Born again in Yorubaland: religious forms and existential concerns

Victoria Grebe
Doctoral Candidate, University of Cambridge

Holding to the distinctly evangelical idea of a personal faith, new movements in born-again Christianity and neo-orthodox Islam correspond in the way that they seek renewal through both a return to the ideals of the past and a translation of this through ‘modern’ media. In a contemporary ethnographic analysis of two particular religious groups based in Lagos – a Pentecostal Church (Mountain of Fire and Miracles, a deliverance ministry) and a new Islamic movement (Nasrul-Lahi-il Fathi [NASFAT]) – this paper will outline the part that both groups play in a wider narrative of religious and cultural appropriation.

NASFAT have become known as the Muslim ‘Born-Agains’, running revival services, healing ministries and microfinance schemes, conducting prison visiting, and meeting on Sunday mornings. MFM are known for their dramatic rhetoric of rupture – perhaps more than any other church – with the mantra “Fall down and die!” echoing throughout warehouses across Lagos and beyond during their deliverance services. In constructing personal and corporate identities, leaders and congregants of both groups draw on similar sources of belonging and forms of citizenship.

Does a Muslim group’s borrowing of born-again rhetoric mean something for the Islamic identity of the believer? But does it not also act generatively on the Pentecostal identities on which it draws? This paper will examine the ways that members of these two groups channel revivalism by constructing “notions of newness”, notions which simultaneously re-imagine and express a new sense of self. It will reconsider what it means to be “born-again”, and how this identity is one that fuses the political and the spiritual. The rhetoric and ritual that they use to persuade seekers of their exclusive claims to the truth in fact belong to both, and to neither. Without ignoring adherents’ claims to exclusivity, we can see that in their playing with idioms of the old and new, Christianity and Islam do share a number of religious forms and existential concerns. And so whilst existing within a general climate of increasing suspicion, these groups in fact participate in similar political and spiritual imaginings that in their very rejection of each other serve to bring them conceptually closer.