Religion File Number 5
A Round Table with Dr Hassan al-Turabi
Edited with an Introduction
by Sean Gabb
An occasional paper published by
The Sudan Foundation
London WC1V 9LD
ISBN: 1 86234 091 9
© 1998: The Sudan Foundation
Introduction: The Text
The text here republished forms part of a larger whole. It began life as the central presentation in Islam, Democracy, the State and the West: A Round Table with Dr HAsan Turabi, held on the 10th May 1992, and sponsored by the World and Islam Studies Enterprise and by the University of South Florida. The full proceedings were published in 1993 by the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, and copies may be ordered from:
The World and Islam Studies Enterprise
PO Box 16648
United States of America
Tel: (813) 985 4343
Fax: (813) 985 4664
The present republication is an amended version of the original.
Introduction: The Substance
This is the fifth instalment of our project to make the English writings of Dr Turabi available on the Internet. Those who have seen the previous instalments will find nothing very original here. There are the common themes of the real if limited value to Islam of Western civilisation, and of the need to reinterpret Islam to make sense of it in the changed circumstances of the late 20th century. What is exception about this text, however, is that it is one of the clearest and most ambitious statements for a Western audience of the Turabi doctrine.
This may be summarised in the following points:
1. Contrary to the beliefs stated and restated in the Western media - contrary, indeed, to the assertions of some Islamic clerics - Islam is not in its fundamentals an authoritarian faith. To say otherwise is to confuse what is morally enjoined with what ought to be legally compelled. It is not a confusion that was made in the earliest days of Islam. As Dr Turabi comments: "The prophet himself used strong words against those who don't come to the prayers, but he did nothing about it. Things like dress, for example, there are moral injunctions fo how men and women should dress, but that is not part of the law."
Going further still, he adds: "Ideally, the Muslims always look to minimum government, very much like the liberal tradition.... [S]ociety is the primary institution in Islam, rather than the state."
2. During the long decline and stasis of Islamic civilisation, Islam became contaminated with a mass of essentially non-Islamic customs. because these were the customs followed by Muslims, and because they were followed for very long periods, and because the human mind is ideally suited to the reconciling of inconsistencies into apparently smooth systems of thought - for these reasons and for others, the libertarian message of Islam was insensibly obsured, and even forgotten.
A similar process was at work in mediaeval Christianity. According to the evidence of the Gospels, for example, Christ was not born on Christmas Day, but around March: the 25th December date was set as a replacement of a pagan sun festival. Equally, Christmas trees and wedding cakes are pagan rather the Christian. And the Inquisition - that most feared organ of the counter-Reformation Papacy - owed more to the bureaucratic police state traditions of Diocletian and Constantine than to the letters of St Paul.
3. In the West, these contaminations were cleared away by an internal growth of understanding. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment - these were the staging posts in a gradual balancing of the claims of faith and reason that allowed the civilisation of Western Europe and North America to become absolutely supreme throughout the world.
In Islam, however, there was no gradual rebalancing. Instead, there was a collision of faith and reason in which the actors were Islamic and Western civilisation. The Western powers burst into the Islamic world in the 19th century, bringing ultimately unchallengable military power and a scientific culture that was a flat - but equally unchallengable - contradiction to Islam as it had come to be understood.
4. The result was a split within the Islamic mind. On the one side stood a semi-Westernised elite, cut off from the traditional culture of its subjects. On the other stood an unthinking conservatism that celebrated Islamic civilisation, but had no idea of how to preserve it, and little even of how to understand it. There was no help in the fact that the Western doctrines adopted by the elites were usually the failed ones - socialism, communism, fascism, nationalism, and so forth. The result was radical change without even the compensating benefit - enjoyed, for example, by the Japanese - of rapid economic growth. The Islamic mind was divided, and divided between two inappropriate intellectual systems.
5. The answer is to recover the original Islamic legacy by stripping away its historic accretions - rather like removing the layer upon layer of varnish from an old oil painting to get at the fresh colours beneath. This means running parallel with Western development over the past five centuries, but not slavishly following it. The result, as done by Dr Turabi, has been to reveal an Islam that is surprisingly close in its essentials to English classical liberalism. He talks continually of limited government, free trade, the rights of conscience, the equality of women, the rights of minorities, and so forth.
It is from this viewpoint that Dr Turabi is able to comment on other Islamic revivals around the world. He disagrees with much that he sees, but accepts that there is a common project within the Islamic world to recover Islam after centuries of relative stagnation.
