Literary Reflections

'Sudan' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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The article outlines Sudanese history as background for Leila Aboulela's novel Minaret. The article by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Bilād al-Sūdān means “lands of the Blacks” in Arabic. It is a generic term for sub-Saharan Islamic Africa (also known as the Sahel) and has been the name of the modern nation since 1898. Islam entered Sudan in the sixteenth century C.E., and approximately 70 percent of Sudan's 25 million people today are Muslims, living mainly in the northern two-thirds of Africa's largest country. Non-Muslim minorities live in the Nuba Mountains and in southern Sudan and belong to indigenous religions and various Christian denominations introduced during colonial times. After twenty-two years of renewed civil war between the “Muslim” north and “Christian” south (1983–2005), sparked by the introduction of sharīʿah as national law, religious identity is politically contested as the country moves toward separation into north and south or toward a resolution of historic differences in a government of national unity. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed by the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in January 2005 in Nairobi, Kenya, after thirteen years of peace negotiations. The CPA provides for withdrawal of sharīʿah from non-Muslim areas anywhere in the country and is projected to resolve the longstanding issue of national unity through a referendum in 2011, with southerners voting for separation or for unity within the borders of Sudan drawn during British colonial rule from 1898 to 1956.

The distinctive cultural pattern of African Islam, grounded in in the Mālikī school of law and its traditions, that prevails in Sudan spread in from the west where African kingdoms had been Islamized since the twelfth century, and from Egypt to the north, especially after the fall of the Christian kingdoms in Nubia in the fifteenth century. For about seven centuries, from the fifth to the twelfth centuries C.E., Christian Nubia blocked the introduction of Islam through a unique treaty of nonaggression and trade known as the Baqṭ. The flexible Baqt—a word derived from Ptolemaic Greek pakton and/or Latin pactum—was by turns a peace treaty, a slave-trade accord and schedule of tribute payments, or a recognition of mutual political autonomy. The lands of the Baqt between the first and fifth cataracts (Aswan to Shendi) may have also been a refuge for fugitive slaves or rebels. The Baqt kept the peace between the Muslim north, toward Cairo, and the Christian south, toward the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Although there is no surviving text of the original Baqt, the Arab scholars al-Maqrīzī and al-Masʿūd report that the Nubian kings annually exported some 365 slaves to the Bayt al-Māl, the public treasury in Cairo. The delivery of slaves as soldiers and for domestic service followed the usual North African pattern, with the expectation of foodstuffs, wheat and barley, and cloth for the Nubians. Islam finally penetrated Nubia peacefully in the sixteenth century—late for North and West Africa—when Kenzi Muslim traders and preachers intermarried with Christian Danagla as the Christian kingdoms fell into decline.

The first Muslim state in Sudan, the Funj Sultanate, was established at Sinnar in 1504. Arabization and Islamization followed quickly after the fall of the Nubian Christian kingdom, but a distinctive Nubian culture and language was retained. Islam spread southward along the Nile while a separate migration of Muslims followed hajj and caravan routes from West Africa into Kordofan and Darfur. The Funj, also known as the “Black Sultanate,” attracted holy men from the Hejaz and from Egypt who introduced Islamic theology and sharīʿah and established the first religious courts. Pilgrimage routes to Mecca, following the vast system of trans-Saharan routes, were an important source of continuous contact and influence of West African Islam on Sudan.

By the nineteenth century, Islam was well established in Sudan through this infusion of religion and culture from West Africa, Egypt, and to a lesser extent, Arabia. The nineteenth century has been described by historians as the “century of Islamic revolution,” and it is not mere coincidence that it is also the era of greatest imperial adventure in Sudan, beginning with the Turco-Egyptian invasion in 1821 and culminating in the British conquest of 1898. These events shaped the nation of Sudan and its modern borders and prepared a defining place for Islam in the governance of the country.

Turkish Rule and Resistance, Mahdism, an Early Islamist State.

Modern Sudanese history begins with the Ottoman Turkish–Egyptian invasion of 1821, resulting in the occupation of Sudan until 1881. Known as the Turkīyah, this form of administration and bureaucracy was managed by Egyptian and local officials and enforced by the Turco-Egyptian army. Invasion and occupation of Sudan proved no easy task, with periodic revolts throughout the Turkīyah. Turkish rule is recalled even today by Sudanese as harsh, with oppressive taxes, forced conscription of soldiers, and slaving expeditions. However, there was no general rising until the sixth decade of Turkish occupation, when Muḥammad Aḥmad of Dongola, known as the Mahdī (the expected one), unified this resistance and led a successful revolt that ended Turco-Egyptian rule.

