Author: Kellen Peck
On January 18, 1985, in Khartoum, Sudan, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was hanged for his Islamic convictions. He outspokenly opposed the contemporary application of Sharia because of its injustice and violence; through Sharia, by an accusation of apostasy, Sudanese and Egyptian officials condemned him to death. How did Taha’s moderate, pacifist Islamic message constitute a threat to the Sudanese government, warranting his death? Part one in this two-part series will provide a brief history of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s life and examine his controversial claims about the nature of Islam as laid out in his book, The Second Message of Islam. Part two will analyze these claims and assess the efficacy of his teaching and the success of the movement he began.
Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was born around 1909 in a small town on the Blue Nile of Sudan. His parents died when he was young, leaving Mahmoud and his siblings with extended family, and Mahmoud was the only one of his siblings to pass the demanding educational system, graduating from Gordon Memorial College with an engineering degree in 1936. He participated in the nationalist struggle for independence in the late 1930s, and was dissatisfied with the political parties of the time, as they seemed willing to accept the yoke of colonialism, which compromised the cause for true independence and a Sudanese republic. Mahmoud Taha, with a group of intellectuals, formed the Republican Party in 1945, in response to these perceived grievances.
The party openly confronted the colonial authorities, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of their leader, Taha, and several other members, only a year after the party’s inception. Taha began his pattern of defying the government by refusing to abstain from advancing political propaganda against the colonial government, and he was repeatedly imprisoned. During the two-year sentence of his second imprisonment, Taha began a stringent regimen of prayer, fasting, and meditation. He purportedly practiced the samadi fast in prison for twenty-nine days, a complete fast from eating and drinking. The British authorities didn’t believe anyone could fast so entirely, so they weighed his bathwater before and after his bath to determine whether he was drinking it. After he was released to his home in Rufa’h, he continued a self-imposed religious seclusion (khalwah), and these meditations led to his unique insights on the interpretation of the Quran and its application. By 1951, at the end of his period of seclusion, Ustadh (“revered teacher”) Taha began to present his vision of a reformed Islam, which he termed “the Second Message of Islam.”
The Republican political party which he had formed became the Republican Brothers, a group of followers who propagated this new vision. He sought to make the Republican Brothers a microcosm of his vision for Islamic society as a whole, and its members strove to conform their individual lives to a high standard of morality. They also maintained an unabashed ethic of equality regardless of race or sex; thus, female members of the group were full participants and highly active proponents of Taha’s teaching.
Taha and the Republican Brothers faced increasing opposition until 1985. His public lectures were banned in 1973. The Republican Brotherhood had supported then-President Numeiri for over ten years, despite Numeiri’s ban on Taha’s public activities, but the impending conflict between the President and the Brotherhood became unbearable when President Numeiri announced his intention to impose Sharia and the Islamization of the state. The Republican Brotherhood published a leaflet campaigning against the Islamization policy, calling for a repeal of the edict and a halting of bloodshed. Less than two weeks later, Taha was arrested with four other Republicans. He was charged with apostasy, although apostasy was not a crime in the 1983 Islamic Laws of the court. His sentence raises the question as to the nature of his beliefs: How did they constitute a crime worthy of the death penalty?
Summary of The Second Message of Islam
In order to evaluate whether or not Taha’s controversial reading of the Quran has merit, or why the Sudanese government considered him a threat, we must first understand his most fundamental work, The Second Message of Islam. In this work, he charts an evolutionary history of religion, beginning with the most primitive polytheistic religions, progressing to the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, and culminating with the crown of all religions, Islam. Taha believed that the Torah demanded retribution, and because this religion is intertwined with the aggression of the primitive human self, it could not promote such concepts as forgiveness. Taha perceived that Jesus overdeveloped the precepts of the Torah to the extent that his teachings of forgiveness could not be appreciated because his base audience was still bound to retributive justice. According to Taha, Islam “represents an equilibrium between the two extremes of the lack and the excess.” Islam is the straight path between the extremes, “one deserving of God’s anger because of its lack of spirituality, and the other gone astray because of its extreme and excessive spirituality.”