It is too early to say what influence Dr Turabi will have on the whole of Islamic civilisation. He has often been regarded with suspicion by more traditionalist Muslims. Even so, he is the most outstanding religious thinker alive in Sudan; and the Sudan Foundation is honoured to have the opportunity to make more of his writings available to a large and growing audience on the Internet.
The Sudan Foundation
Friday 27th March 1998
A Round Table with
Dr Hassan al-Turabi
Allow me ladies and gentlemen to begin with a ritual invocation of God that all this may be in his name and for his sake and to extend to you my salaams. Peace be upon you. I have already experienced a sense of peace coming from New York to Florida.
I have been asked to speak for 50 to 60 minutes - so you'll have to bear with me - on Islam, government, politics, the West, all sorts of things. I'll try to make all this into one coherent theme. And I'll begin with the beginning, with Islamic doctrine. I don't intend to be highly theoretical or too normative. But, doctrine is now exerting a very powerful influence on the course of Islamic history, because Islamic history, that has stagnated for so long, is now on the march. It is extremely important for anyone who wants to observe this dynamic movement to have a notion of where the Muslims are aiming.
I'll begin with the unitarian principle. It is not just that God is one, absolutely one, but also existence is one, life is one; all life is just one program of worship, whether it's economics, politics, sex, private, public or whatever. And society is also one. So unitarianism is a fundamental principle that explains almost every aspect of doctrinal or practical Islam. But the Koran tells the Muslims that there is always a tendency for religion to bifurcate. As an attitude of mind, people will become oblivious to the occult dimension of existence and concentrate on the material world. Different pursuits of life become autonomous, totally independent, and severed from the ultimate divine end. People pursue their economic life just seeking profit or consumption. Power becomes the end, people are dedicated to political power rather than using power in the service of Allah. Sectors of society also take some distance from each other.
You are all familiar with the course of Christian history and how it brought secularism. There was a bifurcation, and then a confrontation between church and state, or church and revolution, or church and Marx, each vying for Supremacy, and for ultimate legitimacy. And ultimately religion was defeated and relegated to private life. Economics was emancipated and sciences and politics later on.
In Islam, we as Muslims believe that the course of religious history is very similar and that Muslims have to learn from the experience of the people of the book who have preceded them in history. The same disease afflicted Muslims very early; less than forty years after the Prophet, power became autonomous and people sought it simply to assert themselves. The jurists noticed it and reacted in a manner that bred the seeds of a secularism in Islam. Seeing that government wasn't legitimate because it was based on dynasty or usurpation, the jurists confined it by denying it any role in law-making, although the Koran explicitly says that the government has an important role in law-making subject to the sharia. But, somehow, the jurists went around this interpretation. Traditionally, the government was supposed to organise popular consensus and decision making (and, it was usually the government that ultimately organised the process) and pronounce the ultimate decision. But the jurists claimed this authority. They claimed that consensus - which is in the hierarchy of norms subject to sharia, above government, above administration - is to be organised by jurists. So ijma became the consensus of jurists rather than the consensus of the people, and they claimed to be the true representatives of the people.
The jurists also denied the tax law. This is reminiscent of constitutional conflicts in the West over whether people can be taxed by a monarch if they are not represented. They denied tax law completely except for the zakat, which is so specific that no one can abuse it because it is earmarked for the poor and cannot be used otherwise (and it is defined as a proportion of property). They generally moved away from and did not want to be associated with government. The great jurists in Islam are known to have a negative attitude toward authority. Abu Hanifa and the great imams of Islam, even the sufis, suspected that politics is corrupt and therefore inconsistent with their own program of self-purification and education. They kept their distance, and when they sought to bring about unity between Muslims, they did it behind the back of government; they organised orders to embody the unity of the Umma away from politics. But politics never became a conscious doctrine in its acceptance in Islam.
It is true that in the late Abbasid period there was a measure of theoretical development of a secular model with the Sultan being the secular ruler and the Khalifa being the titular head, symbol of the community, like the Pope and the empire. Strangely, these things happened in non-Arab communities because their access to the forces of Islamic religion is always limited. The same thing happened in Turkey; society became divided and religion took the form of an order. The Sufi orders became almost an established church, something which Islam doesn't know, but this is how it came about. And the orders had a negative attitude toward modernisation - even to the printing press - and toward everything that was modern. And, ultimately, that paved the way for Ataturk, who was not only proceeding from a domestic situation, but who also drew upon the French secular tradition.
