Al-Ustadh (revered teacher) Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was born in 1909 in Rufa'a, a small town on the east bank of the Blue Nile in central Sudan. When his mother, Fatima bit Mahmoud, died around 1915, his father, Muhammad Taha, took his children and moved to Al-Higailieg, a nearby village, where they all worked in farming. Muhammad Taha died around 1920, leaving his four children to be brought up by their aunt in Rufa'a who also had them go to school. Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was able to complete the extremely competitive educational system of the time. He graduated from the engineering school of Gordon Memorial College, now the University of Khartoum, in 1936. Following a short period of service with Sudan Railways, he resigned and went into private practice in 1941. As an active participant in the nationalist struggle for independence from the beginning of the movement in the late 1930s, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was dissatisfied with the performance of the educated elite in that struggle. He criticized them for submitting their expertise to the sectarian traditional religious leaders who commanded wide popular support in the country as a whole. The available political parties were also unacceptable to him, as they seemed to be willing to accept the patronage of the colonial powers, thereby compromising their commitment to full independence and the establishment of a Sudanese republic.
Al-Ustaz Mahmoud and other intellectuals who agreed with his criticism formed the Republican Party in October of 1945. The organization’s first publication and subsequent pamphlets and leaflets reflected a strong modernist Islamic orientation which, at the time, was not yet fully developed. The party’s policy of direct and open confrontation with the colonial authorities led to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud in 1946. He was sentenced to prison for a year when he refused to abstain from political activity against the colonial government. In response to the mounting protest orchestrated by the Republican Party, he was “pardoned” by the British Governor General and released after fifty days in prison.
THE RUFAA REVOLT
Ustazh Mahmoud Muhammad Taha did not stay free for long, however. In the same year he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for leading a popular revolt against the British in the town of Rufa'a. Later he described that period in prison by the words: “When I settled in prison I began to realize that I was brought there by my Lord and thence I started my Khalwah with Him”. It was during two years of imprisonment, and a subsequent three years of self-imposed religious seclusion (Khalwah) in his home town of Rufa'a, that Al-Ustaz Mahmoud undertook the Islamic methods of worship that led to his understanding of the meaning of the Qur'an. Those methods of worship were mainly prayer and fasting in the way “Tarique” of the Prophet Mohammed. Although Al-Ustaz Mahmoud shared the common Muslim belief that all heavenly revelation had ended with Qur’an as the literal word of God, but he kept emphasizing that devoted individuals can receive an enlightened understanding of the word and learn from God directly through His word as revealed to the Prophet. In support of this argument, he often cited verse 282 of chapter 2 of the Qur'an, which states that God teaches the one who is pious and fearful of God. He also cited the Hadith of the Prophet that states that the person who acts in accordance with what he or she knows shall be granted by God knowledge of that which he or she does not know.
Through his intelligent and exact imitation of the Prophet Muhammad Al-Ustaz Mahmoud arrived to his individual relation with God which he later described in the following paragraph translated from his book “Questions and Answers– Part two”:
“So, my prayer, my fasting, my holy pilgrimage and my Zakat ‘Alms-giving’ are collectively, and separately, my whole life in my joy as in my sorrow, in my wakefulness as in my sleep, in my health as in my illness. And it is a life that should be for Allah – contenting with Him, ever correcting its contentment, to the extent of being joyful with Him.”
THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW CONCEPT
By the end of his period of seclusion in October 1951, Al-Ustaz emerged with a comprehensive new conception of Islam. He summed up that understanding in a book that was published in 1952 under the name “This is my Path”, Qul Hadhihi Sabieli. The Republican Party was then transformed from a political party, in the usual sense of the term, into an organization for the propagation of that new conception of Islam. Those members of the party who wanted to pursue a more secular political role broke away and joined other political parties. For those who remained with the party, the organization became a spiritual environment under the guidance of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud.
After a short period of service with the Water and Electricity Company in Khartoum, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud resumed his private practice as an engineer in the early 1950s.
