Title: A comment on Abdelwahab El-Affendi's article: MAHMOUD TAHA: HERESY AND MARTYRDOM*
Author: Omer Abdalla
Date: 12-19-2014, 08:52 PM
By Elrayah Hassan Khalifa
The article published by Dr. Abdewahab El-affendi, (Effendi) a writer, activist and a previous affiliate with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, about Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammad Taha, (Taha) the late Sudanese Islamic thinker and reformist and the leader of the Republican Brotherhood Movement (Republicans) has raised many questionable issues. I would like in this small piece to shed some lights on these issues and to introduce the readers to some aspects of Taha’s ideology through responding to Dr. Effendi
Other than the brief account about the spectacle of Taha’s execution and some historical facts Effendi has intentionally attempted to distort the image of Taha’s life and work by describing his quality of contributions as little less than mediocre; stating that: “theoretically, his views are based on a hotchpotch of amateur physics, amateur anthropology, amateur philosophy and amateur economics, among others. In his writings, he makes sweeping claims about the findings of whole disciplines without quoting a single reference or even mentioning a name. At times, the sources quoted are secondary translated newspaper or magazine articles.”
In his browsing through Taha’s books Effendi failed to notice that Taha did not need to cite any philosophical ideas to authenticate his views, because his theory was not developed through rational and objective study of philosophy or jurisprudence. According to Taha if an individual follows the example of the prophet, in every aspect of his life; with love and trust; Allah would diffuse knowledge unto his soul and heart. Taha maintained that the function of Prophet Mohammad as a messenger is to perfect whoever follows his footsteps, take him to God and leave him to communicate with Him. If that happened to an individual then that individual would become knowledgeable enough to understand from the Quran (nothing have we omitted from the book) and divulge what he/she had learned. As Islamic scholar, Effendi should be mindful of the fact that, though the Prophet and his nation were illiterate, they were able to dominate the two major civilizations of their time. They acquired their knowledge through devoutness and god-fearing, the mechanism which Taha indicated earlier; following what Allah said “So fear Allah; for it is Allah that teaches you. And Allah is well acquainted with all things.” Effendi, therefore, should subscribe to the fact that Taha himself was an authority, who expounded an unprecedented ideology and his views should be criticized in this level. The source Taha referred to is in the book of Al-Islam (published in 1960) where he quoted Einstein in a piece translated by Dr. Ahmad Zaki, a renowned Egyptian Scientist. The piece was about Empirical science, in which Taha illustrated the interconnection between empirical science and spiritual science. Whether this source is secondary or primary is not of great essence, inasmuch as it elucidates the discourse, nevertheless Effendi did not offer examples from Taha’s writings or speeches, in which Taha neglected to mention certain references.
As we will see later, Effendi did not refer to Taha’s views, as they were written in his books; instead he articulated his own understanding of these views and presented them as facts. While Republicans experienced this method from their uninformed opponents, who usually raised these same unsubstantiated allegations about Taha’s ideas, (they were usually refuted, partly because they were lies and partly because of the misinterpretation of Taha’s ideas) this should not be the case with Effendi, a professional writer, who was supposedly employing legitimate methods of research. The only instances in which Effendi made references to some of Taha’s books were to state that they were written as a reaction to certain events; as in the case of students of the Islamic University of Omdurman.
Though Effendi mentioned that Taha was jailed in the year 1946, during the colonial rule, he denied him the credit as the first political prisoner in the Sudan modern history. This neglect was not new to Taha, as most of the Sudanese historians intentionally overlooked his heroic role in the struggle against colonialism. They, instead, venerated other politicians who did not play the role Taha played in their campaign against colonialism. Effendi further stated in his paper “his followers (meaning Taha) complained that Taha has been systemically ignored by the intellectuals.” It is important to note that Taha, in the course of forty years, has published hundreds of thousands of books and booklets, delivered hundreds of speeches and lectures, and toured almost all parts, of the Sudan to explicate his message. This momentum created by Taha’s movement did not seem to catch the attention of the intellectuals; in the left or the right, including Effendi. Taha did not find the consideration he deserved as a thinker and Islamic reformist until after his execution. The entire media outlet; private and public, intentionally ignored the role and activities of this movement; even though they watched its members in the streets, every day discussing whole range of issues. The only time Taha had his turn to appear in public TV was during his trial after which he was executed! And the only moments his name was echoed in the Public media was to announce to the public that Taha was officially an apostate and thus he was going to be executed. After these outrageous situations can Effendi disagree that Taha was not only ignored but also treated unfairly? In any case, by deemphasizing the role of Taha as first political prisoner Effendi placed himself with those intellectuals who deliberately disregarded Taha’s role in the history of Sudan.
