The advent of Islam: the Funj and the Fur sultanates

The decline of the Kush civilization led to a decentralization of power within the Sudan. The country broke up into a number of smaller principalities which preserved some degree of Kushite culture. From out of this ‘dark age’ three major powers began to emerge: Nubia, Maqarra, and Alwa. The southernmost of these kingdoms, Alwa, displayed a distinctly African orientation, and indeed was the longest lived, surviving up until the beginning of the sixteenth century, when it was replaced by the Funj sultanate. Its leader, Abdalla Jama’a (the gatherer) was able to mobilize (as his name indicates) the Islamicized populace against Nubia which was by then Christianized following the Romanization and Christianization of Egypt. With the defeat of the Nubian Christian kingdom, Jama’a established the first semi-centralized Muslim authority in northern Sudan.

A detailed picture of the life of these early Sudanese states during the intervening period, although of considerable historical interest, is not central to the discussion here. What is important, however, is the fact that during this period Islam first began to make an impact on the territory of Sudan under a Muslim centralized authority, a process that had initially started with the gradual infiltration of Islam by Arab traders and immigrant tribesmen. This process had fundamentally altered the power relations within the country over the subsequent years, and led eventually to the adoption of Islam by the indigenous elite and the local peoples. To the latter, adhesion to the new faith was made easy by the fact that Islam propagated by those immigrants ‘demanded neither learning nor literacy but only a profession of faith and the performance of a few simple obligations’. The culmination of this process was the establishment of the Funj and Fur sultanates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, this process of Islamicization and Arabization is without documentation, apart from a notable passage in the Arab author Ibn Khaldun, and its importance has in the past often been over-inflated; for the Funj and Fur sultantes were first and foremost African, specifically Sudanese states.

In 1504 the kingdom of Alwa fell at the hands of the Funj, and we need not quarry into history to identify the Funj’s origin nor to debate their claims of patrilineal descent from historical Arabs, a matter that has been the subject of much writing. Neither is the term ‘funj’ itself Arabic, nor is there a Funj tirbe. The Funj themselves have claimed Arab descent from the Ummayyad, though their physical appearance visibly betrayed a shilluk physiognomy. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Funj were an Islamicized African Negroid people, who established their capital at Sennar (the tooth of fire)., and very shortly afterwards carried their new faith westward into the heartland of Sudan. It was under the Funj sultanate that Islam first began to gain widespread influence in the central Sudan.

Bruce, the Scottish traveler who visited Sennar in 1772, was told that Islam had been adopted for the purposes of trading with Cairo; trade with Egypt was the mainstay of the budding Sudanese economy at this period. It is also worth remembering that much of that trade was in slaves, and that a Muslim cannot theoretically be sold as a slave. The economic superiority of the immigrant Arab traders and, more importantly, their modern culture (including the Arabic language which was increasingly used as an instrument of commercial communication with Egypt) enhanced their position in the Sennar community. Even so, in order to find themselves a niche within that community, those traders adopted many of the Sennarese customs and values while their distinguished status opened the way to them for fusion, through intermarriage, with the upper crust of society. This was the same process whereby immigrant Arab traders interacted with the local Nubian population in the northern commercial centers; Dongola, Berber Shendi, and so on.

From those genes, as in the Nubian north, new clans were born and mushroomed, a process that was enhanced by the gravitation of different non-Arab tribes in the region towards, and identification with, those new clans either for economic advantage or protection. One such example was the Hamaj, a collective name given by the Sennarese to the tribes in Upper Blue Nile who were often raided by them and captured as slaves. As a result, a process of identification grounded on kinship and pedigree took root in central Sudan from that period in time, as was again the case with Nubian Sudan, though in the case of the latter some ethnic groups such as the Halfawese, the Mahas, and the Danaqla, held out and maintained their pre-Arab languages. However, there is no evidence that it was internal political pressure or, even less, profound religious devotion which swayed the Funj to Isalm. In fact, that they were very dedicated to their new faith is doubtful., for we know that the Funj court embodied a number of traditions and institutions which were incompatible with Islamic teaching, though that does not suggest that the Funj Sultans were in any way opposed to Islam. It is likely that these traditions were maintained for two reason: first, there was no reason to change them; and second, such practices were expected by the Funj subjects from their rulers and were a requisite of the Funj establishing themselves within the traditional political framework of their domains. Effectively, by accepting many of the Sennarese values and customs and entwining them with Islamic institutions the immigrant Arab traders ushered in a new brand of Islam, an Islam built on the existing social order rather than replacing it with its own. The process of Islamicization was, thus, not one of cultural collision; if anything it was one of cultural interaction – a two-way traffic resulting in the Arabicization of the local peoples, on the one hand, and the indigenization if not paganization of Islam on the other.

None the less, Islam remained a cult associated with royalty and foreigners and had very little impact upon the general population until at least the middle of the seventeenth century, when the first mosque was built at Sennar, and by which time the majority of the Fuqara (religious pundits) who were teaching in the Sudan were no longer foreigners but Arabicized Sudanese. Following the tradition of the Nubian north those fuqara, while dispensing their religious teachings, continued to live with the social mores of the community which were often repugnant to those teachings. Equally the fuqara, who were also traders, perservered in their commercial activities, accumulating a relatively great wealth in the process. In effect, the fuqara’s way to the hearts of people was not only through preaching; another weighty medium of conversion was patronage made possible by endowments offered to those fuqara by the rulers in the form of land and cattle. Ascetic as their lives may have been, the fuqara were sufficiently wealthy to support their followers and thus maintain their allegiance.

