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 (see Glossary).
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 (see Islamic Banking , ch. 3).
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 (see The Legal System , ch. 4).
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-- see Glossary),
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
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.
Data as of June 1991