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Sudan - Religion

The population is approximately 26 million, according to the 2008 census. The Culture and Information Ministry estimates that 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Almost all Muslims are Sunni, although there are significant distinctions between followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders. In addition, there are small Muslim minorities, including Shia and the Republican Brothers, based predominantly in Khartoum, and a growing, yet still small, percentage of Salafists.

The Culture and Information Ministry estimates that Christians make up 3 percent of the population. Christians primarily reside in Khartoum, the north, and the Nuba Mountains. It is unclear whether these numbers include residents of Southern Sudanese origin whose citizenship status remains under review. Khartoum’s significant Christian population decreased with the migration of many Christians of southern heritage to South Sudan.

There are very small but long-established groups of Orthodox Christians in Khartoum and other cities, including Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox. There are also Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities, largely made up of refugees and migrants, in Khartoum and the east. Other smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian (Apostolic) Church, Sudan Church of Christ, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church of the Sudan, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Culture and Information Ministry indicates that less than 1 percent of the population adheres to African traditional religious beliefs. Some Christians and Muslims also adhere to some aspects of traditional belief.

Islam made its deepest and longest lasting impact in Sudan through the activity of the Islamic religious brotherhoods or orders. These orders emerged in the Middle East in the twelfth century in connection with the development of Sufism, a mystical current reacting to the strongly legalistic orientation of orthodox Islam. The orders first came to Sudan in the sixteenth century and became significant in the eighteenth. Sufism seeks for its adherents a closer personal relationship with God through special spiritual disciplines. The exercises (dhikr) include reciting prayers and passages of the Quran and repeating the names, or attributes, of God while performing physical movements according to the formula established by the founder of the particular order. Singing and dancing may be introduced. The outcome of an exercise, which lasts much longer than the usual daily prayer, is often a state of ecstatic abandon.

A mystical or devotional way (sing., tariqa; pl., turuq) is the basis for the formation of particular orders, each of which is also called a tariqa. The specialists in religious law and learning initially looked askance at Sufism and the Sufi orders, but the leaders of Sufi orders in Sudan have won acceptance by acknowledging the significance of the sharia and not claiming that Sufism replaces it.

The principal turuq vary considerably in their practice and internal organization. Some orders are tightly organized in hierarchical fashion; others have allowed their local branches considerable autonomy. There may be as many as a dozen turuq in Sudan. Some are restricted to that country; others are widespread in Africa or the Middle East. Several turuq, for all practical purposes independent, are offshoots of older orders and were established by men who altered in major or minor ways the tariqa of the orders to which they had formerly been attached.

The oldest and most widespread of the turuq is the Qadiriyah founded by Abd al Qadir al Jilani in Baghdad in the twelfth century and introduced into Sudan in the sixteenth. The Qadiriyah's principal rival and the largest tariqa in the western part of the country was the Tijaniyah, a sect begun by Ahmad at Tijani in Morocco, which eventually penetrated Sudan in about 1810 via the western Sahel. Many Tijani became influential in Darfur, and other adherents settled in northern Kurdufan. Later on, a class of Tijani merchants arose as markets grew in towns and trade expanded, making them less concerned with providing religious leadership. Of greater importance to Sudan was the tariqa established by the followers of Sayyid Ahmad ibn Idris, known as Al Fasi, who died in 1837. Although he lived in Arabia and never visited Sudan, his students spread into the Nile Valley establishing indigenous Sudanese orders, the Majdhubiyah, the Idrisiyah, the Ismailiyah, and the Khatmiyyah.

Much different in organization from the other brotherhoods is the Khatmiyyah (or Mirghaniyah after the name of the order's founder). Established in the early nineteenth century by Muhammad Uthman al Mirghani, it became the best organized and most politically oriented and powerful of the turuq in eastern Sudan. Mirghani had been a student of Sayyid Ahmad ibn Idris and had joined several important orders, calling his own order the seal of the paths (Khatim at Turuq--hence Khatmiyyah). The salient features of the Khatmiyyah are the extraordinary status of the Mirghani family, whose members alone may head the order; loyalty to the order, which guarantees paradise; and the centralized control of the order's branches.

The Khatmiyyah had its center in the southern section of Ash Sharqi State and its greatest following in eastern Sudan and in portions of the riverine area. The Mirghani family were able to turn the Khatmiyyah into a political power base, despite its broad geographical distribution, because of the tight control they exercised over their followers. Moreover, gifts from followers over the years have given the family and the order the wealth to organize politically. This power did not equal, however, that of the Mirghanis' principal rival, the Ansar, or followers of the Mahdi, whose present-day leader was Sadiq al Mahdi, the great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, al Mahdi, who drove the Egyptian administration from Sudan in 1885.

Most other orders were either smaller or less well organized than the Khatmiyyah. Moreover, unlike many other African Muslims, Sudanese Muslims did not all seem to feel the need to identify with one or another tariqa, even if the affiliation were nominal. Many Sudanese Muslims preferred more political movements that sought to change Islamic society and governance to conform to their own visions of the true nature of Islam.

