In title photo and below, the al-alfiyyah sibha, or rosary / prayer beads of a Sufi mystic at Friday dhikr, Hamid El-Nil, Omdurman. See The Eternal Dance and Sudanese Moments for more on this joyful ceremony.
“The common prayer rosary is made of 99 beads, believed to be equivalent in number to the names of God; every 33 beads are separated by a rectangular one called shahid (witness). The piece in which the two ends of the prayer beads are joined is alif (alpha in the Arabic language), representing the name of God.”
“Some Sufi sheikhs in the Sudan use prayer strings of 1000 beads of lalobe (fruit of the hijlij tree, pictured below) called al-alfiyyah. Abu Huraira, a companion of The Prophet and a narrator of the Hadith was said to be the first to use the rosary in Islam, and his was made of 1000 glistening beads.”
“These prayer beads are used as amulets to confer protection on the wearer, and because of the divine purpose they are used for, they are thought to have a blessed nature of their own. Some Sufi sheikhs and elderly women used to wear the sibha around their necks probably as a show of piety and rejection of worldly pursuits.” (Edited account of Dr Ahmad Al Safi, in Traditional Sudanese Medicine.)
Below a sketch based on a photo taken with permission during the Hamid El-Nil dhikr.
Between my grandfather’s rosary and me / There is a life / There is a bond of the peacefulness of the soul / In a sea of salvation / Between my grandfather’s rosary and me / illuminating a thousand niches.
Garang Thomas Dhel , as quoted in Sand in My Eyes, Enikö Nagy, p 513
An Infinite Archipelago
A colonial account of a 1940s conversation with a Sudanese Sufi mystic on the essence of his faith.
……I was now taken into a room apart, where, seated on a divan, I was regaled with thick Sudanese coffee – heavily fragrant for this occasion with cinnamon – and entertained in conversation with by “third in command” of the Tariga, a veritable greybeard of kindly countenance. He wore a circular white turban round a central skullcap…..I asked the sheikh what Sufi-ism stood for. HIs face lighted up in the rays of the lantern, and his eyes glistened with almost holy fire.
“Sufi-ism,” he replied, fingering his rosary, “Sufi-ism is the mystical aspect of Islam.” “First, one has to pass through a long initiation,” he continued, “to acquire a superconscious knowledge of God. That comes only by long discipline and fasting, and months of contemplation and abnegation of self.” He stroked his square-tipped beard meditatively. “Then in the sacred mystery of the Zikar, the curtains of our limited human consciousness are drawn aside for a brief, ecstatic moment, and the human gains access to the divine.”
The metaphysical truths that the Sheikh was telling me might have been epitomized by Omar (Khayyan):
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True; / Yes; and a single Alif were the Clue – / When you have found it – and to the Treasure-house, / and peradventure, to the Master too; / Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins / Running quicksilver-like eludes your pains……
One of the young sheikhs now entered with a second tray of little coffee cups. We drank on for a few minutes, with the loud hissing sips that are considered the essence of good breeding.
The sheikh continued in his exposition of Sufi-ism. “Everyone, to the outward eye, an isolated island above the surface of the common sea of entity; something that stands by himself, alone.” He threw open his black cloak, revealing a yellow waist-sash of rich silk. “That is not true, however,” he continued, his dark eyes riveted on mine. “The Sufi knows that we are all one in the cosmic scheme of things, and that underneath the surface of outward appearances, each man is joined to its neighbors by invisible ties. every man is myself, therefore, and myself is everyman.” He spoke in a low tone that carried conviction. This old man’s years of earnest contemplation had not been in vain. The eyes are the mirror of the soul, they say, and the kindliness in his was now explained. “Did not your messiah, Jesus – Peace be upon His name – teach the doctrine of forgiveness? The secret of forgiveness every Sufi knows. Do you Christians know it too, I wonder? The Sufi knows,” he continued, not waiting for my answer, “that in hurting others, we do but hurt ourselves in the end; that in refusing forgiveness to others we refuse it to ourselves and therefore stand condemned. For each is a part of the whole, even as the drop of water is a part of the ocean.”
The old man’s views were sincere and full of food for thought. I wanted to hear more, “What then of the sects that are not Sufi?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “We in Sudan are Sufis – Sufis to a man,“ he replied “To each man his religion and to us ours. I can only give genaabak our Sufi point of view. “In the mystical religion of Sufi-ism, the soul grows day by day. There is no such growth in religions that one wears as a garment; religions that involve the mere acceptance of certain beliefs, the adherence to man-made creeds, least of all to the dull performance of symbolic ceremonials.” He laid his hand on my arm as he continued. “The revelation that comes to the devout in the mystical state of kashf during a Zikar, when the human mind is, as it were, dead, but the spiritual ears and eyes are opened, these revelations transcend anything that can be grasped by the human intellect. Only the individual worshipper can interpret the meaning they have for him – and for him alone.” What else he had to say was interrupted by the arrival of a third brew of coffee. In accordance with Sudanese etiquette, I politely refused this by placing my inverted hand over the empty cup…..
An edited extract from The Zikar, Land of the Blue Veil by Allan Worsley, Cornish Brothers Ltd, 1940, pp 65-76. The inclusion of this extract should not be understood in any way as approval of British colonial policy in Sudan.
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