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The structural/moral problem of Economics and Ahmadiyya Islam

“It should be remembered that some of the defects that are associated with economic competition are rooted in certain selfish streaks in human nature. For example, a person may set his heart upon accumulation of wealth, and this passion may shut his eyes to the suffering caused by hunger, want and penury. His sole wish may be to accumulate maximum amount of wealth. Selfishness and indifference to tyranny and oppression are the result of certain incentives, which are mentioned in the Holy Quran...” [1]
The passage quoted above shows that Mirza Basheeruddin, like any sane human, understood that the competitive, self-interest based economic system we exist in causes systemic and structural problems. It hints at the very possibility that human nature may be deeply affected by it. I plan to review the booklet I extracted it from, “The Economic System of Islam” [2]. It is part of my pursuit to discover whether religion provides a comprehensive and robust solution to the economic woes of mankind.
My quest for economic justice took me from the Quran to Hadeeths and Ahmadiyya literature, but none of it has satiated that thirst. What bothered me even more was that religion often spoke against economic injustice, yet thousands of years of religious training have caused little difference to economic injustice or attitudes towards material possessions in religious societies. As I thought over this condition, I realized that the disease is systemic. Academic research in the field is at a fledgling level, but it has already gone beyond the simplistic suggestions laid out by religion. This is a brief attempt at unpacking the moral dilemma with the prevalent economic system and the inadequacy of the solution proposed by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I remain interested in engaging on the topic as long as the conversation is intelligent and insightful.
The flow of this post is such: First I shall describe the relationship between economics and ethics. I’ll move on to what has been wrong with the way human beings have conducted their economic transactions throughout history. In the final sections, I shall discuss Mirza BasheerudDin Mahmood Ahmed’s proposed Islamic solutions in his booklet “The Economic System of Islam” and their inadequacy.
Ethics and Economics
Boulding [3] said: “Adam Smith, who has strong claim to being both the Adam and the Smith of systematic economics, was a professor of moral philosophy and it was at that forge that economics was made. Even when I was a student, economics was still part of the moral sciences tripos at Cambridge University. It can claim to be a moral science, therefore, from its origin, if for no other reason” [p1]
The study of economics began as an attempt to understand exchange transactions in search for fairness. Even in the Muqaddama by Ibne Khaldun [4], much before Adam Smith, we can find a discussion on economics from both an inductive scientific approach and a concerned ethical viewpoint. This is why economists often turn towards religion to obtain some fruitful solution to end their dilemmas. However, as we shall see in this discussion, religion has not been a fruitful avenue to eradicate economic problems.
The Ethical Dilemma of Prevalent Economic Transactions
The prevalent manner of conducting economic transactions globally is through the market. Buyers and sellers are supposed to meet and agree upon an exchange value for a good or service. Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations describes the principle of survival and prosperity in this system as "uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition"[WN II.iii.31]. This means that the buyer and the seller in the market would both attempt to maximize their exchange value while minimizing the cost at which they can attain it. Once the buyer reaches a maximum possible exchange value [for example, maximum desired quantity of a good at a low price], the buyer would complete their transaction and move on. Similarly when the supplier reaches maximum possible profit, they will wrap up for the day. This seems like a reasonable, rational meeting with an optimal result. However the notions of “maximum possible” vary from market to market and various issues involving information asymmetry, moral hazard, etc are endemic to this structure.
So the buyer’s objective of achieving maximum value at lowest possible cost gives rise to the possibility of a buyer surplus. Let’s call buyer surplus an unfair accumulation of wealth/value by buyers at the detriment of the supplier. This is very interesting with respect to a recent phenomena this year, where Canadian crude oil prices went negative[5]. This removes any doubt that buyers of Canadian crude oil purchasing the crude oil at negative prices would accumulate some extraordinary surplus wealth to the detriment of the crude oil producers. Clearly, this transaction seems harsh and unjust to the crude oil producers, but such is the way of the current economic system. Beyond this very obvious buyer surplus scenario, certain large buyers have enough negotiating power to twist the arms of producers into reducing prices or increasing quantities. This often happens in the Pakistan sugar market for example where sugarcane farmers deal with exploitative sugar mills. Since sugarcane can survive only so much time out in the sun before drying out and becoming useless, farmers often have to take whatever price they can get from the sugar mills. Similar occurrences can be observed in so many other economic transactions that an exhaustive list would be much beyond the scope of this post, if not impossible.
While buyers sometimes accumulate buyer surplus, large suppliers/ producers/ corporations also accumulate massive amounts of surplus wealth in their transactions. Individual consumers are less aware of the total cost incurred to produce most items. The producer is also usually free to set their own price, as should be in a free market. The trade off for the producer is that the volume of demand may decrease depending on price increase, but this problem is less prevalent with consumer goods that are deemed essential and with consumer groups that have little to no bargaining power. This can be illustrated with the price surges for life-saving personal protective equipment in the on-going corona virus pandemic [6]. However, even if one looks at consumer goods in a supermarket, the typical buyer has no option to bargain or negotiate the price of the goods they are purchasing. It is the producer’s prerogative to demand whatever price they wish for the products they produce, and the buyer’s prerogative to not purchase said product, such is the nature of all market transactions.