Effendi also mentioned that Taha’s Republican Party became a ‘religious cult centered on his mystical vision’. The term religious cult usually carries derogatory connotations; entailing surreptitious and covert activities. However, Effendi is conscious that Taha’s movement is all about writing books, conducting public presentations, holding debates and discussions, delivering lectures, even undertaking internal session in the open; how can this movement be characterized as a cult? It is important to assert that no movement in the history of Sudan seeks to discuss its views and strives to reach all people, without exception like the Republican movement. Therefore, It is prejudicial, to define Taha’s movement as a religious cult without offering evidence. Taha and his followers dedicated their entire intellectual efforts towards enlightening against sectarianism and religious extremism; by continually urging the public not to be deceived by the self-proclaimed Ulama whose function was to use religion for their personal gain. They further, armed the public with the necessary knowledge to face and expose those Ulama and any other religious figures, who manipulate religion. While I am conscious that Effendi is an Islamic traditional thinker whose mind does not go beyond Muslim Brotherhood interpretations of Islam, I was hopeful that, instead of labeling Taha’s movement as a cult, to fairly articulate its role in raising the level of awareness among the people against all the ossifying tendencies of those religious groups or personalities who created a fertile environment for extremism and terrorism.
Effendi also noted that Taha’s rhetoric before the second imprisonment was purely secular. It is important to note that Taha’s message has always been about religion, ever since 1945. As a matter of fact his first book entitled ‘Assifr Alawal’ the first testament, which was published in October 26, 1945; where he asserted that religion is the only ideology that can resolve people’s problems. He spoke about the bankruptcy of the West and its failure to realize happiness for mankind. He added that the East, in particular Sudan, can include a new element to the Western civilization, which is urgently needed; namely the spiritual element. Therefore the claim by Effendi that Taha’s rhetoric before his second imprisonment was purely secular is inaccurate.
Effendi also stated “ In the run-up to independence in 1956, the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged on the scene and managed to put the question of the ‘Islamic Constitution’ on the agenda. Taha vehemently opposed this call, and later resigned from the Constitutional Commission.” This statement is entirely erroneous; it shows that Effendi did not bother to read Sudan political history. The fact of the matter is; in September 1956 a national committee for the constitution was formed and Taha was invited to participate. The work of the committee was to draft a constitution to be presented to the Constituent Assembly. Taha requested in a proposal that the committee should be fully independent from intervention of the government, with respect to appointing of its chairman and members and also in the decision making. When the proposal failed Taha resigned with a letter published in Array-Alaam newspaper in 1/26/1957. He emphasized that: ‘by giving itself the right to appoint the Chairman and the members, the government undermined the very idea of the nationality of this committee.’ He went on to say that “our basis for participating in this committee came as a real desire expressed by the public opinion; to help highlighting the human ideals of the peoples and incorporate them in the constitution.” (Read Faisal Abdurrahman Ali Taha; Sudan on the Outskirts of second Independence. Page 351. You can also go to article Abdallah Alfaki AL Basheer; Mahmoud Mohammad Taha and the Intellectuals 17). There was no any mention in the history books that Taha resigned from the committee because of the Islamic constitution proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. Moreover, the claim that Taha wrote the book of (The Fundamentals of the Constitution) as a reaction to this event or in protest to its domination is baseless; as the book was published in 1955, before this episode took place (Effendi himself noted the year!). Taha wrote this book a sole reason to outline his vision for ruling Sudan, suggesting Federalism as a system of governance for the first time in Sudan history. Although most politicians opposed the idea of federalism they came after some forty years to discover that it was the most felicitous thing to do.
