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The Igbo Idea of God By Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi

A supersonic glance on this topic brings to mind two salient questions. Does the Ibos have an idea of God? If they do what is he called? I set my face against such notions that theistic thinking came with Christianity because very interesting to know that the transition was not that they never had an idea of God.

Suffices to say that our idea of God was more supreme (reverential) than the trivialized idea of God that has been invested upon us today. Theistic thought-frame is embedded in the Igbo culture and customs such that it is the stuff which their spirituality and identity is made of. One of the aims here is to debunk the view of African theistic tabula-rasa or absence of the idea of a supreme being as held by western culpable armchair anthropologists that often to their surprise that they did not need to argue for the existence of God … for these fundamentals of the world are deeply rooted in Africa three religions

Clarification of terms

IGBOS: (also Ibo) People living in parts of western Africa, especially in southeastern Nigeria. This is a tribe in Nigeria located within latitude 5-7 degrees north of the equator and longitude 6-8 degrees east of the Greenwich line. Ibos have an enriched cultural and traditional Heritage.

IBO (language) it is one of the groups of the Niger-Congo family of African languages. Ibo is spoken by about 17 million people.

GOD (Chi): A being in a religion. Especially in monotheisms religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity and African traditional religion, a single God is considered the creator or source of everything that exists and is spoken of in terms of perfect attributes—for instance, infinitude, immutability, eternity, goodness, knowledge (omniscience), and power (omnipotence). Most religions traditionally ascribe to God certain character traits that can be understood either literally or metaphorically, such as will, love, anger, and forgiveness.

Ibo Concept of God:

“The Ibo worshipped gods who protected, advised, and chastised them and who were represented by priests and priestesses within the clan. Not only did the gods advise the Ibo on community matters, but they also guided individuals. Each person had a personal god, or chi, that directed his or her actions.
A strong chi meant a strong person; people with weak chi were pitied. Each man kept a separate hut, or shrine, where he stored the symbols of his personal god and his ancestral spirits”. [1]

For the Ibos the earth mother is Ala, the greatest deity after Chukwu the heavenly creator. They so reverence this god that they dislike selling land because of their reverence for her, and they appease her if it has to be done. Their ancestors founded the ‘face of the earth’ (ihu ala) which became sacred for the people and was the place where major decisions, such as warfare or ritual oaths were made and strictly respected”[2] The Igbo concept of God raises a question of whether polytheistic or monotheistic concept. Like every other tribe with her own concept the Igbos holds the idea of a supreme being that orders the theocratic universe.
The other beings that collaborated in the system do not struggle or compete with the Supreme Being. This big God is submerged in the economic, social, spiritual, and cultural life of the Igbos. “He is a God there but has stipulated other small beings.
A theocratic God designated these other gods in various sphere of life but sits as an overseer. A God that has everything in control but distributes powers or work among the lesser gods. It is a concept of myriads or meteorites of spirits with priests dedicated to each.”[3] This could be viewed as a being with multiplicity in manifestation. Such being which has control of all that is but distributes work among the lesser beings.

Permit me to say that the different other small gods are ways of the big beings self-revelation. One will not rule out the fact that the Igbos have a mental picture of a God that is of myriads of spirits with a priest dedicated to them each to serve as a liaison between them and the community (Dibiammuo(spirit doctor or Ndieze mmuo) the picture below gives a mirror within which the Igbos views this being called God. [4]

Ala (earth goddess)
Anyanwu (the sun god),
Igwe (the sky god),
Amadioha (god of thunder and lightening),
Ahiajoku (god of yam),
Ndichie (the deified spirit of dead ancestors)

The principal God of the Igbos is called Chineke or Chukwu. Chineke literally means the creator God whilst Chukwu (chi-ukwu) means the great God. In Onitsha areas where this variant Chineke is used, the emphasis is placed on the creative activity…” [5] Above all is a God of creation / nature ‘Chineke’, ‘Chionyeokike’ (God the creator). He is God of life (i.e. Chinwendu) he is god of wealth (Chinenye aku), T.U. Nwala made a wonderful distinction when he categorized the being of God. ‘Chineke’ (supreme deity), agbara (powerful spirit), ndichie (ancestral spirit). The Igbos believes in the existence of a supreme deity with the name Chukwu.

