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SUDAN. Islam entered the region of the Sudan, as it is known today, decisively in the sixteenth century CE. Today approximately 70 percent of Sudan’s 22 million people are Muslims, living in the northern two-thirds of Africa’s largest country. Non-Muslim minority peoples are found in the Nuba Mountains and southern Sudan where they follow indigenous animist religions, alongside or combined with various Christian denominations introduced during colonial times.

A distinctive cultural pattern of African Islam, grounded in Maliki observance and traditions, is practiced in Sudan. This spread from the west where African kingdoms had been islamized since the twelfth century. Islam also came from Egypt to the north, especially after the fall of Christian kingdoms in Nubia in the fifteenth century. The spread of Islam southward along the Nile had been effectively blocked by these christianized Nubian kingdoms, dating from 350-550. The first Muslim state in Sudan was the Funj Sultanate, established at Sinnar in 1504.

Arabization and islamization followed relatively quickly after the fall of the last Nubian Christian kingdom, but a distinctive Sudanese culture and character was retained, with the Nubians maintaining their language and distinctive culture to the present day. Islam spread southward along the Nile and westward into Kordofan and Darfur. In Sinnar the Funj, also known as the “Black Sultanate,” attracted holy men from the Hejaz and from Egypt who introduced Islamic theology and jurisprudence and established the first religious courts. Pilgrims traveling across the vast trans-Saharan pilgrimage routes to Mecca were another source of continuous contact and influence of West African Islam on regions to the east, including the Sudan.

By the nineteenth century Islam was well established in the Sudan after three centuries of contact and infusion of religion and culture from West Africa, Egypt, and Arabia. Widely described by historians as the “century of Islamic revolution,” the nineteenth century was also the era of greatest imperial adventure in the Sudan, beginning with the Turco-Egyptian invasion in 1821 and culminating in conquest by the British in 1898. These events shaped the nation of Sudan and its modern borders and prepared an important place for Islam in the governance of the country.

Modern Sudanese history is usually said to begin at the time of the Ottoman Turkish-Egyptian invasion of 1821, which resulted in the occupation and control of the Sudan until 1881. Known as the Turklyah, this rule was a form of Turkish administrative methods and bureaucracy, managed by Egyptian and local officials and enforced by the Turco-Egyptian army. Invasion and occupation of the Sudan was no easy task, with resistance initially mounted by the Shayqiyah and Ja’alin peoples and kept alive in periodic revolts throughout the Turkiyah. Turkish rule is recalled even today by Sudanese as harsh, with oppressive taxes, forced conscription of soldiers, and slaving expeditions that were imposed on generally egalitarian peoples unacquainted with the notion of a state or its human and material demands. There was no general rising until the sixth decade of Turkish occupation, when Muhammad Ahmad of Dongola, known as the Mahdi, unified this resistance and led a successful revolt that ended Turco-Egyptian rule.

Across Sudanic Africa a number of successful jihad movements flared in the nineteenth century in response to foreign intervention; they succeeded in establishing the ideal of Islamic government in sultanates among the Fulani and in Sokoto and Kanem-Bornu. The most famous of these was undoubtedly that of the Sudanese Mahdi, whose dramatic resistance not only ended Turkish rule but also prevented the English from becoming their immediate successors, despite the doomed effort of General Charles Gordon. The events that occurred between 1881 and 1898, known as the Mahdiyah, have become a significant part of both British and Sudanese history. From the standpoint of the British, the defeat of Gordon at Khartoum and the reconquest of the Sudan were among the low and high points in their imperial history; they have also captured a lasting place in Western consciousness in its longer historical confrontation with Islam. From the standpoint of Sudanese Muslim history, the Mahdiyah represents the triumph of Islamic resistance over foreign domination.

Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, received a traditional religious education in northern Sudan and joined the Sammaniyah order after studying with the grandson of its founder, Muhammad Sharif Nfir al-Da’im. He practiced a vigorous asceticism and strongly criticized the immorality and corruption of the political and social leaders of his day. His own zeal blended with the traditional Islamic concept of an “Expected One” (comparable to the Judaic and Christian idea of a Messiah); this, combined with a society in crisis, led Muhammad Ahmad to proclaim himself the Mahdi in May 188 1. His divine mission included a calling his people to arms against the Turkish and Egyptian occupiers and purifying society by introducing a comprehensive Islamic governance. He built support rapidly in the northern and western Sudan among diverse ethnic groups by using the idea of Islamic community or ummah. By January 1885 the Mahdi’s forces seized Khartoum, killing General Charles Gordon, who was serving both Egyptian khedival and British imperial interests in the Sudan; this set the stage for revenge and the conquest of the Mahdist Sudan by the British empire.

Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi died soon after the fall of Khartoum and was succeeded by Caliph Abdallahi alTa’ishi, who governed the nascent Islamic state from Omdurman and based its practice on the idea of a revived Muslim community living in the ways of the earliest converts to Islam in Medina. A puritanical and zealous movement, it continued its military campaigns to extend the dar al-Islam southward by attacking and attempting to convert the animist peoples in the Nuba Mountains and Bahr al-Ghazal regions. This period is recalled in the south as the beginning of the intrusion of northern Muslim governments in successive efforts to dominate southern Sudan religiously and politically. In the north the Mahdist state, as the only successful antiimperialist Islamic republic in Africa at the time, is recalled as a time of glory and early nationalism born in the context of a renewed Islam. More than one observer has noted the early beginnings of modern Islamic revival in Sudanese Mahdism-especially the parallel with the Islamic revolution in Iran almost exactly a century later in 1979. The fall of Mahdism and the military conquest of the Sudan took place in 1898 under the command of General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, whose gunboats and Gatling guns overpowered the swords of the Mahdist Ansar. The massacre at Karreri battlefield outside Omdurman marked the symbolic and real defeat of Mahdism. [See also Mahdi; Mahdiyah.]

The powerful impact of the Mahdist revolution on Sudanese Islam and political life can be seen in the continuing influence of the al-Mahdi family. Muhammad Ahmad’s son `Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi rose to the difficult role of family, religious, and political leader of the Ansar at the dawn of colonialism in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The British kept him under close surveillance until World War I, when he and other religious leaders declared their allegiance to the Crown and not to Constantinople. The Ansar political organization developed into one of the nationalist parties, the Ummah Party, which was led by `Abd al-Rahman’s son Siddiq. Siddiq’s son, Sadiq al-Mahdi, has twice served as prime minister of Sudan, demonstrating the persistent influence of this Muslim family. [See Ansar and the biography of Mahdi, al-Sadiq al-.]

Paralleling and often conflicting with this tradition of state-organized Islam is the Sufi tradition. By the nineteenth century the process of islamization was in its fourth century in the Sudan, with populist Sufi orders acting as its main agents. With their style of religious performance in the form of dhikr (“remembrance” of God), and the use of drumming, chanting, and dancing led by a local shaykh, the Sufis blended with and enhanced local traditions without threatening them. The Sufi brotherhoods-the most significant in the Sudan are the Qadiriyah, Sammaniyah, Khatmiyah, Sanusiyah, and Shadhiliyah-are generally egalitarian and decentralized in organization; thus they eschew the formalism of such Islamic institutions as shari-`ah courts or state-supported official interpretations issued by the Wamd’. With the introduction of the state, bureaucracy, courts, and the official administration of Islam, the local Sufi leaders were undermined; in response they withheld their support from the state. At times the state further antagonized the orders by declaring them to be outside the boundaries of orthodox Islam because of their veneration of local holy men and unrestrained modes of worship. The Sufi orders are still popular today, and this tension remains a constant feature of the dynamics of the spread of Islam, its institutional establishment in society, and its relationship to the state. [See also Qadiriyah; Khatmiyah; Sanusiyah; and Shadhiliyah. ]

With the reconquest and pacification of Mahdist forces came the creation of a colonialist state, constructed as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan between 1898 and 1902. The attitude toward Islam in the post-Mahdist Sudan was a careful one, specifically seeking to control the religion without crushing it and to administer Muslims through their own institutions, though under British rule. The task was one of erecting semi-autonomous Islamic institutions and finding reliable agents to govern in the conquerors’ behalf. Carefully selected `ulama’ were placed strategically within a new structure that was on one hand Muslim and familiar and on the other distinctly foreign and colonial.

