Death ended Hassan al-Turabi’s long political career last March in the most suitable of places. Hassan collapsed in his office in the headquarters of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) in Khartoum’s upscale Riyadh neighbourhood as he was going about his daily business as party leader. He passed away in Royal Care Hospital, the top private health care facility in Sudan. The physicians treating him broke their Hippocratic oaths sharing details of his clinical condition on social media in apparent glee. In Hassan al-Turabi’s theology, this office death would equate with death on a prayer mat, prostrate in praise of the Lord. It was actually this claim that political action for the good of Islam was a spiritual matter, equal if not superior to actual prayer, that constituted his most significant contribution to the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the mid sixties Hassan al-Turabi led a sectarian split from the Sudanese version of the Muslim Brotherhood, modelled after Egyptian precedent, precisely on these grounds.
The debate at the time was framed as one between the ‘educationalist’ and the ‘political’ bloc. The first advocated a gradualist transformation of society through the education of individual members to become pious Muslims who could then inspire others. Turabi, on the other hand, was unsatisfied with the inherited notion of piety. A pious Muslim has the duty to face the challenges of the modern world, he argued, and these he located primarily in the nation state and the market. A modern Muslim’s engagement in the struggles of power, politics and business, is a form of ibada meaning servitude to Allah, Turabi opined. The position that Turabi advocated would allow a man like Nafie Ali Nafie, Sudan’s spy chief during the early 1990s, to torture opponents with impunity as a spiritual duty born out of the obligation to defend an Islamic political order. At the time Turabi made these arguments these events were in the distant future, and his reasoning was not only attractive but of epochal consequences. Young Sudanese Muslim men and women, who passed through school and university education and crossed class and racial barriers as they did so moving up social hierarchies, were in search of a way to live out their faith in Islam as well as their baptism in modernity in political terms. Many found Turabi’s reasoning enlightening and empowering. When speaking of this era Turabi fondly recalls that the Islamic Movement of the sixties and seventies was a fraternity of equals with no ‘sheikh’ standing above to dictate decisions, and he his partially true. He only ignores that the Islamic Movement’s inner democracy was a victim of his eminence. He continued to lead the Islamic Movement since that eventful conference in 1964 until he ordered its dissolution in 1989 with pervasive authority. His critics within the Islamic Movement vanished from the scene one by one in defeat. The Islamic Movement was Turabi’s horse as it were. He sacrificed it for the stable of the state.
In this Khalduniyan cycle of growth and decline, the Islamic Movement under Turabi offered its members, largely young men and women from small town backgrounds, a brotherhood and more important probably a sisterhood of equals. Men from affluent Khartoumian backgrounds like Ghazi al-Attabani fraternised with the Zaghawa Khalil Ibrahim and the Shilluk Mango Ajak under the banner of Islam. The assumed organic unity of faith was far from sufficient to address the deep historical divide between the riverine heartland and the peripheries of the country. Rather, the Islamic Movement proved a catalyser of fissions and the version of Islam it employed to win the state divisive and deadly evolving as an ideology of the state into a punishing racist doctrine of exclusivity rather than the universal challenger of zulm (injustice) that Turabi preached.
Whenever he enraged the state, Turabi could count on the shield of kith and kin to spare him the most rabid reactions of the powerful. As the heir of a Sufi hero married to a granddaughter of the Mahdi, Turabi could pursue his dream of power with remarkable bravado. He knew how to navigate and utilise riverine Sudan’s system of privileges while he railed against it. Turabi was a frequent inmate under Nimayri and under Bashir but his life was too connected to be cut off. Nimayri killed Abd al-Khalig Mahjoub, the former leader of the Communist Party, on accusation of responsibility for the abortive 1971 coup but spared Turabi after the 1976 raid against Khartoum from Libyan bases in which the Islamic Movement was full blown partner.Turabi, a school friend of Nimayri, reaped the benefits of the bloody operation in the form of a reconciliation with the rayes. Mohamed Nur Saad, the officer who led the campaign, was executed and Turabi became a minister. The alliance with Nimayri was crucial to the Islamic Movement’s eventual rise to power in 1989. Bashir incarcerated Turabi several times for alleged ties to the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) but sat at his deathbed in Royal Care hospital. Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the JEM and a veteran mujahid, gasped his last breath under a tree close to Wad Banda, North Kordofan, in an airstrike targeting his convoy.
