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Worlds of Power

Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa

Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar

Publication Date - 13 May 2004

ISBN: 9780195220162

272 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Looks at the intimate connection between religion, mystical power, and politics in Africa.


With Christian revivals (including Evangelicals in the White House), Islamic radicalism and the revitalisation of traditional religions it is clear that the world is not heading towards a community of secular states. Nowhere are religious thought and political practice more closely intertwined than in Africa. African migrants in Europe and America who send home money to build churches and mosques, African politicians who consult diviners, guerrilla fighters who believe that amulets can protect them from bullets, and ordinary people who seek ritual healing: all of these are applying religious ideas to everyday problems of existence, at every level of society. Far from falling off the map of the world, Africa is today a leading centre of Christianity and a growing field of Islamic activism, while African traditional religions are gaining converts in the West.

One cannot understand the politics of the present without taking religious thought seriously. Stories about witches, miracles, or people returning from the dead incite political action. In Africa religious belief has a huge impact on politics, from the top of society to the bottom. Religious ideas show what people actually think about the world and how to deal with it. Ellis and Ter Haar maintain that the specific content of religious thought has to be mastered if we are to grasp the political significance of religion in Africa today, but their book also informs our understanding of the relationship between religion and political practice in general.

About the Author(s)

Stephen Ellis, Director of the Africa Programme at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Brussels, is a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and author of The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (1999). Gerrie ter Haar is Professor of Religion, Human Rights and Social Change at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. She is a specialist in the religious traditions of Africa. Among her numerous publications is Halfway to Paradise: African Christians in Europe (1998).


"This book is a critical corrective to much of the recent literature on colonialism and globalization that interprets modern African history largely in terms of alien influences and ideas and forces us to take spiritual forces and ideas as seriously as material ones."--American Historical Review

"Quite effective and illuminating."--Robert M. Baum, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"This remarkable book urges us to recast our approach to understanding modern African history by recognizing the religious basis of African political practice."--American Historical Review

"This book is a fascinating, insightful and timely contribution to our body of knowledge about the worlds most culturally-diverse, yet least- understood continent. Worlds of Power should be required reading for anyone concerned with Africa today."--Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Lion's Grave: Dispatches From Afghanistan

"Worlds of Power shows how religious and supernatural ideas dominate African politics and culture, how they shape the ways that Africans both rich and poor view the world. The materials about clandestine politics, secret societies and conspiracy theories are especially intriguing - though they are handled throughout in a responsible and scholarly way. This wide-ranging and thoroughly researched book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand modern Africa." --Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

"Power in the material world, most Africans continue to believe, cannot be separated from its source in the spiritual. It is the singular genius of authors Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar that they understand the encompassing nature and centrality of this belief. [...] The clarity and accuracy of this analytical lens makes Worlds of Power one of the most important books on African religion-and, indeed, on African politics-to appear in many years."--Professor R. Scott Appleby, University of Notre Dame