In 1955, just before Sudan got its independence, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud published a book about his proposals for a Constitution of an independent Sudan, “Usus Dustour As-Soudan”. He called for a presidential, federal, democratic and socialist Republic. He was opposed to any attempt or notion of applying laws derived from Islamic Sharia, as that would be a distortion of the real Islam he understands. Applying Sharia meant to him an invitation of distrust and animosity of the Non-Moslem, non-arabized Sudanese citizens in the south of Sudan and some parts of the north. An armed rebellion, which had already erupted in 1955 in the south of Sudan, initiated a movement demanding a federal rule to the south.
POST COLONIAL SUDAN
Shortly after independence, which was granted since the first of January 1956, a committee was formed to write a manuscript for a constitution to be presented for adoption by the parliament. Al-Ustaz Mahmoud represented the Republican Party in that committee. A few months later he resigned from that committee objecting to the tendency of interference from the executive authority which tried to influence it in its own interests considering the constitution to be a gift from the Government to the people. That committee brought its manuscript for a constitution partly derived from Sharia laws as desired by the traditional religious sectarian parties. Before that manuscript could be adopted by the parliament, a non-bloody military coup seized power in November 1958. All the parties, including the Republican Party, were dissolved. Al-Ustaz Mahmoud wrote a letter to General Abboud, the head of that regime, advising him to apply the proposals of the Republicans for a democratic, socialist federal government, together with a copy of his book about the Constitution. That request was ignored. During the first two years of that military rule, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud used to hold his lectures publicly. His progressive ideas were so annoying to the official religious traditionalists that three young students from the republican movement were dismissed from the Islamic Institute of Omdurman only because they used to propagate his conception of Islam. Soon after that Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was prohibited from holding public lectures. So he transferred his activities to private houses of members of the movement and their sympathizing friends. He was denied access to the media when he tried to correct false allegations, which the traditional orthodox Muslims accused him of. In the face of the mounting orchestrated rejection of his renewal efforts in Islam he published his book “The Islam” in 1960.
AN INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENT
After the return to the Multi-Party parliamentary rule Al-Ustaz Mahmoud revived his Republican Party, not to indulge in Politics in the usual way, but to propagate his proposals for social, political and religious reform through public lectures, newspaper articles, and books. In 1966-67 he published three of his main books: “Tarieq Mohammed –Mohammed’s Path”, “Risalat Assalat –The Message of Prayer” and “Arrisala Atthaniya min Al-Islam –The Second Message of Islam”. He was the first man to propose a direct dialog for a peaceful co-existence between the Arab States and the State of Israel after the 1967 famous six-day war between the Arabs and Israel. He addressed that issue in his books “Mushkilat Assharq Al-Awsat – The Middle East Problem” and “Al-Tahaddi Alladhi Yuagihu Al-Arab, - The Challenge facing the Arabs” both of which were published in 1967. He was mainly opposed to the Nationalist Arab Movement under the guidance of Egypt’s Jamal Abdel Nasser as well as to the primitive understanding and application of Islam represented by Saudi Arabia and the Muslim-Brother Movement in some Arab countries.
The sectarian ruling Parties together with the Muslim-Brotherhood movement managed to amend the article number 5/2 in the constitution in order to expel communist members of the parliament and dissolve their party in 1965. Despite his principal opposition to Marxist Communism, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud objected vigorously to the dissolution of the Sudanese Communist Party and he considered that step as falsification to Democracy.
THE APOSTASY TRIAL
So it was not surprising that internal and external influences united in an effort to silence Al-Ustaz Mahmoud and his Movement. That plotting appeared in an attempt, in November 1968, to accuse him of Ridda, or Apostasy - the fall from Islam- theoretically punishable by death. He refused to appear before that court depending on his constitutional right of freedom of thought and expression. Anyhow the Khartoum Sharia High Court assembled in his absence to look into allegations raised by two “Islamic University Teachers” accusing Al-Ustaz Mahmoud of Ridda and demanding the dismantling of his party and movement. That court was able to forge a nominal verdict which, although remained without formal consequences, but it caused the movement a lot of inconveniences in correcting those false allegations. Its advantage, however, was the subsequent wide publicity of the movement among the young intellectuals and students who were dissatisfied with the traditional Islamic Thought as well as with the rule of the parties along sectarian lines. Meanwhile, the sectarian parties were engaged in games of power by trying to win public support in the issue of including the Sharia Rules in the permanent Constitution. They were even ready to make it the subject of a public Referendum if the Parliament was unable to approve it by the end of 1969. All that led to wide discontent among the Army Officers, some of whom were organized in the so-called “Free Officers Movement” which succeeded in seizing the power on May 1969. The new government banned all political parties, including the Republican Party.
