By George Packer
September 11, 2006
In 1967, a law student at the University of Khartoum named Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim was looking for a way to spend a summer evening in his home town, a railway junction on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan. No good movies were showing at the local cinemas, so he went with a friend to hear a public lecture by Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, an unorthodox Sudanese mystic with a small but ardent following. Taha’s subject, “An Islamic Constitution: Yes and No,” tantalized Naim. In the years after Sudan became independent, in 1956, the role of Islam in the state was fiercely debated by traditional Sufists, secular Marxists, and the increasingly powerful Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, at the time, were led in Sudan by Hasan al-Turabi, a legal scholar. Politically, Naim was drifting toward the left, but his upbringing in a conservative Muslim home had formed him. “I was very torn,” Naim recently recalled. “I am a Muslim, but I couldn’t accept Sharia”—Islamic law. “I studied Sharia and I knew what it said. I couldn’t see how Sudan could be viable without women being full citizens and without non-Muslims being full citizens. I’m a Muslim, but I couldn’t live with this view of Islam.”
Naim’s quandary over Islam was an intensely personal conflict—he called it a “deadlock.” What he heard at Taha’s lecture resolved it. Taha said that the Sudanese constitution needed to be reformed, in order to reconcile “the individual’s need for absolute freedom with the community’s need for total social justice.” This political ideal, he argued, could be best achieved not through Marxism or liberalism but through Islam—that is, Islam in its original, uncorrupted form, in which women and people of other faiths were accorded equal status. As Naim listened, a profound sense of peace washed over him; he joined Taha’s movement, which came to be known as the Republican Brothers, and the night that had begun so idly changed his life.
It is a revelation story, and some version of it is surprisingly easy to hear in the Islamic world, especially among educated middle-class Muslims in the generation that came after the failures of nationalism and Socialism. During a recent trip to Sudan, I visited the University of Khartoum, which is housed in a collection of mostly colonial-era, earth-coloured brick buildings in the city centre, where I met a woman named Suhair Osman, who was doing graduate work in statistics. In 1993, at the age of eighteen, she spent the year between high school and college in her parents’ house on the Blue Nile, south of Khartoum, asking herself theological questions. As a schoolgirl, she had been taught that sinners would be eternally tormented after death; she couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, but she didn’t dare speak about it in class. Would all of creation simply end either in fire or in Paradise? Was her worth as a woman really no more than a quarter that of a man, as she felt Islamic law implied by granting men the right to take four wives? Did believers really have a duty to kill infidels? One day, Osman took a book by Taha off her father’s shelf, “The Koran, Mustapha Mahmoud, and Modern Understanding,” published in 1970. By the time she finished it, she was weeping. For the first time, she felt that religion had accorded her fully equal status. “Inside this thinking, I’m a human being,” she said. “Outside this thinking, I’m not.” It was as if she had been asleep all her life and had suddenly woken up: the air, the taste of water, food, even the smell of things changed. She felt as if she were walking a little off the ground.
The quest for spiritual meaning is typically a personal matter in the West. In the Islamic world, it often leads the seeker into some kind of collective action, informed by utopian aspiration that admits no distinction between proselytizing, social reform, and politics. The Islamic revival of the past several decades is the history of millions of revelation stories. Far from being idiosyncratic or marginal, they have combined into a tremendous surge that is now a full-time concern of the West. Renewal and reform—in Arabic, Tajdid and Islah—have an ambiguous and contested meaning in the Islamic world. They signify a stripping away of accumulated misreadings and wrong or lapsed practices, as in the Protestant Reformation, and a return to the founding texts of the Quran and the Sunna—guidelines based on the recorded words and deeds of the Prophet. But, beyond that, what is the nature of the reform? The father of one modern revelation story is Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian religious thinker who, after advocating jihad and the overthrow of secular Arab regimes, was hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. Qutb’s prison writings reject modernity, with its unholy secularism, and call on adherents of Islam to return to a radically purified version of the religion, which was established in the seventh century. Among the idealistic young believers who found in his books a guide to worldwide Islamisation were Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. With the newest generation of Jihadis—Qutb’s spiritual grandchildren—the ideas of the master have been construed as a justification for killing just about anyone in the name of reviving the days of the Prophet; earlier this year, several Baghdad falafel vendors were killed by Islamists because falafel did not exist in the seventh century.
