Fulani - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Over 90 percent of the Town Fulani are Muslims. It is, in fact, rather difficult to discover any Fulani—Town or Cattle—who admits to not being Muslim, no matter how lax his or her practice may be. The Fulani share many beliefs with other West African Muslims. They use Islam both as a means to distinguish themselves from others, through the reputation of Fulani clerics, and as a link to members of other African groups.

At the same time, there is belief in the steady-state nature of culture that preceded Islam. Culture is seen to be unchanging and constant from generation to generation. The only improvement a Cattle Fulani sees possible is to have more children than his or her parents. Otherwise, the appropriate thing to do is to live according to the code of the ancestors.

That code stresses the symbolic importance of cattle in defining Fulani ethnicity. There is also a requirement to respect one's seniors and to love one's mother. The ethos of the Fulani is best summed up in the concept of palaaku. It portrays the ideal Fulani as one who has stoic sobriety, reserve, and strong emotional ties to cattle. At the same time, the model Fulani is gentle in demeanor. His carriage conveys a proud reserve, almost a disdain toward non-Fulani. It is said that no one knows what a Fulani is thinking. The true Fulani is physically as well as psychologically distant from other people, especially non-Fulani. Moreover, he is enjoined from displays of strong emotions. His demeanor is taciturn, loathing the boisterousness of others. Wealth is not to be vulgarly displayed but carefully and quietly tended.

The Fulani have a number of taboos. They may not pronounce the name of a spouse, a first son, a first daughter, a father or mother, or a parent-in-law or the names of the parents of any beautiful girl or young woman. In addition to observing the usual Islamic dietary laws, they may not eat goat meat, lest they become lepers.

Religious Practitioners. As Muslims, the Fulani share with other Muslims reliance on traditional Islamic religious practitioners and are themselves prominent members of the Islamic clerical class. In common with other West Africans, however, Fulani will frequent local religious practitioners who have established reputations for their curative powers and supernatural abilities.

Ceremonies. Various life-cycle events—naming, acceptance of young girls into the group, marriage, first child, and so on—are marked by ceremonies. The Shar'o ceremony demonstrates to the community that a young man has come of age. In it, adolescent friends take turns beating each other across the chest with their walking sticks. No sign of pain or discomfort can be shown. Although adolescents have died in this ceremony, young men are eager to participate and display their scars with pride throughout their lives.

Arts. The Fulani are noted for their oral literature, which celebrates the concept of palaaku and serves to define Fulani identity. Fulani oral literature has been influenced both by surrounding peoples and by Islam. The major categories of Fulani literature are poetry, history, story, legend, proverb, magic formula, and riddle. Many of these genres are sung, either by amateurs or by professionals.

Medicine. The Fulani participate in a number of medical systems. One is an Islamic system, basically derived from the Arabs and through them from Greco-Roman sources. They share many traditions with the groups among whom they live. Since the onset of British colonization—around the turn of the twentieth century—they have been exposed to Western medical practices. In common with other West Africans, they have incorporated elements from these various systems in a rather syncretistic and pragmatic fashion.

Death and Afterlife. If one lives up to the palaaku code and obeys Allah's laws, there will be rewards in the afterlife. The Fulani, in common with other Muslims, believe in an afterlife of material rewards for the followers of Allah.


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