The Role of Islam in the Political Process in Sudan

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

23 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Islam and political parties
2.1. Religion before the Independent Sudan
2.1.1. The early Islamisation period and the Khatmiyya
2.1.2. The Turkiyya
2.1.3. Mahdism
2.1.4. Neo-Mahdism
2.2. Formation of Political Parties
2.2.1. Unionist versus Nationalists
2.2.2. The Political Parties
2.4. Politics in the independent Sudan
2.4.1. After independence
2.4.2. After Nimeiri
2.4.3. The National Islamic Front rules

3. Islam and the state
3.1 Islamic thought on the state

4. Islam and Identity

5. Democratic process and Islamic impact

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

1. Introduction

The following pages try to analyze the way the state of Sudan functions and to what extend Islam is influencing it. We speak of a widely unknown country and its political experiences are seldomly known to Austrians, even not to students of political science. Despite of that I am not trying to introduce a country, but to go directly to the state after a small showing of the political history of the state, which is needed for the analyses.

If we speak of Sectarian politics in Sudan we first have to define the word sect, as its connotation is not only positive. As a sect a group of people, which has separated from a larger group and with a particular set of religious or political beliefs, which are strongly held and regarded by others as extreme is meant by definition (Sidahmed 1997:23). In Sudanese studies the word sect refers to two groups with a religious belief network but the emphasis is laid on their political agenda and actions. In the following paper the term sect is following this emphasis, and doesn’t imply any judges about religious beliefs or extremes.

I don’t want to meet the challenge of analyzing or even judging the rightness of secularism or political Islam. What I try to do is to show how politics in the state of Sudan function and what role Islam has played and still plays. In the same way one could analyze the United States politics and the impact of Christianity. It is clear though, even if it is tried to reach, that a total objectivism is not possible.

Right here in the Introduction I want to give a short summary of the Sudanese politics since Independence. It should be useful to get an overall view to the problems of this state. The history of the newly built independent state of Sudan is stamped through periods of democratic and military rule. The first phase until 1958 was democratic and under the all covering influence of Ansar and Khatmiyya (the two sects). From 1958 until 1964 General Ibrahim ´Abboud was in power, this period was followed by another short period of democratic experiment until the putsch of Nimeiri 1969 which lasted until 1985, when he was removed again. In 1989 finally, after another short democratic period General Umar Hasan al-Bashir putsched and came to power again with the al-Turabi and the NIF (see Salih 1991:45f, Sidahmed 1997:1). Since 1999 President al-Bashir is ruling without al-Turabi.

With this first Introduction to the theme I hope the following brings some insight and conclusions.

2. Islam and political parties

To show how the Islamic religion influenced the formation of political Parties Sudan I will first show the Islamisation of the region and the history of the early Sudan. The building of the two sects, now known as sectarian, the Khatmiyya and the Mahdist/Ansar Movement and the formation of the political parties out of those two traditions in the early 20th century.

2.1. Religion before the Independent Sudan

2.1.1. The early Islamisation period and the Khatmiyya

In 1504 was the Funj Sultanate of Sinnar established, the first Muslim State in the Sudan. It lasted until the 18th century and within this period „sufi shaikhs and other holy men had a great following“ (Warburg 2003:1). Sufism is easier to understand as orthodox Islam, local customs were simply assimilated and saint cult and divine blessing appealed to Sudan’s tribes as they were locally known. Not centralized orders were introduced and absorbed but the Khatmiyya order had new organizational structures and was able to reach the tribes and get cross-tribal support (O´Fahey 1993:25, Warburg 2003:3). Those brotherhoods were internationally organized, only with Mahdism later, national ideas were introduced. Also the Sammaniyya order was important at this time and had the new organizational structure but as it suffered from internal quarrels it could not hold its importance against the Khatmiyya.

The Khatmiyya was originally a supranational order, first introduced to Sudan by Muhammad Uthman al-Mirghani 1815-19. His son Muhammad al-Hasan al-Mirghani was sent by him to the now Turco-Egyptian Sudan to found a Khatmiyya branch with the support of the regime. His son Al-Sayyid al Hasan al-Mirghani followed his fathers and with his charisma was able to further the importance of the order (Warburg 2003:4f).