Mahmoud Muhammad Taha is the anti-Qutb. Taha, like Qutb, was hanged by an Arab dictatorship; he was executed, in 1985, for sedition and apostasy, after protesting the imposition of Sharia in Sudan by President Jaafar al-Nimeiri. In death, Taha became something rare in contemporary Islam: a moderate martyr. His method of reconciling Muslim belief with twentieth-century values was, in its way, every bit as revolutionary as the contrary vision of Qutb. It is one sign of the current state of the struggle over Islam that, in the five years since September 11th, millions of people around the world have learned the name Sayyid Qutb while Mahmoud Muhammad Taha’s is virtually unknown. Islamism has taken on the frightening and faceless aspect of the masked Jihadi, the full-length veil, the religious militia, the blurred figure in a security video, the messianic head of state, the anti-American mob. At Islam’s core, in the countries of the Middle East from Egypt to Iran, Tajdid and Islah have helped push societies toward extremes of fervour, repression, and violence. But on the periphery, from Senegal to Indonesia—where the vast majority of Muslims live—Islamic reform comes in more varieties than most Westerners imagine. At the edges, the influence of American policy and the Israeli-Palestinian siege is less overwhelming, and it is easier to see that the real drama in Islam is the essential dilemma addressed by Taha: how to revive ancient sacred texts in a way that allows one to live in the modern world.
Taha was born sometime early in the twentieth century—scholars say 1909 or 1911—in a town on the eastern bank of the Blue Nile, two hours south of Khartoum, called Rufaa. It is a somnolent, heat-drenched town, one of those silent places—they stretch from one harsh end to the other of the North African region known as the Sahel—where mystical movements often begin. In the years before Sudan’s independence, Taha was educated as a civil engineer in a British-run university, and after working briefly for Sudan Railways he started his own engineering business. He absorbed modern political and social ideas by reading widely, if incompletely, in the works of Marx, Lenin, Russell, Shaw, and Wells. In 1945, he founded an anti-monarchical political group, the Republican Party, and was twice imprisoned by the British authorities: first for writing pro-independence pamphlets, and then for leading an uprising in Rufaa against the arrest of a local woman who had subjected her daughter to a particularly severe form of female circumcision. (Taha opposed the practice but believed that the colonial edict banning it would only make it more widespread.) His second imprisonment lasted two years, and when he was released, in 1948, he entered a period of seclusion, prayer, and fasting in a small mud building in the courtyard next to his in-laws’ house. By the time I visited Rufaa, in July, the hut had been torn down and replaced, and the house was occupied by a family of southern Sudanese.
While in seclusion, Taha spoke to few people; one man described him as having long, unruly hair and bloodshot eyes. His wife brought him plates of simple food—her family urged her to divorce this formerly successful professional, who some people thought had gone mad, but she refused—and he left the hut only to take swims in the Nile, a short walk away. During this period, which lasted three years, Taha developed his radically new vision of the meaning of the Koran. After emerging from seclusion, in 1951, he dedicated the rest of his life to teaching it.
For any Muslim who believes in universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy, the Quran presents an apparently insoluble problem. Some of its verses carry commands that violate a modern person’s sense of morality. The Quran accepts slavery. The Quran appoints men to be “the protectors and maintainers of women,” to whom women owe obedience; if disobeyed, men have the duty first to warn them, then to deny them sex, and finally to “beat them (lightly).” The Quran orders believers to wait until the holy months are finished, and then to “fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).” These and other verses present God’s purpose in clear, unmistakable terms, and they have become some of the favourite passages in the sermons, Fatwas, and Internet postings of present-day fundamentalists to justify violence and jihad. An enormous industry of reform-minded interpreters has arisen in recent years to explain them away, contextualize them, downplay them, or simply ignore them, often quoting the well-known verse that says there is “no compulsion in religion.” Not long ago, I received one such lecture from a Shiite cleric in Baghdad, who cited the “no compulsion” verse while sitting under a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini. In confronting the troublesome verses head on, Taha showed more intellectual honesty than all the Islamic scholars, community leaders, and world statesmen who think that they have solved the problem by flatly declaring Islam to be a religion of peace.
The Quran was revealed to Muhammad in two phases—first in Mecca, where for thirteen years he and his followers were a besieged minority, and then in Medina, where the Prophet established Islamic rule in a city filled with Jews and pagans. The Meccan verses are addressed, through Muhammad, to humanity in general, and are suffused with a spirit of freedom and equality; according to Taha, they present Islam in its perfect form, as the Prophet lived it, through exhortation rather than threat. In Taha’s most important book, a slender volume called “The Second Message of Islam” (published in 1967, with the dedication “To humanity!”), he writes that the lives of the “early Muslims” in Mecca “were the supreme expression of their religion and consisted of sincere worship, kindness, and peaceful coexistence with all other people.” Abdullahi an-Naim, who is now a law professor at Emory University, translated the book into English; in his introduction, he writes, “Islam, being the final and universal religion according to Muslim belief, was offered first in tolerant and egalitarian terms in Mecca, where the Prophet preached equality and individual responsibility between all men and women without distinction on grounds of race, sex, or social origin. As that message was rejected in practice, and the Prophet and his few followers were persecuted and forced to migrate to Medina, some aspects of the message changed.”
