Thirty years ago, a pro-American Islamist government executed a mild-mannered, peaceful Muslim reformer who advocated a radical reinterpretation of Islamic religious thought and history. The thought, life, and death of Mahmud Mohammad Taha (1909-1985) underscores how much has not changed in the Arab Middle East and what very real challenges remain.
A 1936 engineering graduate of Gordon Memorial College (later to become Khartoum University), Taha became involved in politics in the 1940s, founded his own pro-independence party, and was twice imprisoned by British colonial authorities. Several years of voluntary Sufi seclusion and reflection on his part led to his development of a comprehensive theory for the evolution of Islamic legislation. Just as he had been harassed by the British, Taha was to face legal pressure from the authorities, even being declared an apostate by the Khartoum Sharia High Court in 1968 during the coalition government of Prime Minister Muhammad Ahmad Mahgoub.
Scholars like Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed Al-Naim, himself a great advocate for reform and social justice, have explained Taha's reformist philosophy in great detail; essentially, Taha sought to reinterpret the Koran, setting aside centuries of rigid religious interpretation. Taha sought to discern two messages in Islam's founding text - the later, harsher Medina message, and the original and more humanistic and universal "Second Message of Islam" found in the Meccan verses that were first revealed. The Mecca revelations provided space for greater equality and freedom for both non-Muslims and women, and Taha used traditional Islamic techniques well established in fiqh to provide for a modernist re-interpretation appropriate to our contemporary age and to a Sudan that had been wracked by civil war almost constantly since before independence in 1956. Taha also saw roots of both democracy and socialism in these same texts. Under Ustaz Mahmud's radical re-interpretation, neither women nor non-Muslims are second class citizens but full participants in civil society and political life - because, not in spite of, the spirit of the Koran.
Contemporary film footage of the movement capture some of the flavor of what became known as the Ikhwan al-Jumhuriyun (Republican Brothers), as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood: a strong Sufi sub-text; open-air gatherings of Sudanese men and women, most in traditional dress, chanting and singing; writing and copying pamphlets on mimeograph machines; a co-educational road trip to promote the thoughts of Ustaz Mahmud; men and women distributing material on the streets talking to people from every walk of life, book fairs, and preaching under the trees. In short, this was activism that was authentic, modest, enthusiastic, and close to the people.
Mahmud Muhammad Taha's humane and tolerant vision of Islam, deeply nourished by the wellsprings of Sudanese Sufism, was to clash with rising pathologies emerging in the Arab world. In 1969, the Sudanese government was overthrown by army officers led by Colonel Jaafar Al-Numeiri. Taha initially supported the "May Revolution," which was an Arab Nationalist and Socialist effort inspired by the political line of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. With the Addis Ababa Agreement, Al-Numeiri ended the long simmering war with South Sudanese rebels in 1972, giving his country some long-needed peace and stability. But as he survived numerous coup attempts, Al-Numeiri moved towards both better relations with the West and reconciliation with Sudan's Islamists. Under their influence, he declared shari'a the law of the land, re-igniting the second phase of Sudan's civil war. Western-educated, hardline Islamist Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi, who became Sudan's Justice Minister, is widely blamed by Sudanese for the execution of Mahmud Muhammad Taha.
Arrested in January 1985, Taha's eloquent and uncompromising court statement sought to turn the argument of the Islamists on its head. He boldly accused the September 1983 imposition of shari'a law to be itself a violation of shari'a and Islam which makes them "repugnant." These laws are used to terrorize people and humiliate them into submission. They jeopardized the unity of the country. The judges implementing these unjust laws have failed to stop the executive's imposition of laws which "violate the rights of citizens, humiliate the people, distort Islam, insult the intellect and intellectuals and humiliate political opponents." He refused to cooperate with a court which allowed itself to be used as a tool to humiliate the people and insult free thought. There is little doubt that the trial was a farce even under current Sudanese law.
While Al-Numeiri pardoned Nuba politician and Anglican priest Phillip Abbas Ghabush and his followers who were on trial for sedition at the same time, efforts by some in the Al-Numeiri regime to spare Taha's life failed, and he was hanged at Khartoum's notorious Kober Prison on January 18, 1985. More than two thousand observers, many baying that the sentence was a victory for Islam, watched his death. Interviewed years later, Al-Numeiri unapologetically stood by the death sentence for Taha. While he was overthrown in April 1985 during a visit to Washington, D.C., the shari'a law he imposed remains in effect. Unrepentant presiding judge Al-Mikashfi later compared the death sentence of Taha to the infamous sentence of apostasy passed against Sufi Mansur Al-Hallaj, executed in Baghdad in 922 by the Abbasid Caliph. Hassan Al-Turabi, after his falling-out with the ruling NCP in Khartoum, has sought to re-invent himself as some sort of "enlightened" Islamist.
