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Sudan presents a religiously divided / pluralistic society. It is estimated that more than 70% of the Sudan’s present population are Sunni Muslims. About 11% belong to indigenous African religions and about 19% are Christians.[1] The Muslim population is concentrated in the north, while the Christians and the practitioners of traditional indigenous religions live in the south or in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile areas in central Sudan.[2] An exception to this spatial ordering are the long established Coptic Christians who share urban space with Muslims in the North. Growing adherence to Christianity is reported among southerners, Nuba and other groups in Sudan.[3] Such growth could have been at the expense of the traditional indigenous religions. At least two million southern Christians have settled in northern semi-urban areas as internally displaced resulting from the civil war.

Islam and the state structures have been closely related in Sudan – even since long before the time of the Mahdiyyah of the late 19th century.[4] The Muslim groups in Sudan made efforts to enforce an Islamic state on Sudanese society. Through their conceptualisations of an Islamic state, they have been crucial to the definition of the Sudanese political system. At present, these Muslim groups share the objective of creating an Islamic state, but they have radically different views on the strategies and the socio-economic and political structures of this state.[5]

Since the installation of a new “islamic order” (nizam islami) under President Jaafar Nimeiri in 1983, every civil or military government has had to deal with public discussions about shari’a.[6] In an political atmosphere ripe with allegations of heterodoxy and even apostasy shari’a as the will of God had assumed a highly legitimising function in political debates. The National Salvation Government, which has been the outcome of June 1989 military coup, has formally opted for Islam as its system of government and followed the previously existing Islamic model since its introduction in September 1983.[7] Within this government, there is strong support for the rule by means of the Islamic shari’a laws in all aspects of public life all over the country.[8] Importantly, the Sudan’s Constitutional Decree No. 7 in 1993, while affirming that “Islam is the guiding religion for the overwhelming majority of the Sudanese people,” states 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”. Although the laws recognise Sudan as a multi-religious country, in practice, the government treats Islam as the state religion.[9] More and above, an important part of the government’s political agenda has been to act as an Islamic model-state in the region and to gain ideological influence in other African states with substantial Muslim populations.

Christians have struggled against both the Islamising effects of the Khartoum governments and the perceived Arabising policies of the north. The initiatives of the various governments both elected and military have been seen as anti-Christian. The Nimeiri regime’s introduction of shari’a for all people, not just Muslims was resented by Christians. Making Arabic the language of education even in the South was viewed as a way of both de-culturing people and cutting them off from Anglophone education. The attempts at dialogue by Hassan al-Turabi were viewed with suspicion by both Christians and Muslims and seen as a political manoeuvre. The recently completed peace accord between Khartoum and the SPLA is again viewed with some perturbation.[10]

Shari’a versus secular state has been a central issue in the civil war from 1983 to the present and, as such, an important topic in the Naivasha peace conferences. It will remain a fundamental issue in the constitutional debate following the peace process.

With the possible exception of Afghanistan and Iran Sudan presents the most vivid example of extreme societal regulation through the application of shari’a. Legislation in every field has been inspired by this state interpreted form of shari’a. Socio-cultural groups who had for generations taken for granted that they practised shari’a in their daily dealings with land law, personal law or the law of inheritance for instance, have been confronted with this new shari’a legislation which renders their traditional legal ideas illegal and against the will of God.

The introduction of shari’a law and the implementation of the Islamic state may be regarded as decisive moves in the Arabo-Islamic “civilisational project” which aims at cultural hegemony of the central Nile Valley over the peripheral regions of the Sudan and the construction of a Sudanese Arabo-Islamic nation within the global umma of which Sudanese Islamic leaders view themselves as the avantgarde. The project of hegemony has met with varying responses throughout the Sudanese society ranging from overt rebellion to hidden resistance and strategic appropriation to wholehearted acceptance. An important aspect of these struggles about shari’a is the fact that beyond the articulate claims and counterclaims of the audible debate there is a largely hidden “debate” expressed in rituals, bodily performances and everyday social negotiations that tend to escape the attention of the scholar who concentrates on the public, articulate aspects of shari’a but which nevertheless constitutes a very real contested domain of contest.

[1] It should be borne in mind, however, that all estimates are unreliable and subject to the political agenda of the respective source.

[2] (down load: 8.4.2004).

[3] (down load: 8.4.2004).

[4] L. O. Manger 1994; A. U. M. Ibrahim 1985; R. Rottenburg 1991; Y. F. Hasan 1967; J. Spaulding 1995, 1985. J. Vantini 1970; R. S. O'Fahey / J. Spaulding 1974; J. M. Cuoq 1986; A. B. Theobald 1951; P. Holt 1958; N. McHugh 1994; K. Beck 1998; J. Boddy 1989; L. Holy 1991; G. P. Makris 2000; A. S. Karar 1992.

[5] O. M. O. Ali 2004.

[6] See O. Köndgen 1992; R. Seesemann 1999; A. S. Sidahmed 1997, 2001; G. Warburg 1990; G. Warburg / A. Layish 2002; A. El-Affendi 1991; C. Fluehr-Lobban 1987; Y. F. Hasan / R. Gray 2002; L. O. Manger 2001; H. Glickman 2000; Y. Ronen 1999; R. S. O’Fahey 1997; R. Marchal / O. Osman 1997; H. Abdel-Rahman 1995.

[7], (down load: 24.3.2003)

[8], (down load: 6.5.2003).

[9] Ibid.

[10] See S. Ador 2004; S. E. Brown 1997.



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