Dossier 19: The Discourse of the Ikhwan of Sudan and Secularism

Publication Author: 
Muhammad Mahmoud
February 1998
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The beginnings of the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (henceforth, Ikhwan) movement in Sudan may be traced back to the mid-1940s. This period witnessed the emergence of small student and popular-based groups.[1] As far as the latter are concerned we find that their commitment was the outcome of two direct influences: the interest that the Egyptian al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun was taking in Sudan (owning partly to the fact that Egypt was a partner alongside Great Britain in the Condominium arrangement) and the ferment of the Sudanese nationalist movement that expressed itself partly in terms of an Islamist and Arabist identification.

However, the most pressing matter for these forerunners of the Ikhwan was not the issue of secularization of Islamic polity but rather the national question of determining the country's future. In contrast, the student group showed a more pronounced ideological orientation, and this may be attributed to the specific circumstances of its inception as it grew largely in reaction to the growth of the communist left among the students. What made Marxism uninviting for them was its atheism. They argued that Islam was a 'comprehensive' religion that addressed the concerns and problems of this world (as opposed to the 'hereafter'), and in insisting upon an intrinsic complementarity between the religious and the worldly in Islam they were decidedly anti-secularist.

However, their hostility to Marxism did not prevent them from borrowing considerably from its sources and so they maintained that Islam was a 'socialist' religion and formulated a programme that called for the abolition of feudalist and capitalist relations of production in the Sudan and for taking the means of production into social ownership. The confrontation with the communists had thus produced an 'Islamist' left – a situation that was bound to invite a backlash. By the early 1950s the mainstream of the Islamist student movement was showing determined signs of distancing itself from the 'socialist' rendering of Islam and, when in 1954 a founding conference was convened, a conservative trend emerged as the victor and the decisive shaping force of the Ikhwan's political destiny.

The first stiff challenge that the nascent Ikhwan movement had to face was the constitution debate between 1955 and 1958. The Ikhwan called for an 'Islamic constitution' and promulgated a model for this. The salient Islamic features in this document were provisions for Islam as the state religion, for sharia (Islamic canonical law) as the source of legislation, the prohibition of riba (usury), and the charging of the state with the collection of zakat (alms tax).[2] The document was clearly modelled on Western constitutions and based on the acceptance of the Sudanese state within its recognized territorial boundaries, without insisting on a distinctive 'Islamic' concept of state.

The Ikhwan's campaign during this period succeeded in grafting its discourse on to the wider national political discourse. The extent of this success was evident in 1968 when the Draft Permanent Constitution was produced, turning out to be 'more Islamic than the 1958 draft'.[3] To understand this development we must take into account the overall context of the Sudanese political scene between 1964 and 1969. This was a time of multi-party democracy and the Ikhwan was gradually growing out of its pressure-group phase and entering a party formation phase. Its major achievement was spearheading a vigorous campaign that led to the dissolution of the Sudanese Communist Party in December 1965. The pretext for this highly political act was 'religious': the communists were atheists. The hitherto secularized nature of the dominant political discourse in the country, notwithstanding the religious basis of the two major parties, al-Umma and the Democratic Unionists, underwent a radical shift after this event. Henceforth, the politics of 'Islamization', and particularly in its strident sharia version, grew into an active, aggressive component in the political struggle, so much so that by the mid-1980s sharia became the foremost divisive issue in Sudanese politics.

The May 1969 coup d'état of Colonel Jaafar Nimeiru started off as a left-oriented affair but ended up veering in the opposite direction and adopting sharia. The bloody confrontation between the regime and its opposition in the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionists and the Ikhwan led eventually to a reconciliation between the regime, the Umma Party and the Ikhwan in 1977. It was, however, the Ikhwan which profited most from this development. The movement assumed a decidedly capitalist nature, channelling a great deal of its energies into banking and commercial activities, while conducting an extensive, low-profile campaign to win over new recruits. The dramatic shift occurred, however, in September 1983 when President Nimeiri announced the implementation of sharia with immediate effect. By April 1984, the process had gathered full momentum and a state of emergency was announced.

