Republican Brotherhood

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The Republican Brotherhood is one of the earliest examples of a reformist movement in Islamic societies that addressed issues of the status of women and non-Muslims in Islamic states.

The Jamhuriyin, as the Republican Brothers are known in Sudan, were founded by Mahmud Muhammad Taha in 1945 as the Republican Party, one of many parties struggling for independence from Great Britain. Although the party favored independence, it scored no electoral victories when independence was achieved in 1956. In 1958, Taha began campaigning for Islamic reform, after the 1964 broadly democratic popular October Revolution that overthrew the first military regime of Abboud. From its origins it has acted less like a party and more like a movement, and grew over the next two decades. Its youthful followers, female as well as male, engaged in public teaching and proselytizing on the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman, and at the universities. A parallel Republican Sisters branch was formed specifically for education and outreach to women, although Taha's seminars in his home were famous for being coeducational, with lively participation on the part of women.

The movement was unique in Islamic Africa and the Middle East at the time. Taha wrote a number of books and several hundred pamphlets dealing with the theological and philosophical bases of his reform program, which came to be known as the Second Message of Islam. The Republican Brotherhood was the popular name for what Taha called the New Islamic Mission, which was intended to develop a new Muslim consciousness with a modern vision of the faith of Islam and Islamic law, shariʿa. Taha's analysis was based upon historical and contextual analysis of the Qurʾanic texts revealed to the prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632 c.e. at Mecca and Medina. The earlier Meccan texts deal with religious belief and practice and are meant as a universal message for all humankind, whereas the later Medinan texts he saw as intended to reform Arab society through the newly enlightened community of Muslims. Taha argued that shariʿa and Muslim practice should be based upon the primary Meccan texts. His writings and teachings were circulated through more than 200 pamphlets, which ranged from the basic theological points of the Second Message to the reform of specific aspects of the shariʿa and the status of women. The Republican Brothers specifically called for reform of Islamic law in regard to women and Muslim marriage, seeking to reduce or eliminate expensive dower (mahr) and equalize the status of women and men in marriage. For example, they argued for marriage contracts that pledged monogamy on the part of the husband and gave both partners equal rights to divorce. Republican egalitarianism extended to non-Muslims as well; their religious rights and freedoms would be protected equally with those of Muslims.

While the movement generally abjured direct involvement in politics, it nonetheless opposed the Sudan government's Islamization of law. In September 1983, General Muhammad Jaʿfar Numeiri declared that shariʿa would be comprehensively applied as state law, despite the fact that one-third of the population, especially in the south, is animist or Christian. This precipitated a resumption of civil war over the issues of autonomy and religious freedom, which had been negotiated in the Addis Ababa Peace Accords of 1972. The Republican Brotherhood launched a major campaign against this imposition of shariʿa. With the divisive effect of Islamic law apparent, the movement intensified its criticism of the regime in a leaflet of protest issued symbolically on 25 December 1984. In response, the government arrested five Republican leaders, including Taha, charging them with sedition, undermining the constitution, and inciting unlawful opposition to the government. By January 1985, all had been found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death. All repented and received reprieves except Mahmud Taha, who, then in his mid-seventies, was executed by hanging. Within two months, a popular uprising overthrew the Numeiri regime; many of its opponents had been galvanized into action by Taha's death.

see also numeiri, muhammad jaʿfar; shariʿa; sudan; sudanese civil wars; taha, mahmud muhammad.


Howard, Stephen. "Republican Brotherhood." In Historical Dictionary of the Sudan, 3d edition, edited by Richard A. Lobban, Robert Kramer, and Carolyn FluehrLobban. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 2002.

Magnarella, Paul J. "The Republican Brothers: A Reformist Movement in the Sudan." Muslim World 72 (1982): 1421.

Taha, Mahmoud Mohamed. The Second Message of Islam, translated by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naʿim. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

carolyn fluehr-lobban