The real secularisation and de-Islamisation of public life in Islam came about through Western imperialism. They physically disestablished Islam and destroyed the public institutions which were left behind. They established, in the place of sharia, positive laws: French, English or whatever, and secular institutions: army, civil service, and economic system... And, of course, the reaction is that Islam tends to be revived in cycles, for every fall there is a revival.
The first reaction was just a reaction against the advent of colonialism. It didn't have much intellectual dimension, and it ultimately succumbed. The more mature response is the modern Islamic revival. Some people thought it would bring about a reformation of Islam; that it would re-interpret Islam to correspond to the status quo, like what happened in the West. But it was a renaissance rather than a reformation. People referred to the original sources of Islam to criticise, to transcend, to judge their historical state of being and to reform it. It was an intellectual current, and then it was embodied in the Islamic movements. I remember those early days, the 194Os; the most important thing about Islamic movements was that slogan that Islam is a state and religion. (Islam din wa dawla). That was the most popular slogan because it was new; people became suddenly aware of this. We had forgotten it completely; religious people all over, even though they had wielded political influence, had stayed away physically from politics. They would deputise other people to do it for them and they would be behind the scenes. So Islam as din wa dawla became the essential theme of Islamic movements.
The early populist movements, in Egypt (Hasan al-Banna) , in Iraq, in Syria, were highly politicised and they immediately engaged in politics, in electioneering, in trying to stand for elections, trying to lobby for Islamic constitutions or Islamic laws.
Then there was a setback because of the immediate reaction by the establishment. Most of these movements were oppressed and they had to go underground. They had to be secret, if not private, and they had to focus on education. They realised that they had come to politics too early and were too vulnerable and too weak to be able to withstand the resistance of the regime. So they went for education, and they had almost stayed that way; the traditional Islamic movements, the Ikhwan Muslimun and the Jamaat Islami, still shy away from politics. They don't like associating with foreigners and with diplomacy. They don't like association with government; even if they support sympathisers of government, they would stay outside the government. Like the Jamaat Islami sympathised with Zia 'ul-Haq, with the present order, but they don't want to join it. Ikhwan Muslimun, the same thing, they don't want to join the government.
Then other Islamic movements developed. Instead of being frozen at being just a movement for education and for influencing politics, hoping that out of a good society a good government will emerge, these other movements developed differently. One model is the Sudanese model, which started as an elitist model like the typical Islamic movement but then developed a popular dimension and became politicised. But then this has something to do with the development of modern society. In modern society, people have become very important. The newer movements like Khomeini or Algeria are popular movements, right away, without any elitism or obsession with quality, just masses and quantity and the people. It was only at this stage that people in the West noticed. Because, unfortunately, we depend so heavily now on the press as a medium of communication and the press only notices a phenomenon if it is dramatic and sensational.
But the movement, even in Algeria, didn't just erupt three years ago. The movement has a long background, but people only noticed it when it became political. This brought a big misunderstanding because these political aspects coloured how the people here viewed the Islamic movement as just a political movement I plead with everybody that we aren't a political movement exclusively. We are a religious movement for the education and spiritual development of the individual, and we have much more substantial achievements in the field of reforming society, in changing individuals and in moral education than in politics. But people are not interested in these developments. Nobody follows them; they would require a student of society.
The immediate impact of Islam in politics looked negative. People thought that the Islamic movement is subversive, or at least negative. This is natural; with every social change, the initial stage is always negative. You criticise the status quo. You want to criticise it, you want to transcend it, and you focus on the negative aspects first before you develop your alternative. Your alternative at this stage would be very general because people have not conceded the fundamentals of your new thought, so why develop it in detail? People are not interested in detail. They are not asking questions about what Islamic banking is, or about how the government would look They object in principle to religion being associated with politics, so you have to argue this question of principle first. That's why slogans like al-Islam howal-hal, or Islam is the solution, is very important. In addition, most of these movements have never enjoyed the freedom to develop programs. You don't develop a program by sitting in an ivory tower and writing out an economic program or a social program. You develop it in public life through interaction with public opinion. You present ideas, issues are raised, objections are made. You reformulate ideas to meet those objections, respond to questions. This is how political programs are developed, but most of these movements have been denied the freedom to develop a program, and then they were accused of not having any program. It has not been very fair to them.
