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Ummah-Anṣār

By:
Alexander S. Cudsi, John O. Voll
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ummah-Anṣār

The Sudanese Ummah (Community) Party was formed in February 1945 by pro-independence nationalists, most of whom were supporters of Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mahdī, the posthumous son of Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh (d. 1885) who founded the Mahdist movement in that country. The followers of this movement, known as Anṣār, constitute the bulk of the party's membership. Although Ummah often gained the greatest number of seats voted to a single party in general elections, it was never in a position to form an independent government and was forced to participate in coalitions.

Formation of the Party.

Three main factors contributed to the formation of the Ummah Party. The first was the reemergence of the Anṣār as an influential religio-political organization under Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān after World War I. Its committed followers provided the mass basis of the Ummah Party and the organization's hierarchical structure of command subsequently served as the core of the later party organization. Second, following the rift created between the Graduates’ Congress and the Condominium government in 1942, political control of this nationalist organization gradually passed to an activist faction advocating “Unity of the Nile Valley” headed by Ismāʿīl al-Azharī (d. 1969). This development led ʿAbd al-Raḥmān to discard the Congress as an instrument for advancing Sudanese independence and to promote the Ummah Party as a substitute. Third, whereas Congress in 1944 boycotted the establishment of an Advisory Council for the Northern Sudan, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān realized its political significance and was determined to participate in its deliberations. Such participation, however, presupposed the formation of a political organization distinct from the Congress.

ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mahdī, imam of the Anṣār, was the new party's patron, while its leadership initially rested with one of his sons, Ṣiddīq. In October 1955, in order to secure the commitment to full independence of his major religio-political rival, Sayyid ʿAlī al-Mīrghanī, who had supported unity with Egypt, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān accepted al-Mīrghanī's proposal that they pledge themselves and members of their families to refrain from seeking public office. This measure shifted control of the party to the secular wing, then led by ʿAbd Allāh Khalīl. However, the military regime established by General Ibrāhīm ʿAbbūd in November 1958 disbanded all political parties, thereby neutralizing the secularists and restoring the Ummah's leadership to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān's son, al-Ṣiddīq.

Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān died in March 1959, and al-Ṣiddīq succeeded him as imam. Almost immediately the latter integrated the party's administration with the Anṣār movement. When al-Ṣiddīq himself died in October 1961, his brother al-Hādī was elected as the new imam and his own Oxford-educated son, al-Ṣādiq, was designated as leader of the Ummah Party. Thus, the party's leadership, though retained by the Mahdī family, became essentially divided along functional lines.

This division proved crucial, for al-Hādī was conservative while al-Ṣādiq was liberal. By 1963 the latter had grown critical of his uncle's tolerance of ʿAbbūd's regime, and he began to advocate that the Ummah should adopt a more democratic structure and a modern political program. With the restoration of democratic rule in October 1964, the struggle between the conservative and liberal wings intensified. In a sequence of coalition governments led by the Ummah, the party split, with al-Ṣādiq's branch leading a coalition in 1966–1967. The Imam's branch formed a new coalition in 1967, which lasted until the military coup of 1969 ended parliamentary government. By that time, al-Hādī and al-Ṣādiq had begun a reconciliation.

The Nimeiri Regime.

From the outset the Ummah-Anṣār leaders were unequivocally opposed to the leftist orientation of the new military regime led by Jaʿfar al-Nimeiri. The confrontation led to a military attack on Abā Island, a major Anṣār center, in March 1970, in which Imam al-Hādī and thousands of his followers were killed. Al-Ṣādiq was first exiled to Egypt but was later returned to Sudan and kept under house arrest until his release in December 1972.

The Ummah Party participated in setting up the Sudanese National Front in exile to oppose the military regime, and in July 1976 it spearheaded an abortive coup. A year later, al-Ṣādiq negotiated a reconciliation agreement with Nimeiri, following which the Front was dissolved. This agreement created dissension within the Ummah-Anṣār from followers of al-Hādī who were vehemently opposed to Nimeiri and who had not forgotten the bitter split of 1966. Soon, however, al-Ṣādiq became disillusioned with Nimeiri's domestic and foreign policies; in 1978 he led his wing of the Ummah Party again into opposition.

Post-Nimeiri Governments.