With the Ikhwan acting as the regime's judicial right-hand, Northern Sudan was plunged into a full sharia rigour and by March 1985, when the regime was brought down, there had been 106 amputations of hands including seventeen cross-limbs (i.e. amputation of right hand and left foot), the number of floggings ran into thousands,[4] and Ustadh Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, the founder of the Islamic Republican Party who had called for a blend of social democracy and mysticism, was hanged on a charge of apostasy.[5] The civil war in the South was in full swing, with amounting civilian and military death toll and an unprecedented harrowing displacement of ever-growing masses of people.

Between 1985 and 1989, the North-South divide was reduced to the question of sharia. This bestowed upon the Ikhwan, who emerged as the third parliamentary force, a unique political significance. The prevalent political balance and the momentum of the secular campaign against the Islamization of the law led, however, to a moratorium on sharia. When it became evident that this state of affairs and other political developments might favour a dismantling of Islamic law, the Ikhwan swiftly moved in and staged a coup d'état in June 1989.

A Blueprint for an Islamic State

In exploring the Ikhwan's ideological perspective, we shall concentrate on the writings of Dr Hasan Abd Allah al-Turabi (b. 1932), the movement's political leader and principal ideologue. Turabi's formal education was entirely secular, since he had studied law at the Universities of Khartoum, London and Paris. Since 1965 he has dominated the movement and succeeded in moulding it in his own image. He has been greatly helped in this by his personal abilities and by the weakness of the representation of the ulama (theologians and experts on sharia) class in the movement. This section will deal with Turabi's concept of the Islamic state, his project concerning the reform of Islamic legal thinking, and his position on women, which is meant to demonstrate his practical fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and the constraints which are placed on it.

The Ikhwan's set purpose has been the establishment of an Islamic state, which is projected as the highest expression of an Islamic society. Secularization as a process that separates the practice of politics and the running of government from the concepts, precepts, values and injunctions of the religion of Islam has always been anathematized by the Ikhwan. In explaining the dialectic that relates state to society, Turabi says: The state is only the political expression of an Islamic society. You cannot have an Islamic state except insofar that you have an Islamic society. Any attempt at establishing a political order for the establishment of a genuine Islamic society would be the superimposition of laws over a reluctant society.[6] Turabi establishes a clear sequence here: as an 'expression' the state comes after the creation of a genuine Islamic society. But how does such a genuine Islamic society come into being in the first place? According to Turabi, this takes place in the course of a natural and relentless process of pervasive 'Islamization' that constitutes the destiny of all Muslim societies. Its substance is an assertive 'religious energy' and it is through political organization that this process assumes its historical expression.

In expounding the ideological foundations of his state, Turabi points out that the Islamic doctrine of tawhid (God's unity) is the creedal basis that determines its intrinsically religious nature and makes it decidedly anti-secular. In elaborating this, he asserts: 'All public life in Islam is religious, being permeated by the experience of the divine. Its function is to pursue the service of God as expressed in a concrete way in the sharia…'[7] He is certainly aware of what he describes as 'elements of secularisation in the political conduct of Muslims', but he is quick to point out that the redeeming virtue of Muslims (as opposed to Christians) is that they often recognize the 'gap' between their practice and the Islamic 'ideal' as enshrined in the Qur’an and the Sunna (Prophetic guidance).

In dealing with his state's physical attributes, Turabi addresses himself to: a. people; b. territory; and c. sovereignty. In the light of the Islamic concept of umma (the community of believers), he finds the phrase 'Islamic state' a bit of a misnomer, since the state is 'only the political dimension of the collective endeavour of Muslims'.[8] This judgement is based on the way sharia is supposed to operate, since it depends only partly on the state's sanctions and is mostly left to the 'free conscience of believers' or (maybe more effectively) to the 'informal means of social control'. In placing this final emphasis on sharia and in stressing its relative independence from the state, Turabi adopts a minimalist position in portraying his state. With sharia as an ultimate source of the umma's cohesiveness and the state's legitimacy, it seems that Turabi's logic implies that sharia is the foundational element in defining his state; it is the element through the agency of which the neutral/secular category of 'people' is transformed into the Islamic category of umma.

