Panel examines African identities in the religious imagination

Elon’s 2021 Smith-Chase Lecture featured three distinguished scholars.

The H. Shelton Smith and Carole F. Chase Lecture at Elon on March 31 featured a panel discussion titled “African Identities in the Religious Imagination.”

Judith Weisenfeld of Princeton University, Musa Dube of University of Botswana and Iqbal Akhtar of Florida International University discussed the construction of African identities among diverse religious communities, including members of African Traditional Religions, Muslims, Ethiopian Hebrews, and Christians. Ariela Marcus-Sells, assistant professor of religious studies and Distinguished Emerging Scholar in Religious Studies at Elon, introduced and moderated the panel.

Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton, presented on the development of new religio-racial identities among African-American Communities in the early twentieth century, focusing on the growth of Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Islam. She connected these movements to pan-Africanism and particularly to the efforts of Marcus Garvey and argued that these movements represented attempts by Americans of African descent to imagine identities for themselves outside of the oppressive spaces and roles constructed for them by white Americans.

Dube, professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Botswana, presented research on the use of Africa “scriptoratures” or “the use of African oral cultures as sacred and secular literature.” Her presentation focused on three avenues. One avenue examined the use of Ubuntu/Botho Philosophy to promote social justice and reduce gender discrimination as demonstrated through a study of bridal showers in Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. Another avenue investigated how women in African Indigenous Churches (AICs) drew on the authority of the Spirit and dreams to overcome patriarchal institutions and assume leadership roles in their churches. A third and final avenue of investigation examined the interplay of religious identities in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus.

Akhtar, associate professor in the departments of Religious Studies and Politics & International Relations in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University, presented his research on the historical and contemporary Khoja community of Tanzania. The Khoja were a south Asian community of merchants who migrated to East Africa, in particularly Zanzibar, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries. Akhtar’s presentation traced developments in Khoja identity over the last two hundred years. His presentation juxtaposed the cosmopolitan African identities based around port cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the increasing association between Africanness and a black racial identity in the later colonial and then post-colonial periods.

The Smith-Chase lecture honors H. Shelton Smith, a 1917 graduate of Elon College and the founding director of graduate studies in religion at Duke University, and Carole F. Chase, long-time professor of Religious Studies at Elon.