The Turco-Egyptian period and the consolidation of Islam

From the above it is clear that, until the Turco-Egyptian conquest of 1821, it can be said that there existed no truly orthodox Islamic authority with universal recognition in the Sudan; Islam meant different things to different people. In marked contrast the Near East and North Africa, the process of Islamicization was not carried out by immigrant Arabs but by the Sudanese themselves. This has given Sudanese Islam its own particular characteristics and fundamentally affected the role it played in the life and politics of modern Sudan. Yet in the final years before the arrival of the Ottomans, the power of the central Islamic authorities was seriously undermined, which rendered the eventual annexation of the region relatively easy, and entirely predictable.

So in 1821 Muhammed Ali’s forces entered the Sudan without encountering any organized resistance from the Funj sultanate, which by this stage was suffering chronically from internal divisions and political fragmentation. The motives for the invasion were vaired. The presence of rebel Mamluk troops in the northern Sudan had been a source of concern to the Egyptian government; possibly, Muhammed Ali Harbored ambitions of founding an empire; certainly the Sudan was a rich source of slaves; and, apart from their economic value, Muhammed Ali had ideas of building a large slave army around himself, something which provided the major incentive for a continued Turco-Egyptian presence in the region.

The new administration had important consequences for Sudanese life. For the first time it brought all the territories of the Sudan under one centralized administration. Considerable changes now took place which were to affect the Sudanese people and their rulers profoundly, both in the political and economic fields. Central amongst these was the new balance of power which was promoted between the various regions of the Sudan. The keystone of the economy in these times was the extremely profitable slave trade, which had been blossoming since the days of the Funj and the Fur. Given the administrative advances made by the new government, this now assumed more extensive proportions.

The results of these changes were twofold. First, it seriously increased the tension, already present, between the center and the periphery, particularly the south. Second, it altered the economic layout of the Sudan, and transformed the region into the model which confronted the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium when it eventually took over. This basically meant that the seat of power moved to the central riverain part of Sudan, Khartoum, and then Omdurman. The slave trade enhaced the postion of the traders, who were generally northerners working on their own or conniving with some tribal chiefs. A third major consequence of the Turco-Egyptian regime was a profound change in the relations of the local religious elite to the central authorities. The justification of the conquest had been that it claimed the Sudan for the Ottoman Sultan, the lawful ruler of the Muslim world. For this reason three Egyptian ‘Ulama (learned men) from Al-Azhar travelled with the initial expedition with the intention of forming an orthodox Islamic state in the Sudan. Obviously there was a vast gulf between the official Islam of the Egyptian administration and the personal faith of the Sudanese and their Sufi leaders. The Egyptians insisted on their shari’a courts, which had never before been known to most Sudanese. They also attempted, not very successfully, the introduction of a system of schools throughout the country which were subject to the central adminstration. Not only did these moves threaten to undermine the influence which the established Sufi brotherhoods exercised over the population, but the withdrawal of the privileged tax exemptions and charters bestowed on them by the Sennar and Fur rulers endangered the very existence of this religious elite. The three ‘Ulama were openly contemptuous of the fuqara and the heads of the Sufi tariqas, and thus attempted to subvert the power and influence held by those local Sudanese religious leaders, an attempt which signally failed.

The political conflict between the new rulers and the established system is easy to understand. It reached a peak under the rule of Khedive Isma’il during his renewed attempts to impse Azharite Islam upon the country. But competition had also begun to develop among the various Sufi brotherhoods themselves. Membership of the larger orders had become little more than the swearing of allegiance to the sheikh, and involved no spiritual initiation at all. For the religious elite who led these orders, patronage was beginning to assume importance not simply for reasons of devotion, but because it provided them with a political platform. Like the Condominium government which followed the Mahdist period, the colonial Turkish administration found that it simply could not rule the provinces of the Sudan without the support of this local religious elite. Thus, despite all their efforts to the contrary, the Turks, like the British afterwards, were forced to patronize certain of the Sufi tariqas in order to maintain their grip on the country.

Of all the local tariqas to benefit from this favouritism, none did so more than the Khatmiyya. This order, sometimes known also as the Mirghaniyya (after its founder), had been set up around the time of the Turco-Egyptian invasion by Muhammad ‘Uthman Al-Mirghani, an itinerant Sufist of Central Asian provenance and a disciple of Ahmad Ibn Idris al-Fasi. Well organized, and with an expressed purpose to unite the varying Sufist teaching and orthodox shari’a, the sect called itself the ‘seal of the tariqas’. The khatmiyya established itself at al-Khatimyya hill near Kassala and gained tremendous support in both the eastern and northern parts of the country conterminous with Egypt. Many of its adherents from those areas came from the mercant class who traded with Egypt, and were driven to the tariqa because of its privileged position with the Turkish rulers. Those two factors, geographic and occupational, were of paramount importance to the way in which the Khatmiyya developed politically, and probably explain both its historical linkage with Egypt and the shopkeeper vision of politics which became so characteristic of some of the Khatmiyya-based political parties. However, despite its reformist ideas, the order developed along the same lines as others and became centred on the Mirghani family whose Baraka had become hereditary.

Ironically the ‘seal of the tariqas’ became just another tariqa in intense competition with a number of other Sufist orders. But, unlike a number of smaller tariqas, the Khatmiyya survived into modern times, becoming an important factor in Sudanese politics because of the patronage the regime afforded it at this crucial stage in the history of the Sufist movement. The Turco-Egyptian administration was at root deeply unpopular; its initial attempts to impose a foreign system of taxation, which was alien to the established tribal and estate model, resulted in the rebellion of 1822. From the start the Turco-Egyptian government did not make itself popular, the Sudanese regarded the officials as ‘Turks’ and outsiders. Despite the introduction of a telegraph system and steamers on the Nile, the Turco-Egyptian period brought few benefits for the Sudan as a whole. As international pressure upon the government to limit the slave trade within the Sudan increased, the administration became more despondent. Shortage of money meant that taxes had to be raised, whilst little spending upon internal development was possible. Since the initial violence of the conquest, the Sudanese had never liked the new administration, and heavy taxation had only made relations worse. Also, by favoring the Khatmiyya order the government had estranged other orders and their followers. Given those circumstances, the eventual collapse of the regime to a popular revolution was entirely predictable, and the Mahdist revolt of 1881 ushered in a new phase in Sudan's political history.

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