Abdullahi Ahmad an-Na‘im, 39, is a leading member of the Republicans (jumhurriyun), a Sudanese Islamic reform movement started by the late Mahmud Muhammad Taha. The Republicans (also known as Republican Brothers) advocate equality for women and for non-Muslims, which challenges head-on the traditional interpretation of Islamic law, or shari‘a. An-Na‘im compares Taha’s reform within Islam to that of Christianity’s Martin Luther.

President Ja‘far Numairi’s government jailed 50 Republican leaders, including Taha and an-Na‘im, without charges for 19 months in 1983-84. On their release, the Republicans continued to denounce Islamic laws imposed by Numairi during their detention. Numairi again ordered the arrest of Taha, 76, for heresy and offenses against the state. After a swift trial, Taha was executed in January 1985. The government closed down the homes of Taha’s disciples, burned their books and made it a capital offense to be a member of the Republicans. In March 1985, while President Numairi was visiting Washington, popular demonstrations and a general strike paralyzed the country. By April 6, army generals had deposed Numairi. (See “Sudan’s Revolutionary Spring,” Middle East Report 135, September 1985.)

A former law lecturer at the University of Khartoum, An-Na‘im teaches international human rights and Islamic law at the University of California in Los Angeles. His translation of Taha’s book, The Second Message of Islam, is published by Syracuse University Press. Judith Pierce interviewed him in Los Angeles in January and September, 1986.

What is the situation since the April 1986 elections?

The elections proved inconclusive, because many parts of the south did not take part at all. Results in the north reflect more or less the strength of the traditional parties of the mid-1960s, except for the phenomenal success of the fundamentalists, the so-called National Islamic Front, which achieved third place, especially among graduates. This is surprising, because the graduates last time [1965] voted overwhelmingly for the communists. I don’t believe that as a whole they are really that supportive of the fundamentalists. I suspect the supporters of the fundamentalists were very well organized and voted as a bloc, while the other graduate votes were dispersed and disorganized.

The two main political parties, the Umma and the Unionists, are both religiously based. Even Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi’s commitment to abolishing the Islamic laws of 1983-1984 — I really wonder whether he can abolish them without a promise to reintroduce them in some other form. I suspect he will abolish them but set up a commission to revise and to reintroduce them, because he is basically committed to the same line of thinking. Not only abolition of the Islamic laws but guarantees against their reintroduction in another form are essential for a settlement of the civil war in the south, which is in turn a prerequisite for economic development and political stability in the country as a whole.

People tend to highlight and dramatize the penal aspects of Islamic law — the hudood, the amputations — but as a matter of fact, the political and civil liberties implications are even more serious, because non-Muslims cannot be full citizens of an Islamic state. So long as political parties in the north are committed to applying traditional, historical Islamic shari‘a, non-Muslim Sudanese will be second-class citizens in their own country.

When and why did the Republicans originate?

It started as a political party in 1945, during British-Egyptian rule. Taha was one of the founders. It was started precisely to challenge both British-Egyptian rule and sectarian religious leadership of the nationalist movement.

A progressive religious orientation was present from the very beginning in the Republican Party, but it was not well articulated. Taha’s own experience in prison, where he was sent for two years in 1946 by the British, and his continued religious seclusion for another three years, enabled him to gain insights. He emerged in 1951 with his comprehensive theory for an evolution of Islamic legislation. Since 1951, the party has become an intellectual religious reform movement rather than a political party in the traditional sense. This explains the size and nature of its membership.

The hard-core membership has a wide range of age groups from all levels and strata of Sudanese society. But the majority are educated young men and women. Because of the radical nature of Taha’s theology and the far-reaching consequences of his reform methodology, not many people are willing to stand up and say they are fully committed — here you have to appreciate the extent of religious intimidation.

We challenge the automatic traditional sectarian following of the political parties such as the Umma and the Unionists which are allied to the Ansar and Khatmiyya, respectively. Offering an alternative Islamic ideology to replace that of the Muslim Brothers, we hope to reshape the political process in Sudan. We take a very poor view of what the military can do for our objectives, because a coup d’etat is definitely not the way to change social attitudes and behavior.

What do the Republicans believe?

We accept the totality of the Quran and the traditions but call for their reinterpretation. The content of the Quran revealed in the Mecca period features highly ethical principles — what we call the verses of ismah, peaceful conversion and freedom of choice. When that was rejected violently in Mecca and the Prophet was almost killed, he migrated to Medina. In Medina, he established the first Muslim polity. The verses revealed there were a response to the concrete realities of Arabia in the 7th century, where slavery was institutionalized and women were oppressed.

Mahmud Muhammad Taha maintained that in social and political dealings, Muslims should go back to the Mecca stage of the Quran, enacting into law principles of economic and social justice. The notion that the Medina stage should be regarded as the transitional stage had never really been suggested before. [Before Taha], the later [Medinan] verses were deemed to have abrogated the earlier [Meccan] verses from a legal viewpoint. Nobody thought it was possible to reverse the sequence. That’s basically Taha’s contribution to Islamic theology.

What about the shari‘a?

The shari‘a is not heavenly-revealed law in every aspect. It is what jurists in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries understood God and the Prophet to have meant. Any modern Muslim has the right to interpret the original sources.

A citizen’s rights should not be limited by his religious faith or lack of faith. We say it is impossible to maintain a constitutional government within the framework of shari‘a. Women’s rights are seriously threatened by shari‘a, but Muslim women find it extremely difficult to challenge shari‘a. The inequality of non-Muslims and women are not minor points within the shari‘a itself — these are fundamental points on which all Muslim schools of jurisprudence agree.

