An Analysis of The Second Message of Islam: Part Two

Author: Kellen Peck

In his book, The Second Message of Islam, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha reconciled the seemingly contradictory Meccan and Medinan passages of the Quran by claiming that many aspects of present Islamic Sharia were not originally present, but instead necessitated by the limitation of human ability in the Prophet’s day. This is the seminal truth outlined in The Second Message of Islam. After a brief historical background and an overview of Taha’s controversial doctrines outlined in Part One, we will now examine the nature of Taha’s theology and the efficacy of the movement he began.

Taha’s understanding of religion, even of Islam, is thoroughly evolutionary. He notes, “Evolutionary logic is central in the formulation of the second message theory that conceives human history in terms of a progressive, spiral, upward movement from simplicity to complexity, from ‘lower’ civilizational rungs to ‘higher’ ones, from social conflict to social harmony.”[1] Taha’s language is also imbibed with progressivism: “Islam, too, can never be concluded. Progress in it is eternal: ‘Surely, the [true] religion with God is Islam’(3:19).”[2]

Taha’s vision for the “good society” is also unabashedly communist. He argues that humanity has evolved during the fourteen centuries since the First Message, and is now intellectually capable of implementing socialism; therefore, Islam must be propagated toward that end.[3] According to Taha’s ideology, “When such absolute equality is achieved through the grace of God, and as a result of abundant production, we shall achieve communism or a sharing of the earth’s wealth by all people.”[4]

It is notable that Taha’s “Second Message” merged with the 19th and 20th century zeitgeist—the ideologies of Evolution, Progressivism and Communism—in the same way that Islam’s “First Message” merged with the societal values and ideologies of the time, including the institution of slavery and the subjugation of women. Taha imposes modern philosophies upon a 7th century message, and fails to see that, just as Islam’s first audience was inevitably shaped by its culture, so he is by his culture. The “universal Islam” he would have us understand is an Islam built on 20th century utopian ideals.

Undoubtedly, however, Taha’s exegetical approach has appeal. While many left-leaning Islamists herald Mahmoud Taha for championing such movements as women’s equality, his textual approach has an intellectual honesty which is lacking in many scholars and statesman who flatly call Islam a religion of peace without confronting those texts which are in no way peaceful.[5] By contrast, Taha provides a way to reconcile the Qur’an’s contradictory texts in a way which better explains the Meccan texts than does the traditional doctrine of abrogation which states that the later revelation simply abrogates the former. Under the traditional doctrine of abrogation, the Meccan texts appear to be useless, as after only thirteen years they are abrogated in favor of later texts, but Taha’s theories explain the purpose behind the Meccan texts, and state that they will eventually be revived and implemented. To be clear, Taha does not deny the traditional doctrine of abrogation; he only denies its permanence. He claims that the Meccan texts were indeed abrogated for a time, but that the Prophet Muhammad intended for later believers to reverse this abrogation and implement the former precepts of Islam.[6] In this sense, his methodology is superior to the traditional doctrine of abrogation, because it offers a purpose for the Meccan precepts in the first place.

Instead of disregarding certain texts in the Qur’an or trying to explain a tenuous interpretation, Taha both affirms the legitimacy and rejects the many violent and unjust Qur’anic texts. In this sense, he merges two ideals: the ideal of fundamentalist, text-based Islam, and the ideal of the human rights of the modern era. Contemporary Muslim scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im notes that, if embraced, Taha’s methodology would achieve reconciliation between the liberal and fundamentalist groups, which is what he calls “the crisis of Islamic Law Reform,” as “Muslims would be able to live under a constitutional and legal system derived from the permanent and fundamental principles of Islam without violating the constitutional and human rights of non-Muslims.”[7]

It is unclear how Taha’s utopian Islamic vision can be achieved. On the one hand, much seems left to the progress that mankind has already realized, since Taha considered his present day ripe to receive the Second Message of Islam. However, his writing also carries an expectation of personal reform through discipline and prayer. He states that true Islam “cannot be achieved in the future except through hard work, discipline, education, correction, and change of what is almost natural human behavior. It will represent the peak of civilization, when man moves away from his base animal drives and develops a superior moral character.”[8] But can man actually move away from his “base animal drives” to a “superior moral character” through hard work, discipline, and the like? Can he change his very nature?

Taha explains that the Qur’an’s approach to “ridding the self of sin” must proceed from the outside to the inside.[9] This process of purification begins with the believer carefully observing, and holding himself accountable for, his most blatant sinful actions. While he addresses these sins, he continues in sinful speech, in accordance with the gradual sanctification process. When he is eventually able to purify his actions, he can then purify his speech, while tolerating his faults of thought, until he has achieved a superior moral nature.[10]

The practices of the Republican Brotherhood—the group united under Ustadh Mahmoud’s leadership—serve as a model of the practical outworking and experimentation of Taha’s ideals. Most fundamentally, Ustadh Mahmoud exemplified the positive interactions which would tutor the Republican brothers and sisters to develop their faith and interpersonal behavior.[11]