As Taha puts it in “The Second Message of Islam,” whereas Muhammad propagated “verses of peaceful persuasion” during his Meccan period, in Medina “the verses of compulsion by the sword prevailed.” The Medinan verses are full of rules, coercion, and threats, including the orders for jihad, and in Taha’s view they were a historical adaptation to the reality of life in a seventh-century Islamic city-state, in which “there was no law except the sword.” At one point, Taha writes that two modest decrees of the Meccan verses—“You are only a reminder, you have no dominion over them”—were appended with a harsh Medinan edict: “Except he who shuns and disbelieves, on whom God shall inflict the greatest suffering.” In his distinctive rhetorical style, which combines dense exegesis with humanistic uplift, Taha observed, “It is as if God had said, ‘We have granted you, Muhammad, dominion over anyone who shuns and disbelieves, so that God shall subject him to minor suffering at your hands through fighting, then God shall also subject him to the greatest suffering in hell.’ . . . Thus the first two verses were abrogated or repealed by the two second verses.”
The Medinan verses, directed not to Muhammad alone but to the community of early believers, became the basis for Sharia as it was developed by legal scholars over the next few centuries—what Taha calls the “first message of Islam.” In Taha’s revisionist reading, the elevation of the Medinan verses was only a historical postponement—the Meccan verses, representing the ideal religion, would be revived when humanity had reached a stage of development capable of accepting them, ushering in a renewed Islam based on freedom and equality. Taha quoted a Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that declared, “Islam started as a stranger, and it shall return as a stranger in the same way it started.” This “second message of Islam” is higher and better than the first, delivered by a messenger who came to seventh-century Arabia, in a sense, from the future. And, in the twentieth century, the time had come for Muslims finally to receive it. Taha offered a hermeneutical way out of the modern crisis of Islam, allowing Muslims to affirm their faith without having to live by an inhumane code.
Taha’s reputation and importance far exceeded his actual following, which never amounted to more than a few thousand intensely devoted Sudanese: the stories of overwhelming personal transformation that I heard from Naim, Osman, and other Republican Brothers were apparently common among his adherents. (Taha adapted the name of his old political party for his new spiritual movement; he was wary of substituting Islamist slogans for critical thinking.) He received visitors at his house in Omdurman, northwest of Khartoum, at all hours, engaging in a kind of continuous seminar in which he was unmistakably the instructor—Republican Brothers still call him Ustazh, or “revered teacher”—but one who welcomed argument. “He would listen with utmost respect,” a follower named Omer el-Garrai told me. “I never saw him frustrated, I never saw him angry, I never heard him shout.” Naim recalled, “Taha could not transmit his religious enlightenment to us by talking about it. We would see the fruit of it by his personal life style, in his attitudes. His honesty, his intellectual vigour, his serenity, his charisma—those are the things that we can observe, and from them I understood that this is someone who had a transformative religious experience.” Taha lived simply, urging his followers to do the same and even today Republican Brothers are known for their lack of show in dress and in wedding ceremonies. An aura of saintliness hangs over stories I heard about Taha in Sudan, and, as with Gandhi, to whom he is sometimes compared, there’s an unappealingly remote quality to his moral example. A man named Anour Hassan recalled that when Taha’s twelve-year-old son vanished in the Blue Nile, in 1954, Taha calmly told people who wanted to continue looking for the boy, “No, he’s gone to a kinder father than I am.”
Perhaps the twentieth century was too soon for the second message of Islam. Taha was condemned for apostasy by Sudanese and Egyptian clerics, his movement was under constant attack from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and his public appearances were banned by the government. Various rumours began to circulate: that Taha and his followers believed him to be a new prophet, or even a divinity; that Taha didn’t pray; that he was insane. His legacy became controversial even among liberal-minded Sudanese. One evening in July, I spoke with the moderate politician and intellectual Sadiq al-Mahdi on the terrace overlooking the garden of his palatial home in Omdurman. Mahdi, who twice served as Prime Minister of Sudan and was twice ousted, in 1967 and 1989, is an imposing man: he was wearing the traditional white djellabah and turban, and his beard was hennaed. He spoke respectfully of Taha but found him theologically unsound. “Amongst the Islamists, there are those who jump into the future and those who jump into the past,” Mahdi said, comparing Taha with Qutb. “Taha is amongst those who jump into the future. He definitely is for radical Islamic reform. But he based it on arguments that are not legitimate.” Mahdi, like many other modern Muslim thinkers, believes that the Quran already offers the basis for affirming democratic values; there is no need, as he put it, to perform “these somersaults.”
