In a large dilapidated house in Gereif, a southern section of Khartoum, an extended family of over a hundred members occupies a space probably intended for fewer than ten. The house fairly buzzes with the noise of women cooking, men conversing, and children playing. These are poor people, who live from day-to-day working in the suugs (marketplaces) and on the streets of Khartoum as vendors and simple laborers. Among them is Musa Abdullahi Yousif Sha ed Din, a beloved family patriarch, referred to affectionately as Father Abdullahi. Presiding serenely from his position on a rope bed in the center of the family courtyard where he is habitually ensconced, Abdullahi speaks with unfailing poise and good humor. Despite the many hardships and setbacks he has experienced, his faith in himself and in the goodness of God seems entirely unshaken. A revered spiritual leader, Abdullahi regularly dreams dreams, sees visions, and speaks boldly for the God that he has faithfully served throughout his sixty-eight years.
In the largely Muslim nation of Sudan, there have been many lone individuals who have braved ostracism and persecution in order to become followers of Jesus Christ, but instances of whole families, villages or communities coming into Christian fellowship have been rare if not nonexistent. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, when Sudan became open to Western influences and Christian missionaries, the conversions that have occurred have largely taken place in the southern part of the nation, populated not by Muslim Arabs but rather by black Africans who practiced traditional folk religions. An exception to this record of evangelism is the story of Abdullahi and his family. By Western standards, their story is a strange one, filled with accounts of dreams, visions, prophecies, odd occurrences, persecution, and even a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant.
The Hawara of Jaraad and the Legend of the Ark
Though the family traces its origins from more than one source, within Sudan it originates from the small rural village of Jaraad, located in the state of Kordofan. The villagers there live quite simply in little straw huts known as rakubas and guliyas. Though a lorry now traverses this area twice a week, travel between villages is usually still done on foot, or by camel or donkey. Being far from the Nile, the villagers rely entirely on well water for cleaning and drinking. They graze sheep on land that for most of the year appears to be a semi-desert. Yet, the rainy season between May and August makes possible annual crops of dura (wheat), sesame, and fuul Sudani (peanuts). The rainy season even produces a wondrous crop of wild watermelons. Lush and ponderous, they rest incongruously on the unlikely and forbidding soil.
The lives of the people of Jaraad have remained largely unchanged from the lives that their ancestors must have led centuries before. Modern communications, travel, education, agricultural techniques, and conveniences such as electricity and plumbing are all absent from the village. Though nominally Muslims, the villagers seem to have no clear understanding of Islam – let alone Judaism or Christianity. Consequently, their Islamic faith has been largely syncretized with traditional superstitions and their own unique tribal stories. In this preliterate society, one where the religious truths of the outside world are only dimly perceived, dreams and visions play a potent role in the lives of its people, as they do throughout Sudan.
The inhabitants of Jaraad are part of the Hawara tribe, which, according to oral tradition, arose originally in Yemen and did not arrive in Sudan until the sixteenth century. Hawara is an Arabic word, but they believe that it is derived from the Jewish name Hur. As the interpretation of their name suggests, the Hawara believe themselves to be descended from the Jewish people. They trace their ancestry back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In a story that closely parallels the Ethiopian tradition of Memmion, the Hawaras believe that Solomon and Sheba were married and had a son, whom they named David (the Ethiopian Memmion). Determined to preserve his own royal line outside of Israel, Solomon sent David home to Yemen with his mother. Moreover, he gave to him the Ark of the Covenant and many other things as well, so that they might be kept safely against the day of Israel’s destruction.
Sometime in the sixteenth century, the tribe’s legendary ancestor, Sha ed Din, led his six brothers from Yemen into southern Egypt, and finally south through Sudan. At that time the people of Sudan lived near the Nile, and therefore the area of Kordofan was unpopulated. Sha ed Din selected two sites not more than about five to seven miles from the present location of the village of Jaraad. One site was to be used for a family cemetery. Also, family treasure was to be buried there for safekeeping. The second site, about a half mile from the first, was to contain the body of Sha ed Din’s grandfather, which he had brought with him from Yemen just as the Israelites had carried Joseph from Egypt to the Promised Land. Sha ed Din gave instructions that no other body was to be placed in this area, and he constructed a small wooden temple on the site so that people could come and worship God there. Also, he directed his people that if they should come to the cemetery to honor their ancestors, they must first visit the cemetery of their grandfather and worship God there. From that day to the present, the people of the tribe have regularly come to this site to worship.
