Dialogue With Hassan al-Turabi Reveals Enigmatic, Complex Islamist Intellectual

Mahmood Ibrahim


By Mohamed Elhacmi Hamdi .

Translated by Ashur A. Shamis.

Westview Press: Boulder, CO., 1998.

This book consists of a series of interviews conducted by the author with Hassan al-Turabi over a period of one decade.   It also includes a paper Turabi delivered at a conference held in Algiers in May, 1990, that envisions the future of Islam.

From these interviews, we get a glimpse at the history of Turabi’s involvement in Sudanese politics, from his student days at the University of Khartoum to the present. One finds Turabi’s views on the rise and development of the Islamic movement and its impact on (and from) local Sudanese, Arab and Islamic politics, as well as international relations over the past several decades.   These are the events that made Turabi what he is today.   But it is Turabi the Islamic thinker and leader that interests us here and it is his views on Islamic revival and reform that would be of most concern.

Turabi is optimistic regarding the future of Islam and he has laid out a blueprint for the movement that would carry it to success well into the 21st century. It would be appropriate to describe his vision briefly before debating his ideas.

Turabi first gives a theoretical construct of the kind of Islamic movements that exist today, from those that emerge among immigrant communities, to those that advocate an Islamic political and legal system, and thus come, as yet another kind, under attack by the ruling authorities.   Turabi then lays out four stages through which Islamist movements pass. The initial stage is when Islamic revival is a mere trend.   Here exists only a “spontaneous awareness of the Islamic identity and a need to express and promote it.”   The next stage is when this trend is streamlined into an organized group which becomes “an embryonic model” of the future Islamic society. The third stage is when various and localized groups grow into a movement which assumes a reformist role, develops programs of actions, mobilizes social forces against corruption and becomes a symbol of the opposition. The final stage is when the movement assumes the mantle of political leadership, taking charge of public policy, and   begins to construct a “cleaner, freer, and better society.”

Sound planning is the key to success, Turabi says, as he establishes 10 priorities for these movements. The first is to develop populist movements, not only in the sense of popular expansion but also in addressing concerns which would appeal to the widest possible numbers of the society.  

Secondly, the movement has to develop a social organization that would go beyond charity and philanthropic activities to form a systematic and organized approach to the question of leadership and reform. Therefore, it must   “develop its organization further in order to reflect all the ideal aspects of the true Islamic society.” Thirdly, the movement must have a dynamic approach which aims at “bringing all life back to the service of God, by re-emphasizing tawheed in philosophy, economics, learning, culture, art, social life and international relations.”

Women must be “enabled to participate in the struggle for construction and progress, not as a favor or a privilege, but as a duty and an obligation,” Turabi says

Enhancing religious faith and intellectual revival are the fourth and fifth priorities. This task ranges from creating “the moral environment in which the whole society can turn to Islam and adopt it fully as a way of life” to bringing about an intellectual renaissance. That will facilitate the sixth priority,   which is nothing short of building a whole new Islamic civilization.  

As another   priority, Turabi says that the movement must address the status and the role of women in society.   Women must be “enabled to participate in the struggle for construction and progress, not as a favor or a privilege, but as a duty and an obligation.”   

The eighth priority is economic progress based on “sound economic systems with clear means and objectives, indigenous to our people and culture and free from the rootless influence of capitalism and socialism.”

To change the oppressive secular regimes now ruling Muslim societies requires the ninth priority, which calls for political action and construction.   Accordingly, an Islamic system based on the principle of Shura   (consultation) must be developed. The tenth priority is to develop international relations based on Islamic principles, and which come from strength and independence.

There is much to admire in what Turabi lays out for the Islamic future.   He talks of freedom for the people, an end to oppression and discrimination, elimination of national chauvinism, borders, war, and tension among people. He uses a language of persuasion and reconciliation.   The aim of the movement, according to Turabi, should be to unite all mankind.   He says “mankind is one community and people can co-operate in the field of science and knowledge and exchange ideas and achievements.   National resources of different countries and regions of the world should be pooled.”

Unlike the image that the West has cultivated of Islamists, Turabi speaks of progress,   justice, peace, and freedom, values dear to any society. He advocates tolerance, reconciliation, understanding, and even the liberation of the Muslim woman. But enlightened as the views that he expresses may be, several contradictions in Islamists’ thinking in general beg to be raised.

First and foremost, like any other leader of Islamic reform, Turabi’s starting point is the Qur’an and the Sunna , the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad.   The contradiction here is that he is looking for the past to figure out the future.   Such precedents are already set, they are static. Muslims grow to believe that the life of the Prophet is the perfect model and that his actions were the most appropriate for his circumstances. But as the Prophet’s actions were appropriate for his circumstances, would they be appropriate for our own?   Would a modern society face the same circumstances that the same responses must be evoked? Rather than negating history implicit by this backward trajectory, why couldn’t   our present society evolve fresh responses that take into consideration the hindsight of history?

