Sudan Table of Contents

Somewhat more than half Sudan's population was Muslim in the early 1990s. Most Muslims, perhaps 90 percent, lived in the north, where they constituted 75 percent or more of the population. Data on Christians was less reliable; estimates ranged from 4 to 10 percent of the population. At least one-third of the Sudanese were still attached to the indigenous religions of their forebears. Most Christian Sudanese and adherents of local religious systems lived in southern Sudan. Islam had made inroads into the south, but more through the need to know Arabic than a profound belief in the tenets of the Quran. The SPLM, which in 1991 controlled most of southern Sudan, opposed the imposition of the sharia (Islamic law).

Islam: Tenets and Practice

Sudanese Muslims are adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam, sometimes called orthodox, by far the larger of the two major branches; the other is Shia, which is not represented in Sudan. Sunni Islam in Sudan is not marked by a uniform body of belief and practice, however. Some Muslims opposed aspects of Sunni orthodoxy, and rites having a non-Islamic origin were widespread, being accepted as if they were integral to Islam, or sometimes being recognized as separate. Moreover, Sunni Islam in Sudan (as in much of Africa) has been characterized by the formation of religious orders or brotherhoods, each of which made special demands on its adherents.

Sunni Islam requires of the faithful five fundamental obligations that constitute the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar, the shahada or profession of faith is the affirmation "There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is his prophet." It is the first step in becoming a Muslim and a significant part of prayer. The second obligation is prayer at five specified times of the day. The third enjoins almsgiving. The fourth requires fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan. The fifth requires a pilgrimage to Mecca for those able to perform it, to participate in the special rites that occur during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.

Most Sudanese Muslims who are born to the faith meet the first requirement. Conformity to the second requirement is more variable. Many males in the cities and larger towns manage to pray five times a day--at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sundown, and evening. Only one of these prayer times occurs during the usual working day of an urban dweller. A cultivator or pastoralist may find it more difficult to meet the requirements. Regular prayer is considered the mark of a true Muslim; it is usually accomplished individually or in small groups. Congregational prayer takes place at the Friday mosque when Muslims (usually men, but occasionally women separately located) gather, not only for the noon prayer, but to hear readings and a sermon by the local imam. Muslims fast during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, the time during which the first revelations to Muhammad occurred. It is a period during which most Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours. The well-to-do perform little work during this period, and many businesses close or operate on reduced schedules. Because the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan occurs during various seasons over a period of a decade or so. In the early 1990s, observance appeared to be widespread, especially in urban areas and among sedentary Sudanese Muslims.

Historically, in the Muslim world almsgiving meant both a special tax for the benefit of the poor and voluntary giving to the needy, but its voluntary aspect alone survives. Alms may be given at any time, but there are specific occasions in the Islamic year or in the life of the donor when they are more commonly dispensed. Gifts, whether of money or food, may be made on such occasions as the feasts that end Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca, or in penance for some misdeed. These offerings and others are typically distributed to poor kin and neighbors.

The pilgrimage to Mecca is less costly and arduous for the Sudanese than it is for many Muslims. Nevertheless, it takes time (or money if travel is by air), and the ordinary Sudanese Muslim has generally found it difficult to accomplish, rarely undertaking it before middle age. Some have joined pilgrimage societies into which members pay a small amount monthly and choose one of their number when sufficient funds have accumulated to send someone on the pilgrimage. A returned pilgrim is entitled to use the honorific title hajj or hajjih for a woman.

Another ceremony commonly observed is the great feast Id al Adha (also known as Id al Kabir), representing the sacrifice made during the last days of the pilgrimage. The centerpiece of the day is the slaughter of a sheep, which is distributed to the poor, kin, neighbors, and friends, as well as the immediate family.

Islam imposes a standard of conduct encouraging generosity, fairness, and honesty. Sudanese Arabs, especially those who are wealthy, are expected by their coreligionists to be generous.

In accordance with Islamic law most Sudanese Muslims do not eat pork or shellfish. Conformity to the prohibitions on gambling and alcohol is less widespread. Usury is also forbidden by Islamic law, but Islamic banks have developed other ways of making money available to the public.

Sunni Islam insists on observance of the sharia, which governs not only religious activity narrowly conceived but also daily personal and social relationships. In principle, the sharia stems not from legislative enactment or judicial decision but from the Quran and the hadith--the accepted sayings of Muhammad. That principle has given rise to the conventional understanding, advocated by Islamists, that there is no distinction between the religious and the secular in a truly Islamic society. In Sudan (until 1983) modern criminal and civil, including commercial, law generally prevailed. In the north, however, the sharia, was expected to govern what is usually called family and personal law, i.e., matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In the towns and in some sedentary communities sharia was accepted, but in other sedentary communities and among nomads local custom was likely to prevail--particularly with respect to inheritance.

In September 1983, Nimeiri imposed the sharia throughout the land, eliminating the civil and penal codes by which the country had been governed in the twentieth century. Traditional Islamic punishments were imposed for theft, adultery, homicide, and other crimes. The zealousness with which these punishments were carried out contributed to the fall of Nimeiri. Nevertheless, no successor government, including that of Bashir, has shown inclination to abandon the sharia.

Islam is monotheistic and insists that there can be no intercessors between an individual and God. Nevertheless, Sudanese Islam includes a belief in spirits as sources of illness or other afflictions and in magical ways of dealing with them. The imam of a mosque is a prayer leader and preacher of sermons. He may also be a teacher and in smaller communities combines both functions. In the latter role, he is called a faqih (pl., fuqaha), although a faqih need not be an imam. In addition to teaching in the local Quranic school ( khalwa), the fagih is expected to write texts (from the Quran) or magical verses to be used as amulets and cures. His blessing may be asked at births, marriages, deaths, and other important occasions, and he may participate in wholly non-Islamic harvest rites in some remote places. All of these functions and capacities make the faqih the most important figure in popular Islam. But he is not a priest. His religious authority is based on his putative knowledge of the Quran, the sharia, and techniques for dealing with occult threats to health and well- being. The notion that the words of the Quran will protect against the actions of evil spirits or the evil eye is deeply embedded in popular Islam, and the amulets prepared by the faqih are intended to protect their wearers against these dangers.

In Sudan as in much of African Islam, the cult of the saint is of considerable importance, although some Muslims would reject it. The development of the cult is closely related to the presence of the religious orders; many who came to be considered saints on their deaths were founders or leaders of religious orders who in their lifetimes were thought to have baraka, a state of blessedness implying an indwelling spiritual power inherent in the religious office. Baraka intensifies after death as the deceased becomes a wali (literally friend of God, but in this context translated as saint). The tomb and other places associated with the saintly being become the loci of the person's baraka, and in some views he or she becomes the guardian spirit of the locality. The intercession of the wali is sought on a variety of occasions, particularly by those seeking cures or by barren women desiring children. A saint's annual holy day is the occasion of a local festival that may attract a large gathering.

Better-educated Muslims in Sudan may participate in prayer at a saint's tomb but argue that prayer is directed only to God. Many others, however, see the saint not merely as an intercessor with and an agent of God, but also as a nearly autonomous source of blessing and power, thereby approaching "popular" as opposed to orthodox Islam.

Islamic Movements and Religious Orders
Indigenous Religions

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress