Date of Publication:11 June 2002



Sudan is clearly a Muslim country, with Muslims making up well over 75 percent of the population (1), and the government that has been in power in Sudan since 1989 has consciously based its administration on Islamic values. Michael Field's 'Inside the Arab World' states that Sudan post-1989 is unique amongst Islamic polities: "The only Arab country that has put into effect modern, republican, Islamist ideas has been Sudan". (2) While Sudan has been misrepresented as a theocratic, Islamic fundamentalist state, the Sudan's Islamic experience is different from the Saudi Arabian experience and very different from the Islamic model in Iran.

The present broadly Islamist government headed by Omer al-Bashir has followed, and significantly reformed, the previously existing Islamic model since its introduction by President Nimeiri in 1983 and its continuation under Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. The 1998 Constitution, introduced by the present government, emphasises that political authority can never be the divine right of an individual, family or group of people, and that religion cannot be used as a means of differentiating between citizens of the state. It is also a matter of record, for example, that the present government removed southern Sudan from Islamic sharia law, as Islam, along with Christianity, is a minority faith in southern Sudan. Islamic, sharia, law is only applicable in northern Sudan. As things stand, it is the right of the legislature of each state within Sudan to choose the nature of the laws,
religious or otherwise, under which they wish to be governed. So it is theoretically possible for a northern state to opt out of sharia law and it is theoretically possible for a southern state, if it so chooses, to adopt sharia law. The desire of the majority of Muslims in Sudan to live within a society guided by Islamic law would appear to be a clear one, and is no different from a number of other Muslim societies. All three of the major political parties in northern Sudan, the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the National Congress are ultimately all Islamic in orientation.

The British colonial authorities realised very early on that Islam was a vital part of Sudanese society, and it was the colonial government which first structured Sudan Islamically in legislative and legal fields. In 1902 an Islamic Law Courts Ordinance was promulgated, providing for a Court of Appeal, High Courts and ordinary courts, and this remained on the statute book, virtually unchanged, throughout the Condominium. A training school for sharia judges was begun at Gordon College in Khartoum. (3) Sudanese academic Abdelwahab El-Affendi noted the effect of British policies: "It is ironic that the early stirrings of the Islamic revival in Sudan were conditioned by the British policy which favoured ulama and the expansion of Islamic education The main motive force behind the early rumblings of the revival was another product of British policy, the Shariah section of the Gordon Memorial College, which taught potential judges religious subjects along reformist lines This was the explosive formula that produced the new generation of Islamic activists everywhere." (4)

Sudan's 1998 Constitution states that the sources of legislation within Sudan are derived from Islamic law and customary law as well as the consensus of the nation as derived at through referendum. The official position in respect of freedom of religion within Sudan is clear. Article 24 of the 1998 Constitution of the Republic of the Sudan states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and religion and the right to manifest and disseminate his religion or belief in teaching, practice or observance. No one shall be coerced to profess a faith in which he does not believe or perform rituals or worship that he does not voluntarily accept." Article 90 stipulates that the President of the Republic cannot issue decrees affecting freedom of religion. The 1998 Constitution differs from earlier Sudanese constitutions: the 1958 constitution had declared Islam to be "the official religion of the state"; the 1973 constitution stated "In the democratic republic of the Sudan the religion is Islam." In addition to not specifying the religion of the state, the 1998 Constitution also renders rights according to citizenship and not religion, prohibiting the use of religion to usurp rights or to secure gain. There are no religious criteria for elected public office. This built on previous Constitutional decrees, which, while affirming that "Islam is the guiding religion for the overwhelming majority of the Sudanese people", stated that "revealed religions such as Christianity, or traditional religious beliefs may be freely adopted by anyone with no coercion in regards to beliefs and no restriction on religious observances. These principles are observed by the State and its laws". (5) In northern Sudan Friday is the day of worship for Muslims; it is also a day off for Christians, who are also entitled to two hours off on Sunday to attend prayers. In southern Sudan, Sunday is the day of worship.

The liberal model of Islam in Sudan has also been remarked upon by respected commentators such as the veteran American journalist Milton Viorst. A 'New Yorker' columnist who has covered the Middle East for twenty-five years, Viorst is the author of 'Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World'. Viorst has observed that "Sudan is the only state in our age that has formally opted for Islam as its system of government". He has also compared the Sudanese model outlined by Dr Hasan Turabi, the Sudanese politician generally seen to have been pivotal to the Sudanese experience, to others in the region:

