Towards an Islamic Theology of Liberation
Does the work of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha announce the birth of an Islamic
theology of liberation? ln any case, reading this major work by a Sudanese sheik (The
Second Message of Islam, Al Risala Al Tania Min El Islam, Khartoum 1971) cannot
leave one indifferent. The deep convictions of this believing Moslem, his mastery of
theology, and the power of his argument in favor of a radically new interpretation of
his faith, in open rupture with the dominant fundamentalist creed, testify to the
importance of this contribution to Islamic renewal which, in Many respects, recalls the
Christian theology of liberation.
Taha finds in Islam two messages from God (in Arabie Risala), one immediate (the
first Risala in Islamic tenns) the other ultimate (the "second" Risala). To understand
the second Risala clarifies the debate, permits us to understand the first, and see why
the dominant Islam is content with it.
True faith is impossible without adherence to the second Risala, which can be
summed up in a single phrase: humanity was created in the image of God. Because
of this we are free, responsible, and perfectible. The lives of individuals are a constant
struggle to realize divine perfection, though there is always the possibility of distancing
ourselves from God. The life of societies as weIl has no meaning other than their
struggle to progress in the direction of perfection.
Taha deduces from this message a radical conclusion: the ideal society, which must
be the objective of aIl social struggles, that which creates the Most favorable conditions
for individuals to develop towards God, that without which faith will always remain the
victim of the limits which society imposes on the flourishing of responsible individual
freedom, cannot be other than a society which is socialist and democratie.
Socialism, according to Taha (who uses the Arabie term Ishtirakiya) is synonymous
with equal access to aIl of the material riches which human genius can create. It is thus
actually more like the concept of communism (in Arabie shiyuiya) than like the
experience and programs of historie socialism in the modem period. For, according
to Taha, in so far as these social conditions are not created, individuals remain
imprisoned by the egoistic compulsions which limit their ability to realize their potential
to grow towards God.
Taha also discusses the relationship between humanity and nature in terms of the
second or ultimate message of Islam. Nature is as much a divine creation as humanity,
whieh forms an integral part of nature. Nature is not, therefore, a collection of things
placed at the disposition of humanity. We can not grow towards divine perfection
unless we establish with nature a real equilibrium, deepening our knowledge of the
universe as an organized totality. This rule thus defines both the end of and the
conditions for the organization of production. •
ln its tum, socialism (or communism) has no meaning unless it is democratie, that
is to say, in Taha' s terms, unless it is founded on the absolute liberty of individuals.
For this liberty is the condition for responsibility, the guarantee that the choices that
individuals are led to make in each instant, in all their relationships, can lead them
towards (or away) from God.
Taha distinguishes the project which he defends in the name of Islam from that of
the historie socialism of the modem period. The Soviet model, among others,
according to him, rested on the egoistical compulsions of individuals --a characteristic
which Soviet society shared with modem capitalist societies. The contempt for
democracy in the Soviet Union came, Taha argues, from this contradiction between the
end which it proc1aims (socialism as the abolition of injustice) and its materialistic
philosophy, which ultimately forced the party to have recourse to the manipulation of
individual egoism. But if faith cannot flourish in the modem world (inc1uding the
Islamic countries), it certainiy couldn't flourish in any of the earlier systems (inc1uding,
once again, in Islamic terri tory) because the injustice created by this recourse to
individual egoism perpetuates itself. Without true faith, socialism is impossible.
So goes the "second" or ultimate message of Islam in the theology which Taha
proposes. This message Islam shares with ail of humanity's other forrns of religious
expression. For Islam thus conceived has always existed. Il is not to be dated from
the Koranic revelation. It is the "religion of God," that is to say it has existed in ail
times, and is expressed in, among other things, the Jewish, Christian, and other
But the "religion of God" (Islam), while it has known earlier expressions, is also
present in the Koranic revelation, which contains, alongside the "ultimate" message, a
more immediate and conjunctural one. For God is always present. He intervenes in the
lives of both individual human beings and the lives of societies. He sends messages,
commandments which address the people in language they are able to understand at any
given moment. These messages, which are conjunctural, help individuals and societies
to correct themselves, to take one small step (but not necessarily anything more) on the
road towards God. This is why they can seem contradictory, if one takes them literally
and gives them an absolute significance which they don't have.
ln the Koranic revelation, as in the Tradition (the Sunna), it is thus necessary to
distinguish between the ultimate message and the conjunctural commandments. ln his
careful, scholarly textuai analysis, Taha argues that the ultimate message occupies a
dominant place, at the beginning of the Revelation, in the Meccan suras. Here the
Revelation concems itself not with the development of society but oniy with the essence
of the faith (the human being, free and responsible, was created in the image of the one
ail powerful God). On the contrary, the opportunity having offered itself to organize
a slightly better society than that which existed in the Arabia of the day, at Medina,
around the Prophet, a society capable of taking a few steps on the road towards God,
God did not hesitate to intervene to help humanity in structuring it. Taha argues that
the commandments made to this society should thus be read as conjunctural, not as the
final image of the ideal society, the realization of the absolute. ln this context Taha
treats eight distinct questions which Moslems generally consider to be regulated by the
Law (the Sharia') as it was expressed in the Medina community:
1) Holy War (the Jihad),
2) slavery (Al Riq),
3) capitalism (Al Rismalia) --one can read this as the question of economie
management of society by means of private property and licit commerce,
4) the inequality of men and wornen,
6) divorce and repudiation (Al Talaq),
7) the veiling of women (Al Hijab), and
8) the separation of men and women in social life.
By means of a careful analysis of sacred texts, Taha defends his theology, putting
the accent on ail of the nuances which demonstrate, according to his reading, the
conjunctural character of the solutions brought by the law in its time and place. Each
of the chapters concerning these eight questions carry a title in the same from Holy
War is not fundamental in Islam, Polygamy is not fundamental in Islam etc .
Unfortunately Moslems, like many other peoples, were satisfied with the immediate
message and its commandments. ln putting the accent on obedience to these, they
spared themselves the far more difficult task of progressing !long the road indicated by
the ultimate message --the road towards God. They ritualized and dogmatized religion.
This satisfied the reactionary forces of domination and exploitation. Taha conc1udes
with severity: they have not created an Islamic community (muslimoun) but oniy a
community of believers (muiminun).
Taha tried to preach actively against the conservative, ritualistic, formalist
interpretation of Islam, which respects oniy the immediate message, and for an
interpretation which put an accent on the ultimate message, calling people to action for
the transformation of society in a direction favorable to the development of faith. He
did this through his writings and through his words, and he organized around himself
a body of militant students dedicated to his vision.
This was his crime, in the eyes of the politicians who, behind the mask of political
Islam, reject democracy, give aid and comfort to capitalism, taking absolute power, and
reducing their people to moral slavery. He was condemned to death by the "tribunals"
of the Islamic Brotherhood, under the direction of the imposter Tourabi. He was hung
--at the age of 70. His books have been forbidden and bumed.
translated from the original French by Anthony Mansueto