What’s truly remarkable about Taha is that he existed at all. In the midst of a gathering storm of Islamist extremism, he articulated a message of liberal reform that was rigorous, coherent, and courageous. His vision asked Muslims to abandon fourteen hundred years of accepted dogma in favour of a radical and demanding new methodology that would set them free from the burdens of traditional jurisprudence. Islamic law, with its harsh punishments and its repression of free thought, was, Taha argued, a human interpretation of the Medinan verses and the recorded words and deeds of the Prophet in Medina; developed in the early centuries after Muhammad, it was then closed off to critical revision for a millennium. When Taha spoke of “Sharia,” he meant the enlightened message of the Meccan verses, which is universal and eternal. To Muslims like Mahdi, this vision seemed to declare that part of the holy book was a mistake. Taha’s message requires of Muslims such an intellectual leap that those who actually made it—as opposed to those who merely admired Taha or were interested in him—took on the quality of cult members, with their white garments, street-corner sermons, and egalitarian marriage contracts. Small wonder that Taha failed to create a durable mass movement. In “Quest for Divinity,” a new and generally sympathetic study of Taha, to be published this fall, Professor Mohamed A. Mahmoud, of Tufts University, writes, “The outcome of this culture of guardianship and total intellectual dependency was a movement with impoverished inner intellectual and spiritual resources, intrinsically incapable of surviving Taha’s death.”
Why did the Sudanese state, the religious establishment, and the Islamist hard-liners consider the leader of such a small movement worth killing? Perhaps because, as Khalid el-Haj, a retired school administrator in Rufaa, who first met Taha in the early sixties, told me, “They are afraid of the ideas, not the numbers. They know that the ideas are from inside Islam and they cannot face it.”
Eventually, Taha’s teaching collided with Islamist power politics. Sudan’s military dictator, Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who had seized control of the country in 1969, was an opportunistic tyrant who had exhausted one model after another to justify his rule: Marxism, Arab nationalism, pro-Americanism. By the early eighties, Nimeiri’s hold on power was loosening, and he felt particularly threatened by one of his advisers: Hasan al-Turabi, the legal scholar, who had an increasingly energetic Islamist following. Turabi, a brilliant politician with a British and French education, was an authoritarian ideologue, more in the mould of a Bolshevik than a hidebound cleric. One of Turabi’s prime intellectual enemies was Taha, whose interpretation of the Quran he considered illegitimate. Taha, for his part, once dismissed Turabi as “clever but not insightful”—and many Sudanese believe that Turabi never forgot the slight.
In 1983, Nimeiri, aiming to counter Turabi’s growing popularity, decided to make his own Islamic claim. He hastily pushed through laws that imposed a severe version of Sharia on Sudan, including its Christian and animist south. Within eighteen months, more than fifty suspected thieves had their hands chopped off. A Coptic Christian was hanged for possessing foreign currency; poor women were flogged for selling local beer. It was exactly the kind of brutal, divisive, politically motivated Sharia that Taha had long warned against, and southerners intensified a decades-long civil war against Khartoum. Taha and other Republican Brothers, including Naim, had been jailed in advance by Nimeiri to prevent them from leading protests; their imprisonment lasted a year and a half.
Soon after Taha was released, he distributed a leaflet, on Christmas Day, 1984, titled “Either This or the Flood.” “It is futile for anyone to claim that a Christian person is not adversely affected by the implementation of Sharia,” he wrote. “It is not enough for a citizen today merely to enjoy freedom of worship. He is entitled to the full rights of a citizen in total equality with all other citizens. The rights of southern citizens in their country are not provided for in Sharia but rather in Islam at the level of fundamental Quranic revelation.”
Taha, who was now in his mid-seventies, had been preparing half his life for this moment. It was central to his vision that Islamic law in its historical form, rather than in what he considered its original, authentic meaning, would be a monstrous injustice in modern society. His opposition was brave and absolute, and yet his statement reveals the limits of a philosophy that he hoped to make universal. Taha opposed secularism—he once declared that the secular West “is not a civilization because its values are confused”—and he could not conceive of rights outside the framework of Islam and the Koran. At the very moment that he was defending non-believers from the second-class status enshrined in Islamic law, he was extending their equal rights through a higher, better Sharia.
Abdullahi an-Naim defends Taha’s approach, saying that in the Islamic world a Turkish-style secularism will always be self-defeating. “It is an illusion to think you can sustain constitutionalism, democratization, without addressing its Islamic foundation,” he said. “Because for Muslims you cannot say, ‘I’m a Muslim, but—’ That ‘but’ does not work. What unites Muslims is an idea. It is Islam as an idea. And therefore contesting that idea, I think, is going to be permanent.” Whenever secular intellectuals in Muslim countries try to bypass the question of Sharia, Naim said, “they leave the high moral ground to the fundamentalists, and they lose.” Invoking Islam as the highest authority for universal rights was not simply a matter of belief; it meant that Taha and his movement could stay in the game.