THE REPUBLICANS DURING THE MAY REGIME 1969-1983
It was quite obvious from the start that the new Military Regime was influenced and supported by the Communist Party and by the Arab Nationalists. It won a quick support from Egypt, as well as from the socialist block under the leadership of the former Soviet . In spite of all that, the Republicans felt some ease after the new government took office and declared its priorities in attaining the goals of the Sudanese Peoples’ Revolution of October 1964. One of the first steps that had been welcomed by Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was the decision to stop the war in the south and the declaration of seeking a peaceful way to settle the problem. He saw in that Regime an intermediary stage likely to protect the poor helpless Sudanese from a primitive rule that wears an Islamic mask. Al-Ustaz Mahmoud continued to propagate his views through every available venue until 1973 when the Numeiri regime banned his public lectures. Despite his non-opposing attitude towards the Regime, but he refrained from directly joining hands with it. Instead the movement continued and intensified its efforts to propagate its new Ideology and that was initially tolerated by the regime.
A WOMAN-LIBERATING MOVEMENT
For most of the remaining years of his life, Al-Ustaz confined himself to guiding the activities of the organization by then known as the “Republican Brothers” which included a growing number of women members. Both male and female members of the organization continued to propagate the Second Message of Islam despite harassment by some officials and members of the security forces. Since it was crucial to Al-Ustaz Mahmoud that he should practice what he preached, he tried to establish a community, which applied, as far as possible, the main tenets of his vision of Islam. As a small community within Sudanese society, the Republicans were unable to implement the full scope of their beliefs in the Organization of the Sudanese State, but they strove to lead their personal lives and organize their own community in accordance with those beliefs. In particular, the community largely succeeded in applying the principles of equality between men and women, without discrimination on grounds of sex. Women members participated fully in all the group's activities, and they were often leaders of activist groups on university campuses and in public parks and street corners- a highly controversial practice in the Sudanese patriarchal society. This was such a hallmark of the movement that when the leadership of the organization was detained without charge in mid-I983, four women were among their number.
The group’s practice in relation to contracting marriage is illustrative of the members' determination to implement their reform in light of the prevailing social customs.
A LATENT CONFRONTATION
After Al-Ustaz Mahmoud’s public lectures were banned in 1973, his disciples operated with some difficulty throughout most of Numeiri’s rule. Although their activities were always within the law, their views tended to arouse opposition from traditional and fundamentalist religious and political circles.
Their opponents succeeded at times in applying various administrative and executive mechanisms to obstruct or limit the effectiveness of the Republicans. Denied access to the media, all of which were state-owned at that time, the Republicans had to prepare their own publications and seek unorthodox channels to reach the public. They had to resort, for example, to the use of street corners and public parks to address whoever was willing to stop and listen to what they had to say. The police often intervened to break up those spontaneous public meetings, charging the Republicans conducting the meetings with “breach of the peace” and “disturbance of public tranquility.” The Republicans’ frequent protests against those infringements of their fundamental constitutional rights were futile. Despite these restrictions, the Republicans supported the regime of former President Numeiri throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Their support was forthcoming as long as the regime maintained policies of national unity and refrained from applying Sharia to the detriment of women and non-Muslim Sudanese. The Republicans also believed that the regime of President Numeiri was preferable to the only available alternative, a sectarian and “fundamentalist” civilian dictatorship. Only after Sharia was imposed by presidential decrees beginning in August of 1983, thereby undermining national unity between the Muslim north and non-Muslim south and leading to harsh and repressive policies in the country as a whole, did the Republicans declare their opposition. In other words, their opposition was prompted by the change in the nature and policies of the regime rather than the 1983 detention of the group’s leadership as such. Al-Ustaz Mahmoud himself had previously been detained together with eight leaders of the group, for one month in 1976-77 without charge for publishing a book criticizing the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia. He had also personally suffered what was in effect a total ban on his public activities since 1973. The group endured those restrictions and harassment for over ten years without opposing the regime of former President Numeiri.
