September 26, 2009

Book Review: Muntu by Jaheinz Jahn

I can’t say enough about this book. Over 50 years old, it is still worth revisiting for the force for which it makes its defense of African thought, philosophy and religion. Janheinz Jahn, a German scholar, originally wrote Muntu in 1958, around the time of intellectual ferment of luminaries like Fanon, Cesaire, and Senghor. The American edition first appeared in 1961 and was named book of the year by at least one major publishing organization. Jahn lays out the characteristics of African thought as illuminated through New World African religions like Santeria and Voudoun.

Unlike so much of today’s timid postmodernist theorization. Jahn is unafraid of the broad comparison and the book is infused with both an urgency born of passion for the subject matter, in addition to Jahn’s considerable erudition. He is equally at home discussing the implications of nommo, or the magic of the spoken word, as he is the function and symbols within Voudoun, or the difference between New World African religion and its parent in Africa. He also devotes a section to tracing the strands of African thought in the works of the so-called Negritude poets.

I will let William J. Austin, who has reviewed Jahn's work here, have the word on explaining the basic philosophical principles of African thought and aesthetics, according to Jahn:

The text is neatly divided into the major categories of African culture and religion, two forces which, as Jahn points out, flow in and out of one another like a river and its tributaries. Although Jahn makes mention of the cultures formed in northern Africa via the commingling of African and Arabic/Islamic impulses, his focus here is on “Black Africa,” or that larger portion of the continent below the Sahara. This section of Africa, however various in its individual cultural expressions, was surprisingly united in an overall religious structure that informed the ritual of worship, as well as the more pedestrian day to day activities. This over-arching structure contains four major forces: Muntu, Kintu, Hantu, and Kuntu. Muntu, or “human being,” finds its earliest known expression in the culture of the Bantu tribe. As a “force” it is plural, reflecting the myriad variations of humanity. Muntu, however, is not a self-activating force, but rather ‘sleeps,” dormant, while awaiting its activation via a more active sub-force known as Nommo. Nommo, quite simply, is language. The priests and elders of a tribe are most invested with Nommo, and maintain the power to enliven natural objects, and even man-made ones, through a ritualistic process of naming. But all human beings participate in Nommo to some degree. In fact, it is not until a parent names a child, that the child may be considered human, may be said to participate in Muntu. What we have, then, in the concepts of Muntu and Nommo, is not unlike the structuralist/post-structuralist emphasis on language as the begetter of personhood, of humanity. The linkage is certainly there, but it also obtains between Nommo and the Biblical declaration that “In the beginning was the word.”

In any event, Jahn’s detailed analysis makes clear the amazing similarities that reach across seemingly isolated cultures. Like Muntu, Kintu is plural, and represents the force or “spirit” in all non-human objects, animate and inanimate, including animals. Hantu is place and time, and Kuntu, perhaps the most complex concept of the four, represents modality, i.e., quality, style, rhythm and beauty. All four forces are united linguistically by the suffix and concept of NTU, or the essential compatibility and coherence of all things, human and non-human. The many in the one, the one in the many — this is familiar philosophical ground, and more evidence that Nommo does indeed unite all cultures, races, creeds, in their differences.

The one fault with the book is its almost complete lack of discussion about the impact of Islam and the Arabs on African culture and religion. No doubt there are other books that do this admirably, but it would have been quite interesting for Jahn to extend his thesis to some of the cultures of East Africa such as Somalia, the Swahili Coast or Zanzibar. Or even Ethiopia…the point being that these cultures have a much more ancient tradition of contact with Abrahamic religions, ergo we might expect to see a different kind of integration within an overall philosophy of Muntu then that which occured in the Americas under Jahn's rubric of neo-African culture.

How does Neo-African culture apply to African Islamic cultures of the East Coast, where extensive cultural mixing also took place? No doubt a variety of practices exist today which reincarnate the ancient beliefs in new forms, for example the practice of praying to Sufi saints and venerating their burial sites as holy places.

What is perhaps most interesting about Jahn’s thesis, as Austin pointed out, is that he brings out the true monotheism at the core of most African religion, explaining that this ONE God who is RULER OVER ALL is so distant from humanity that humans needs a variety of intermediaries in order to tap into the power of GOD's Being.


Unknown September 29, 2009 at 12:54 PM  

Read this book sounds like a wonderful journey.

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