Eventually this religious elite became the mediator between the rulers and the masses, gaining, in consequence, tremendous political influence. The same process of Islamicization and spread of Arabo-Islamic culture can be seen even more clearly in the establishment and organization of the Fur sultanate which had arisen at this time – around the middle of the seventeenth century when the Keira sultanate of Darfur emerged out of the obscure background of the Tunjur tribal kingdom. This state was essentially a non-Arab Sudanese kingdom which was also an Islamic state, just like Sennar, and since the historical and oral material is more abundant than at Sennar it is possible to take a closer look at the institutions within the Fur state. The Fur were made up of purely African tribes: the Kungara, Karkirit and Pemurka, though the Kungara, a purely African group, claimed an Arab strain. Within the administrative structure of the Fur sultanate the compromise between Islamic and traditional elements was key factor in the success of the state as a whole.

Similarly, as with the Funj, Islam did not suppress the cultural characteristics of the tribes; instead, it had woven them through its common thread. Thus, despite their conversion to Islam, some tribes of that region continued to maintain traditional social institutions and cultural patterns blatantly repugnant to Islamic tenets. For example, the Islamicized Midob tribe preserved their matrilineal system of succession with the effect that, when the mek (ruler) died he was succeeded by his sister’s son, in the belief that ‘the bone is from the mother, the flesh from the father’. On the other hand, whilst the system of law was theoretically based upon shari’a administered according to the Maliki school, in practice traditional laws were dominant. A customary law, supposed to have been codified by Sultan Daali and based on a system of fines paid in rolls of cloth and animals, was commonly applied, and thier is no evidence that the shari’a punishments were ever imposed. Taxation too, combined Islamic and traditional taxes.

The Fur provincial administration continued, on the more formal level, to grant estates to members of the royal family and tribal chiefs as a system of privilege; and on the more informal level, administration of local justice was left to the religious notables in the regions. And whilst the holders of the estates collected and kept the traditional taxes, the Islamic ones were passed on to the central administration. Trade with Egypt, along the caravan routes, in slaves and other ‘legitimate’ commodities such as camels, ivory and ostrich feathers, was an important part of the Fur economy and gave the kingdom an eastward orientation, so that contacts between Darfur and the Nile valley were common. Trade, being a highly structured group activity involving vendor, purchaser, transporter and distributor, needed a degree of institutionalization through a central authority. This inevitably gave rise to the Patronage and exploitation of trade activites by the rulers; each carvan to the east was led by a khabir (guide) designated by, and responsible to, the sultan. Again, this led to the establishment of a permanent hierarchy of power inside the trade orbit based on the maintenance of economic power by a ruling elite, who used slavery as a means towards the maintenance of the status quo. The rulers of the Fur, like those of the Funj, who were Africans themselves, owned and marketed slaves captured in Dar Maslait and northern Bahr al Ghazal, and possessed, directly or indirectly, monopoly on religious orthodoxy, such as it was at the time, and wielded political authority with little opposition.

The Funj and Fur sultanates formed a ‘political golden age’ inside Sudanese history as a whole, since a purely Sudanese central authority held the reins of power inside the country. More importantly, owing to the control of the authority, they also had the capacity to apportion political and economic power between the governing elite installed by them and the religious elite which was gaining prominence. The process of Islamicization and Arabicization of northern Sudan was altogether a more complex and gradual process than the Islamicization and Arabicization of North Africa. It came about as the result of nine centuries of intermarriage, trade and cultural interchange, setting the ground for the work, later on, of itinerant holy men from Hejaz, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere who preached and taught throughout the country. These holy men established their Khalwas (Koranic schools) where they taught the Qur’an to a superstitious rural population who maintained, to large extent, their own indigenous traditional beliefs. A large Portion of these early fuqara were Sufists, whose approach to Islam was characterized by asceticism and mysticism, and this early preponderance was to affect profoundly the nature of Islam in the Sudan.

Through those itinerant holy men, Islamic fraternities known as tariqas (literally, way to salvation) came to be introduced in the Sudan. Having originated in Egypt and Iraq, the tariqas soon developed into regionally dominant units themselves, controlled by a single family, the sheikh passing on his Baraka (mandated benediction) to his son upon his death. Around those sheikh Sufist orders were instituted to perpetuate the teachings and rules of the founding father. Those tariqas expanded in influence, partly because Islam was perceived by the rising mercantile classes as an instument for use against the restrictive traditional feudal structure, and, somewhat paradoxically, because of the acquiescence, or even support, of an increasingly Islmicized sultanate and meks.

The history of the Funj kingdom is replete with stories of holy men who wielded power parallel to, if not greater than, that of the prince. The rise of the sheikhs and their followers marked the birth of the distinct Sudanese sectarian political activity in the localities, something that blossomed chiefly in the Turco-Egyptian period in spite of the essentially antipathetic nature of the new centralized and orthodox regime, which, which labored continually to undermine the power and influence of the Sufi tariqas. The Funj and Fur slutanates had provided a background for this process, but the formation and accession to prominence of a factionalized religious elite which accompanied it took place largely during the period of the Turkish rule. The passing of these medieval Sudanese sultanates forms a watershed in the history of the Sudan, considered as a whole. With the annexation of the Sudan by the Ottomans, the basis of power within the region was profoundly altered, and the colonial political framework, thus engendered, caused the country to become fragmented both into regional elements which sought to resist the imposition of the central authority, and into social groupings which sought, in a variety of ways, to exploit the limited possibilities for economic expansion and political gain provided by the Turco-Egyptian administration.

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