A “Mohammedan” legal establishment was developed that was to have its own system of courts, appeals, and jurisdiction separate from the English-derived civil and criminal courts and law. The Sudan Mohammedan Law Courts were made competent to decide matters affecting the personal status of Sudanese Muslims-for example, questions of marriage, divorce, child custody and support, inheritance, wills, and religious bequest or wagf. The grand qadi of the shari’ah courts was appointed by the governor-general of the Sudan and operated under the direct authority of a colonial official, the legal secretary. The grand qadi was granted the right to issue Judicial Circulars that would regulate decisions and procedures of the courts. In practice, these circulars functioned to determine the course of development of Islamic law in Sudan throughout the twentieth century, until islamization of the law took place in 1983. Significant developments of this period included reform in the law of divorce, permitting judicial divorce for women in instances of proven harm or abuse; expansion of women’s rights to maintenance after divorce and custody of children under specified circumstances; confirmation in the 1930s of the right of the marriage guardian (usually the father) to contract a marriage for a woman (however, the sole right of the woman to consent in marriage was ultimately recognized by circulars issued in the 1960s); and the regulation of waqfs naming family members so as to avoid favoring particular relations and thus violating Qur’anic laws of inheritance. (For a complete translation of the Sudanese Judicial Circulars, 1902-1979, see C. Fluehr-Lobban and H. B. Hillawi, 1983.) Analysis of the circulars suggests that the role of the `ulama’ under colonialism was not an entirely subordinate one, and that independence of thought and action provided by the mechanism of the Judicial Circulars was in fact pursued by them as the only legitimate class of the guardians of the faith under foreign rule.

Outside this realm of official Islam, the more traditional Muslim organizations continued to exert an influence within their precolonial constituencies, such as the Mahdist followers, the Ansar, or members of the powerful religious orders like the Khatmiyah sect of the Mirghani family. Although certainly subdued during the initial decades of imperial rule, these religious orders grew more political and evolved into nationalist parties, notably the Ummah Party of the Mahdist sect and the Unionist Party, many of whose followers were affiliated with the Khatmiyah. The Ummah Party was formed in 1945 and advocated an independent Sudan, while the Unionist Party, founded in 1944, supported union with Egypt. This basic political difference combined with the traditional rivalry between these two most powerful Muslim sects and left them bitter enemies, unable to collaborate and divided on nearly every issue from pre-independence times to the present. [See Ummah-Ansar.]

The Muslim Brotherhood, a new type of politicoreligious movement founded in Egypt in 1928, spread its influence to neighboring Sudan in the 1940s, and a branch was established there early in the 1950s. While the two giants of Islamic mobilization, the Ummah and Unionist parties, battled for power at the time of independence in 1956, the Muslim Brotherhood did not begin to exert its influence until the mid-1960s, when its Islamic Charter Front entered electoral politics and attempted to build a mass organization. From the earliest days the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan has been Hasan al-Turabi, originally from the University of Khartoum’s faculty of law and more recently an internationally recognized leader of resurgent Islam. [See Muslim Brotherhood, article on Muslim Brotherhood in the Sudan; and the biography of Turabi.]

For most of its post-independence period Sudan has been governed by secular nationalist and militarist regimes that left the question of Islam and Muslim institutions formally out of the political arena. Nonetheless, the issue of the status and future of Islam was very much part of political agendas, whether of those seeking a secular, multinational, and multireligious state and an end to the civil war between north and south Sudan, which emerged after independence, or of those seeking a greater role for Islamic government and law within what they see as a predominantly Muslim country.

This situation changed decisively during the military regime of Ja’far Nimeiri (1969-1985), whose initially secular nationalist policies turned dramatically toward Islamist rule with his 1983 presidential decree that Islamic law would be the sole and comprehensive law for the entire country. Angry and feeling betrayed, southern Sudanese organized as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and resumed a civil war between north and south that had broken out first in the 1950s. Nimeiri’s use of the shari`ah as a weapon of political repression against his enemies resulted in abusive application of the hudud (“to the limit”) penalties. It is estimated that at least two hundred victims had limbs amputated during the two years (1983-1985) of this punishment. Popular displeasure with the turn of the Nimeiri government was heightened by his regime’s execution of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the elderly leader of the Republican Brothers. Within a matter of weeks a popular revolution and coup d’etat overthrew Nimeiri and restored democracy to the country in 1985. [See Republican Brothers.]