Soon after Taha’s Christmas statement was released, he was arrested again. This time, the government pressed charges amounting to apostasy, which carried the death penalty. Taha refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court under Sharia, refused to repent, and in a matter of hours was condemned to death. The hanging was scheduled for the morning of January 18, 1985. Among the hundreds of spectators in the vast courtyard of Kober Prison, in Khartoum North, was Judith Miller, then a Times reporter, disguised in a white cloak and head scarf. In the opening of her 1996 book, “God Has Ninety-nine Names,” Miller described the scene:
Shortly before the appointed time, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was led into the courtyard. The condemned man, his hands tied behind him, was smaller than I expected him to be, and from where I sat, as his guards hustled him along, he looked younger than his seventy-six years. He held his head high and stared silently into the crowd. When they saw him, many in the crowd leaped to their feet, jeering and shaking their fists at him. A few waved their Korans in the air.
I managed to catch only a glimpse of Taha’s face before the executioner placed an oatmeal-coloured sack over his head and body, but I shall never forget his expression: His eyes were defiant; his mouth firm. He showed no hint of fear.
In the instant that the trapdoor opened and Taha’s body fell through, the crowd began to scream, “Allah u Akbar! Allah u Akbar! Islam huwa al-hall! ”—“God is great! Islam is the solution!”—the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of Taha’s followers could not accept that he was dead—they had actually come to believe in Taha’s divinity—and they spent several days by one of the bridges spanning the Nile, waiting for him to appear. When he didn’t (his body was flown by helicopter to an unknown location in the desert for a hasty burial), the Republican Brotherhood essentially died. Some members, including Naim, went abroad; others stayed in Sudan but ceased any public activity. The regime forced a number of imprisoned Republican Brothers to repudiate Taha’s ideas in order to avoid his fate. His books were burned in public bonfires.
The execution appalled large numbers of Sudanese, who were unused to political violence, and it helped precipitate the downfall of Nimeiri, four months later, when a popular uprising restored democratic rule. January 18th became Arab Human Rights Day. In 2000, a Sudanese reporter asked Nimeiri about the death of Taha. Nimeiri expressed regret over the killing, then made a startling claim: Taha’s execution had been secretly engineered by Hasan al-Turabi.
“I didn’t want him killed,” Nimeiri said of Taha. “Turabi told me that Mahmoud Muhammad Taha wanted to side with the left against me and that the Republican Brothers are a force not to be underestimated, and that if he united with the left I am definitely doomed. Turabi brought me the order to execute him and asked me to sign off on it. . . . I decided to postpone my decision for two days, and on the third day I went to Taha, dressed in civilian clothes. I told him, ‘Your death would sadden me. Just back down on your decision.’ But he spoke to me in a way that at the time I felt was blustering but now I see it was honourable, considering the situation. He told me, ‘You back down on your decision. As for me, I know that I’m going to be killed. If I’m not killed in court, the Muslim Brotherhood will kill me in secret. So leave and let me be. I know that I am going to die.’ ”
I asked a number of people in Khartoum about the role that Turabi might have played in Taha’s death. “Turabi killed him” was the blunt verdict of Hyder Ibrahim Ali, a sociologist and the director of the Sudanese Studies Centre. “I think Turabi was behind all this. Taha was a real rival for Turabi. At that time, the only people at the University of Khartoum as strong as the Muslim Brotherhood were the Republican Brothers.” Others echoed this view: even if Turabi hadn’t played a direct role in Taha’s death, Taha’s reform-minded movement had offered the most serious theological challenge to Turabi’s severe Islamism.
In the decade after Taha’s death, Turabi and his hard-line politics flourished. In 1989, he was the prime strategist of the Islamist revolution that followed the military overthrow of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. He became the intellectual architect of the new regime, led by Omar al-Bashir, and presided over its reign of terror in the nineties. He was the impresario who attracted just about every leading Jihadi terrorist to Sudan; journalists started calling him “the Khomeini of the Sunnis” and “the pope of terrorism.” In 1999, however, Turabi’s fortunes abruptly changed: he lost a power struggle with Bashir, who fired him.
This spring, Turabi, in a striking return to Sudanese politics, said some astonishing things about Islam. Though he had always been more supportive of women’s rights than other hard-liners, he was now declaring that women and men are equal, that women can lead Islamic prayers, that covering the hair is not obligatory, that apostasy should not be a crime. He said that Muslim women can marry Christians or Jews. Quotations in the Arab press made him sound like a liberal reformer. In Khartoum, people marvelled that he sounded exactly like Taha. Suhair Osman, the young woman I met at the University of Khartoum, informed me, with a wan smile, “It is said in the daily papers and in the discussion centers here in the university that Turabi killed Ustazh Mahmoud and now he’s stealing his ideas.”
