African Witness: Mahmoud Taha

In the troubled waters of Sudanese politics during the 20th century, Mahmoud Taha stands out as one of the most prominent representatives of a mystic movement fighting against religious fundamentalism and repressive political tendencies. We look at his life and his political legacy.

Ustazh (Master) Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was born at Rufa’a, a small village on the western bank of the Nile. He soon became orphan and he was entrusted to the care of an aunt. Mahmoud went through primary and secondary studies and finally graduated in Engineering in 1936. Sudan was still a British colony and very soon Mahmoud started getting involved in groups fighting for self-rule. In 1945 he founded the Republican Party, being imprisoned shortly thereafter.

During a revolt in his home town, Mahmoud was arrested again and spent two years in prison. When he was set free, he decided to shut himself away in his home, where he spent three years of self-imposed retreat, completely dedicated to prayer, study and ascetic practices.

After this period, he decided to transform the party into a movement dedicated to promote a new sense of Islam. Because of his religious inspiration, the position of the movement strongly opposed the imposition of shari’a (islamic law) as the basis of civil law due to the presence of non-Muslims and the cultural diversity of the country. The aim of the movement was to promote necessary social, cultural and religious reforms.

His progressive approach was soon strongly criticised by groups of the Islamic spectrum, from the wahabist groups to the Muslim Brothers, which had very radical views of Islam and were very active in the Sudan politics. He was forbidden to give lectures or talk in public and he thus confined himself to activities in particular houses and small fora. Despite these restrictions, his movement extended among intellectuals and young students mainly of Khartoum University.

Mahmoud could regain his freedom of speech and political freedom thanks to the liberal approach of the new regime of president Nimeiri, a military with socialist ideas who commanded a successful coup-d’etat in May 1969. At all times then, the grassroots of the movement could be seen all over the capital zealously engaged in different activities, mainly distributing propaganda, leaflets or books in streets and squares.

Early in the 80’s, Nimeiri became politically very much isolated and decided to look for support among the most radical and strict Islamic movements. In an attempt to gain their favour and their political support, he imposed the shari’a law in the whole country in 1983 (which also was the main cause of the start of the second period of the civil war in the South). The Republican Movement did not hide their strong opposition to this step and mobilised its supporters against it. The wide activism and the increasing popularity of the republicans became a threat not only to the government but to the most fundamentalist Islamic groups.

There were massive arrests of republican followers, but the most serious charges were against Taha himself and four of his collaborators. Even though the word was not mentioned in the trial, he in fact was accused of “heresy” under the cover of sedition, disturbance of public order and illicit organisation. The five accused were sentenced to death; Taha was not given any possibility of appeal, the other tour could be pardoned if they recanted from their positions.

On 17th January 1985, security forces were deployed all over Khartoum in order to avoid any disturbance. On the following day, Taha was brought to the gallows and hanged in Kobar prison. According to witnesses, throughout the execution process he was calm and composed; he even smiled to the crowd present around the scaffold. His body was taken by helicopter to an unknown location in the desert West of Omdurman town. Nimeiri himself did not last to see the political benefits of the elimination of Taha; 76 days later he himself was overthrown in a bloodless coup. One year later the Supreme Court officially recognised Taha’s innocence, declaring the process and the sentence invalid and illegal.

One of the main factors of the growth and the relevance of the Republican Movement was the deep personal coherence of its leader with the core values proclaimed by the movement as such. Both Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as non-believers, joined Taha’s struggle for reforms towards a more equitable society.

The Republican Movement had its foundation in the mystical experience, but unlike many other sufi movements of purely spiritual nature, this movement carried out a comprehensive and rational political analysis, coming up with concrete proposals of change and reform. Mysticism and social action were uniquely united.

Taha’s reflection were based on a historical-critical analysis of the Qur’an and its development as revealed truth. He made a sharp distinction between the historic shari’a contained in the qu’ranic suras (chapters) of the Meccan period and the later additions of the later Medinan period. In the first Meccan period (610-622), the contents mainly stress the equality among sexes and the religious freedom based on spiritual and universal values. The situation changes radically in Medina, where Muhammad is con- fronted with opposition and persecution from several Arab clans; therefore the suras revealed during that period stress much more the differences of the new religion and have a more political strain due to the different context in which they appear.

They try to strengthen the critical position of the prophet who is in a hostile environment; one of the new contents of this later period is the jihad (holy war) According to Taha’s ideas, it is only the contents of first period which can really be called the true shari’a. The “second message of Islam,” in words of Taha, is the discovery of the revelation of forgiveness, respect and dignity for all that each believer is called to make. Such an interpretation, which has been held later on by some progressive thinkers and jurists, was rapidly labelled as heretical by traditional Islamic schools.

One of the most shocking elements of the republican ideology was the active presence of women in the movement activities (many were leaders of local “clusters”) and the vocal demand for gender equality even many years before we could speak of organised feminist movements worldwide. Moreover, it is remarkable that this revolution was happening in a very strict patriarchal society, where women have traditionally been excluded from any social or political exposure.

The image of the “republican sisters” praying alongside their male colleagues was utterly unprecedented in Sudan and it became an outrage in the eyes of the most conservative groups. Also unprecedented was the right of women to file for divorce, a point which became a recurrent clause in the wedding documents among republican couples.

Taha remained a mystic reformer and asked his followers to establish strong ties with other beliefs and to respectfully value them. This characteristic openness made him even more detestable to the Islamic orthodoxy. Taha rejected both the Islamification process and the arab-islamic hegemony that the government tried to impose on the South.

These are the main reasons why Taha progressively became a thorn in the side of the Sudanese regime and had to be done away with. Political enemies actively conspired to defuse the “destructive potential” of this simple man, often called the “Sudanese. Gandhi” and his ground-breaking followers. His only sin was to behold the equality and dignity of the human person as a superior value, greater and more relevant than transient religious precepts and excluding ideologies. (Alberto Eisman)

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