Market transactions are based on negotiating power. Negotiating power in turn depends on market conditions, market structure and the importance of said transaction to the buyer or seller. Those who have more bargaining power end up with more surplus and wealth accumulation.
Economic literature has discussed market structure problems at length.For example problems arising from competition concerns like Monopolies, Oligopolies, etc are extensively covered. Policy measures emphasized in academic literature include the role of governments to monitor and foster competition in industry. The literature realizes that the economic system itself cannot fight back monopolies or oligopolies because of the inherent nature of incentivizing surplus accumulation. Hence, external forces are required to repair faults in the system.
Market based economic systems ends in injustice through selfish pursuit of surplus value/wealth. Can it be overcome by good intentions? Definitely not. Consumers who are willing to give up their surplus in favor of producers end up beggars and producers who are willing to give up their surplus in favor of consumers end up bankrupt. One cannot be an infinitely benevolent being, or benevolent being at all in this system without disincentive. One has to accumulate surplus in order to obtain any savings at all, or to be charitable. Living a life of luxury or comfort without obtaining any surplus is an impossibility.
There can be economic transactions where the consumer surplus is equal to the producer surplus, however, the economic system does not motivate this balance. It is the hope of the economists that such a balance happens somehow. Sometimes they hedge their bets on the trickle down of surplus, sometimes on government intervention. What is clear on all ends is that the system is broken and a reliable, consistent and self-sustaining fix is so far beyond our reach.
The prosperity and even the survival of human beings in this economic system requires acts of heartless selfish pursuit. Every person for themselves. Now that we are clear on the dilemma and conflict in the economic arena, let’s focus on what religion, Ahmadiyyat in particular, has to offer us.
Ahmadiyya Economic system
For no reason other than convenience, I shall be quoting passages directly if I find some argument interesting and mentioning headings where I wish to attack the entire concept. As mentioned before it is all from the 2nd Caliph of Ahmadiyya’s lecture converted into a booklet. I could not find any other authoritative text on Ahmadiyya Economics. At times I compare the assumptions of the 2nd Caliph of Ahmadiyya with empirical economics literature such as an extensive review study by Basedau, Gobien and Prediger in 2018 was published in the Journal of Economic Surveys which is a high ranked academic research journal.[7]
Nature of Economic Agent in Ahmadiyya Economics
Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmed, Second Caliph of Ahmadi Muslims, said in his booklet The Economic System of Islam:
“When a person is made responsible for a specific task, or is entrusted with something of value, he is answerable to the one who entrusted him with those responsibilities; but a person who regards himself free and unanswerable to anyone would be inclined to do whatever he pleases. This verse of the Holy Quran is a reminder that all worldly governments, kingdoms and powers are under God’s command and are granted to human beings only as a trust. Man must not consider himself unaccountable just because he has the power and ownership of material wealth that he is given in this world. He may appear to have authority and ownership on the surface, but in truth he is only holding a trust from God. Human beings are answerable before God that they rightfully discharged the trust that was reposed in them.”[8]
This passage starts with the assumption that humanity is inherently bad, that perhaps the natural state of being for people is to lie, cheat, steal, etcetera. Supervision is alluded to as a possible suppressor of dishonesty, however, we know that no matter how many bosses or accountability commissions are made they are unable to eliminate corruption completely. This is in contrast with the argument that human beings are inherently good, but have to adapt dishonesty, corruption etcetera because the economic system they survive in incentivizes such practices.
Basedau et al. [7] found no study conducted on atheism compared to religion, but in comparison between religions Protestant and Asian ethno-religions fared well with regards to corruption. Catholicism, Islam etcetera correlated with higher corruption levels.
I’ll try to skip the rest of faith correlating with economic practices for the sake of brevity. Readers can confer with Basedau et al. [7] or any other academic review of the topic for scientific facts. One interesting finding from Basedau et al. [7]’s review of numerous studies is that high prevalence of religion in a society correlates with high income inequality. The review presents various causes for this as well.
Types of Economies
Mirza BasheerudDin Mahmood Ahmed moves onto a description of types of economic systems in his opinion:
“These are the three basic economic systems that exist in the world today. The first system is not bound by any definite laws or rules; the second system is nationalistic in its approach, while the third is driven by individualism.” [9]
This goes on to “As I have already mentioned, Islam does not recognize a system that is not based on law. Instead, Islam presents a path that is a combination of the other two systems (nationalistic and individualistic).” [10]
So Mirza Basheerud Din rejects the first type that he stylized, and proposes Ahmadiyya economics based on the remaining 2 types of economic systems.
Role of Charity
“We are thus taught that if we are holding some unfortunate people, whom the vicissitudes of life had deprived them of the power to stand on their own feet, they should be given the benefit of a portion of our resources, which really belong to God and in which every creature of God holds a share… Firstly, according to Islam, the world’s wealth belongs to all mankind. Secondly, the real master of all wealth is only God Almighty. Man is therefore not free to dispose of his wealth in any way he deems fit; what he can do is circumscribed by God’s prescribed limits.” [11]
“Everyone should collectively work to improve the nation’s well-being and support each other in that effort. The next stage is that, despite all the good works, they are still left feeling that nothing has been done. And in that spirit, they must continue to remind one’s fellow beings the importance of helping and caring for the weak and the poor and continue such exhortations up to the last breath of their lives.”[12]