However, Islam being a universal religion, there is only one umma and consequently one state. The umma's unity is predicated on the unity of God and hence nationalism cannot be accommodated within Turabi's scheme. Likewise, territory has no place since the Islamic state is theoretically not limited by any territorial boundaries. Furthermore, the centrality of sharia makes Turabi's state one that is neither absolute nor sovereign.

Turabi characterizes his state as republican and as a representative democracy. He is, however, careful to emphasize that an Islamic republic is not 'strictly speaking a direct government of and by the people; it is a government of the sharia'.[9] Bearing his Western readership in mind, Turabi chooses his words carefully in order to play down the 'theocratic' nature of his state, which is supposed to represent divine will as opposed to the will of the people. Shura (consultation) is the Islamic formula for democracy as it guarantees a fair distribution of political power, which should coalesce with a fair distribution of wealth. Turabi's state is a Sunnite state that does not allow for an Iranian-like vilayat-i faqih (guardianship or government by the expert theologians), which he derides as an 'elitist or theocratic government'.[10] In addition, the Islamic state according to his scheme is not a patriarchal affair that excludes women.

Turabi does not rule out a multi-party system outright, but he prefers what amounts to a one-party system that seeks to govern through consensus politics. An important feature that brackets his state with modern states and decidedly distances it from the classical Islamic state is his suggestion that it establish complete legal codes. The legal codes would no longer emanate from the jurists as in the past, but from the state.[11] The implication of his minimalist leaning is abandoned here in favour of direct governmental and centralized intervention. Showing the influence of his own education and inspired by the example of early Muslims who had to cope with the problems of their expanding imperial realm, Turabi adopts a flexible approach to legislation: Any form or procedures for the organisation of public life that can be ultimately related to God and put to his service in furtherance of the aims of Islamic government can be adopted unless expressly excluded by the shariah. Once so received, it is an integral part of Islam, whatever its source may be.[12] In dealing with the status of religious minorities within his state, Turabi assures them the sanctity of their basic rights and invokes the example of the Medina state under Prophet Muhammad.

Addressing the same theme of the Islamic state in a paper presented in Khartoum in 1987, Turabi treats his subject with a different approach. His tone is characterized this time by an intense sense of self-righteousness and his statements exhibit a marked disdain for some of the concepts he had previously espoused, such as democracy. He maintains that all Muslim governments subsequent to the Medina state deviated from the prescribed norm and that all existing Muslim governments are devoid of legitimacy owing to their 'irreligiosity'.[13] The influence of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb is evident in this tendency to hereticate existing governments and to demand the acceptance of the Islamist project as a precondition for accepting their legitimacy.

Another significant Qutbite feature is Turabi's commitment to the elitist 'vanguard' formula, whereby an Islamist vanguard organizes itself with the express intention of 'Islamizing' the rest of society (and of course, ultimately, the whole of mankind). All means are open to this vanguard, including jihad (war in the cause of Islam, whether offensive or defensive) against its enemies.[14] He argues that once this vanguard has taken power and once Islam has governed, then all human ills will find their solutions - secular ideologies like democracy and socialism have failed and the only feasible formula is that of the Islamist programme, the twin pillars of which are tawhid and sharia.

Turabi poses a 'universal model' which is largely divorced from the concrete history of the Islamic state from its foundation under the Prophet to the dissolution of the Caliphate. An example that is dear to his heart is the way non-Muslims fared under the Prophet's state. It is noteworthy that his references to the status of Jews and non-Muslim Arabs during that period consistently expurgate the problems experienced during it and the bloody confrontation that led to the virtual eradication of Jews from the Arabian Peninsula and the forcible imposition of the new religion on the Arab polytheists.

