Sudan's previous autocratic Islamist regime, which was brutally repressive and placed penalties of flogging and death on blasphemy and apostasy, was deposed in a 2019 coup. Currently, it is governed by a provisional transition government. Many of the more draconian laws of the previous regime have already been repealed or softened, although some degree of religion-state overlap still exists as the transition to democracy is still underway. Apostasy is no longer punishable by law, but blasphemy, though its punishment is less severe now than before, may still be punished with imprisonment and fines.
About 70% of the population is Sunni Muslim, with minority Christian populations residing largely in the south and in the capital, and adherents to indigenous religions. The Sudanese legal system is a hybrid shaped by sharia, Turko-Egyptian, British colonial, and modern Egyptian civil law. Anglo-Egyptian colonization imposed legal structures that suppressed religious law; in the struggle for independence, this positioned Islamic law as emancipatory.
Background Islam was first introduced to northern Sudan in the mid 7th century through Muslim merchants, and was adopted under the first king of the Funj Sultanate, and propagated by foreign Muslim traders. Practical knowledge of sharia was limited, however, necessitating the arbitration of most matters via customary law. The country was united under Ottoman-Egyptian rule from 1820-1880, which advanced, but did not introduce, the Islamic influence already integrated itself into the judicial system. Islamisation had far more influence in the North, bordering Egypt, than in the South—splintering national identity in sectarian divisions that still exit today.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
In 1850, a secular penal code was introduced following the Ottoman Tanzimat (reorganization) reforms, which reduced sharia jurisdiction to personal matters. Islamization increased from 1885, after self-proclaimed sufi prophet Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, led the overthrow of Ottoman rule. Sudan would fall once more under outside control barely ten years later, conquered by an Anglo-Egyptian alliance. British rule introduced penal codes based on its own legislation, but some religious authority was restored under “Mohammedan Law courts,” where personal cases would be administered under sharia. After 1920, legal power was rationed between the trifecta of sharia, British common law, and local customary law.
In 1955, a unanimous vote for Sudanese independence, proposed an Islamic parliamentary republic with sharia as legislation. Following a military takeover in 1958, Sudan oscillated between three civilian and three military regimes. A1969 coup installed the Numieri regime, which oversaw the enactment of “sharia statues” to bolster its Islamic legitimacy. The Constitution of 1973 cemented “Islamic law and custom” as the principle sources of legislation. In 1985, Numieri was overthrown; the courts were abolished -- but sharia remained. In 1989, the National Islamic Front--a branch of the Muslim brotherhood--took power and by 1991, declared Sudan Islamic state. One of the officers involved in the takeover, Omar al-Bashir, governed under various titles until his ousting in 2019. Under al-Bashir, religious based jurisprudence became the norm, enabling the persecution of Christian and irreligious people during the regime. In 2005, the new constitution explicitly outlawed apostasy and blasphemy.
From July 2019, Sudan has found itself in a tumultuous transitional state following the overthrow of al-Bashir. The 2019 interim Constitutional Declaration, contains provisions protecting the rights to freedom of religious belief and worship “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.” It is also stated that no individual should be compelled to convert to a religion they do not believe in or to practice rituals involuntarily. In July 2020, apostasy was officially decriminalized, amending article 125 of the Penal Code, which had previously stated:
“Whoever, by any means, publicly abuses or insults any of the religions, their rites, or beliefs, or sanctities or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or with a fine, or with whipping which may not exceed forty lashes.”
In September 2020, the transitional government adopted the principle of secularism, stating that for “Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected.”
Reforms have not proceeded without resistance. In March 2020, an unsuccessful assassination attempt was carried out against Prime Minister Hamdok. Progressive activists are disillusioned with slow and superficial changes, while discriminatory laws in Sudan remain in effect, including one still prohibiting blasphemy under article 125.