One man’s extremist is another man’s progressive. And sometimes they can be both at the same time. Take Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi, for example. Long derided in the West as an “Islamist extremist” that, as speaker of Sudan’s National Assembly, provided Osama bin Laden with a save haven in Sudan for five years (calling him a “hero” in the process), Turabi is probably best known for his involvement in imposing sharia law on Sudan, a move which exacerbated the 20-year north-south conflict that claimed thousands of lives and was only recently resolved. Turabi also convened a “congress” in the early 1990’s of militant Islamic groups from around the world, hoping to foster cooperation in training and smooth over divisions among the ranks. Wielding both a Western and Islamic educational background, Turabi used his scholarly influence and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Charter Front to orchestrate the 1985 execution of scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha for his unorthodox (read: liberal) Islamic beliefs. But, that was then and this is now, and as Turabi aproaches his mid-70’s, he finds himself, at least partially, on the opposite side of the fence. Having fallen out of favor with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Turabi was jailed and exiled into the opposition, where he now calls for dialogue with the West, sides with the people of Darfur against the Sudanese government, and stresses that jihad should only be waged “in self-defense and not in aggression against others.” And now, embracing ideological points that cost fellow scholar Taha his life, Turabi has now gone on record supporting a host of liberal legal reforms regarding women, including allowing Muslim women to marry Christian and Jewish men (citing the experiences of female Muslim Americans), making hijab optional, allowing the testimony of women to equal that of a man, and (just when you thought this debate was over) allowing “pious scholarly women” to lead mixed-gender prayers. “When there is a pious woman,” explained Turabi, “she should lead the prayers and whoever is distracted by her beauty should be deemed sick.” As expected, this failure of the traditional gender litmus test has resulted in former supporters of his scholarly aptitude in the religious establishment calling for his head. “Turabi should declare repentance,” said a statement by the government-supported Muslim Scholars Committee, “or face the sharia hadd for heresy.” Turabi has since stood by his statements in the face of criticism, earning respect from some quarters and condemnation from others. “What Turabi is doing is obvious intellectual confusion,” complained Abdul Sabour Shahin, an Islamic studies professor at Cairo University. “We have to look at the context of this matter particularly from the framework of ijtihad when it comes to the general issues of women in Islam,” responded Turabi to his critics. “The modern and contemporary Islamic discourse on women lags far behind the authentic Islamic rules and principles.”
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.