When Turabi turns to inter-state or international relations, he is at his weakest and vaguest due to his assumption that his state is an embodiment of a divine plan and as such its frontiers must coincide with those of the world. As soon as he shifts to the non-homogeneous terrain of non-Muslims, his scheme shows less confidence and this is quite evident in the emotional nature his argument assumes when he addresses Christians living under his Islamic state: Christians in particular who now, at least, do not seem to have a public law, should not mind the application of Islamic law as long as it does not interfere with their religion. It is a moral based on values which are common and more akin to Christian values than any secular law - Caesar's law.[15] In dealing with Christians and non-Muslims Turabi avoids the use of terms such as dhimmis (non-Muslims subject to the Islamic state), kharaj and jizya (taxes exacted from non-Muslims). This gives an idea of the change that his movement's discourse has perceptibly undergone.

Though he stated triumphantly in 1979 that his movement had eliminated secularism in Sudan,[16] the movement's discourse and some of its stated policies clearly demonstrate the inroads of secularism. Two examples may suffice in this connection: the first concerns non-Muslims and their holding of public offices under sharia. Contrary to their formerly-stated position about the ineligibility of a non-Muslim to hold positions of legal power over Muslims or become president of the republic, the Ikhwan announced in a document that appeared in 1987 under the title 'Sudan Charter: national unity and diversity' that 'none shall be barred from any public office, only because of his adherence to any religious affiliation'.[17] The second example concerns the federal formula which the movement had put forward in the aforementioned Charter and which constitutes the basis of the movement's proposed plan for the ending of the present civil war in Sudan. According to this plan, the implementation of a federal system entails a legal division whereby Northern Sudan (mainly Muslim) shall be subject to sharia while Southern Sudan (subscribing mainly to traditional African religions and Christianity) shall be subject to secular laws. Consequently, Muslims who reside in the South shall be outside sharia jurisdiction, whereas non- Muslims who live in the North shall be subject to sharia. Though this proposal is rejected by non-Muslims in the Sudan because of the discriminatory nature of sharia, it undoubtedly represents a daring break on the part of the Ikhwan with sharia as it has been historically practised and conceived.[18] Since there is a powerful secular trend in Sudan that opposes and abhors discrimination on the basis of religion, it is reasonable to assume that the Ikhwan was directly influenced by it on both counts. However, to make this position plausible, Turabi and his movement had to argue from within the Muslim tradition in terms of a different perspective.

The Necessity for a Revitalized Fiqh

In his writings and talks, Turabi does not just present himself as an advocate for the revival of Islam or as a fundamentalist in the sense of simply going back to the 'fundamentals', but primarily as an exponent of tajdid (renewal, reform). He does not of course conceal his dissatisfaction with the decadent and abject conditions of contemporary Muslims and does not fail to point out the role of imperialism in this. He is, however, equally critical of the internal problem of juridical and intellectual stagnation and rigidity on the part of the Islamic schools of fiqh. In a seminal tract entitled Manajiyyat al-Tashri fi al-Islam (The Methodology of Legislation in Islam, 1987) Turabi maintains that the condition of Islamic decadence has degenerated to such a level that it no longer suffices to open the gate of ijtihad (independent judgement) but that it is necessary to address the central question of methodology. An established methodology approved by present-day Muslims would serve as a general framework within which ijtihad could be exercised and as a yardstick against which opinions could be verified and differences harmonized.

