I cannot think of a more timely arrival for Steve Howard’s excellent Sudan memoir, “Modern Muslims.” Howard retells his experience living with the Republican Brotherhood in Sudan in the 1980s while undertaking dissertation research in the country. The Brotherhood, while little known in the West, was a progressive, and highly influential political movement in Sudan led by Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Taha first began his political career in the independence struggle against the colonial British, and then grew his movement as a critical voice against the increasing extremism of both Sudanese politics and the Muslim world at large in the twentieth century. Taha’s vision of the modernizing force of Islam was centered on the belief in gender equality, continued deepening of faith for the individual, and social and democratic freedom of society. In his writings, Taha made distinctions between the divine prophecies of Mecca and Medina, noting that while the mysteries of the Quran were endless and perfect, Shari’a was meant to change and adapt to history. The Republicans were strong, vocal opponents of the oppressive rule of Sudan’s President Nimeiri and his “September laws,” or imposed Shari’a on the country. The Republicans objected to Nimeiri’s brand of Shari’a for its imposition of medieval law on a modern society, and its exclusion of the large Christian contingent in Sudan (especially the South, where armed struggle continued), ignoring the Islamic tenet that there should be no compulsion in religion.
In “Modern Muslims,” Howard details the ideological thrust of the Republican Brotherhood not only in theory, but also in the quotidian practice of its adherents. A Muslim himself, Howard lived in a Republican community as one of its members, striving to live more closely to the path of the Prophet. He explains that this arrangement provided him with a critical “Afro-centric” perspective, not gazing at Africans as an exotic “other,” but rather implanting himself as a learner in Africa to understand “ways to organize society that may be useful in the West.” This perspective is evident throughout the book, as Howard reverences the modern advances of the Republicans and their leader, not in relation to Western ideology or events, but centred fully within Islam and Sudanese cultural mores.
One of the most potent examples of this modern ideology is gender equality: the Republicans were adamant about the equal place of women in both the spiritual quest to the path of the Prophet, and also for greater social democracy and freedom. This was one of the most radical elements of the movement, and one which led to its greatest censure. Howard details the bravery of Republican sisters, living their faith openly in public, in a country which increasingly demanded the seclusion and guardianship of women in private life.
There is much to learn in this memoir, especially given the normalization of extreme Islamophobia in the Western world. The answer to Islamic extremism does not lie in Western belligerence and fear, but within Islam itself. Howard reminds us all of the importance of re-centering these conversations within the communities of people who live this diverse and complex faith. This book is a critical addition to the library of anyone wishing to move forward against extremisms within and against Islam. Nimeiri’s crack-down against the Republican Brotherhood, and the eventual killing of its leader is a true tragedy of thwarted progress and the victory of extremist thought. Nevertheless, the official suppression of the Republican ideology only grants it more importance, and more urgency in moving forward. There is ample fight ahead, and it is time we listen and learn from those already versed in crafting ideologies of peaceful resistance from within.
Book details: Steve Howard. Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir. Ohio University Press (2016). https://www.amazon.com/Modern-Muslims-Memoir-Steve-Howard/dp/0821422316
A review copy of Modern Muslims was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press.