Exploring The Second Message of Islam

In the fourteen centuries since Muhammad received his first prophetic revelation, his followers are still trying to figure out how to best follow his religion. There are multitudes of exegesis, ranging from Fundamentalist to Traditionalist, Reformist to Non-essentialists. One Utopian Reformist exegesist named Mahmoud Mohammad Tahan claimed to have rediscovered the core meaning of Islam in the 20th century. He called his interpretation The Second Message of Islam and preached that Gospel as a justification for religious, political, and social reform.  

Mahmoud Mohammad Taha was born in 1909 to a pious family in a small village in Sudan called Rufa’a. He graduated from college in 1936 as a hydraulics engineer and used those skills at a railroad company until 1941, when he joined the movement for Sudanese independence. After the revolution in 1945, he became chairman of his own political party in called al-Hizb al-Djumhuri. He felt it necessary to start a new party because of his differing goals from that of the other prominent parties at the time. The Umma Party wanted a British Sudan and the Ashikka Party wanted unity with Egypt, while Taha’s party had one goal: an independent Sudan governed by democratic socialism. For the next few years he was an advocate for this goal, living in and out of jail due to his politically rebellious activities. Then he disappeared and went into a religious solitude called khalwa for two years during which he practiced Sufi asceticism and received divine inspiration. He then re-emerged into the public eye in 1951 with a new understanding of Islam that would revolutionize Qur’anic exegesis and revitalize his political movement: the Second Message of Islam. He preached this until his political execution in 1985.

Taha believed in centennial revivalism, declaring that one hundred years is the amount of time it took for religious understanding to get distorted. His interpretation of the Qur’an was the next logical revival. This movement was based on the subjugation of Medina suras to the Meccan ones and the so-called three levels of Islam: Law, Enforcement, and Freedom. Like with all Islamic precepts, people’s subscription to one of these levels was based on their personal capacity and also the capacity of their community. The first level to be revealed to the Prophet was the islam of Truth in Mecca, but society was not ready for this yet. Muslims had to flee to Medina, where the need for regulatory and defensive revelations grew. This led to the drop from the Islam of Freedom to the defensive Islam of Force. Once it became clear that Muslim society was there to stay, they were able to change to the Islam of Law, or shari’a.

This hierarchical conception of religion postulates modern Islam, or the First Message of Islam, as  placeholder for the true Islam; the prophesied Second Message. In preparation for that day, people should attempt to understand their place in the religious pyramid of reality and work towards ascending it. Humans all start at the base of that pyramid, which is shari’a, and are working towards understanding their individual law, shari’a fardiyah, so they can climb to where Allah resides at the peak. Although we can develop spiritually, this peak will forever remain out of reach.

Taha takes this religious concept and maps it onto his political ideology, labeling the threshold to this high religiosity to be socialism and democracy. Calling it tatwir al-tashri, or the evolution of the law, Taha claims that once there is no private property and everyone has a voice regardless of gender, race, and class, that is when society is ready to enter this next stage. The reason why society is unable to do this is because it is incumbent for all to do work on the personal end. Individuals in society developing shari’a fardiyah is the key to opening the socialist door to the Second Message. Unfortunately, everyone is conditioned to be only comfortable living in communities under group law and are scared of this individuality. Additionally, “Shari’a fardiyah addresses a stage of maturity and responsibility, whereas most people remain irresponsible children who wish others to shoulder their responsibilities.” This state of shari’a fardiyah is identical to the point of the pyramid and so, is unfortunately equally as unattainable. Similar to the infiniteness of God, there is no end to the perfection that one can achieve. This endless perfecting of oneself is the duty of a pious person. Just as God is an active participant in creation and renews the world every moment, so too must al-salik, or a diligent worshipper, renew their “intellectual and emotional life at every moment of the day and night.”