He draws the traditional sharp distinction between the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna on one hand (as the two permanent, most reliable sources that are not subject to the mutability of history and that constitute the essence of the Divine plan for the guidance of man) and fiqh on the other hand, which is a human response to the problems arising within a specific historical context. The body of fiqh and its devised foundations are human kasb (acquired knowledge) which retain authority insofar as they respond adequately to human needs. The classical science of usul al-fiqh (the foundations of jurisprudence) was largely influenced by Greek formal logic and was such a highly formalized and abstract activity that it soon divorced itself from its social environment, thus failing to produce a living and adaptable fiqh. Turabi recognizes that the Muslims are nowadays under the cultural hegemony of modern Western culture, with what he describes as its 'logical positivist, relativist, and empirical methodologies', a circumstance that is bound to affect them. Just as the Muslim jurists opened themselves to Greek influences in the past, he is quite willing to follow their example of istishab (preference) and open his usual blueprint to Modern Western influences.[19]

In outlining his position, Turabi starts off from the familiar Islamist assertion that all activities comprising the totality of human life should be subjected to religious legislation. This he bases on the Islamic premise of a unity of God. The criticism that he levels against classical fiqh is based on his preference for an all-embracing fiqh scope. He lashes against the classical jurists for having produced a fiqh system that tended to operate exclusively within the sphere of private life. Fiqh, consequently, grew less and less concerned with public issues pertaining to the running of the state. Turabi thus envisages a fiqh that extends to politics as well.[20]

Who is going to produce such a fiqh? As one might expect, Turabi, seasoned politician that he is, would be reluctant to leave this crucial matter with its vital role in his projected Islamic polity solely in the hands of the specialized class of fiqh scholars and to the independent internal mechanisms of the discipline. He would rather control and direct the fiqh process himself. In Turabi's Islamic state the sultan, or the executive power, is not only charged with taking decisions but can also make laws and, as such, actively contribute to the making of fiqh. In the power structure he outlines, fiqh scholars outside the governmental judiciary system are not formally recognized. Furthermore, he advances a populist view designed to undermine the status and the role of the ulama. He argues that Islam does not recognize a specializes class of scholars who are invested with the powers of instructing Muslims and legislating for them. This anti-clerical position may be encountered in the pronouncements of many modern Islamists and Turabi uses it in order to forestall any potential discord or threat that an independent ulama body might pose to his state.[21]

In dealing with problems such as the appeal to authority as opposed to the appeal to reason, or the dependency on received tradition as opposed to the freedom of innovation, Turabi is careful not to dissociate himself altogether from the traditional Sunnite position, while stressing at the same time the necessity for adopting a more flexible and open attitude.[22]

The position he propounds makes no appeal to any of the existing juridical schools. On the contrary, Turabi believes that the challenges facing Muslims today and the pressure of Islamic resurgence make it incumbent upon Muslims to throw their respective schools to the winds and seek a unitarian position.

It may be argued that the weakness in Turabi's proposed methodological perspective is that, despite his constant awareness of the historical relativity of fiqh and its schools, he does not apply the same measure to the Qur’anic text and the Sunna traditions which are treated as meta-historical frames of reference. This places a clear limit on his attempt at renewal and modernization which claims to derive its authority from these sources. To make a better assessment of his dilemma, we will turn to his treatment of a specific problem in order to explore the nature of his fiqh.

Women as a Case in Point

In 1973, Turabi brought out a tract entitled Al-Marr'a fi Taalim al-Islam ('Women in the Teachings of Islam'). This tract came out in the atmosphere of a heightened political and ideological confrontation between the Ikhwan and the Left on the campus of the University of Khartoum in the early 1970s. It was clear for Turabi that the movement's subscription to the traditional Islamic position of insisting on the inferiority of women and their marginalization was doing it a great deal of damage and that it was losing the battle with feminism. Owing to the sensitivity of the subject and the entrenched Islamic conservatism attached to it, Turabi circulated the tract before its publication, by way of testing the water without putting his name to it. It was reportedly shown to the influential Egyptian Islamist, Muhammad al-Ghazali, an Azharite scholar, who gave it his seal of approval.[23]

Turabi's line of argument is 'fundamentalist' in the sense that he assumes an 'original' Islamic condition where women enjoyed an 'ideal' status of equality and active social and political involvement. This ideal condition was followed by a 'fall' which characterized Muslim societies, allowing for the creeping in and dominance of deep-rooted prejudices against women. The 'original' Islamic condition is enshrined in the pronouncements of the Qur’an and epitomized by the Prophetic tradition. The Medinan model Islamic society set by the Prophet was later deviated from and betrayed, the Qur’anic and Prophetic precepts ignored and distorted, and so the Islamic feminist revolution never really came of age.