This is in reference with the system of Zakat and alms. It does not provide a coherent mechanism to attack prevalent economic exchanges in any practical manner as I discuss later.
Exploitation of Slaves
“Role Played by Slave Labour in World Economy”[13]
There are parts of this section that I wholeheartedly agree with. Yes, exploitation of slaves has been a competitive advantage for the economies who employed slave labor. This can simply be explained as a surplus where the slave owner had all the negotiating power and the slave had little to no negotiating power. Hence, the slave owner was able to get away with most of the surplus, most of the time.
I am skipping over the discussion on enslaving prisoners of wars because that seems counterproductive to the main thesis of my concerns. Hence, I do not agree with enslaving prisoners of wars, but that’s a discussion for another day.
An outline of the economic system
“The Islamic Economic System… Upholding Individual Enterprise… Voluntary Efforts to Rectify Inequities… Wealth Created by God for the Benefit of All… Balance Between Individual Freedom and State Intervention” [14]
This part outlines the vision of an ideal Islamic economy by Mirza Basheerud Din. In no way does his vision radically rethink the exchange relationships between market participants. The survival of market participants remains deeply dependent on self-interest based surplus accumulation. Surplus accumulation that can be termed an immoral pursuit due to the inherent exploitative aspects of it.
The reader may say that he is suggesting voluntary efforts as a balance between individual freedom and state intervention. This is entirely inadequate. The problem is not the amount of donations. The fact that charitable donations have to be made in the first place shows that someone in a better negotiating position was able to deny someone else fair compensation. The entire charitable pursuit, in this way, causes moral dilemmas, while Mirza Basheerud Din wishes to fix the system in this manner.
Measures for wealth redistribution
“It is clear that a person who follows the Islamic teachings would shun above motivations. Any wealth that he might accumulate would be devoted to noble causes that help to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor, instead of widening it. Such a person has little reason to covet wealth for selfish ends. A man’s desire to earn money arises out of basically three impulses.
1) To meet his own legitimate needs;
2) Beyond meeting the personal needs, he might desire money with a view to helping mankind and earning God’s pleasure; or
3) He might seek money to fulfil vain desires described above i.e., personal pleasure, self-indulgence, pride or plain greed.
It goes without saying that only persons driven by the third impulse would stoop to unfair and foul means, and would exploit others. This situation would be avoided if the first two reasons for earning money were dominant. Anyone who earns just enough to satisfy his own needs or who spends the excess wealth for helping others and other good deeds would not hurt other Individuals or his nation in general.” [15]
I had high hopes from this section given the title. However, there are a few key problems with this passage. Religion has seldom made much of a difference in this. The Ahmadiyya Jamaat, for example, does not dedicate all it’s funds to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor. If we suppose that the Ahmadis were to use all their funds to gulf this divide, even then it is impossible to do so. This reminds one of the story of Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa was a very rich King. He decided to perform pilgrimage to Makkah. On the way he distributed alms most generously. This had the opposite effect from what he probably intended as gold prices crashed in the region causing inflation of all other commodities [16]. On his way back from pilgrimage, Mansa Musa saw the plight of people due to his charity and tried to ameliorate the situation by attempting to borrow back the gold he had spent as alms. Nevertheless, the region continued to suffer for a decade.
I am only using the case of Mansa Musa because it is so vivid. In a number of cases, charitable contribution can create more problems than it solves.
Concept of Riba/Interest in Ahmadiyya
“Prohibition of Interest (Riba)… Islam adopts a rather broader definition of interest. According to the Islamic definition, certain transactions, which are generally not considered to fall within its purview, nevertheless fall within its domain and are therefore prohibited. Islam defines interest as any transaction where the profit is guaranteed. Therefore all trusts, [local monopolistic arrangements] which are set up to guarantee profit by destroying competition, are to be considered un-Islamic. For example, suppose fifteen or twenty large businesses in a country got together and formed a monopoly that fixed prices and restricted competition. Then a commodity that sells for (say) two rupees in a competitive market could sell at an artificial monopolistic price of (say) five rupees. Since everyone would be colluding to sell the commodity at five rupees, consumers would not be able to shop around for the best price and would have no choice but to pay the higher price.” [17]
Some of the transactions where profit is guaranteed, but are obviously overlooked by Mirza BasheerudDin because he is looking at interest as beneficial to rich people only, include salaries due for employees. Employees are not generally hired with a flexible profit contract. Even piece rate workers are guaranteed a revenue without material cost for finishing a piece. Lawyers are often given retainers. Land owners often obtain rent. Rental properties were not haram in Muhammad’s time, so it would be interesting to inquire Mirza BasheerudDin how he reached this unique definition of interest. This is perhaps the most radical aspect of his lecture, and yet it seems hurried.
It is clear that he believes in a free market where bargaining is possible. What he seems to have missed out is that collusion can happen to protect weaker market participants from more powerful participants. Take labor unions for example, their purpose is to protect the weak laborer from the exploitative tendencies of large industries. However, according to Mirza BasheerudDin’s theory they would be doing haram by raising and fixing the price of labor for the large industry.
In the initial part of the passage Mirza BasheerudDin mentioned: “If one were to examine the list of the world’s richest men, it would be found that it was made up of mostly people who owe their rise to interest. They start with a small amount of capital but soon establish a reputation of creditworthiness, which allows them to leverage their small personal capital many times over via bank borrowing and overdrafts, thereby becoming super-rich in just a few years.”[17]