One of these movements, Mahdism, was founded in the late nineteenth century. It has been likened to a religious order, but it is not a tariqa in the traditional sense. Mahdism and its adherents, the Ansar, sought the regeneration of Islam, and in general were critical of the turuq. Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, a faqih, proclaimed himself to be Al Mahdi al Muntazar ("the awaited guide in the right path," usually seen as the Mahdi), the messenger of God and representative of the Prophet Muhammad, not simply a charismatic and learned teacher, an assertion that became an article of faith among the Ansar. He was sent, he said, to prepare the way for the second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus) and the impending end of the world. In anticipation of Judgment Day, it was essential that the people return to a simple and rigorous, even puritanical Islam. The idea of the coming of a Mahdi has roots in Sunni Islamic traditions. The issue for Sudanese and other Muslims was whether Muhammad Ahmad was in fact the Mahdi.

In the century since the Mahdist uprising, the neo-Mahdist movement and the Ansar, supporters of Mahdism from the west, have persisted as a political force in Sudan. Many groups, from the Baqqara cattle nomads to the largely sedentary tribes on the White Nile, supported this movement. The Ansar were hierarchically organized under the control of Muhammad Ahmad's successors, who have all been members of the Mahdi family (known as the ashraf). The ambitions and varying political perspectives of different members of the family have led to internal conflicts, and it appeared that Sadiq al Mahdi, putative leader of the Ansar since the early 1970s, did not enjoy the unanimous support of all Mahdists. Mahdist family political goals and ambitions seemed to have taken precedence over the movement's original religious mission. The modern-day Ansar were thus loyal more to the political descendants of the Mahdi than to the religious message of Mahdism.

A movement that spread widely in Sudan in the 1960s, responding to the efforts to secularize Islamic society, was the Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan al Muslimin), founded by Hasan al Banna in Egypt in the 1920s. Originally it was conceived as a religious revivalist movement that sought to return to the fundamentals of Islam in a way that would be compatible with the technological innovations introduced from the West. Disciplined, highly motivated, and well financed, the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Brotherhood, became a powerful political force during the 1970s and 1980s, although it represented only a small minority of Sudanese. In the government that was formed in June 1989, following a bloodless coup d'état, the Brotherhood exerted influence through its political expression, the National Islamic Front (NIF) party, which included several cabinet members among its adherents.

The Interim National Constitution (INC) and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally enforced legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom. The INC cites Islamic law as a source of legislation in the country, and the official laws and policies of the government and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) favor Islam. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. Official ambivalence about religious freedom often resulted in individual cases of abuse and mistreatment. In October the security services detained, and ultimately deported, several foreign English teachers on suspicion of proselytizing. There were credible reports that state governments and local authorities razed two churches. President Bashir and other senior leaders asserted the country should adopt an Islamic constitution that strengthened Islamic law.

The law punishes conversion from Islam to another religion by imprisonment or death, although the government did not charge anyone with the crime during the year. By law, a person convicted of conversion has an opportunity to recant. The law does not explicitly ban proselytizing, but the vaguely worded apostasy law criminalizes both apostasy and acts that encourage apostasy. The penalty for blasphemy and “defamation” of Islam is up to six months in prison, flogging, and/or a fine. Under the government’s interpretation of Islamic law, Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women, but a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts to Islam.

Public order laws, based largely on the government’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, are in force in Khartoum State and prohibit indecent dress and other “offences of honor, reputation, and public morality.” The vaguely worded law grants the special public order police and judges wide latitude in arresting and passing sentence on accused offenders. The state-mandated curriculum requires all schools, including private schools operated by Christian groups, to teach Islamic education classes from preschool through the second year of university. Public schools must provide religious instruction to non-Muslims, but some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes. Private schools, including Christian schools, must hire a special teacher to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students are not required to attend those classes.

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Hostility toward predominantly Christian South Sudanese living in Sudan sometimes took the form of government intimidation and harassment. However, because of the link between ethnicity and religion, it was difficult to categorize these incidents specifically as religious intolerance.

Most non-Muslim groups refrained from public proselytizing because, under the vaguely worded apostasy law, the government could charge them with supporting apostasy. The government stepped up its efforts to prosecute suspected proselytizers. In October 2012 the security services detained several foreign English teachers on suspicion of proselytizing. Authorities held two individuals for several weeks before ultimately deporting them, along with several family members, without court proceedings. The instructors were members of an explicitly Christian organization and incorporated discussion of their faith into their language instruction, but firmly denied they were engaged in proselytizing. In early December 2012, the police arrested two Coptic priests and briefly detained a Coptic bishop for allegedly converting a Muslim woman to Christianity. In late December, the Coptic Church issued an apology for the incident, and called the actions of the two priests an “individual affair.”

By law, the justice minister can release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his prison term, in conjunction with a recommendation for parole from the prison director-general and a religious committee that consults with the Ministry of Guidance and Social Endowments to ensure that decisions comply with Islamic legal regulations.

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Page last modified: 05-01-2014 19:06:05 ZULU