ISLAMIC FANATICISM AND SHARIAA LAWS
The immediate or apparent cause of the detention in mid 1983 was a pamphlet issued by the Republicans. It criticized what they perceived to be the failure of the chief of state security, who also happened to be the first vice-president of the republic, to check Muslim fundamentalists’ incitement of religious hatred, and abetment of violence against the Republicans and against non-Muslim Sudanese.
In hindsight, however, and in the light of subsequent developments, it would seem that at least the continuation of the leaders’ detention, if not the initial sweeping detention order, was motivated by other considerations. A few weeks after their detention, President Numeiri announced his intention to impose Sharia law. If the Republicans were free, it must have been thought, they would actively oppose that policy, because it contravened their long-held position that there must be radical reform of Sharia prior to its modern implementation. When that policy materialized in a series of enactments starting in August 1983, the Republicans started an opposition campaign with their leadership still in detention. Despite their active opposition to President Numeiri’s policy of imposed Islamization, or perhaps because of that opposition, the Republicans were all released on December 19th 1984, after approximately nineteen months in detention without charge. It became apparent later on that, that step was a deliberate trap to involve the Republicans in overt acts rendering them liable to prosecution under the new laws. That mass release on December 19th 1984, marked the beginning of the sequence of events culminating in the execution of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud four weeks later. While being aware of those intentions, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud immediately assumed responsibility for the campaign against President Numeiri's Islamization policy.
Within one week of their release - on December 25th 1984- the first leaflet “Hatha Aow Al-Tawafan” – “Either This or the Flood” was published demanding repeal of the new laws and a guarantee of democratic civil liberties under which to debate the principles and process of Islamization. To assist the reader in assessing some of the following criticisms of the trial and execution of Al-Ustaz-Mahmoud for publishing this leaflet.
The initial police reaction to the leaflet was ambivalent, because of the recent mass release of the Republicans. Moreover, the mild language and content of the leaflet itself gave no cause for serious charges under existing laws. Some police districts arrested a few Republicans who were found distributing the leaflet and charged them with the minor offense of breach of the peace under section 127 of the penal code. In some cases, however, police officers actually intervened to instruct an arresting policeman to release a Republican because no offense was committed.
It was at this point that the state minister for criminal affairs intervened and instructed public prosecutors in the three towns of Khartoum, Omdurman, and Khartoum North to press charges of sedition, undermining the constitution, inciting unlawful opposition to the government, and disturbing public tranquility under sections 96, 105 and 127A of the Penal Code Of 1983, as well as membership in an unlawful organization under section 20 of the State Security Act of 1973. With the charges thereby transformed into capital offenses, ten recently arrested Republicans were to remain in custody, as the new charges permitted no release on bail. On Wednesday, January 2, 1985, the four Republicans who were arrested and charged in Omdurman central district were brought to trial before one of the special criminal courts established under the Judiciary Act of 1984.
THE MARCH AND THE TRIAL
Al-Ustaz Mahmoud accompanied by all the Republicans, men as well as women marched in a peaceful demonstration to that court. The trial was adjourned, however, because the serious charges required the special sanction of the president of the republic. On Saturday afternoon, January 5, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was arrested at his house in Omdurman and charged with the same combination of offenses. On Monday morning, January 7, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud and the original four Republicans were brought to trial before the special criminal court after sanction for the trial was obtained from the president of the republic. Again the Republicans marched in a peaceful demonstration which was intercepted by the police. The Republicans reacted by sitting on the ground according to the directions of Al-Ustaz. Nevertheless, they were compelled to proceed in smaller groups when it was apparent that the real aim was to divert them from attending the court. It is important to note here that the president’s sanction included the directive to add section 458(3) and the penal code to the charges. That section authorized the court to impose any Hadd penalty, that is, specific penalty provided for by Sharia, regardless of the lack of statutory penal provision. That section violated the express provisions of Article 70 of the 1973 Constitution, which was still in force at the time.
