Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was convicted of the crime of apostasy and executed on 18 January 1985. This article presents a background to the circumstances leading up to the case, while questioning the authenticity of the conviction for such a crime. Procedural errors assess President Ja’far Mohammed al-Nimeiri’s potential misuse of both the Sudanese legal system and Islamic Shari’a law dealing with hadd crimes (crimes and punishment mentioned within the Qur’an). The conclusion discusses whether Nimeiri manipulated the law for a political motive, as opposed to his upstanding respect for the religion of Islam.
It seeks to answer whether Taha actively promoted Islamic revival throughout his life, or whether there is any truth in the court’s conviction and death sentence, based on his ‘insults’ and ‘renunciation’ of the very meaning of Islam.
Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a qualified engineer by profession, was one of the founders and became the first leader of the Sudanese Republican Party or the Republican Brotherhood (Ikhwan Jamhouriyyeen[ i ]), in October 1945. The party is also referred to as the Republican Movement or the Republicans.[ii] The Republicans main aim was to work towards independence for the Sudan as a republic, away from the control held by Egypt and the British colonial rule.[iii] In 1946, Taha had been imprisoned twice by the British colonial administration due to his political activities. The second term of his incarceration lasted for two years and during this time Taha developed his concept of understanding Islam and the idea of the Islamic revival through the evolution of certain aspects within Shari’a.
He maintained these ideas once released from prison in 1948, while basing his thought pattern on the personal worship practices of the Prophet Muhammad.[iv] In the preface of Taha’s work, The Second Message of Islam, translated by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, this point is also raised:
It was during this second term of imprisonment, and the subsequent period of self-imposed religious seclusion (khalwa) in his home town Rufa’a, that Ustadh[v] Mahmoud (Taha) undertook the rigorous program of prayer, fasting and meditation that led to his insights into the meaning of the Qur’an and the role of Islamic law.[vi]
For a further explanation, in his work Rasa’il wa maqalat, Taha describes the reasons for his choice of seclusion after leaving the prison, by stating:
Do you think I went into seclusion seeking knowledge (ma’rifa)? No, by God. Definitely not. I went into seclusion for something more honourable than knowledge. Something that knowledge only serves as a means to. It is myself (nafsi), inner soul, which I lost in a heap of falsehoods and illusions. I had to search for it in the light of the Qur’an. I wanted to find it, unfold it and be in peace with it before I call others to Islam. This is absolutely essential (for the genuine preacher), because he who does not have cannot deliver.[vii]
He eventually achieved a comprehensive understanding of universal Islamic ideology and continued to maintain this position until he was publicly hung in execution on 18 January 1985.[viii] His theory covering the universality of Islam is based on the idea that Islam originated in Mecca in eastern Arabia, in the Christian calendar of approximately 610 to 622 AD. Islam was presented in terms of freedom of choice (ismah) and each individual having the personal responsibility for making that choice. This argument is based on various verses within the Qur’an that also promote the view of personal responsibility for freedom of choice. Such verses include Surah Al-Baqarah 2, verse 228,[ix] Surah An-Nahl 16, verse 125,[x] Surah Al-Khaf 18, verse 29[xi] and Surah Al-Hujurat 49, verse 13.[xii]
An-Na’im suggests that the equality of all people, irrelevant of their sex or religious belief, would have been established if this Qur’anic text had been made the basis of the relevant Shari’a. However, this did not occur in the seventh century. An-Na’im explains that ‘When it was shown in practice that the Arabs were not mature enough to appreciate and live in accordance with those superior principles, and they conspired to kill the Prophet, the offer of freedom and responsibility was withdrawn.’[xiii] The two concepts of compulsion (ikrah) and guardianship were imposed once the Prophet had migrated to Medina. Also at this time, various Qur’anic verses explaining the different levels of jihad to promote Islam and the ‘discrimination against non-Muslims and women were revealed’.[xiv] The relevant verses include Surah At-Tauba or Baraat 9, verse 29[xv], Surah At-Tauba or Baraat 9, verse 5[xvi] and Surah An-Nisa 4, verse 34.[xvii]
The policy of the Prophet was to confirm the principles of Shari’a on these verses, and elaborate them, which during the following 300 years, enabled the Muslim jurists to rationalise the law by systematising and defining the catalogues of crimes. This involved the comparison of the earliest text of law from the Prophet’s time in Mecca with the later laws established in Medina. Any laws from Mecca that appeared to be inconsistent with those in Medina were argued to have been repealed or abrogated to the latter in the legal definitions and interpretations. As they remained within the Qur’an and the ahadith (traditions), they were still revered by Muslims, and held to represent ethical standards, but with no weight or legal binding. The majority of Muslim jurists concluded that this was the situation to be maintained in Shari’a. However, Mahmoud Taha held another position in his corollary.
His main argument was that the idea of the abrogation of the original Meccan Qur’anic verses was, in full meaning, that their repeal was purely a temporary suspension until the appropriate context in the future would allow them to be clearly valid for implementation and enforcement. He based this view on the idea that ‘abrogation’ should be supported by the rationale supporting it, including the socio-economic and political circumstances within the Arabia region at the time of their revelation. Taha acknowledged that, through time, the conditions of societies change and develop; thus, Shari’a was established in a way that in modern days, it would be able to respond by deeming the Qur’anic verses of freedom of choice and personal responsibility as authentic and valid. This would uphold the principles of freedom and equality, which would be the basis of modern day Shari’a. Thus, ‘in other words, he advocated the development of a modern Islamic Shari’a law from the basic Islamic sources to meet the needs and aspirations of today’.[xviii]
In the 1950s, the Republican Party redirected its mandate towards propagating this new, more liberal, interpretation of Islam. However, An-Na’im states that the party was not a genuine ‘political party’ in the usual use of the label, as it never contested any elections and did not seek any power by any alternate means. It solely concentrated on aiming to re-educate and acquaint the population through public lectures, public debates and by spreading the information of their conception with pamphlets and books. They held a strict adherence to non-violent, open and very direct acts in their active propagation.[xix]