Nathaniel Ndiokwere has a good description on Igbo identity or picture of God as portrayed through the way of prayers. This proves how the picture of this being is painted in the eyes of Igbo people. Three names for this is ‘Ekpere’, ’ayiyo’ and ‘igo ofo’ (to pray) ‘ofo’ is sacred stick; it serves as a means of communication with men and the supernatural order. “The ofo itself dramatizes the spiritual basis of even the most secular matters even today, for its power represents the authority of the high god ‘Chineke’ channeled via linage ancestor. ‘Ndichie’ without whose support and concurrence man dare not act”. [6] “…the sacred ofo which for the Igbo principally signifies truth and justice” [7] the prayers of the traditional titled Igbo man cannot be complete without invocations with the ‘ofo’ tapped on the ground. Since prayer is in Igboland “nkari-uka anyi na chineke (i.e. dialogue with God) A vivid picture of Igbo concept of God can be seen in ‘Ahiajoku’ (traditionally the god of yam) this is done in thanksgiving to “chukwu” (big god) by the farmers and entire communities.
During this festival sacrifices are offered to the god of yam for a rich harvest He has given to men. How could one deny the existence of the concept of God in Igbo land when the full-fledged Igbo man cannot eat kola nut without invoking God and the gods, ancestors as the case may be. Rev.Fr. Emmanuel Edeh in his book: ‘Towards an Igbo Metaphysics’ gave a detailed analysis on this. For the Igbo man “chi is a participation in God (Chukwu or chi-ukwu i.e. big God)”[8] since ‘chi’ means life or presence of God in man that is why we say personal chi in man, As such human beings do participate in God’s life in their personal ‘chi’. “Onye kwe chi ya ekwe, if you are persistent your chi will go along with you”.[9]

The Igbo nomenclature is another side to it. The Igbos answer ‘Chukwudi’ meaning God exists. How would they answer this name if the have no idea of big God or god as the case may be? The evidence of Igbo divine attributes of God is also worthy of note. The idea of god in the mind of the Igbos is portrayed in such names like Onye-okike i.e. god is the creator, okasi akasi i.e. he is the highest, ofuzulu – he is all seeing, omacha – all knowing, chigbo – god for ever eternal. These names qualify God’s reality and operations in a way non-attributed to any other beings. This confirms the certitude of the idea of God. Also deducible from these attributes is the idea of a big God as compared to ‘ahiajoku’ i.e. god of yam

The Igbo proverbs and wise sayings portray the idea of God:

oge chukwu ka nma” i.e. god’s time is the best.

“Onye buta chi ya uzo ogbagbuo onwe ya n’oso” i.e. if one do before his god he will run and die.

In the idea of creation the Igbos brought to light their idea of God as a being we do not know who created him with the saying “anyi amaghi ihe kpuru Chukwu ma Chukwu kpuru mmadu” showing God’s supremacy above man. This Idea of God’s supremacy is portrayed with the name “ogbara Igbo ghari” what marveled or marvels the Igbos. “All nations like the Igbos pray with total submissiveness in a moving fashion the supreme being”.[10] It is the Igbo man’s idea of God that shapes his model of sacrifice to such a God that demands always to be appeased such that first in the morning is “igo mmuo i.e. placating the spirits; offering for communion sacrifice.

According to Rev. Fr. Anthony Ekwunife, very glaring in the Igbo concept of God is their way of blessing the kola nut seen as a symbol of life and love. It starts with invoking of God, deities, ancestors e.g. “Chineke tea oji, i.e. god the creator take kola. Chukwu abiama raa ochoma obasi di n’elu i.e. almighty god, take white chalk” [11]. This shows that it is a god who must be acknowledged first before anything. It is a god who we have personal experience with since we can invite him to come and eat kola nut. Idea of a God that participates in our day to day affairs God who is shows with us even in eating kola. A God submerged within the society that they know how he eats: ‘gi bu chineke na-ata n’ogbe ma anyi na-ata nibe’ i.e. god you eat whole kola, we mortals eat kola in pieces.