Thus, in conjunction with mankind’s evolution, religion evolved toward the implementation of the true religion, Islam. But Taha believes even the Quran presented a message too “extreme” for its historical setting. Taha considered the Meccan and Medinan texts to represent two different Qurans, due to the contexts of their respective audiences. The Meccan chapters begin with the address, “O Mankind,” which corresponds to their universal scope, while the Medinan chapters begin, “O Believers,” which addresses a particular nation. He argues that the Meccan Quran initially invited mankind to adopt Islam in an ultimate sense, but the first followers demonstrated themselves to be inadequate by failing to fulfill Islam’s obligations. Thus, Taha declares the scope of address was narrowed and the subject matter replaced with a subsidiary one in accordance with the audience’s abilities. Taha holds that Islam used persuasion for thirteen years to propagate the true nature of religion, but its audience proved themselves unable to meet the religious standards, so the Prophet was appointed their tutor until mankind “came of age.”
Taha illustrates the descent of Quranic injunctions to the level appropriate to the limitations of the audience: “O believers, fear God as he ought to be feared, and become true submitters before you die” (3:102). To this, the believers responded, “which of us can fear God as he ought to be feared?” The Quran later answered, “Fear God as much as you can, listen and obey and pay alms, as is good for yourselves, and those who are rid of their own selfishness are the truly successful ones” (64:16). The first injunction is clearly the objective, while the second is a subsidiary precept. When the first command was shown to be impractical for the contemporary audience, that objective was postponed in favor of implementing the subsidiary precept. However, when both the individual and collective human society becomes mature, the original precept will be restored.  Taha writes,
Thus we reach an extremely important conclusion: many aspects of the present Islamic Sharia are not the original principles or objectives of Islam. They merely reflect a descent in accordance with the circumstances of the time and the limitations of human ability.
The jihad verses can be explained with this understanding. Taha argues that, at the time of revelation, his audience persisted in the wickedness of their polytheistic religions, and their only law was the sword. Verses such as Surah 8:21–22 (“Then remind them, as you are only a reminder. You have no dominion over them”) were abrogated by jihadist verses of compulsion due to historical circumstances and human inadequacy.
Like jihad, slavery, capitalism, and the inequality of women are all foreign to the original precepts of Islam, according to Taha. The slavery which society at the time inherited from pre-Islamic eras could not be abolished by a single law, as “the needs of the enslaved individuals, as well as the social and economic needs of the community, necessitated the maintenance of the system.” This suggested a period of development and transition until slaves could live independently in society. Furthermore, Taha suggests that Islamic law instituted rights and commanded proper treatment of slaves, in a way previously unknown.  Capitalism, likewise, is not an original Islamic principle. Taha argues that Islam prescribes joint possession of property to ensure that every person’s basic needs are met. He asserts the Prophet himself exemplified this precept, but Islam came to a people with no concept of sharing. Thus, Islamic regulation does not uphold Islam’s real socialist objective; instead, the regulation acquaints Muslims with the idea of joint possession through zakat, which became one of the pillars of Islam.
Islam’s original precept, according to Taha, was complete equality between men and women, as each are judged before God according to their deeds. However, he believes the people of Muhammad’s day were so incapable of enacting the ultimate good prescribed for women that a transitional period was necessary; thus, Islamic law provided limited privileges and instructed women to submit to the males of the home. Islamic legislation was a significant advance for women over their previous status, but it was nowhere near Islam’s true objective. The same is true of polygamy, divorce, the veil, and male and female segregation. These injunctions, from which Sharia is formed, comprise the First Message of Islam (named so because it was instituted first), while the Second Message of Islam is true Islam. Even though the Second Message was revealed first, only to be rejected by its audience and abrogated, it is called “the Second Message” since society is evolving toward its eventual implementation.
An analysis of these statements, and the efficacy of Taha’s means for achieving his socialist aims, will be provided in Part Two.
 Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im, “Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 25, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 9.
 Steve Howard, Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016).
 An-Na’im. Introduction to The Second Message of Islam, 4.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 12.
 ʻAbd Allāh ʻAlī Ibrāhīm, Manichaean Delirium: Decolonizing the Judiciary and Islamic Renewal in the Sudan, 1898-1985 (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008), 311.
 Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, The Second Message of Islam, trans. Abdullabi Ahmed An-Na’im, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 117.
 Ibid., 120.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 122.
 Surat al-Baqarah and al-Nisa’ are exceptions to this rule, but Taha explains this is due to overlap in the phases, as every “believer” is “a Muslim of the initial type, but not necessarily a Muslim of the ultimate type, while every Muslim of the ultimate type is, and continues to be, a believer.” Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 134.
 Ibid., 131.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 134.
 Ibid., 138.
 Ibid., 139.
 Ibid., 140.
Kellen Peck has a B.A. in Ancient Languages from Asbury University and teaches art classes in Louisville, KY, where she lives with her husband, Amos. They both attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and hope to serve the church overseas after graduation.