Pundit Explores Sudanese Identity

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW) In a paper he presented during a ceremony held in his honour when he won al-Izz ibn Abdulsalam Award, Prof. Yousif Fadl, an authority on Sudan’s history and culture, spoke at length about the Sudanese identity and culture and questioned the country’s inability to stay united. He also gave some recommendations that could help keep the country cohesive and united.

This paper seeks to explore the development of the Sudanese identity and whether this identity had managed to digest the cultural diversity of Sudan. The paper also seeks to draw out an outlook towards a cohesive and satisfactory future of that identity which contributes to the stability and progress of the country.
The word culture and its definition had won the attention of historians , anthropologists, sociologists, linguists and psychologists throughout the history. However, there is a cumulative definition of the word ‘’culture’’ which is more
comprehensive and more acceptable among researchers. That definition views culture as ‘’ a complex whole of habits, traditions, norms , religions, languages, laws, behaviors and ways of thinking and all material and non-material achievements of mankind. Culture, accordingly, is well tied to the social and environmental sphere in which it exists; and from that sphere it derives its characteristics. Obviously, culture is a periscope through which the community views itself as well as other communities around it. This, indeed, applies to all the different elements of culture (race, language and religion). That, consequently, makes of culture an expression of the identity , one way or another, due to the feeling of belonging among the folks of that culture.
Meantime, cultural diversity, according to this paper, is in congruency with the definition of cultural pluralism , and , obviously, includes the diversity and plurality of the interpretations of culture. Top of these interpretations is religious pluralism and by that we mean both heavenly and animist religions.
The people of Sudan (before the separation of the South) spoke 124 languages. Language is not just a tool of communication and expression, but is also a psychological climate of its speakers and a means for reading the social and spiritual relations.
That this paper has taken the reality of cultural pluralism and diversity as a springboard persuades us to link identity with nationhood , whereby the intended meaning could become ‘’an identity that is the result of the interventions and reactions of cultural pluralism, not through the current intermingling and fusion only, but even under its current dissimilarity (or in- congruency). Nationhood, in view of this study, is (homeland in reference to the geographical and political boundaries that formed Sudan across history). It means all what lies within these boundaries. Accordingly, nationhood mentioned here is different from the connotation of ‘’people’’ whose individuals may belong to groups living in different countries like the Kurds and the Germans. On the other hand, the concept of nationhood is different from what is called for by political, linguistic or intellectual groupings like Pan-Arabism and socialism. Nationhood here does not embrace groups outside the country's borders who are bound by common cultural and intellectual bonds with other groups inside the country. And from the country's concept is derived the citizenship concept. That is the central concept for a future outlook which this paper intends to present. It is a concept parallel to and inclusive of ‘’identity’’. The identity concept is related to the legal concept of citizenship .The concept of citizenship mixes with the concept of national identity which this paper intends to formulate.
Sudan is characterized by its vast territories , long borders and diverse geography (that ranges from desert to tropical forest). This unique vastness had caused Sudan to attract many human influxes as well as diverse cultural currents. The interaction of these influences with the country’s indigenous heritage crystallized the character of Sudan and the identity of its people.
Archeological discoveries and studies indicate that three of the most important peoples that inhabited Africa had lived in Sudan since times immemorial. These are : The Negroes , the Hermits and the Semites. Negroes, or blacks, is an imprecise term used by this paper to refer to the original inhabitants who started the history of this nation and developed its culture. History tells that the first dweller of Sudan was the Sinja man (the Blue Nile’s central area) whose existence dates back to about 200,000 B.C . This human relates to the Bushmen whose decedents now live in the Northern part of the Republic of South Africa. But there is no indication for any influence of the Sinja man in the culture and ethnicity of Sudan. The area of Khartoum had seen a human activity of a black people during the early Stone Age, about the year 500 B.C. This people had settled in the area now occupied by the People’s Hospital in Central Khartoum, in the Khor Abuanja area of Southern Omdurman , in the Shahinab village in Northern Omdurman and in other places around Khartoum.
In the Northern part of the Central Nile Valley (between the First and Fourth Cataract) there settled a people known as A-Group that relates to the black Mediterranean ethnicities . The C-Group that settled in the same area in 2200 B.C was not ethnically different from the A-Group , save their mixing with some negro races.
The advent of the Nubians , known as X-Group , occurred during the reign of Merowe Kingdom(250-350 B.C ). They inhabited Merowe , multiplied and became the dominant race.
The Hamites, speakers of the Hamitic language, were one of the ancient races that came to Sudan a long time ago and settled down in the Eastern and North-Eastern parts of Sudan where the Bija live today. The Hemites were not ethnically different from the peoples that lived in Egypt during the ‘dynasties’ rule.