Effendi pointed out that absolute individual freedom should be the core of the political system according to Taha. However, he neglected to add that this absolute individual freedom should correspond with social comprehensive justice. For Taha every individual has the absolute freedom to think, as he likes, say what he thinks and act accordingly, in as much as he takes responsibility for his actions. Individuals’ actions are governed by a constitutional law, which reconciles between the need of individual for absolute individual freedom and the community for comprehensive social justice. Taha asserted that every individual, however insignificant he is, is an end in himself, and that very thing else including slam and the Quran should be a means for him to evolve and realize his/her individualism.
“Taha has a problem with actual democracy in the context like Sudan, where he detested the main political actors, blaming them for misguiding the masses into adhering to reactionary visions.” This is a claim put forth by Effendi. Taha has never had a problem with democracy, in the context of Sudan or any other country. He has a problem, though, with the wrong practices, which could occur in developed or under-developed countries. In his last writing (The Preamble) he said “let us make it clear that democracy which is defined as ‘ruling of the people by the people for the people’ does not fail, it is the remaining rule in which societies evolved in improving and upgrading it.” Taha rebuked the Sectarians not for their reactionary ideas- Vis à Vis democracy- but for intentionally misleading the public, in their dubious endeavor to impose the Islamic constitution. Taha exposed the inadequate practices of the sectarian parties and their strives to control the government by any means possible. At that democratic era, which Effendi alluded to; the Prime Minister refused to honor the Supreme Court ruling, the communist party, a party whose members in the Assembly won in a free election, was banned and his members were expelled from the parliament. The word (detested the main political actors) should be understood in the context of corruptions of those political actors and their failure to honor the trust of the people. But Taha did not detest those politicians whom he disagreed with; he always welcomed any chance to open a dialogue with them.
Effendi detailed the relationship between Nimeiri regime and the Republican movement; concluding that the movement offered enthusiastic support to Nimeiri even when he committed atrocities, banned all political parties and restricted human right and freedoms. It is difficult to comprehend Republicans’ support to May regime without contextualizing the historical back, in which May regime took place. After Sudan attained its independence it was plagued by two main sectarian parties that shared the rule of the country. Their concern was to pursue their narrow partisan interests at the expense of the unity, independence and interest of the Sudan. Effendi himself cited some examples of their debacles; including, banning the communist party, expelling members of the parliament for their political views, disrespecting the constitutional institutions by dishonoring the Supreme Court ruling, orchestrating Taha’s apostasy trial and the list goes on and on. It is pertinent to shed the light on the era which preceded May regime, in order to understand the justification put forward by the Republicans in their support to May regime.
In his article The Republicans and May (2); Dr. Omer Algarrai, under the title civil dictatorship, stated that; when Taha resisted the falsification of democracy in series of lectures under the title (the combat of dissolving the Sudanese communist party) both sectarians and Islamist groups attempted to muzzle the Republicans with what was known as the apostasy trial; which ruled the apostasy of Taha, closed his party house and confiscated his books. When the trial failed to attain its goal; sectarians and Islamic Charter Front (the organization for Muslim Brotherhood) endeavored to impose the Islamic Constitution as a means to silence their opposition in the name of religion. In 1969 the constitution was in the second reading in the Constituent Assembly, (by a committee, so inept that it refused to include the words ‘democracy and socialism’ in the constitution because they were not mentioned in Quran and Sunna!) At that time an announcement attributed to Alhadi Al-Mahadi, the Umma party leader, that, if the Assembly did not pass the constitution then the Ansar (Umma Party affiliates) would pass it by the sword. In this environment; where the country was at the verge of chaos and the lame parliament transformed into a religious dictatorship, threatened to impose a faulty constitution aiming at liquidating the political opponents, May regime took over. For this reason Taha perceived it as a salvation for the country because it put an end to the conspiracy of imposing the constitution by force. It also stopped the war between the South and the North (erupted in 1955), that all the successive governments failed to stop. Dr. Algarrai concluded his article by highlighting two vital facts: before May regime Republicans were demanding to stop the Islamic constitution, cease the ongoing war in the South and prevent sectarians from imposing the Islamic constitution by force. When May regime came, it virtually implemented all the demands which the Republicans were calling for. The Republicans stood by the principles they had called for and were not concerned with the regime as an entity. Thereupon, Republicans remained faithful to these principles, even when Nimeiri relinquished them; by allaying with sectarians and Muslim Brotherhood, waging the war in the South and proclaiming the Islamic constitution. It is obvious that Taha’s stance stemmed from unshakable moral principles and not pragmatic or tactical gimmick (all Sudanese parties participated in May regime, by way or another, only they didn’t have the principles and courage Republicans had). The Republicans stood neutral; neither to oppose nor help the opposition, so that May might not collapse, because the alternatives, as mentioned above were far worse. When May deviated from the principles stipulated by the Republicans, they showed it an unwavering campaign until they brought it to its knees. If Effendi wishes to criticize the relationship between May and the Republicans, he should emphasize these historical facts and put them into perspective, instead of throwing unfounded accusations. It is ironic that, while Effendi attributed to the Islamists their attack toTaha, for allaying with Nimeiri, he fell short to point out that those Islamists did not only support the regime, but they became part of it, even when the regime was secular. This should be compared with the position of the Republicans who resolutely adhered to their principles all along.