Mahmud Muhammad Taha is not forgotten. While his writings were confiscated and remain banned in Sudan to this day, his daughter Asma remains an activist for her father's ideals. She co-edited a volume of his work that was published in Beirut, but that edition is out of print. Friends of Ustaz Mahmud established an Arabic language website, Alfikra.org, containing videos and all his writings, lectures and books ready to be downloaded. One young supporter even poignantly set his court testimony to music.
A few months ago, news came from Raqqa in Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIS), of the arrest of Sufi sheikhs for "practicing sorcery," a crime punishable by death. Despite ISIS's rhetoric about killing crusaders and marching on Rome, it is foremost about power and authority in the Muslim world. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith once noted that "holy war, whatever the religion involved, has the tendency to turn on the society that has bred it." So it is with the various contending supremacist pathologies we see in the Middle East: the Muslim Brotherhood and its various incarnations, its Salafi political rivals, expansionist Shi'a Iran and its proxies, and takfiri jihadist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. All are hostile, to a greater or lesser extent, to each other, to the West, and to non-Muslims, especially to Jews, and all of them seek to reign supreme over the Muslims and over any part of the non-Muslim world that they can seek to influence or control.
In this intense and multi-layered ideological struggle for dominance in the Muslim world, the West seems an unwitting bystander. Bland rhetoric about "Credible Voices" obscures the fact that we are not really involved in this ideological struggle - and we should be, not loudly, but carefully and creatively. This does not mean America and non-Muslims clumsily telling Muslims what they should believe, but it should mean giving succor, both directly or indirectly, to those voices that are broadly like-minded to our own values and aspirations. There is indeed an ideological civil war going on for authority in the Middle East, which will take years to run its course. That process is painful, often horrific, and it is unclear what price the region, and the rest of us, will ultimately bear for its eventual resolution.
For decades now, some Muslim governments and wealthy individuals have lavishly funded the most intolerant and extreme versions of political Islam, and have over time moved the needle towards a more literalist, intolerant and dogmatic, and often violent view of Islam across a swath of people from Africa to Southeast Asia and in the Muslim Diaspora in the West. This is the poisonous worldview that tells the African Sufi or syncretistic Muslim with his folk traditions, his saint's tomb, and sacred tree, that "you're not actually a Muslim." This is the Petri dish from which the next ISIS or Boko Haram will spring should those groups be beaten back. When a regional government, allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, gives an award to an extremist like Zakir Naik, one can see some of the dimensions of the problem. Past efforts to address the venom in Saudi or Palestinian or Pakistani textbooks were worthwhile but small-scale efforts to address one part of a deeper issue. The decades-long struggle between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran that uses political and religious one-upmanship to outmaneuver the other continues to create victims on all sides.
Thirty years ago, a pro-American Sudanese regime executed Mahmud Mohammed Taha because he rejected shari'a law and called for full rights for women and non-Muslims. His death made barely a ripple outside the country. The Sudanese judges cited the judgments of Al-Azhar in Egypt and the Saudi-funded Muslim World League that Taha was an apostate deserving death. The tragedy is that despite the relentless, lavish patronage of extremists, there are still real Muslim reformers and advocates of tolerance and good will who are courageously fighting this ideological battle every day. They do so for their own reasons, not to please us. Whether they are intellectuals of the Koranist interpretation, or Sufis, or plain vanilla secularists or progressives, these are brave individuals who are all too often alone, mostly political and economic orphans, backed by no state and bankrolled by no plutocrat. They deserve more than our acknowledgement or admiration. If we can't get some of our friends to stop spreading their poison, maybe we should at last try to level the playing field for those who seek a more humane and tolerant vision worthy of the best in the Abrahamic religions.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
 Abdullahi Ahmed Al-Naim, "Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform: Implications for Interreligious Relations," Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 25:1, Winter 1988.
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 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, An Escalating Regional Cold War - Part I: The 2009 Gaza War, May 7, 2009.
 The New York Times, January 19, 1985.