Across linguistically Sudanic Africa a number of successful jihadist movements flared in the nineteenth century in response to foreign intervention. They established the ideal of Islamic government in sultanates among the Fulani, and in Sokoto and Kanem-Bornu—ultimately becoming a part of the British colony of Nigeria—and in Darfur, destined to be a part of colonial Sudan. Among the most famous of these movements was that of the Sudanese Mahdī, whose resistance not only ended Turkish rule, but also for seventeen years prevented the English from colonizing the country. The period between 1881 and 1898, known as the Mahdīyah, is significant in British, Sudanese, and Western history. For the British, the defeat of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum and the reconquest of Sudan represent low and high points in their imperial history; for many Sudanese Muslims the Mahdīyah initiates their national history; in the West, it has a lasting place in the historical confrontation with Islam.

Muḥammad Aḥmad, the Mahdī, was religiously educated in a traditional khalwah (religious school) in northern Sudan and joined the Sammānīyah Sūf ī order after studying with the grandson of its founder, Muḥammad Sharīf Nūr al-Dāʿim. He practiced a vigorous asceticism and criticized the immorality and corruption of the political and social leaders of his day. His own zeal blended with the Islamic concept of an expected deliverer (comparable to the Judaic and Christian idea of a Messiah). Muḥammad Aḥmad proclaimed himself the Mahdī in May 1881. His divine mission included a call to arms against the Turkish and Egyptian occupiers and purification of society through comprehensive Islamic governance. His support grew rapidly in northern and western Sudan among diverse ethnic groups through his use of the idea of ummah (Islamic community). By January 1885 the Mahdī's forces seized Khartoum and killed General Gordon, thus setting the stage for revenge and the conquest of Mahdist Sudan by the British Empire.

The Mahdī died soon after the fall of Khartoum and was succeeded by Caliph (Khalīfa) Abdallahi al-Taʿishi, who ruled the nascent Islamic state from Omdurman following the ways of the earliest Muslims in Medina. A zealous movement, it continued its military campaigns to extend the Dār al-Islām (the abode of Islam) southward to the Nuba Mountains and Bahr al-Ghazal, attempting to convert the animists living there. This period is recalled in the south as the beginning of Muslim domination. This early form of Islamic revival presaged the move toward an Islamic state after 1983. The fall of Mahdism and the military conquest of Sudan occurred in 1898 under the command of General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, whose gunboats and Gatling guns overpowered the swords of the Mahdist Anṣār with a massacre of an estimated ten thousand Anṣār at Karreri battlefield outside Omdurman.

ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mahdī, son of the Mahdī, led the Anṣār during the early decades of colonial Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Kept under close surveillance until World War I, he and other religious leaders declared their allegiance to the Crown and not to Constantinople. The Anṣār developed into one of the nationalist organizations, the Ummah Party, led by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān's son Ṣiddīq. Ṣiddīq's son, al-Ṣādiq al-Mahdī, has served twice as prime minister of Sudan (1965–1969 and 1986–1989), demonstrating the persistent influence of this Muslim family.


Another case of indigenous state formation—distinct from that of the Nile Valley—followed the development of the sultanates of Sahelian West Africa. Islamic rule was established from the early seventeenth century in the region known as “the realm of the Fūr,” the dominant ethnic group, and forming the Fūr Sultanate with its capital at El Fasher. Controlling the lucrative “forty-days road” for trade with Egypt, and occupying the neighboring region of Kordofan for much of the eighteenth century, the sultanate of Darfur dominated western Sudan until it was conquered by Turco-Egyptian forces in 1874, a half-century after their initial invasion of Sudan. During the Mahdist period, a core group of the Anṣār al-Mahdī came from Darfur, especially from the Taʿaīsha Baqqārah, the ethnic group of the Mahdī's successor, Khalīfa Abdullahi ibn Muḥammad (d. 1899). Darfur regained some measure of independence under the last sultan, ʿAlī Dinār, who ruled from 1898 to 1916, when the English colonialists finally pacified the region and executed him (Lobban, Kramer, and Fluehr-Lobban, p. 75). The case of Darfur serves to refocus Sudanese historiography from a traditional north-south Nile Valley axis to an important but neglected west-east axis.

As peace negotiations ending the civil war between north and south were being finalized in 2003, rebel groups in Darfur—notably the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—mounted an offensive against the GoS in an effort to gain their share of political and economic representation in the central government. The GoS responded with a counteroffensive that was aided by irregular militias—later infamously known as the Janjawīd (raiders on horse- or camelback)—that led to raiding, ethnic cleansing, and international allegations of genocide. The Western press simplistically characterized the conflict as between government-backed “Arabs” and “Black” African Darfuris, while scholars noted the complexities of race, identity, and ethnic-ecological rivalries between the sedentary farming Fūr-Zaghawa and the pastoralist Māsālit and Baqqāra, to name only the major ethnicities. Unlike the north-south peace agreement, religion is not a factor in the resolution of the conflict, unless it emerges in a future redistribution of power and wealth among this historically marginalized region.