In the next few decades, several Arab countries—Iraq, Palestine, perhaps Egypt and Algeria—may well come under some form of Islamist rule, either by election or by force. If so, they would do well to study the example of Sudan. A whole generation in Sudan has grown up under the hard-line ideology that was imposed by Turabi and his colleagues after 1989. “We are the wounded surgeons, we have had the plague,” Sadiq al-Mahdi told me. “We have been the guinea pig of this whole exercise, and you should listen to us.”
Islam is as diverse as Muslims themselves, but Islamism, thus far in its short history, tends to look the same wherever it appears. The Sudanese version was not a genuine revolution like the Iranian one; it was more of an élite project that never gained legitimacy outside of student, intellectual, and military circles. Still, Sudan’s hard-line party, the National Islamic Front, marched the country through familiar paces. Suliman Baldo, the director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, who lived through the years of Islamisation in Khartoum and published a report documenting the return of slavery in Sudan, said of the government, “They came with a social-engineering project—they were very open about this.” Education became a form of indoctrination: small children learned jihadist chants; school uniforms were replaced with combat fatigues; students engaged in paramilitary drills and memorized the Koran; teachers overhauled the curriculum to focus on the glory of Arab and Islamic culture. Khartoum had been a socially relaxed city that celebrated Christmas, but now the morals police insured that women were veiled, especially in government offices and universities. The security agencies were taken over by Islamists, and torture chambers known as “ghost houses” proliferated in what had been a tolerant political culture. (Some torturers were reportedly trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.) Young men were conscripted into the new People’s Defence Force and sent to fight in the jihad against the infidels of the south, thousands of them crying “Allah u Akbar! ” as they went to their deaths. Turabi declared that the Jihadis would ascend directly to Paradise. Actors simulated “weddings” between martyrs and heavenly virgins on state television. Turabi gave asylum and assistance to terrorists, including bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, and Sudan soon made enemies of every one of its many neighbours, along with the United States. And so an ethnically and religiously mixed African country, with an egalitarian brand of Sufism as its dominant form of Islam, was mobilized by intellectuals and soldiers to create a militaristic, ideologically extreme state whose main achievements were civil war, slavery, famine, and mass death.
Sometime in the late nineties, Turabi realized that his grand enterprise was a failure. Sudan had come under United Nations sanctions for sponsoring a 1995 assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak, of Egypt. The country was internationally isolated; the civil war was killing millions. And the Islamist project was bankrupt. As in Iran, it had produced an increasingly wealthy and corrupt ruling class of ideologues and security officers, while young Sudanese, including many of Turabi’s followers, left the country or turned inward.
It was at this low point that Omar al-Bashir expelled Turabi from the government. Until last year, Turabi found himself in and out of jail, and he began to rethink his politics. He declared that the war in the south had not been a jihad after all but, rather, a meaningless waste. In prison, he began to write about where the Islamists had gone wrong. The problem, he decided, was a failure to adhere to principles of democracy and human rights. This spring, Turabi began attracting attention with his liberal statements about women and Islam. He welcomed the deployment of a United Nations force to the Darfur region, where the government had launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and he mocked bin Laden for threatening to mount a jihad against the peacekeepers. (Some analysts believe that Turabi had a hand in the rebellion that preceded the mass killings in the region, but no one has been able to prove it.) His remarks were so radical that they earned him charges of apostasy by clerics in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi edition of the Sudanese newspaper that quoted his proclamations had the offending lines torn out of every copy.
In Khartoum, people used the same phrase over and over: there had been “a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn” in Turabi’s views. I heard several explanations. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former Prime Minister, believed that Turabi was trying to atone for the damage he had inflicted on Sudan. Others saw old opportunism under new slogans: Turabi realized that, thanks to Islamist misrule, democracy would be the next wave in Sudan, and he wanted to get out in front of it. There was also the possibility that he couldn’t bear to be ignored.
One day in late July, during a hard Sahara windstorm that obscured the merciless sun and left sand in my molars, Turabi received me in his office on the outskirts of Khartoum, beyond the airport. I found him sitting behind a vast desk, which was almost bare; so were the bookcases next to it, as if he were waiting for someone to refurnish the trappings of power. Turabi is now seventy-four years old. He has a trim white beard and bright eyes framed by elegant wire-rim glasses; he wore a white djellabah and turban, white patent-leather loafers, and flower-patterned polyester socks. He has a resonant voice, which, when the topic turns serious, often breaks into a disconcerting giggle, accompanied by a bucktoothed grin. Turabi is inexhaustible: before I arrived, he had spoken for three days to members of his breakaway political party, but he required scarcely any prompting to carry on a nearly three-hour monologue with me. It was like trying to follow the flight path of a mosquito: he would leave sentences unfinished, switch subjects in the span of a clause, swallow the point in a laugh, then suddenly alight somewhere—on hidebound Saudi clerics, clueless Algerian Islamists, pigheaded Sudanese soldiers, short-sighted American politicians—and draw blood.