This is most interesting because Islam does not forbid debt. If the Islamic debt system of Qarz-e-Hasana was used by a person of means, or some sort of crowdfunded qarz-e-hasana was employed, one could get away with massive growth while paying no interest on it.
Similarly, ability to obtain properties and equipment on lease/rent acts in a similar fashion to what Mirza BasheerudDin mentions about interest. However, we do not see him denouncing any of that.
Inheritence as wealth redistribution
“Islamic Law of Inheritance”[18]
Somehow Mirza BasheerudDin thinks that the Islamic method of distribution of inheritance leads to more equitable wealth distribution. His arguments here do not make any sense to me. If a person has only one child [as family sizes in more developed and economically prosperous nations are getting lower], how does Islamic Law of inheritance help wealth redistribution? Perhaps he has the idea of more than 5 children per family that used to be the case in the subcontinent a century ago.
Even though the argument doesn’t appeal to reason, it is better to provide evidence as well. So while Mirza BasheerudDin says: “The reason for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few rich people in Europe and the United States is that, under the British law, the eldest son can inherit the entire property, and in the United States, a person may pass on his entire wealth to just a single son. Thus, other children, parents, brothers and sisters, or the spouse may be left with nothing.” We have the example of the Rockefeller family that didn’t deny their estate to any offspring. They are united and super rich now in their seventh generation [23].
Governments should pay clergy
“Responsibilities of the Government… Therefore, dhil-qurba refers to people dedicated to the service of religion and according to Islam this class of people has a definite claim on the State’s resources.”[19]
It is obvious from here that Mirza BasheerudDin wants countries to support his cause, but what’s the economic benefit of it? The passage is silent on that.
“Islam introduced the system of zakat, which is a 2.5% annual tax on wealth that is held in the form of gold, silver, currency or other assets for a period of more than a year. The proceeds of this tax are used to promote welfare of the poor.”[18]
One can group this with other measures of tax based wealth redistribution. This phenomena has been studied extensively. A recent research paper by Nathaniel Hendren from Harvard University shows the welfare loss due to such measures [20].
Interestingly, whereas the Ahmadiyya economic model argues for greater individual freedoms balanced by taxation for redistribution, the most successful model today is the Nordic economic model which has a greater share of government owned economic activity. Particularly in Norway, the state owns 37% of all shares on the Oslo stock market [21]. The results are so vivid that amongst all OECD nations, only Norway has a young generation which is getting richer [22].
The remaining part of the lecture argues against Soviet communism, so I’ll avoid that.
We depend on economic transactions for our survival and our life. A system that teaches mistrust, self-interest and surplus accumulation cannot possibly influence people towards pious and noble pursuits. However, we see no denunciation of the system or proposal for an alternate system in the writing. All we see are small fixes here and there which do not create a coherent sustainable solution.
This leaves one to wonder about how seriously religion has considered the moral aspects of the prevalent economic system. Perhaps religion has become a tool for amassing surplus without putting in any economic effort as hinted in [19]. Whatever the case, it is clear that true nobility cannot be achieved as a participant of an economic system where one party must exploit the other to obtain surplus for survival. It is also clear that religion offers no help in overcoming this moral dilemma.
[1] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/islamic-economic-system/
[2] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/
[3] Boulding, K. E. (1969). Economics as a moral science. The American Economic Review, 59(1), 1-12.
[4] Ibn Khaldun (1967) Muqaddimah – An Introduction to History, translated from Arabic by Franz Rozenthal, Bollingen Series XLIII, 1980 print, Vol. II, Princeton University Press
[5] https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/04/21/how-crude-oil-prices-go-negative-and-why-it-could-get-very-ugly-for-alberta.html
[6] https://www.mcknights.com/news/analysis-ppe-costs-increase-over-1000-during-covid-19-crisis/
[7] Basedau, M., Gobien, S., & Prediger, S. (2018). The Multidimensional Effects of Religion on Socioeconomic Development: A Review of the Empirical Literature. Journal of Economic Surveys, 32(4), 1106-1133.
[8] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/sovereignty-allah-implications-authority/
[9] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/types-economic-systems-world/
[10] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/teachings-islam-establishing-just-society/
[11] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/teachings-islam-establishing-just-society/islamic-injunction-use-wealth/
[12] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/teachings-islam-establishing-just-society/exhortations-uplifting-poor-necessity-national-progress/
[13] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/measures-end-institution-slavery/
[14] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/islamic-economic-system/
[15] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/islamic-economic-system/control-incentives-accumulation-wealth/
[16] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47379458
[17] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/barriers-illegitimate-accumulation-wealth-islam/
[18] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/measures-adopted-shariah-achieve-just-economic-system/
[19] https://www.alislam.org/book/economic-system-islam/responsibilities-of-government/
[20] Hendren, N. (2016). The policy elasticity. Tax Policy and the Economy, 30(1), 51-89.
[21] https://www.economist.com/special-report/2013/01/31/the-rich-cousin
[22] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180709-unlike-most-millennials-norways-are-rich
[23] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/26/david-rockefeller-jr-shares-4-secrets-to-wealth-and-family.html
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Ẹ káàbọ̀ - This week’s language of the week: Yorùbá #2 !