Over the years the people living in the village of Jaraad near the cemeteries have witnessed many strange occurrences associated with the cemetery of Sha ed Din’s grandfather. They regularly see strange lights at night coming from the area, and most believe that there are angels protecting the two sites. On the other hand, some believe that jinn protect the sites because, according to Islam, angels only protect the prophets. One of the most remarkable stories regarding the area occurred at about the time of Abdullahi’s birth. A father and son were worshipping on the site of Sha ed Din’s grandfather’s grave, hoping that God would reveal to them the location of the treasure in the other cemetery. After they had worshipped for one month with nothing yet revealed to them, they decided to start digging in the other cemetery. At this time they saw in the cemetery of Sha ed Din’s grandfather the shape of a man. He was very tall, perhaps as tall as a house, and his head was like the sun. This strange man started running toward them, and the father and son quickly fled back to the village of Jaraad and informed the people of what had happened.
Abdullahi’s Youth and Emergence as a Prophet
Abdullahi was born in Jaraad in 1928 – the specific date is unknown. Though lacking any formal religious training or any formal education at all, as a young boy he seems to have enjoyed a rich spiritual life. Sometime in the 1930s, he vividly remembers having a dream, which in retrospect suggested his subsequent career. In his dream there was a box in front of him with a cloud hovering directly above it. He saw himself inside the box, which was spinning in place. Eventually it transported him to Jerusalem, where he heard a voice from a great height coming from between two mountains (perhaps Sinai and Zion). The voice said, “Mercy to God.” Then the box started spinning again, and he flew up into the sky, and he saw beside him in the box a man whose name was Honest. Together they came to a room in the sky, and the man stepped out. Then Abdullahi stepped out of the box and entered the room, leaving Honest behind him. He found a man sitting on a chair in the room. The man, who never spoke, gave him seven keys. And then Abdullahi woke up. The character Honest suggests a guardian whom Abdullahi would encounter later in his life; and the seven keys, Abdullahi believes, are symbols for seven prophecies of Kush that are to come true in the latter days.
As a young man in 1948, Abdullahi began to urge his people to religious reform. He specifically attacked the Muslim tradition of zakat (alms-giving) as it was practiced in his town and in the neighboring towns and villages. The sheikhs were supposed to make an annual collection for the poor; but, instead of distributing the money to the poor, they were keeping it for themselves. The common people were afraid to object to this abuse of zakat because the sheikhs were considered to be people of great spiritual power, able to bring rain, make women fertile, and heal the sick. Abdullahi opposed all of these practices. In addition to his pronouncements against the sheikhs, he also urged his people to stop worshipping idols and swearing by their fathers and to refrain from other pagan practices such as making sacrifices on grave sites. He told them to leave all of these things and go back to the way of God. In all his pronouncements, however, he never recommended a specific religion that his people should follow.
In November 1948 Abdullahi began to come to the place established by Sha ed Din for worship, his grandfather’s cemetery near Jaraad. Abdullahi worshipped there each Saturday for eight Saturdays. On the eighth Saturday he saw a vision of a man coming from Jerusalem. He was wearing Sudanese clothes - a jalabiya (traditional Arab garment worn over other clothing) and a tobe crossed over his body. The man paced eight steps and with the ninth step he arrived in the town of Wad Medani, which is now in the center of Gezira State. The man said to him, “Meet me here, Abdullahi.” Later he saw the vision a second time. Then he told his parents what he had seen, interpreting the vision to mean that he should meet the man on the following Saturday. His father thought that he was just dreaming and that he should not believe it, but his mother encouraged him to go.
