Towards an Islamic Theology of Liberation

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 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,

5) polygamy,

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