Winding through narrow passages between cinder-block homes, I finally emerged into a clearing. There, standing before me, were the white-washed walls of Ghana’s ancient Larabanga Mosque. It shined brilliantly in the sun, and its two minarets towered up toward the blue sky. I had never seen a structure quite like it.
In my mind’s eye, I traveled back in time over five hundred years and imagined how much more impressive this mosque must have been when the only other buildings in the vast grasslands would have been simple mud huts with thatched roofs. Back then, village dwellings lasted at most a decade before they collapsed and were rebuilt. But when a new religion from a faraway land made its mark, its followers erected this massive building that has stood for centuries.
When Islam Came to West Africa
Over 1,200 years ago, the ancient West African empire of Ghana received the first Muslim visitors. Over the centuries, Islam slowly spread along trade routes that went south to the coast all the way to the region now known as Senegal and Mali.
As Muslim traders from the north carried loads of salt, gold and kola nuts back and forth, they sowed the seeds of their religion along the way. For that reason, five of the six remaining historic mud mosques in modern-day Ghana are found along one of those north-south trade routes of a bygone era.
After seeing Larabanga’s famed mosque, I decided to tour Ghana’s three northern regions and see the others. These six buildings testify to the arrival of Islam in West Africa, the region where my family lives and serves. Islam changed this part of the world forever, and the way the Muslim faith took root in African soil has lessons for Christians who pray that churches will be planted here. Visiting these mosques reminded me of three things—the way trade opens doors for evangelism, the danger of syncretism, and the value African communities ascribe to places of worship.
How Trade Opens Doors for Evangelism
First, it is important to note that Islam arrived via traders, not missionaries or militaries. Muslim traders interacted with local communities, eventually settled among them, and shared their faith. Long before the current emphasis on “business as mission,” and centuries before the lay-led Moravian missionary movement, the Muslim faith was spreading rapidly into new regions of West Africa because of business people, not clergy.
There Is a Fine Line Between Contextualization and Syncretism
Sudano-Sahelian mosques testify to the power of contextualization, but they are also a cautionary tale of syncretism. These mosques met strict Islamic regulations for worship and prayer while being built with the materials and construction methods of the local people—that combination makes them a textbook case of contextualization. The architects took the mundane mud hut and elevated it to a monument for the ages. They made the familiar fantastic.
However, the impressive mosques quickly inspired myths and stories of magic. It is said that before military coups in Ghana, soldiers visited the Larabanga mosque for special blessings before attempting to overthrow the government. They believed that a visit to the site could impart spiritual powers.
Early on, the mosques attracted African diviners and priests who adopted Islamic ideas and practices and mixed them with traditional beliefs and customs. These leaders became a new class of syncretic spiritualists known as marabouts or mallams. Larabanga is known for its many Islamic spiritual healers who claim to have mystical knowledge. They create magical amulets with combinations of qur’anic verses and traditional ingredients to protect and empower their wearers. These syncretistic practices are rejected by orthodox Muslims and are the reason Islam in West Africa is often referred to as “folk Islam.”
All this reminds me of the care we must take as cross-cultural missionaries not to add nor take away from the Word of God—an explicit command we receive in the Scriptures (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18–19). Syncretistic practices usually don’t emerge overnight but creep in over time and become justified as “tradition” even though they are contrary to Scripture.
Valuing Places of Worship
Finally, I was reminded of how important a designated gathering place is to the culture of West African believers. While holding fast to an understanding of the church as the body of Christ—a gathering of baptized believers, and not a building in which they gather—we can recognize that in some cultures places of worship are valued.
Often I’ve been guilty of criticizing my West African brothers and sisters’ desire for a church building. But they’ve taught me that there can be value in a local church body pooling their resources, time and energy to build a place where they can worship and fellowship together. A building can legitimize a church’s presence in a community as it facilitates corporate worship, ministry and outreach.
Reflecting the Beauty of Christ
Just a few decades ago, Ghana had nine historic mosques but some have since crumbled into ruin. Only six are left. Their historical legacy is fading away as the traditional West African structures are being replaced by larger mosques that are cookie-cutter copies of architectural styles imported from abroad. The new designs have mostly lost the beautiful art and engineering that made them unique and suited to this particular cultural context.
Join me in prayer for the church in West Africa. May local congregations continue to reflect the unique beauty of the body of Christ.
- Pray for African Christian lay people to passionately take up the task of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with their families, neighbors and colleagues. May they be a powerful witness to their communities (Rom. 10:17).
- Pray that African church leaders will teach sound doctrine and be bold in refuting syncretistic and false gospels (Titus 1:9).
- Pray for African churches as they gather together in their places of meeting. May they be encouraging to one another and glorify God in their worship (1 Cor. 14:40).
This article originally appeared here.