He showed his followers, members of the Republican Brotherhood, that within the strong, Sufi-based, Sudanese traditions of prayer and ritual that each brother or sister brought to the movement, lay a realm of untapped possibilities for human development. Together they  turned  the  religious  obligation  of prayer  into  a  method  of daily  renewal,  practicing  their  beliefs  without  fear  before  a skeptical public.  They accomplished this through the process of reflection and concentration, thinking carefully about each action and its consequences for the individual and the community. Material development was not pushed aside in favor of a spiritual ideal; instead it was incorporated into the plan for a world at peace.[12]

In an introductory pamphlet published by the Republican Brotherhood, religion’s role is described as that of a “pacifying agent” or a psychology which diagnoses and cures ills of internal and external dimensions. “In this way, internal conflicts are, initially, cooled down and finally, conquered.”[13] The Brotherhood notes especially the importance of prayer, and suggests it can be used “as a ‘psychoanalytic therapeutic session’ which [the believer] repeats every day and night in order to cultivate a balanced, mature and productive personality, and to ultimately attain absolute individual freedom.”[14] How this transitions to societal reform is unspecified, but Taha most likely desired a cultural transformation toward communism based on equity and absolute individual freedom, as a result of the Second Message of Islam.

Taha recognizes the need for reform, yet his hope is grounded in the strength of unaided self-will. He views his approach to Islam as superior to the all-too-stringent teaching of Christ, that “extreme and excessive spirituality,” yet his answer to moral weakness is itself the epitome of stringent religiosity: to work harder at willing the good than ever before. According to the Christian worldview, hope in personal reformation through religiosity is bankrupt; mankind’s progression toward an equitable, absolutely free and good society is utterly impossible. Christ makes explicit that change which begins on the outside will never clean the inside. Holding oneself accountable to refine “faulty action” cannot change one’s inmost desires and thoughts. We cannot change our nature; we must receive a new one. And to the one who believes in Him, Christ gives his own very nature, and sends his Holy Spirit to dwell in us, so that we may think, speak, and act out of the overflow of a pure heart.

Epilogue: The Test of Taha’s Teaching

We know how the story ends. Taha was hanged for his convictions, and in this sense he died nobly. The four others who were arrested with him were not hanged, however. Unlike Taha, they were given the opportunity to recant, and they renounced their beliefs and were released. Although we can sympathize deeply with the turmoil of their circumstances, we can also understand this as the litmus test of authentic belief: when faced with the ultimate punishment, none of Ustadh Mahmoud’s followers were willing to die for their cause. The date of Taha’s death, January 18, is now honored as Arab Human Rights Day, and just four months after Taha’s execution, popular outrage and uprising overthrew the dictatorship of President Numeiri.  Since the death of Ustadh Mahmoud and the banning of the Republican Brotherhood’s public activities since January 1985, the group has not resumed their former activism. Although democratic liberties were restored in Sudan with the overthrow of President Numeiri in April 1985, Taha’s followers are largely dispersed and inactive.[15]

While Taha’s creative understanding of the Qur’an offered a solution to the crisis of contemporary Islamic law, it provided no concrete means for individuals or communities to uphold such a religion, and thus proved ineffective. It is apparent that our own society, like the society of Muhammad’s day, is not ready to receive the Second Message of Islam.

Notes

[1] Mohamed Mahmoud, Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 179

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Ibid., 166-167.

[4] Ibid., 156.

[5] George Packer, “The Moderate Martyr: A Radically Peaceful Vision of Islam” The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/09/11/the-moderate-martyr (September 2006).

[6] Khalid Duran, “An Alternative to Islamism: The Evolutionary Thought of Mamud Taha” Cross Currents 42, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 15.

[7] An-Na’im, “Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform,” 1988.

[8] Taha, The Second Message of Islam, 161.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stephen W. Howard, “Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and The Republican Brotherhood: Transforming Islamic Soceity” Journal for Islamic Studies 21 (2001), 71-84.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Republican Brothers “An Introduction to the Second Message of Islam”

http://www.alfikra.org/chapter_view_e.php?book_id=100&chapter_id=12 (May, 1976).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Na’im, “Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform: Implications for Interreligious Relations,” 1988.

Bibliography

An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed. Introduction to The Second Message of Islam. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, “Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 25, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 1-21.

Duran, Khalid. “An Alternative to Islamism: The Evolutionary Thought of Mamud Taha,” Cross Currents 42, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 15.

Howard, Steven W., “Mahmoud Mohammaed Taha and the Republican Brotherhood: Transforming Islamic Soceity,” Journal for Islamic Studies 21, (2001): 71-84.

Mahmoud, Mohamed. Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007.

Packer, George. “The Moderate Martyr: A Radically Peaceful Vision of Islam,” The New Yorker (September 2006). Accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/09/11/the-moderate-martyr,

Republican Brothers. “An Introduction to the Second Message of Islam” (May, 1976) Accessed April 3, 2017, http://www.alfikra.org/chapter_view_e.php?book_id=100&chapter_id=12

Taha, Mahmoud Mohammed. The Second Message of Islam, trans. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im,  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 117.


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. 

 

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