The success lied in different spheres, argued with Gabriel Warburg it was due to no internal splits, more coherent and less tainted by local superstitions, from the fact that the older orders were mostly destroyed by the Egyptian rulers and due to a association with the rulers they had certain privileges. Also the personal charisma of Sayyid al-Hassan and his appeal of its spiritual message was a reason for its success.

2.1.2. The Turkiyya

The so called first Turkiyya started 1820-22 with the invasion of Muhammad ´Ali and was ended by his grandson Khedive Isma´il in the 1870´s. The Turco-Egyptian rule brought to Sudan the first centralized government and laid the foundation of a Sudanese state with taxation, modern methods of agriculture and modern methods of trade (Warburg 2003:13).

The rise of importance of the Khatmiyya was connected to the foreign rulers, which whom they collaborated with. It is to say that this relationship with the rulers was not always smooth. With the death of Sayyid al-Hasan in 1869 their privileges were canceled and several leaders of the order were arrested. After 1973 were the cordial relations resumed (Sidhamed 1997:6, Warburg 2003:9).

2.1.3. Mahdism

1881 declared Muhammad Ahmad himself as the mahdi – “the one sent at the end of time to establish righteousness upon the Earth before the Last Day” (O´Fahey 1993:29f). He came out of the Sammaniyya structure, but as it was stroked by internal leadership quarrels was the mahdi able to benefit from this fragmentation. The Khatmiyya and Sayyid Muhammad ´Uthman II, who was then their leader, fought against him. This was the beginning of the later called sectarian organization in Sudan (Warburg 2003:11).

About the mahdi is only written in the hadith, in Shiite and Ismaili Islamic communities the appearance of a mahdi is more often possible but in Sunni Muslim communities it is rare, as the concept lacks any messianic connotations. In Shiite believers the mahdi is connected with the return of the hidden imam. The Sunni mahdi is not such a historical personage but a man from the people, a descendent of the Prophet and preferably of Ali and Fatima. In Sudan it was an indigenous Muslim movement protesting against the foreign rulers and their unpopularity[1] (Warburg 2003:22ff).

The Mahdiyya had a lasting effect on Sudan, as it provided a melting pot for society and it laid the foundations for a Sudanese nationalism on the one hand and also determining Islam as the religion of the state. As said above was it with Mahdism that national ideas were introduced in the Sudan. Through Islam a national feeling was adopted, the European concept of state did not work to its last here. The personage of the mahdi created a link between Islam and politics. The simplicity and clarity of the Mahdist message forced Sufis to submit to one supreme Muslim authority.

The Mahdi ideology divided the Sudan into two, the Turkiyya an the Mahdiyya with the dividing line, the acceptance of the mahdi as the Khatmiyya did not join the Mahdi, as only Sufi order (Warburg 2003:34).

The Mahdi died on the 22nd of June 1885, his successor was the Khalifa ´Abdullahi b.Muhammad. His task was to consolidate the territories which were liberated in the jihad and setting up an autocratic state – the Mahdist state, which lasted from 1885 until 1898. The Khatmiyya became the center of opposition to the Khalifa´Abdullahi (Warburg 2003:43ff). In 1889 the militant period of the Mahdiyya was ended and Khalifa ´Abdullahi became the autocratic dictator, but Islam continued to be central (Warburg 2003:56).

Under the Condominium regime (1898-1956) the Sudan was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt. In this time the separation of the Church and the State, a ban on Sufism and Mahdism and the encouragement of the traditional tribal leadership was tried to force on the Sudan (Warburg 2003:57). Even though, as we said above the Turco-Egyptian period formed the basis of the Sudanese state, it was the Condominium period with its radical economic and socio-political transformations which formed the ground for Sudanese politics and society (Sidhamed 1997:10). The plan was also to enforce the orthodox Islam despite its shortcomings during the Turco-Egyptian period as Sufism was feared for its potential of Mahdist renaissance (Sidhamed 1997:24). A Board of Ulema was established to give an Islamic stamp to the official governmental decisions. During the First World War it stayed quite in Sudan and Great Britain was seen as the defender of Islam against the Turks, which are not true Moslems[2]. To achieve this trust in Sudan the British had to give their recognition to the popular Islamic leaders and therefore had to enforce the sectarian structure[3] (Sidhamed 1997: 25).

