September 11, 2006 is not only the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. It is also the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Mohandas Gandhi’s first non-violent campaign, launched in South Africa on September 11, 1906.
"Where is the Gandhi of Islam?" asked the Telegraph on the day of another murderous terrorist attack. There is in fact an Islamic counterpart to Gandhi, and though he is not by far as famous, he deserves to be. His name is Mahmoud Muhammed Taha (1909-1985).
Mahmoud Muhammed Taha was born in a village on the Blue Nile in Central Sudan. His family had for generations belonged to the Sudanese branch of the Qadiriyya, one of the three main Sufi orders.
His unusual personal qualities were evident at an early age. A schoolmate who, as it happens, was not sympathetic to the adult Taha's ideas has contributed the following anecdote: At seven or eight, Taha was told by the strict English headmaster at his grade school: "Mahmoud, I know what you're up to. I can read you as an open book." The boy replied: "Sir, it's apparent you don't understand a word of that book you are reading."
In the 1930s, as an engineering student in Khartoum, Taha joined the Sudanese fight for independence against British colonial rule. In 1945 he co-founded and led the Republican Party (no relation to its US namesake): a major emancipatory movement, advocating full independence for Sudan as a secular republic. The next year, he became the first political prisoner in the liberation struggle for objecting to the arrest of a woman who had circumcized her daughter. Though he opposed the unhealthy practice as oppressive of women, he believed it should be abolished through education and not through the criminal sanction as applied by colonial authorities. This stance is characteristic of Taha's outlook.
Later in 1946, Taha was again imprisoned for leading popular resistance against the occupation. While serving his two-year sentence, he underwent a transformative spiritual awakening of a Sufi, or mystical, nature: "When I arrived in prison," he would say, "I felt I arrived for an appointment with the Lord." A further three years of voluntary seclusion, centered on meditation, fast, and prayer in emulation of the Prophet Muhammed, enabled him to emerge with a novel understanding of Islam.
The Qur'an read with new eyes
Taha would always emphasize that this reforming vision was not a fruit of purely rational analysis, but a measure of divine insight attained during a profound spiritual experience available in principle to anyone adopting the ways (tarique) of the Prophet. He presented his view in a series of books, starting with This is my Path (Qul Hadhihi Sabieli, 1952) and culminating with The Second Message of Islam (Arrisala Atthaniya min Al-Islam, 1966). The fundamental problem it confronts could not have been more burning alas, often literally so in our times.
The Islamic revelation, the Qur'an, is universally accepted by Muslims as infallible from beginning to end. Nonetheless it remains a divided doctrine whose contradictions the juristic scholars (ulama) have grappled with for more than thousand years. Like many modern commentators, Taha discerns a basic division between the tenets revealed during the Prophet's tenure as a preacher in Mecca (610-622) and those revealed after his flight to Medina (622-633).
The first set of statements and guidelines is generally pluralist, tolerant, and pacifist. For instance, the following verses are believed to derive from the Meccan period:
So proclaim that which thou art commanded, and withdraw from the idolaters. (15:94; cf. 15:94-99)
Call unto the way of the Lord... and reason with them in a better way.... Grieve not for them and be not in distress because of that which they devise. (16:125-127)
We have not sent thee (Muhammed) as a warden over them. (17:54)
Repel evil with that which is better. (23:96)
I (Muhammed) am but a plain warner. (67:2; passim)
And bear with patience what they utter, and part from them with a fair leave taking. (73:10)
...And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity! (90:17)
Say, "O unbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. Nor do you worship what I worship. Nor will I ever worship what you worship. Nor will you ever worship what I worship. To you, your religion; and to me, my religion." (109)/UL>
Violence is expressly forbidden by these Meccan commandments, even in self-defense. The similarity with (early) Christianity is strong. However, unlike Jesus, Muhammed did not let himself be killed by the establishment, but fled with his followers to a neighboring settlement where he established and ruled a state with its own constitution. Under his leadership the Muslims took up arms, engaging in piracy and provoking a war in which they vanquished their erstwhile persecutors and founded what would become, through conquest, a glorious empire. Muhammed, one might say, was his own Constantine.
