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The Coming of Islam - 640-1315

Although Christianity had been introduced into Sudan in the third or fourth centuries, around AD 640, Islam came to Sudan. A merchant class of Arabs established themselves as economically dominant in feudal Sudan. The coming of Islam eventually changed the nature of Sudanese society and facilitated the division of the country into north and south. Islam also fostered political unity, economic growth, and educational development among its adherents; however, these benefits were restricted largely to urban and commercial centers.

Contacts between Nubians and Arabs long predated the coming of Islam, but the arabization of the Nile Valley was a gradual process that occurred over a period of nearly 1,000 years. Arab nomads continually wandered into the region in search of fresh pasturage, and Arab seafarers and merchants traded in Red Sea ports for spices and slaves. Intermarriage and assimilation also facilitated arabization.

Traditional genealogies trace the ancestry of most of the Nile Valley's mixed population to Arab tribes that migrated into the region during this period. Even many non-Arabic-speaking groups claim descent from Arab forebears. The two most important Arabic-speaking groups to emerge in Nubia were the Jaali and the Juhayna. Both showed physical continuity with the indigenous pre-Islamic population. The former claimed descent from the Quraysh, the Prophet Muhammad's tribe. Historically, the Jaali have been sedentary farmers and herders or townspeople settled along the Nile and in Al Jazirah.

The nomadic Juhayna comprised a family of tribes that included the Kababish, Baqqara, and Shukriya. They were descended from Arabs who migrated after the thirteenth century into an area that extended from the savanna and semidesert west of the Nile to the Abyssinian foothills east of the Blue Nile. Both groups formed a series of tribal shaykhdoms that succeeded the crumbling Christian Nubian kingdoms and that were in frequent conflict with one another and with neighboring non-Arabs. In some instances, as among the Beja, the indigenous people absorbed Arab migrants who settled among them. Beja ruling families later derived their legitimacy from their claims of Arab ancestry.

Although not all Muslims in the region were Arabic-speaking, acceptance of Islam facilitated the arabizing process. There was no policy of proselytism, however, and forced conversion was rare. Islam penetrated the area over a long period of time through intermarriage and contacts with Arab merchants and settlers. Exemption from taxation in regions under Muslim rule also proved a powerful incentive to conversion.

For several centuries Arab caliphs had governed Egypt through the Mamluks. In the thirteenth century, the Mamluks seized control of the state and created a sultanate that ruled Egypt until the early sixteenth century. Although they repeatedly launched military expeditions that weakened Dunqulah, the Mamluks did not directly rule Nubia. In 1517 the Turks conquered Egypt and incorporated the country into the Ottoman Empire as a pashalik (province).

Ottoman forces pursued fleeing Mamluks into Nubia, which had been claimed as a dependency of the Egyptian pashalik. Although they established administrative structures in ports on the Red Sea coast, the Ottomans exerted little authority over the interior. Instead, the Ottomans relied on military kashif (leaders), who controlled their virtually autonomous fiefs as agents of the pasha in Cairo, to rule the interior. The rule of the kashif, many of whom were Mamluks who had made their peace with the Ottomans, lasted 300 years. Concerned with little more than tax collecting and slave trading, the military leaders terrorized the population and constantly fought among themselves for title to territory.





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