But because the five accused decided to boycott the trial proceedings because of their objections to the laws under which the court was constituted and purported to act, and also because of their objections to the calibre of the judges presiding in those courts, the unconstitutionality of charges under section 458(3) of the penal code was never discussed at any stage of the case.
In announcing his decision to boycott the proceedings, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud improvised a strong statement (click to hear to view)
The trial lasted less than two hours. On the first day, Monday, January 7, the only witness for the prosecution, the police officer who interviewed the accused after their arrest, was examined by the public prosecutor and the judge. His testimony lasted about an hour, The witness submitted the only exhibit for the prosecution, the leaflet published by the Republicans on December 25, 1984. Since the accused boycotted the trial, there was nothing for the judge to do except pronounce judgment, which he postponed to the next day.
On Tuesday, the 8th of January, the judge read his judgment, which was largely based on the statements made by the accused for the investigating police officer. The judge stated that the accused held curious and unorthodox views of Islam, which might or might not be valid: according to his knowledge of Islam, the Quran may reveal its secrets to men of piety and diligence. Nevertheless, according to the judgment, it was certainly wrong of the accused to discuss those secrets and insights with the public, because that activity could create religious turmoil (fitnah).
Following this discussion of the thought of the main accused, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud-which suggested that the judge had the Islamic offense of apostasy in mind - the judgment suddenly concluded by declaring all five accused guilty of sedition, undermining the constitution, inciting unlawful opposition to the government, disturbing public tranquility, and membership in an unlawful organization. In other words, the reasoning of the decision was related to the offense of apostasy, although it never mentioned that offense by name, while the actual charges were brought on sections 96, 105 and 127A of the penal code and section 20 of the State Security Act. There was no attempt in the proceedings to show how the conduct of the accused rendered them culpable under those sections. While violation of section 458(3) of the penal code was mentioned as one of the charges, the judgment made no mention of that section.
The judge then passed the death sentence on all five accused under section 96 of the penal code, while adding the proviso that the accused could be reprieved if they repented and recanted their views. This clearly, shows that the judge was in fact convicting the accused of apostasy, because under Islamic Sharia law repentance and disavowal of the “heretic’s” views are grounds for reprieve. There was no basis for reprieve on such grounds in relation to section 96 of the penal code under which the accused were being sentenced.
In contrast to the trial court, the special court of appeal which reviewed the judgment relied heavily on the apostasy charge, which it specified by name. The special court of appeal confirmed the lower court’s finding and sentence of death for all five accused for apostasy as well as the specified sections of the penal code and State Security Act. Holding that Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was persistent in his apostasy, the court of appeal decided to deny him the opportunity to have his death sentence reprieved through repentance and recanting his views. The Court ruled that the death sentence was to be carried out on Al-Ustaz Mahmoud immediately. The other four accused were to be allowed one month to reconsider their position. They were told that they would be pardoned if they recanted.
A PREMEDITATED CRIME
The decision of the special court of appeal was announced on Tuesday, January 15, and the President of the Republic publicly announced his confirmation on Thursday, January 17, and directed the execution of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud on Friday, January 18. Like the trial court, President Numeiri based his address to the nation on the theory of apostasy in Islamic Sharia law, without mentioning the offense by name, when he confirmed the conviction and sentence on all five accused. As for the other four accused, the President directed that they should have only three days to repent and recant or be executed on Sunday, January 20. As President Numeiri was making his confirmation address through national radio and television on the afternoon of Thursday, January 17, 1985, all security forces in the capital were put on full alert. While the police and state security personnel were rounding up Republicans for detention without charge, the armed forces were taking charge of security in and around the central prison in Khartoum North, where the execution was to take place the following morning. Paratroops were moved inside the prison, where a helicopter was kept overnight in order to remove the body after the execution. At dawn on Friday, the largest security operation ever undertaken around the prison was mounted, as authorities checked identities and closely observed the several hundred people who came to watch the public execution scheduled for ten that morning. When Al-Ustaz Mahmoud was brought up the stairs of the red steel gallows, the hood covering his face was removed for a few minutes. He is reported to have surveyed the crowd with a smile before the hood was replaced for the actual execution. Following the execution by hanging, the body was brought down, placed on a stretcher, and covered with an old blanket. Then it was taken to the helicopter, which immediately flew off to an unknown destination. Later it was reported that the body was buried in a shallow hole somewhere in the desert west of Omdurman. There are doubts now that even the men who carried out that bizarre operation can identify the spot where the body was left on that day.
