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Clans and Communities in Sudan

Fulani woman Sudan culture and media
Fulani woman in the West Nuba mountains. Photo Rita Willaert

A multitude ethnic groups, languages and religions coexist in Sudan. The country is divided into two major ethnic groups: Arab and African. Ethnic communities are divided into several tribes. Arab tribes live mostly in the centre of the country and to a lesser extent in the west; African tribes are concentrated in the far north, the Nuba Mountains, the Southern Blue Nile, the east and Darfur in the west.

Traditional life centres around the tribe, which represents one of the most important forms of social organization. A great deal of the local economy, politics and social life is organized or influenced by tribal traditions and norms. For example, in pastoral communities the land is usually owned by the tribe rather than individuals and land use rights are negotiated between tribes. Tribal influence is a decisive factor even in representation in modern governmental institutions, such as national and regional parliaments. In rural areas, only candidates with strong tribal support win elections.

The majority of the population is Muslim. This is especially obvious in South Sudan, where 97% of the population adheres to Islam. Tolerant Sufism is the dominant form of Islam but it is far from homogenous. Following independence, the two largest Islamic sects, Khatmiyya and Ansar, gave birth to Sudan’s main political parties, the National Unionist Party (later the Democratic Unionist Party) and the Umma Party, paving the way for future divisive religious politics.

More recently, relatively radical Islamic movements have emerged, demanding the establishment of an Islamic state that enforces sharia law. These movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which has used various names throughout its history in Sudan, have posed a threat to the traditional religious sects, and played a more important role in Sudanese culture. The traditional religious sects, and their associated political parties, built their legitimacy on traditional Sunni Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood introduced a more modernist religious approach, with strong influence among the urban educated population, better organizational skills, and a powerful media and propaganda machine coupled with regional support outside Sudan. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood has gradually managed to confine the traditional sectarian parties to rural areas.

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