A number of reasons had contributed to the spread of Islam in Eastern Sudan during the pre-colonial period. The term ‘Eastern Sudan’ was used a long time ago to describe what is currently known as Republic of Sudan. This term existed until Sudan gained independence from the British colonialists. Islam had spread to Eastern Sudan because several factors compelled Arab conquerors from Egypt to shift to the regions, situated to the south of Aswan. The paper will study the role of trade and migration in the process of Eastern Sudan Islamization. The position of Islam and Muslims in the area will be also researched.
One of the greatest factors that made Arabs move from Egypt southwards was harassment that Arab Muslims experienced from Bejas and Nubians (Gallab p. 5). The former were dissatisfied with Arabs, whose invasion of Egypt subjected their Christian counterparts to the Arab domination. Another key reason that caused the spread of Islam to Eastern Sudan was trade, as well as commercial interest, of the trade classes. Many Muslims managed to enter Eastern Sudan and run their trading activities in the area. Eventually, Islam traders began to settle in various parts of the country; their cultures, in turn, started to dominate in different areas of Eastern Sudan. The main aim of the settlers was to influence the culture of the inhabitants, who had been living in these territories for years, in order to make them adopt the Islam culture, as well as the new religion. Another key factor that contributed to spreading of Islam to some parts of Eastern Sudan was their religious desire to create a background for Islam in Beja and Nubia regions
According to Yusuf Fadl Hassan, who is a renowned Sudanese Scholar, Islam used three routes to gain access to various parts of Eastern Sudan where they established their residents and hoped to stay in the country for a long time. According to Hassan, one of the main routes that Islam used included entry over the Red Sea, either using the existing Red Sea ports of Badi directly or the Ethiopian territory. Other two routes that they used include, Suakin and Aydhab. According to this point of view, the number of Islam immigrants who used the Red Sea route to enter Eastern Sudan might have been significantly more, as compared to the number of immigrants that took the Egypt route.
Hassan further explains that immigrants, who used Aydhab route, were to a great extent responsible for the steady and progressive Islamization of Eastern Sudan. Using this route, many immigrants gained access to the Nubian territory without any consent from the authorities. According to Fadi Hassan, the last route was perceived to be the least significant one. This was the route through North-West Africa, which many religious men used. In addition, this was the path that Sufi men of Islam used to move from Western Sudan to a place called Makkah, or Egypt. This path was also used by people, who took and endeavored to promote their religious beliefs from the North African desert, so as to influence the religious beliefs of people, living in Baja land, and other tribes and communities, which lived along the Nile River.
During the pre-colonial period, when these movements were taking place, both Muslims and Nubian Christians maintained peaceful relations. Both parties respected the Baqt treaty, which was aimed at promoting peace and harmony between the two groups. This treaty played an extremely critical role in promoting peace and remained a vital background for healthy coexistence between the two religious communities for over six centuries. The treaty, for example, stated that no citizen of the two countries was allowed to move to the other one for permanent dwelling. According to Fadi Hassan, history provides concrete evidence that many Muslim traders started to enter Nubia after the signing of the Baqt treaty. As a result of this treaty, the number of Islam traders and immigrants increased significantly. The growing population of the Muslims entering Nubia served as a good opportunity for Islamic forces to takeover Eastern Sudan.
The movement of Muslims to Eastern Sudan during the Pre-colonial period caused a situation where Nubian Christians began to experience significant influence of the Muslim Arabs. The last had been penetrating to Eastern Sudan from Upper Egypt in small numbers for many centuries; eventually, Nubia passed into the hands of Muslims. According to the history, a region called Al-Maris was the first part to experience the effects, since the Arab Muslims settled and started to intermarry with the autochthonic inhabitants of that region. This facilitated the faster spread of the Islamic culture and religious beliefs across the region and, eventually, other parts of Eastern Sudan. One of the most vital element that favored Arabs in the entire region was Bilad Al-Sudan. This was a matrilineal system that granted Arabs full advantage, and this enabled them to gain enormous power and influence in the newly adopted region of Al-Maris (Insoll).
Arabs had continued to penetrate and settle in Nubian land for many years; with time, Muslims took control over the Nubian throne. This happened during the time when Sayf al-Din ‘Abdullah Barshambu; king’s Dawud nephew, was announced the king by the Mamluk forces. Ayf al-Din ‘Abdullah Barshambu was the first marionette king chosen by the Mamluk, although he also happened to be the first to profess Islam (Hareir and Mbaye p.29). His conversion to Islam facilitated immense Islamization of the whole kingdom. With the Nubian communities slowly drawn into Darul Islam, Arabs endeavored to search more converts in other parts of Eastern Sudan. This played a significant role in the rapid spread of Islam in Eastern Sudan during the pre-colonial period.
