Migration, Modernity and Islam in Rural Sudan

by Victoria Bernal
published in MER211

For the villagers of Wad al-Abbas in northern Sudan, transnational migration has generated new understandings of what it means to be a Muslim. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, Wad al-Abbas’s incorporation into the global economy was mediated primarily by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom exerted influence on Sudan at the national level by pressuring then-President Numeiri to institute shari‘a law in 1983 and funding opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, Saudi Arabia attracted ordinary Sudanese from all walks of life as labor migrants. Villagers from Wad al-Abbas found work in Saudi Arabia as truck drivers, electricians, factory workers and sales clerks. The national economic and identity crises of Sudan and the labor migration of villagers to Saudi Arabia were catalysts for change, stimulating the rise of “fundamentalist” [1] Islam in the village. For the villagers of Wad al-Abbas, embracing a new orthodoxy represented a move away from local, parochial identities toward perceived conformity with a universalistic set of beliefs and practices.

The Rise of New Orthodoxies

Wad al-Abbas is located on the bank of the Blue Nile River in the Blue Nile Province of northern Sudan. Its inhabitants are Muslims whose mother tongue is Arabic. Villagers belong to the sedentary riverine population of northern Sudan that has dominated the country since independence. Wad al-Abbas was founded by a Sufi faqih. Its inhabitants have always practiced Islam, but villagers’ religious life has not been static. The pace of recent changes astounded me. I returned to Wad al-Abbas in 1988 after a five-and-a-half-year absence and found villagers boldly critiquing an array of local practices while articulating new Islamic standards. Mourning rituals, wedding customs and reverence for holy men in particular were held up as examples of local deviation from true Islam. One villager, after describing in detail the pattern of mourning practices (bika’) in Wad al-Abbas, ended his account with the caveat, “but in Islam and shari‘a there is no bika’.”

One way villagers expressed new understandings of Islam was through the medium of feminine modesty. During the 1980s, female seclusion increased as villagers adopted new forms of architecture and dress. Until the early 1980s few village houses were enclosed by courtyard walls. Compounds were demarcated by low mud walls or thornbrush fences, if at all. By the late 1980s, well-to-do villagers were building high brick or cement walls around their homes, definitively separating domestic and public space. Less fortunate villagers strove to achieve similar effects by placing burlap screens over their mud walls. Some women had begun to wear ankle-length robes underneath their tawbs (the head-to-toe cloth wrap worn by adult women), rather than the short, sleeveless smocks (shuwal) common in the early 1980s.

Wedding rituals were another focus of fundamentalist discourse in the village. At Wad al-Abbas weddings the bride dances tawb-less before a mixed audience, moving to the lively beat of the diluka (Sudanese drum) and the singing of unmarried girls. This practice was now said to be “against Islam,” and some villagers argued for the abolition of the bride’s dance. Although such practices had never been impervious to change before the late 1980s, they had possessed a taken-for-granted quality, forming part of how villagers defined themselves. New Islamic sensibilities were calling into question the morality and legitimacy of local practices.

This process of religious change was intimately connected to other upheavals in villagers’ lives. Since the mid-1970s, the villagers of Wad al-Abbas have experienced profound economic transformations involving increased dependence on the market for consumer goods and the sale of labor on national and international markets. The social relations of kin and community that once structured many aspects of villagers’ lives have been increasingly subordinated to or supplanted by relations to global markets and the state. The social map in which villagers locate themselves and others now includes not only Khartoum and other Sudanese towns where sons of the village live and work, but Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Yemen and other destinations as well.

Transnational Migration and Islam

The villagers of Wad al-Abbas have been linked to the global economy as consumers of imported goods and producers of cotton since the 1950s. But improvements in transportation and communications over the past three decades have profoundly altered the character of villagers’ participation in the world beyond the village. By 1980, international labor migration had become a way of life. Information about employment in Saudi Arabia and other locales circulated continually in the village, as did news from relatives and fellow villagers working abroad.

By the 1980s every villager knew someone working in Saudi Arabia. Because of Saudi restrictions on immigration, migrants could not settle there and usually left their families at home. This gave rise to a steady traffic between the village and Saudi Arabia. As one villager explained, “Before people went to Saudi just for the hajj. They didn’t see anything else. But now they go everywhere.” Through the 1980s it remained common practice for villagers making the hajj to travel as a group and to take along most of the supplies they expected to use on the pilgrimage -- dried meat, clarified butter, spices and various ingredients for meals and drinks. In contrast, labor migrants, who usually stay for a year or two and are generally employed in urban areas, experience life in Saudi Arabia more fully. They shop in the markets, ride public transportation and interact with Saudi employers and the public. International migration drew villagers into global circuits as never before. Moreover, the movement of people, ideas and things between Sudan and Saudi Arabia touched the lives of all villagers, whether they traveled or not.

Villagers regard international migration as a special category of experience and those who work abroad are referred to by a special term: mughtaribin (singular, mughtarib). Salaries are much higher abroad, so mughtaribin are associated with wealth and luxury consumption. A returning mughtarib is greeted like a king. Ideally, a sheep is slaughtered before the migrant’s foot crosses the threshold of his home and a karama (a feast with an animal sacrifice) is performed to give thanks for the safe return. The ritual of karama invests the occasion with religious as well as social meaning. The whole village is alerted to an important event as men shoot off rifles and women ululate. Migrants bring back suitcases loaded with gifts to distribute among relatives and neighbors. Through the accounts of mughtaribin and the wealth and goods they brought back, Saudi Arabia came to occupy an important place in villagers’ imaginations.

