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Essay on The Intersection of Religion and Politics in 17th-19th Century Africa

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The Intersection of Religion and Politics in 17th-19th Century Africa


The stories of Dona Beatriz, Uthman dan Fodio, and Guimba the Tyrant present three cases in which religion and politics overlapped in different ways and to varying degrees. These three individuals lived in distinct historical contexts and had unique religious trainings, sources of spiritual power, track records as religious and political authorities, goals for reshaping the religious and political landscape of their regions, reputations among their contemporaries, and obstacles with which to contend.

Some common themes of 17th-19th century African social and political history span these three stories despite their distinct historical contexts and characteristics. In each society, warlords vied for control without being able to unify small disintegrating states, and political strife led to social mobility and fed the slave trade with war captives (Lovejoy, 68-70). The struggle between competing definitions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy became crucially important when religious causes were allied with political causes, especially seen in the cases of Beatriz and Uthman. Another common feature, best illustrated in Guimba’s story, is the tradition African belief that spiritual power, whatever its source, is good when used in the interests of the community, but bad when used for personal gain (Thornton, 43-44).

Dona Beatriz, a Kongolese noblewoman in the late 17th Century, was raised Catholic like all nobility since the 15th century, when King Afonso adopted, and adapted, the Catholic message brought by the Portuguese. While Europeans saw Kongolese Catholicism as syncretic and heretical, Catholicism was integral to Kongole...


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...power, but deserves his title of Tyrant more than that of a ‘political leader.’ Beatriz and Uthman seem to have thought of themselves as guiding the spiritual beliefs of their followers and acting as political leaders only to the extent that they had a religious mandate to do so. The intersection of religion and politics in these three cases of struggles reflects the integration of religious and political authority, and the continuity between the spiritual and temporal in pre-colonial Africa.


Works Cited


Leftzion, Nehemia. “Islam in the Bildad al-Sudan to 1800,” in The History of Islam in
Africa, N. Levtzion, ed. pp 63-91.

Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery.

Robinson, David, and Douglas Smith. Sources of the African Past. pp. 122-149.

Robinson, David. “Revolutions in Western Sudan,” in History of Islam in Africa pp. 131-52.


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