Then one other thing, all around them there was complete bankruptcy. Arab socialism was a very important slogan but there was no content to it, except perhaps a vague belief in Arab unity, and in Arab integrity or Arab independence. But it did not tell you a lot about how the Arab economy should be managed or how government should be structured in a typical Arab society. And the nationalist movement aspired simply to national independence. This just meant changing a British administrator by putting in his place a Sudanese administrator. Once independence was achieved, these movements looked bankrupt. They were not prepared for anything else. They were completely consumed in the business of national struggle and how to achieve national independence.
So if everybody is bankrupt around, it is very difficult for you to develop a rich ideology or rich program. But all the same, Islamic movements have developed in countries like mine where there was a measure of freedom. Through dictatorships and democracies, Sudan is relatively a much freer country than many others, and the movement has never been completely frustrated. It had sometimes to subdue its political expression, but then it would diverge and change course by doing something in the field of the economy, or the field of society, or the field of culture and art, or the field of diplomacy. And, somehow, the movement has managed to enjoy a continuous development and developed an economic model. It addressed Sudanese problems like the North-South problem. More than any other political party, it addressed social reform, the status of women, education and what was wrong with it. It did develop a reasonable program, if I may say so. I'll elaborate if people are curious.
Another charge levelled against the Islamic movement is that it is not democratic. And before we go into substance, we have to clear up a matter of language. There has been in Islamic literature quite an argument about whether or not we should adopt a notion, even if we like the notion, or give it an Arabic name and somehow relate it to the language and the values, notions like socialism and democracy. Some of the objections to democracy are just to the foreign word itself, democratiyya, rather than necessarily to the influence.
And, secondly, people also judge democracy by association, not by what it essentially means grammatically-government by the people - but by what it has come to mean in the West. Along its historical course in the West, it has become associated with secularism, and that is definitely anathema to Islamic movements; with politics which is amoral if not immoral, and that's definitely something objectionable; and with cutthroat competition for power, and that doesn't sound very religious, does it? So some people who attack democracy probably need to attack it in this way. But people, either deliberately or mistakenly, call them antidemocratic. But these movements are essentially grassroots movements; they are populist movements. And if you scrutinise the model of the movement itself, it's highly democratic. The earliest Muslim brotherhood was led by Hasan al-Banna in the typical manner of a sheikh with followers; there was little that was democratic about it. And there was a view that shura or consultation is not binding; it's informative, it's persuasive but not binding on the amir, on the leader. But that was abandoned very soon.
In the Sudan, of course, the movement was started by young people who are equal ; there was no one who could proclaim to be senior in age or knowledge to become an absolute sheikh. All modern Islamic movements are highly democratic. They are based on majus shura, which is one hundred percent elected, and the leader is elected, and he's accountable, and so their model is democratic. It's definitely not dynastic; it's not a sheikh. In the Sudan when we went populist we exercised popular democracy instead of private democracy. It was quite an adventure. Everyone advised us to beware of the risk of adulterating our thoughts and diluting our movement by dissolving the movement in the masses. But we took the risk, and we somehow trusted the consultative, democratic process to work. And it did. We organised conventions. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was the typical elitist movement, was outnumbered 1-10, 1-100 sometimes, 1-500 perhaps, but all the same all the leadership at the regional, national level was purely elective and public with the presence of the press and everybody. The ideal, of course, is democratic Islam. Islam shuns absolute government, absolute authority, dynastic authority, individual authority. I'll come later on to describe the actual impact of the movement in developing society toward a more democratic form.
One other accusation is that these movements are revolutionary. This is a self-fulfilling judgement because most of the time they are denied the liberty to evolve towards Islam. It is only natural that any new order that is denied expression will build up below and then will express itself through a revolution; it's only natural. Most of the movements used to believe that you can reform society through reforming individuals and through reforming society you can reform government. That attitude has changed a little bit and people have come to believe that you need to reform from top and bottom simultaneously. Otherwise, life will become so tempting that however hard you work on the individual, he just can't make it.
Most of these movements were not initially revolutionary. They became revolutionary because there was very little option left. The domestic order denied them freedom of organisation and freedom of expression and refused to allow them to join the guild (?) at all most of the time. It is still the case in many countries that the Islamic movement is ostracised; it's exiled from democracy. And what could an exile do except somehow assert himself through the only possible means. So revolution has become more attractive, and people have come to believe that it seems democracy would never breed Islam. It isn't meant to do so, and if it threatens to breed Islam, to give birth to Islam, it will be aborted by someone, from outside or inside. And so people have become suspicious whether such a fundamental change in life can be brought about within the limited channels of the liberal democratic process as practised over there. "As practised over there" [in the Muslim countries] is a very important qualification.