In the course of his argument, Turabi moves on two levels: creedal and juridical. On the creedal level he asserts that the call of Islam is addressed to both male and female, that religious duties and obligations constitute personal responsibilities that cannot be performed by proxy, and that on the Day of Judgement women earn reward or punishment on the basis of their individual accountability. On the juridical level, Turabi dismisses the hijab (veil) and argues that it is an anomalous institution meant only for the Prophet's wives owing to their distinctive status as 'mothers of the believers'. Consequently, he fervently argues in favour of desegregation which he deems the 'normal' Islamic condition.[24]

To drive his point and prove his case, Turabi marshals his evidence. During the Prophetic era, women were allowed to participate in congregational prayer and they took an active role in military expeditions. They took part in the tawaf (circumambulation) ritual alongside men during the pilgrimage, were present at public festivals, and were free to receive guests in their homes and entertain them. A Muslim woman may own property, take an active part in the community's economic life, and has the right to acquire education. When the opinions of Muslims were sought to decide on the favourite caliph after the assassination of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, women were included in the consultation process.[25]

In dealing with the vexed question of whether it is permissible to greet women by shaking hands, Turabi is on the liberal side, though he cautiously warns that it should take place in a 'chaste' atmosphere. The tradition deployed by the conservatives, in which the Prophet is reported to have said, 'I do not shake hands with women', is discounted by Turabi as referring to a practice that is unique to the Prophet and not applicable to the rest of the umma.

Nevertheless, Turabi upholds many of the restrictions laid down by sharia. So, women should dress in strict accordance with what is stipulated in the Qur’an: covering the whole body except the face and the hands. Men and women should not meet in private, and in the absence of her husband a woman should not meet a man except in the presence of one or two other men. Men and women are not allowed to look (sic) at each other lest illicit sexual desires be aroused. In congregations, where man and women gather, a distance between them should be maintained. This distance should also be rigidly maintained in public thoroughfares where women should not walk in the middle of the road but keep to the sides. In mosques, women should have a special entrance. Closely allied to women's potential sexual seductiveness is the stipulation that they should not pass by men when wearing perfume.[26]

It is noteworthy that Turabi's treatment circumvents the discomfiting issues that testify to some aspects of sharia discrimination against women. The legal capacity of a woman to be head of state is never discussed. It is doubtful whether any modern Muslim can discuss the question of women credibly without bringing up the issue of their political role.[27] As a movement, the Ikhwan did in fact come to terms with the political role of women in Sudan, but up to now it has not addressed the wider juridical implications of this role.[28]

Like the rest of Islamic revivalists, Turabi offers up the Prophetic society of Medina as an ideal model for every time and every place. It may, however, be argued that this proposed ideal presents modern Muslims with a problematic situation. Let us, for instance, take Turabi's reference to the participation of women in congregational prayers as a model of desegregation and examine it more closely.

The Medina mosque was in fact a tripartite space of ritualized and sexist segregation where men occupied their designated front space and women occupied their assigned rear space, with an empty space in the middle dividing the two sexes. It is thus unlikely that the Medina mosque would be looked upon as a viable model of desegregation in the modern sense, where desegregation means the free movement of men and women within a shared space. An important question related to women and congregational prayer is whether they can lead the prayer. Though the issue has not been conspicuously raised by Muslim feminists, one may envisage that they might put it forward at some point in the future. Just as this question proved to be problematic and divisive in the contexts of modern Judaism and Christianity, so it is likely to be, if not more so, in the context of modern Islam.