What success have the Republicans achieved?

The Republicans have successfully challenged established norms of social action and religious thinking, and raised fundamental questions which many Muslims may concede in private but are unwilling to debate in public.

The Republicans have also been able to live up to the standards they set — for example, religious tolerance and women’s equality. For instance, in the marriage contract the wife appoints one of the two arbiters. The bride price is the legal minimum of one Sudanese pound.

Although membership is very small in terms of hard-core members — about 1000, although no precise records are kept — there is a very wide circle of sympathizers.

The 18th of January — the date of Taha’s execution — was declared Arab Human Rights Day by the Arab Human Rights Organization. Thousands of intellectuals participated in the first anniversary of Taha’s execution with lectures, debates and exhibitions at the University of Khartoum faculty club. They are not all Republicans, but they all regard Taha as a symbol for intellectual and religious freedom.

What limitations do the Republicans face?

The magnitude of the break with traditional thinking and the intimidation and pressures, social and political, which the establishment is able to exercise on the mass of people, including intellectuals. We are a socialist, democratic movement, so we challenge the economic advantages and privileges of the elite as well as traditional political following. We do that through a radical religious philosophy. The traditional religious, political and patriarchal nature of society in Sudan are all united against us.

What was the impact of Taha’s execution on the movement to overthrow President Ja‘far Numairi?

I think it had a tremendous impact. Even people who disagreed with Taha’s point of view were revolted by the unfairness of the trial and its speed. His execution became a rallying point that led to the overthrow of Numairi. Economic difficulties and disaffection with Numairi were always there, but the spark which led to the movement that culminated in the overthrow of Numairi, I believe, was the execution of Taha.

Have there been any further prosecutions of Taha’s disciples?

Not yet, but the laws under which they can be prosecuted are still in force. The political climate for the time being does not seem to favor that. If Islamic laws were enforced strictly, we would be immediately liable for prosecution as heretics.

We have to remember that it was the same political leadership of today that banned the Sudanese Communist Party in the mid-1960s, and ejected its elected members from the parliament. It was this same Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi who disregarded the constitution and the ruling of the high court that the action was unconstitutional. That action, more than anything else, set the scene for Numairi’s coup of 1969.

Sadiq’s own political base is religious sectarian; traditional elements support him because he is the grandson of the Mahdi and not for his political platform. It is very significant that in the April 1986 elections Sadiq did not run in any of the enlightened educated centers — in the greater Khartoum area, for example — but placed himself as a candidate in the strongest traditional political hold, in the White Nile region. That shows that he is not confident of his ability to command political support in the urban and educated parts of the country.

Because he is the head of a sectarian party, I think time is not on his side. This may be the last time he will command a majority in the Assembly. When it comes to concrete policies, his inability to address the shari‘a question and the Southern question shows that he can’t really make a significant contribution in terms of ideology. The fundamentalists are more candid than he is in addressing the issues.

What about outside elements?

Many countries have a vested interest in Sudan. They will keep meddling in our internal affairs. You have Egypt, with its historical and very strong relationship with Sudan, which is strategic in terms of defense, development and agriculture. That is precisely why [Libya’s Muammar] Qaddafi is interested in Sudan. Qaddafi has his own expansionist designs on Sudan. At the same time, he is also targeting Sudan in order to undermine and threaten Egypt, from the back door as it were.

Saudi Arabia has had a very heavy presence in Sudan since the early 1970s, through the African Islamic Center in Khartoum and proselytizing throughout Africa from Khartoum. Saudi Arabia was very active for many years in supporting Numairi. At the same time, the Saudis have been close to the Muslim Brothers and the Wahhabis. Because of heavy Saudi financial support, the Wahhabis have been influential in business and in many Islamic centers throughout the country. The Saudis have been very significant in the establishment of so-called Islamic banks and institutions, such as the Faisal Islamic Bank and Dar al-Mal.

The Saudi government directly subsidizes oil and arms purchases. Saudi ruling family personalities are involved privately in business transactions with, for example, the Islamic banks. The mass detention of the Republicans and the execution of Taha were largely the result of Saudi pressure. Wide-scale Islamic proselytizing in the south is financed by Saudi money.

What about the influence of the World Islamic League?

That is one arm of the Saudi establishment, which has been influential because of its appearance as a worldwide non-governmental religious organization. When we speak about Saudi influence, we are speaking about the Saudi establishment, through organizations like the World Islamic League or through individuals of the Saudi ruling family.

Connections with the so-called Islamic financial institutions, such as Faisal Islamic Bank, provided very convenient avenues for channeling almost unlimited funds to Sudanese fundamentalists. And the performance of the fundamentalists in the last elections is largely due to the huge financial resources they were able to pour into the country. We heard rumors of very high prices paid for votes. The sheer size and volume of their machinery — publicity, transport, infrastructure and organization — is testimony to that dimension.

Who are the constituents of the fundamentalists?

They started with religious people who may be Sufi without belonging to the two major groups, Khatmiyya and Ansar, and also educated young people. Now, the so-called Islamic banking and insurance gives them access to the lower middle class and small business, who see economic advantage in allying themselves with the fundamentalists.

How to cite this article:

Judith Pierce "Sudan’s Republican Brothers," Middle East Report 147 (July/August 1987).

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