This was the first time for Abdullahi to leave his village and to travel to other towns. After arriving in Wad Medani, he waited three days for the man in his vision to arrive before concluding that it had just been a dream after all. Dejected, he went to the railroad station and was prepared to return home when he felt someone touch his shoulder. He turned and saw the man from his vision. The man said that he was indeed the person Abdullahi had seen in the vision. And, in fact, the two men seemed to know each other, though they had never met before. They discussed many things together, and Abdullahi learned that the man was five hundred years old and had stayed close to his family as a kind of guardian since they had first arrived in Sudan in the sixteenth century. Abdullahi believes that the number five hundred may actually be symbolic and that the man, or more likely angelic being, is in fact much older. One day while seated on the ground Abdullahi’s strange new friend picked up the Qur’an. Tying the book up with a piece of cloth, he set it aside, saying, “The Qur’an is not consistent with my nature.” Then, pausing, he added forcefully, “The Bible is my book.”
During the fifteen years following his first encounter with the five-hundred-year-old-man in 1948, Abdullahi attempted to evangelize his people in the villages of Jaraad and Nail and the city of Um Rawaba. He was constantly on the move, traveling between Jaraad and Um Rawaba and Gezira and Khartoum, meeting with both political and religious leaders. This was no doubt the most active period of his life, yet it was also a time in which he continued to meet with the five-hundred-year-old man and to experience a variety of dreams and visions. The message he proclaimed to the Muslim people was that they should continue to follow the Qur’an because it also promises the coming of Christ and points to his divinity. Nevertheless, he argued that the people of the Bible are the preferred people of God and that Christianity has not been superseded by Islam but in fact will continue to be a valid religion until the end of the world. In addition to the strictly religious message Abdullahi promulgated, he also advanced a social agenda. He advised people to allow their children to attend school, to treat their animals more gently, and, for men, to marry only one woman unless special circumstances (such as incapacitating illness) justified polygamy. Lastly, he advocated freedom of speech for all people.
Despite his dictums on monogamy, Abdullahi would eventually have three wives. He married women in 1956, 1957 and 1960 and had children by each of them. The first two wives were from different tribes. In each case, when the bride’s family discovered that Abdullahi was not an orthodox Muslim, members of the family came and took the woman back into their fold. Finally, Abdullahi married a woman from his own tribe. Later, in the 1960s, the first two wives returned to live with their husband. Not wanting to be a hypocrite but seeing no other honorable course to follow Abdullahi accepted them back and eventually had a brood of sixteen children from his three devoted spouses.
Abdullahi Persecuted in Em Rawaba
Not long after Abdullahi had experienced such turmoil in his private life, many people in the towns that he was attempting to evangelize began to talk about him, and he soon became the center of a broader controversy. Some said he was pretending to be a prophet, which is a capital offence among Muslims because there is not supposed to be any prophet after Mohammed. Others accused him of having heretical ideas about Islam, and still others accused him of being a Christian and of leading others to Christianity. For any one of these offences, Abdullahi could face imprisonment or death. On September 11, 1963, Abdullahi appeared before a judge in Um Rawaba to answer questions about his religious ideas. After three days of hearings, the judge ordered Abdullahi to remain in his house, and he sent all of the pertinent documents of the case to the High Court in Khartoum to be reviewed by the Chief Justice. The Mufti in Khartoum, the highest religious authority in Sudan, also reviewed this material. Together they concluded that Abdullahi was a Christian. The chief justice then directed the judge in Um Rawaba to give Abdullahi three days to reconvert to Islam or to appear before the court for sentencing. This was now a very serious matter, for hanging is a possible punishment for all converts to Christianity from Islam. Abdullahi remained in his house during this time as a prisoner, refusing to convert.
In the early morning of the third day the judge notified Abdullahi that he had received a telegraph from a person he described as a “high authority” who directed him to disregard all the orders he had received from the chief justice and the mufti regarding his case. He said that Abdullahi should be set free and that the government should protect him from any retaliation by the local people. Several days later, Abdullahi heard on the radio that the President of the country, Ibrahim Abboud, had fired the chief justice and mufti. Later, he also learned that it was the president who had sent the telegram and overruled the chief justice and mufti. Whatever official reasons for the dismissals may have been offered, the people of Um Rawaba, considered Abdullahi’s victory to be nothing short of a miracle because it was so rare for anyone to defeat the government in a case of this sort.