So what exactly did Taha preach in the Second Message of Islam? To understand that, one must first unpack the nature of First Message of Islam, and where it fell short in Taha’s eyes. In his book, Taha uses the First Message chapter to outline its shortcomings, listing aspects of modern Islam that were not original precepts. This list includes jihad, slavery, capitalism, inequality between men and women, polygamy, divorce, the veil, and segregation of men from women. These aspects of Islamic society that were not preached by the Prophet were instituted because of the capacity of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, which already had many of these institutions in place. For example, those that Muhammad were preaching to were already practicing slavery and therefore took this practice into their new faith. The First Message was as democratic and socialist as it could be for that time in history, but in the fourteen centuries since Muhammad’s death humankind has evolved to be ready for these aspects of Islam.

Taha condemns the process by which Muslims spread Islam by the sword after the Prophet’s death, labeling it as a movement away from true Islam and towards Islam of Force. It is a believer’s duty to offer their religion to non-believers before they even think of forcing them into submitting. In fact, for the thirteen years of Muhammad’s rule, the only method used to convert people was persuasion. Taha abhors making excuses for violent conversion, saying that “In justifying the use of the sword, we may describe it as a surgeon’s lancet and not a butcher’s knife.” The people who used force to spread Truth forgot that Freedom and al-mu’awadah, or reciprocity, are the most important tenets of Islam. Just as these shortcomings stemmed from the people’s capacity at that time, so does achieving a higher level of understanding fall under each individual’s responsibility based on their capacity.

Once one obtains this higher level of understanding, they are ready to enter into the Second Message of Islam. Confusingly, the Second Message was revealed first to Muhammad. The Meccan suras extolled the pure spiritual teachings of Islam, unadulterated by the regulatory nature of the later revelations. These revelations were entirely egalitarian and spoke of a world running  on religiously fueled democratic socialism: “a model of the perfect religious community which will come into being toward the end of time.” Taha calls this community the ‘Good Society’ that is based on economic, political and social equality. This is the part of his ideology that ties most closely to his political leanings. Unlike other socialist and communist thinkers who condemn religion, Taha believed that part of this utopian society will be religious awakening. The egalitarianism of the Good  Society is fueled by a new understanding of the original message that Muhammad received in divine revelation as told in the Qur’an.

Author Alan R. Taylor remarks that “His vision of a higher mankind of the future, endowed with absolute freedom and a perfected humanity, will appear to most as an example of metaphysical utopianism” This exegesis puts the responsibility on the individuals to develop their personal shari’a towards that goal. As people become more conscious that God is revealing Himself to people at all moments, they will purify their shari’a fardiyah accordingly and ascend the religious pyramid towards the peak where Divinity and the Good Society reside. In short, Taha equates divinity with a socialist society. His exegesis rejects all the oppressive facets of the modern Islam he was raised with in an attempt to allow a liberal Islam to grow from its ashes. This Islam would be able to stay traditional while incorporating the best aspects of Western society in a rapidly globalizing world. One might argue that the Second Message is an Islam for modernity.

For those who might be confused by the chronologically reversed labels of First and Second Message, it would be helpful to show examples. The most compelling and relevant example would be Islamic property law in relation to zakah, or the requirement for almsgiving. An early revelation from Mecca that represents the peak of the religious pyramid asserts that one should give away all they do not need, while the base requires only a percentage of your wealth to be for alms; “When they ask you what to give away, say all that you do not need” (Q 2:219) versus “Take alms out of your wealth” (Q 9:103). The individual living in the First Message has private ownership and specific annual alms, while the individual living in the Second Message has no superfluous property. In terms of politics, God makes it very clear in a Meccan sura that He is the only authority. God reminds Muhammad that even he is “only a reminder. You are not a controller over them” (Q 88:21/2) This is to say that any human who claims authority on earth is transgressing against God, and a true religious society understands this and implements a non-hierarchical community based on egalitarian socialism.

As has been discussed so far, Taha was a liberal interpreter of the Qur’an. But this is not to say that agreed with modern liberalism as shown by his assertion that divorce should not be allowed in Islam. Taha’s opinions ranged from fundamentalist to liberationist to nationalist depending on the topic of discussion. Additionally, his privaliging of Mecca over Medina became problematic to his egalitarianism at points, as some suras from Medina solidified some basic human rights. “It is after all a Medinan verse (Q 2:256) that states categorically that “there should be no compulsion in religion,” and it is in the Medinan revelations that women acquired legal personhood and specific inheritance rights.” Interestingly, this dismissal of some fundamental rights seems to not have been a dealbreaker for women, as female disciples flocked to his lectures and started a female version of his Republican Brothers party, called the Republican Sisters.