The relationship between Arab Muslims and inhabitants of the western coast of the Red Sea can be traced back to the era of the Prophet. During the time of Makkan harassment, he directed several followers to migrate to a place called Abyssinia. This great occurrence in the early history of Arab Islam created an opportunity for these people to make the acquaintance of Muslims. Around 640 A.D., many Muslim merchants were extremely active in Abyssinia; In fact, the first Arab Muslims moved to one of the Sudanese ports called Badi in the same year. As a result of the trade activity and warfare, Arab Muslims managed to gain access and conquer the Beja territory (Quinn p. 19).
Initially, Beja community was Christians. However, due to constant attacks and counter-attacks, the spirit and beliefs of Islam conquered people, and Muslims emerged to be the principal force in the area. As a result of Muslims predominance, mosques were established with the aim of spreading Islam in the entire region. Additionally, trade and commerce thrived and made Beja adopt Islam intensively.
Islamization in Beja region strengthened during Al-Mu’tasim reign, and during this reign, various programs disadvantaged the position of many Muslims in terms of their financial rights. This strategy, implemented by the new Egypt ruler, made many Arab Muslims focus on farming, and this eventually made many of them prefer settling in Beja region for permanent dwelling. There was a massive settlement of Muslims in the region and other parts of Eastern Sudan. Between 1058 and 1261, pilgrims from North-West Africa and Egypt moved through Beja country while paving the way to Mecca. This exposed Beja inhabitants to the Muslim influence, thus leading to quick spread of Islam in the region (Levtzion p. 13).
On the other hand, although Arab Muslims tried hard to win the hearts of people from Eastern Sudan, as in the case of Beja region, the native inhabitants were resistant in accepting Islam beliefs. Therefore, Islamization of the region, resistance of autochthonic population were some among the reason that made the children of Darul Islam struggle to put Eastern Sudan under their control. Trade was another important reason. According to Fadl Hassan, the Islamization process in Eastern Sudan contributed to Arabization of the region. It is worth noting that the Arabic language was not only used by Muslims, but it also developed to be a language of trade and international communication. The wide spread of Arabic and Islam facilitated trade in different parts of Eastern Sudan since Arab Muslims and converts were able to communicate well using the common language. Such circumstances provided an ample opportunity for Arabs and Eastern Sudan inhabitants, who converted to Islam, to make business though exchanging goods, commonly referred to as the barter trade.
Islamists in Eastern Sudan during the Pre-Colonial Period.
After the Arab Muslims had gained access to various parts of Eastern Sudan, they built their homes and settled side by side with the autochthonic inhabitants of that region. Additionally, they managed to influence inhabitants of Eastern Sudan and took over power from them. This made the Muslims more powerful, and they started to gain control over the territories. Their presence in the area resulted in many transformations, for instance, they facilitated the Arabization process. They also changed the religious beliefs of many people in that region and converted them to Islam. Moreover, they shaped the traditions of the society; eventually, population of the region adopted the Arabic culture. Before the era of colonialism, their influence in the country played a significant role in the development and flourishing of the power groups, interrelations, and social classes in Sudan (Lewis p.41).
For a long time, some Islam governing initiatives in Eastern Sudan had been acceptable in the society while some of their practices had been totally rejected and resisted by some or all population. However, some of these policies played a critical role in helping Eastern Sudan to develop its own identity. Today, they are still applicable in the Republic of Sudan. Acceptance and adoption of Islamic culture and linguistic traditions through slow Islamization of the Eastern Sudan played a key role in ensuring that Islam would be successful and flourish in the country. The Arabic language and Islamic traditions were directed in various parts of the country; some of them were adopted by the society while others were not accepted. This uncommonness in the influence, assimilation, and distribution of the Islamic culture, beliefs, and Arabic language acted as the main factors behind the emergence of the ethnic and cultural boundaries, as well as the association, in the whole country. These factors were the key sources for integration and conflicts that had affected the lives of people of Sudan for about five centuries consistently (Baumann p. 7).
During the period, there were two main sultanates in Eastern Sudan, which included Darfur and Sinnar. These two sultanates had ensured that their religious ideals, as well as their identity and policies, were incorporated in some parts or the Eastern Sudan territory. However, Sultan Badi of Sinnar and Sultan Tirab of Darfur were unable to attain what was accomplished by Muhammad Ali, who was the Sultan of Egypt in 1820-1821, or what was achieved in 1881 by Muhammad Ahmed al-Mahdi through revolution.