Turabi presented himself as older but wiser, free now to be the one independent thinker in a world of ideologues, an emissary for both sides in the war between Islam and the West, unafraid of uttering any truth, including truths about his own mistakes—but whenever I tried to pin him down on one he blamed someone else and claimed that his role was exaggerated. “Oh, Turabi, he’s the ‘pope of terrorism,’ of fundamentalism, the pope noir du terrorisme! ” he mocked. The Bush Administration’s war on terror, he said, was a gigantic misunderstanding based on a failure to communicate. As for the Islamic revival, it held no dangers for the West. “Oh, no, it’s positive!” he said. “What is our economic model? It’s not the Soviet model. It’s not the old capitalist model, or the feudal model. It’s your model! What is our political model? It’s your model! Almost the same model! O.K.?”
Toward the end of his discourse, I mentioned that a number of Sudanese had heard echoes of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha in his recent statements. For the first time, Turabi lost his good humour. “Ooh,” he groaned. He called Taha “an apostate” who was “not normal,” and he insisted that, far from being behind Taha’s death, he had argued with Nimeiri for his life: “I said, ‘Why do you jail this man? He won’t hurt you, he’s not against this regime. He thinks he’s the impersonation of Jesus Christ!’ ” Turabi laughed dismissively. “I said, ‘Let him go and advocate his message. He will persuade a few people for some time. He’s not harmful to you.’ ” He said of Taha, “From early days, I don’t read his books, I don’t mention his name. Even if people ask me questions, I try to evade, because in every society, in America, you have had these cult people—everyone has to drink the killing material! Jim Jones!”
Turabi giggled and stood up to say goodbye.
When I had asked Abdullahi an-Naim about Turabi’s recent statements on women, minorities, and Islam, he had scoffed, “He has no methodology.” It was true: Turabi threw out opinions like handfuls of seed. But, as Taha had said, the one constant in his long career has been cleverness. Turabi seemed to recognize that, in the ruins of his own making in Sudan, his countrymen required a new notion of Islam and government. Great turns in history seldom come because someone writes a manifesto or proposes a theory. Instead, concrete experience, usually in the form of catastrophic failure, forces people to search for new ideas, many of which have been lying around for quite a while. Naim, who had fled the country after the 1989 coup, went back to Sudan in 2003 to find that “people were totally disillusioned about the Islamist project. They could see that it was corrupting and corrupt.” In reaction, a small but growing number of Sudanese have come under the influence of Saudi Wahhabism—turning to an even more extreme theology as the pure Islam. Others, such as Osman Mirghani, a newspaper columnist and a former follower of Turabi, have concluded that the problem in Sudan has less to do with religion than with its civic culture. Mirghani has formed a new citizens’ movement, Sudan Forum, waging its first campaign against corruption in high places.
Taha’s solution to the modern Muslim dilemma hovers over the conversations of Sudanese who are too young to have any memory of him. In a dingy office in downtown Khartoum, I met a man named Hussein and a woman named Buthina, two social activists who are just the kind of idealists that the Islamists used to attract. In 1989, as a teen-ager, Hussein had at first welcomed the new government. He soon realized that its promises of Islamic justice were false, and he was traumatized by the year he spent as a conscript in the jihad against the south. “In my view, this regime is a great shame in the history of Islam,” he said. “It’s pushed people away from Islam. Their mentality has changed. They are no longer abiding by Islamic regulations.” He mentioned prostitution, drinking, and corruption. For all Hussein’s disillusionment, he still believed in Sharia—in flogging for fornication, stoning for adultery, and beheading for apostasy—but he wanted it to be applied under a democratic government grounded in human rights. Buthina shook her head; Islamist rule had turned her toward secularism. “This is a very, very sensitive issue,” she said. “When you design your regulations and constitution, you have to accept that all the people look at this constitution and see themselves in it. Otherwise, they will not implement it. If we design the constitution and the law of the country on Islam, this will create a problem.”
When I described Hussein to Naim, he said, “He sees the corruption of the current regime, and he sees the un-workability of an Islamic state, but he has no alternative. That is the point about Taha. Taha provides an alternative. As the crisis intensifies, the receptivity to something like Taha’s ideas will grow.” The misrule of Turabi and the Sudanese Islamists, Naim said, had done more to advance the project of reforming Sharia than Taha’s followers could ever have achieved. At the same time, he admitted that most people in Sudan today have never heard of Taha. All that is left of his movement is a few hundred followers, some of whom gather in the evenings at a house in Omdurman. I was invited to join them there one night: the men sat in chairs on one side of the courtyard, the women on the other, but they mixed more than the religious Muslims at most gatherings. All dressed in white, they chanted traditional Sufi songs and a mournful hymn about their martyred leader.
