Sheikh Hassan Al Turabi and the Crises in Contemporary Islamic Movement
By Dr. Abadal Wahap Afendi
Translated by John A. Akec for Sudan Tribune
The brouhaha caused by Dr. Turabi’s recent views on controversial issues in the Islamic thought has coincided with the publication of a new book entitled The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Rabiae who lectures at Harvard College in USA, edited the book. I contributed a chapter to the book entitled: “Dr. Turabi and the limitation of modern Islamic reform movement.”
Many distinguished and internationally renowned academics and thinkers made contributions to the book. Each of the contributors tackled a specific aspect of modern Islamic thought as well as about the prominent contemporary personalities who shaped it. In the chapter that I contributed to the book, I tried to address the criticism and debate that was invoked by Sheikh Al Turabi’s interpretation of Islam; beginning with the controversy over Prophet's sayings about what to do with a fly when it falls in milk (hadith zubab), and through his doubts about trustworthiness of a number of the associates of the Prophet, to his scepticism about Bukhari’s volumes and collections on hadiths (conversations attributed to Prophet Mohammed), his views on women, marriage of Muslim woman to a Christian or person of other faith, and his views on apostasy.
It is extremely difficult to summarise in such a great haste all that has been covered in the chapter in regard to deep and detailed academic discourse about the contributions made by Dr Turabi to modern interpretation of Islamic thought, and the reactions that accompanied them. The chapter complements my earlier books in which I discussed in great detail the contributions of the Sheikh [Turabi]. Namely, Turabi’s Revolution (1991), and The Revolution and Political Reformation in Sudan (1995). It will only suffice to provide some pointers that I hope will help in understanding the current debate about Sheikh Turabi interpretation of Islam. This is a new but also old discourse whose importance is rooted not only in the opinion of an individual, but also in difficulties that encounter every effort to reanimate contemporary interpretation of Islamic thought.
The wide spread disapproval that was shown when Turabi rejected hadith zubab, is sine quo non of the various facets to the crises afflicting all attempts at the modernisation of the Islamic message in the face of the domineering traditional status quo. Hadith zubab represents a contradiction between widely acknowledged Islamic verses that appear in Bukhari's volumes on hadiths (or Islamic sayings by the Prophet), with the discovery of modern science. There is a general consensus amongst members of scientific community that fly can help in transmission of infectious diseases in addition to transporting dirt from one location to another. Therefore, following the advice that is attributed to a hadith by the Prophet (peace be upon him) that says if a fly falls in a drink, then it should be left immersed in it and not removed. This contradicts sound and established scientific hygienic practices. The alleged hadith bears semblance to the theory of antibodies that may suggest that the fly’s body contains substances that are capable of curing any diseases it may carry. This in turn implies that a fly in food or milk has health benefits.
It is worth pointing out that the struggle between the church and modern science is one of the principal causes that undermined the church and led to its subsequent withdrawal from the state in the West, leaving the state and all aspects of public life to be dominated by secularism.
Contemporary Islamic movement has endeavoured relentlessly to avoid a similar fate to afflict Islam by endorsing and reviving new interpretation of Islam, and eliminating any hadiths that contradict modern science or contemporary socio-political concepts (such as fundamental freedoms, human rights, women rights, and etc). This is being achieved either by doubting the reliability of the sources of hadiths, reinterpreting the suspected hadiths, or discarding them. Turabi's views are characterised by taking a fundamental approach that he first launched by categorically rejecting the authenticity of hadith zubaba, and moving from his previous traditional doctrinal position to suspect the reliability of all the hadiths. By doing so, Turabi casts doubts over the belief of great majority of Muslim Sunis, a belief that upholds as true all that has been written in Bukhari's volumes/collection of hadiths. This Suni's doctrinal position is not shared by the Shiites. Turabi argues that Bukhari is a fallible being and must have erred in some of his hadiths that he claimed were reported by the former associates of the Prophet. And even if Bukhari’s narratives were correct, according to Turabi, the Prophet's companions might have distorted some of the hadiths (sayings); or Bukhari had not understood the meaning of these Islamic sayings, as he should. Furthermore, Turabi asserts that the Prophet’s companions were fallible men, some of whom were accused of fraud and downright lying. Moreover, even if we were to assume that these associates of the Prophet reported all the Islamic sayings correctly, we still have the right to reject any saying by the Prophet that is concerned with worldly affairs, as opposed to divine issues. This is because the infallibility of the Prophet (peace be upon him) applies only to matters relating to religious instruction, as the Prophet himself once pointed out in an hadith in which he advised Muslim not to pollinate date tree: "you are the ones better informed about your worldly affairs." The advice not to pollinate date tree later turned out not to be correct.
