The Political Thought of Hasan al-Turabi

by Saleem Abu Jaber (Author)
©2021 Monographs 158 Pages


Hasan al-Turabi (1932-2016) was born into a Sudanese family with a clerical and Sufi history. Whilst studying law at the University of Khartoum, he became a leader of the Islamic student movement. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of London, he achieved a PhD at the University of Sorbonne in 1964. Upon returning to Sudan to pursue an academic career at the University of Khartoum, he soon became one of the leaders of the Islamic National Front. After being imprisoned for nearly seven years, he went on to hold numerous government posts, culminating in his most influential period during the rule of ‘Umar al-Bashir. He ultimately fell out of favour with the government, and faced trials and imprisonment. The Political Thought of Hasan al-Turabi identifies Turabi as arguably the leading Sudanese Islamic political thinker and activist of recent times, and sets out the main influences upon Turabi’s thought. Yet it is demonstrated that Turabi was an original thinker, who digested but then adapted the thought of his predecessors. Whilst his political goal was to politically unite the Islamic world, he also strove to improve relations with the non-Muslim world. Furthermore, his political thought sought to unite the Muslims and non-Muslims of Sudan in a peaceful unity, whilst working to raise the status of the poor and women.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Modern Islamic Thought
  • 2. The Islamic Awakening
  • 3. The Life and Distinctive Intellectual Traits of Hasan al-Turabi
  • 4. The Contemporary Ideology of Hasan al-Turabi
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The Sudanese Context

Sudan can be seen ethnically and culturally as a microcosm of Africa, in terms of geography, the nature of man and civilisation. Sudan is not only Africa’s largest country, but it is also known as a ‘geographical mediator’ between Africa’s different regions. Extending to eastern and western Africa, and linking northern Africa to tropical Africa, the Sudanese plateau is the place where the peoples of Africa integrate with one another, and integrate with the Arabs. The Sudanese plateau lies on the border between Muslim and non-Muslim Africa, and between Arabic-speaking regions and other regions of the continent. This prime location at the meeting point of strategic and civilisational roads reflects the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity that characterises Sudanese society. Consequently, it is a main focal point for the interaction of many different races and cultures. The Sudanese writer Muhammad Abu al-Qasim Hajj Hamad describes Sudan, saying, ‘It is the only place that the Arabs conquered in Africa where there was an ←1 | 2→interaction of diverse African factions with their varied origins, lineages and cultural formations.’

Sudan is divided into the North and the South. The majority of the population in the northern part is Muslim. The majority of the population in the south are non-Muslims and do not claim to be Arabs, though certain southern groups are influenced, to a limited extent, by the Arabic language and Islam. Prior to the dominance of Islam in the region, Sudan was divided into two Christian kingdoms: the Kingdom of Makuria, with Dongola as its capital; and the Kingdom of Alwa, with Soba as its capital. These two kingdoms lasted for four centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. During this period, there were waves of migrations of Arab tribes to Sudan: from the north through Egypt, from the east through the Hijaz and from the west through Morocco. This Arab migration, and the cultural and commercial ties that accompanied them, contributed to the spread of Islam and Arabic in Sudan, which in turn shaped a new political system in the country.

The beginning of a dominant Arab-Islamic culture in Sudan can be traced to 1504 when the Sultanate of Fung was founded. The establishment of this Islamic culture was undertaken through the pioneering efforts of Islamic jurists from Egypt and the heads of Sufi orders who came mainly from the Hijaz. Accordingly, the form of Islam that spread in the region was one with a mystic scent, which gave Sudanese Islamic culture a distinctive trait to those in neighbouring lands. In addition, it is noteworthy that Islam was spread peacefully in Sudan through the efforts of merchants and nomadic tribes, not through invasions or military campaigns.

It could be argued that the history of the modern Sudanese polity began with the Turkish occupation and the European occupation, especially by Britain, during the first part of the 19th century. In 1821, the forces of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, occupied Sudan. This occupation ended upon the revolution of 1881 led by Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah (known simply as the Mahdi). This revolution called for a return to the essence of Islam and its early purity, and it was also a national liberation war against the Egyptian-Turkish occupying forces and their corruption. The revolution culminated with the liberation and unification of the people of Sudan and the rise of the sharia-based ←2 | 3→Mahdist state. Indeed, this liberation movement is the foundation of contemporary Sudanese nationhood and statehood.

The rule of the Mahdist state ended in 1898 as a result of the English-Egyptian invasion. Subsequently, Sudan entered into the phase which was later referred to as ‘the phase of dual government’. ‘Dual government’ was a term coined by the British to reflect the right of Britain and Egypt to rule Sudan. However, Britain would soon expel the Egyptians, and in the process became effectively the sole ruler of Sudan. In ruling Sudan, Britain adopted a divide and rule policy through an indirect system of government, relying on sectarian and tribal leaders. The purpose was to sow enmity among such groups in order to perpetuate disunity. As for South Sudan, the British occupation adopted what was referred to as ‘the Southern Policy’. The objective of the latter was to separate the South administratively, and to isolate it politically from the national currents that began to emerge in the North. According to the British historian P.M. Holt, ‘[T]‌he Southern Policy of the British administration worked on the gradual separation of the South, and sowing the seeds of communal distinctiveness and tribalism. As in the North, the primary purpose was to stop and obstruct any move towards homogeneity and national cohesion.’

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain decided to grant Sudan independence gradually, and to integrate the North with the South within a single state, as this was most expedient in light of Britain’s declining colonial power. However, signs of discord emerged as a result of Britain’s colonial policy: some of the Southern forces rebelled in 1955, and there was an increase of sectarian conflict and political differences between the traditional parties, such as the Federal National Party, the Umma Party and the People’s Democratic Party. These attitudes would come to characterise the first period of independence. When the Sudanese parties decided to declare independence from Sudan’s parliament, after an official motion in 1954, the Southern representatives refused to consent to independence without obtaining a solemn promise by the political parties to adopt a federal system under a permanent constitution. The Northern representatives unwillingly approved. Subsequently, Sudan achieved its independence in January 1956.