Ẹ káàbọ̀ - This week’s language of the week: Yorùbá #2 !

The origin of the Yorùbá people

In the beginning, Olódùmarè (also known as Ọlọ́run, Olúwa, Elédùmarè), the All Powerful ruled the Ọ̀run, a place that is nowadays called the heavens. He then created Ayé, that would be the Earth, but it was dry and empty. Ọlọ́run then created the first type of Òrìṣà, the Òrìṣà fúnfún. To their leader, Ọbatala, he gave the task of making the Ayé alive. Ọbatala went to see Orunmilá, son of Olódùmarè and God of Destiny and Prophecy (Orunmilá is a key deity on the Ifá divination system), to seek help in the task given to him. Orunmilá told Ọbatala to get a gold chain that would reach the Ayé, a white hen, a black cat, a snail’s shell filled with sand, palm nuts and to put it all inside a bag.
He got everything and hanged the gold chain from the edge of the Ọ̀run and started to climb down. When he got to the end of the chain, he realized that there was a small distance yet to be covered. Orunmilá told him to take the shell and drop the sand into the land underneath him. He also told him to drop the hen and the cat at the same time. When the hen hit the ground, it started to scatter the land all around, creating hills and valleys, lands in general. Ọbatala then jumped into one of the hills and created the city of Ifẹ̀, the cradleland of all Yorùbá people.
He dug a hole into the ground and planted the palm nuts. A palm tree started to grow instantly and palm nuts fell into the ground, making other palm trees. Ọbatala decided to rest under the palm trees with the black cat as his company.
Many months passed and Ọbatala grew bored of his routine, deciding he would create other living beings to interact. He dug more into the sand and found clay, he started to mould the form of the beings. Under the sun, he took a break under a palm tree and decided to make palm wine. He drank mug after mug of wine and became very drunk. He went back to his task, but because he was drunk, he made a lot of imperfected figures. Not realizing that his drunkenness affected the figures, he asked Olódùmarè to breathe life into them.
When Ọbatala woke up and saw how the figures were imperfect and deformed, he was disappointed at himself and started to care about these people, becoming their guardian (this is why Ọbatala is guardian of the disabled). They started to build huts, then houses and soon made Ifẹ̀ into a prosperous land. By this time, other òrìṣàs had been created and they were very happy with the figures Ọbatala created, except for Olókun the òrìṣà that ruled everything under Ọ̀run. She was mad because Ọbatala changed her domain a lot but didn’t ask for permission and didn’t consult her. When Ọbatala went to visit his kin at Ọ̀run, Olókun sent huge waves to flood all of his creation. Some people manage to run to the hills and escape from the water. At the top of the hills, they met Ẹ̀sù, another òrìṣà. To Ẹ̀sù, they confessed what was happening in Ayé. Being the òrìṣà of communication, Ẹ̀sù said to them that in order for their pleas to reach Ọbatala, they should perform a sacrifice, so àṣẹ (vital energy) could make him deliver the message. So the people sacrificed goats, sheeps and other animals. Ẹ̀sù went to Ọbatala and told everything. Ọbatala hastily dropped through the gold chain and casted a lot of spells that soothed the waters and managed people to go back to their places. Our oral history has many of variations and you might find it in different versions.

The Ọ̀yọ́ empire

Yorùbá people today are decended from the Ọ̀yọ́ empire, the empire came about when Ọ̀yọ́ - a Yorùbá subgroup conqured the other Yorùbá kingdoms, it was at a time when ‘Yorùbá’ didn't exist as an identity it was only until much later that the subgroups began to call themselves ‘Yorùbá’ . Despite having shared oral history of decending from Oduduwa and speaking dialects of the same language (èdè Yorùbá) the various subroups had seperate identities.
Ọ̀yọ́’s strength was their military might. This is partly due to geography; because Ọ̀yọ́ is situated north of the forest line in a more open grass plane landscape there isn’t the tsetse fly that made rearing animals difficult also the grassy plains allow for ample space for horses to be kept. Thanks to these factors Ọ̀yọ́ developed a calvary with armoured soldiers. This gave the kingdom the edge over its neighbours. Ọ̀yọ́'s dominance is why the standard Yorùbá dialect is based of Ọ̀yọ́.
Importance of agriculture
Several Yorùbá metropolitan areas exist today from medieval times such as Abẹokuta, Ibadan, Ogbomọṣọ and countless more. Although the Yorùbá were a highly urbanised people, agriculture remained important. Yorùbá towns and cities were usually established along important railroads or trade routes unlike other civilisations’ settlements which are typically situated on waterways - because of this reliance on agriculture was greater in the sense of Yam (Iṣu) and Cassava (Gbágudá) than on fisheries etc. you may notice this in the food section.

Yorùbá beliefs in the Diaspora

Yorùbá beliefs are scattered all across Latin America. In Cuba, it composes the Santeria or Regla del Ocho, a syncretic religion that mixes the african costumes, spirituality and beliefs with catholic saints. The same would happen in Brazil, but differently from other parts of the world, the country would receive a major influx of Africans coming from a wide range of regions in the continent. Yorùbá beliefs compose one of the three “nations” of the candomblé religion and spirituality: The Ketu nation (Yorùbá), the Jeje nation (Fon-Ewe), and the Kongo-Angola Nation (Mukongo and Mbundu). In Cuba, the yorùbá language gave birth to the Lucumí ethno-linguistic group that speaks what is a dialect of the language. In Brazil, Yorùbá has incorporated into the portuguese dialect spoken in Bahia, where in its capital it was granted the status of immaterial patrimony of the state and official language. The practitioners of candomblé use yorùbá inside the terreiros to chant to the Orisa and to communicate, in a lesser manner. Although Yorùbá is one of the three nations, it is probably the most famous one, often overlapping the other two in the regard of naming. You can easily find a Kongo-Angola terreiro referring to their deities as orisa and not Nkisi, although both are used freely and carry the same meaning. In Yorùbáland, there were originally more than 300 orisa, but in the diaspora only a few were able to be maintained. The most common ones are Osun, Osoosi, Ogun, Sango, Yemoja, Osunmare, Esu, Obatalá, Osain, Obá, Osagian, Oyá, Obaluaiyê, Omolu, Logun Èdè, and Ewá.

