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Islam in Sudan

If you have spent time in other Muslim societies, you may notice some difference between what you already know about the religion and what is described below.

One important distinction, which you'll notice if you spend any length of time with tribes outside the main cities, is that Islam in Sudan is not a single homogeneous set of religious principles. Rather, it has evolved into an intriguing blend of traditional Muslim teachings combined with pre-existing African customs.

For example, many tribes in the remoter regions of the country continue to carry amulets or talismans to ward off evil, whilst still reciting passages from the Qur'an (the Muslim holy book).

It is really worth making the effort to understand something about Islam before coming to North Sudan.

Besides helping to avoid the occasional faux pas, knowing a little about the fascinating religion will help you get that much more out of your trip to the country and really connect with the locals.

Within certain limits, ordinary Muslims in North Sudan are reasonably tolerant of other beliefs and traditions, although certain behaviour is likely to cause offence. For example, a man and woman kissing in public might be asked to leave a restaurant or a bus.

Dress is important in Islam and women should take particular care to dress modestly when out in public.

Characteristics of Islam

The fundamental aspect of the Muslim faith, and the most important thing to remember when learning about Islam, is that there are certain things in the religion that cannot be questioned. In fact, the very word ‘Islam’ means submission to, and acceptance of, God. It is derived from the Arabic verb aslama, meaning to surrender or to submit.

Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an was narrated by a single man — Prophet Mohammed — rather than several men over a number of generations. Most of it was written down by his companions whilst Mohammed was still alive. Because of all this, the word of God, as told to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel, is considered to be irrefutable. Anything within the revered Qur’an must, therefore, be followed by the devout Muslim, without exception. Unless one understands this essential facet of the Muslim faith, one cannot hope to comprehend the religion at all.

Another thing to remember about the religion is that, unlike the Western model of democracy, which is essentially secular, Islamic beliefs go hand-in-hand with government. They cannot be separated. Islam is intended to be a system of rules for all aspects of life, based on faith. Muslims believe that, since these rules originate from the direct word of God in the Qur’an, which cannot be questioned, it is not acceptable to create new laws that contravene them. This is where the belief in sharia law comes from, which still applies to North Sudan (although it has been relaxed for non-Muslims). In its true form, sharia (literally: ‘the way’) is a direct application to Muslim society of all rules found in the Qur’an.

It is this unwavering belief in God’s will that makes the submission to sharia law so irresistible to the devout Muslim. But this close marriage of State and religion has also been used as a way for unscrupulous dictators to justify their ascension to power.

The different strands of Islam

Almost all Muslims belong to one of two major denominations of the Islamic faith — either Sunni or Shi’a. The schism was a result of a disagreement over who would succeed Prophet Mohammed after his death. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a prominent companion of Mohammed, nominated Abu Bakr, who was Mohammed’s intimate friend and collaborator. Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph (leader of Islam).

But this choice was disputed by some of Mohammed’s other companions, who held that Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor.

Those who recognised Umar as legitimate successor became known as ‘Sunnis’, whilst those who recognised Ali as the legitimate line were known as ‘Shi’as’. Since Sudan is primarily a Sunni country, it is this aspect of the faith that we have concentrated on.


Sufism is a formation of the Sunni faith that is widely practiced in Sudan. The name comes from the Arabic for wool (suf), a reference to the simple woollen garments that the original adherents wore.

Sufism developed in response to the evolution of orthodox Islam more than a millennium ago, which was becoming increasingly formulaic and based on doctrine rather than spirituality.

At the heart of Sufi belief is the pursuit of spirituality over and above material artefacts. Sufis believe that the key to ascension is learning to love God and one’s neighbour, without consideration for any possible reward.

Sufi meditation and worship, known as zikr, is important in establishing a personal relationship with God. Communal ceremonies are widely used to bring devotees into a trance-like state, where they can communicate on a one-to-one basis with God.

There are different styles of Sufi worship, and it is well-worth trying to experience some of them if you get the chance. During some Sufi services, devotees rock backwards and forwards to a low chant. In others, worshippers spin frantically round in circles to the beat of a drum or other loud instrument.

Although Sufism is a noticeable part of Islam in North Sudan, only a minority of Muslims adhere to it. In fact, many of the more traditional adherents to the faith look down on Sufism, viewing it as contrary to the teachings laid out in the Qur'an.

The Five Pillars of Islam

In Sunni Islam, the devout Muslim must adhere to five principal duties, known as ‘the Five Pillars of Islam’. The eight ritual practices which make up the Shi’a branch of Islam substantially overlap with the Five Pillars, and so are not covered here.

The first pillar of Islam is that there is only one true God, and that no other is worthy of worship. On no level does Islam recognise any man as being of divine origin. Although Jesus Christ features prominently in the Qur’an, he is viewed as a messenger, rather than as the son, of God. Mohammed is considered by Muslims to be the last and greatest of all prophets but, again, he is seen as a messenger rather than anything more celestial.

The second pillar is the ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. When praying, the devotee must face in the direction of the Great Mosque at Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed and centre of the Islamic world. In North Sudan, as in other Muslim countries, you will find that many of the local mosques loudly broadcast the call to prayer at the designated times — early morning, just after midday, between 3 and 3.30 pm, in the evening just before sunset and about one hour after sunset. Prayers are an essential part of a Muslim’s life, but some flexibility can be given as to the timing of prayers, especially for those who are travelling.