Evidently, the principal motives behind the contemporary Islamic reformist movement include satisfying the requirements of modernisation, responding to criticisms by the West and Islamic world own secular intellectuals. Such concerns have been the preoccupation of Islamic reformists who have long embraced the fundamentals of democracy and human rights. Hence, they [the reformists] are often in direct confrontation with the advocates of traditional Islam who call for a literal interpretation and acceptance of the inherited Islam as is. More often than not, it is easier for the [contemporary] Islamists to criticise what they describe as the stagnation of traditional view, misinterpretation of the verses, and the dominant influence of non-Islamic traditions on the understanding of religion. However, the real difficulties arise when they are faced with Islamic verses that contradict their contemporary beliefs such as freedom of faith versus apostasy; equality of women and men versus women rights to inheritance and witness in the court, and so forth.
To deal with the challenge of modernisation, the Islamic pro-reform elite has resorted to many strategies. A majority of them have prefer to emphasising certain verses over others; or claiming that the more acceptable verses were meant to supersede those rejected. The most prominent and fundamental approach to modernisation ever taken was that of the late thinker, Mahammud Mohammed Taha and his Republican Movement. Muhammud Taha rejected all Al Medina Islamic verses, the Suna, and related traditions. He then embarked on the modernisation of Islamic Sharia from the scratch. However, the Republican solution faced two fundamental problems. First, by rejecting the entire Islamic tradition at the stroke of a pen, and replacing it with a view that is hundred percent match of the contemporary and liberal Western view about basic freedoms and human rights, this kind of message was met with great suspicion. Second, such a fundamental paradigm shift would demand nothing short of a new divine revelation (Dawa), and therefore a new religion. And this was precisely what the Republican ministry (Dawa) contained. It, however, aroused suspicion amongst the Islamic modernists who believed in the first revelation (Dawa) of Islam, but struggled to accept its Sufi’s -metaphysical content.
Sheikh Turabi’s adversaries have often accused him of emulating the Republican brotherhood movement in his reformist agenda. However, Turabi has never advocated for a new divine revelation (Dawa), but he called instead for greater modernisation (following the foot steps of earlier generations of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Rashid), by claiming that human mind is, by itself, a source of authority that, in many occasions, is superior to any other authority with exception of that of Allah. Thus, argued Turabi, human mind is sufficiently capable of reinterpreting divine revelation in a way that is congruent with the demands of modern life.
From this viewpoint, Turabi employs the traditional tools of analysis such as careful research into the roots of the language, history, criticism, and reinterpretation of Islamic verses in order to eliminate any distortions caused by non-Islamic traditions and values that prevailed prior to the advent of Islam. For example, Turabi has brutally criticised the domination of the male in traditional Islamic societies, where the traditionalists, on the ground that they are no longer valid in modern age, have suppressed women rights that existed during the prophet’s times. Paradoxically, women rights are the only one area where traditionalists have been very willing to reject the Islamic verses and hadiths that granted rights to women in favour of women subjugation. In this respect, the traditionalists argue that what was good for women during the Prophet's generation may not be necessarily good in this day and age because, they argue, the standards of chastity are now far lower than they were at the time of Prophet Mohammed. The main dilemma encountered by Turabi is that the traditionalists have rejected him, while the reformists have refused to recognise his doctrine.