Furthermore, other issues concerning problematic aspects of the status of women under sharia are disregarded by Turabi: for example, the question of their testimony is not accepted at all in criminal lawsuits. Neither can a woman function as a judge according to the majority of scholars. One school of fiqh maintained, however, that women can act as judges in civil but not criminal courts.[29] The secular nature of the Sudanese educational system has produced a good number of women lawyers and judges, and this is likely to present the Ikhwan's Islamist project with a practical challenge if it moves in the direction of barring women from the legal profession.

The question of inheritance is one of those issues on which Turabi is likewise silent. His assertion that women can own property and take an active part in economic life raises questions about their legal rights as active economic agents who contribute their share in the creation of social wealth. The fact that Sudanese women have been an active productive force in the traditional sector and that an increasingly growing number of them are gaining education and becoming part of the productive force in the modern sector is bound to highlight the problem of the present inheritance laws.[30] Hence, any Islamist reform programme is likely to find itself under great pressure to take this into account.

Turabi is at his best when he writes about family law. It may, however, be argued that the ideal image he projects of the Muslim family is rooted far more in the values of the educated, urbanized middle class of Sudan rather than in those of seventh-century Islamic Arabia. In such a family, polygamy, for instance, is anathematized and is described as a 'thing of the past'. And in a such a family the beating of a wife for 'disobedience', a measure enjoined by the Qur’an, is unacceptable. Both the problems of polygamy and beating as a corrective measure are notably absent from Turabi's treatment.

The multi-religious context of Sudan also raises a problem that does not figure in Turabi's discussion: namely, whether a Muslim woman has the right to marry a non-Muslim. In many African countries the sharia stipulation that a Muslim woman can marry only a Muslim has been flouted, and there are examples of this in Southern and Western Sudan.[31] Turabi's treatment is characterized by a serious deficiency in his failure to take into account the scope of the change in the status of women and some of their most pressing needs. It should, however, be pointed out that his education and physical and intellectual contact with the West have made him more amenable to the pressures and exigencies of modernization and hence he demonstrates a higher degree of awareness of the dilemmas of sharia vis-à-vis women. He tries to meet the modernist challenge at a point of his own choosing in order to avoid a calamitous collision. However, he is entangled in the poignant predicament of many a Muslim reformer: the pressing challenges posed by the 'outside' (modernization being one of its manifestations) are so pervasive and overwhelming, that a systematic coming-to-terms with them will lead to perceptible divergences from the received tradition which is constantly projected as comprehensive and capable of tackling all problems irrespective of time or place.

The Islamist impulse has always expressed itself in terms of an 'idealist' project, in the sense of aspiring and striving to transform existing social reality by subordinating it strictly to a given 'ideal'. In the demonology of Islamists, secularism has come to represent a 'grand Satan' since it 'compartmentalizes' Islam and excludes it from politics and the organization of social life in accordance with its precepts. Secularization is further held responsible for the fragmentation of the umma into 'nations', thus serving the designs of the enemies of Islam.

Although the Ikhwan movement in Sudan subscribes to the Islamist universalist ideal, its leaders have been pragmatic enough to insist on indigenizing their movement and giving it a distinctly 'Sudanese' character.[32] This earned the movement political success, but in the process another perceptible transformation took place. When the movement started in the 1950s and 1960s it saw itself as a 'moral force' that aspired to 'religionize' politics. By the late 1970s and 1980s the movement had established itself as a political, economic and social force to be reckoned with, but the more it submerged itself in the quagmire of power politics, the more it became evident that the movement was, rather, about 'politicizing' religion. The nature of Sudanese Islam, which is characterized by its tolerance and disregard for sharia except in the areas of personal status law and inheritance, and Sudanese politics, which has inclined towards secularism as an acceptable and fair formula that accommodates the country's religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity, have together created a context that inheres powerful resistance to Islamization whether in its revivalist or fundamentalist versions.

