Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 3 April 2007

The Intellectual Degeneration in Sudan

By Ahmed Alzobier*

April 3, 2007 — In his entertaining book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004), an impassioned polemic on the retreat of reason, Francis Wheen decried the specter of irrationality that has engulfed the world.
He wrote:

Imagine the scene: after centuries of scientific progress, after two world wars, and in the midst of the Cold War, the world’s gone mad. Or at least, the people who run it have. They’re suffering from a kind of institutionalized irrationality and paranoia, and basic rules of logic and common sense have been suspended – only to be replaced by an immovable faith in the unseen.

In the case of Sudan the signs of such an intellectual decline could be detected in the mid-1980s after a period of madness following the implementation of Sharia law in September 1983, and the assassination of the great Sudanese political thinker Mahmoud M Taha in January 1985. The stage was empty and no one had the energy to fight the despicable creatures who started to appear on the scene. A bearded, chubby preacher howling at his bemused audience outside Khartoum Grand Mosque, “We thank our God for allowing westerners to create all these invention for us Muslims”. Obviously, the guy is not grateful to the inventions or the inventors; for him, Thomas Edison is irrelevant but he is grateful to his God for providing Thomas Edison as a subservient human being instructed by God to render his unconditional services to the chosen people, “The Muslims”.
This notion of Muslim supremacy might strike non-Muslims as very odd; unlike potential white European claims, this supposed supremacy is not based on a contribution to scientific knowledge, or genes, but is entirely based on the belief that God is on the Muslims’ side.

Although the example quoted above is an extreme one, as even in that time many people in the audience would not have taken our chubby preacher seriously, in hindsight his rather comical position could now be seen as a prelude to the current disturbing dichotomies that have been created between science and religion in the Islamic world. It anticipates an era of superstition and unreason and the dominance of illogical positions like the notion of Muslim superiority, pinned up against the backdrop of a glorified past that has been gradually presented as an acceptable ideological position within the mainstream theology of the region.

The decline of higher education in Sudan can be logically associated with the decline in the quality of intellectual life and the overall degeneration that had engulfed the country by the end of the last century. According to a former Khartoum University lecturer, “There are two types of PhDs in Sudan and they could be classified as ‘before’ and ‘after’ 1989”.

Totalitarian regimes consider media and education systems as having paramount importance as tools to consolidate their ideological dominance and hegemony. Within months of taking power in Sudan, the National Islamic Front launched its major education policy under the title “Revolution in Higher Education”. The structure and curricula were radically changed and a massive Arabisation was introduced. Arabic became the language of instruction in higher education institutions and university text books were hastily replaced by Arabic versions. The Sudan Islamic regime has its own copycat “cultural revolution” with similar devastating effects on the education system, and has led to almost an entire generation of inadequately educated individuals. It will take huge resources and considerable effort to rebuild a balanced and sound education system in Sudan. One of the most devastating aspects of this education policy is the unprecedented degree of privatization of the whole education system, including the supposedly government funded institutions coming under the control of local authorities, or private companies and individuals. Academic freedom is drastically reduced to a nonexistent status.

The dismal plight of the higher education system in particular has been noted in Professor Mohamed El Tom’s (1) study on “Higher Education in Sudan”. According to El Tom, “Most students enrolled in higher education today were born in the early 1980s, which means that their characters have been shaped under the influences of, among other factors, the value system of the totalitarian regime. Thus the values of critical thinking, open mindedness, tolerance, respect for truth and love for knowledge, all of which are embraced, celebrated and fostered by genuine higher education, are alien to these students. In fact these students are inoculated in an intensive way by the very opposite of these values” (p. 56).