Yorùbá Food | Oúnjẹ Yorùbá

As with most of Nigeria, Yorùbá meals are heavily based on a starch with meat and vegetables. It is very common in West Africa if not eating rice, to eat a starch based dough (swallow) with a soup/sauce.
Sauces are vegetables combined in a meat or fish broth plus another base (exception pepper soup which is purely meat broth). The most common bases are:
  1. Mucilaginous (okro, ọgbọ́no, ewedu)
  2. Palm oil/palm fruit/nut butter (epo pupa)
  3. Red pepper - trifecta of tomato, onion and red scotch bonnet (tòmátì, àlùbọ́sà àti ata rodo)
  4. Oil rich seed (ẹ̀gúsi, ọgbọ́no)

Staples consist of:

  • Starch: tubers, rice or beans
Meat and fish
  • Ẹran: ẹran àti pọnmo, inú ẹran, ẹran igbe, meat with all entrails and even the skin, includes domesticated and wild (bushmeat)
  • Ẹyin adìẹ tàbí àwo : chicken or guinea fowl eggs
  • Ẹja tútù gbígbé - Fish: fresh and dried - fresh catfish, dried cod (stock fish imported from Norway) and local varieties
  • Edé pupa - dried and smoked prawn (called crayfish) used as seasoning
Vegetables: leafy veg (efo) , tomatoes, peppers - both fresh and dry (ata tutù àti gbígbẹ)
Seasonings: Irú (fermented locust bean - like soy), efinrin (African basil), Curry powder, bouillon
Oil: Epo pupa - Palm oil, Òróró - groundnut oil
Local delicacies
  • Àmàlà àti ọbẹ̀ abula - dried yam flour dough with jute leaf and beans sauce
  • Ọbẹ̀ Iṣapa - hibiscus leaf sauce
  • Ikọ́kọrẹ́ - stewed water yam in palm oil and peppers
  • Asún - roasted peppered goat meat

Classics eaten all over Yorùbáland
  • Ìjẹ̀bú gaàrí - fermented cassava flakes from Ìjẹ̀bú region
  • Ìrẹsì ọfada àti ayamáṣe - fermented local short grain rice with green habanero sauce)
  • Ẹ̀fọ́ ríro - Steamed stewed vegetable sauce with meat and/or fish
  • Ẹ̀wà agoyin - boiled olóyin (honey) beans with thick peppery shrimp paste originates from Benin/Togo

Ẹ̀fọ́ ríro

Universal (eaten by most ethnic groups in the region)
  • Ata díndín - mother sauce, tomato stew
  • Àkàrà - fried bean cake
  • Ọ̀ọ̀lẹ̀ (Moin moin) - Steamed bean patty
  • Iṣu - Yam
  • Ẹ̀gúsi - wild Melon seed soup
  • Ìrẹsì jollof - Jollof rice
  • Ọbẹ̀ Ọgbọ́no/Ilá - wild mango seed/okra sauce
  • Pepper soup - Uziza pepper and African nutmeg broth with catfish or assorted meat including offal.
  • Dòdò - fried plantain

Yorùbá Attire

Yorùbás are famed for parties aka "Ówàńbẹ" (it is there). Yorùbá males have even garnered infamy for this on social media of "Yorùbá demon". At parties Aṣọ ẹbí (family cloth) is most commonly worn, a tradition adopted by other peoples in the South due to its popularity. The fabric is sold usually in 5 yard bundles with the matching fìlà (hat) for males and gèlè (headdress) for females so that friends and family match kind of like a uniform.
All outfits are tailor-made to fit perfectly and although the fabric is the same the style and execution vary wildly. Yorùbá clothes are gender sensitive.
  • Modern textiles
Swiss lace, George, Ankara (African wax print) - if for females usually stoned.
  • Traditional textiles
Aṣọ òkè - heavy loom woven cotton, artisanal made, takes weeks to commission - nowadays due to its expense usually reserved for weddings and funerals
Adirẹ - indigo tie dye, everyday fabric, fallen out of favour for ankara
Womens' attire
ìró àti bubá pẹ̀lú gèlè àti ipẹlẹ̀ - wrapper and blouse with headdress and sash
Mens' attire
Agbádá - flowing regal overgarment with wide arm holes to gather fabric and heavily embroidered chest piece
Aṣọ àwòtẹ́lẹ̀ (Undergarments) - fitted double cuff long sleeve shirt and tailored trousers ṣòkòtò
Fìlà - Yorùbá cap that comes in different varieties
Abétí ajá - hat with flaps lit. "like dog’s ears"

Yorùbá bride and groom in traditional attire

Counting System

An interesting feature of the Yorùbá language is the 20 based counting system (which is not uncommon in African languages)
Ogún, 20, is the basic numeric block.
Ogójì, 40, (Ogún-meji) = 20 multiplied by 2 (èjì). Ogota, 60, (Ogún-mẹ̀ta) = 20 multiplied by 3 (ẹ̀ta). Ogorin, 80, (Ogún-mẹ̀rin) = 20 multiplied by 4 (ẹ̀rin). Ogorun, 100, (Ogún-màrún) = 20 multiplied by 5 (àrún).
16 (Ẹẹ́rìndílógún) = 4 less than 20.
17 (Etadinlogun) = 3 less than 20.
18 (Eejidinlogun) = 2 less than 20.
19 (Okandinlogun) = 1 less than 20.
21 (Okanlelogun) = 1 increment on 20.
22 (Eejilelogun) = 2 increment on 20.
23 (Etalelogun) = 3 increment on 20.
24 (Erinlelogun) = 4 increment on 20.
25 (Aarunlelogun) = 5 increment on 20.

