Friday, June 12, 2015

Journal Entry for March 4, 2004: An evening with the Sufi -- Sophist Night

Tonight I went to a “Sophist Night” in old Omdurman. The occasion was to mark the death of the founder of a school of Islamic jurisprudence who was also the progenitor of the extended clan that traced their descent back to him. A prominent human rights activist and secularist – Ghazi Sulieman – was this year’s organizer of the celebration and invited me. The sophists came out of a 9th century movement within Islam to base one’s relationship to God on reasoned knowledge of the Koran. Various schools of thought developed over the centuries and there are many, many schools that differ in ways that I’ll never understand. Sufism came from this movement.

The celebration took place outside and started at 8:30 pm. I was a bit late but no matter and I was escorted to a place of honor and supplied with drink and food throughout the evening. The field was decorated like a country fair, with lights and a bandstand. But there were no rides and the bandstand was for the speakers and leaders of prayer. Rows of seats circled the stand but with a clear space in front. Various people went to the microphone to make speeches about the founding teacher (sheik), pray or chant. All during the evening, groups from other schools came to pay their respects (thus “Sophist Night”). As they arrived, Ghazi would dance over to them with his ceremonial stick held high in his right hand, pumping it up and down as he went. (The fist or stick pumped this way while dancing by all the men to be greeted is the custom in Sudan for important gatherings.) The group would then dance by “in review.” They dressed colorfully – some all white, some green or red – and usually had percussion sections. The schools reminded me very much of the traditional samba schools of Brazil. And the chanting often reminded me of blues music. Indeed, both the samba schools, the blues and Sufi schools share a common African culture. The Sudanese Sufi’s are Islamic by faith but African by impulse. The Sudanese in prayer can barely refrain from dancing and some don’t even try. I saw little children – it was a family get together although the women sat on the side and did not take part in the ceremonies – breaking into a spontaneous dance that clearly served as precursor to the grownup version called worship. Once the schools danced through, they went over to the side where some really got into the spirit of things through chanting and dancing to their own music.

The evening was warm but not oppressive and the people were very friendly. Ghazi was dressed in his trademark white pants with blue suit-jacket. His hair slanted upwards as usual and I often saw him dancing with his stick in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Two teenage girls (his daughters?) wore jeans and no head-coverings and seemed to serve as his messengers, running here and there. At the end of the ceremony, a small group of people gathered around me to talk. One was a retired general who had trained in the U.S. in the 70s. Another was an opposition politician. Ghazi explained to me that what I had seen that evening was Sudan’s “civil society”, a people united by a shared faith that was their own, varied and apolitical. He also explained that he had dressed in his suit to make a point to the government that a secularist could be a sheik. The small group I was with all agreed that the radicals who mixed religion with politics have to go because they are “alien” to Sudan. On Sophist Night, I could feel what they mean.

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