Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat- Controversy has arisen in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum over the increasing takfiri activity taking place in the country. This has taken place against the backdrop of the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas – a hard-line religious institute – takfiring [branding as apostate] the opposition Sudanese Communist Party [SCP] and describing them as a “cancer” on Sudanese society. The SCP strongly rejected accusations that it was an “infidel and godless” party and in turn branded the fatwa issued against it as being an example of “religious hysteria.” For its part, the government has kept a tactful silence on the ongoing conflict between both sides.
This [conflict] returned the issue of takfir to Khartoum, along with all the bloody conflict and violence that is associated with it. The initial spark in the conflict between the Communist Party and the Assembly of Ulemas took place whilst the SCP was celebrating the opening of its political office in the “Al-Jurif Gharb” district in eastern Khartoum. Elements from both sides fought with each other, although details are contradictory. The Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas said that its members went to the site of the celebrations in order to hand out a statement regarding the SCP’s activities, while the Communist party claims that what happened was equivalent to a break-in by the members of the Assembly of Ulemas, and that one of them was brandishing a knife.
The Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas which includes a number of well-known Sudanese religious figures, said that the takfir of the Communist Party was not a new thing, and that a similar fatwa was previously issued by the Al-Azhar University in the 1970s. Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas spokesman Dr. Alaa al-Din al-Zaki informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the SCP had crawled out of its hole and started to spread through Sudanese society like a cancer.
The SCP is looking at this fatwa from a political perspective, rather than a religious one, and believes that its timing is evidence of its political motivations. SCP spokesman Youssef Hussein told Asharq Al-Awsat that his party links this fatwa to the current political climate in the country, because there are certain institutes which dread coordination amongst the opposition parties on primary issues like democracy, implementing the peace accord, and elections.
Hussein added “About two months ago, we read that it was in the interest of the National Congress Party to hatch a plot to put a stop to any attempts at coordination by the opposition parties, and put an end to the Juba meeting between the Sudanese political powers. There are those who talk about the return of the Salvation Front to its original orientation. According to our experience, the SCP has always been the underdog.”
Hussein also said that he considered the fatwa issued by the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas to be religious hysteria, and said that these hysterics came by way of the Salvation Front, i.e. the Islamic regime. SCP spokesman Youssef Hussein also told Asharq Al-Awsat that he believed that the Assembly of Ulemas actions were politically motivated, and said that he considers the takfir of the SCP to be a “political takfir” and not a “religious takfir”.
The Assembly of Ulemas vehemently denied that its fatwa had any political motivations, and that what caused it to issue this fatwa was “the Communist Party crawling out of its hole and its attempt to advocate atheism to the people.” The Assembly of Ulemas spokesman added Dr. Alaa al-Din al-Zaki said “We are not a political assembly.”
A leading figure in the Assembly of Ulemas, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Karim, who is also a professor at the University of Khartoum, said that the Assembly of Ulemas had nothing to do with politics, and the fatwa takfiring the SCP was similarly non-political. Sheikh Karim also stressed that the Assembly is not a political body, but rather an independent juristic organization made up of scholars, preachers, intellectuals, university professors, and imams.
Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Karim added “The fatwa that was issued is not a temporary stance or a political tactic that can be undone in the future without a public declaration of repentance by those concerned [the SCP].”
Official religious institutions have refrained from become involved in the conflict between the SCP and those who reject takfir on one hand, and the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas on the other.
When Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to a high-ranking official in one of these official religious institutions, and asked him about his opinion about what was taking place, the official merely answered “I would rather not speak about this issue.” Other Islamic trends believe it is impossible to takfir anybody, because of the difficultly in proving apostasy on account of faith being something that exists only in ones conscience [and therefore cannot be measured.]
Leader of the Sudanese Hizb Al-Wasat Al-Islami party, Youssef al-Kowda, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that what he described as extremism in pronouncing others as apostates is a very dangerous thing, and he added that takfir against a Muslim is tantamount to killing him. He added “We are commanded to protect lives, so why take them by takfir?” Al-Kowda also stressed “No preacher or Muslim has the authority to kfir a group of people, because only the courts could deliver such a ruling and see to its aftermath such as the divorce of the unbelievers wife, exhumation from a Muslim cemetery, and so on.”