2.1.4. Neo-Mahdism

Sayyid ´Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the son of the Mahdi was born three weeks after the death of the Mahdi. He grew up at the Familiy home of Aba Island from were he organized the Ansar, even though it was forbidden. By the 1920´s he had become a leader and a rich man. Small Sufi-orders still were important at the local village level but the Khatmiyya and the Ansar had emerged as the largest and most popular Islamic movements contending for power. This marks the real beginning of sectarian politics in Sudan. Sayyid Ali and the Khatmiyya were never regarded as a political threat, but Sayyid ´Abd and the Ansar and its political ambitions clashed with the government policy. The fear of a fanatical Mahdism was still acute. The 20th century Ansar was not similar with the Mahdist Ansar. It was not a Sufi brotherhood, nor a political party or a military organization. It was a unique combination of these three and in addition they were an economic enterprise (Warburg 2003:94). Neo-Mahdism had similarities with the 19th century Mahdism, but there were adjustments due to modern circumstances. The economic part changed a lot, whereas in former times money was only for essentials, now the earning of money became an obligation, especially for the cause of god (Warburg 2003:101). Also were Sufi-rites now allowed to get the support of smaller brotherhoods, the Mahdi had not allowed that (Warburg 2003:95). Here is to see that Neo-Mahdism´s ideology saw the inseparability of the religious and the political aspects of their message even stronger. Also was a switch from the belief that their leader was a God-appointed who would establish a divine-guided Mahdist state to the rather “realistic” expectation of their leader to be a king and then even to the elected head of state (Sidhamed 1997:30).

The Ansar stood for “Sudan for the Sudanese” against the Khattmiyya´s option of the “Unity of the Nile Valley” (Warburg 2003: 105). There were two rivaling youth organizations and two newspapers. There was an attempt to keep sectarian politics out of Congress, but this was unrealistic, as if the Congress[4] wanted to become a political factor it relied on the goodwill of both Sayyids (Warburg 2003:114).

On 1st January 1956 the “Republic of the Sudan” was officially declared and the Sudanese started their independent political life.

2.2. Formation of Political Parties

2.2.1. Unionist versus Nationalists

Abdel Salam Sidhamed starts his political party history of Sudan with the division into Unionists and Nationalists. The two main groups were ´Abu Ruf, the more Egyptian, anti-British party with Khatmiyya background and al-Fajr (or al-Murada-Hashmab) which had no common sectarian background and played with the idea of Sudanese nationalism. Both of them were founded around 1928/29 and pledged anti-sectarianism as well as anti-tribal attitudes (Sidhamed 1997:36).

The Graduates Congress was found to prepare the Sudanese for an eventual independence in the far future. Due to the fractionalisation within it, Sidhamed argues that shortly after the memorandum of 1942, which demanded independence, political parties emerged. ´Abu Ruf and al-Fajr were eventually absorbed into Umma and ´Ashiqqa´ (Bloodbrothers) and some smaller parties. The NUP, created in the early 50s is an amalgamation of various unionist parties including the ´Ashiqqa´ (Sidhamed 1997:40ff).

2.2.2. The Political Parties

The Umma Party is on of the most important parties of the independent Sudan. It was formed 1945 from responsible graduates and tribal leaders, which all were supportive of an independent Sudan and for that on the side of the Ansar. The members did not necessarily belong to the Ansar, as the party tried to emphasis non-sectarianism but as the party did belong financially on Sayyid ´Abd al-Rahman the close connection to the Ansar was and is obvious (Warburg 2003:125ff). The party had the British on their side and became their main ally against the Egyptians. 1959 al-Sayyid al-Siddiq al-Mahdi, the grandson of the Mahdi became the leader of the Ansar, but he died just two years later. This time his brother Sayyid al-Hadi al-Mahdi became the imam of the Ansar and al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, al-Siddiqs son became the leader of the Umma. At the elections 1965 he was yet to young to get elected, but only one year later, he was able to outmaneuver al-Hadi and the then prime minister Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub and with the help of the NUP became Prime Minister. This caused a split between Ansar and Umma. Just one year later he was ousted from office again by al-Hadi and Mahjub with NUP-help. In 1970 Nimeiri was bombing Aba-Island[5] and al-Hadi was killed; al-Sadiq went to exile. Only after signing the anti-reconciliation agreement with Nimeiri 1977 he returned, only to criticize the regime. His concept of an Islamic state left the door wide open for the introduction of innovations (Warburg 2003:170ff). After Nimeiris removal from power the Umma party won the elections in 1986 and al-Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime minister.