The Republican Sisters focused mainly on one aspect of Taha’s message: the reform of shari’a. Despite the fluctuating political groups in power, traditional shari’a stayed constant in the home and women saw Taha’s platform of equality regardless of gender and a prophesied Good Society to be very attractive. Formed in 1967, this group became so influential that the Republican Brothers almost changed their name to include their sister group but called it off to keep the broad recognition that their original name had earned them. This is not to say that they did not support their Sisters, though, as they protected them in their discussion circles and street preaching. This female participation was unique and unprecedented in Islamic intellectual and religious circles.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi best articulated the social attitude toward women’s religiosity at the time. He stated that religion was regarded “as an affair for men only. Religious observance among any but very old women was thought to interfere with the proper role and image of the woman, probably because the exigencies of religious observance were disruptive of male authority. Older women, who share and sometimes override male authority in the household, could get away with it, but for younger women the expectations were different and religiosity was derided and rejected as unbecoming. Modern Islamic activism was doubly disruptive, since it was a defiance of tradition and traditional religion simultaneously; it was a defiance that did not have the same aura of progress which Westernizing behavior enjoyed.”

The Brothers were nervous for the safety of their Sisters but Taha encouraged their participation and declared “that it was time for women to challenge the social attitude towards women’s intelectual participation” These Sisters who preached on the streets were verbally abused for their divergence from social and religious norms, but they took the abuse in the name of their pious humility and self-discipline. They continued to fight shari’a on the basis of human rights and as informed by their ideology of the Second Message of Islam, taking it further than their Brothers by printing and distributing pamphlets on the religious and constitutional basis for shari’a reform. After the execution of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha in 1985 the Republican Sisters and Brothers alike ended public campaigns.

Some critiqued Taha on the basis of his seemingly bloated ego. Entirely convinced that he was al-asil, or an “authentic one,” he considered himself a perfected human in the Sufi tradition. By claiming divine inspiration to his messages, some might have considered him to be dangerously comparing himself to the Prophet. In fact, it is unclear if he thought that he had prophetic authority or if he was just clarifying Muhammad’s message and attempting to restore it to its original purity. Those who speak for him would clarify that it was the latter. Another critique that he often receives is his lack of training in religious sciences. Having been trained as an engineer, his religious expertise came via his own personal experience, which raises some suspicions.

Mahmoud Muhammad Taha stands out with his unique exegesis, despite any critiques against him. His groundbreaking book in which he extolled the The Second Message of Islam represents an attempt to reinterpret a distorted religious system that became oppressive and foster religious and political reform in the mold of equality and friendship. By prophesying an egalitarian society based on his own divine inspiration, Taha highlights the necessity to disrupt discriminatory aspects of his culture. He does not suggest a burial of Islam, nor a recreation of it, but a remembrance of the true Islam of Freedom. As for the critiques against his religious qualifications, one might remember another ‘unqualified’ religious reformer; the Unlettered Prophet. After all, what is religion if not personal?

 

References

 

Abdel Halim, Asma M. “Women’s Organisations Seeking Gender Justice In The Sudan 1964-1985”. Review of African Political Economy 36, no. 121 (2009): 389-407. Accessed May 15, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27756288.

Afsaruddin, Asma. “Review Of Quest For Divinity: A Critical Examination Of The Thought Of Mahmud Muhammad Taha By Mohamed A. Mahmoud”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 1 (2009): 166-167. Accessed May 15, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40206085.

Mahallati, Jafar. “Class 5/1/18”. Presentation, Oberlin, 2018.

Taha, Mahmoud M, Abdullahi An Na’im, and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. The Second Message Of Islam. 1st ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

“Taha, Mahmud Muhammad”. The Encyclopaedia Of Islam. Leiden: The International Union of Academies, 1998.

Taylor, Alan R. “Review Of The Second Message Of Islam”. Middle East Journal 41, no. 4 (1987): 661-662. Accessed May 15, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4327670?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.