study of Islam to the point that I was even teaching some of my Muslim friends. But that is not to say that I can participate freely in Islamic religious rituals. This is because with my relative rich background in Islamic studies, I cannot participate in Islamic rituals without first becoming a Muslim. This is because, unlike Christianity, Islamic theological structure and ritual practices do not allow non-Muslims to participate in Islamic rituals without first accepting the religion. That is the challenge for Muslims to deal with. Again, the baring of non-Muslims from holding the Arabic Qur'an is also a hindrance to non-Muslims learning the Islamic religion. Islam, which has Arabic as a chosen language, is, therefore, more closed than Christianity. That is why most non-Muslims have limited knowledge about the religion. Also, the teaching of Islam at both the second and tertiary levels in Ghana is not academically rigorous enough.

It is for the most part a master narrative without critical analysis and critique. On this basis, I suggest that the study of Islam qua Islam should be subjected to strict intellectual criticism, textual criticism, and historical criticism. I know this is quite difficult, since some Muslims do not entertain doubt about the Islamic faith. But if this cannot be done within the remit of Islam, it should be done and encouraged in our secular institutions. Another thing that must pave way for Islam to be studied from the intellectual perspective is toning down of the suspicion Muslims have about non-Muslim scholars, who teach Islam in secular institutions. It must be stated that most of the chroniclers of contemporary Islamic history were European orientalists, who were not Muslims. Most importantly, the works of the orientalists provide information and basis for modern scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims, of Islam.

I have visited the Islamic University College of Ghana several times, because I have friends there who are lecturers, and I never saw a female student without the hijab. This is precisely the case because according to the dress code of that university, every female student, whether a Muslim or non-Muslim should wear the hijab. Non-Muslims students at Islamic university have no choice but to wear the hijab, since the hijab is part of the dress code of the school. Apart from the strictness of the hijab at Islamic university, which is not in the interest of people of other religious background, Muslims have always expressed the fear about the possibilities of foreign influences corrupting the religion.

A few years ago, some Muslim students at the Islamic University College of Ghana protested the perceived attempt by some Shi'a Muslims to use the school to indoctrinate non-Shi'a Muslims. Indeed, the concerns of these Muslim students reflect the historical tension between the Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. In Ghana, the Shi'a population is very negligible, so tension in Islam has been within one particular sect, the Sunni. Usually the Tinjaniyya and Ahlussuna Wal'Jama Muslims have often been locked up in conflicts. In 1999 and early 2000, Maamobi community experienced its share of this intra-religious conflict, which, but for the quick intervention of the police, would have escalated into regional or national religious conflict. It must be started that intra-Islamic conflict is instigated by the reformist posture members of Ahlussuan Wal'Jama have taken in 'purging' Islam of undesirable elements.

Considering the fact that Muslims have often expressed fears about the possibility of their religion being adulterated, I wish to implore them to build their own universities where people of other religious backgrounds will have the opportunity of learning about Islam from the 'original' source. In religion there is the dictum that, 'The believer is always right.' This dictum should encourage Muslims to establish more universities, where some of us could teach or study Islam. So, the so-called religious tension in Ghana should give way to dialogue, tact and diplomacy. No particular party should take an entrenched position.

The Christian oriented schools should be allowed to run their schools according to their tenets and principles. And Muslim schools should also be allowed to run their schools according to their tenets and principles. Because, I must repeat, even though Ghana is a secular country, Ghanaians for the most part are not secular minded. Lastly, it is not entirely true that if Muslim pupils are exposed to Christian-oriented schools or secular schools, they would lose their Islamic identity.

In fact, we have evidence to prove that most Muslims who attend secular schools, with all their Christina influences, do not become Christians. Dr. Mohammed Ben Abdullah, then Security for Education, Hon. Hudu Yahya, Secretary for the Northern Region and Alhaji Ibrahim Adam, Secretary for Agriculture. In the Public Service, there were Dr. Mohammed Alhassan, Deputy Governor, Bank of Ghana and later Ghana's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Abass Kilba, Executive Secretary, Lands Commission Secretariat, Dr. Abubakar Ahmed, Managing Director, Bank for Housing and Construction and Mr. Yahya Kassim, an economist and head of Research, Bank of Ghana. All these prominent Muslims had secular education, tinted with Christian values, and yet did not lose their Islamic identity.

In conclusion, both Muslims and Christians would resist the practice of politicians making a political capital out of a perceived religious tension. We can't trust our politicians on such matters. The National Peace Council should also be adequately resourced to handle all religious disputes in the country. I personally think that their intervention in this matter will be more sobering and assuring than going the way of the court. Long live Ghana, long live Ghanaians! Satyagraha!!!

Charles Prempeh
[[email protected]],
Makerere University, Uganda.

Charles Prempeh
Charles Prempeh, © 2015

This author has authored 123 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: CharlesPrempeh

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