In discussing the theological aspect of Taha‘s ideology Effendi referred to a quotation from one of Taha’s books which stated the followings: “He becomes alive though God’s life, and in possession of God’s knowledge, God’s will and God’s power. He becomes God.” That was Taha speaking about the evolution of the individual. It is important to mention that Taha did not stop in that phrase but went further to say that God has no image to be actualized or a destination to be reached. But rather means that the opportunity of the individual for perfection has no limit. His/her aspiration (the individual) is to become God but god is the infinitude and cannot be reached and so it is a limitless journey, in which a person is perfecting his/her attributes. Effendi maintained that Orthodox were troubled by the claim of Taha that paradise is not an alternative to the earthly life but a continuation of it. It is my understanding that orthodox exponents believe that God would reward people according to their acts in this earthly life, if that is the case, then each individual would carry with him/her what he/she had achieved in this earthly life to continue in the other life. For Taha, however, existence is an eternal journey, which neither started with human existence nor would it end with paradise or hell. Orthodox, therefore, should not be troubled by the fact that paradise is not an alternative, but a continuation because that was the intuitive fact.
The misunderstanding of Taha’s concept about the relationship between man and God led Effendi to assume another misleading conclusion, by stating the following, “Then, there is his claim that not only can man becomes one with God, but he can become God, and therefore become a law unto himself, with no need to observe any religious prohibitions or taboos.” This statement implies that a person in a certain level is not required to abide by the law of the society (no need to observe any religious prohibitions or taboos), which would open the door to false claimants and chaos in the society. Taha believed that if a person reached his/her individualism, he would realize the maximum stature of human morality, such that he would not be embroiled in violation of the law, which Taha defined as ‘the minimum standard of morality.’ But even if that individual violated the law he would be responsible.
Effendi further claimed that Sufis themselves were at odds with Taha, with regard to his theory about the relationship between man and God, without offering any example. He further reiterated the fact that Taha was in conflict with the Sufi (the group that mastermind his demise). Let me make it clear that Taha was never in conflict with the old real Sufis, who represented the exemplary of religion; by devoting their lives for teaching and guiding their followers, and never covet their wealth. In contrast, their current counterparts (Effendi referred to as allies) who were credited with the same attributes and prerogatives; used the trust of their followers to further their personal earthly gain. Consequently, they lost track of their predecessors and transformed into sectarians. For this reason Taha issued in in April 27, 1965 a pamphlet to all the Sufis in Sudan telling them that the time has come to follow one path; and that is the path of Prophet Mohammad (May peace be upon him). He further urged Sheikhs of the Sufis to instruct their followers to leave all the other paths and guide their followers to the path of Prophet Mohammad. (May peace be upon him). Taha emphasized in his pamphlet that Sufis have contributed great services to the people and their leaders have been beacons of guidance for the nation, where people sought their religion, their morals and their teaching. But now, Taha said; there was no person with a religious or moral standing as Prophet Mohammad, who could unify the nation and renew its religion. Taha’s call did not resonate with most of the pseudo Sufis. No wonder if they masterminded the conspiracy that leads to the execution.
