Modern Muslims in Sudan

In his memoir, the sociologist Steve Howard writes about experiencing Ramadan in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Cover image from Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985) was a Sudanese religious reformer and leader, who had also played a significant role in Sudan’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1940s. After a series of spiritual experiences in the early 1950s, Taha converted his political party, the Republican Party, into a social/religious reform movement known popularly as “The Republican Brotherhood.” The movement attracted a small group of dedicated followers from all over Sudan’s vastness, who concentrated on finding a respectable place for women in Islamic society and on moving closer and closer to what Taha conceived, in his seminal work The Second Message of Islam, as the path of the Prophet Mohamed which would lead to universal enlightenment and peace. Taha’s radical thinking lead to his trial on charges of “apostasy” by the Sudan government, and he was executed for this capital offense in 1985.

Steve Howard is a sociologist who directs International Studies at Ohio University and first came to Sudan as a doctoral student collecting data. His bigger Sudan agenda had been to “become a Sufi,” and his quest landed him in the middle of the Republican Brotherhood. The younger brothers lived communally near their teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and the book describes Howard’s learning how to think in the Sufi manner while immersing himself in Sudan culture. This excerpt describes Howard’s confronting the challenge of Ramadan in hot, dusty Khartoum—Oumar Ba, Editorial Board Member.


My accepting the invitation to move into one of the houses of the Republican Brotherhood coincided with my learning that the cohesive and consistent body of thought taught by Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was applied every day in the lives of his followers. The most intensive laboratory for this application was the collection of “brothers’ houses” scattered around the southern part of the Omdurman neighborhood of Thawra, and serving effectively as an experiment in democratic living. These houses were where the credo from Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s book The Second Message of Islam—reconciling the needs of the individual with those of the community—was made concrete on an experimental and daily basis. Men, some single, some married migrants to town, lived communally in these houses to be as close as possible for daily exposure to their teacher. There were brothers’ houses in other towns as well, including Wad Medani, Atbara, and El Obeid. A small group of the sisters had a communal living arrangement in Ustadh Mahmoud’s home. While Ustadh had told me at our first encounter that, unlike the conventional Sufi sects, the Republican Brotherhood did not have an initiation ritual for new members, I felt that my first Ramadan with the Republican brothers and sisters more than served that purpose. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that is one of Islam’s most fundamental practices, introduced me to a Republican life of discipline in a very physical way. My first Ramadan was also my initial exposure to the seriousness of every element of the Republican message. And Ramadan was a public stage on which the Republicans could demonstrate—in a context well known to all their neighbors and countrymen and women—that the Republican ideology provided the best blueprint for modern life.

I had been exposed to Ramadan’s rigors as a high school teacher in neighboring Chad, where I had learned that it was mighty difficult to keep a class of adolescents focused on my lesson when half its members got up to spit out the window just about every minute. My Muslim Chadian students’ understanding that swallowing saliva constituted breaking the fast was certainly not part of the Republican perspective on spit. But in that torrid Sudan June of my first Ramadan fast, saliva did not go far to make a day without food or water an easy obligation. As the temperatures in Sudan reached 100 degrees or more, I confess that I considered delaying my total embrace of the Republican way of life until after that first Ramadan was over. But after meeting Ustadh Mahmoud and many of the other brothers I was so drawn to the movement and moved by its hospitality that I jumped into my first Sudan Ramadan during Khartoum’s most searing month. While the very young, frail, pregnant, and ill are exempted from the Ramadan fast, I realized that it would not have been possible for a healthy person like myself to avoid fasting in such close living quarters; Islam is an intensely social religion. God in His mercy had made Ramadan a movable obligation, a month in the lunar calendar so its dates moved up eleven days each year in the Western calendar. A cooler Ramadan in Sudan was years away at that point.

Ramadan was associated with fasting before the coming of Islam to Arabia. But the revelation of the Qur’an made Ramadan one of Islam’s five arkan, or “pillars,” that must be followed by observant Muslims, meaning complete abstinence from all food, drink, and sex from before the sun rose to sunset. I found poetry in the scriptural test of when the day begins: when the dawning light allows one to distinguish a white thread from a black one. Like prayer, another one of the pillars, fasting has the dual nature of individual practice combined with the aggregate of community participation, an equation that can give the believer enormous satisfaction. In other words, I eventually learned that it is difficult to sustain either prayer or the fast by oneself, particularly as I moved back to my life in the secular United States. The Sufis who sought refuge for prayer and fasting in isolated spots in rural Sudan believed that they were earning extra baraka for this feat of deprivation.

The sacrifices required of the Muslim during Ramadan were tests of the limits of human physical endurance. If we were waiting for God to come, what better way to prepare? There were many Republican exercises that prepared and expanded the mind for its contests—the lectures, the readings, the discussions among themselves and with men and women on the streets. But the test provided by Ramadan, particularly when it fell in Sudan’s heat, was all about the most basic of human needs: nourishment and water. Belief in Islam is thought of as faith, an exercise of the spirit. But Ramadan shows us how Islam is also about how physical endurance is the essence of humanness. This issue works into Ustadh Mahmoud’s progressive consideration of Islam as well, that Islam evolves with human beings’ understanding of it themselves. With intense prayer, intimate knowledge of God increases, until the desire for food and other animalistic aspects of our nature fade away.