Sūfī Traditions.

The Ṣūfī tradition parallels and at times conflicts with state Islam. Populist Ṣūfī orders were the main agents of Islamization from the sixteenth century C.E. With their style of religious performance in the form of dhikr (remembrance [of God]), and the use of drumming, chanting, and dancing led by a local shaykh, the Ṣūf  īs blended with and enhanced local traditions without threatening them. In Sudan the most significant Ṣūfī brotherhoods are the Qādirīyah, Sammānīyah, Khatmīyah, Sanūsīyah, and Shādhilīyah. They are egalitarian and decentralized in organization and so eschew the formalism of such Islamic institutions as sharīʿah courts or state-supported official interpretations issued by the ʿulamāʿ. With the introduction of the colonial state and the official administration of Islam, the local Ṣūfī leaders were undermined; in response they withheld their support from the state. At times the state further antagonized the orders by declaring them to be outside the boundaries of orthodox Islam because of their veneration of local holy men and unrestrained modes of worship. However, both major post-independence parties—the Ummah of the Anṣār al-Mahdī and the Democratic Unionist Party of the rival Khatmīyah sect—are rooted in the Ṣūfī tradition. After the National Islamic Front—which had evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood and was led by Dr. Ḥasan al-Turābī—seized power in 1989, the Ṣūfī orders were recruited to the “Islamic project,” thus initiating an uneasy and unusual political collaboration whose ultimate outcome remains unclear. This move did serve to lessen the historical tension between “orthodox” or official state Islam and its deeply populist rival, the Ṣūfī orders.

The Colonial and Independent States.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was created after the pacification of Mahdist forces between 1898 and 1902. The attitude toward Islam was careful, seeking to control the religion and to administer Muslims through indirect rule, using their own institutions albeit under British rule. The British erected semiautonomous Islamic institutions, finding reliable agents to govern on their behalf. Carefully selected ʿulamāʿ were placed strategically within a new structure that was on one hand Muslim and familiar, and on the other, foreign and colonial.

A “Mohammedan” legal system, with its own system of jurisdiction, courts, and appeals, was separated from the English-derived civil and criminal courts and law. These courts adjudicated the personal status of Sudanese Muslims—marriage, divorce, child custody and support, inheritance, wills, and religious bequest (waqf). The Grand Qāḍī of the sharīʿah courts was appointed by the governor-general of Sudan and operated under the direct authority of a colonial official, the legal secretary. The Grand Qāḍī was granted the right to issue judicial circulars that would regulate decisions and procedures of the courts. These circulars suggest that the role of the ʿulamāʿ under colonialism was not entirely subordinate, and that independence of thought and action was pursued by them as the only legitimate class of the guardians of the faith under foreign rule. In 1982 Islamic and civil courts were combined into a single system with one chief justice. In 1991 a new sharīʿah penal code was enacted, codifying Islamic law for the first time.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, spread its influence to neighboring Sudan in the 1940s, where a branch was established early in the 1950s. While the two giants, the Ummah and Unionist parties, battled for power at the time of independence in 1956, the Muslim Brotherhood did not begin to exert its influence until the mid-1960s, when its Islamic Charter Front entered electoral politics and attempted to build a mass organization. From the earliest days the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan has been Ḥasan al-Turābī, widely recognized as the architect of Sudan's Islamism and a leader of resurgent Islam.

Sudan gained its independence in 1956. During fifty years of Sudanese independence, the country was governed by secular nationalist, military, and Islamist regimes that often combined all three elements. The issue of religion and the state—that is, the status of Islam and its institutions—was always a part of political agendas. A clear Islamist agenda became evident after 1983 when militarist President Jaʿfar Nimeiri (1969–1985) declared sharīʿah as national law, thus reigniting the civil war between north and south Sudan. Nimeiri's use of the sharīʿah as a weapon of political repression against his enemies resulted in abusive application of the ḥudūd (the limit [of acceptable behavior]) penalties. It is estimated that two hundred people had limbs amputated during the height of the repression (1983–1985). Popular discontent with the direction of Nimeiri government increased when the regime executed Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāhā, the elderly leader of the Republican Brothers, a reformist Muslim movement based in Sūfī thought and dating to the pre-independence era. Within a matter of months a popular revolution and coup d’état overthrew Nimeiri and restored democracy to the country in 1985.

