he air feels heavy with heat and humidity and the growing number of human bodies congregating outside the Hamid al-Nil mosque. They come in small groups or alone until the crowd numbers at least 500. Intrigued tourists, eager to witness – and perhaps partake in – the weekly spectacle, swell their ranks.
Feet stomp the parched earth as clouds of incense smoke rise through the sky. Drums beat and the low hum of chanting grows steadily louder. Men in patchwork robes of green, gold, and red or simple white gowns begin to swirl and shuffle, jump and dance. Some hold walking sticks aloft like swords in battle. One stands out, regal in a flowing animal print robe and shoulder-length dreadlocks.
This is Omdurman, the largest city in Khartoum state, on the western bank of the River Nile, and these are the dervishes of the al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya order of Sufism performing the ritual of zikr, which takes place here every Friday from early afternoon until nightfall, by which point many of its practitioners will be deep in a trance. These Sufis – men, women, and children – come from across the vast city of Khartoum and from all walks of life, united in their remembrance of God through chanting, meditation, prayer, and dance.
‘Drums beat and the low hum of chanting grows steadily louder’
Along with them come a swarm of street vendors who set up their stalls on the sandy ground, ready to capitalise on the presence of so many devotees and international observers with a selection of “special healing” spices.
It seems an unusual setting for such a scene. Simply constructed but boldly painted - in various shades of green and gold - the mosque is striking, although hardly grand. It houses the shrine of the order's founder, Sheikh Hamid al-Nil. But his is not the only body nearby. A cemetery of simple sand headstones sits beside the mosque, adding, perhaps, to the intrigue and mysticism of this far from sombre occasion.
Sudan’s Sufis make up the largest national Sufi community in the world. But the various orders operate independently, dress differently, and adopt diverse chants. Each one is formed around a sheikh, although their emphasis is on finding a personal path to God. And what unites them is the belief that this can be achieved through total absorption in worship during the practice of zikr – that, and the annual gathering of all the orders on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in Khartoum, during which prayers are held and stories from the prophet’s life are told.
hirty-eight-year-old Atef Amir Agnai from El Gezira state, in the east of the country, has been a Sufi for the past 25 years. He has become a regular at the Friday gatherings at the Hamid al-Nil mosque over the past decade.
“We inherited the way we wear the cloth by following the prophet’s followers,” he says of his own colourful patchwork robe.
“To me Sufism is about being modest and disciplined in your prayer, zikr and remembering God and the way of the prophet.”
Followers of the al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya order have been gathering here to do just that for decades. Among them there are children and the elderly, the rich, and the poor.
Eleven-year-old Mohammed Ismail from Khartoum has been coming with his friends for the past month. His parents encourage his interest in Sufism, and he says he’d soon like to wear the green robes of the dervishes.
“I feel happiness and joy every time I come here,” he says. “I like their dancing and singing and chanting. They wear weird outfits. I would like to wear something similar.”
he al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya sect is just one among many in Sudan.
The others include the Tijaniya, which was established in Morocco, but reached Sudan in 1810, and is now the largest Sufi movement in the western part of the country, and the Samaniya, whose followers are distinctive in their white robes and brown belts and who attempt to reach God by repeatedly uttering the words ‘La Ilaha Illallah’ (‘There is no God but Allah’) as they bow.
Many of the local groups belong to larger international orders. And while each of these parent movements follows the same basic principles, the practices of their local offspring may be influenced by the culture of the country in which they operate.
‘The prophet was a man of religion and a statesman, so were his followers’
The al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya order differs from many of the others in one important respect: It does not believe in the separation of religion from politics.
Sheikh Mohammed el-Sheikh el-Reeh el-Sheikh Ishaq el-Reeh, the leader of the order in Khartoum, explains: “Religion is politics; separating religion from politics is secularism. The prophet was a man of religion and a statesman, so were his followers.”
He says it is a mistake to consider Sufism a religion and that it is, rather, a philosophical discipline that governs all aspects of life, religion among them.
“It is just a philosophical way of life that takes its principal foundation from Islam,” he explains, adding that it can also be found in Judaism and Christianity.
ut while Sufis may be known for their tranquility and desire to avoid confrontation, that hasn’t always stopped others from seeking to engage them in conflict. Hostility has long simmered between some Sufi groups and some Salafi movements.
Socially and religiously conservative, most Salafis are fervently opposed to Sufism.
Reeh recalls the time Salafis attacked his order's annual celebration of the prophet’s birthday in 2012. "They attacked us and the authorities had to stop it. But we believe that they put a flame next to the gasoline, as we say, when they allowed the Salafis to have their own tent in the middle of our celebration. Salafis don’t believe in celebrating [the prophet’s birthday], so the clash was inevitable."
Dozens of people were injured before the Sudanese police arrived.
‘They attacked us and the authorities had to stop it’
But even about this, Reeh appears relaxed. He is happy to offer a glimpse into his world to anybody interested to see it.
"We meet every Friday here and it's a good way for us to catch up,” he says. “We do this zikr partly as entertainment for us and also as a spiritual act.”
“The attendance of tourists is okay. They come to visit other sights in Sudan. For them seeing the way we are dressed and the drumming, they see it as an African folklore. And all are welcome, so it’s not just a show for us.”
‘And all are welcome, so it’s not just a show for us’
A SUFI IN SUDAN
‘Religion is politics’
‘I feel happiness and joy’
‘All are welcome’
‘These Sufis come from across the vast city of Khartoum and from all walks of life’
‘We inherited the way we wear the cloth by following the prophet’s followers’
‘I feel happiness and joy every time I come here’
‘It is just a philosophical way of life that takes its principal foundation from Islam’
By Sorin Furcoi and Fatma Naib
Design by Yarno Ritzen