"If there is a family in Sudan that does not have at least one Sufi member, it is not Sudanese."
This is the view of Dr. Hasan Al Fatih Qaribullah, a leading sheikh of the Sammaniya tariqa, or Sufi movement, in Khartoum. It is a view commonly held by Sudanese.
Sufism in Sudan is not a public issue or part of a national debate. Yet it is an enormously important force that has shaped, and continues to shape, the society as a whole.
It is widely recognized that the extended family is of vital social and economic importance in this country, where poverty is widespread but real hunger rare.
Strong family ties are traditional, but Sufism, which teaches the practice of sacrificial service for others, is an important element in the glue that holds many Sudanese families together.
It is a serious religious discipline, not the ideal seen by 1960s western religious romantics.
The word suf means wool in Arabic, and the Sufis took their name for wearing rough woolen clothes as part of their spiritual discipline.
On a recent Friday afternoon on a Khartoum street closed to traffic and covered in mats, hundreds of Sammaniya devotees stood in lines facing each other for the zikr, or remembrance of God, that is the most important Sufi ritual.
They spent all afternoon of their only day off work bowing deeply hundreds of times, chanting "la illah il Allah," there is no god but God, or other devotional lines, or simply the word "Allah", again and again. Every moment directed by their sheikh, they turned from side to side and jumped up and down. There was no small talk; there were no distractions, just the devotee, his sheikh and his God against the background of the voices of men leading the chants.
The zikr combines chants, prayers, meditation and various related body movements to induce a total absorption of the individual in the worship of God.
It requires real stamina to go the full five or six hours, especially when summer temperatures soar to well above 40 degrees Celsius.
But the reward, says Sheikh Qaribullah, is a feeling of joy. He says when he engages in the zikr his whole focus is on God and being close to God.
"I try hard to be close to God," he says simply.
His dignified bearing and spiritual face testify to the fruits of these exertions.
His father and grandfather were Sammaniya sheikhs as well, and they descended from the man who introduced the sect to Sudan, a disciple of Samman, a mystic based in Medina (many years before the current Wahabi sect took over Saudi Arabia and suppressed Sufism there altogether).
There are some 3,000 men in Qaribullah's Khartoum group, and half as many women, who worship separately. He says Sammaniya is the largest Sufi tariqa in Sudan, probably numbering in the millions. There are definitely several million Sufis in Sudan altogether, making probably the largest national Sufi community in the world.
The various groups operate independently (Sufism is not like a Christian denomination; it more closely resembles Christian mystical orders) but have good relations among themselves. On the prophet Mohammed's birthday (May 24 this year) there will be a 12-day Sufi get-together in Khartoum that will bring together all the groups in a massive celebration. This is an annual event.
Sheikh Hassan Qaribullah, leader of a major Samaniya group in Omdurman
Members vary from children to old folks, poor to rich, educated and not. When the Sammaniya meet for their zikr, they all wear the white galabiyas common in Sudan, with a special leather belt that signifies their devotion. There is some variety in dress among the groups.
Qaribullah says that increasingly young, well-educated Sudanese are drawn to Sufism because they are disappointed in the other Islamic movements, especially fundamentalism with its emphasis on law rather than spiritual experience and growth.
There are many other Sufi movements in Sudan. Some of the larger ones are the Tijaniya, Khatamiya, Ansar (the group of the Mahdi of anti-British fame) and the Birhaniya.
Many are part of international tariqas, such as the Shazliya, the Qardiriya and the Naqshabandi.
Qaribullah says the Sammaniya have branches in several countries and are the largest tariqa in Nigeria.
Each tariqa is founded by an individual who has some particular teachings and ways of conducting a zikr, but all share common principles and similar practices. For all, the sheikh is important as the person who guides each devotee, or murshid, on the path of spiritual development.
The sheikh leads the prayers and zikr but also gives personal advice to his followers on most matters, including career, marriage and family.
But while Sufism is a tough, demanding discipline, it is not a career in itself and Sufis have to hold down ordinary jobs like everyone else.
Qaribullah is a scholar who has taught in various universities and was for several years the chancellor (president) of the Omdurman Islamic University. He has also written and published over 100 books, following a pattern established by his spiritual lineage.
The Sufis are not directly involved in politics, allowing their followers to make their own choices. But politicians frequently court their favor, nonetheless.
And many political leaders in Sudan are Sufis themselves, including several ministers in the present government. Jaafer Nimeiri, Sudan's president throughout the 1970s, was a Sammaniya Sufi.
But Sufis do inevitably have a moderating effect on whatever party leads the country since the very core of their teaching and practice is tolerance of others.
Qaribullah sums up the Sufi mandate thus:
"The Sufi should do good for people and follow the way of the Prophet Mohammed. He should be tolerant with his family, neighbors and all others in the world."
These are not ideals to which lip service is given. These are the core objectives of every disciple and progress in the tariqa depends on achieving them.