Salafis vs Sufis: A Simmering Conflict in Sudan
By: May Ali
Published Wednesday, March 14, 2012
A new kind of conflict is brewing underneath the surface in Sudan between Salafis and Sufis, with some predicting that tensions may turn into civil strife.
Khartoum - Muhammad Jadeen wanted to celebrate love on Valentine’s Day so he went to the shore of the Nile next to the island where he lives. He thought the murmurs he heard were from a musical concert. But he soon realized that the sound was coming from a tent where a preacher belonging to the group Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah was giving a sermon about banning Valentine’s Day celebrations.
According to Jadeen, the audience did not like the preacher’s speech, so they quietly left the area.
While this incident was peaceful, another one required police intervention to break-up clashes between the two largest religious sects in Sudan, namely, Ansar al-Sunnah and Sufis.
The fighting broke out as people belonging to Sufi groups were celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday on 5 February 2012, which is considered heretical by Ansar al-Sunnah.
The people of Sudan are known to be “pious by nature,” which has led them to generally adopt moderate religious views and religious tolerance – rarely seen in the region – not only between different Muslim sects but between Muslims and Christians.
Nevertheless, there has been a simmering conflict between followers of Sufi groups and Salafi movements, even though it has not manifested itself violently.
This conflict can be described as the “eternal dispute” between two methods. The first is Sufi, which played an important role, according to historians, in spreading Islam in Sudan.
But this role has been described as a “historical fallacy” by the Salafi movement represented by Ansar al-Sunnah, a group that originates in the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia.
The main dispute between the two sides centers on the Salafi movement’s belief that all the ideas and actions of Sufism are baseless “heresies and perversions” that ought to be extinguished.
Members of Ansar al-Sunnah claim to follow the sunnah of the Prophet – i.e., the ways, teachings, and activities of Mohammad – to eliminate wrong-doing.
One Ansar al-Sunnah cleric insisted that his group’s approach to ending wrong-doing is by verbal preaching, i.e., by speaking out against it. He added their intellectual convictions discourage them from using the method of the hands.
He denied that Ansar al-Sunnah were behind a recent incident in which Sufi domes were destroyed. According to the cleric who preferred to remain anonymous, one should demolish the idea before demolishing the building.
The cleric told Al-Akhbar “there is a third party that is doing this, which has an interest in fomenting sectarian strife.”
He also said there is now a truce between his group and the government after the latter attempted and failed to contain it.
There is a sense of apprehension among the Sudanese. They are afraid that what happened is the beginning of a new form of sectarian strife.
After all, the average citizen may not differentiate between Ansar al-Sunnah and the more extreme takfiri groups that regularly resort to accusing others of apostasy.
The question in Sudan today is whether the country is in the opening stages of a sectarian upheaval.
The head of the Islamic Wasat Party Yusuf Koda, who was once a leader in Ansar al-Sunnah, did not rule out that possibility.
He cautioned against the dangerous turn that the relationship between the sects in Sudan is taking. According to Koda, recent clashes between Ansar al-Sunnah and Sufis, even if accidental, are still seen as a seed of sectarian division that can develop and get worse.
He told Al-Akhbar: “We are not immune to the sectarian fanaticism that is afflicting other Islamic nations and that can lead to warring and fighting.”
He thinks it is important to address this issue by providing and conveying many types of Islamic jurisprudence that are not available today to the Sudanese people.
He pointed out that “we lack many of the rules of jurisprudence and morality that our righteous predecessors were armed with when they faced similar challenges.”
The Former Minister of Islamic endowments in the State of Khartoum, Osman Bashir al-Kabashi, himself a Sufi cleric, is betting on traditional Sudanese values, specifically tolerance and co-existence, to immunize Sudan against any religious or sectarian strife.
He admitted to Al-Akhbar that there are indeed disturbing signs of divisions that people should be wary of and that the government and society should contain the crisis by invoking these Sudanese values which are also Islamic values.
He also stressed the need to contain the violent incidents that have begun to take place in the form of attacks on Sufi domes and shrines, and to deal with the culprits in accordance with religious and secular laws. The former minister added that attacks on sacred sites, no matter who they belong to, should be strictly forbidden and the perpetrators held to account.
Al-Kabashi, who led an initiative to reconcile the two sides, pointed out another important issue, and that is the need to maintain a moderate religious discourse that does not rely on sensationalism.
By this, he meant the discourse of insults and recriminations often used by some religious groups that accuse their opponents of apostasy.
Al-Kabashi called on everyone to reach a consensus around an honor agreement to develop a religious discourse that prohibits and criminalizes any verbal provocation or violence between the two sides, because “war begins with words.”
Putting Pressure on Ansar al-Sunnah
It seems that the incident around celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday will not go unaddressed.
Sufi lawmakers demanded that the government put pressure on Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah.
There is no doubt that the truce between the government and Ansar al-Sunnah is on its way out and will be followed by a period of open confrontations.
The government in Khartoum announced that it is banning the clerics of Ansar al-Sunnah from speaking in public areas like squares, public gardens, and markets.
For their part, Ansar al-Sunnah accused the minister of endowments in the state of Khartoum of incitement against the Salafis in general and Ansar al-Sunnah in particular.
It is clear that by pressuring the government to make this decision, the Sufis dealt a blow to Ansar al-Sunnah, especially since these public forums represent the only link to the public, as most people do not go to mosques where Salafi imams preach.
Information leaked to Al-Akhbar from within the state government indicates that there are plans, spearheaded by an influential person, to have Sufi affiliation be a precondition for assigning imams to the mosques that belong to the endowments ministry in the entire state.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.