Anyway, Islam seems to be inevitable. It's something that I wish, and I hope this is not just a wishful judgement. At one time nationalism was the alternative to Islam, but the only nationalism that is left today, for example if you want to assert indigenous values, originality, and independence against the West, is Islam. It is the only doctrine that has become the national doctrine of today. Islam is the only modernity because if the modern sector in our society represents modernity, then the modern sector is now dominated by Islamic currents. Students and university graduates everywhere represent modernity and they are the only current which exercises any measure of ijtihad, any review of history. Liberal politicians and intellectuals are not interested in Islamic history, they are interested in European history; they want to transplant European institutions. They don't know how to grow them in soil. They look so much to the West that they are not actually renewing, they are not deciding any ijtihad. If there are any mujtahidin, they are Islamists now. If there is going to be any renewal of Islam, they are going to be the ones to do it. There was a time when there was a risk that a rift would develop between traditionalists and Islamists, between the ulama, the mullahs and the modern elite, mostly Western educated and probably younger. Even their dress sometimes is different. They don't graduate from the same universities. You can see that in Pakistan and even in Iran. Governments have always used this bifurcation of the Islamic front; they have used the ulama, the traditional establishment, against this new threat because the new threat looks really very dangerous to them. The ulama have been domesticated, sometimes to the extent of providing the right fatwa; other times, they have stayed out of politics and just concentrated on private life.
But after the Gulf war, things have changed a lot. The traditional monarchies, which used to use Islam as a reference, as a legitimising factor, have now seen Islam used against them. In Morocco and especially in Saudi Arabia, the whole religious legitimacy of the regime has been destroyed. All religiously oriented people, the mullahs, the ulama, the Salafi establishment, the more modern intellectuals, all of them criticise the regime as irreligious. It is dynastic. The banking system is based on riba. The laws are in fact secular, although they call them by different names, not to expose their secularity. There is even a faculty of law hidden somewhere in the Department of Trade. All this has suddenly come to public consciousness now, even though most people have known it all along. So if tradition has any value, has any force, it is now on the side of the Islamists.
Until Iran, when you heard the word revolution you associated it immediately with something nationalist or socialist. But then Iran somehow Islamised revolution. If there is a revolution now, people suspect that it will go Islamic. In Algeria, of course, people had felt that it was liberal political parties which would compete for elections. If you want to avoid Islam, you have to avoid the ballot box completely because if you resort to it, Islam will win. And this is what many Arab leaders now say; for example, Jalloud goes about telling people, "Well, I know if elections are organised anywhere, including in Libya, I know which way they will go. They will go the way they went in Algeria."
One last resort for secularism in Muslim countries was the army. The army was used again and again in many countries, especially in Turkey, to correct the so called slide to Islam. Every time you allow democracy to function in Turkey, the Turks would gradually take small steps but obvious, such as Arabising the azan, or the call to prayer. Then the army would be used to correct that slide and restore the true power of Ataturk's secularism. After many attempts, they have despaired. Now they have allowed some measure of the Islamic tendency. A very significant thing happened in the Sudan; the army, there, was used under Nimeiri. I remember Nimeiri when he first organised his coup. The first thing he said was, "I came to destroy that so called Islamic constitutional document." There was a constitutional document prepared and being adopted ; actually, it was being debated. I could see where his priorities were because when I was taken to jail, I looked around, where is the Minister of Interior? I mean the coup wasn't against me I was in opposition, not primary institution in Islam, rather than the state. It's not the only reason why I'm not going to join the present government, although I am very supportive of it, and I almost identify with it.
Government is also limited not only as to function but as to power. There can never be an absolute government, because the sharia is always there on top. When Muslim governments were de-Islamised, when we were deprived of the sharia, we became exposed to absolutism for the first time because the sharia provided an absolute limitation on government. That's why in our history you don't read a lot about oppressive governments, about crises in human rights, and so on and so forth, because government was limited. And the judiciary was very powerful. It can evoke the sharia directly and check government. So government has to stay away from sharia injunctions. People were protected by the sharia, and governments were limited. But under colonialism, sharia was done away with and we were left with manmade positive law that removed the limitations set on government. Post-independence governments became very absolute. Even the so called democracies were actually democracy of the elite. Just like the democracy of the French Revolution; it was a democracy of one class of people. The issues were discussed amongst them and, although there were formal elections, the people were actually not represented in any sense. They didn't understand the process. They didn't understand the language, the issues themselves, and they were completely left out.
