Sudan's powerful Sufi orders warm to Beshir's regime
UM DUBBAN, Sudan — The village of Um Dubban outside the Sudanese capital Khartoum is an unlikely place for a veteran president to make one of his last campaign stops before his first contested election.
A group of young boys sits in a dusty courtyard in the shadow of a minaret reciting verses of the Koran off wooden tablets as children do in mosque schools across the Muslim world.
But the village is the centre of the Badriyya branch of the Qadariyya, one of the Sufi orders that have traditionally dominated the practice of Islam in northern Sudan, particularly in the countryside, and the boys are being schooled in its mystical teachings.
Such is Um Dubban's renown as a centre of Sufi learning that the boys are drawn from across northern Africa.
"There are children here from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Congo, from Darfur," said Karar, one of the aides of the order's sheikh.
In northern Sudan, the Sufi sheikhs wield enormous influence, being consulted on by villagers about all manner of problems and commanding huge reverence both in life and in death.
Each day, a queue of supplicants seeking advice waits outside the sheikh's office.
"Since I got married, everything has scared me," one man whispers as he awaits his turn. "I hope the sheikh can make me better or do something for me," he adds.
With such influence over daily life comes temporal power and in the years before a 1989 coup brought President Omar al-Beshir to office, the Sufi orders held huge sway over Sudanese politics.
When Beshir seized power, he did so with support from Islamists long suspicious of the Sufi orders because of the perceived heresy of some of their teachings, particularly their reverence for their sheikhs and their tombs.
But Beshir has since fallen out with his longtime mentor, Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, and has moved to consolidate his northern power base by wooing the Sufis.
So it was that he came to make the 30 kilometre (20 mile) journey out from the capital to Um Dubban last week.
Khartoum University sociology professor Idris al-Hassan is in no doubt about the importance of Beshir's opening to the Sufi orders.
"One cannot exclude the importance of the popular support of the ordinary Sufi order," Hassan said.
"Generally speaking, loyal followers would just get the message and go along in the direction the Sufi order want to go. By going to Umm Dubban, it gives a very strong signal to followers."
Hassan says that the regime's rapprochement with Sufis is all the more striking because of the hostility between the two sides through the 1990s.
"In the early Inqaz (Salvation) years of the regime, the Sufi orders went through a difficult period," he said.
"Nowadays, the Islamists still do not share the same beliefs as the Sufis but they have a pragmatic relationship with them."
One elector queueing outside the village polling station in Um Dubban was clearly impressed by the president's pitch for his vote.
"Now, we're all united, there are no differences," he said as he sheltered from the sun under a tree.