Twin Culture

An aspect of Yorùbá culture that must be mentioned is the belief on twins. The Yorùbá have the highest birthrate of twins. There's even a deity of twins "òrìṣà ìbejì". And it is believed that the first twin sends the second twin into the world to test if it is safe when the second twin cries it signals the older twin to come out. Therefore in Yorùbá culture the older twin is actually the youngest! The name Táíwò/ Táíyé meaning ‘taste the world’ is given to first twins as the first to taste life while Kẹ́hìndé meaning ‘the one who comes second’ is given to the second twin.

Yorùbá Art

The Yorùbá people are responsible for one of Africa’s finest artistic traditions which remain influential today. Yorùbá artistic traditions include: metal casting, pottery, beadwork on crowns, staffs, royal attire, royal scepters, masquerades, carvings, textiles etc. Art was mostly associated with the royal courts of the several kingdoms that make up Yorùbáland. Apart from court commissioned artwork, Yorùbá art was related to shrines in honour of the large pantheon of deities ‘ọ̀rìṣà’.
Yorùbá casting and metalwork:

The sculptures in this picture are from Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Osun State, Nigeria - Ifẹ̀ was seen as the cradle of the Yorùbá people and the cultural capital. They were unearthed in 1938 and are believed to represent Oonis (rulers of Ifẹ̀). While the sculptures are often referred to as ‘‘bronzes’’ they are actually made of copper and its alloys.
Yorùbá crowns (adé)

Various types of crowns worn by Ọbas around Yorùbáland
All Yoruba ade (crowns) are made with a frame which would be completely covered on the inside and outside. The glass stone and coral ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ (beads) were weaved onto the surface to create symbols and patterns out of the thousands of tiny ìlẹ̀kẹ̀. Since the last 175 years the adé have been conical in form but different royal families have different styles. The bird at the peak of the adé is a reference to mythology. The bird, chicken to be precise, was present at creation as the creature that distributed the land with its feet - the way chickens scratch grains with their feet.

Yoruba culture has always had a tradition of manufacturing and proudly wearing the native textiles. An example of a textile attributed to Yoruba culture is Adire eleko which uses a tie dye technique. The women would traditionally use cassava paste to repel the indigo leaving stained and unstained areas.

Lagos | Ìlú Èkó

From around 8AD Yoruba kingdoms started to emerge. The most populous today being Èkó, a costal settlement founded by the Awori subgroup in the thirteenth century and was also inhabited by the Edo. The name ‘Èkó’ means ‘Oko’ in standard Yoruba which means farm. The city is now known as ‘Lagos’ meaning ‘Lagoons’ in Portuguese because of the landscape the Portuguese merchants witnessed. The city is now the 18th largest with a population of 21 million (in the state all together). The kingdom of Eko has become a cultural capital for Nigeria and a tourist hotspot in the region. The following section is a write up by a Lagosian in Yorùbá (with images captions) highlighting what it means to live in the largest Yorùbá city.

Ilé ayé nílùú Èkó

(life in Lagos city)

Èkó (Lagos) tumọ̀ si "àwọn adágún (Lakes)" ni èdè Portugese, èdè ti àwọn àlejò àkọ́kọ́ ti Yúróòpù ti a mọ̀ lati dé si ibùgbé náà, ti àwọn Awori àti Bini ń gbé ṣáájú.
(Lagos means "lakes " in Portuguese, the language of the first European immigrants known to visit the settlement, then already inhabited by the Awori and Bini).

Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos
Ilú Èkó ni olú-ìlú Nàìjíríà lati ọdún 1914 títí di ọdún 1991, nígà tì wọn rọ́pò rè pèlú ilú "Abuja " (Federal Capital Territory), ilú tí a kọ́ ni pàtàkì fún irú idì bẹ́ẹ̀
(Lagos was the capital city of Nigeria from 1914 until 1991, when it was replaced as Federal Capital Territory by the planned city of Abuja, built specifically for such purpose).
Èkó, ìlú kẹ́fà tí ó tóbi jùlọ ni àgáyé nípasẹ olúgbe ìlú. Ó je ibi tí a mọ́ fún àwọn ibi ìsinmi etí òkun rẹ̀, igbesi-aye alẹ́ àti iṣẹ́-ṣíṣe. Bótìlẹj̀ẹpe ó jẹ ìpínle tí ó kéré jùlọ ni orílẹ̀-èdè Nàìjíríà, Ìlú Èkó ṣí jẹ ibi tí ó ni àwọn èèyàn púpọ̀ jùlọ àti olùdari ilé-iṣẹ́ íṣòwò.
(Lagos is the sixth most populated city in the world. It is well known for the amazing nightlife, beaches and activities.)
Èyí jẹ àwòrán tí ó rewà nínú àwọn agbègbè tí ó dára ni Ìlú Èkó. Mó nifẹ̀ẹ́ àwọn àwòrán yìí tí Èkó ni alẹ́
( This is one of the beautiful areas in Lagos. I love these pictures of Lagos at night).

Civic Centre Towers, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Ibo ni mo tí lè gbádùn ara mi ni Èkó?

(Where are the cool places to have fun in Lagos?)
Ọpọlọpọ àwọn ibi tí ó lẹwà làti àkókò tí ó dára ni Ìlú Èkó. Ìlú Èkó bùkún pẹ̀lú àwọn etí òkun tí àwọn èèyàn púpọ̀ máa ń lọ làti ṣe fàáji. Èyi ni díẹ̀ nínú àwọn ibi fàáji ni Ìlú Èkó (There are so many fun places to have a good time in Lagos. I have just a few listed here)

La campagne beach resort, Lekki, Lagos
Èyí jẹ àyè ẹlẹwà làti ni àkókò tí ó dára pẹ̀lú ẹbí àti àwọn àyànfẹ́. Gbádùn ẹsẹ̀ rẹ nínú iyanrìn àti ìtura afẹ́fẹ́ tutù làti omi òkun (This is a nice place to have fun with family and friends. Enjoy your feet in the sand and the cool breeze from the ocean).