But in Islam there is public opinion, or what we call al-amr bil-ma 'rouf wal-nahi an al-munkar (to enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong). This is a most fundamental institution. This is not that people should enjoy their freedom of expression, but it is a legal obligation. An Islamic society would not qualify as an Islamic society - the Koran says this again and again - if it's not an active society that seeks to correct whatever is improper and promote whatever is proper. In the Koran, again and again, your society is based on al-amr bil-ma 'rouf wal-nahi an al-munkar; it ordains what is good and forbids what is improper. Then, of course, there is personal piety, and this is very important. When we pick candidates, we always look to the candidates who would also be observant, be God - conscious and be observant of his ultimate responsibility. Since government is not divorced from religion, there is always that ultimate responsibility. Of course, it is here that we have failure. The sharia has always been with us and has given us protection until it was abrogated. But there have been a lot of failures when it comes to whether society was actually exercising its obligation to check and correct government or whether those in government were pious enough to control themselves. So there is a discrepancy between the ideal and the real.
The authority of government is limited because sharia is the higher law, just like the constitution except that it is a detailed constitution. Government is chosen through consultation, shura as we call it. People have no access to public office except through consultation. And lawmaking is ultimately based on shura and ijma. The difference between shura and democracy - I'm going to avoid the association with democracy in the West, but democracy as government of the people - is that the higher law in Islam is so intensive that the legislature has much less to do or say. The legislature, the Congress or Parliament or whatever, is not sovereign at all. The sharia governs so much. Sometimes the rules are categoric and certain and you can do very little about them. Sometimes there are principles which guide you and curtail you, but there is a lot to do within those limits.
Then, of course, there is the spirit of consensus. If you read the Koran very little is said about government. The Koran entrusts authority to the people and not to the government. That's why the Muslims have always worked on the consensus, something that would unite them. They are free, and they are free to organise their differences. They can develop madhhabs, but they don't like madhhabs becoming rigid. They don't like parties. They don't like factionalism. They develop orders, but they don't like sectarianism. That is really the problem with the partisan phase of western democracy.
I don't think that parties are essential to the democratic process in the West. There were times when the West practised democracy without distinct, rigid parties - immediately after the American Revolution, after the French Revolution, after the British Revolution. And there are times, perhaps, in which Western democracy may very well go beyond political parties. I have been coming to the West for many years. I've studied in France and if I compare contemporary France with 20 or 30 years ago, it is totally different. Then the divide between socialist, between right and left was so big, you could see that different parties really presented different programs. When they offered themselves, they really came with a distinct mandate for socialism, or for capitalism, or for whatever. In France there is another divide between the radicals, the anti-religious, trained in politics, and between the Catholic influence in politics. So there were two divides and that is how French politics became very confused, especially during the Fourth Republic. But today I do not really understand what Mitterrand, for example, represents. He moves, floats freely and he co-habits, in his own words, with left and right, and he takes all forms. Compare the Labour Party today with what it was when I first went to England in the 1950s. Today I can't really distinguish between parties, except that there are two teams. You have an option between personalities, you can vote for Major and so forth; it isn't really two distinct programmes. I leave it to you to tell me whether there is that much difference between Democrats and Republicans in this country, and whether a presidential candidate is bound by the programme he pronounces, and whether by watching his lips you can really determine how he ultimately behaves.