In the process, his revelation hardened. By the Medinan commandments, the word should be abetted at least for defensive purposes by the sword. Apostasy was pronounced treason punishable by death. Among non-Muslims, only Jews and Christians were granted freedom of conscience within the Islamic state, and that on inferior terms. Here are some Medinan verses:
Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil. (4:76 )
O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Those of you who make them his friends is one of them. God does not guide an unjust people. (5:54)
Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.... (9:5)
Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low. (9:29)
And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they! (9:30)
O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end. (9:73)
Verily, Allah has purchased from the believers their selves and their wealth, in return for Heaven being theirs. They fight in the path of Allah and they kill and are killed. (9:111)
O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him). (9:123)
Say unto those of the wondering Arabs who were left behind: Ye will be called against a folk of mighty prowess to fight them until they surrender.... (48:16)
Since most of the Qur'anic passages dealing with the practicalities of statecraft, legislation, and war stem from the Medinan period, it is chiefly these that together with ostensible reports of the Prophet's sayings (hadith) have been codified as Islamic law (Shari'a). Yet the Qur'anic contradictions remain. A traditional way around it is the doctrine of abrogation (naskh), whereby several Meccan commandments are considered repealed in accordance with these verses:
Such of Our revelations as We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is Able to do all things? (2:106)
And when We put a revelation in place of (another) revelation, – and God knoweth best what He revealeth – they say: Lo! thou art but inventing. Most of them know not. (16:101)
The Salafi jihadist movement, to which al-Qaeda belongs, takes this doctrine of abrogation to extremes, asserting that even the axiomatic 2:256 "There is no compulsion in religion" is superseded by the above cited 9:5 ("the Verse of the Sword").
Taha took a diametrically opposing view: He distinguished between the universal principles of the Qur'an and the specific, subsidiary rules meant to guide the faithful in particular historical circumstances. The former were revealed during the inaugurative phase in Mecca; the latter, during Islam's fight for its existence in Medina. These latter, Taha argued, represent but a temporary suspension of the Meccan message; a concession to the immaturity of 7th century Arabia. By the 20th century, the advance of civilization had allowed a reaffirmation of freedom and equality as the foundation of Shari'a a Shar'ia which, unlike that of medieval Medina, is fit to solve contemporary problems.
This original reformist conception was at the heart of Taha's teaching. He critiqued the stagnant, authoritarian approach of the ulama, emphasizing personal self-development over dogma and inward love of God over outward ritual. Like other Sufis, he saw the individual as a universe within which God himself resides. Yet he renounced the elitism and exlusivism of many Sufi orders throughout the Arab world, which particularly in modern times have often stressed the inner quest at the expense of public service. Taha sought to empower the masses through enlightenment, ranging from the practical to the sacred.
Anyone, he insisted, is capable of approaching God through transformative knowledge. As he wrote in a letter:
The age-old dream of the human caravan is not to send astronauts in their orbit in the outer space. It is to send its individuals - every single individual - in his orbit of self-realisation. It is high time that this dream be thus reinterpreted. It is also the sacred duty of every man and woman to help to intelligently reorientate human endeavour towards the culmination of this pilgrimage.
A movement to serve the people
Upon Sudan's independence in 1956, the Republican Party evolved into a spiritual, but still political movement known as the Republican Brothers and Sisters. It was a small but distinguished flock, peaking at some 1,000 members in all of Sudan.
The core consisted of no more than 200 men and women, most of whom were teachers or students. Taha was himself an exceptional teacher, making use of Sudanese spiritual poetry and song to impart his message, which in turn would be discussed, applied and lived by the Brothers and Sisters on a daily basis. Even the grandmothers could articulate the ideas. While accessible, they were all the more controversial.
Particularly contentious in patriarchal Sudan was the call for women to get higher education. Taha attacked needless gender separation and his movement practised gender equality. When it increasingly became repressed and denied access to the airways, the Sisters took active and often leading part in distribution two million book copies by hand all across Sudan, in towns and marketplaces.
Taha's views on the Middle East conflict proved to be another red cape to the establishment. As probably the only scholar in the region, he called for peace with Israel in two books published shortly after the end of the 1967 war, counceling the Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for reverting to the borders of the 1947 partition plan. Jerusalem ought to become an international city and other questions to be settled through negotiations under UN supervision. The Jews, he asserted, did have a historical claim to Palestine, though by no means an exclusive such that might warrant a special status.
