Ṣàngó, God of lightning and thunder, is one of the most popular, if not THE most popular, god (òrìṣà) of Ifa in West Africa and the diaspora. He was an historical figure, the third king of the Oyo Kingdom (ca. 1400-1900), who was posthumously exalted into the Yoruban pantheon.
E. Bolayi Idowu, former Professor of Religion at the University of Ibadan, in his Olódùmarè: God In Yoruba Belief (1963), notes:
“(Ṣàngŏ) is connected with Islam… Ṣàngŏ has the appellations of A-k’ ewú-gb’-ẹrú; A-k’ -ewú-gb’ -ẹṣín, A-ṣ’-alùwàlá n’ ibi ọfà gbé nrò ‘jò.-‘One so versed in Arabic reading as to win slaves by it; One so versed in Arabic reading as to win horses by it; One who performs ablutions under a rain of arrows!”
J. Lorand Matory, Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke University, in his “Rival empires: Islam and the religions of spirit possession among the Oyo-Yoruba,” (1994), notes as well:
“Members of the possession priesthoods use the …cowry-shell divination, during which Ṣàngó and Yemọja priests in Ìgbòho are heard chanting the Arabic-derived báríkà (“Congratulations!”) and even La illah illallah (Arabic for ‘there is no god but God’) when certain divinatory signatures appear…(E)very 28 days, the day of the Yorùbá week consecrated to Ṣàngó coincides with the Muslim Sabbath… It may come as a surprise…that Ṣàngó himself is a Muslim…In Yorùbá, even his main natural manifestation is known by an Arabic-derived word: àrá, or ‘thunder,’ comes from the Arabic word ra’d…The sense of irony is not lost to òrìṣà-worshippers, who alternatively affirm through their panegyrics (i.e. public praise poems) and deny with their reasoning that Ṣàngó is Muslim…Islam is recognized even in the most central and secretive rites of Ṣàngó-worship…Some tales say that Ṣàngó’s mother Yemọja…(is) Muslim…”
In a public oríkì or panegyric sung in 1988 by Ifa priestesses in Nigerian town of Ìgbòho who, through their praise poems were reacting against the male dominated and chauvinist forms of Islam that dominated the area, yet affirmed:
“When Ṣàngó was living in Saluu he was a Muslim,
Who ate dog’s head with pounded yam,
And ate pig’s head for breakfast during Ramadan…”
This panegyric, which praises the god while sarcastically mocking Islamic practice, affirms both Ṣàngó the historical man and Ṣàngó the òrìṣà or god. The man was a Muslim, we learn. But because òrìṣà-worshippers attribute audacity and impunity to the gods, the god Ṣàngó’s brazenness, audacity and impunity is illustrated by his willful violation of Islamic laws, in this case dietary and ritual (Ramadan) laws.
The most prominent god of the Yoruban pantheon is a Muslim?! If so, the implications are profound.