Most of the people in the city respected Abdullahi and his family and bore them no ill will. Though they were Muslims, they did not feel threatened by his religious convictions. Nevertheless, the judge asked Abdullahi to remain in his house because feelings were running so high against him among a small minority of people that the judge did not feel that he could be adequately protected. Abdullahi agreed with the judge, concluding that visiting people would only endanger them too. So Abdullahi decided to remain in his home, except for rare occasions when he needed to visit sick relatives in the hospital or for similar exceptional reasons. This was in 1963, and to this day Abdullahi has remained for the most part in his home, though he has changed residences many times. However, in part because of the trial, Abdullahi found that he had become a minor celebrity and that both Christians and Muslims were now visiting him in order to hear his opinions. Consequently, he concluded that he no longer needed to travel extensively in order to spread his ideas.
Baptism by the Catholic Church
In 1970 Abdullahi feared for the safety of his family in Um Rawaba, whose people seemed to be growing increasingly hostile. Finally, he decided to move his family to Wad Medani. In this same year the Catholic Church in Sudan recognized Abdullahi as a leader in his community and a potential Christian leader in Sudan. The church had been aware of Abdullahi since the 1960s, when newspaper stories about him had been frequent. The church contacted him with the desire to establish good relations, averring that they should be friends and in fellowship together. This was the first time that Abdullahi and his family had had any contact with Christians. In fact, until this time they had never even seen a Bible, and no one had ever preached to the family, neither Christian, nor Muslim, nor Jew. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s many had concluded that Abdullahi and his family were already Christians. Yet, remarkably, the only spiritual leadership that the Sha ed Din family had received until this time was from Abdullahi.
When the family first read the Bible in the early 1970s, they discovered that many of their traditions were similar to those of the ancient Israelites. This is especially true of dietary rules. Unlike other tribes in Sudan, the Hawara forbid the eating of camel and rabbits, both of which Moses also forbade. Also they reserve Saturday rather than Friday as a holy day, which they refer to as a “green” day; that is, a day of peace. On this day, members of the tribe do not travel but simply remain in their homes. Work is forbidden on Saturdays, and the people are not even allowed to clean their houses. They were very surprised to read of similar restrictions on the Jewish people recorded in the Bible, and they concluded that their own traditions were no doubt rooted in a Jewish past.
In February 1974 the local parish priest in Wad Medani baptized Abdullahi and his entire family – around one hundred people. The local priest, afraid of government reprisals, expressed his concern to church authorities in Khartoum. The church contacted Joseph Largo, the Vice President, who spoke with President Numeiri about the matter. Numeiri asked if the people had come on their own for baptism and confirmation, or if the church had evangelized them. When he discovered that it was the former, he allowed the religious ceremonies to go forward. On February 24, the archbishop of Sudan conducted the sacrament of confirmation for the family.
Persecution of Abdullahi and His Family in Wad Medani
In the last quarter century, the family has suffered much harassment and even persecution for its Christian faith. Between 1970 and 1982 they were forced to move from eight different homes by intolerant Muslim homeowners, who, once they discovered that their tenants were Christians, would order the family to leave and cancel the rental agreement. The family was also persecuted in other, and more deeply personal, ways. After 1974, when it was clear that the family was Christian and not Muslim, six Muslim families who had previously allowed their daughters to marry into Abdullahi’s family then sought divorces in legal courts. The courts granted the divorces in every case. Three of the women decided to remain with their husbands, and eventually they too became Christians. However, the other three women returned to their parents’ families, taking their children with them and reentering the Muslim world.
The family continued to live in Wad Medani until 1994, when government action finally precipitated their departure. This began on July 14 at 5:00 in the evening, when government security forces suddenly invaded the house and arrested Abdullahi and three other family elders. Later that night the security forces returned and arrested four young men, but after an hour or so they were released. The elders, however, remained in custody. There was no apparent reason for the arrests except the religious convictions of the family. Yet the family had not been actively evangelizing, and Abdullahi had remained at home almost continuously since 1963. For two days following the arrests, the family heard nothing about the fate of their elders. On Friday, the day following the arrests, several members of the family informed the Christians in the city about what had happened, and the Catholic Church provided an advocate to defend the prisoners. Finally, on Saturday at noon the men were brought before a judge and accused of having converted from Islam to Christianity, a capital offence under Article 126 of Sudan law. The judge asked the old men when, where and why they had become Christians. They remained before the judge for four or five hours that day answering questions, but the issues were not resolved. The advocate provided by the church proved to be of little help. When he inquired of the judge who the accusers of the families were, he was told that this was a secret of the court. Then he was told that he could remain in the courtroom, but that he would not be allowed to speak.
