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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Sudan is the largest country in Africa, occupying more than 965,000 square miles. About 70 percent of Sudan's 37 million residents are Muslims. Most Sudanese Muslims live in the northern part of the nation. Other groups, located mainly in the south, practice Christianity and various tribal religions.

    The Arrival of Islam.

    Islam first spread to Sudan from Egypt by way of the Nile River valley. Later it came from African kingdoms to the west that had adopted the religion in the 1100s. After the 1400s, Muslim influences also entered Sudan from many parts of the Muslim world. The Funj sultanate established the first Muslim state in Sudan in 1504 . Throughout the 1500s, Muslim holy men arrived from Egypt and the Middle East, bringing Islamic theology and law into Sudan. West African pilgrims traveling to Mecca provided another source of contact with the Muslim world. By the 1800s, Islam was well established in Sudan.

    The influence of Arab culture grew along with that of Islam. Today about 40 percent of the Sudanese population is Arab, and Arabic is the nation's official language. Nonetheless, ethnic groups such as the Nubians retain their languages and traditions. To this day, African customs remain a major part of Sudanese culture.

    Sufi orders greatly advanced Sudan's conversion to Islam as well. Sufi worship practices such as drumming, chanting, and dancing blended with and enhanced the local religious customs of Sudanese tribes. Most Sufi orders promoted equality and lacked a strong central organization. Throughout Sudan's history, Sufi orders have shown little support for formal religious and political structures. As a result, tension between the popular Sufi orders and the official Islamic administration in Sudan has been ongoing.

    Colonial Era.

    In 1821 an invading Turkish-Egyptian army took control of Sudan, making it part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans established a Turkish administration called the Turkiyah. They governed the country through Egyptians and local officials, and a Turkish-Egyptian army enforced Ottoman rule. Sudanese resented their conquerors, who imposed high taxes, forced them to serve in the army, and permitted slave raids in Sudan.

    Several groups resisted Ottoman rule during the 1800s, but the most serious challenge came in 1881 , when Muhammad Ahmad organized a movement called the Mahdiyah. Declaring himself the Mahdi, or “Expected One,” Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed an Islamic revival to challenge the immorality of the nation's foreign rulers. He regarded it as his divine mission to end the Turkish and Egyptian occupation.

    The Mahdi and his followers, known as the Ansar, won a series of battles against the occupying army. The British, who played a major role in the government of Egypt at that time, sent General Charles Gordon to oversee the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Sudan. Gordon, however, believed that an Ansar victory in Sudan would pose a threat to the security of Egypt. He asked for, and eventually received, additional British troops to aid the Egyptian forces. In 1885 the Mahdi's forces defeated the British at Khartoum and killed Gordon. This stunning defeat marked a low point in British colonial history. For Muslims, the victory became a symbol of Islam's triumphant resistance against outside invaders.


    Years of war and drought have left much of Sudan's population at or below the poverty level. Efforts to bolster the economy have focused on developing the country's substantial oil reserves. In 1999 an oil pipeline was inaugurated by Sudanese president Umar al-Bashir.

    RAOUF/AP Photo

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    The Mahdi died soon after his victory at Khartoum. Caliph Abdallahi al-Ta'ishi, who succeeded him, established an Islamic government modeled after the first Muslim community at Mecca. The Mahdist state was the only successful Islamic regime to stand against the forces of colonialism in Africa at this time. It became a symbol of glorious Muslim nationalism. Some observers believe that the modern Islamic revival of the late 1900s had some roots in the Mahdiyah.

    The Mahdist state survived for 13 years. In 1898 the British, seeking revenge for Gordon's defeat at Khartoum, launched a powerful invasion headed by General Horatio Herbert Kitchener . Equipped with gunboats and machine guns, the British forces overwhelmed the Mahdist troops. The British massacre of Muslim defenders near the city of Omdurman marked the defeat of the Mahdiyah.

    Britain took control of Sudan, ruling jointly with Egypt. The new rulers sought to control, but not crush, Islam in the colony. In order to govern through Muslim institutions, the British gained the cooperation of the heads of the largest popular Muslim organizations. They created a new structure that combined Muslim and British systems.