In April 1985 Nimeiri's regime was overthrown and the Ummah joined other parties in forming a transitional regime pending general elections. By March 1986 its various wings were effectively reunited, and al-Ṣādiq was formally reelected as its leader. In the elections held a month later, Ummah was able to gain 100 of the 260 contested seats and to head the new coalition government formed with the Democratic Union Party, led by Muḥammad ʿUthmān al-Mīrghanī (the son of ʿAlī), and others. In May 1987 al-Ṣādiq was elected imam of the Anṣār to succeed his uncle al-Hādī, thereby unifying in his person the political and religious leadership of the Ummah-Anṣār movement.

The instability created by differences over the repeal of Nimeiri's Islamic legal code and the resolution of conflict in southern Sudan opened the way for the establishment, in June 1989, of a third military regime, under General ʿUmar Ḥasan Aḥmad al-Bashīr. The new government was closely associated with the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood and its political organization, the National Islamic Front (NIF). The Ummah Party was outlawed and al-Ṣādiq was imprisoned until 1991. During the following decade, the Ummah Party under his leadership was a major force in the opposition, sometimes as a part of a coalition of opposition groups, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and sometimes independently. Party leaders worked with both southern Sudanese rebel groups and, on occasion, with the al-Bashīr government. In 2002, some of the old divisions within the party reemerged when Mubarak al-Fadl al-Mahdī, a cousin of al-Ṣādiq, created a new pro-government factional Ummah Party.

The main Ummah Party under al-Ṣādiq criticized the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought a formal end to the North-South civil war in 2005 because it did not include major opposition groups (like the Ummah) in the negotiations, but it does not oppose the CPA as a possible basis for a more inclusive accord. The position of the Ummah Party in the other major conflict in Sudan in the early twenty-first century, the conflict in Darfur, is more complex. From the early days of the movement in the late nineteenth century, Darfur has been a major center of Mahdism and then, in the days of parliamentary politics, of Ummah Party strength. The party had strong support from both Arab and African groups in the region. Although party leaders claim that they still have strong mass support in Darfur, it is not clear what the impact of the destructive fighting among the groups will be on the party's long-term strength.

Ideology.

Ideologically, the Ummah Party draws its orientation from Sudanese Mahdist thought. Like the Ṣūfī orders and the Muslim Brothers, it believes that Islam plays a major role in the sociopolitical life of Muslims. But unlike the former, it is strongly committed to political activism; unlike the latter, it believes that a just social order can only be achieved on the basis of the widest popular participation. Accordingly, it supports the establishment of a modern Islamic state, but one that is based on a constitution that recognizes the ummah as the source of political authority and the possessor of sovereignty. Believing that the institutions of the modern state are new political phenomena with no resemblance to those of the original Islamic polity, the Ummah Party seeks to restore the functions rather than the traditional patterns of ancient Medinese society. Hence, like the Ṣūfī orders but unlike the Muslim Brothers, it recognizes the sharīʿah as the main—but not the sole—source for legislation. In this connection it advocates the establishment of a shūrā (advisory) council vested with adequate legislative powers not only to reenact provisions of the sharīʿah in the light of modern conditions, but also to validate existing modern legislation for which no precedent can be found in Islamic law. The application of such an Islamic legal system would be restricted to the Muslim population; other religious faiths would be formally recognized rather than suppressed or simply tolerated, and their members would be guaranteed full freedom of religious conscience and practice. In this way, Ummah believes, Sudanese national unity and territorial integrity can be preserved.

See also ANṣāR; MAHDī, AL-ṢāDIQ AL-; MAHDīYAH; and SUDAN.

Bibliography

  • De Waal, Alex, and A. H. Abdel Salam. “Islamism, State Power and Jihad in Sudan.” In Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, edited by Alex de Waal. Bloomington, Ind., 2004, pp. 71-113. An excellent examination of the dynamics of the politics of Islamic movements in Sudan at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Find it in your Library
  • Mahdī, Ṣādiq al-. “Islam: Society and Change.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 230–240. New York, 1983. An important presentation of the political ideas of the major Ummah Party leader. Find it in your Library
  • Sidahmed, Abdel Salam. Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan. New York, 1996. Provides a very useful analysis of the interactions among the major Islamic movements and organizations, giving some attention, also, to the secular political elements in Sudan. Find it in your Library
  • Warburg, Gabriel R.Islam, Nationalism, and Communism in a Traditional Society: The Case of Sudan. London, 1978. Includes an important essay on the organizational transformation, “From Anṣār to Umma, 1914–1945.” Find it in your Library
  • Warburg, Gabriel. Islam, Sectarianism, and Politics in Sudan since the Mahdiyya. London, 2003. The most comprehensive available analysis of Islam and politics in Sudan in the modern era. Find it in your Library
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