For the next two days, the men remained in jail. At different times two or three policemen visited in order to encourage them to recant their Christianity and re-embrace Islam. They informed the men that if they said, “There is only one God, and Mohammed is His prophet,” the judge would release them. Also, during the time of their incarceration, the family home was raided daily, usually late at night. Officials confiscated Bibles and family documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, and letters. They also took the family newspaper clippings about Abdullahi from the 1960s and 1970s. Later the family learned that the government burned all of these books and documents.
On Monday at 4:30 pm, the judge walked the short distance from his courtroom across the courtyard to the jail. There he ordered one of the policemen to whip Abdullahi and Muhanna (another elder) because they were the oldest, and the leaders of the family. He ordered the policeman to give each prisoner eighty lashes. Muhanna was taken from his cell first. He was placed in the center of the courtyard where about 150 to 200 people had gathered, mostly family members but also members of the Christian community. There were also several hundred more people who had gathered outside the courtyard area and were looking in. Muhanna stood without any props as he was beaten by a camel whip through his jalabiya, which was quickly shredded. At the end of the ordeal, he collapsed senseless to the ground and was left there. No medical treatment was provided. During Muhanna’s beating, Abdullahi was also taken out of his cell. Abdullahi told the judge, who was standing nearby to observe the proceedings, that he had high blood pressure and that he was not well. “You are a liar,” the judge said, “and I will have you beaten until you know the name of Mohammed.” The policeman laid five lashes on the sixty-four-year-old man, but he then passed out.
At that point the crowd quickly closed in to see what had happened. The policeman raised his whip and was about to continue laying lashes on his fallen victim when a solider from the crowd grabbed the whip in mid-air. Then the crowd began to shout questions at the judge: “Why are you whipping this man?” “There is freedom of religion in Sudan, so why are you treating these people like this?” The judge, fearing for his safety, ordered the police to arrest the people who were inside the courtyard threatening a disturbance. The policemen asked each individual they captured if they were Christian or Muslim. All of the Muslims were immediately released; forty-eight Christians were imprisoned. The judge also ordered the release of Abdullahi and Muhanna but told the police to obtain a “strong guarantee” from them that they would present themselves before the judge whenever required. As the police continued to arrest members of the unruly crowd, the judge quietly retreated out the back of the courthouse. Twenty minutes later, the judge returned and ordered the release of the forty-eight prisoners. Family members took the two beaten men to the hospital. Muhanna spent two days there recovering, but Abdullahi was sent home after only thirty minutes.
Because of continuing police harassment, the family decided to leave Wad Medani in August 1994. They were advised by relatives and friends to move to Khartoum where the presence of many foreigners and human rights organizations makes it more difficult for the government to act in disregard of its own stated commitments to basic civil liberties and to international standards of human rights. Since the move to Khartoum, the family is convinced that the government has continued to watch them. So far, however, no officials have contacted them and the persecution has ceased. The family fears, however, that the government may not yet be finished with them. They continue to work and move freely in the city, but they fear for the future.
Secrets Buried in a Graveyard
The story of Abdullahi now comes full circle, ending where it began with the mysterious cemeteries established about four centuries ago by Sheik Sha ed Din. The people living in the area continue to see a bright light emanating from this spot, though they do not know what it represents; and, throughout Abdullahi’s lifetime, the cemeteries have continued to be associated with strange events. Once, according to local legend, the people buried a man from another tribe in one of the cemeteries, and the next day they found his body outside the grave. This, and similar events, continue to inspire fear in the people living in the area. Consequently, they are respectful of the cemeteries and faithfully follow the tradition that no one be buried in the cemetery of Sha ed Din’s grandfather, and that no one be buried in the other cemetery except the Sheik’s descendants.
Sometime during the 1960s Abdullahi came to the conclusion that the cemetery of Sha ed Din’s grandfather was actually the site of the lost Ark of the Covenant. He claims to have received no direct revelation, dream or vision on the subject. Nor does he claim that the five-hundred-year-old man has revealed this to him. Rather, he professes only to having had a strong feeling that the supposed burial of Sha ed Din’s grandfather was a ruse and that the actual content of the box carried from Yemen to Sudan in the sixteenth century was none other than the fabled ark. He believes that this feeling is itself a divine revelation.
