Theatrical Arts in the Sufi Utterance

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)—The Sudanese have recently celebrated the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The celebrations consist of God's utterance and renowned Sufi's poetry eulogizing the Prophet.
Dr. Fadlullah Ahmed Abdullah wrote a book in which he explained the relationship of those folklore practices on the cultural environment with the theatrical arts performance.
The author says the Sufi tendency in Sudan began with the advent of the Islamic Funj State in 1504. That State brought in from Islamic nations religious scholars and Sufis who tended to reconcile their preaching activities with the indigenous Sudanese social sentiment which was based on the notion of consecrating places and personalities, thus introducing a new element in the Islamic culture of worshipping. A prominent evidence of this is the Sufi sects which are widely spread in all parts of the Sudan.
Dr. Abdullah attributes the spread of the Sufi tendency in the Sudanese society largely to the belief which preceded entry of Islam in Sudan. The Pharaonic and Christian doctrines placed emphasis on sanctifying the individual, said the author, adding that the successive generations inherited this kind of sanctification which became an internal feeling. Thus the Sudanese Muslim society developed religious practices of theatrical forms, including the prophetic eulogy which is a form of religious singing whose properties consist of artistic elements of poetry, melody and rhythm.
This form of singing correlated to a group of eulogists and vocalists whose poetry tended to present the Sufi Sheikh into an image of a brave champion as they believe that this Sheikh is backed by a divine power and cannot be defeated by his enemies. This singing style of eulogizing and entreating the Prophet (PBUH) was based on the vocal and movement performance in harmony with the rhythm. This eulogy is performed by two or more eulogists who tour the villages where they stand in a circle of the villagers, one of the eulogists will be holding a big tambourine and another holding a smaller one. The one with the bigger tambourine commences singing beginning with the introducing verse and the listeners imitates him and this is repeated several times until the listeners memorize it by heart and then he starts singing the poem with the eulogist holding the smaller tambourine joins in. The poetry is usually in both colloquial and classical Arabic. A eulogist usually possesses an exquisite voice, a handsome face and white clean Jallabiyah and turban with the powers of attracting and exhilarating the listeners.
Another form of the Prophetic eulogy is the vocalization of an individual nature, sort of free singing unaccompanied by a musical instrument and depends on the music of the poetry.



Eulogy in Sudan is performed in a number of patterns, including one in which the eulogy is conducted in such public places as markets and parks where listeners encircle the eulogists. Some of the listeners get delighted and start performing different kinds of dancing, one dance known as ardhah and another called sagriyah (eagle-like) in which the dancers tie a child in the middle of the circle and dance around him, making frightening movements and utterances, pretending that they are going to eat him. Eulogists also imitate the way in which dignitaries and well-known persons of the community walk or eat.
Another pattern is holding eulogy inside houses where a circle is also made in the middle of which a table is placed with lit lanterns on it beside a tray on which listeners drop money as gifts to the eulogists to express their admiration. The eulogists begin by making an alert strike on the tambourine, while they are still sitting, in a slow rhythm as a sort of greeting to the audience, then they stand up and perform in a dancing speed in a concerted rhythm of the eulogists and listeners in a spiritual attraction that leads to violent dancing in the same pace of the rhythm. Some of the listeners appear tearful as a result of an extreme religious passion as a form of soul purification. At the peak of the passion, one of the listeners enters the circle with a cane which he skillfully waves in concert with the rhythm and the eulogists move backwards in a circle.
The great Sufi sects in the Sudan include the Gadriyah, Sammaniyah, Khatmiyah and Burhaniyah, according to the author of the book under review who pointed out that the Gadriyah is Africa's biggest sect which was established by Sheikh Abdul Gadir al-Jailany in the 13th century. Jailany intended to instill the religious spirit among the people and guide them, using all means of persuasion in a way that suits each individual community.
This sect spread in a number of Muslim nations, including Yemen, Turkey, India and West Africa. Some Europeans have now joined the Gadriyah sect in Sudan.

Photoِ credit: Al-Safeer
Photoِ credit: Al-Safeer

The Gadriyah Sect holds God's utterance after Friday mid-afternoon at the mausoleum of Sheikh Hamad al-Neil, one of the leaders of the Gadriyah Sect in Omdurman, within a public graveyard.
Sufi sects arrive at the mausoleum on Friday mid-afternoon, each carrying its flags, and they line for a splendid spiritual ceremony. Two men march in front of the parade carrying banners with the phrase 'There is No God But Allah' (La Ilah Ella Allah) flanked by a man carrying a drum and another man carrying a tambourine, along with the leaders of the sects. The parade marches around the square, with the senior Sheikh in the middle, chanting religious songs in harmony with the movement of the bodies. Upon reaching the destination – the tomb- the flags are set down and the senior Sheikh orders commencement of the vocalization accompanied by the beats of the drum and copper plates. In the middle of the human circles there are dervishes donned in colored patched Jallabiyah dress.
The vocalization then ceases to give way for God's utterance accompanied by a vocalist reciting a religious poem with the participants leaning right and left in harmony with the beats of the drum. The rhythm and the movement of the participants gradually grow faster and the ecstasy escalates to the extent that they forget about earthly concerns and cling to God, they stand on toes and exhale sighs and some of them weep to fainting and others mutter incomprehensible language, while yet others make unconscious actions like jumping, running and taking off their clothes.
The senior Sheikh then chooses a number of prominent figures of the Sect who move around the participants in God's utterance ritual for further reactivation of the utterance. At this point a dervish darts inside the circle and starts spinning around.
The author says the objective of his book is to explore the Sudanese folklore practices to help create a genuine Sudanese theatre that will be a real addition to the world theatre.


Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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