But my test in the heat was in the here and now, and was not to be joined alone. And when there are young men involved, there will be a competitive element. Perhaps not as crude as the Ramadan spitting contests of my Chadian students, but certainly one that stimulates our endurance. My residence, the beyt-al-akhwan, the “brothers’ house” resonated with the question all through Ramadan: Saim wala fatir? saim wala fatir? (Are you fasting today or not?). And conversation among the brothers often moved toward how many days one has fasted this Ramadan versus how successful one had been the previous year. Improving on one’s performance of faith was another Republican hallmark.

Of course, I stumbled myself a number of times in my own pursuit of Ramadan perfection. I remember that my first trip to visit brothers in Wad Medani took place during Ramadan. In Wad Medani I stayed as a guest in the home of Medani’s Republican leader, Ustadh Saeed. There was less commotion in that family home in the morning—no early communal prayer or meeting—so I slept through the morning’s call to prayer. The first thing I did after waking was to take my antimalaria medication (a precaution eventually abandoned as I gained more baraka). A brother in the room saw me swallow the little pill and asked, “So Steve, you’re not fasting today?” I replied that of course I was. And he quickly provided the new information that taking medicine broke the fast, God’s point being that one takes medicine if one is sick. And the sick were excused from fasting. I did observe the fast the rest of the day out of solidarity, but was disappointed to have my record spoiled so early in the fasting month.

The spare cuisine that accompanied the sunset breaking of the fast for the brothers from the houses in Ustadh Mahmoud’s neighborhood suited the Republican/Spartan design of the whole month. Plenty of baraka for everyone. That June, my first attempt at fasting, was also the time of school holidays, which meant that Republican schoolteachers from outside of Khartoum: the Gezira, Kordofan, maybe from the East or the North, came to spend the holidays near their teacher, which meant that they would lodge with us in the already cramped brothers’ houses. As the hour of sunset approached, the brothers would ready themselves for the evening by bathing and dressing, activities that often followed a late afternoon nap. Then, from each of the four houses a procession (masira) of brothers would march—chanting the name of God—through the neighborhoods to the home of Ustadh Mahmoud. They would form a half circle in front of the house, joined by the sisters who grouped to one side, and thirsty, hungry, and hot they would continue the chant for the forty-five minutes to one hour before the sunset azan signaling the end of the day’s fast. Brothers and sisters who lived outside of the network of ‘brothers’ houses’ would also start to arrive and join the dhikir. The standard expectation of practicing Muslims during Ramadan was that the fast should not be an excuse for lightening one’s daily load of work, but I did find this late-in-the-day dhikir an additional test of membership in this intense community of believers. The heat and my intensely dry mouth would sometimes force my willing spirit to just sway with the chant with my mouth closed. It was perhaps a test—within the limits of the fasting day—of our potential to forget about food and just focus on God. It was a practice for the time that Republicans were waiting to come.

But not yet. This world was still hot, and many hungry people had just chanted to bring the sun down. So labor was divided and tasks shared to get ready for the meal. Some of the brothers would bring the long straw mats out from Ustadh Mahmoud’s house and lay them in rows ready for prayer in the empty lot just west of the house. Other brothers would bring out the heavy aluminum pans filled with a large mound of asida (sorghum or millet porridge) and many spoons. The dozen or so pans were placed here and there on the mats, and brothers crouched around them, perhaps eight to ten to a pan. The tin pan descended from the ancient gada wooden bowl, still used by many good Sufi communities around the country for their communal meals. Then, a third group of brothers would come out of Ustadh Mahmoud’s kitchen—where the sisters had been fasting and cooking—with large pails of mulah, a meatless okra-based sauce to be poured over the porridge. Everyone would then dig into the porridge with the spoons provided, while some of the brothers would go around with the sauce pail to try to replenish the dish until there was no more. Off to the side brothers could help themselves to lemonade or karkedeh, the popular Ramadan drink made from dried hibiscus petals that had been prepared in large plastic barrels to quench the brothers’ thirst. If a particularly large crowd came for this simple meal (everyone was welcome, so the numbers were not necessarily predictable), a garden hose would find its way into the barrel in order to serve more guests. Loaves and fishes, Sudan style.

I found this sunset scene at once warm and overwhelming. In order to eat from the pan I had associated with what we were using in the brothers’ house to washing clothes by hand, I had to squeeze into the circle of brothers gathered tightly around it, all crouched on one knee, and balance like that while stabbing at the wobbly porridge mass in the pan—if I had been lucky enough to find a spoon! Those with more fortitude than I (or longer arms) could eat this steaming hot concoction with a bare right hand. I admired those who saved space around the circle by looping their free left arm over the shoulder of the next brother. In my weakened state—new to fasting and to the heat—I often was able to get only a spoonful or two before the dish was gone. The multitasking required—crouching and balancing while scooping asida—was beyond my skill set at that point. I did receive a great deal of encouragement from around the pan, but the brothers were hungry, too.

*This is an excerpt from Steve Howard’s new book, Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir (Ohio University Press, 2016)

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