"By the standards of other Arab societies, Turabi's concept of Islam is open-minded and tolerant. Though he sees no reason to emulate Western liberalism, few would contradict his assertion that "we do not advocate a very strict form of Islam". The signs are plentiful, in a visit to Sudan, that the Islam practiced there is less strict that that of Egypt, to say nothing of Saudi Arabia. One scarcely sees the hijab, the head-covering that makes many women in Egypt appear so forbidding, much less the Saudi veil. Most Sudanese reflected Turabi's preference for a genial, non-rigorous Islam, more in keeping with Sudan's special experience within the flow of Islamic history." (6)

Viorst has also interviewed the Sudanese head of state Omer Bashir. President Bashir stated with regard to the Sudanese model of Islam that:

"Not all groups agree on how we are interpreting the sharia, but we believe there is wide latitude. We have chosen a moderate way, like the Koran itself, and so the sharia in Sudan will be moderate. The dispute over what it requires lies not in the area of private but of public affairs. Unfortunately, there is no model in history for Islamic government. Fourteen centuries have gone by since the prophet, and everyone now has his image of an Islamic state. Some countries confuse traditions - like the suppression of women - with religion, but tradition is not Islam." (7)

In his interview with Viorst, Turabi also outlined his concepts of Islamic government and society:

"What would an Islamic Government mean?...The model is very clear; the scope of government is limited. Law is not the only agency of social control. Moral norms, individual conscience, all these are very important, and they are autonomous. Intellectual attitudes toward Islam are not going to be regulated or codified at all. The presumption is that people are free. The religious freedom not just of non-Muslims, but even of Muslims who have different views, is going to be guaranteed. I personally have views that run against all the orthodox schools of law on the status of women, on the court testimony of non-Muslims, on the law of apostasy. Some people say that I have been influenced by the West and that I border on apostasy myself...I don't accept the condemnation of Salman Rushdie. If a Muslim wakes up in the morning and says he doesn't believe any more, that's his business. There has never been any question of inhibiting people's freedom to express any understanding of Islam. The function of government is not total." (8)

Respected Africa analyst and commentator Colin Legum has defined some of the differences between Turabi and Islamic fundamentalists:

"Turabi's policies are out of step with other Islamic fundamentalist organisations on a number of important issues. For example, he strongly opposes the idea of a Pan-Islamic movement, which brought him into conflict with other (Muslim Brotherhood) parties in Egypt and elsewhere. He insists that the Sudan has its own national problems which require a particularist approach.

One of Turabi's fundamental breaks with the strict Islamic traditionalists is over the place of women in Muslim societies. As a declared supporter of women's liberation, he insists on their right of equality and their right to full membership of the (Muslim Brotherhood), the only Islamic movement that does so." (9)

Professor Tim Niblock is one of the foremost British authorities on Islam and Sudan. He has pointed out two areas in which Sudan's model differs from maintstream Islamist thought. One is the Sudanese Islamists' "explicit acceptance of liberal democracy as the appropriate form of political organisation for Sudan. The advocacy of liberal democracy by the N.I.F. went well beyond the stress which Islamist movements customarily place on the need for shura (consultation)." Secondly, the Sudanese model with regard to women is "qualitatively different from that proposed in most Islamist programmes. The emphasis is on women 'escaping from social oppression' and 'playing a full part in building the new society', rather than on their primary duty lying within the family". (10) This particular liberal school of thought within Islam was also noted by other outside observers. The United States government's own publication 'Sudan: A Country Study' freely conceded that "[t]he Islamic movement in Sudan", was "by no means as militant as in other Arab countries". (11) Even 'The New York Times', a source not noted for its affinity to Islamic models of government, said of Turabi in 1996: "He voices a tolerant version of political Islam - far less conservative than Saudi Arabia's, far less militant than Iran's". (12)

There is also no doubt that the Sudanese model is under attack for its moderate interpretation of Islam. In February, 1994, for example, extremist gunmen opened fire in the al-Thwarah mosque in Omdurman, Sudan. They killed nineteen people and wounded twenty others. 'New African' magazine reported that the Muslim extremists involved "showed that they did not think that the government of General Omar Al-Bashir was sufficiently fundamentalist for them. (13) The London-based Arabic language newspaper 'Al-Sharq al-Awsat' has stated with regard to the threat posed by Islamic extremists to the Khartoum authorities, that the government: "Now...senses that it is under threat from factions that can brook no deviation from their hard-line interpretations of religion, which are incompatible with the requirements and conditions of political activity in any Muslim state on earth. Khartoum has been describing them as 'religious fanatics'...certainly the slaughtering of Muslims in a mosque, as occurred in Sudan, is fanaticism. It is the same fanaticism whose effects we can witness in Egypt and Algeria, regardless of the causes". The newspaper concluded that "Sudan's government and people stand in the same trench as the other countries who live in fear of the extremist organisations". (14)