Anyway, this has been our problem: we have never had a contemporary model. In the Sudan there was a convention; people were brought from all walks of life, and with due consideration to political representation. We did not identify people with a label, for example as Urn ma party, Ikhwan al-Musfimun, etc. They were asked what the best political order was, and they knew that a multi-party system in the Sudan would not be democratic because political parties or a government governed by the House of Khatmiyyah and the House of the Mahdi was a dynastic thing. People would vote for the Mahdi, because of his great-grandfather, because of his achievements in the 19th century. Likewise for Mirghani. His followers are indifferent to what he thinks today and what he would do, and would never ask him questions about the way he conducts politics. They would vote for him whether he goes left or right or whether he makes a mess of government. People also knew that a multi-party democracy in the Sudan has a limit to its age. It normally survives about four years. Three times we have tried it, and after four years it collapsed under its own corruption, because there is no responsibility. Public opinion is not developed; we don't have a very important press. People don't ask their sheikh questions. if he does something wrong, then he must have a reason why he did it; the presumption is always in his favour. The last time everybody knew it was time and people were waiting for the army to move in. They didn't know which army, who would come first, and in the name of what political doctrine. They didn't want a relapse to multi-partyism, not only for that, but because absolute freedom in the Sudan breeds a lot of chaos. The Sudan is such a composite country; it's not a nation; it's not a people; it's 150 languages and as many or more ethnic groups. It's not even a country, actually. There are no natural frontiers; just what the British, the French, the Italians and the Belgians slapped some words on a map and drew lines here and there to divide their own areas of influence. It's not a logical frontier at all, and so it tends to become chaotic; sectarianism, tribalism, ethnic groups, trade unions, and it's so chaotic that you don't really understand which way politics is going. The people didn't like a military dictatorship because the Sudan is so composite, you can't really centralise it and hold it with an iron fist as soldiers normally do when they assume the government in that part of the world. You can't hold the Sudan with an iron fist; it would resist. Again and again there was a popular uprising against military regimes, against Abboud and against Nimeiri.
People knew that it would be futile to try to govern the country by miliary dictatorship. Nimeiri tried a single party, a derivative of Rousseau tradition Of course: from Rousseau there were two traditions: the liberal tradition and the popular democracy tradition, where it's not the arithmetic will of the people as actually computed in an election, but it's the collective general will of the people embodied in a party that claims to represent them or a class which claims to represent them. Nimeiri tried the Socialist Union, but it didn't work; below the Socialist Union it was just different tribes, different political parties, just using the facade of the single party to express itself.
So people came out with a new model which they thought would approximate Islam. They don't know how it will work in practice. They are implementing it gradually, and this month (May 1992) they are going to go for local elections to see how safe it would be and then proceed next year to regional elections. Sudan is going federal, by the way; ultimately, there will be national elections for the President and for Parliament. Meanwhile, a parliament was nominated to develop the procedures of consensus. How would you organise debate in Parliament observing the spirit of consensus rather than the spirit of division and debate, dialogue and consensus rather than debate and division? This is the Whig Parliamentary tradition, debate and division. You go in different rooms and are counted in majority/minority patterns. In the Sudan, they came out with a new system. It looks like a single party but there is no party; there is no central leadership anywhere. It is "government by convention," they call it. Many people suspect that it must have been inspired by the experience of the National Islamic Front because it was based on convention. People assemble freely, without any inhibition, with nobody being ostracised or exiled from the political process, and then they elect their leaders, they determine their strategy, and they elect a council, a Parliament, a local council, a regional Parliament or a national Parliament. This is the fundamental nature of the regime, but It's more sophisticated.
The important thing is the process; the question is not one of flaunting democracy, but it is the democratising process. It will take time because the people follow their sheikhdom and their religious order. You have to liberate people first, before you can really entrust them with wielding power . There are many issues which will probably be raised. Whether everybody would participate, especially females, in the political process? The answer is yes. In early, Islam women did participate in the election of the third Khalifa. He was the only Khalifa where a deliberate process of election had to take place because it was controversial, whether it should go to Ah or Uthman. So elections had to be organised, and women did participate. Since then, of course, women were segregated and isolated, not only from the political process but even from public religion. They didn't even go to the mosques, most of the time. But most modern Islamic movements have a place for women, and not a separate place. They are in the movement and in the leadership as well and in the political process.
The question of minorities will be raised, but it is a question which I want to deal with separately in an answer to a question. It is not new because the first Islamic state was not a state of Muslims; it was a state with a very substantial Jewish minority, and the status of that minority's autonomy, and the immunities and freedoms granted to it, became a model later on for the treatment of minorities in Islam. And it's how the problem of the North and South in the Sudan is going to be tackled.
There is another question that I'll also leave for the discussion, which is the international dimension of an Islamic state. Is it true that the Muslims constitute an Umma, a community, and therefore there can be no territorial state? Can an Islamic state be based on a definite territory? And how will it relate to other Muslims beyond the territory? The model of the Prophet is also pertinent here. He organised a state in Medina, and it had definite frontiers; he set the frontiers, actually. But he related also to Muslims beyond. He was told in the Koran that supporting the Muslims has to be done subject to any treaty obligation with the Meccans. They don't enjoy full citizenship, but they are entitled to your support, and you have to support them but subject to your treaty obligations. That sums it up, more or less, because Muslims don't really believe in frontiers. Anyway, these frontiers are not of their making; it was the British, French and Belgians who made them in the first place.