The northern part of the country was named and renamed several times: Wawat, Yam, Tanhisi , Tasiti and Kush. The Greeks called it Ethiopia, which interprets ‘those with burned faces’, while the Arabs called it Nubia. This region later on saw the emergence of three Christian kingdoms. For their part the locals gave the region the names: Karma, Merowe and Napata. In the 16th century A.D the southern territories of this region took the names of Funj (or Sinnar) in the South, the Fur in the far West , Tagali in today’s South Kordufan and the Masabbaat in the present Northern Kordufan. The word Sudan was not introduced until after 1821 following the Turkish –Egyptian invasion. Sudan , literally , means the land of the blacks.
The Kingdom of Karma (2500-1500BC) saw a departure from tribal rule to a monarchy. The Kingdom carried the symptoms of Egyptian civilization. Then during the 16th-11th centuries BC, the Egyptian influence became very dominant , particularly with respect to religion. However, the progress of Karma was basically due to internal development that materialized a purely African civilization.
From the nucleus of Karma civilization sprang the Kingdom of Kush (750-350 BC) whose influence extended down to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles and farther down to the Gezira and Kordufan. Kush then became an international power when its monarchs conquered and ruled Egypt.Kush then disintegrated due to economic recession and due to tribal attacks from all directions.

Then after the year 580 Christianity became the dominant religion .The royals first embraced Christianity and then the subjects followed. A century later the winds of Islam started to blow on the region, though rather shyly.
Nubia and the Bija region had seen some Arab immigration before Islam that left no cultural influence. But after Islam Arab immigrations became culturally influential. The Arab influx then peaked during the Mamluki dynasty (1250-1517) in Egypt. The newcomers opened up towards the native population. Tremendous intermarriages took place. The newcomers benefited from the Nubian inheritance law where sons inherit their mothers. This allowed half-breeds to inherit the thrones in some Nubian kingdoms. Accordingly, we saw a leader from Bani Kanz ( a branch of the Arabian Rabeea’a Tribe) to ascend the throne of the Magarra Kingdom. The inflow of Arab immigrants then increased across the Eastern Desert and later spread Westwards until it reached the Kingdom of Kanim –Borno in present Darfur in the late 14th Century. It can be noted that where the influx was dense, the Arab and Moslem influence was heavy. And where the rainfall was heavy, the Arabs opted to cattle breeding instead of camels. Gradually, Arabism came to mean language rather than race.
During the Sinnar dynasty, scholars were concerned with the recitation, memorization and interpretation of the Koran, Prophet Mohammad’s tradition (hadeeth) and the history of Islam were given due concern. However, this approach did not appeal to all Sudanese. Rather, the Sudanese masses preferred to adhere to the Sufi (mystic) orders. The Gadri Sufi order was most popular. The Sufi scholars were concerned with a ‘’behavioural’’ approach, which advocates simplicity and perpetual worship. Because of this, the public adored the Sufi sheikhs and, accordingly, the bulk of the population was attracted to Islam.
This Sufi approach weakened the zeal for the tribe and the Sufi sheikhs became the focal point in the society instead of tribal leaders.
By the 19th Century Islam and Arabic dominated the entire region north of latitude 10 degrees, save certain animist pockets in the Upper Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. Native languages continued to be spoken in the periphery. The dissemination of Islam and Arabic fostered the unity of the people. The Sinnar Kingdom was a pivot of cultural, social and spiritual cohesion among Sudanese. The Abdallab Kingdom (centred in Garri north of Khartoum) and the Funj Sultanate (centred in and around Sinnar) saw the emergence of the unified Sudanese identity we see today.
The Turko-Egyptian rule (1821-1885) expanded Sudan‘s geography, conquering and annexing areas down from Juba in the South and Suakin on the Red Sea and, later on , Darfur in the far West.
In 1880 Mohammad Ahmad al-Mahdi revolted against the Turk-Egyptian rule, citing the Turkish maltreatment of the locals and a wide-spread moral degradation as causes for his uprising. The Mahdi called for religious reform. Islam for him should be the concern of the Moslem from which he should not depart, whatsoever. The Mahdiyya state, though quite short- lived, had succeeded in perpetuating the ‘’nation’’ concept. The Mahdi’s Capital City of Omdurman became a melting pot for all Sudanese races and cultures as did the Abdallab and Sinnar dynasties before.
Then came the Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1898, which could be seen as a continuation of the Turk-Egyptian rule .That is why the public had dubbed it the 2nd Turkiyya. The Sudanese, the Mahdists in particular, resisted the Anglo-Egyptian rule and waged a lot of revolts which were nipped in the bud by the powerful British army. The colonial rulers also managed to contain and rein in the tribal leaders. It was on these leaders that the Britons relied in the confirmation of their hold on the country.