The hollowness at the core of Sudan, and the widespread cynicism about Islamist rule, with its enforced ideology and rituals, is reminiscent of Eastern Europe in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But if you spend time in an Islamic country you soon realize that the Communism analogy runs dry. For Islam, unlike Marxism, is deeply rooted and still present in everyday life in profound ways. As such, it is an irresistible mobilizing tool for politicians: an Islamist leader in Morocco, Nadia Yassin, once said, “If I go into the streets and I call people to come with me to a demonstration, and I talk to them about Che Guevara and Lenin, nobody will go out. But if I start talking about Muhammad and Ali and Aisha and all the prophets of Islam, they will follow me.” Islam remains the system of values by which Muslims live; it is strong enough to survive Islamism. Perhaps, in time, the religion’s centrality will subside, but, for the foreseeable future, the Islamic enlightenment in which so many Western thinkers have placed their hopes—that is, secularism—will not sweep the Muslim world. The Islamic revival, and its attendant struggles and ills, is less like the eighteenth century in Europe than like the sixteenth, the age of Luther, when the most sensitive and ambitious Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans devoted their efforts to finding in the words of the Bible a meaning for which they were prepared to live and die.
On the wall of Naim’s office at Emory University, just above a picture of his parents, there is a black-and-white portrait of Taha in old age, seated, with the folds of a white robe draped over his shoulders and the Sudanese turban wrapped around his head; his gaze is both direct and abstracted, taking in something far beyond the camera. Ever since the night Naim attended Taha’s lecture as a young law student, he has believed that Muslims must find a way out of the predicament in which their own history has placed them—if not by accepting Taha’s vision, then by working toward another.
“I don’t really have high hopes for change in the Arab region, because it is too self-absorbed in its own sense of superiority and victimhood,” he said. His hope lies in the periphery—West Africa, the Sahel, Central and Southeast Asia: “They are not noticed, but that’s where the hope is.” The damage done to Muslim lives under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” and Islamism’s failure to solve their daily problems and answer people’s deepest needs, has forced younger Muslims in countries like Indonesia, Turkey, and Morocco to approach religion and politics in a more sophisticated way. Naim’s newest project, which he calls a work of advocacy more than of scholarship, is a manuscript called “The Future of Sharia.” Even before its English publication, he has begun to post it on the Web, translated into Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish, Arabic, and Bahasa Indonesia. Its theme is more radical than anything he has written before; although it is based on his long devotion to Taha’s ideas, it goes beyond them and, according to some of Taha’s followers, leaves them behind. “The Future of Sharia” amounts to a kind of secularism: it proposes not a rigid separation of politics and religion, as in Turkey, but, rather, a scheme in which Islam informs political life but cannot be introduced into law by an appeal to any religious authority. Otherwise, Muslims would not be free. “I need a secular state to be a Muslim,” Naim said. “If I don’t have the freedom to disbelieve, I cannot believe.”
Two days after we spoke, Naim flew to Nigeria to give a series of lectures, based on the new book, in the northern states that have imposed a particularly harsh form of Sharia. He plans to travel next year to Indonesia and, if possible, to Iran. Two years ago, when he lectured in northern Nigeria, a quarter of his audience of eight hundred people walked out on him, and he had to slip away through a side door. He acknowledged that violence, even murder, might be the response this time. But Naim believes that, despite the evidence of the headlines, Islamic history is moving in his direction.
“In Sudan this simplistic answer failed,” Naim said. “In Iran it failed. In northern Nigeria it failed. In Pakistan it failed. As these experiences fail, people are going to realize that there is no shortcut—that you have to confront the hard questions.” His message to Muslims on his travels will be this: “I have been that way and I’ve seen the street is closed and I came back. And I see someone rushing and I tell him, this street is deadlocked, and he will not take my word and go all the way and discover that it is deadlocked and come back.” He will tell them, “Listen, you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go down this dead-end street. There is an Arabic expression: ‘The fortunate ones will learn from the mistakes of others, the unfortunate ones will learn from their own mistakes.’ ”
By taking his message to the Muslim public and risking his own life, Naim is, perhaps unconsciously, following the example of one of the intellectual heroes of modern Islam. The first years of the twenty-first century hardly seem hospitable to Mahmoud Muhammad Taha’s humane vision, but his words are there for young Muslims to discover once they get to the end of the street and need a way to turn around.