If you have noticed that the Sudan is going a little bit international, that's not the revolution being exported - and therefore it has to be contained - it's just that people don't really believe that a frontier is relevant. There are people on the other side of the frontier, in the Sudan, that are of the same ethnic stock, in all directions: North, East, West. Actually, the word Sudan itself describes all this belt of Africa. So the Sudan is now opening up frontiers toward Ethiopia, to Chad. But this is natural and is also of value; it is inspired by value and also inspired by social reality. It is engaging in a program of complementarity with all its neighbours, something like a common market or one economic community, not just an economic community but one community, so to speak.
Just a word on how an Islamic state would relate to the world beyond Islam, beyond the Umma, beyond the community of Islam. There is of course the lesson of history. If I speak normatively, people would say this is so good, could it be true? Are you just portraying a visionary picture of how Muslims seek peace with others, how they are told in the Koran never to commit aggression, how the word jihad is actually a reciprocal word in its verbal formation; it means a struggle against the other, so it is essentially a defensive enterprise and not an offensive one; and how international law developed very early? A thousand years before modern international law evolved, books were written on international law, the protection of minorities, the strict observance of treaties, how trade and wars should be regulated.
International law is a very important part of sharia law, and it is just like constitutional law. Very early in Islam, people wrote books not only about political science but about constitutional law as well. But I'll also quote the historical example the Muslims have related to, especially across the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the empires of Rome and Persia were very expansive. They were expansionists and they related to Islam through aggression and, therefore, there was only a state of war.
But the Muslims know the territory of Islam or Dar al-Islam, the territory of war or Dar al-Harb - people with whom they are in a state of war - and the territory or the land of contract or ahd, or peace; these are people who are not Muslims with whom you can relate by trade and all forms of interaction. And there has been a lot of interaction across the Mediterranean, and I, as a student of the history of international law, know that modern international law owes a lot to this practice in the Mediterranean. It was not just Grotius and the Atlantic dimension of Europe that developed international law. The theory? yes; but the practice of international law was essentially economic to begin with; treaties, capitulations, minorities going there and trading, minorities enjoying certain freedoms, and minorities coming back, and, in exchange, how they should be treated in case of conflict or dispute and so on and so forth.
Muslims, of course, would always insist on an equal international order. So their immediate impact on the present world order would be corrective, because it is lop-sided, and Muslims don't accept a deal which is not fair to them. They believe in absolute justice to themselves and to others. And so just as Islam appears to be negative domestically in the sense that it tends to challenge authority and perhaps change it, and looks like a threat to authority (something subversive), it may very well take the same aspect internationally. Those who enjoy an advantage now under the present world order in economic relations between North and South, in the United Nations structure, in the area of monopoly of information or technology or armaments, will see that Islam constitutes a challenge because if it seeks justice, then it seeks to have someone concede a little bit so that we ultimately reach an equitable equation.
This is not because Islam is hostile to Christianity; Christianity is part of Islam. And it is not because Islam is bellicosely anti-Western. Most Islamic leaders have been educated in the West and they are partially, like myself, a part of Western culture. They know the West very well, and they are part of it and they are not, definitely not, hostile. It would only be transitional, hopefully, until we somehow bring about more equilibrium in the world order and then, perhaps, we would enjoy a peaceful world with a measure of plurality and multiplicity. The Muslims will not allow the world to be moulded in one pattern, one form of democracy, one form of economic system, one form of whatever.
It is in the interest of humanity that people should be allowed the freedom to develop different models and, in the exchange and the interaction and the dialogue, benefit a lot. We owe a lot to Western Europe and it's good that Western Europe developed away from Islam to some extent because Islam was stagnating. But Western Europe also owed, at one time, a lot to the Muslims - it was good that there was something else besides the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire because the sciences were developed there, and a different social order emerged. Even in the religious information of Christianity, I can trace many Islamic notions. When I went to France I could trace in the history of French law something that is owed to Islamic jurisprudence; in the sciences, of course, mathematics and medicine, that is known worldwide. So in the interest of humanity we should allow more international democracy. That is to say plurality, freedom, variety, diversity and then, through dialogue and interaction, seek to secure as much unity and as much coherence and as much coexistence as possible.
Thank you. I am sorry for speaking too long.
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