Taha and his followers in the Republican Brothers and Sisters movement called for an inclusive reinterpretation of Islam that would accommodate Sudan's ethnic and religious diversity and end traditional legal discriminations against women and non-Muslims.
VOA’s Nabeel Biajo spoke with Edward Thomas, a scholar of Sudan and South Sudan, who in 2010 wrote a biography of Taha titled "Islam's Perfect Stranger: The Life of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, Muslim Reformer of Sudan." They discussed Taha’s legacy on the 38th anniversary of his execution and the relevance of his ideas to Sudan's modern struggle against military authoritarianism.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: What motivated you to write a biography of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha? What place does he have in Sudan’s modern history?
Thomas: Ustaz Mahmoud came up with a workable solution to the religious element of the problem in Sudan. Twentieth century Sudan — which included today's South Sudan — was an incredibly, almost impossibly diverse country with hundreds of languages and many religions. But the Sudanese state was constructed around an exclusionary version of Islam, and Ustaz countered that by drawing on inclusive elements in the Islamic tradition. Not every version of Islam is authoritarian, and Ustaz drew on themes within Sufism to propose a kind of Islam which was inclusive, which eliminated some of the discriminations against women and against non-Muslim — discriminations that have become a feature of legal and authoritarian versions of Islam.
The other thing about Ustaz Mahmoud was that he had a lot of affinities with some of the stuff that's popular today: human rights and notions of democracy and so forth. But when he talked about human rights and notions of democracy, he did not invoke the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or any global language. He tried to find elements within Sudanese traditions and Sufi traditions that supported his beliefs, so there is something so radically local about his teaching.
VOA: Thirty-eight years later, since his execution, how is he remembered in Sudan?
Dictator Jaafar Nimeiry was somebody who had a lot of enemies and in the end, he was Mahmoud’s enemy, and he decided to invoke an authoritarian version of Islam, and he executed Ustaz Mahmoud. And that execution happened about two or three months before Jaffar Nimeiry’s downfall. Many people in telling this history will say that the execution of this elderly, pious, intellectual, quite charismatic and very peaceful person was the thing that turned revulsion against the dictatorship into a movement for change and brought the down the dictatorship.
VOA: The late Ustaz Mahmoud Mohamed Taha famously faced his death by hanging on the gallows of the Islamists under President Jaffar Nimeiry with a smile.
VOA: How would he feel about Sudan today? In other words, have things changed from where they were in 1985 when Ustaz Mahmoud was executed?
Thomas: Ustaz used to communicate with people through preaching on street corners and handing out pamphlets that were printed at home. Now everybody's got a smartphone and there's lots of access to information and access to new ideas. I think he would have probably been attracted to the resistance committees. These groups of young people who categorically reject the continued rule of the military and the continued control of the military over everyday life and over economic life. Their power is in steadfast rejection of compromise. So, I think he would probably appreciate that conviction, that principle. They believe in themselves, and they're prepared to sacrifice for what they believe in, and that is quite a frightening power for this divisive and ugly Sudanese system of rule.