Turabi argued his way through the contradictions of his political career by claiming that the Islamic Movement was continuously under threat from its adversaries and behind them Western powers intent on extinguishing the very possibility of an Islamic polity. Hence, he reasoned, it was justified to strike the alliance with Nimayri the dictator and US ally, and to carry out a military coup against a parliamentary system in which the Islamic Movement was kingmaker. Turabi’s anti-colonial drive, genuine as it might be, targeted the capture of the state inherited from the colonial order, a mission he did achieve. Beyond that objective, Turabi’s reworking of the state accentuated its coercive and extractive character and did little to domesticate it in favour of the peoples it reigned over. The state he was forced to part with in December 1999 when President Bashir declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament was an angry beast that wages war as a form of governance and still continues to do so today, not unlike its colonial predecessors. Turabi’s anti-colonialism is more ambivalent than it seems. You could listen to him dismiss Western education as a tool of cultural hegemony in terms a bit more subtle than Boko Haram and brag about his London Masters and Sorbonne doctorate in the same salvo of rhetoric. The sheikh as he came to be known believed in Western modernity but preferred to phrase his belief in an Islamic idiom.
Abd al-Wahab El-Affendi argued recently that Turabi’s true legacy, the embodiment of his intellectual contribution to Islamic reform, is Ennahda Movement in Tunisia given Turabi’s influence on its leader Rashid al-Ghannoushi. The admired Turabi here is the pan-Islamic champion of freedoms for women, universal shura, arts, sciences and sports; the mufti of modernity who fuses al-Shatibi and Hegel and is ready to challenge centuries of Islamic reaction. A keen disciple might manage to selectively patch together this image of Turabi from his written and spoken record. He actively nursed this image as an oppositionist during an era when ‘political Islam’ was a newly minted brand. Indeed, Turabi enjoyed stellar success with young women from small town Sudan who were seeking to overcome patriarchal barriers to their education and careers without breaking with the social system in which they were embedded. The left’s inability to think the Muslim woman limited the attraction of its agenda for emancipation despite a remarkable record in the 1950’s and 1960s. Turabi picked up where the left appeared handicapped. For a while, the charismatic Dr. Hassan enjoyed the status of a rockstar among women believers in the cause. The hijab which Turabi promoted to replace the cumbersome tob appeared to the cosmopolitan women of upper and middle class Khartoum a detestable symbol of suppression. The aspiring Muslim woman of small town and rural Sudan though found in the hijab a ticket to the opportunities of the capital city and the wider world and a legitimate licence to flout the gender barriers and roles of her upbringing.
In power, Turabi drew on the human resources that the Islamic Movement provided, the young men and women who looked up to him as a Mahdi of the new age, to cement the power he shared with the military officers of 1989. Rather then reinvent Islam for the lofty emancipatory purposes that El-Affendi claims were inherited by Ennahda, Turabi invested in war as a tool of nation-making. The faithful of the IslamicMovement, the Manshiyya resident cheering behind, flocked to the war fronts in southern Sudan to wage a jihad against their fellow citizens. When his purposes changed Turabi signed a political accord with the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) under John Garang, the very enemy he declared a legitimate target of holy war, earning himself several months in prison. Some of the faithful jihad veterans could not stomach the new twist and escaped the harsh realpolitik of the sheikh to the cushion of Sufi spirituality. The core Islamic Movement as such did not recover from the Turabist rollercoaster and is today a hollow structure displaced wholly by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Contrary to expectations, the NCP mutated beyond the control of its founder Hassan al-Turabi when his disciples turned against him preferring the shield of power under the command of the military to the trappings of Turabi’s transnational ambitions. The sheikh miscalculated and lost. He pursued a politics of anger for a decade before reversing course once again to become Bashir’s main partner in ‘national dialogue’. Turabi’s PCP rehashed the old argument of imminent threat saying the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt informed the decision. Hassan al-Turabi’s legacy, I presume, is not Ennahda whatever his influence was on al-Ghannoushi and his followers but the NCP and the injunction of prayer to the state.