Apart from the Mahdists and the tribal chieftains, a third current emerged. This was led by the intellectuals who received European education at the Gordon Memorial College and the Military College. It was these groups that pioneered the struggle against the Britons, especially during and in the aftermath of the 2nd World War. These intellectuals had managed to perpetuate the term: Sudani( Sudanese) and country (homeland). It was the leaders of what was known as ‘The Literary Movement ‘ who strive to explore the elements of the Sudanese identity. However, their concern was confined to the Northern part of the country, forgetting about the South. That was because the Britons had closed the South against any Arab or Moslem influence, by what came to known as the Closed Districts Act of 1925.
But early and real awareness about nationalism and Sudanese identity was preached by some secret national organizations, foremost among them the Ittihad (or unity) Society) which was launched by the Gordon College graduates in 1920 that coupled literary activity with political struggle. In 1922 Obaid Haj al-Amin, an Ittihad founding member, launched the White Banner Society as a revolutionary body whose aim ‘’is to serve the high national values of the Sudan’’. One of the prominent founders of that society was army officer Ali Abdullatif who hails from the Dinka Tribe of Southern Sudan and who published a ‘’message’’ entitled ‘’The Demands of the Sudanese Nation’’, in which he called for Sudanese to govern themselves and for the termination of colonial rule. Abdullatif rejected the expression describing Sudanese as "a noble Arab people", replacing it with ‘the Sudanese noble people’.
During the 1940s and the early 1950s the advocates of nationhood and those of the unity of the Nile valley did not add much to the political and literary thought in Sudan, because their effort was pooled towards political struggle against the British rule. That effort had managed to mobilize all the sectors of the society towards independence which was successfully attained on the first of January 1956. That achievement was the result of self-awareness and the independence was a reaffirmation of the Sudanese identity in all its political, cultural and social dimensions.
But the contributions of those leaders towards the search for a unified Sudanese identity were confined to the Northern part of the country where the Arab and Islamic cultures were most dominant. They took no care of the developments in Southern Sudan. That is because the South was completely isolated from the current of events in the North. By the result, Southerners did not take any part in the building of the Sudanese identity. The separation of the South in 2011 is a solid proof of the failure of the Sudanese elite to manage the cultural diversity of the country. They had failed to formulate a national identity for the country similar to what happened in other countries. The ruling elite, who were influenced by the Arab and Islamic culture, are to blame for the rift between the North and the South that consequently tore the country apart. That is because they continued to try to impose their identity on the entire country. They insisted to coercively Islamize the South, contrary to the approach followed by the early Moslems who came to Sudan: They did not impose their faith on the inhabitants and gave them the freedom to choose.
And because the issue of identity in a country quite diverse with respect to culture and ethnicity still persists, a lot of work needs to be done. A lot of thorny issues need to be addressed. A lot of social and economic development needs to take place. All these issues require the unity of the country along the principles of true citizenship in which all have equal rights.
Our endeavour to keep what remained of Sudan united and harmonious, dictates upon us the need to recall the lesson of the near past and avoid the mistakes that led to the breakup of the country. It could be important to hold a conference to discuss the future of the Sudanese identity and to draw lessons from what had happened in the past.
Hereunder I would like to put forward some thoughts that may help in this:
The first lesson that can be learned is that the Sudanese crisis is one of identity. Many writers who tried to trace the problem of Southern Sudan had attributed that conflict to the colonial policy and the imposition of the Closed Districts Act in the South. That theory had failed to hold throughout five decades of fighting and under an independent Sudan. During that period the Sudanese failed to manage the cultural diversity of the country.
By the collapse of the external enemy theory, there emerged the internal enemy theory .That theory attributed the North-South conflict to the failure of the ruling elite to acknowledge the unique cultural characteristics of the South. That theory had materialized the 1972 Addis Ababa peace accord. But very soon the structure of that theory came down by the outbreak of the armed conflict in 1983.
The third theory, which this paper adopts, had recognized the cultural crisis. For Dr. Francis Deng the conflict is a war of a central identity that seeks to impose its visions and thoughts which are faced by smaller identities that struggle to express their own identities. This theory had won the consensus of intellectuals and theorists.
The second Lesson is that the real crisis is not in the cultural diversity but in how to deal with it. Experience had taught us that to cut the part which is different is not the best option, but, rather, the easy one. That is because the separation of the South did not solve the problem of identity. In fact it projected other smaller identities. Identity, necessary as it is, is a variable that requires the presence of ‘the other’. It is not untrue that the presence of ‘the other’ (which is different) is the main condition for identity recognition and for the discovery of the self. That is because it is through their opposites things can be recognized. Through this oppositeness, the self takes its characteristics and specifications. That is why the personal and social self is always in search of ‘another’ for whom it draws a picture through which it can recognize its own self. And although ‘the other’ is proportional in nature, given our knowledge about him, he is a necessity. That is because of the basic function he has in projecting the self. Drawing a picture for the self is inseparable from drawing a picture for ‘the other’.