NUP (Nationalist Unionist Party) which would also ultimately support an independent Sudan, led by Al-Azhari. Sayyid ´Ali left the NUP and found the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) - later DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). All Khatmiyya members and all Sufis, regardless their brotherhoods were called to join the party.

Sayyid ´Ali (Khatmiyya/PDP) and Sayyid ´Abd al-Rahman (Ansar/Umma) formed a coalition for independence against al-Azharis secular threat.

Muslim Brotherhood/National Islamic Front, The Brotherhood (Ikhwan) were a small but radical Islamist group, after 1985[6] they emerged as NIF (National Islamic Front) and since 1998 they call themselves NC (National Congress). It was originally an elitist movement and its first political steps were won through the student organization KUSU (Khartoum University Student Union). Dr. Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi, a western educated Law Professor took the lead in the 60´s[7] [8] (Sidhamed 1997:191, Warburg 2003:179f)[1]. The movement was still ridden by factionalism, one school was political oriented, the other was educationalist (to preserve its puritanical image). A congress of the Brotherhood resolved it in 1969 in favor of al-Turabi and his political school (Sidhamed 1997:192). The party had problems with broad support, as many went back to their family loyal sectarian ties after graduation. Al-Turabi was able to take a leading position in the fight against the Abboud-regime and within the ICF (Islamic Charter Front) he agreed on most central issues with al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, especially on their opposition to the communists (Warburg 2003:181). In 1971 after Nimeiri and the Communists had differing opinions the Muslim Brotherhood became the natural allies in the fight against sectarianism, witch ousted in a cooperation from 1977 on. As chairman of the committee which had to bring Sudanese laws in accordance with the shari´a and as Attorney-General, al-Turabi was in a influential position (Warburg 2003:184f). The close cooperation[9] of al-Turabi with the regime caused a split within the Muslim Brothers, but the vast part stood behind al-Turabi. In 1983, the so called September laws were initiated, which meant the implementation of the shari´a for the Sudan.


[1] The Egypt domination interfered with local traditions and power structures, a growing dependence on Egypt, social and economic instability as a result of taxation and the ban of the slave trade added to the unpopularity of the foreign domination.

[2] The peace and economic prosperity and the traditional hatred for the Turks added to this feeling.

[3] Both „sect-leaders“ received grants and economic concessions and both were knighted by the British.

[4] In August/September 1940 the Congress was split between Khatmiyya and Ansar supporters, the elections in 1941 won the Ansar with a majority which it lost in 1942 again. A division of the Ansar followed.

[5] The family home of the Mahdi and spiritual center.

[6] The NIF consisted of the Ikhwan as its core plus the shari´a coalition as well as additional businessmen.

[7] Al-Rashid al-Tahir, the President of the Muslim Brothers was even elected into the ICF in 1965, but he switched to the NUP. From there on al-Turabis position was secure.

[8] The movement was still ridden by factionalism, one school was political oriented, the other was educationalist (to preserve its puritanical image). A congress of the Brotherhood resolved it in 1969 in favor of al-Turabi and his political school.

[9] Al-Turabi even hold for the creation of a president-imam, with full powers as leader of the Sudanese Umma. This amendment to the constitution was never passed.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Role of Islam in the Political Process in Sudan
University of Vienna  (Institut für Politikwissenschaften)
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Role, Islam, Political, Process, Sudan
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Sabine Putzgruber (Author), 2003, The Role of Islam in the Political Process in Sudan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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