The Igbo concept of god is according to Pantaleon Iroegbu in his book Kpim of philosophy as follows: source of all other beings or powerful spirit, a god who can inflict pain on any one who errs except a proper cleansing or sacrifice is done. A god who is forgiving and merciful chukwu onye ebere i.e. merciful god. A god who hold all that is good ekeji-mma and above all who is eternal i.e. chigbo. “There is yet another image of Chukwu created in an Igbo tale about Chukwu and ‘Mbe’ (tortoise):

Once upon a time, the tortoise visited God– Chukwu. Welcoming him, ‘Chukwu’ offered him a piece of stone to break as kola nut. (the offering of kola nut in Igbo culture is a sign of welcome). The tortoise made a pad and asked Chukwu to help him lift the earth to his head. But Chukwu asked him: ‘does one carry the earth?’ ‘Mbe’ answered in return “is a piece of stone broken as kola nut in your land?” this is an Igbo cultural riddle but didactic folklore.

The symbolic language in which the story is coated is revealing. Mbe is regarded as the most astute of all animals. His cleverness or foresight helps him to make up for his lacks in the animal kingdom.”[12] This story show that the concept of God among Igbos man in generally stands before God in all his ‘meanness.’ God knows men so much that he relates to all individually, as they are and are known. God is almost ‘foolish’ or ‘tricky’ that he should first present Mbe with a puzzle! ‘Mbe’ in turn gave Chukwu a counter plot, for ‘Chukwu’ awakened him to that for which he is known, viz., ‘craftiness.’ the main thrust of the story is not so much that ‘Chukwu’ first presented ‘Mbe’ with a challenge as ‘Chukwu’ himself ‘relaying’ to ‘Mbe’ to every person, what they are know for.

Man finds before God a reflection or a picture of what he has built with his life. This already shows the kind of ‘oke’ (lot) one gets from God. The end time is partly projected as people receiving from God what they have deposited with their lives. It is the duty man to create before man and God the type of self-image he would like to receive in return: “ome nma ga-ahu nma, ome njo ga-ahu njo” – the good receives good in return and the evil doer evil in return. It is a belief of the Igbo that before God, ‘mmadu bu mmadu’ – man is man. Thus one sees in God a ‘foolishness’ that tests human ingenuity and challenges man to the totality of his humanness, manness. But what are we calling God ‘Chukwu’ ‘Chineke’, ‘chi’, Ala, Osebuluwa, or what?

Conclusion

The Igbo Chineke meaning the creator of everything, it transcends the world and at the same time is immanent through the deities, who are his messengers and representatives in nature; and especially through chi –the spirit-guardians regarded as manifestations of himself which reside in creature Evident in the daily life of average traditionalist in Igbo land shows the proximity of divine presence and need of God’s care and protection. For morning greetings the Igbo say iputago ura ‘have you come out well from sleep? And then next is asking about ones family and business when all is well the response is obu chukwu ‘it is God’. If a good thing should happen the congratulatory greeting is chukwu aruka ‘god has done wonder’ On the contrary it could seem that in line with the igbos ideas about kingship and nobility, the number and power of the subordinate deities enhance the importance and supremacy of Chukwu just as the prestige of a king is sometimes measured by the number and power of his subordinate chiefs. It is logical then for the Igbos to believe in unified idea of god despite multiplicity in deities. The deities are seen as God’s representatives. They are like administrators in distant provinces god then is then transcendent but at the same time immanent in creation through the spirits. Igbo idea of God points that ultimate power and authority rest with God

 

References:

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica Version 2004 [2] GEOFFREY PARRINDER, Africa’s Three Press, Religions, Sheldon London, p53-54 [3] REV.FR. ALEX LONGS, Lesson Note African Traditional Religion. [4] IKENGA METUH, Comparative Studies Of African Traditional Religions, Imico Publishers, P160. [5] EDMUND ILOGU,Christianity And Igbo Culture, University Publishing Company,Nigeria,P34 [6] NATHANIEL NDIOKWERE, The African Church, Today and Tomorrow, Snaap Press Nigeria, p57. [7] ANTHONY EKWUNIFE, Consecration in Igbo Traditional, Jet Publishers, Nigeria, P111.

 [8] PANTELEON IROEGBU. The Kpim of Philosophy, International University Press, Nigeria, P318.

[9] EMEFIE IKENGA METUH, God, and Man in African Religion, Geoffrey Chapman, London, P69. [10] BARTHOLOMEW CHIDILI, Provocative Essays on the Practices of Religion and Culture in African Society, Fab Anieh, Nigeria, P50. [11] ANTHONY EKWUNIFE, Consecration in Igbo Traditional, Jet Publishers, Nigeria, P103.
[12] FRANCIS NJOKU, Essays In African Philosophy, Thought And Theology, Snaap Press, Nigeria, P153
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