According to El Tom the extraordinary expansion in graduate studies since the 1990s was financially driven irrespective of whether they offered meaningful graduate study programs. From the students’ point of view they are facing mass unemployment after graduation from universities, the only option available to them is further graduate studies under the social pressure that everybody else is doing it.
El Tom observed that out of a total of 3,339 publications in the Sudan during the 27-year period 1973-99, Sudanese universities’ share is about 76.3%. However, research output during the 1990s decreased by about 22% from its level in the 1980s and the University of Khartoum saw a 30% declined. Ironically, the Ministry of Higher Education reported that the number of PhD holders increased from 641 in 1975 to 909 in 1991, and exponentially to 3,432 in 2002. Masters degrees increased from 1359 in 1975, to 2426 in 1991, and 9467 in 2002. There are only 23 universities in Egypt for 75 million people, whereas in Sudan there are 30 universities for a population of 35 million. Many of these new universities would not pass the accepted international standard that qualifies academic institutions for the status of University. Also, the quality of research in these graduate programs is appalling; according to El Tom most elementary, standard research methodologies are completely ignored. No wonder the universities of Sudan are producing ignorance rather than knowledge.

In Al Sahafa newspaper (5/5/2004 issue number 3927) Dr Mohamed Saeed Al Gadal observed, “Khartoum University has become the possession of a political party, because appointments and promotions occur according to the party loyalty”. Dr Al Gadal criticises the University because it has given MSc and PhD degrees without proper adherence to the accepted academic procedures and standards. Even the supervisor of the students has no PhD to qualify him to oversee PhD research – political and ideological loyalty is far more important in this case.

Dr Omar Algari in his article entitled, “The catastrophe that engulfed our country when the leaders of Takfeer became University lecturers”, decried the practices that are spreading through most universities and higher institutions in the country, that disregard any academic qualifications, regulations or appointment criteria. “That’s what has made Sudan’s universities’ academic status deteriorate”, he says, “and their ability to compete internationally is very limited”.

It is a situation where the university campuses become populated with the likes of Dr Abdel Hay Youisf, the head of Islamic studies at Khartoum University. Abdel Hay is a leading Islamic fundamentalist in Sudan, brought up and educated in Saudi Arabia, and his role as a university lecturer contributes to the atmosphere of madness. He wrote a book entitled Theological Edict and Paths (containing no publishing or distribution information) which comprised a number of extreme edicts, Fatawi, branding many people as Kafirs while inciting hatred and intolerance in the country.

Another PhD holder from California University, California being one of the most liberal places on earth, returned to Sudan to become the architect of suffering and torture in the country. He became the head of the security forces during the 1990s which were involved in the systematic torture of academics and intellectuals, compiling a list of political undesirables to be purged. He simply symbolized the degree of disdain, contempt and condescension that the new ruling elites hold for the Sudanese culture.

Abdelsalm Al Mahaboub, one of the leading Islamist in Sudan, confessed recently in a newspaper interview that the Islamic movement had created a conflict due to its, “Isolationism and alienation from the Sudanese society and the dilemma of viewing the whole society as the ‘other’ or the enemy”.

A most extraordinary case that probably symbolizes the alienation observed by Al Mahaboub in Sudan’s higher education, is the story of a lecturer at the Institute of Drama and Music who obtained his PhD from East Germany. His PhD thesis claimed to be a study of the work of influential 20th century German dramatist, stage director and poet, Bertolt Brecht. Our Sudanese German PhD holder completely misunderstood the subject of his research and returned to Sudan not to teach drama but to impose a weird moral code on the students’ drama productions. Brecht’s theory of theatre is essentially meant to provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage, but rationality deserted our confused and anti-creative teacher. He eventually became the Dean of the Institute after the 1989 military coup and since then the Institute has witnessed its darkest days. He sacked 60 students, imposed the regime of a new and strict moral code which literally killed any creativity, and the institute closed down for nearly three years in the early 1990s. Since then the decline has been in free-fall and most people who were involved in theatre or drama have left the country. The Institute is now a symbol of the regime’s destructive ideology and has become empty and abandoned.
The inverse relation between creativity on one side, and totalitarianism and suppression on the other, was completely confirmed in the Music and Drama Institute case. It emulates some kind of deadly bacterium that may start on the surface of the body but eventually will go deep inside to wreak havoc, eating away at its victim leaving only a pulpy, noxious residue and, eventually, emptiness.

