Whirling to Allah

Every Friday, an hour before sunset, a large group gathers at the tomb of Sheikh Hamed al-Nil in the Omdurman city of Khartoum. The crowd forms a circle around a handful of green and red-clad men, some of whom seem rockstar-like in their varying outfits of dreadlocks, sunglasses, leopard skin accessories, and mountains of beads piled around their necks. Their colourful attire is in contrast to the usual white robes and quiet demeanour of the Sudanese.

These colourful men, the dervishes, begin pacing around the inside of the circle, stirring up the crowd. “LA ILLAHA ALLALLAH!” (There is no God but Allah!) they chant repeatedly. A group of four tall dervishes strides around and around, encouraging the chant louder. A few lone, plainly-clad dervishes begin spinning and spinning, whirling in their quest to find a path to God. Through the ritual, called dhikr (remembrance of Allah) in the Sufi Muslim religion, the worshippers seek to gain a greater understanding of and communication with God. A man, carrying a jug of water around with which he refreshes members of the crowd, leaves this duty momentarily to lead a blind adherent within the circle, both of them chanting and bobbing to the rhythm. Others are responsible for continuously driving the crowd back, pushing their shoes with sticks to create the boundaries of the inner circle. A few children dance in the middle, encouraged by their parents and affectionately patted on the head by the dervishes.

We stand just behind the inner circle of the front row of men. Smiles are exchanged, with us and also between the worshippers, and greetings are called between those who know each other. There is laughter, some of the dervishes appear intoxicated, and the calls of “Allah” create a hypnotic rhythm not too dissimilar to a rave. The chants grow softer and louder, and occasionally stop in a climax and start again, in a ritual familiar to those surrounding us. When they stop, I have the urge to laugh and break into applause. Once, I accidentally do.

Around sunset, we leave the crowd behind us as they continue in their worship, picking our way through the cemetery to return to Khartoum city centre, which lies quiet and abandoned every week on a Friday.