Sudan is an ancient African nation; early Stone Age or Paleolithic sites suggest dates as early as 250,000 BCE. The states of Nobatia, Mukuria, and Alwa adopted Christianity for centuries until they converted to Islam in 1315. Today, Sudanese society is multi-ethnic and multi-religious.
The medieval Funj Muslim kingdoms of the Blue Nile might well be descendants of the Shulluk of southern Sudan; the Ingessana and Nuba of central Sudan might well have been the same northern Nubians who had ruled both Egypt and Sudan in ancient times; the other Nilotic Dinka, Nuer, and Anwak groups might well have been the same Ethiopian Sudanese of Aksum and Nubia; and the western African groups might well be related to the populations of the other regions. As Davidson realized, in the continent of Africa, “all these regions really belong together, and what is particular to each of them is general to them all in their foundation and emergence.”
An agrarian society, Sudanese society is strongly influenced by familial, religious, and ethnic affiliations as well as ideological and political orientations. Strong systems of extended family relations comprise a series of closely interrelated nuclear families all over the country, with each nuclear unit going about its separate business.
The cultural diversity of the country is characterized by peaceful alliances and intermarriages as well as social disputes that sometimes are caused by the strict system of ethnic classification. Experiencing a long history of ethno-regional relations across the border with Egypt and the non-African nations, Nubia and its Riverain people have categorized themselves into distinct groups based on ahl al-balad, the owners of land, abid or ex-slaves who still have obligations towards ex-masters, and the halab whose descendants belonged to Upper Egypt. In the other parts of the country, “conflicts between the agriculturalists and the nomads or among nomads, farmers and migrant laborers are but a few of the daily cases heard at the different courts. Cases of land dispute include harig (setting fire to fields), taadi (vegetable garden and field trespass with intent to cause damage), and juruf (disputes over land on the river banks).”
The winds of social change, however, have been blowing vigorously over the rural side of the country. “Although the muazzafeen [public service employees] still respect the indigenous authority of Aurs [descendants of ruling families] and the punuk [the indigenous court], they are committed, at the same time, to enforce the regulations of the Damazin administration. Very often conflicts occur when administrative decisions interfere with cultural and local ties.”
At the present time, however, the question of Sudanese center-regional relations, rural development, and national identification constitute major political issues. The increasing consciousness of the Sudanese non-Arab, non-Muslim population about African heritage and the issues of national identification and religious tolerance motivated the need for anthropological and sociological research on the historical role that the Sudanese African cultures played to shape the Muslim tradition of the country, and the vital recognition of the diversity of Sudan in all spheres of political, social, and religious life. The Sudanese ancient African religions of many animist groups in the south and the Nuba Mountains might have mutually influenced popular Sufi life, as well as Christianity, with mythical interpretations and rituals. Perhaps the cultural heritage of the Sudanese communities was largely reflective of the multi-ethnic and religious diversity of the country more than any strict adherence to the Arab-Islamic models of the orthodox shari’a. Up to the establishment of the Abdallab Arab dynasties and the Funj Muslim kingdoms that succeeded the Nubian Christian kingdoms of Sudan, the spreading of Islam was rather nominal under the direct influence of the Bedouins and the traders, who were not highly knowledgeable of Islamic jurisprudence. The Sufi leaders, like Qulam-Allah ben Ayid and Hamad Abu Dannana, later on increased the dissemination of shari’a in the country. When the Funj consolidated their rule, they encouraged many jurists to teach Islam as a different faith from the Sudanese indigenous habits or Christian customs.
Among the majority Muslims of Sudan, the emergence and the growth of Sudanese modern political groups brought to life an ideological rivalry between the Sufi popular Islam and the formal tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as conflict regarding the politics of separating state management from the political control of religious groups— an issue that had been largely initiated and pursued by Sudanese socialist and liberal parties, trade unions, and professional associations throughout the modern history of Sudan. In recent decades, a complete rehabilitation of Islamic jurisprudence has been placed at the top of the agenda for the movement to revitalize the Shari’a.
What possibilities would the Sudan’s cultural and religious diversity offer to help achieve national integration instead of authoritarian rule? Sudanese society has experienced multi-cultural interpretation and practices of Islam since the 7th century. In the post-independence era (1956 onwards), both civilian and military regimes exercised the pre-independent secularly oriented governance of the country. Applying an ethnocentrist Arab Islamic state by the Muslim Brotherhood groups since 1983, the succeeding military governments (1983-1985; 1989-2004) made serious attempts to indoctrinate the Sudanese political and religious liberality. These state intrusions failed to transcend the persistent African cultures that had earlier merged with the traditions of popular Islam, Christianity, and the much older African supernatural traditions to create the unique systems of Sudanese individuality, spiritual philosophy, national ideology, and liberal reality.
Sudan is a country composed of pluralist cultures that assertively defied authoritarian rule. The advancement of this popular mode relied on the observance of international human rights norms and civil freedoms, despite restrictions by recurring military regimes. Following the October, 1964 and the April, 1985 popular uprisings, the Sudanese political parties, military groups, trade unions, professional associations, and many human rights and civil society organizations agreed on the freedoms of organization and assembly as well as those of thought and expression to ensure civil and political rights, as a prerequisite of social stability and progression. This national contention prevailed among the succeeding transitional governments of Sudan that also witnessed a significant movement towards the realization of the right of self-determination to the largely non-Muslim southerners and the other Muslims in the northern, western, and eastern regions of the country whose political and economic concerns were increasingly aggrieved.
Recently, the Sudan witnessed a massive flow of emigration, which included significant sections of the population, especially professionals and skilled workers. This occurred despite state-imposed strict measures to regulate emigration. The state’s concerns with levels of aggregate investment, in essence, developed deficit monetization. New formulations of agricultural mechanization had earlier aggravated uneven development in the country, thus provoking massive migrations from the rural areas into urban centers. This further encouraged the brain drain, which developed as a consequence of unresolved strains in the individual, familial, national, and regional levels of interaction.
The international community and the regional entities of the African Union and the Arab League have collaborated closely with the American-led western powers to help the Sudanese make a just and permanent peace. The Niavasha Peace Protocols (2004) offered a viable opportunity to resolve Sudan’s civil wars on the basis of flexible center-regional power and fair wealth arrangements. Still, the cultural realities of the country deserve careful attention by the next transitional government to augment the politically approved developmental consensus on the basis of stable national democratic consensus. In the light of the unabated cycle of violence in the south, Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and eastern Sudan, substantial revisions are needed on the part of the state in full collaboration with the opposition groups to advance popular participation in national decision making. Measures should be undertaken to rationalize the flow of national and international migration, reform educational programs, and promote the absorptive labor capacity of cities and rural areas in order to serve development and the nation-building of the whole country.
- Duany, W., & Duany, J. (2000). Genesis of the crisis in the Sudan. In J. Spaulding & S. Beswick (Eds.), White Nile, black blood. Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press.
- Fruzzetti, L., & Ostor, A. (1990). Culture and change along the Blue Nile. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Lobban, R., Kramer, R. S., & Fluehr-Lobban, C. (2002). Historical dictionary of the Sudan. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.