Exactly 21 years ago, on 18 January 1985, elderly Sudanese Muslim reformer and mystic Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was hanged at Khartoum prison for committing apostasy. In the post-9/11 era, some of the views of this man - described by some as a Sudanese Gandhi - have acquired a prophetic character.
As long ago as the 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War, Mahmoud Taha predicted the imminent fall of communism. In his view, communism and capitalism were merely two faces of the same coin of materialist western culture, and the conflict between them was simply transitional. The real opposition in the world was not between capitalism and communism but between backward religion and a spiritually sterile, materialist modernity.
Apostasy (a word of Greek origin) is the formal renunciation of one's religion. In a technical sense as used by sociologists [...] the term refers to renunciation and criticizing one's former religion. (source: Wikipedia)Marked by contrast
Taha grew up in the countryside south of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and later studied engineering at the prestigious British-colonial Gordon College. His personal history was marked from the beginning by the contrast between the enchanted religious world of his childhood and the secular world of his modern western education. With the emergence of political Islam, he witnessed in the course of his life how this opposition between traditional religion and secular western modernity gradually came to dominate Middle-Eastern politics. Taha foresaw that this conflict would eventually assume global proportions.
Like many modernist reformers, Taha thought that contemporary Islam had become alienated from its original intentions and had fossilized into a rigid system of regulations that failed to offer believers any guidance in facing the problems of the modern age. A new interpretation of the Koran was needed in light of modern scientific knowledge and a modern democratic political order.
Taha, however, went beyond the agenda of mainstream modernism by putting the text of the Koran itself up for discussion. Even now, most modernists limit their efforts to reforming the medieval jurisprudence, but ignore the fact that the Koran itself contains a number of texts which evidently contradict modern democratic principles, especially where the positions of women and non-Muslims are concerned. Taha, by contrast, put the problem of these 'undemocratic' verses at the centre of his reform project.
In line with other modernists, Taha was not only critical of traditional Islam but also of western modernity. He admired the scientific progress achieved by modern western culture. This progress, however, had made modern science so over-confident that it had started to deny the existence of an 'unseen' supernatural world altogether. As a result, western man had denied himself access to his spiritual essence and was no longer able to define himself as more than the sum total of his physical needs. Although Taha recognised the moral excellence of the western ideals of human rights and democracy, he believed that such a materialist worldview could never sustain this moral standard in the long term. This would require religion, albeit it in a new form.
The ideas of Mahmoud Taha
On 20 January 2006, the United States Institute of Peace will hold a public event in Washington D.C. organised by a number of Taha's prominent followers - now living in places such as the US and the UK - to mark the 21st anniversary of his death. (See links below)
The way out of the deadlock between backward religion and spiritually sterile modernity seemed self-evident: a modern religion. According to Taha, the Koran contains a 'Second Message' that represents the deeper and eternal truths of religion and corresponds with modern scientific knowledge and modern democratic values and human rights. This Second Message of Islam had remained concealed in the text of the Koran until humanity had reached the degree of development that made its application possible. According to Taha, this moment had now arrived.
In the 1960s and 70s, Taha became well known in Sudan as the leader of a small but highly active social-religious movement, the Republican Brothers. The movement functioned as a community that put Taha's views into practice and propagated them among the public. Taha himself, by now an elderly man, had developed an ascetic lifestyle that gave him a Gandhi-like appearance: he wore the traditional dress associated with the poor Sudanese countryside, did not possess a car and travelled great distances on foot.
His followers became particularly famous in Sudan through their campaigning for the rights of women. Within the community, gender equality was practiced by - among other things - a special Islamic marriage-contract that gave both parties equal rights. Taha also encouraged his female followers to propagate their views in the streets of Khartoum.
The image of the Republican 'Sisters', dressed in immaculate white, stopping passers-by on street corners to engage them in discussions and sell pamphlets, is engraved in the memories of many inhabitants of Khartoum. This kind of activity by women in the public sphere was unknown and revolutionary in traditional Sudanese society.
The primary opponent of Taha and his followers was the orthodox religious establishment of the Muslim scholars, known as the ulamaa. Taha took every opportunity to proclaim that he regarded the ulamaa in Sudan and in the wider Islamic world as ignorant and also responsible for the backwardness and intellectual stagnation of Muslims. Their obsessive preoccupation with detailed regulations dating from the Middle Ages was irrational and made them blind both to the real intentions of the religion and to the problems of the Muslim community in the 20th century.
Embarrassed by these attacks, the ulamaa tried to stop Taha by bringing court cases against him on charges of defamation. But Taha merely used these court appearances as a platform to gain more publicity. Once he even managed to convince a judge to allow him to subject a sharia scholar, who had accused him of slander, to an interview on world politics, in order to prove that the man was indeed ignorant. When Taha asked him whether he had ever heard of NATO, the scholar cried: "By God, I read something about it once, but I don't remember!!"
A year after Taha's death, the day of his execution - 18 January - was chosen as Arab Human Rights DayTrial and execution
The Sudanese ulamaa eventually played an important part in the political conspiracy that led to Taha's execution in 1985. When President Nimeiri suddenly introduced Sharia Islamic law in September 1983 and Taha declared his opposition, Taha's orthodox opponents seized the opportunity. Through the influential Muslim World League, President Nimeiri was openly pressured to have Taha tried and executed as an apostate. One of the reasons why Mr Nimeiri gave in to this pressure was his need to regain credit in international Islamic circles after he had provided assistance to Israel in evacuating the Falashas from Ethiopia.
On the morning of 18 January 1985, Mahmoud Taha was hanged at Kober prison in Khartoum, in front of a large crowd of cheering opponents. The events surrounding his death bear a number of remarkable similarities with the passion of Christ in the New Testament. A number of Taha's followers indeed believed that he was the Christ whose return is announced in both the Bible and the Koran. Although Taha did not encourage this belief, neither did he deny it. One of his rare statements on this subject was made shortly before his death:
"Everything that happened to the Israeli Jesus will also happen to the expected Messiah."