Secularists, according to Effendi criticized Taha for his obscurantism and reactionary ideas. But Effendi did not offer any example from the writings of those critics nor did he give names or references. As was mentioned above, the activities of the Republicans have always been in the open. Nothing would thrill the Republicans more than having the people come to discuss their ideas. Taha’s ideas and conduct have been scrutinized, by his enemies and friends; including his private life, without a hint of him being annoyed. Moreover, the claim that Taha‘s ideas were reactionary is self-contradictory and does not warrant elaboration. Effendi also added that Taha and his followers offered restrictive interpretation of Sharia to support their argument. It is important to note that, when citing texts from the Quran or Sunna, Republicans would validate them with examples form the Prophet’s deeds. The most blatant example is the issue of Jihad, where most intellectuals who hold traditional views of Islam are torn between defending these views and adopting the Western culture of democracy and human rights. They would attempt to justify the validity of Jihad by claiming that it was a defensive tool used by Muslims to counterattack their enemies. In order to refute this argument, Republicans would offer unequivocal historical facts which would show that, in fact, the Prophet Mohammad (may peace be upon Him) dispatched his messengers to the Kings and Emperors demanding them and their peoples to accept Islam, as their religion, or be prepared for war. When Republicans raised this irrebuttable argument they were faced by fallacious allegations such as the one raised by Effendi.
In the conclusion of his paper Effendi pointed out that “Similarly, his theories of biological and social human evolution take for granted Western modernity’s claims about being the most advanced in all aspects, including ethically, in human history, a questionable proposition.” This quotation clearly explains that Effendi did not digest Taha’s views. In his book “The Second Message of Islam” (which Effendi, inadvertently miswrote its title) Taha articulated his critique of the Western civilization. He differentiated between civility, as the summit of the social pyramid and civilization as its base. Civility, according to Taha, could be defined as the ability to discern the values of things and commit to these values in a regular manner. Accordingly the civil person cannot confuse, or sacrifices ends for the sake of means. In a nutshell he/she is the person who realized the perfection of the intellectual and emotional life. Based on this premise, Taha maintained that the current Western civilization was not considered a civility, because its balance of values was upset; the means advanced and the ends delayed. Western civilization, according to Taha, has two faces; one is ugly and the other is pleasant. Its pleasant face is its capability in the field of scientific exploration to manipulate the material power to enrich life and use the machine to aid the human being. Its ugly face is its inability to wisely strive to maintain peace and work for war and spends on means of destruction much more than worked for peace and building. Its ugly face is the shortcoming of its ideology to reconcile the need of the individual for absolute individual freedom and the need of the community for comprehensive social justice. It is difficult to comprehend how Effendi overlooked this critique of Western modernity, which was taken from the book of the Second Message of Islam, unless he intentionally aimed to misrepresent Taha’s views.
Effendi is counting Taha with (Modern Muslim Liberals) who cannot accept the right of Muslim societies to govern themselves, calling it the guardianship of liberals as opposed to the guardianship of Islamic Juris, in some Muslim countries. This is one of Effendi’s baseless allegations against Taha. In his book the Basis of Sudan Fundamental Constitution: page 20, Taha stated the following; “we should know that no matter how the Sudanese people are backward in some areas, we do not have any other means of educating them except by giving them full opportunity to directly manage their own affairs. We recognize their full rights to oversee the works of their rulers, as well as their representatives. They can further call their representatives for questioning, terminate their membership from the representative council, or send others to replace them. They have the exclusive right to dissolve the legislative council before the end of its term.” Taha went further to state “the people have the right to oversee the work of the officials, amend the constitution; whether by referendum or by their representatives in the Parliament. They can propose laws to be included in the constitution and can also discuss the constitutionality of laws passed by the Parliament.” In this book Taha also spoke about Popular Sovereignty where he said it should be vested fully in the hands of the Sudanese people from the beginning, in order to learn by practice. Therefore, the claim that “Taha faces the dilemma of all modern Muslim liberals who cannot accept the right of Muslim societies to govern themselves and advocate what Effendi called ‘guardianship of liberals’” is not only meritless but an intentional attempt from his part to undermine Taha’s work. It further portrays Effendi as someone who followed his preconception about Taha’s views and failed to apply himself as impartial writer.
