On this date in 1985 progressive Islamic theologian Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was publicly hanged at a prison in Khartoum North, Sudan.
Seventy-five years old at his death, Taha spent his youth in the nationalist movement against British control of Sudan where he emerged as the standard-bearer of the liberal/secular Republican Party.
After Sudan won independence in 1956, both Taha and his party maintained — in the face of official hostility that waxed and waned with the changing regimes — nonviolent support for political openness, national unity between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a theology pointing to reform within Islam. Specifically, Taha embraced a women’s movement and opposed the imposition of sharia, at least in the absence of a radical modernization of the Islamic religious law.
The introduction of sharia in 1983 brought matters to a head, and not only with Taha: civil war broke out — the conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south only recently and imperfectly abated.
Taha and four other Republicans were tried for their intransigence in a two-hour trial under a seemingly muddled mixture of secular and religious law.
Among the hundreds of attendees of Taha’s hanging this day were his four “co-conspirators.” They were themselves under sentence of death to be carried out January 20th, unless they should recant. All four recanted. Hundreds of other Republicans were held around the country on lesser charges until they did likewise.
The next year, with a new government in place, the Sudanese Supreme Court declared the proceedings against the Republicans to have been in error.
Little of Taha’s work has been translated, but his Second Message of Islam is available in English and presents a conception of the faith so unfamiliar in the west that one reviewer mitigates his praise with the regret that “it is nonsensical to talk of reforming Islam, a religion which is doctrinally irreformable.”
Taha’s thought also has a scholarly evaluation in Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmud Muhammad Taha. More information by and about Taha and the Republicans is here.