Between 1985 and 1989, the Ikhwan made repeated assurances that it accepted liberal democracy as a framework within which it wanted to push its programme through. In June 1989, it turned its back on those assurances and decided to impose its 'ideal' through the naked and brutal force of a military regime. The manner of the Ikhwan's seizure of power and the way in which it has so far run the country, do not demonstrate any intrinsic differences between their 'Islamic' regime and other military regimes in developing countries.

Sudan's great diversity and its present intractable political, economic and social problems have confronted the Ikhwan with serious dilemmas that are increasingly proving recalcitrant. The harsh irony may turn out to be that the Ikhwan are in a better position to thrive (and even flourish under certain circumstances) as long as they hold up an 'idealised' and 'unrealised' promise of a 'final Islamic solution', but that once in power, they are very likely to lose their appeal rapidly and their Islam-based ideological authority may be seriously questioned and challenged.


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Reprinted with permission from: David Westerlund (ed.) Questioning the Secular State: The Worldwide Resurgence of Religion in Politics, London: C. Hurst & Co., 1996, pp. 167-82.

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[1] Ahmad 1982: 6-15; al-Turabi 1991a: 27ff; el-Affendi 1991: 46-52.

[2] Ahmad 1982: 46f.

[3] Kok 1991: 240.

[4] Khalid 1990: 310.

[5] For more discussions of the period of Islamization under Nimeiri, see Khalid 1985, Esposito 1988, Delmet 1990, Fluehr-Lobban 1990, and Warburg 1990. For an informative and balanced account of the execution of Ustadh Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, see Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im's introduction in Taha 1987.

[6] Turabi 1983: 241.

[7] Ibid.: 242.

[8] Ibid.: 243.

[9] Ibid.: 244.

[10] Ibid.: 244.

[11] Ibid.: 246.

[12] Ibid.: 249.

[13] al-Turabi 1987b: 23.

[14] Ibid. 50-7. The leaders of the Ikhwan were apprehensive about the revolutionary implications of Sayyid Qutb's ideas and so they distanced themselves from them. Nevertheless, Qutb continued to exert a considerable influence and some of his ideas were incorporated into the Ikhwan's active discourse. See al-Turabi 1991a: 241 and Hamid 1989: 138.

[15] Turabi 1983: 250.

[16] Quoted in Voll 1983: 135.

[17] Quoted in Niblock 1991: 264.

[18] This observation should, however, be qualified. In the nineteenth century the Ottomans engaged in a legal reform that modified some aspects of sharia in favour of dhimmis. The reform was limited but it provided a basis for a new approach to the question of religious minorities. For a discussion see Ye'or 1985: 56f.

[19] al-Turabi 1987a: 14.

[20] Ibid.: 19.

[21] The ulama have generally tended to ally themselves to the state and this association has earned them the bitter scorn of the radical Islamists in many countries. For the disenchantment of the Ikhwan in Egypt and Syria with the ulama, see Sivan 1985: 50-3.

[22] al-Turabi 1987a: 37-43.

[23] See Turabi 1991b: 2.

[24] Ibid.: 27.

[25] Ibid.: 20.

[26] Ibid.: 32-5.

[27] For an investigative and polemical treatment of the issue of women and political power in Islam, see Mernissi 1991. The Moroccan author's feminist consciousness crossed a new threshold when she decided to grapple with this theme and her views express an emerging feminist sensibility that questions the image of women in traditional Islamic sources and most of what has been produced by modern revivalists.

[28] For a recent account of the gender politics of the Sudanese Ikhwan, see Hale 1992.

[29] See al-Zuhayli 1984: 482f.

[30] For a good account of women's education and its social impact, see Hall and Ismail 1981: 50-79, 213-22.

[31] For an example of a court case involving a marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim, see Fluehr-Lobban 1987: 132f.

[32] The movement's constitution mentions explicitly its 'Sudanese' nature. See Makki 1990: 371. For the differences between the Sudanese and the Egyptian Ikhwan movement over the question of amalgamation into a pan-Islamist movement, see Hamid 1989: 121.