The actual number of adherents to the different religions of Sudan is hard to set exactly, as the figures differs much between the different sources. The percentage of Muslims range from 50 to 70. The percentage of believers in traditional religions range from 25 to 35. The percentage for Christianity between 4 and 15.
Islam strongly dominates the north, while traditional religions and Christianity the south. The opposition coming from this division is central in the actual political division that has established itself for the country as a whole.
Islam dominates the northern half of Sudan with about 90% of all. Islam is only represented with the Sunni branch, but in the case of Sudan this is a deceptive classification. Brotherhoods, often again classified as Sufi brotherhoods, is a central dimension to Sudanese Islam.
Islam in Sudan is not rigid, and dimensions of pre-Islamic cults live on well within an Islamic framework. Sudanese in general have a strong belief in spirits, spirits that cause illness or other afflictions, and who must be dealt with through magical rituals. The Koran is an important tool in magical rituals, the reading of Koranic words have the function of spells.
There is also the strong belief in the evil eye, an common dimension to North African Islam in general. Religious leaders produce amulets that the faithful carry for protection.
There is also considerable cult in holy men and women, cults that are often linked to the brotherhoods. As always in the Muslim world these holy men and women, called waliy (friend of God) are both historical persons with a Muslim faith, but they many also go back to pre-Islamic cults that are retold to fit what is considered Islamic at the spot. These cults relate to tombs and sites, and a place like this is renowned for its baraka, blessing, as well as a place to ask for the intercession of the waliy. Rituals around a waliy can become very formalized and follow specific rituals.
As the waliy cults are strong and immediate to the believer, many of them live strong independent lives from formal Islam. In many cases, a waliy is explained to be an autonomous power, one that a believer relates to directly, and not only as a middle man to reach God.
Sharia, Muslim law, was introduced as the judicial system for the entire country in 1983. It was enforced in its pure and primitive form of great brutality, causing much opposition across Sudan.
Sufism and brotherhoods
Sudan's history of Islam is also a history of religious brotherhoods, like the Qadiriyah, Tijaniyah, Al-Fasi, Khatmiyah and Mahdiyah. The two latter have even been central in the formation of political parties in Sudan.
These brotherhoods emerge in Sudan first in the 16th century and were often linked to Sufism.
Qadiriyah was a brotherhood founded in the 12th century Baghdad.
Tijaniyah was founded in Morocco in late 18th century, arriving in Sudan in early 19th century.
Al-Fasi was also founded in Morocco, around 1800.
Khatmiyah was founded in Sudan in the early 19th century, and would quickly become the best organized of all brotherhoods. It was headed by the Mirghani family and controlled large parts of eastern Sudan.
Most powerful became, however, the Mahdiyah which was founded in the late 19th century, and grew to become so powerful that they drove the British away from Sudan in 1885. It was not really a Sufi brotherhood as much as it was a political alliance with religious legitimacy. Its founding father, the El Mahdi claimed to have come as a messenger of God.
The Muslim Brotherhood established itself in Sudan in the 1960's, and although it never became widely popular, it still managed to exercise major influence on the Sudanese government since 1989, counting several cabinet members among its adherents.
Traditional religion in Sudan is often collectively called animism. There are many independent systems, or traditions. Rarely are the theological unities are large. They are usually recognizable with having no scriptures, and a leadership with only limited geographical control.
There are common traits between the religions, like the belief in one high supreme god. Such a god is often considered to be remote, and mainly responsible for creation. In cult and mythologies, lesser gods and spirits are central. Such powers are never omnipotent, they are explained as part of the natural order nor above or outside nature itself. Rain is central aspect to many traditional religions, defined both as a deity and as a force subject to the powers of the gods.
For several of the religions does the belief in ancestor spirits play a central role.
Largely, traditional religions are not possible to separate from social cultures in general. Religion, politics and economy are all dimensions of the same larger structure.
Animal sacrifice is common, as cattle is the most important and common, this is also the animal for such rituals.
Also individual humans are thought to have powers above the average, this applies equally to men and women. Such powers are often thought of as destructive, either from the will of such a person or from involuntary action. The belief in the evil eye is also strongly present among believers in traditional religion (as it is in popular Islam); strangers may easily be accused of inflicting the evil eye.
One can protect oneself to a great extent against evil powers, often by employing the aid of a good sorcerer. Such a person may well be of the same category as the evil doer, but still one that one can call to be treated by or to obtain amulets from.
Christianity in Sudan now is a mainly a result of European missionary activities in the south and the central of the country beginning in the second half of the 19th century.
But historically, Christianity has deep roots in Sudan. Large parts of northern Sudan became Christian, beginning 4th century. It would become the dominant religion of Nubia, surviving for centuries, until Islam replaced it through military conquests beginning in the 15th century.
The main churches of Sudan er the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. There is also the presence of a small community of the Coptic Church.
Christianity has become an instrument in the process leading towards a political division of Sudan between the southern and northern parts.