Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and the Repuplicant Sisters: A Movement for Women in Muslim Sudan

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Abstract

This paper follows the inclusion of Sudanese women into the Republican Brothers Movement that was initiated by the late Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. It describes the difficult path chosen by a group of women dedicated to finding a place in their religion and in general what it took to be a Republican Sister. The instructions of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha to all his students and his particular attention to women offer a new perception of women's religiosity. The difficult path to transformation from the traditional view towards women and their practices was achieved through new interpretations and practices within the Republican Movement. The paper clearly offers the reasons why the Republican Sisters are a women's movement rather than some women who changed themselves without attempting to change women's status in the whole country.

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Introduction:

A recurrent theme in Western consideration of gender in Muslim societies is that women are Islam's victims. To find Muslim women accepted as social and political equals in their own society would thus seem to be a contradiction, but is, in fact, the story of Sudan's Republican Sisters. As Asma Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, daughter of the founder of the Republican Brotherhood told me while referring to the women in her father's movement, "We were the reason for this movement." (i) An examination of the experience of the Republican sisters presents women finding possibilities in faith that their countrywomen may have assumed were reserved for men. This was an Islam that did not accept the status quo or the definition of Islam provided by what the Republicans called as-salafiyiin ('the conventional' or those reluctant to consider a dynamic Islam). This was an Islam that embraced human development and democracy as essential components of faith. At the same time, the Republican inclusion of women in the practices of the Muslim faithful was made in a very Sudanese context and at a measured pace over the course of the history of the movement, the seclusion of women or "harim" being less important in the context of Islamic Sudan. The Republican inclusion of women was nevertheless not a guarantee that women would be incorporated into Islam without incident, and this paper describes the difficult path chosen by a group of women dedicated to finding a place in their religion. Our concern here is for the differential impact of the Islamic faith on a particular group of Muslim women.

Mahmoud Mohammed Taha (1909?-1985), prominent Sudanese scholar of Islam and university-educated engineer was founder of an Islamic social reform movement, the Republican Brotherhood. Taha's followers called him 'teacher' ('Ustadh), and dedicated themselves to delivering his progressive message around the country (ii).

The gendered topic of this paper brings to mind an expression often used by Ustadh Mahmoud to emphasize the importance that he placed on the role of women in his organization. He said, "Banati mu'alafati" (my daughters- female followers- are my work) which was remembered by the brothers and sisters as a signpost to guide them in their daily lives. The expression is a paraphrase of a well-known quote of as-Shadhali, the North African Sufi (d. 1258 c.e.) who referred to his followers as his knowledge. It offers insight into Mahmoud Mohammed Taha's strategy for Islamic reform, i.e. that it required patient hands-on nurturing of strength on an individual basis. Ironically, we know of the medieval teacher Abu'l Hassan Ali as-Shadhali not from his own writing, but from his disciples' writings about him. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, in contrast, was well known for his many publications, but his use of the as--Shadhali quote indicates the intense centrality of improving the status of women in Islam to Taha's mission, an effort more important than his writing.

In an important sense, women who became Republicans were discovering Islam for the first time and learning its power in the dynamic workshop provided by the Republican movement. …