Migrants brought home clothes, shampoo, tape decks, TVs, VCRs and even refrigerators (years before the village was electrified). They arrived in the village with savings amassed from their wages, consumer goods purchased abroad and a new sense of the world and their place in it. New sources of wealth, changed consumption patterns and altered understandings of what it means to be a Muslim were all intertwined. Labor migration unsettled villagers’ convictions about “proper” ways of living and thinking. When they returned home, villagers reported what they saw in other places, and sometimes altered their own standards of behavior. The hajjis and the more numerous labor migrants to Saudi Arabia returned with new understandings of Islamic culture and Arab identity along with new material goods and desires.

One way that migrants and other villagers articulated the changes in their lives was through pronouncements about Islam and new understandings of what was and was not truly Islamic. In the early 1980s, most villagers understood that being Muslim meant being and living like them. Before the advent of new notions of Islamic dress, a woman described the tawb to me as “from God.” By the late 1980s, however, the locus of moral authority had shifted. Islam clearly had its center outside the community; local culture and behavior were now to be measured against new standards derived from external sources, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Orthodoxy as Modernity

New understandings of Islam and new styles of Islamic dress appealed to villagers partly because they were associated with external sources of power and prestige, rather than rooted in local social formations. Adopting fundamentalist practices was a way to assert one’s sophistication, urbanity and material success. The new standards of housing and dress in Wad al-Abbas were associated not only with new interpretations of Islamic propriety, but also with new consumption patterns. House construction materials and skills, once shared by all, are now commodities. The new robes some women wear are brought back from Khartoum and Saudi Arabia or fashioned after imports by local tailors. Fundamentalist Islam is therefore identified with progress and prosperity, exemplified by the life of leisure, technological advancement and material comfort that Saudi Arabia has come to represent.

Wealth and piety are interconnected in the stories villagers tell about Saudi life. Villagers perceive Saudi adherence to “orthodox” practice, their wealth and the abundance of goods and modern conveniences in Saudi Arabia as interrelated. Modernity and Islamic orthodoxy are seen not as contradictory (as they may appear in the West) but as two facets of the same thing. Villagers associate the luxury consumption enjoyed by Saudis with a more literate, urban understanding of Islam, just as they view village poverty and local Islamic traditions as intertwined.

The association of luxury consumption with piety and morality is significant in terms of the relation of villagers to national and international hierarchies and villagers’ relations with one another. Income disparities among villagers are growing, and these differences are directly related to the participation of villagers in work outside the community, in Sudan and the Gulf. New consumption patterns in housing and dress are largely made possible by remittances from Saudi Arabia. Villagers who build high courtyard walls and adopt new forms of dress are making statements about their wealth and their piety. Economic success and moral superiority are being demonstrably connected in the village just as Saudi wealth and Saudi orthodoxy are understood by villagers to be related.

Islam and Identity

Moreover, while contenders for state power may assert Sudan’s Islamic and Arab identity for strategic political and economic reasons, villagers are responding to profound and personal encounters with relations of power in global hierarchies. Migration confronts villagers not only with new material needs and wants but with questions about culture and identity. As immigrant workers, as blacks, as peasants and as Muslims from a poor country, Sudanese villagers’ position in Saudi Arabia is a lowly one. No migrant I spoke with had ever been invited into a Saudi home, something they were well aware of, given the open hospitality for which Sudanese are rightly renowned. In the words of one mughtarib, “There, even if you work with someone a long time, they don’t invite you to their house. If you knock on the door, they don’t say ‘welcome,’ they dress and come outside to you, hear what you have to say and go back inside.”

Among a group of women talking about Saudi Arabia, one said, laughing at these uncomfortable thoughts, “They won’t give their daughters to a Sudanese. They don’t want us. They call us ‘abid al‘arab (slaves of the Arabs). ”One of the most humiliating experiences labor migrants from Wad al-Abbas report is being called ‘abid by Arabs in the Gulf. Sudanese themselves use this term to refer to the descendants of slaves in Sudan, a stigmatized group with whom other Sudanese do not intermarry. But returning migrants generally do not dwell on the denigrations they have experienced in the Gulf, perhaps because it would detract from the prestige accorded them in village circles.

While Sudanese are called ‘abid by Gulf Arabs because of their dark skin and African ancestry, the term connotes religious as well as racial inferiority, since Islam forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims. One way Sudanese can assert their Arab identity (which for villagers is synonymous with Muslim identity) is by embracing Arab cultural forms -- such as orthodox Islam as practiced in the Gulf.

“Fundamentalist” Islam thus arises from conditions of modernity (including labor migration) and is misunderstood if interpreted as a return to “tradition.” The changing configuration of Islam at Wad al-Abbas thus is linked in complex ways to migration, globalization and to the attempts of elites to define a Sudanese national culture. Local identities are being reconstructed in relation to transnational identities such as “Arab” and “Muslim.”

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Sudan can be viewed as part of the decline of the local community as the center of moral and social power. The case of Wad al-Abbas may help explain why the movement toward “orthodox” Islam has appealed to so many Muslims in the post-modern age. [2]

Author’s Note: My research in Sudan was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Kirkland Endowment. I will always be grateful for the generosity of my many Sudanese hosts.

Endnotes

[1] I have chosen to use the term “fundamentalist” rather than “Islamist” because “fundamentalism” implicitly invites comparison to other religions. “Islamism,” moreover, seems inadequate to capture the multiple and contested orthodoxies within Islam.
[2] I have not visited Wad al-Abbas since the 1989 coup that installed the government of Omar al-Bashir and brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. Clearly, the NIF has not brought into being the future envisioned by villagers. Moreover, in Sudan as elsewhere, once fundamentalist discourse is appropriated as the language of an oppressive regime, its ability to serve as a vehicle for expressing popular aspirations is surely compromised.

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