The Lekki conservation centre, Lekki, Lagos
Ibi yìí tún jẹ àyè tí ó dára làti lọ ṣe fàáji. Ìwọ yo sí gádùn ara rẹ̀. Gbádùn ohùn ìṣẹ̀dá mímọ́ ni àyíká rẹ̀ (This is another amazing place to have fun. Enjoy the pure sound of nature around you).

Takwa Bay Beach

Èyí ni àyè ìtura mìíràn làti sinmi (This is another interesting place to have a lot of fun and chill).

Àwọn oúnjẹ ni ìta Ìlú Èkó

(Street food in Lagos)

Bọọlì - Roasted Plantain
Èyí ni ọ̀gẹ̀dẹ̀ (palantain) sísun tí àwọn ará Ìlú Èkó ń pè ni "bọọlì". “Bol” jẹ ọkan nínú àwọn àyànfẹ́ mi, ò jẹ ádùn púpọ̀. Igádùn rẹ dára jùlọ pẹ̀lú ẹ̀pà (groundnuts). This is roasted plantain, it’ s one of my favourites. It goes best with groundnuts

Suya - spicy kebeb originating from the Hausas
Èyí ni ẹran (meat) yíyan pẹ̀lú ata gbígẹ (dried pepper) tí Àwọn ará Ìlú Èkó ń pè ni "suya ". Gbogbo ènìyàn fẹràn "suya" àti pé ò wa ni gbogb agbègbè ni Èkó. Mo nífẹ̀ẹ́ "suya" mi pẹ̀lú àlùbọ́sà. This is glrilled meat with pepper. It’ s ubiquitous in Lagos especially in the evenings. I love my suya with sliced onions!

Ewa agoyin
Èyí ni ẹ̀wà síse tí àwọn ará Ìlú Èkó ń pè ni "Ewa agoyin". Ó dára jùlọ pẹ̀lú búrẹ́dì (bread) àti díndín (fried pepper). This is beans but Lagosians call it “ Ewa Agoyin ”. Ewa Agoyin is famous for its good relationship with bread.

Àwọn ààyè ọjà ni Èkó

Èyí ni díẹ̀ nínú àwọn ibi ọjà ni Ìlú Èkó (Catch a glimpse of what a Lagos market looks like).

Typical market in Lagos
Àwọn ènìyàn tún ń tà àwọn ọjà wọn lórí títì

A street hawker plying her trade

Àwọn agbègbè ọlọrọ̀ ni Ìlú Èkó

(Exclusive neighbourhoods in Lagos)
Àwọn àwòrán tó wà nísàlẹ̀ ṣàfihàn ẹwà díẹ̀ nínú àwọn ààyè ọlọrọ̀ ni Èkó. Àwọn ibi wọ̀nyí jẹ àwọn ibi tí ó fani mọ́ra. The images below show exclusive areas in Lagos.
A suspension bridge linking Ikoyi to Lekki which are opulent areas in Lagos

Victoria Island, Lagos

Àwọn agbègbè tálákà tún wà ni Èkó

(The slums in Lagos)
Àwòrán tó wà nísàlẹ̀ ṣàfihàn àwọn agbègbè tálákà tó wà ni Èkó. Àwọn agbègbè wọ̀nyí kọ́ dára làti wo. The image here shows the slums in Lagos.


Where to learn more

As much as Yorùbá is a fascinating language with an immense history and cultural impact on the world, you may be shocked to learn that the language has been predicted to face extinction before the turn of the century. This is the preventable fate of all Nigerian languages (apart from Hausa) and is well recognised by academics and institutions including UNESCO.
This is a direct result of lack of intergenerational transmission. Due to the colonialist’s introduction of English, the Yorùbá have since turned to the West with English as a lingua franca and have abandoned their language, indigenous religion and associated customs. There is a misconception that there is no longer economic, cultural or spiritual benefit from passing on native languages (of Nigeria). Consequently, in the diaspora many Yorùbá people (especially the younger generations) struggle to communicate in Yorùbá and mix it with English, such people may also not be strong in writing and reading Yorùbá because of its orthology despite the simplicity of the grammar.
In addition, speaking native languages in schools was admonished by corporal punishment in colonial times. Since independence, native language instruction has never been widespread in Nigeria or any other country where Yorùbá is an official language, neither is there any incentive from the Government or the people to change the status quo. However, attitudes especially in the diaspora are changing.
How can you be a part of the change...
  • Join Nigerianfluency and the discord - this is open to all language learners and friends.
  • Have a look at part 1 if you haven't already.
  • Stay tuned and participate in our AMA with Yorùbá linguist, Fulbright and Chevening scholar, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún - champion of Yorùbá language online.
  • If you ever visit Lagos (or a Nigerian restaurant) make sure to taste some foods listed above! Order in Yorùbá if you can.
  • Start a discussion below with any questions, opinions or comments you might have, we would love to hear what you think! Hopefully this has given a cultural context to anyone wondering whether to learn Yorùbá - a language inseparable from it's culture.

to u/Hidros, u/binidr and u/WTechGUY for helping in making this post!

O dáàbọ̀!

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