Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions


Muslims, or practitioners of Islam, believe that a man from the Arabian Peninsula named Muhammed (570 CE-632 CE) was the last in a series of priests to receive a direct communication from the high god shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In life, he had been a merchant and a warrior. Unlike Christians, Muslims deny that their most important priest was a son of the high god or an aspect of that god. Rather, he was merely the person through whose writing the high god delivered the stories and the laws according to which all human beings should marry, do business, inherit, conduct war, and govern society. Most Muslims believe in the supreme authority of the resulting text, called the Qur’an, in the governance of social life. However, even reports about Muhammed’s conduct during his life, called the Hadith, are considered valid legal precedents. Most Muslims believe it is meritorious to recite prayers in unison alongside other Muslims while facing the city of Mecca several times a day. Most also believe that a Muslim should undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Yet, there is much angry disagreement about other rules and about how the Qur’an and the Hadith are to be interpreted.

For example, there is much divergence of believe and practice regarding the legitimacy of depicting humans and animals in art, since such depictions are believed to invite worship and thus undermine what is believed to be the unique status of the high god. Muslims are more widely comfortable with calligraphy as an art form. Therefore, the Islam-related objects in the CAAAR collection are chiefly non-figurative symbols of Islam employed in West Africa or its diaspora, whether in Islamic piety and healing rituals or in the African-style worship of divinities influenced by Islam.

As a result of long-distance commerce, conquest and enslavement, Islam has been practiced widely in West Africa for the better part of a millennium and is an object of explicit reference and implicit imitation by practitioners of other Afro-Atlantic religions. For example, the attributive poetry (oriki) of the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning, Șàngó, describes him as a Muslim who defies the rules of Islam by eating prohibited animals and by defying the daytime fast required during the Islamic month of Ramadan. In an implicit recognition of the most important day of prayer and rest during the Islamic week, practitioners of Brazilian Candomblé normally wear white on Fridays. Like the interaction of Christianity and African indigenous religions around the Atlantic perimeter, the interaction of Islam and African indigenous religions around the great Afro-Asiatic desert and around the Indian Ocean has generated a variety of cosmopolitan religious practices, such as Bori in the Sahel, possession by Patros and Tumba spirits in the Comoro Islands, Shtanga in Iraq, and, in Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, Zar.