Significant sections of the Sudanese population follow traditional African faiths and Christianity. Sudan's animists, constituting perhaps one fifth of the population, are largely within southern Sudanese communities. Christianity has deep roots within Sudan, some going back into antiquity. (15) There are active Christian communities in both the north and south of the country, presenting several denominations. Christians make up 4 percent of the national population, and perhaps between 10-15 percent of the southern population. (16) There are hundreds of churches, church schools and Christian centres throughout Sudan. Sudanese Christians also play a full and active part in their country's political and social life, disproportionate to their numbers in society. A distinguished Christian southern Sudanese academic, Professor Moses Machar, is Vice-President. Christians serve as federal and state ministers, governors, ambassadors, judges and senior army and police officers. Dozens of Christians serve as members of the National Assembly. A significant example of Khartoum's effort to accommodate the interests of Sudan's non-Muslim southerners was the 1991 exemption of the largely non-Muslim southern Sudan from sharia law. (17)

It is clear that attempts to misrepresent Sudan and the Sudanese experience do not reflect the reality of the situation within the country. There is every difference between a theocracy and the Sudanese experience. A theocracy would assert infallibility, claiming to derive its authority from a divine source. This is simply incompatible with the reality of the modern state which derives its authority and mandate from the people. In Sudan religion is seen as a source of moral guidance, and cannot be used as a special advantage for individuals, groups or members of any particular faith. In Sudan authority would appear to be derived from the people and not religious allegiance.


1 See, for example, 'Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Sudan', U.S. Department of State, Washington DC, 9 September 1999.

2 Michael Field, 'Inside the Arab World', Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p.257.

3 "Law in the Sudan Under the Anglo-Sudan Condominium" in 'The Condominium Remembered, Volume 1: The Making of the Sudanese State', p.45.

4 Abdelwahab El-Affendi, 'Turabi's Revolution: Islam and Power in Sudan', Grey Seal, London, 1991, pp.42-43.

5 'Principles, Regulations and Constitutional Developments for 1993', Government of Sudan, Khartoum, 16 October 1993.

6 Milton Viorst, "Sudan's Islamic Experiment: Fundamentalism in Power", 'Foreign Affairs', 1995, Volume 74, Number 3, pp. 46-47.

7 Milton Viorst, "Sudan's Islamic Experiment: Fundamentalism in Power", 'Foreign Affairs', 1995, Volume 74, Number 3, pp. 52-53.

8 Milton Viorst, "Sudan's Islamic Experiment: Fundamentalism in Power", 'Foreign Affairs', 1995, Volume 74, Number 3, p. 53.

9 Colin Legum, "Struggle Over Sharia", 'New African', March 1992, p. 33.

10 Professor Tim Niblock, "Islamist Movements and Sudan's Political Coherence", in Herve Bleuchot, Christian Delmet and Derek Hopwood, (Editors), 'Sudan: History, Identity, Ideologies', Ithaca Press, Reading, 1991, p. 265.

11 Harold D. Nelson (Editor), 'Sudan: A Country Study', The American University and Department of the Army, Washington-DC, 1982.

12 New York Times Service, republished in 'International Herald Tribune', 26 December 1996.

13 'New African', December, 1994, p. 14.

14 'Al-Sharq al-Awsat', London, 8 February 1994; See, also, a typical fundamentalist critique of Sudan's Islamic model, "Sudan: When a State is Not an Islamic State?", Khilafah, at

15 The Sudan National Museum has as a key display one thousand year-old Christian frescos relocated from northern Sudan when the areas in which they had been found were flooded. The Christian period within Sudan is well documented at the museum.

16 There is a certain amount of divergence in respect of estimates of the religious breakdown of the southern population. Human Rights Watch states that 4 percent of the population are Christian and that about 15 percent of southern Sudanese are Christian (Testimony of Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch, Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Africa, 25 September 1997). The Economist Intelligence Unit in its report entitled 'Sudan: Country Profile 1994-95' also puts the Christian population of southern Sudan at 15 percent. The definitive United States government guide, 'Sudan - A Country Study', published by the Federal Research division and Library of Congress, states that "In the early 1990s possibly no more than 10 percent of southern Sudan's population was Christian." Muslims may make up a similar percentage in southern Sudan.

17 The American State Department's 'Sudan Country Report on Human Rights Practices', for example, has stated: "Sudan's 1991 Criminal Act, based on Shari'a law, (prescribes) specific "hudud" punishments. The Government officially exempts the 10 Southern States, whose population is mostly non-Muslim, from parts of the 1991 Criminal Act. But the Act
permits the possible future application of Shari'a law in the south, if the local state assemblies so decide." ('Sudan Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995', United States Department of State, Washington-DC, February 1996.)

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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