Prof John Samuel Mbiti, the prominent theologian, philosopher, author and teacher, who died on October 6, was an influential personality in Africa and beyond.
Mbiti’s thoughts have critical and constructive effects on African knowledge and religion. Arguing that reducing African religions to nothing but folklore and magic is wrong and degrading.
He called on the world to embrace African cultural heritage in theological processes and accept these religions as divine, while maintaining the Bible as the guide and an indispensable tool of theological beliefs.
Mbiti made a substantial contribution to the progression of intellectualism. His 1969 seminal book, African Religions and Philosophy, has persisted as a masterpiece in Christian studies and researches.
His focus in his first book was to challenge and reject the long-held views that African traditional religions were rooted in demonic anti-Christian values, and to emphasise that traditional African religions deserve the same respect similar to all divine religions — including Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
His attention in theology in the African and Asian continents is outstanding, particularly in an era when extrapolation of attitudes, mentalities and beliefs have been extensively developed in many cultures and communities.
In Belief in God, Mbiti emphasised that Africans believe in God as the creator, sustainer, provider and ruler and see him as a father and friend and attribute characteristics such as just, merciful, good, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent to God.
Based on his point of view, traditional African religions are widespread in Africa, including Muslim countries. Islamic precepts and manners have been merged with African traditions — like methods of worship, medicine and ways of living — and have many similarities with the principles of Islam.
The scholar demonstrated this important point — that there is no fundamental difference between traditional African religions and the principles of Christianity. Both are based on anthropology and the belief that the human being is the manifestation of God.
In fact, justice, fraternity and social duty are common issues between traditional African religions and the divine ones.
After achieving significant education, and due to his staunch loyalty to Kenya and his people, Mbiti returned to his country — where he was born on November 30, 1931 in Mulango, Kitui County — to teach at his home schools.
During that time, he developed an interest in African oral traditions and his goal was to bring together African, Asian and other theologians for ecumenical encounter and dialogue.
Mbiti’s constructive and useful life is over, but his positive effects to bring together the divine religions and create a platform for dialogue live on.
The Islamic Republic of Iran commemorates this great philosopher, who once said “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am”, and hopes that his great ideas and goals, including unity and dialogue, will persist among all societies and communities.
Tohid Afzali (PhD) is the Third Secretary, Embassy of The Islamic Republic of Iran, Nairobi. [email protected]