Following the execution of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud on Friday morning, which they were made to attend, the four convicted Republicans declared their intention to recant and were accordingly pardoned and allowed to go free on Saturday the 19th. That process of intimidation was videotaped and shown on TV nationwide in an attempt to discourage any sympathy with the Republicans that might lead to a revolt against the regime.
By agreeing to dismantle their organization and refrain from further propagation of the views of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud, all of the nearly four hundred Republican men and women detained in Omdurman on the eve of the execution were released within the week. Republicans who were detained in other towns throughout the country and formally charged with the same combination of offenses as Al-Ustaz Mahmoud were released upon signing a similar pledge. Presumably the authorities thought that after the execution of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud, the movement would simply cease to exist, assuming that he was its entire substance and motivating force. President Numeiri did not stay in power long enough to reap the dubious benefits of his ruthless campaign against the Republicans. He was overthrown by a popular uprising followed by a coup d’etat on April 6, 1985, seventy-six days after he killed Al-Ustaz Mahmoud.
A SUPREME COURT REVERSAL
Following the overthrow of Numeiri and enactment of a new Transitional Constitution in October of 1985, a constitutional suit was instituted by Al-Ustaz Mahmoud’s elder daughter, Asma, and one of the Republicans convicted with him in the January 1985 trial. In this suit the applicants petition the Supreme Court of the Sudan to set aside the convictions and nullify their consequences based on numerous constitutional and procedural objections to that trial. The attorney general of the transitional government made an oral declaration before the Supreme Court to the effect that the January 1985 trial was completely illegal and that, as the current government’s attorney, he had nothing to say in defense of that trial.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court asked for a detailed written response to the petition. After considering all the available evidence and the submissions of both sides, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial, confirmation proceedings, and execution of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud were all null and void. In a long judgment handed down on November 18, 1986, the Supreme Court discussed in detail the numerous faults of the whole episode, including clear violations of fundamental, constitutionally guaranteed safeguards and violations of the 1983 “Islamic” laws themselves.
The circumstances of the prosecution and trial and the disproportionately severe sentence imposed for publishing a mildly worded single sheet of paper critical of government policy suggest the existence of a conspiracy or prearranged plan to murder Al-Ustaz Mahmoud. This theory draws support from the language of correspondence between President Numeiri and his top judicial and legal advisers prior to the arrest of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud on January 5, 1985.
In contrast, there is the remarkable courage and serenity with which Al-Ustaz Mahmoud met the execution. This aspect of the episode is very significant, because it put to the ultimate test one of the main tenets of Al-Ustaz Mahmoud’s religious thinking, namely the doctrine of absolute submission to the will of God. Throughout his life he preached that submission to the will of God was the essence of Islam and endeavored to achieve such submission in every aspect of his private and public life. He often told his disciples to see the hand of the original actor, God, behind that of the apparent actor or immediate cause of the event or incident. So, Al-Ustaz Mahmoud demonstrated that belief and action could combine in the life of a human being into a single consistent pattern, even up to the ultimate test of death. To many Sudanese, and perhaps soon to the world at large, when his life and work are fully appreciated, the events of that fateful Friday morning are the most eloquent testimony to Al-ustaz’s extraordinary moral stature.
This summary is adopted from a thesis written by Mr. Eddie Thomas with historical facts extracted mainly from the writings and documentation of Dr. Abdullahi Annaiem, as well as from a book published by the Republican Movement in 1976 under the name of “Landmarks on the the evolution of the Republican Ideology through 30 Years” “Maalim Ala Tarieq Tatawwur Alfikra Algumhuriyya Khilal Thalathien Aaman”.