Turabi stressed several times that “religion requires that we should use our minds and common sense to the best of our ability.”   He also championed freedom of thought and said that freedom of belief is a fundamental right in the Qur’an. Yet he wants to create “a comprehensive program based on the indivisibility of human life . . .that life should be treated as a whole, rather than fragments: politics, economics, arts and literature, humanities and so on.”  

All branches of life, according to Turabi, must be in a “fully integrated system dedicated exclusively to the praise and service of the one God.”   In this regard, one might ask what is the difference between a totalitarian state, capitalistic or socialistic it may be, a state that takes over and controls the economic, social, intellectual, and cultural aspects of peoples’ lives, from the type of state that Turabi is advocating where everything revolves around the service of God?   Of course one type is secular and the other is religious, but in reality there seems to be little difference. Why should people exchange what seems to be one dictatorship for another? What happens then to common sense, freedom of   thought, and freedom of belief? In Islamic history, theocratic rule, which I understand will be the outcome of Turabi’s vision, has proven to be–although briefly brilliant–unable to deliver the needs of society.

Turabi criticizes other Islamist groups as anachronistic. As I pointed out above, looking backward for a forward movement is also anachronistic. It is also ahistoric and leads to a misreading of the past. As a historian of Islam and Islamic thought myself, I find a lot to criticize in Turabi’s view of Islamic history.   For example, he criticized the Ikhwan (Muslim brotherhood) for becoming rigid as they clung to the legacy of their founder as has happened to other movements which, according to Turabi, “have clung onto the legacies of al-Jaylani, or al-Samman, or al-Tijani, or the schools of Malik, or al-Shafi’i, or Abu Hanifa.”   

There are two misinterpretations in such a statement: First, he omitted the Hanbali school,   founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, from the lot, even though this school has been the most rigid and most conservative of Islamic Shari’a schools, one that   remained a minority and is today followed mostly in Saudi Arabia.

The second misinterpretation is in including the school of Abu Hanifa on the same footing with the others, especially the mystically-oriented Sufis. The Hanafi school, it should be remembered, was the first school in Islam to advocate the applicability of ijtihad al-Ra’y (exercise of individual opinion). Later Hanafis elaborated on the teachings of Abu Hanifa and allowed rational thinking in the formulation of legal precedent. Not that the Hanafis rejected the Qur’an and the Sunna, but way back then, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.H., they realized that both sources sometimes were insufficient to meet the legislative needs of their society. Their call for ijtihad al-ra’y,the use of reason or rational thinking, was soon attacked by al-Shafi’i when he put forth Qiyas (analogy) instead, and later by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, with some official help, who insisted that only the literal, textual understanding of the Qur’an and the Sunna were accepted sources of law.   Therefore, the Hanafis’ rational thinking did not become rigid.   Rather, this nascent effort to keep Islamic civilization moving forward was killed.

Furthermore, Turabi says that “Muslim thought underwent renewal and reform up to the period of the Madhahib   and stopped”   In reality,   Muslim thought did not emerge fully enough developed to warrant renewal and reform, but was in the process of evolving and developing up to that period.   A perusal of al-Shahrastani’s “al-Milal wa al-Nihal ”(among such works on the development of Islamic theology), will illustrate how freely Muslims debated theological issues before a status quo, an orthodoxy, was fixed.

Similarly, Turabi says that “history witnesses that whenever Muslims fail to live up to Islam they suffer material and cultural setbacks.” How could this statement be reconciled? Ijtihad al-Ra’y was eliminated as superfluous and Muslims were asked to follow what was ostensibly true Islam, especially after Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali.   The number of the faithful expanded by leaps and bounds, and many ethnic groups entered into the abode of Islam, yet the material and cultural decline of Islamic civilization remained unstoppable. Clearly some other factors must have been at play. A theologically based view of history alone is insufficient to provide a full understanding of the factors that shaped our societies.

Finally, Turabi states that no group has a monopoly on the truth.   I agree with that wholeheartedly. Yet he still advocates the propagation of Islam to all mankind with the aim to unite humanity. I am not against that either, per se. But what I find contradictory is the claim that we Muslims have a monopoly on the truth and that other religions somehow deviated from theirs. We are right and they are wrong and we must work to make them see the light. The success of such an approach is doubtful!   At least it contradicts Turabi’s position that “God has given man the freedom to believe or not to believe, and no human being can force an idea or a point of view on another.”

This is problematic because although Turabi speaks of persuasion, perseverance and   other peaceful means to propagate Islam, he does not rule out force, as is implicit in his statement that if peaceful means fail, “you storm through using other means until you reach the people.”   Moreover,   someone is bound to say Arabs and Muslims should put their house in order first. The Algerians slash each others’ throats, the Sudan itself suffers from a chronic civil war where millions are now at edge of their grave because of starvation, Iraq has been bombed to pieces, and the Palestinians . . . Well, I think the point is made.

