Photo: Liv Tønnessen

I am having lunch at a restaurant close to a mosque in Sudan’s capital. It is Friday in Khartoum and a day off. The streets are empty except when men and boys dressed in white are hurrying to the mosques in time for prayer. Drowsed by the heat, I hear the muezzin calling them to prayer from different corners of the neighborhood by chanting Allahu Akbar! God is Great! By chance I am catching the khutbah which is the weekly lecture by the imam. I am sipping to my coffee as I am listening to the local imam through the loudspeaker as he addresses his congregation inside the mosque.

He abruptly wakes me up as he heatedly starts raging against the sins of Sufism, a practice of Islam which is widespread in Sudan. In fact, the country has more Sufi Muslims than any other country in the world. The weekly zikir performed at sun set where Sudan’s Sufis swirl around and around and around aspiring a face-to-face encounter with God. It forms part of a Friday ritual which bring together Sufis from all walks of life. To them, it is the ultimate form of spiritual worship.

The rage against Sufism exposes the local imam’s Salafi proclivity. The word itself stems from the Arabic al-salaf al-salih which translates into the pious forefathers. By following the example of Prophet Muhammed and his peers it represents an orthodox doctrine perceived by the local imam as the pure and only correct Islam. The largest Salafi movement in Sudan is called Ansar al-Sunna which means followers (ansar) of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and actions (the Sunna). It works to purify Muslim practices onto the correct Islamic way of life. It is a religious movement engaged in preaching. But some of its members have participated in politics under the Bashir government with a few parliamentarians and ministers. My interviews with these members reveal, rather pragmatically, that an imperative reason for political participation is to gain the government’s approval to build more and new mosques in order to preach their creed. Sudanese observers note that Salafism is gaining ground in the country, socially, economically and politically.

Recently, Salafists have confronted, sometimes violently, Sudan’s many Sufists. They have started to show up at the zikr with loud speakers in order to spell out that Sufism is sinful and contrary to correct Islamic practice. The imam says it loud and clear: “Sufism is completely un-Islamic”. He calls Sudanese Sufi Muslims to worship correctly, to be pious, and to live their lives under pure and correct Islamic codes. One of these Islamic codes, he insists, is for Muslim women to steer away from promiscuous clothing and wear proper Islamic dress accompanied with niqab; the black veil covering the faces which have stirred much emotional debate in Sudan and in European countries like France and Norway. Although an increasing number of women in Khartoum are adopting it, many men and women stand fiercely against it. In the harsh words of former state minister in Sudan, Sadiq al-Mahdi, Salafism “is a movement to cover women’s faces and men’s brains.” It is hot under the sun in Sudan.

Liv Tønnessen

Director of Center on Law and Social Transformation and Senior Researcher