Muslim Voices — Sudan
0:00:06:>>ROSEMARY PENNINGTON: Welcome to Muslim Voices. I'm your host, Rosemary Pennington. In the early 1950s, as Sudan was gaining independence from the British, one man was creating a new idea of Islam. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was imprisoned for taking part in Sudan's liberation movement. It was while in prison that his understanding of Islam began to change. He began to see the religion as one in need of liberalization and reform. Islam, Taha reasoned, needed to become more progressive. It needed to embrace human rights and Islamic Reformation was something he worked toward once released. Taha eventually embracing the women's movement and opposing the imposition of Sharia in Sudan. Their religious leader was hanged in 1985 after a judge found Taha and four others guilty of sedition. Taha's progressive teachings were attractive to a large number of young people in Sudan. Among them was Abdullahi An-Na'im. An-Na'im, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law in Emory University's Law School, has followed in his teachers footsteps and specializes in human rights, cross-culturally and within Islam. I spoke with him about his work, as well as what drew him to Taha's teachings.
0:01:23:>>ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA'IM: As a young person growing up in Sudan studying law and being engaged in human rights advocacy, I was torn as a Muslim between what was popular and understood to be Shariah, that is Islamic law, and the popular understandings of Islam, especially regarding the Christians rights of women, rights of religious minorities, freedom of religion. Between that understanding and my commitment and understanding of how things are and what I would like to be myself in my own life. So Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was a Sudanese Muslim reformer active at that time already for several decades. I was - I found his methodology of Islamic reform and his whole life example so appealing in bringing together and getting me to be at peace with myself as a Muslim and human rights advocate at the same time.
0:02:25:>>ROSEMARY PENNINGTON: What was so appealing to you about Taha's teachings?
0:02:29:>>ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA'IM: The main point I think was that he was doing it from within an Islamic perspective. That presenting a methodology for reinterpretation of Sharia from an Islamic point of view, drawing on Islamic sources, in a way that made sense. It was not, as often happens, apologetic or selective. He was confronting issues head-on and yet, presenting what I felt was a very systematic, coherent methodology that is addressing both, the difficult issues as well as what might appear to be self-evident.
0:03:08:>>ROSEMARY PENNINGTON: As I'm listening to you talk about your teacher, about Taha, I'm wondering what was so new in his approach? What was so new in his thinking about reform within Islam?
0:03:20:>>ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA'IM: What was new in Taha's thinking was the possibility of going back to the original message as opposed to taking the second, sort of phase of Madina as the final word of Islam on the issues. So Taha was saying, his insight I think on this point was to say actually, what was revealed earlier on is what Islam is about and what was revealed in practice subsequently was a confession to the context of Arabia at the time. Now that we are in a position to go back to the earlier message, it is the more appropriate and closer to the real intention of Islam.
0:04:03:>>ROSEMARY PENNINGTON: I've spoken with several people about this idea of reform within Islam and a few of them, not many, but a few have said that they feel uncomfortable with his idea of reforming, of reforming Muslim thinking. That you can't contextualize the teachings of the Quran. That you need to take what is in the Quran for what it is. The word of Allah and that you can't change your understanding of that. Whereas, I feel like what you have been advocating and what Taha maybe was advocating was that you can change your understanding of Islam, understanding of what was in the Quran and that maybe that's necessary for Muslims living, you know, in the modern world.
0:04:47:>>ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA'IM: If you take Islam to be what Muslims of the 7th to the 10th century understood it to mean, that is just exactly as your colleagues said you, so-called Muslim thinking. If you take is in that sense, you will find that there are certain aspects which are totally incompatible with our very modern and recent understanding of human rights. Now, of course, the ideal of human rights itself is reasoned. The notion of universal rights which are due to every human being by virtue of just being human without any distinction of gender, of race, and so on, is a very recent ideal. Now, this ideal has become very appealing for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. If you take this ideal and look back to Sharia as it was understood in the beginning of Islam, naturally enough, you will see that there are some ways in which Muslims of that affairs could never even have conceived of universal rights, as everybody else. I mean, this idea was new to anybody at the time and for 1,000 years to come. So they are very fundamental aspects. Not the totality of Sharia, not in every way, but in very specific ways. And this was the work I did like it was, it came out in a book called, "Toward an Islamic Reformation" that was published in 1990, drawing on Taha's work where I looked specifically at these three issues - rights of women, rights of non-Muslims, freedom of religion, and in those issues our understanding of Sharia is totally incompatible with human rights standards. Now, I can accept someone saying I don't care for human rights. I will stay with what Muslims understood Islam to mean 1,000 years ago. If someone takes a position, I will disagree with it but at least I would respect it as being consistent. Not to say, I want to stay with the tradition and understanding and I want to support human rights. You cannot have it both ways. You have to be one or the other. You have to be willing to reconsider your human understanding of Islam or you have to be content with defending that ancient understanding in whatever way it goes because this is the only way it can be used.
0:07:17:>>ROSEMARY PENNINGTON: This has been Muslim Voices, a production of the voices and visions project in partnership with WFIU public media from Indiana University. Support comes from the Social Science Research Council, music was provided by Animus. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes. There's also a blog at muslimvoices.org.