The dervishes, distinguished by their green and red robes, eclectic prayer beads, charms and Rastafarian-style dreadlocks, represent a kinder, gentler picture of Sudanese society than the one world focuses on in the horrors of Darfur. While Sudan's Islamist government foments war there and disdainfully drags its heels over the implementation of a peace plan, the dervishes follow a mystical Sufi Muslim tradition that seeks harmony and "oneness" with the universe.
"While the Islamists see only one right path, the Sufis see a house on the top of a hill, and understand that there are many different paths to reach the house," says my host, Al-haj Warrag, a liberal Sudanese journalist whose white djellabah sweeps behind him as we cross the dusty graveyard, approaching the mosque. "There is nothing fanatical about them."
"Nobody here will ask you your religion, or where you come from," he adds. "They just accept you."
Sufism has deep roots in Sudanese culture, and its influence is strikingly at odds with the oppressive Islamist political ideology that has long fueled conflict here. In the early 1990s, Sudan counted itself among the most rigid Islamist governments in the world: Riot police tear-gassed overly festive wedding parties, and the regime's determination to impose its harsh version of sharia law on the more Christian South helped to drag out the war. Its chief ideologue, Hassan al-Turabi, notoriously helped to radicalize Osama bin Laden during his years living in Khartoum.
Even al-Turabi himself eventually fell afoul of the authorities, finding himself imprisoned by a regime that stamped out political opponents and critical voices. But the Islamists have not dared to interfere with Sufism. Apolitical and non-confrontational by its very nature, it offers a form of resistance that is harder to break. "Sufism is part and parcel of life in Sudan," says Gasim Badri, who heads a liberal women's university in Omdurman. "Even now, after 18 years in power, they have been unable to change the Sudanese people."
As we step into the fray outside the mosque, people turn to us and smile. "Welcome, welcome," one bearded old man says, bowing his head. Fanning out inside a circle of spectators, the dervishes spin in frenzied circles, sometimes hopping on one foot or leaping across the dusty ground, their robes flaring wildly around them. Robed men circulate among the spectators other robed men, women wearing the sensuous, cascading traditional dresses called thopes, and the odd group of Westerners with cameras offering cones of burning incense for people to fan the aromatic smoke toward their faces.
The drums pulsate in gentle rhythms, then pick up the pace as the chanting and rocking crescendos to a fever pitch. As the sun sets, soft pink clouds are illuminated in the sky, and a single electric star glows from above the doorway of the mosque. Suddenly, the drums fall silent, and the dancing stops.
As we leave, Al-haj tells a story containing a typically Sufi rebuke to the authorities: A Sufi leader visits a distant village while he is fasting for Ramadan. When he arrives in the village, the people welcome him by offering a glass of milk. He drinks the milk, preferring to honor their hospitality rather than his own piety.