During the transitional period al-Ṣādiq al-Mahdī served as prime minister a second time, from 1986 to 1989. He settled neither of the critical issues facing the country, the war in the south and the modification of the sharīʿah as state law. A second coup d’état in 1989 brought an Islamist regime to power, formally headed by General ʿUmar al-Bashīr (b. 1944) but supported by the Islamist leader Ḥasan al-Turābī. This regime codified sharīʿah criminal law, abolished all political parties, and embarked on the repression of Muslim dissenters in the north while pressing for a military victory in the south. Eventually, they responded to international pressure, war fatigue, and domestic economic growth from oil revenues to reach a peace agreement in 2005 ending twenty-two years of civil war.

The issue of the proper place of religion—especially of Islam—in government and law remains central to the future political stability and national unity of Sudan. The peace accords, designed to resolve divisive issues of religion and state and to maintain national unity, have not been implemented on schedule. National unity depends upon a multiethnic, multireligious secular state. The two alternatives, a secular, democratic model and a continuation of the Islamist model, stand as the possible outcomes for the Sudanese state still emerging from chronic civil conflict.


  • ʿAbd al-Rahim, Muddathir. Imperialism and Nationalism in the Sudan: A Study in Constitutional and Political Development, 1899–1956. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. A view of the reception of English colonial rule and the development of Sudanese nationalism in response to it from the perspective of an indigenous scholar. Written before the ascendancy of the Islamist trend, the volume concentrates on the role of secular nationalism in the road to independence.
  • Affendi, Abdelwahab el-. Turabi's Revolution: Islam and Power in the Sudan. London: Grey Seal, 1991. An insider's view of the ideology and rise to power in Sudanese politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and its chief proponent, Ḥasan al-Turābī. Placing the Sudanese movement within a larger framework of Islamic revival, el-Affendi traces the Muslim Brothers from a marginal place in a dominantly secular Sudan after independence to an increasing Islamist tendency that became dominant after Islamization of the law in 1983 and the 1989 military regime of ʿUmar al-Bashīr. Turābī's role in the latter events is profound.
  • Ahmed, Abdel Ghaffar M., and Leif Manger, eds.Understanding the Crisis in Dārfūr, Listening to Sudanese Voices. Bergen: University of Bergen, Bergen Programme for Recourses, Institutions and Culture, 2006. Distinguished Sudanese scholars address the conflict in Darfur, stressing the importance of an indigenous solution to the economic and political crisis of Darfurians.
  • Beshir, Mohamed Omer. Revolution and Nationalism in the Sudan. New York: Collings, 1974. A treatment of the rise of Sudanese nationalism that takes into account the dissatisfaction of the south with the political configuration of Sudan after independence. Mohamed Omer Beshir is among a handful of northern Muslim scholars to take an early, serious interest in the political concerns of the southern Sudanese and the implications for national unity.
  • Daly, M. W. Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898–1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. See remarks for the next item.
  • Daly, M. W. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1934–1956. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This two-volume series presents a comprehensive survey of the political and economic history of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan based on archival research in Sudan and the United States, and especially in the Sudan Archive at Durham University. With an obvious dependence on colonial records, the historical point of view is Anglocentric and might be balanced by reference to histories of the same period written from a Sudanese perspective. Nevertheless, the volumes represent a detailed description of the Condominium years.
  • Flint, Julie, and Alex DeWaal. Darfur: Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books, 2006. This summary is written by a prominent human-rights activist and a leading anthropologist working in Darfur. It provides an accessible introduction to the conflict in Darfur for those seeking to understand the bases for Sudan's second civil war involving the central government and the western region of the country.
  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. Islamic Law and Society in the Sudan. London: Cass, 1987. A historical and legal-anthropological study of the sharīʿah as applied law in twentieth-century Sudan, with court observations and case material from 1979–1980. It covers the personal-status law applied before Islamization in 1983 including marriage, divorce, maintenance and child custody, the status of women, inheritance, and Islamist movements.
  • Johnson, Douglas H. The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Offers a detailed examination of the multiple historical, political, cultural, racial, and ethnic factors that have resulted in chronic civil war, allowing only about a decade of peace in a half-century of independence.
  • Lobban, Richard A., Robert S. Kramer, and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban. Historical Dictionary of the Sudan. 3d ed.Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. The dictionary covers important events and persons from the coming of Islam into Sudan to the present. The book contains a general introduction to the history and cultures of Sudan, a detailed chronology, relevant documents in appendices, and an extensive, subject-categorized bibliography.
  • Voll, John O., ed. Sudan: State and Society in Crisis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. One of the best collections of essays on the political crisis in Sudan that was precipitated by the Islamization of law and state in the 1980s and 1990s. The neglect of the south, failure of economic development plans, and large refugee populations are reviewed, together with the better-known political development of the Islamist trend.
  • The Sudan Studies Association ( promotes the scholarly study of Sudan.


Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. "Sudan." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #189: 'Sudan' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024