Al-Kowda told Asharq Al-Awsat “There might be a man who indulged in many apostate activities, yet we still cannot kfir him and call him an infidel due to the lack of concrete evidence.” Accordingly, al-Kowda believes that it is not permissible to kfir any party, whether it is an individual or a group saying “consequently, we cannot judge members of the Communist party as being infidels.” Al-Kowda stressed that we should only say “this act amounts to apostasy, but not take this further in order to avoid committing defamation.”
Al-Kowda believes that takfirist activities are on the rise in Sudan, describing this as “the phenomenon of excess in takfir.” He ascribed this phenomenon to the fact that “We are handling the whole issue in the wrong way” saying “we should not be violent with the takfirists but rather spread the culture of moderation amongst them through dialogue and discussion, rather than imprisonment.”
The takfirists in Sudan are not pleased at being called takfirists by their rivals and opponents, and the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas believes that those who accuse them of being takfirists are attempting to destroy their reputation. Assembly of Ulemas spokesman Dr. Alaa al-Din al-Zaki told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Assembly is comprised of preachers and scholars, and that it “only takfirs [others] when conditions are met.”
In its attack on the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas, the SCP goes beyond accusing them of religious hysteria, and in fact accuses the Assembly of following the same ideology as Al Qaeda. A prominent member of the SCP’s Central Committee, Suleiman Hamid said that the Assembly of Ulemas activities conform to those of the terrorist organizations. Suleiman Hamid also quoted a statement by Sheikh Mohamed Abdul Karim, saying “Just as the mujahedeen vanquished the communists in Afghanistan, they are capable of doing the same in Sudan.”
Those who criticize the Assembly of Ulemas present a list of takfir fatwas issued by the Assembly against a number of people and institutes in order to prove that the Assembly of Ulemas practices takfir. Within this context, the critics mention that the Assembly of Ulemas previously issued fatwas of takfir against the leader of the Sudanese opposition Umma party Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi, who is also the head of the Ansar [Sufi] sect, was issued with a fatwa of takfir and asked to perform penance by the Assembly of Ulemas after he called for men and women to be treated equally with regards to inheritance. Another group affiliated to the Assembly of Ulemas issued a fatwa of takfir by video against the religious and Islamist political leader, Dr. Hassan al-Turabi after he himself had issued a number of fatwas pertaining to women.
It is also worth mentioning that members of the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas participated in issuing the infamous fatwa of takfir against the SCP and a number of writers in the Sudanese media which was issued by a group of Sudanese clerics in 2000.
The Assembly of Ulemas also issued a fatwa of takfir against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM] and anybody affiliated to it. The Assembly also issued a fatwa of takfir against late Sudanese journalist Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed after his newspaper “Al-Wifaq” printed an article which diminished the role of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).
Experts on religious movements informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas was formed when members of the Sudan Ulama Organization – which is believed to be pro-government – felt that the Organization “tolerates some things that require clear fatwas.” They therefore decided to form the Assembly of Ulemas, whilst maintaining their membership of the Sudan Ulama Organization. Among the prominent figures in the Assembly of Ulemas is its leader, Sheikh Al-Amin Al-Hajj Mohammed Ahmed, spokesman Dr. Alaa Al-Din Al-Zaki, leading activist Dr. Mohamed Abdul Karim. The Assembly of Ulemas say the majority of their members are university professors, and graduates from Saudi universities such as Umm al-Qura University, and the Islamic University of Madinah. For example, Dr. Mohamed Abdul Karim graduated from Umm al-Qura University, and he is a professor at the University of Khartoum, whilst another Assembly of Ulemas member Dr. Abdul Hajj Yousef, studied at the Islamic University of Madinah.
It is believed that former Professor of Language at the University of Khartoum, Dr. al-Abeid Abdul Wahab, who was killed a couple of months ago whilst on the run from the security apparatus, had strong ties with certain members of the Assembly of Ulemas. It is worth mentioning that the security forces accused Abdul Wahab of promoting extremist ideologies, and planning to travel to Somalia for Jihad, and inciting others to do the same. They sought to arrest him in order to question him, but he disappeared. When the security apparatus eventually found out his location a few days later, they attempted to arrest him and he fled once again, this time on the back of a motorcycle. The security apparatus claim that a citizen threw a stone at Abdul Wahab which struck him and caused him to crash the motorcycle, however the victim’s friends and family are suspicious of this account given by the security forces with regards to the cause of Dr. Abeid Abdul Wahab’s death.