The persistent processes of trade, war and peace, migration, intermarriages and resettlement, as well as steady development of Islamization aimed at converting people of Eastern Sudan into Islam freely. The main reason behind the conversion was the fact that the Islamic cultures and religious beliefs had intensified their influence in various parts of Eastern Sudan, especially through trade where Arabic was used as the language of business. As a result, Eastern Sudan inhabitants were compelled to learn the language, in order to participate in trading activities. Eventually, this attracted them to convert to Islam and enhanced the widespread of religion to other Eastern Sudan regions. Although the process of the adoption has taken place mostly before the colonial period, its effects are still evident in many parts of the country.
Despite the fact that the British colonialists promoted Christianity among the Eastern Sudan Inhabitants, a large number of people who had already converted to Islam, resisted changing their religious faith to Christianity again, despite the endeavor from the colonialists. The majority remained true to Arabic language and Muslim religion; although, some opted to follow Christians. On the other hand, despite the massive endeavor by the Arab Muslims to influence people from Eastern Sudan to convert to Islam and learn the language, not all people agreed to act this way (Holt p.50). Some inhabitants were resistant to Islam influence and continued to profess their traditional African religions or Christianity. This is the main reason as to why people in the modern Republic of Sudan come from diverse religious groups, today.
According to Jay Spaulding, a renowned scholar, who focused on the study of pre-colonial Islam in Eastern Sudan, the difference that was evidenced in the new form of government during the pre-colonial period did not signify allegiance to Islam. He claimed that it was caused by finality of ideological commitment of society to faith, as well as new purposes that it was expected to serve (Spaulding p. 27). Conversely, the difference in the religions’ development, experienced in Eastern Sudan, was an essential element of the system that arose in the country after the 15th century.
Moreover, many Arab Muslim nations, who neighbored Eastern Sudan, had considered the country and its inhabitants to be foreigners for many centuries. They did not regard the relationship of people from Sudan to the Arabs and Islam culture as relevant, after the 15th century. As a matter of fact, the ethnic and cultural difference among Sudan inhabitants, as well as racialization of Sudanese as different, granted Muhammad Ali, the Wali of Egypt or the Ottoman viceroy, an ample opportunity to invade Sudan between 1820 and 1821. This invasion denied people their human rights. Muhammad Ali used his forces to hunt slaves, who were harassed and used in the transportation of the gum Arabic, ostrich feathers, gold, and other natural resources direct to his colonialist state. Under his and his family’s leadership, Eastern Sudan became a hunting ground of slaves, which later became the primary function of the country. As a result of the slave hunting that rocked Sudan during the pre-colonial era, this region had been perceived consistently as the frontier and a leading source of cheap labor force and other valuable resources. Muhammad Ali considered slaves to be among the extremely valuable resources, since they were used to facilitate trade between his and neighboring countries (Houtsma p. 57).
During this period, Muhammad Ali directed his sons, Muhammad Bey and Ismail, to hunt as many slaves as possible and import them to his territories in large numbers. Regardless of the attitude of the Eastern Sudan population and the Islam religion, Muhammad Ali considered people from this region as the best group to be hunted as slaves. He needed extra labor force, to facilitate the trade, as well as work on his territories. According to Pierre Tremaux, a France traveler, who organize a visit to that region in 1847 and 1854, and as explained in the book Voyage to Eastern Sudan, the only benefits that Muhammad Ali derived from slaves hunted from various parts of Eastern Sudan was commerce in ivory, livestock, selling of slaves just to name a few. This implies that, Muhammad Ali directed his force to hunt slaves from Eastern Sudan with the aim of using them in trading activities in the region. They were mainly used in the transportation of goods to various places, where barter trade was carried out. Through this process, Muhammad Ali’s administration was able to transport many goods to various locations inside and outside the country. Exchanging of goods and income that they received from the business transactions helped in boosting the stability of the region.
On the other hand, another benefit that Muhammad derived from the hunting of slaves were profits gained from selling of slaves. Muhammad directed his two sons to hunt more slaves not only with the aim of facilitating trading activities, but also with the intension of selling the cheap labor force to other countries, and this served as a source of income. The historical outcome of differences, its physical and symbolic consequences as well as the various forms of violence that emerged as a result of such an impulse, has caused various types of violent and peaceful socialization processes during the ages of conquest, hegemony, and domination. All the processes of hunting slaves by Muhammad Ali’s forces happened before the colonialism era, and colonization period started just after the end of Muhammad’s reign and became more progressive in the 1870s.
In conclusion, the autochthonic population of Eastern Sudan had experienced influence of the Islamic religion and culture for many years. The first attempts to convert people of the country to Islam were done via peaceful means. Trade and immigration became the main factors of the Islamization process in the region. On the other hand, Muhammad Ali’s reign involved oppression and discrimination of people in Eastern Sudan. His policy was cruel and unfair.