For a long period of time, religion was not an element of conflict between the predominantly Muslim Northern Sudan and the largely traditional Africans of the Southern Sudan. From the thirteenth century AD, when large numbers of Arabs from the Arabian peninsula penetrated the Northern Sudan, the processes of Islamization and Arabization were accepted by the various Northern Sudanese ethnic groups. The Arab immigrants intermarried with the Nubians, whose cultural traditions of matrilineal descent enabled the transfer of authority through their offspring from intermarriage with the Muslim Arabs, who practiced patrilineal descent. During the centuries of the spread of Islam, skin color was not a critical issue in the definition of an Arab Muslim and an Islamized Nubian. As Lilian Passmore Sanderson has explained, "many Arab Sudanese are darker than some Southerners." To be an Arab was an ambiguous term, and it remains so to this day in the modern Sudan. In a political context, a Northern Sudanese Arab is defined in terms of his or her identification with the Arab and Islamic cultures. But "even conversion to Islam could not fully compensate for the absence of a conventionally accepted Arab ancestry."1 Nonetheless, most Southerners regard the Northern Sudanese as Arabs today. [End Page 67]
For several centuries, the Arab Muslims in the Northern Sudan found it extremely difficult to penetrate the Southern Sudan. The power of the African people on the White Nile and the topography of the region were major obstacles to their penetration. The large Dinka and Shilluk ethnic groups in the Southern Sudan were aggressive to any foreign intruders. These pastoralists believed in their traditional religions. Any foreign religion or culture was considered inferior and had no place in their societies. This explains why, for a long period of time, the process of Arabization and Islamization did not penetrate beyond the thirteenth parallel.2
Between the end of the seventeenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, the process of Islamization made no headway southward beyond the 13th parallel. The Funj sultanate of Sennar, north of the 13th parallel, whose rulers had embraced Islam between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, was too far away, and it was also preoccupied with internal political crises. Thus the people south of the 13th parallel did not pay particular attention to either Islam or Christianity. Rather, they adhered to their various traditional religions, which they considered superior to all religions alien to their territories.
On 3 April 1846, Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree proclaiming the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Africa, whose objectives were "the conversion of the Negroes to Christianity, the bringing of assistance to the Christians who were in the Sudan as traders, and the suppression of the slave trade." The pope was as concerned about the human condition of the African peoples in Central Africa as he was with the need to convert the African peoples to Christianity. A decree was one thing, but its implementation was another. The missionary zeal was undoubtedly there, but the funds, personnel, and other supplies crucial to the missionary work were not sufficient.3
Christians and Muslims, whether in Egypt or the Sudan, held stereotypical beliefs about one another in terms of religious theology, purity or corruptness, and personal habits. The two religions have been in a struggle for supremacy for more than a millennium, and this has been exhibited in different forms by different rulers. However, in the case of the Sudan, the Turco-Egyptian administration, which conquered the country in 1821 and ruled it until 1885, was "the least intolerant regime to [End Page 68] Christian missionaries."4 This is demonstrated by Muhammad Ali's acceptance of "the coming of European...