Experts say that there are a number of organizations in Khartoum which serve as arms for the Assembly of Ulemas in various fields. There are propagandist organizations such as “Mishqah” and “Zu Al-Noorayn” as well as the recently launched religious satellite television channel “Taiba” as well as an FM radio station, and the Imam Muslim Institute for Islamic Studies. According to experts, these organizations are believed to perform propagandist work for the Assembly of Ulemas, while many believe that the student organization known as “Muslim Power” which is highly active in a number of Sudanese universities, particularly the University of Khartoum, to be influenced by the ideologies of the Assembly of Ulemas.
Accounts vary as to the exact period when takfirist groups began to appear in Sudan. Some argue that they first began to appear in the 1980s, in other words, years after the emergence of the Takfir Wal-Hijra group in Egypt which was led by Shukri Mustafa. This group was originally formed in the prisons of former Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser. It began by takfiring the Nasser regime, then to takfiring [Egyptian] society at large for acknowledging the Nasser regime; the regime which practiced torture against the prisoners.
Experts in Khartoum informed Asharq Al-Awsat that a Sudanese man embraced this ideology from the Egyptians in the late 1970s and began spreading it in Sudan. However he ultimately abandoned this ideology and wrote a book vehemently condemning the takfirist ideology. These experts divide takfirist groups in Sudan into two separate categories, firstly the Takfir Wal-Hijra group and others like it which – according to expert – are very few in number. Secondly there are the groups that kfir individuals or groups such as the SCP and others, these groups exist under different names in Sudan, and they appear or disappear depending upon the situation. Politicians exploit those in the second category in order to pass their political agendas. These experts also said that the majority of takfirist groups in Sudan are described as being “Qutbists” by researchers in the field of religious movements. This name is in reference to the famous Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb. The ideology of these Qutbist groups is a mixture of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and that of the Takfir Wal-Hijra sect. Qutbists in Sudan are also called “Suroorists” after [Muhammad] al-Suroor, the founder of a group in Sudan that strongly believed in the takfirist ideology.
Experts believe that takfirist activity first appeared clearly in the 1990s, and the first group to stand up against it was the Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya group after it sensed the spread of takfirist ideology. This group engaged in several conflicts with takfirist groups, and this confrontation reached its climax when a well-known takfirist group with links to the Afghan Arabs who sought refuge in Sudan along with Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, carried out an attack on a mosque in Omdurman, which was a stronghold of the Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya group in Sudan. The attack, which was led by Mohammed al-Kholeifi, took placed during Friday Prayers which was being led by one of the most celebrated Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya leaders, Sheikh Abu Zeid Mohammed Hamza, and resulted in the death of 20 people, and the injury of dozens more. However with the trial, conviction, and execution of al-Kholeifi, this case was put to rest.
Despite this, takfirist groups continued with their campaign against Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya in what came to be known in Khartoum as the War of the Mosques. In 2001, a man called Abbas al-Baqir, who belonged to one of the takfirist groups, attacked a mosque in northern Omdurman which was affiliated to the Salafist Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya group during Tarawih prayers in Ramadan. Al-Baqir fired his machine gun into the worshippers, killing 20 and wounded 33, before he was killed at the scene of the crime.
In the first half of the 1990s, a takfirist stabbed Sudanese singer Khogali Osman to death, whilst Sudanese artist Abdul Kader Salem was injured in similar circumstances. Whilst in the second half of the decade, a group of takfirists and a group of anti-takfirist fought with knives in Sudan’s second largest city, Wad Madani. There were no casualties as a result of this clash, but there were many wounded on both sides.
Experts also attribute the assassination of US diplomat John Michael Granville and his driver on the streets of Khartoum on 1 January 2008 to Sudanese takfirists. This is backed up by information that takfirists went out that night looking for infidels in the streets of Khartoum, and that when they found the US diplomat and his driver, they shot at the car without even knowing the identity of who was in it, other than they it belonged to “foreign infidels.”