On the one hand, the modernists accept nothing short of the Republican brotherhood solution that totally discards the inherited traditional Islam, or at least carry out what Dr Mohammed Arkoi describes as “criticising the Islamic mind.” In other words, Islamic reformers call for external annihilation of the Islamic inheritance on the grounds that such inheritance has been the captive of external historical circumstances that no longer apply in this day and age.
On the other hand, the traditionalists rejected the interpretations of Turabi in the same way they have reject his approach to modernisation. And until recently, Turabi was more inclined towards the traditionalist camp and did not care about the modernists critique despite the fact that most of his views were directed at them and the West. Coming under fierce criticism from the traditionalists, Turabi even retracted some of his previous views such as on the marriage of a Muslim to a Christian, views on apostasy laws, his doubt in Bukhari, and his views on the fallibility of the Prophet. It is worth mentioning that Turabi published his first booklet on [the rights of] women in early 1970s under a faked name.
All this led to display of ambivalence in Turabi's reformist message. On the one hand, Turabi had an inner circle of followers whom he addressed with complete frankness. And on the other hand, Turabi had a different message for the general public. That led to mixed results. First, it led to emergence of a clique within his inner circle that claims to have better understanding of Islamic doctrine than their peers. This resembles what Imam Abu Ghazali narrated about his contemporaries. Second, Turabi's inner circle began to develop and display low opinion about the rest of Muslims, as well as undermining the understanding of the religion and religious teachings. This happened while the traditionalists continued to exploit their ability to mobilise the Islamic masses to aim their deadly criticism in the face of the secularists.
And if the reluctance of the [contemporary] Islamic movement to accept the religious inheritance poses a challenge to them, it also true that secularists face even greater challenge because all that they do is ignore religion and its teachings, or be hypocritical and pretend to live by religious teachings.
Furthermore, there is a huge body of evidence that traditional Islamic scholars and common Muslims prefer opposition against Islam to any attempts to distort it or change its original message. And for that reason precisely, the Islamic movement led by Turabi had experienced a double isolation as it simultaneously fought against both the secularists and the traditionalists. The inclination of the Islamic clique that surrounded Turabi has had many practical ramifications, which included: refusal to acknowledge the fact that traditional Islam has shown itself willing to embrace democracy. And despite that, this Islamic clique that developed around Sheikh Turabi has displayed utter contempt of democracy and of the masses that include the believers. It is the attitude that undermined the values of trust in people, as well as doing away with respect for the individual's rights which was mainly responsible for many human rights violations and acts of cruelty that characterised Inghaz [National Islamic Front] revolution under the leadership of Turabi. Moreover, it is the same mindset that is to blame for the mistreatment that Turabi received at the hands of his former pupils, who have learned in his hands to be contemptuous of the people and the values without showing the same level of understanding or knowledge as Turabi.
Thus, Turabi former pupils have come to see themselves as above Shariah and tradition. And we still do hear the same contempt being expressed time and again about the rest of Muslims; be they individuals, parties, or nation. And most probably, there may be worst things said by this group against Muslims in private, which we may know nothing about but which are reflected in their public behaviour. Such views may be betrayed publicly in the form of exaggerated self-belief in their ability to rule people with iron fist, with lies, hypocrisy, and conspiracy. That there is no one in the whole Sudanese nation- in the north, south, east, or west is capable of challenging their dominance. Turabi, their former mentor, once shared this self-delusion with them. And as these Turbi's pupils will soon find out, their previous mentor will be counted as the luckiest of the lot. This is because the fate that awaits them will turn out to be worst than that of their mentor.
The most recent views expressed by Turabi and the uproar it generated need not be seen as problems of an individual or a group. But rather should be seen as a predicament of a nation handicapped by religious inheritance that offers no tools or means for modernisation. Instead of changing the religious inheritance in order to secure its survival, the Islamic nation (Uma) prefers to hold to it for its own sake, while risking its total disappearance. It is also a crisis facing the contemporary elite that has neither succeeded to live up to Islamic traditional ideals, nor succeeded morally and intellectually to lead the nation in a direction of religious revival. The elite continues to waver between the bondage of the traditions, and the emptiness of modern morality.