North Sudanese Culture

Religion

The official state religion of Sudan is Islam. Indeed, the majority of the Sudanese population identify as Muslim, generally belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam. The religion deeply influences governance and daily life, playing a dominant role in the nation’s politics. It is deeply infused in the personal, political and legal lives of most of the population. Religious methods and schools of Islamic thought often form the basis of political ideologies. The government is dominated by an Islamist Party (NCP) that is an offshoot of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, many laws are founded on the doctrine of Islam. 

 

The Criminal Act 1991 is based on shari’a rulings, which means that certain behaviours that do not abide by Islamic principles are criminalised in law. Apostasy (riddah), blasphemy and conversion from Islam to another religion are all considered criminal offences. Any Muslim who questions the validity of Islam or the holiness of the Prophet can be considered guilty of apostasy. Acts may be punishable by death in some circumstances. Religious minorities are also susceptible to being prosecuted under many of these laws, including minority Muslim groups. For example, official anti-Shi’a rhetoric is common. Such rules limit the religious freedoms of the Sudanese population, particularly for non-Muslims. Atheism is also considered a form of apostasy

 

Most non-Muslims live in the regions along the southern border or in the urban cities. These include multiple denominations of Christianity, as well as some animists. Since South Sudan became independent in 2011, the official government estimate has shown North Sudan to be almost completely religiously homogeneous. The government believes that 97% of the population follow Islam, while only 3% are Christians or animists. It is unclear whether state figures take into account the fact that not all South Sudanese Christians migrated to South Sudan after its independence (see Religion in the South Sudanese profile). Furthermore, some have returned back to North Sudan since the outbreak of more conflict in the south. Other statistical bodies indicate the portion of the Sudanese population belonging to a religious minority is roughly 9.4%.1


Islam in Sudan

The widespread practice and institutionalisation of Islam has been powerful in forming the idea of a ‘Sudanese Muslim’ identity. Furthermore, as Islam differentiates the North Sudanese population from their Christian counterparts in South Sudan, the religion has come to be seen as a core part of the national identity. 


The Sudanese government imposes and promotes one of the most conservative interpretations of Islam – Wahhabist fundamentalism. However, interpretations of Islam and levels of conservatism vary throughout the country. Many Sudanese people’s interpretation and practice of Islam is more moderate than the government’s official position. Generally, most Sudanese Muslims belong to the Sunni Maliki school of thought. There is also quite a wide traditional following of Sufism (a mystical strain of Islam that emphasises a personal connection with God). Other Muslim minorities include the Shi’ites and Republican Brothers. 


People express their faith on a daily basis through dress, dietary codes, regular prayer and frequent references to Allah’s (God’s) will or blessing. For example, reverence of Allah is quite evident in the way many people speak; it is common to slip praise into casual conversation. It is also normal to hear Sudanese frequently referring to God with statements about the future often containing the statement ‘inshallah’ (‘God willing’). This shows the dominant belief that the future is ultimately determined by God’s will. 


One’s faith is generally a personal matter for most Sudanese Muslims. However, the government's implementation of a shari’a-based criminal code has increased the visibility of religious conservatism. Therefore, Muslims in Sudan tend to appear quite public about their Islamic beliefs. 


Christianity in Sudan

There has been a historically enduring population of Coptic Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians in Sudan, as well as Syrian Maronites and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Most of these Christians live in urban areas and may be descendants of immigrants from Egypt, Ethiopia or other surrounding countries. As a result of modern missionary activity, many other denominations of Christianity are also practised (such as Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and many Evangelical churches). These are often practised by African tribes in the southern regions of Sudan. Today, the majority of Sudan’s Christian population live in urban areas or in the Nuba Mountains. 

 

It is reported that Coptic and Roman Catholic churches have been operating within the limitations set by the Sudanese government, and have been able to freely practise their faith without interference from authorities in doing so.2 However, many other Christian denominations that are less established face particularly difficult conditions getting approval in Sudan. Some laws limit their religious freedom. Occasionally, they have faced suppression of their public religious practices. As a result, most Christians have left North Sudan. Many migrated to South Sudan after its independence. Some have migrated to Egypt, where they may face further exclusion. Others have since moved to a third country.


1 Pew Research Forum, 2017

2 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

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