After accusing Taha with advocating liberal guardianship, Effendi expressed his astonishment about what he considered a stark contradiction of (challenging the decision by the Parliament to ban the Communist Party). However, had f Effendi been eager to know what Taha stood for, he could have known that the slogan of the Republicans was “freedom for us and for others.” They applied this sloagan indiscriminately, whether their opponents were Muslim Brotherhood (Taha stood with them during the assassination of their leaders in Egypt in 1966) or Communists as in the case offered by Effendi. Again, these stances stemmed from Taha’s religious convictions and not merely out of political expediency or pragmatism. Supporting May regime could be another example of his impartiality.
Effendi further questioned Taha’s theory of epistemology by stating the following “Spiritually and theologically, Taha’s position poses the most serious problem. His notion that the believer, by immersing himself in the Qur'an and engaging in spiritual exercises of fasting and seclusion, could receive ‘revelation’ poses a serious challenge about what happens if different individuals receive conflicting revelations. More fundamentally, what is the mechanism of determining when a revelation is authentic as opposed to a mere hallucination?” It is not counterintuitive to assert that human reason and judgment are the only mechanism for discerning the authenticity of knowledge. In the book of “The Second Message of Islam”;Taha referred to the argument of Jesus when he told his disciples ‘ beware of the false prophets, his disciples asked him how could we know them? He answered them; ye shall know them by their fruits’. So if the fruit is good or bad it could only be identified through engaging one’s mind. Again; if the content of the idea is convincing to the mind, why should its acceptability be contingent on the mechanism by which it was received? By the same token if the mechanism is genuine (according to Effendi) does that make it unquestionably correct regardless of its content? Apparently Effendi is implying that lack of mechanism (which determines certain knowledge is authentic or false) is a ground for disbarring knowledge from being divulged. This is exactly the guardianship which advocates that; people should be protected from receiving knowledge, for lack of approved mechanism! The fact that someone might claim to be Mahdi or Messiah does not detract from the validity of the mechanism, rather it prompts people to look into content of his/her message and see if it is right or wrong.
Effendi summed up Taha’s legacy by the following statement “His legacy has thus restricted itself to three areas: a cultural and intellectual dimension of diffuse liberalism, propagated by the Taha Cultural Centre and in the writings of select followers; a political dimension, also disseminated through the activism of the writings of his remaining followers; and a legal dimension propagated, almost single-handedly, by Emory University’s Abdullahi An-Na’im, and becoming more and more detached from the original mystical foundation, and tending to be plain liberal and secular.” Taha’s legacy is wider, has more profound impact than the underestimation offered by Effend. People in Sudan still remembered that Friday, when they saw for the first time in modern history a unique example of human excellence. An example in which an individual was able to practice what he preached to the ultimate test of death. People of Sudan, with their entire political spectrum conceded that the heroic stance of Taha was the direct spark that ignited the uprising of1985; putting an end to May regime, which Taha defied. On the other hand, the followers of Taha have preserved his work and made it accessible to everyone, additionally; they are always prepared to answer questions and explain any incomprehensible matter. Consequently, thousands of people started to own Taha’s views, write about them and to see in them the only hope out of this turbulent era in which Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups had sunk humanity in. But the real legacy of Taha, in my view, is his disciples; his sons and daughters, who, for the most part became the personification of the Republican ideology with their good standing, reputable conduct and their positive influence, which inspired others to transform their lives. It is not so much being active in the public domain, (although that has its advantage too) that matters, but rather, to what extend you (as an individual) own the morals you preach and live them in your every aspect of your life.
Effendi has raised many issues which are worthy of discussion, however, my intention is for this paper to be rather brief and to cover the issues which I perceive to be important. While I commend Effendi’s concern over bringing Taha’s work and life to the spotlight, I deplore his intentional attempts to distort Taha’s work, whether by deemphasizing his views, misinterpreting them, or making up statements and attribute them to Taha’s work. If Effendi had the patience in approaching Taha’s books with open mind, good faith he could have benefited (himself) a great deal and could have reached entirely different conclusion.
* El-Affendi's article appeared in CRITICAL MUSLIM 12, OCTOBER–DECEMBER 2014