It is not difficult to imagine how he came to this conclusion regarding the cemetery. His growing awareness of the Hawara tribe’s Jewish ancestry, his possible knowledge of the Ethiopian story of the ark and its parallels with the Sha ed Din story, the five-hundred-year-old man’s role as a guardian of the family, the light emanating from the cemetery site and the other mysteries surrounding it, and his own childhood vision of a box that would fly him high in the sky into the very presence of the divine are all mysteries that, in his mind, might easily converge on the site of the ancient cemetery and point to something beyond the burial of a revered ancestor. Still, Abdullahi kept his own counsel and did not reveal his belief to anyone. Reasoning that God had entrusted the care of the Ark to his family, Abdullahi concluded that he had the right and duty to reveal the mysteries concealed by Sha ed Din but that the time was not yet right to do so.
This situation changed following the persecution of the family in 1994. Sometime in the period from the beginning of December 1994 through the end of January 1995, Abdullahi concluded that the time had come to announce the location of the Ark of the Covenant and to reveal it to the world. Not long after he began to speak about it, a small but dedicated research party was formed, made up mostly from members of Abdullahi’s family.
The journey to Jaraad and the nearby cemetery site alone is a tribute to the fortitude of this group. It is a six-hour journey from Khartoum to Um Rawaba on a bus that is ancient, cramped, hot, and reeking of humanity. The researchers then had to ride in an open lorry from Um Rawaba to Jaraad, which takes an additional two hours. The lorries to Jaraad are simply flatbed trucks, where the women huddle on the floor in the middle of the bed (often amid sheep), and the men sit with reckless abandon on the surrounding guardrail. In the meantime, the truck lurches along at top speed on a deeply rutted sandy road, the driver fearing to stop or even slow down for danger of sinking in and becoming immobilized. The passing countryside is truly the land that time forgot where transportation is by camel, homes are made of thatch, and men dress uniformly in jalabiyas, sandals and immas (traditional Sudanese head covering). The final leg of the trip from Jaraad to the cemetery, which takes another two hours, is made on foot, with a donkey carrying supplies and equipment. It is a difficult journey over parched dry ground, which is liberally sprinkled with sheep droppings. Sheep are regularly run through the area despite its meager foliage, and the resulting superfluity of excreta causes the air to be thick with flies, a torment to man and beast. Fortunately, the hardy watermelons that thrive in the area provide a good source of liquid refreshment and an occasion for much-needed respites along the way.
The cemetery site, which is just a sandy indentation in the land, can be spotted from a distance by the three trees that mark its location. Upon arriving at the spot, the villagers insist that “the ground whereon we walk is holy ground,” and so visitors to the area must stoically remove their shoes to brave scorpions and searing sand. The research party eventually made several trips to the cemetery site; and, after working all day in temperatures that often exceeded 45 degrees Celsius, it was always an exhausted but alert group that returned at night to the village, watchful along the way for serpents that move in fields alive with fleet and wary mice. During these trips, the group carefully surveyed the area with a magnetometer, looking for magnetic anomalies beneath the surface of the earth that might suggest a hidden box. The magnetometer revealed three anomalies. The origins of two of them were eventually discovered (a large metal pan and a flashlight battery), but the third was never found and remains a mystery. Members of Abdullahi’s family have since made several additional attempts to dig up the Ark at the suspected location of the third anomaly, but without success. To date no evidence of an Ark in the area has been found, and no material evidence whatsoever has come to light to substantiate this part of Abdullahi’s story.