Taha observed that the Arab world was being sucked into the Cold War, to its detriment; that it was losing bargaining strength with respect to Israel and could never hope to destroy in in war; that war is in general futile and wasteful; that Arab regimes used the Palestinian issue to quiet opposition; that Muslim militancy was simmering in result; that the greatest long-term menace to Arabs was life outside the modern world; and that Communism and Capitalism were two sides of the same materialistic coin, insufficient for human flourishing. Taha's ideas were decried by everyone from pan-Arab nationalists and Baathists to Islamists, and remain heretical in the Middle East to this day.
Martyr for an enlightened Islam
Towards the end of the 1960s, the Republican movement was becoming a thorn in the side of the religous and political elites of Sudan and beyond. In 1968, a Shari'a court declared Taha murtadd, an apostate, in absentia. This carried no practical consequences, but was an omen of things to come. In 1973, Sudan's dictator Gaafar M. an-Nimeiry banned Taha from lecturing in public. Under mounting pressure from Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Nimeiry initiated a shift toward Islamist governance in 1981; the year his colleague to the North, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, was assassinated by the Brotherhood. In 1983 he imposed Shari'a laws on Sudan, including the Christian and Animist South, in a desperate bid to prolong his rule.
The Republican Brothers and Sisters resisted this move fiercely, notably because it discriminated and alienated non-Muslims and worsened the position of women. Starting in May 1983, most of the Republicans were imprisoned for 19 month. Meanwhile the new legislation was implemented. The government of South Sudan was dissolved, which just as the Republicans predicted reignited the civil war.
A week after his release, on Christmas Day 1984, Taha again objected in a leaflet called "Either This, or the Deluge," which led to his arrest and trial on sedition charges, along with four other prominent Republicans. He boycotted the proceedings as illegal while condemning the Shari'a laws as a distortion of the Sudanese self and of Shari'a as such. The five were found guilty and sentenced to death. An appeal court upheld the sentence, adding a charge that had merely been implicit in the initial verdict: that of apostasy (ridda). Taha refused to save his life by recanting.
The death sentence was finally confirmed by President Nimeiry in an address to the nation on January 15, 1985. Taha's date of execution was set to Friday, January 18.
The journalist Judith Miller, who was present on that day, describes the execution as follows:
Shortly before the appointed time, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was led into the courtyard. The condemned man, his hands tied behind him, was smaller than I expected him to be, and from where I sat, as his guards bustled him along, he looked younger than his seventy-six years. He held his head high and stared silently into the crowd. When they saw him, many in the crowd leaped to their feet, jeering and shaking their fists at him. A few waved their Korans in the air.
I managed to catch only a glimpse of Taha's face before the executioner placed an oatmeal-colored sack over his head and body, but I shall never forget his expression: His eyes were defiant; his mouth firm. He showed no hint of fear.
The crowd began cheering as two Sudanese guards in sand-colored uniforms tightened a noose around the sack where Mahmoud Taha's neck must have been. Though the babble of the crowd drowned out their words, they seemed to be screaming at him. Suddenly, the guards stood back, the platform snapped open, the rope became taut, and the sack that covered Taha wriggled in the air. A few seconds later, the sack merely swayed a bit at the end of the rope. Idiotically, I thought of potatoes.
A roar erupted in the courtyard: "Allahu Akbar!" the crowd screamed God is great! The am intensified as the men began chanting in unison: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Islam huwa al-hall!" (Islam is the solution).
Other eyewitnesses say that Taha surveyed the crowd with a smile on his face before the noose was tightened.
Seventy-six days later, Nimeiry was overthrown, whereupon Taha's sentence was declared null and void by the courts. Yet the Republican Brothers and Sisters had by then dispersed. In 1989, a military coup by the current President, Umar Hassan al-Bashir, vindicated Taha's Islamist enemies.
Nevertheless his ideas live on, along with the memory of a remarkable human being. These are the words of one of Taha's students, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naïm, who is the foremost champion of Taha's thought today:
What was so overwhelming about Taha was how his presence gave inner peace. I can't explain it, but it was enough to enter the room he was in to feel how everything that made you uneasy or distressed, just disappeared it was not important anymore.... I personally think it was the meeting with a total and complete honesty: You knew that this person was for you and with you, without reservations or limitations." (In Kari Vogt: Islams Hus, Oslo 1993. My translation)
Like Gandhi, Mahmoud Muhammed Taha was an undeserved gift to humanity, murdered for his message of tolerance and peace. This, in jarring contrast to the atrocity of five years ago, is what martyrdom means.