Experts do not hesitate to attribute the explosion which occurred last year in a house in the Suba district in southern Khartoum to a group of youth influenced by takfirist ideology. Reports indicate that these youth were experimenting with explosives. According to reliable sources, the interrogations learnt that the youth were influenced by leaders who spouted takfirist ideology, and some of these youth even received schooling from renowned preachers and scholars in Khartoum.
A member of the Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity said that the takfirists in Sudan were not in a constant state of organization, and that it is sometimes hard for them to find a well-known outlet. They are, in most cases, groups which react to developing events. They chiefly operate from within mosques, and are spread throughout Khartoum and country, particularly in the Al Jazirah State, as well as Abu Quta, south of Khartoum.
The Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya activist also believes that it would not be difficult to infiltrate the takfirists in Sudan because they are not operating in an organized manner, therefore it would not be hard to get them under control. He also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the government sought the takfirist groups’ help in dealing a blow to the Salafist Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya group in the 1990s, when the government was in a state of confrontation with its opponents.
However a reliable [Sudanese] governmental source said that the government avoided any encounter with the takfirists, and pointed out that some takfirist leaders were arrested following a series of violent attacks involving the takfirists. However the source clarified that the government did hold dialogue with these takfirists whilst they were imprisoned. He added that some of them abandoned their takfirist ideology, while others desisted from issuing fatwas of takfir against the government.
Experts have not ruled out the possibility that certain governmental sectors occasionally benefit from takfirist groups, as they rouse public opinion, which allows the government to pass certain decisions or bills. There are those who argue that takfirism in Sudan dates back to the Funj Sultanate of Sennar in 1504, which was also known as the Blue Sultanate, and was the first Islamic kingdom to rise in Sudan following the spread of Islam and the Arab language.
A Sudanese researcher into Islamic movements informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the takfirists appeared during this period and enjoyed the favor of the royal court, which sought their assistance at specific times in order to deter their enemies. The researcher added that these takfirists were also utilized by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Mohammed Ali Pasha, during his governance of Sudan, in order to put an end to the actions of their opponents in Sudan. However the outbreak of the al-Mahdi revolution in Sudan which was orchestrated by Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi in 1881 dealt a severe blow to the takfirists and almost wiped them out. Al-Mahdi called the takfirists “scholars of evil” and believed that the British occupation of Sudan in 1885 used the takfirists so-called Omdurman Council of Scholars to pass many domestic bills without being subject to local pressure.
The Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya researcher who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity went on to say that the takfirists experienced a resurgence in 1903 in the Grand Mosque of Omdurman when they began to issue fatwas of takfir against a number of institutions, and that following this their fortunes in Sudan witnessed ebbs and flows. The takfirists experienced a high point during the era of Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry, as Numeiri resorted to takfirist ideology in his conflict with the Sudanese Republicans, and had Republican opposition leader Mahmoud Mohammed Taha executed after takfiring him and charging him with apostasy.
The Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya researcher also believes that the famous war of words which erupted between Al-Turabi and President Omar al-Bashir and their followers led each of the two parties to takfir the other.
Islamist intellectual al-Tayeb Zayn al-Abidin commented on the takfiring of the SCP by saying that the criminal code covers many crimes, but it does not include takfiring anybody as this is far more dangerous because it threatens the life of the individual accused, and undermines the security and safety of society. He added that it would be outrageous to be accused of apostasy for merely practicing a political and intellectual right granted by law and the constitution.
Othman Omar al-Sharif, a leading figure in the Democratic Unionist Party of Sudan, in a statement made in Khartoum, warned of the consequences of takfiring individuals or parties. He said “Those who have reservations towards or challenges against the Communist Party should have presented them during the period which followed the party’s registration. But to try and do this right now means that there is some political motivation involved.”
In 2003, a group of writers, lawyers, and journalists formed a group called the “Movement for the Sake of Conscience.” The group’s main goal is to confront takfirist activity in Sudan. A memorandum was presented by this group to President al-Bashir calling for him to work towards ending takfirist activity in Sudan; especially as such ideology may drag the entire country into a cycle of violence. The Movement for the Sake of Conscience is not active on a regular basis.