Death of Abdullahi
Abdullahi died on June 18, 2005. According to a family spokesperson, at that time some 200 members of the Sha ed Din clan were Christians. By 2015 this number had increased to 700, but there may be as many as 300 others who are secret followers. Although Abdullahi never became an adherent to a specific Christian denomination, different members of his clan have loosely affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Thirty-five members of the clan have attended the Gereif Bible School, ten have attended Nile Theological College (a non-denominational seminary), and four have pursued Masters studies. Sadly none of these graduates is currently employed because of the discrimination against Christians that exists in Sudan. Though clan members are convinced that the government is watching them closely, they remain faithful to Christ and continue to engage in evangelism
As evangelists, they are able to utilize both rational and mystical ports of entry into the hearts and minds of their people, for they stand as a bridge between two cultures. Respectful of traditional techniques of evangelizing Muslims, they are not limited to them. Rooted in Sudanese folk religiosity, they are nevertheless disciplined by a growing commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. Influenced by Western rationalism, they can often take a discerning view of dreams and visions, without losing touch with the spiritual vitality and worldview that produced them. For them, spiritual truth is not an abstract statement of faith or a static conception of reality but an ongoing quest that does not side step the mysticism of leaders such as Abdullahi but runs directly through it. They stand, not at the end of history, but in the midst of an apostolic age.
It was just such a group in 1998 that, deeply disappointed about their inability to locate the Ark, wearily returned to Jaraad one evening from the cemetery site. On a moonless night, with myriads of stars twinkling overhead in the clear desert air, the group turned to look once more in the direction of the cemetery. There, far off on the horizon, beckoning but elusive, a light shone in the darkness! It glowed as bright as a city but where no city exists. The group would see it many more times during their trips, but they were never able to approach it; for when they lingered at the site after nightfall the light would not appear. And, so, the quest continues…
I interviewed members of the Sha ed Din family, including Abdullahi, over many hours and traveled with them to Jaraad on two occasions in 1998 in order to learn more about them and to participate in their ongoing digs at the cemetery described in the story. The account that I have given here is generally descriptive rather than interpretive. In other words, I wanted to tell their story as they would tell it, not as an anthropologist or sociologist would render it. This article originally appeared under the title “Guardians of the Ark” in my collection of short stories, Children of the Sun: Stories of the Christian Journey in Sudan (Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1998), 115-132. I updated and slightly revised the article for this publication.
- For those living on this side of the Enlightenment, Abdullahi’s story will no doubt immediately raise a number of epistemological concerns – as well it should. There are obvious dangers of error and deception in an uncritical acceptance of mystical experiences. Abdullahi, while a good man and a moral and spiritual leader, did not seem to possess any special wisdom or insight into worldly events, nor did he become a particularly learned student of the Scriptures when he discovered their existence in the early seventies. Rather, he seems to have led almost entirely by intuition. The great spiritual authority he possessed over his family derived from his absorption into a world of dreams and visions, a world that his family shared with him. What was truly disconcerting about Abdullahi’s spiritual leadership was that he seemed to take his dreams and visions entirely at face value, without apparently attempting to scrutinize their origin or to judge them against any outside authority. At times, one member of the family reluctantly admitted, this practice led to messianic delusions.
Still, Western rationalists ought not to dismiss the mysticism of other cultures too quickly. The American philosopher/psychologist William James, writing in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, showed that the dreams and visions of mystics break down the confident assumptions of our rationalism and reveal the possibility of what he called, “other orders of truth.” Rationalism, James reminds us, is only one type of consciousness, and by its own standards cannot disprove the possibility of non-rationalistic forms of consciousness. Therefore, the dreams and visions of mystics may be ignored by rationalists, but they cannot be overthrown. Moreover, James avers, “The supernaturalism and optimism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life.” This latter point seems particularly pertinent in the case of Abdullahi. While Abdullahi’s spiritual pilgrimage may make enormous claims on the readers’ credulity, what cannot be doubted is that he succeeded in slowly leading a small but growing band of followers from their semi-traditional/semi-Muslim beginnings into a mature and deepening Christian faith, a faith that has stood the test of severe persecution and ongoing difficulties that do not yet seem to have an end in sight. Moreover, this is a faith perfectly attuned to the premodern worldview of the vast majority of Sudan’s population, which, despite an awareness of modern technology and science, continues to retain a healthy respect for, and often an active involvement in, the world of dreams and visions. See William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library, 1958), 323-328.
This story, received in 2015, was written by Michael Parker who lived in Sudan from 1995 to 2000 as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He came to know the Sha ed Din clan during this time while he was teaching church history at Nile Theological Seminary in Sudan. He is currently serving as director of graduate studies and professor of church history at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.