    The court system in Sudan reflected this new duality. The criminal and civil courts followed British law, but a separate legal system followed the principles of shari'ah. The religious courts handled matters affecting the personal status of Sudanese Muslims, such as marriage, child support, and wills. The governor-general of Sudan appointed a member of the ulama as the high judge of these shari'ah courts. This judge, who operated under the authority of the colonial legal secretary, had the right to release Judicial Circulars that regulated the decisions and procedures of the courts. These circulars shaped the development of Islamic law in Sudan. Through them, the ulama maintained power as the guardians of the faith under foreign rule.


    After Muhammad Ahmad's death, his family retained a substantial influence in the country. His son, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi emerged as the religious and political leader of the Ansar. In the 1940s, the Ansar formed the core of the nationalist Ummah Party. This group called for independence from Britain. Another nationalist group, the Unionist Party, rose up at the same time. The Unionists advocated forming a union with Egypt. These two powerful parties became bitter political rivals.

    Sudan gained its independence on January 1, 1956. Its new status, however, did not bring political stability. Instead, it set off a rebellion among non-Muslims in the southern part of the country who did not want to live under a Muslim regime. This civil war continued for 16 years.

    The early governments in independent Sudan were secular regimes that tried to separate religious issues from politics. Nonetheless, several political groups focused on the role of Islam in Sudanese society. One such group was the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for an Islamic constitution in Sudan. Hasan al-Turabi, the head of the brotherhood, won support as a symbol of Islamic renewal.

    In 1969 a military leader named Jafar Nimeiri seized power in Sudan, backed by communist allies. He established a secular regime and arrested several Islamic activists, including al-Turabi. In 1972 Nimeiri signed a peace agreement with the rebels in the south, bringing a temporary halt to the civil war. In the following years, he defeated uprisings of the Ansar and other groups. At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to join forces with Nimeiri. Al-Turabi and several other leading members of the brotherhood assumed positions in the government. As their ally, Nimeiri gradually turned the country towards Islamic rule. In 1983 he declared that Islamic law would govern Sudan. This move revived the rebellion in the south, where non-Muslims organized to form the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

    Nimeiri used shari'ah as a weapon to silence his political enemies. He imposed harsh punishments, known as hudud. Such actions sparked growing unrest, which peaked in 1985 after Nimeiri executed Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the elderly leader of a Muslim opposition group. A popular uprising overthrew Nimeiri and ushered in a democratic government.

    Sadiq al-Mahdi was elected prime minister in 1986 , but Sudan remained unstable under his leadership. Al-Mahdi proved unable to end the civil war or to modify the use of shari'ah as state law. In 1989 General Umar al-Bashir led a successful coup and established another Islamist regime in Sudan. Al-Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood played a major role in the new government. Al-Bashir's harsh Islamic agenda, however, provoked opposition from moderate Muslim groups in the north and from Muslim Nubians. These groups joined forces with the SPLM to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Al-Bashir, nonetheless, maintained a firm grip on the country. In 2000 the Ummah Party withdrew from the NDA and ended its opposition to his rule. Around the same time, Al-Bashir removed his ally al-Turabi from power.

    Sudan faces many challenges in the 21st century. The civil war continues to bring death and destruction to the nation. Since 1983 the combination of war and persistent famine has caused more than 2 million deaths and displaced 4 million people from their homes. Sudan's agriculture-based economy remains vulnerable to drought and price declines in the world market. Much of the country's population lives at or below the poverty line, and the nation has an outstanding debt of nearly $25 billion. Moreover, Sudan has had tense relations with the outside world. International aid agencies have accused the regime of preventing food from reaching starving war victims.

    Sudan has not managed to achieve political or economic stability. The nation's future depends on the government's ability to draw support from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Whether Sudan will emerge as a secular, democratic nation or as an Islamic regime remains uncertain. See also Colonialism; Egypt; Mahdiyah; Muslim Brotherhood.

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