George Packer’s article in The New Yorker of September 11 offers, not more hope, but a new basis for hope about Islam. It’s called “The Moderate Martyr: Letter from Sudan,” and it describes the tensions within Islam, particularly in Sudan over the past half century or so. The protagonist is a fellow named Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (see photo), a Sudanese engineer who became an Islamic theologian, grappling in his day with issues that should — and to some extent do — trouble Muslims everywhere today. His answers, though presumably appropriate for today’s followers of the Koran, were different from the solution that Western intellectuals might propose: secularism. And he paid for them with his life. In January 1985 he was hanged for apostasy, and his followers, never vastly numerous, have now dwindled to only a few hundred. Yet Packer gives us a basis for hoping that Muslims everywhere will be driven, by the continuing failure of their own theology to meet the challenges of the modern world, to adopt answers similar to Taha’s — an outcome that he believes might be optimum.
The real teachings of Taha are odd, and I’m not sure I’m following Packer’s account. It seems that there are two quite different orientations present in the Koran. During Muhammad’s first revelation he was in Mecca; when he fled to Medina his outlook seems to have changed dramatically —and, from our point of view, much for the worse.
“For any Muslim who believes in universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy, the Koran presents an apparently insoluble problem. Some of its verses carry commands that violate a modern person’s sense of morality. The Koran accepts slavery. The Koran appoints men to be ‘the protectors and maintainers of women,’ to whom women owe obedience; if disobeyed, men have the duty first to warn them, then to deny them sex, and finally to ‘beat them (lightly).’ The Koran orders believers to wait until the holy months are finished, and then to’fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).’ ”
The question is, how can the generous teachings from Mecca be reconciled with the harsh teachings from Medina, which were full of rules and orders for jihad, and which were gradually formalized as Sharia law? Packer writes:
“The Meccan verses are addressed, through Muhammad, to humanity in general, and are suffused with a spirit of freedom and equality; according to Taha, they present Islam in its perfect form, as the Profphet lived it, through exhortation rather than threat.”
One of the scholars who still admires Taha is Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim, who explains Taha’s revisionist resolution of the puzzle. He says that the harsh Medinan verses were only a “historical adaptation to the reality of life in a seventh-century Islamic city state in which ‘there was no law except the sword.’” Over time, as situations improved, Islam will become free to accept the more tolerant Meccan teachings. Indeed, perhaps that time has come.
Naturally, this interpretation of the Koran is shocking within traditional Islam everywhere around the world. There is a basic internal coherence in Islam, wherever it spread, and it still is the core perspective in every society where it prevails. There is little prospect that reforms in these societies will amount to the acceptance of secularism.
Taha’s gentle version of Islam, which would fit comfortably into a world where human rights and freedom prevail, is a rare type of revision. It did not make much impact while it was at its apex. The alternative kind of reform is the tough variety that seeks to make the harsh rules even harsher. We see its most extreme form today in fundamentalist movements, notably Wahhabism, but there have been a few earlier rigorous reformist versions as well. The Muslim Brotherhood was one of them.
After his execution, Taha’s death was widely attributed to the influence of an Islamic hard-liner named Hasan al-Turabi. It is unclear whether he was actually responsible for this execution or whether it should be blamed on the dictator of Sudan at that time, Jaafar al-Nimieri. In any case, Turabi has since reversed his fundamentalist orientation and now declares that women and men are equal, that women can lead Islamic prayers, that covering the hair is not obligatory, that apostasy should not be a crime, that Muslim women can marry Christians or Jews. These ideas are consistent with the opinions Taha had expressed, and for which he was killed.
Why should I take heart from reading this extraordinary narrative? Because of Packer’s conclusion: that Islamic teachings contain, not only internal contradictions that cry out for resolution, but also restrictions that will keep any society from developing adequately so long as hard-line Sharia is supreme. Over time, every society that attempts to live by these rules will find that they are a “dead end street.”
Whether or not it is true that the specific teachings of Taha are adopted when this reality is acknowledged, there will be some kind of reform. Islam is going to change. It is not going to fade away, but it will change. Packer quotes Taha’s disciple Naim as saying about fundamentalism: “In Sudan this simplistic answer failed. In Iran it failed. In northern Nigeria it failed. In Pakistan it failed.”
He will promote Taha’s liberalizing message by saying, “Listen, you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go down this dead-end street.”