David Hume once wrote, “In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find, that he increases in superstition”. The University of Khartoum Teachers Club has an admirable tradition as a bastion of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of knowledge. Now the place is empty and desolate, just a depressing shadow of its glorious past. Ironically, across the road a bookstand displays sensationalist titles concerning: torture in hell; torture in the grave; curing AIDs, cancer and sexual impotency; jinn and Satan control; the abyss and Judgment Day punishment.

The head of the science department, Dr Abdel Aziez Ahmed, has a PhD from Copenhagen University in Denmark on the Belharsia epidemic. He wrote a book entitled Scientific Outlook of the Quran sponsored by the Ministry of Technology, headed at the time by the Islamic hardliner Professor Al Zobier Baseer Taha. The book is a classic example of trying to justify a new scientific theory with the claim that the Quran had mentioned it hundreds of years ago. It’s a process of justifying God through confirming the integrity of the Quran in relation to a scientific discovery. In many ways this quest for justification comes across as a search for comfort and consolation about a shaken belief rather than proving the already known. In his desperate attempts to do this Dr Abdel Aziez Ahmed concluded with astonishing confidence the following:

I have looked into the relation between the research methodology in writing scientific reports and the Quran Verse (1-17) from Sura Omran. I was shocked and I went through deep moment of tearful silence when I discovered the correlation.

In his paper “‘Quran-science’: scientific miracles from the 7th century?”, Taner Edis notes that “Astronomy is fertile territory for the imaginations of apologists seeking to show that the Quran exhibits knowledge far beyond what would be possible in the 7th century environment of its origin”. That is exactly what Dr Abdel Aziz did in his book where verses were twisted to suggest that they proclaim the orbiting of planets, the revolution of earth about its axis, and the compatibility of the solar system with Quranic verses.

Although science is dynamic and evolving, this could not be said about religious positions which are static and fixed in time and place. The sometimes disturbingly unpredictable nature of science could be symbolized by the questions related to the planet Pluto that have been raised in recent times. The International Astronomical Union, when they met in Prague in August 2006, adopted new guidelines for the definition of planets. Pluto (the 9th planet) fails to meet these new guidelines and our solar system now has eight planets. I am not sure what our self-confessed Quranic scientist could adapt or produce to conform with the unexpected changes in the planetary system since the 1930s. I think we just have to sit back and enjoy watching the text engineers continue straining to produce miracles out of text.

What is really amazing in this convoluted process of interrogating a text written 14 hundred years ago, is the imagination of the human mind that is able to discover with enviable certitude a set of embedded theories in the text which no-one had ever envisaged before, and present them with embarrassing confidence as science. This cryptic text decoding outstrips even the Da Vinci Code lead character Robert Langdon, a professor of religious iconology, and all his skills of interpreting hidden messages inside Leonardo’s famous works.

Sudan as a country desperately needs to regain a sense of rationality, sanity and wisdom. Most importantly this sanity needs to be restored to our education system, and wherever possible to repair the damage and start the process of educating sane and rational human beings capable of dealing with the complexity of the world we live in.

(1) Prominent mathematics professor at the University of Khartoum, he was made redundant in the early 1990s by the NIF regime.


- Ahmed. A: Scientific outlook of the Quran (2001).
- Algari. O: article entitled “The catastrophe that engulfed our country when the leaders of Takfeer became Universities Lecturers”.
- Bryson. B: Short History of Everything (Black Swan, 2004).
- El Tom M: Higher Education in Sudan (2006).

* Ahmed Elzobier, is a Sudanese writer. He can be reached at ahmed.elzobir@gmail.com.