Sure, it’s not the “whirling dervishes”
that most Westerners would imagine when a Religious Studies undergrad breathlessly gushes over a newfound Rumi poem, but Sudanese Sufism is just as dramatic. You just have to throw in a little Africa.
The prophet’s (peace be upon him…) birthday celebrations this past February.
During the prophet’s birthday party, all the Sufi sheiks in the Omdurman area converge on the Khalifa mosque courtyard for 10 days of zikr prayers, called the mowlid. This involves enormous tents packed with the pious and the curious, hypnotic fist-pumping and dust-stomping, and sometimes even giant fountains shaped like jabbana pots.
Usually the “dancing,” “singing,” and other zikr prayers begin a few hours before sunset. The prayer starts slowly, with a few chant leaders singing melodically, and soon builds into a frenzied “La illaha illallah!” (“There is no god but Allah”) with all the male participants, followers of this sheik, crouched, bobbing, and pumping their arms in time with the chants.
On a normal Friday or Wednesday, they usually close just as the sun sets for the moghrid prayer – the fourth prayer of the day. During the mowlid, the zikr will continue until around 12am, powered by sweet coffee with cloves, tea with milk, rice pudding, fried dough, and any number of sickly-sweet candies-by-the-kilo available only once a year.
Thebasic idea is that we do not need intermediaries to reach god, and that prayer such as the ritual frenzy of the zikr allows us to access places within ourselves where meeting god is possible. Jalaladin Rumi
, of course, is the most famous sufi, whose poetry continues to inspire both lovers and lovers of god.
When the sweet glance of my true love caught my eyes,
Like alchemy, it transformed my copper-like soul.
I searched for Him with a thousand hands,
He stretched out His arms and clutched my feet.
From Thief of Sleep
Translated by Shahram Shiva
Hamid al-Nil is a popular site for the few travelers and foreign aid workers living in Khartoum. The sufis of this sheik come to pray in a raucous and compelling zikr every Friday which inspires many budding photographers, despite the sheik’s uncharacteristic and infuriating practice of intimidating women to stand in the back.
Hamid al-Nil is the name of the 19th century sheik buried in this tomb at the center of a vast graveyard, and his followers continue to have significant influence in Sudanese politics. The overall atmosphere during the zikr is festival-like and highly charged, with stalls of pamphlet-vendors, talkative tea-sellers, and prayer bead hawkers surrounding the tomb site.
Enormous strings of prayer beads, patchwork jellabia, dreadlocks, and sometimes even leopard-print accents are characteristic of sufi dervishes in Sudan.