Saturday, April 11, 2015

Journal Entry for January 31: Visit to Sufi Mosque

Last evening I went to a Sufi mosque in Omdurman to watch part of their worship service. The Sheikh of the Summaniyya sect invited me when I first met him last year. The Sufis are a major tradition in Islam going back several hundred years. There are many Sufi “schools”, or sects, each founded by a particular sheikh (teacher). Sufi sects are various disciplines of worship usually seeking some sort of mystical (or inner) union with God (Allah). Some achieve this through music and dance. The “whirling dervishes” come from those Sufi sects that find mystical transport through dance. Sufism is popular in Sudan and fits the mostly gentle and tolerant approach of the Sudanese people. Sufism is pretty much the exact opposite of Islamist extremism.

The three largest sects in Sudan – the Mahdiyya, Khatmiyya and Summaniyya – are Sufi. Sheikh Hassan Qaribullah invited me to attend part of the prayer ceremony that actually started in the early afternoon and went on until late night. I arrived at 5:30 as they started the chanting phase and left – after a cup of tea with the Sheikh’s son – as they went into quiet prayer and discussion.

The ceremony took place outside of the Mosque on a street closed for the event on every Friday. The ground was spread with carpets and I took my shoes off to enter. Carpets were hung also on the fences and walls. Younger men were on one side and the sect’s elders on the other. They were chanting and bowing when I got there. Summaniyya is popular in Islamic Africa and I can see why. The chanting and movement was very African. The men did not dance in the sense of moving around but they did in place every dance step I’d ever seen in Africa or from Africa. There was even a brief moment I thought I was watching a long line of The Four Tops. The rhythm was African and there was even a touch of blues and jazz. The Sheikh or one of the elders led the chants – invocations of Allah – using microphones to be sure to encourage others in the neighborhood to join them. One of the younger men also had a mike to emphasize the various vocalizations they made along with their movements. There was no music per se but it was quite hypnotic and though I sat there for almost two hours, I didn’t want it to end. But at sunset, an elder called evening prayer and – after the Sheikh formally thanked me for attending -- I was invited inside for tea. Everyone was very nice and quite pleased the American Charge attended their prayers. They were also anxious to tell me that they are not political and like America. They don’t understand why America doesn’t like Sudan. I assured them that while we had problems with the fundamentalist government of the 90’s, we want better relations now. It was a very pleasant and moving evening. 


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