Mahmoud Taha: Sudan’s Martyr for Islamic Reform

If Mahmoud Muhammad Taha had become world famous rather than the world-infamous Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri of Al Qaeda, the Muslim world would be a very different place today.

Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was 76 years old when he was executed by Sudan’s president Gaafar Mohammed al-Nimeiri on January 18, 1985. As a theologian and leader in the Sudanese Republican Party, Taha had always advocated liberal reform in Sudan and in Islam. Taha had played a prominent role in Sudan’s struggle for independence.

Taha was hanged after protesting the imposition of Sharia in Sudan by Nimeiri, becoming something highly unusual in contemporary Islam: a moderate martyr. Taha reconciled Muslim belief with twentieth-century values. He was a revolutionary but diametrically opposite from Salafist Sayyid Qtub and other radical Islamists. After 9/11, millions of people around the world have heard of Qtub and Osama bin Laden but not Taha. Islamism for many in the West has taken on the terrifying face of the masked Jihadi or full-length identity-hiding veils, the religious militia, the blurred figure in the security video.

Taha went to engineering school at Gordon Memorial College that eventually became the University of Khartoum. Taha graduated in 1936 and spoke out iconoclastically against the educated elite of Sudan, who showed far too much patronage to the colonial powers and traditional religious leaders. Mahmoud helped form the Republican Party in 1945 and was imprisoned for a year when he refused to stop his political activities. The British governor pardoned him, but unlike so many malignant radical imprisoned ‘bad guys’ like the rage-filled Qtub, the Blind Sheik Omar-Abdul Raman of the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, Taha was a peaceful progressive ‘good guy’ in prison. Taha later described the “closed space” of prison as God’s will for him. He started his Khalwah or night vigil of religious retreat from the world. Taha’s seclusion continued after his release in 1948. He prayed, fasted, and read widely, (Wells, Shaw, Russell, Lenin, Marx), in a hut near his in-laws. Taha developed his radically new vision of the meaning of the Koran which he spent the rest of his life teaching.

In his most important book, The Second Message of Islam (1967) Taha emphasizes that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad in two phases. In the first phase in Mecca for thirteen years Muhammad addressed humanity in general. Muhammad message was filled with notions of freedom, equality, sincerity, worship, kindness, and peaceful coexistence. Then in Medina, the writings became full of rules, coercion, threats and the ‘law of the sword.’ These two phases are like the Christian Old Testamant (law and violence) and the New Testament (Love and atonement). Experts think the Meccan verses are the ideal Islam of freedom and equality that will be revived when humanity has reached a stage of development or spiritual evolution when it is capable of accepting them.

Taha used the name “Republican Brothers” for his new spiritual movement and his disciples recall him as a transformed, saintly presence. Taha was a valued mature teacher who welcomed argument but with honesty, serenity, intellectual vigor, and charisma. Taha is sometimes compared to Gandhi by some Sudanese and perhaps the twentieth century was not ready for “The Second Message of Islam.” Taha was constantly condemned by Sudanese and Egyptian clerics and his movement was under attack by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

George Packer in his fascinating New Yorker article, “The Moderate Martyr,” captures the profound importance of Taha’s ideas which severely threatened the Sudanese Islamist hardliners:

“What’s truly remarkable about Taha is that he existed at all. In the midst of a gathering storm of Islamist extremism, he articulated a message of liberal reform that was rigorous, coherent, and courageous. His vision asked Muslims to abandon fourteen hundred years of accepted dogma in favor of a radical and demanding new methodology that would set them free from the burdens of traditional jurisprudence.”

Taha argued that Islamic law had harsh punishments and repressed free thought. Taha thought that the Koran’s liberating ideas from the early centuries after Muhammed got closed off to critical revision for a millennium. When Taha spoke of ‘Sharia’, he meant the enlightened message of the Meccan verses, which is universal and eternal.”

Taha’s teachings, not unlike Socrates, collided with the power politics of the establishment. Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who seized power in 1969, was an opportunistic tyrant who used one political model after another (Marxism, Arab nationalism, pro-Americanism) to justify his control of Sudan. Hassan al-Turabi, his brilliant political henchman and manipulator, was an enemy of Taha. Taha had once alienated Turabi with a slight by saying Turabi was clever but not insightful or wise. It is very likely that Taha’s execution for apostasy was bogus and engineered by Turabi. Taha was offered a way to repent under Sharia but he refused and went to his hanging with head held high. He told his Republican brothers that he knew he would be killed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

If only Muslim political thinkers could fully grasp the dialectic process of democracy from which Jefferson and Adams argued in anger at each other. But they never contemplated assassination as a political tool.

In the decade after Taha’s death Turabi was the political strategist of the Islamist revolution and the reign of terror of Omar al-Bashir. Turabi even declared hypocritically that women and men are equal. Turabi, stealing from Taha, eventually claimed cynically that woman can lead Islamic prayers and covering their heads is not obligatory. Turabi later shifted position, saying that apostasy is not a crime and Muslim women can marry Christians and Jews! In Khartoum, people were amazed that Turabi sounded exactly like Taha. Turabi seemed to be aware of his terrible failures and Sudan’s mire of mass death, slavery, civil war, and genocide. Taha would likely have chuckle from his grave as his old enemy prevaricated to try to be a newborn ‘Republican Brother.’ If Taha, like Socrates, could have had many disciples like Plato to expound on his ideas, it could be like a breath of spiritual fresh air to the Muslim world.

Image: Felix Zeim

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