‘The other’ does not always represent a single denotative each time, but ‘changes’ according to historical, political and social events and circumstances. By this ‘change’ in ‘the other’, changes the identity of the self it represents. We can find interesting examples of this in the Sudanese and Arab heritage. The Sudanese and Arab adage goes: I and my brother are against my cousin; and I and my cousin are against the stranger! ‘The other’ is in the first time the cousin, and here the identity of the self rotates around the family concept and, for certain social and historical circumstances, ‘the other’ changes to become ‘the stranger’. This change in identity is expanded to include the big family concept. The story of Antara Bin Shaddad al-Absi in the Arab mythology is also a striking example of this: Antara was ‘the other’ for the Bani Abs Arab clan because of his African Negro origin. But when Bani Abs is attacked by other Arab tribes, the tribal boundaries change whereby Arabism is no longer the criterion. The African Antara merges into the Arab self in the face of ‘the other’ which is the attacking Arab clan. Antara has sadly expressed this in this line of one of his verses: In peace they call me the son of a Negro mother and in war they call me the son of noble origin.
The current armed conflicts in Sudan and Southern Sudan prove that the crisis is not in cultural disparity and diversity, but in how this disparity and diversity could be managed. After the South separation the Southerner started to ask himself about his personal and social identity. And to answer that question there emerged the basic pre-condition: To find and identify ‘the other’. Accordingly, there crystallized certain identities in the South: A Dinka identity, a Nuer identity, a Shiluk identity etc. The situation is not any different in the Sudan .Tribal identities have also emerged: A Bija identity, a Shaigiyya identity, a Zaghawi identity and a Nuba identity etc. Some of these identities have expressed themselves in armed violence that hides behind complaint from inequality in public jobs and other grievances.
From these examples we can understand the importance of culture and the need to be neutral in the management of cultural diversity. This neutrality can constitute the basis for economic development and welfare. In order to realize the aspired unified national identity we need to work at two levels: short and long term effort.
FIRST: At the short term there is need to create a new Sudanese identity that makes of all Sudanese, diverse as they are, a one ‘other’. This new identity should be based on the constitution. The constitution should make clear the rights of citizenship and the other human rights. Such a constitution should be wide enough to include ‘the other’, with disregard to sex, politics, race, religion and culture.
The self (which is the constitutional identity of Sudan) should cater for the basic rights of ‘the other’. These are the rights of life and freedom and, from these rights branch down the rights of decent living , social justice , equitable distribution of wealth, rural development, fair wages through the specification of minimum and maximum wage and other economic rights that maintain the pride of ‘the other’. The constitution referred to here is one which is adopted by the State and which is accepted by all the public. This constitution should organize the relationship of ‘the other’ (the citizen with the state). Then come the laws that organize the relationships between the citizens. Politicians had for a long time entertained the view that the constitution should be written by the majority. This is wrong. In constitutions we should not talk about majority and minority. The minority has the right to compete for the presidency and other senior jobs. We should also avoid talk about an ‘’overwhelming identity’’.
In contemporary history we have seen American thinkers adopt the ‘’crucible theory’’ that obliges adherents of other cultures to respect the cultural identity of others. The American Constitution does not specify a certain identity or an official language, though English is practically the country’s language.
SECONDLY: At the long term the state should propagate the ‘self’ or the proposed constitutional identity by making of it an example to be followed by all the other groups. The identity thus projected should become a national doctrine that should not be changed with the changing governments. That doctrine should become a social/cultural contract that embraces all Sudanese.
Because man is the enemy of what he does not know, the state should do its best to educate ‘the other’ through the media, tourist events, and the sports and through carefully devised curricula.

*** Al-Izz ibn Abdulsalam Award is a Saudi-sponsored Sudanese prize introduced every year to a scholar of distinguished achievements. Al-`Izz Ibn `Abdus-Salaam, may Allah have mercy upon him, was one of the most famous characters of the seventh Hijri century (13th century. AD). He was a learned scholar with deep knowledge of Islamic sciences such as Jurisprudence and Prophetic narrations. He was also a great writer who authored valuable books. These were not the only reasons which caused people to love him and respect him. People loved him because he lived for them, teaching them their religious affairs, eradicating innovations in religion and superstitions, advising the rulers, performing Jihaad in the battlefields in the cause of Allaah and confronting injustice and tyranny.


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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