After a transitional period Sadiq al-Mahdi was elected prime minister a second time and served from 1986 to 1989. However, he failed to settle either of the critical issues facing the country: ending the war in the south and modification of the shari’ah as state law. A second coup d’etat in 1989 brought an Islamist regime to power, formally headed by General `Umar al-Bashir but supported by the Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi.

The issue of the proper place of religion, especially Islamic government and law, is central to the future political stability and national unity of Sudan. For a multiethnic, multireligious country the issue of the role of Islam in state and society is crucial. The alternatives of a secular, democratic model or a committed Islamic model stand as two possible outcomes in a time of civil conflict.


Affendi, Abdelwahab El-. Turabi’s Revolution: Islam and Power in the Sudan. London, iggi. An insider’s view of the ideology and rise to a powerful position in Sudanese politics of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its chief proponent, Hasan al-Turabi. Placing the Sudanese movement within a larger framework of Islamic revival el-Affendi traces the Muslim Brothers from a marginal place in a dominantly secular Sudan after independence to an increasing Islamist tendency that became dominant after islamization of law in 1983 and the 1989 military regime of `Umar al-Beshir. Turdbi’s role in the latter events is profound.

`Abd al-Rahim, Muddathir. Imperialism and Nationalism in the Sudan: A Study in Constitutional and Political Development, 1899-1956. Oxford, 1969. A view of the reception of English colonial rule and the development of Sudanese nationalism in response to it from the perspective of an indigenous scholar. Written before the ascendency of the Islamist trend, the volume concentrates on the role of secular nationalism in the road to independence.

Beshir, Mohammed Omer. Revolution and Nationalism in the Sudan. New York, 1974. A thematic treatment of the rise of Sudanese nationalism that takes into account the dissatisfaction of the south with the political configuration of the Sudan after independence. Mohammed Omer Beshir is among a handful of northern Muslim scholars to take an early, serious interest in the political concerns of southern Sudanese and the implications for national unity.

Collins, Robert O. Shadows in the Grass: Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956. New Haven, 1983. The definitive study by an American historian of the role of English colonial rule in the southern Sudan, documenting a policy of separation and economic underdevelopment mandating a dependency on the northern merchants and politicians. It is essential reading for understanding the immediate historical background to the current conflict.

Daly, M. W. Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 18981934. Cambridge, 1986. See remarks following next item, below. Daly, M. W. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1934-1956 Cambridge, 1991. This two-volume series presents a comprehensive survey of the political and economic history of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan based on extensive archival research in Sudan, the United States, and especially in the Sudan Archive at Durham University. With an obvious dependence upon colonial records, the historical point of view is Anglocentric and might be balanced by reference to histories of the same period written from a Sudanese perspective. Nevertheless, the volumes represent a detailed description of the Condominium years.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. Islamic Law and Society in the Sudan. London, 1987. A historical and legal anthropological study of the shari`ah as applied law in twentieth-century Sudan, with court observations and case material from 1979-1980. Chapters cover the personal status law applied before islamization in 1983 including marriage, divorce, maintence and child custody, the status of women, inheritance, and a chapter on Islamist movements. Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, and Hatim Babiker Hillawi. “Circulars of the Shari’a Courts in the Sudan (Manshurat el-Mahakim el-Shari’a fi Sudan), 1902-1979.” Journal of African Law 27.2 (1983): 79140. The Judicial Circulars (Manshurat) were a mechanism introduced by the English to amend or modify the application of share ‘ah law in the Sudan. They constitute a unique documentary history of the practice and functioning of Islamic law during colonial times and after independence until islamization of law in 1983. A historical introduction precedes the complete translation and transcription of the Circulars issued by Sudanese grand qadis from 1902 to 1979 and cover matters of marriage guardianship and consent, divorce, child custody and inheritance reforms, as well as regulations and procedures of the shariah courts.

Voll, John O., ed. Sudan: State and Society in Crisis. Bloomington, 1991. One of the best collections of essays to explore the political crisis in the Sudan that was precipitated in the context of islamization of law and state in the 1980s and 1990s. Neglect of the south, failure of economic development plans, and coping with large refugee populations are issues reviewed together with the better known political development of the Islamist trend.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sudan/

  • writerPosted On: August 16, 2017
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