It is interesting to note the prevalence of the prayer mat throughout North Sudan. Almost all companies — and many other organisations (such as hospitals and doctors’ surgeries) — have a communal prayer mat, often hanging on a rail, so that a devout Muslim can make use of it if he or she has the need.

The third pillar of Islam is the practice of alms-giving, or zakat. All Muslims who can afford it are expected to pay a portion of their income to help the poor and assist the spread of Islam. This usually amounts to 2.5% of the donor’s post-tax earnings for the year, although it can be as much as 10%. In many countries, the zakat fund is administered by local mosques, but in Sudan it is managed by national government.

The fourth pillar of Islam is the practice of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the famous pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is expected to make the pilgrimage, known as ‘the Hajj’, at least once in his or her lifetime. Before arriving at the boundaries of Haram, the holy precinct of Mecca, the pilgrim performs a ritual ablution to wash away the impurities of the world. The pilgrim then dresses in Ihram clothing, which consists of two white seamless sheets. When the pilgrim dies, it will be these clothes that he or she is buried in.

Prophet Mohammed

Prophet Mohammed is considered to be the last and greatest of all of the religion’s prophets. It was through him that the Qur’an was narrated. Despite this, many Muslims believe in the eventual coming of the Mahdi, a divinely-guided man who is destined to restore the true Islam (see following section). This apparent contradiction is explained in certain Islamic texts, which refer to the Mahdi as being subordinate to Prophet Mohammed. Others claim that the Mahdi is not a messenger of God, but simply the true descendant of the Prophet, who will lead Islam to triumph.

One of the gravest offences that anyone can commit in the presence of a Muslim is to insult the Prophet Mohammed or even to joke lightly about him.

The exact date of birth of Prophet Mohammed is not known for certain, but scholars suggest that it was around 570 AD. Mohammed’s main line of business was as a trader.

He is reported to have received his first vision from the Angel Gabriel at the age of 40, and continued to receive visions until his death, aged around 62. Reportedly, he was unable to read or write and so dictated the visions for others to record.

Islam and Women

In order to understand how women are treated under Islam, it is important to appreciate the historical context under which the Qur'an was transcribed. The Qur'an was written at a time when women were very much suppressed in society, and the passages that relate to how they should be treated were actually included in order to improve their lot.

Many of the points that follow concern restrictions about how Islamic women should behave, but there are also benefits that they enjoy under the faith. Upon marriage, the man has to promise to provide for his wife. This includes paying for the wedding ceremony and providing a place for them both to live. The man is also expected to make a large investment in jewellery, which offers some security to the woman in the case of divorce.

In terms of dress, almost all Islamic women wear the hijab headscarf when out in public. In fact, in 1991, the Sudanese government introduced a Public Order Law that required this. Although the law has never been repealed, it is less strictly enforced these days — and foreigners will certainly be exempt from it.

Similarly, the rest of a woman's body will be fully covered, so that no skin, beyond their hands and faces, can be seen. The full black veil (the niqab), popular in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is fairly rare in North Sudan. You will see it occasionally, though, especially in the east of the country.

Under Qur’anic law, a man can elect to have up to four wives at any given time. If he wants more wives than this, he first has to divorce his other wives. Women, on the other hand, are not permitted to take more than one husband. Technically, this is known as polygyny rather than polygamy, since only the man can take multiple partners and the woman cannot.

The custom of polygyny is slowly dying out and you will see that many of the younger generation do not practice it.

Whilst such polygyny appals some in the West, defendants of it often claim that it avoids social problems by making sure children always have a number of parents around.

There are also strict stipulations placed on the man to treat all of his wives equally and to provide adequately for them. Admittedly, according to some schools of Islam, the bare minimum of what the man must provide seems fairly undemanding: two handfuls of the staple diet of the country a day, plus something to cook it in. In the case of Sudan, this amounts to two handfuls of the beans known as fuul.

Islamic women are not permitted to marry non-Muslims, but the same restriction does not apply to men. The argument goes that children are more likely to follow the path of their father than that of their mother. Similarly, it is often argued that women are more likely to adhere to the beliefs of their husbands than the other way round.

Divorce in Islam is a much easier, and more accepted, process than divorce in many other religions, including most branches of Christianity. A controversial way for a man to divorce a woman still exists in Sudan, although it is no longer recognised under the national legal system. Under this practice, the man must say to his wife ‘talaq’ (‘I divorce you’) on three separate occasions. On the third time, the man and woman are no longer married.

Things are harder for a woman who wants to end a marriage under Islamic law. She must first seek the permission of her husband. If her husband refuses to give it to her, then she has some recourse through the Islamic courts and can seek a divorce via a fatwah, an edict handed down through an Imam. A common tactic employed by women who wish to divorce unwilling husbands is to start behaving badly and disobediently so that their husbands will want to leave them.

Women are expected to cook and clean in addition to their regular job (if they have one). In the cities, jobs involving heavy lifting are usually done by men. It is also often the men that go shopping in the markets.

It is expected that men riding on buses give up their seat for a woman, if not doing so means that the woman would be left standing.

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