There is much to admire in what Turabi lays out for the Islamic future.   He talks of freedom for the people, an end to oppression and discrimination, elimination of national chauvinism, borders, war, and tension among people. He uses a language of persuasion and reconciliation...But enlightened as the views that he expresses may be, several contradictions in Islamists’ thinking in general beg to be raised.

Hassan Turabi’s declared model is the life of the Prophet.   However, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the Hanbalite theologian of the Mamluk period, seems to be a closer model. He is cited in connection to two crucial points in Turabi’s thought.   The first is the need for renewal and reform and the second for the exercise of Ijtihad as the means for this renewal. This model is somewhat contradictory, and Turabi’s conception of ijtihad does not go far enough, which, I believe, is the source of the misinterpretations pointed out above,   and one of the reasons   with which Islamist groups in general fall into contradictory sentiments and strategies, contradictions that ultimately cause their failure to live up to the challenges confronting them.

Islam has proven to be resilient indeed.   Muslims lived through glorious periods, and experienced, as well, periods of misery and despair. In times of adversity, renewal and reform became a necessity, and the reaffirmation of one’s faith became a way out of   despair.   During the first three quarters of this century, renewal and reform of the faith, although a persistent current, took a back seat to the anti-colonialist struggle and the nationalist forces that gained political independence.  

Arab nationalism eventually failed to solve pressing concerns of the society, so did the Communist parties and socialist-oriented regimes. Therefore, Turabi recognizes that the “huge void created by the contradiction of liberal, left-wing, and nationalist groups has presented the Islamist with an ideal opportunity to advance their cause.” That is how we should understand Turabi’s admonition that   “Muslims need to be given hope.”

Although it does not have to be an Islamic-based solution, it is not surprising, then, to see the Islamic trend gaining currency as a way to tackle the issues that secular groups have failed to address.   Yet, we should be careful, as Turabi points out, that “people with ambition and vested interest always take control in society, whether it is the clergy or other groups who want to control wealth in the name of religion.”   I am certain that many will agree with that statement.   But how to prevent that from taking place? And this is precisely why Ibn Taymiyya’s model does not work for us today as it did not work for him, since we know, having the hindsight of history, that his society   plunged further into political anarchy and fragmentation.

The Muslims of his day, and those who followed, continued to endure oppression and exploitation at the hands of their Mamluk rulers who received   legitimacy through force and through religious leaders of the day.   It should be recalled that to Ibn Taymiyya, it did not matter how one came to power (reflecting the political anarchy and usurpation of power the Mamluk era) as long as one applied the shari’a !   But whose understanding of shari’a is to be applied? Do we really need another Taliban-type of rule in the Arab world?

Turabi is counting on ijtihad   to move his society forward.   It is refreshing, and reassuring, to hear Turabi’s insistence on ijtihad which, according to him, is open to every Muslim. Although currently it is not, I agree that it should be open to everybody.   Turabi says that everyone can exercise ijtihad   and it is “not the prerogative of a small select group but a dynamic of the whole community . . . ijtihad and knowledge are a collective social function.”   Turabi is to be lauded and supported for this position. However, we should ask what is the nature of this ijtihad ?   Is it that of the Hanbali Ibn Taymiyya? Wasn’t it the Hanbalis who rejected ijtihad in the first place?

The calls of Islamists, past and present, for concepts such rabbaniyya , (Lordship) uluhiyya (Divinity) andtawheed (oneness of God) are not ijtihad   per se.   There is nothing new in them. They are affirmation of Islam’s original concept and do not necessarily chart new ways. It is like going back to square one, over and over again!

Muslims lost out centuries ago when the social forces that supported the Hanbali rigid and literal understanding of the Qur’an won out. Their loss was compounded later when Sufism added layers of mystical shrouds that stupefied a society already in the wilderness and which marginalized itself by living according to commentaries on commentaries. Superstition replaced science.

If we must base a solution on Islam, we need then the kind of ijtihad that frees Muslim thinking from the restrictions of “ bi la kaifa ” (without asking how) imposed by Abu al-Hassan al-Ash’ari. We need the kind of understanding that is based on cause and effect, not on qudrat qadir (the ability of the creator). We need the  ijtihad   of the mukhayyar   (having a choice) not the musayyar   (predetermined).   We need the kind of thinking that is based on qudra (ability to create one’s acts).   Layers of superstitions must be discarded and I believe Islamists must reexamine Islamic history more accurately (and not only through a theological prism) to better assess the role of rationalism in the development of Islamic civilization.   They must evaluate more thoroughly the forces that constricted rational thought and rejected it from Islamic thinking and honestly assess the consequences of such actions.  

It is the ijtihad al-ra’y based on rational, empirical thinking that would help Muslims develop a vibrant, open, rich and cosmopolitan civilization as their ancestors had done in the past.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, no. 25 (Fall 1998).

Copyright © 1998 by Al Jadid