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As a result of sectarian and tribal struggles, and the antagonistic differences between the various political parties, a series of military coups occurred. The first coup took place in 1958, and it was led by General Ibrahim Abboud. This was followed by the popular October Revolution in 1964. Then, in 1969, there was the military coup led by Jaafar Nimeiry, who continued in power until 1985. In an attempt to legitimise his rule, Nimeiry held a referendum in October 1971, which resulted in making him president of the Republic. In 1973, he formed the Sudanese Socialist Union which was modelled after the Arab Socialist Union of Egypt sensu strectu.

The Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972 between Jaafar Nimeiry’s government and the South Sudan Liberation Movement was one of the most important achievements of Nimeiry. The Agreement put an end to the civil war in the South, which had lasted around seventeen years. In addition, his success in 1977 in achieving a national reconciliation agreement with all the political opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood led by Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, was a significant accomplishment. This led to Turabi agreeing to join Nimeiry’s government, dissolve his party and become a state servant. The national reconciliation served Nimeiry’s own interests, as he was able to weaken the opposition political blocs and gain the support of Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers and members. As the Sudanese writer Muhammad Bashir Hamid says, ‘[T]‌he reconciliation allowed President Nimeiry the freedom to manoeuvre, and enabled him to strengthen his base in the army and in the Socialist Union, and to eliminate some rivals and elements in both bodies whose loyalty was doubted, or whose ambitions were worrying.’ Subsequently, Nimeiry announced the implementation of the Islamic sharia in 1983.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation soon collapsed due to the disagreement between the ruling elite in the Socialist Union and the representatives of the former opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood, under the continuing leadership of Turabi, gained momentum due to their presence within the institutions of the regime, and began to widen their influence gradually and quietly, so as to avoid the reaction of Nimeiry or other foes in the ruling Socialist Union. As a result of the corruption which Nimeiry had allowed to seep into all institutional sectors, ←4 | 5→the exacerbation of the economic crisis and the strength of the political opposition, Nimeiry faced huge popular demonstrations calling for his fall. On 6 April 1985, the Sudanese armed forces, under the leadership of General Abd al-Rahman Siwar al-Dahab, sided with the demonstrators and removed Nimeiry from office. Nimeiry’s regime was replaced by a military council which took charge of the country for a limited transitional period, pending the holding of general elections. Subsequently, a coalition government, led by the National Umma Party and the Federal Democratic Party, was formed in April 1986. However, this government faced a severe economic crisis and waged war against the South led by John Garang. As a result of these difficulties and the problems besetting the government coalition, the Sudanese government assessed that it was in its own interests to place the Islamic Front in power. Accordingly, Turabi, the Islamic Front leader, was firstly appointed minister of justice and then as the attorney-general of Sudan in 1988. In 1989, when al-Sadiq al-Mahdi formed a new government, Turabi was appointed as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Yet, this government did not last more than two months. In January 1989, a group of officers led by Lieutenant General Umar al-Bashir carried out a military coup and seized power. Most of the officers who conducted the coup were from the Islamic Front, or were affiliated with it. Governing Sudan in accordance with the Islamic sharia was Turabi’s grand objective. In the aftermath of the coup, Turabi became the wielder of power in Sudan, with al-Bashir considered to be a loyal soldier of the ruling Islamic Front led by Turabi. In 1991, al-Bashir announced the reapplication of the Islamic sharia, and the prohibition of beverages forbidden by Islamic law, and embarked on establishing Islamic norms in all the regions of Sudan.

The aforementioned gives us the essential background to the life of Hasan al-Turabi, the main focus of our study here. His importance is confirmed by the understanding that he is one of the leading thinkers of the modern Islamic awakening. Although his life is detailed in Chapter 3, it is worth giving an overview at this stage. He was born in Kassala in eastern Sudan in 1932, and he studied law at the University of Khartoum. As a student, he became one of the leaders of the Islamic Student Movement. He received a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of London in 1955 and a master’s degree in 1957, and then a ←5 | 6→doctorate from Sorbonne in 1964. He spoke Arabic, English and French. He began his work as a professor of constitutional law. Then he became Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum in 1964. In the same year, he participated in leading the October Revolution against the military regime in Sudan. During the following year, Turabi was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly. He also became one of the leaders of the National Islamic Front. In 1969, he began a new phase of his life when he was imprisoned for nearly seven years. The next phase of his life began in 1981 when he was appointed by Nimeiry as a deputy general, and the following year as an adviser to the president. Later in 1988, he was appointed as minister of justice and then minister of foreign affairs. Turabi is considered to be the main architect of the coup which led to ousting Nimeiry in 1989. Subsequently, he assumed the post of secretary general of the Arab-Islamic People’s Congress. In 1996, he was elected as president of the National Council in Khartoum until Bashir removed him. His final years were beset with trials and imprisonments, after he fell out of favour with the government. He passed away in 2016.

The Structure of the Study

This research tackles an important contemporary phase in the history of Sudan, where changes have taken place at the local, national and international levels. The study includes five chapters.

Chapter 1 includes an overview of important Islamic thinkers who are relevant to our discussion, including Ibn Khaldun, Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. The second part of this chapter identifies the nature of the Islamic political movement during the colonialist era. Finally, the third part of the chapter discusses how the principles of Islamic political thought played a role in feeding the revolutionary movement in the Arab Levant.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of contemporary Islamic political thought in the Arab and Islamic World. It provides an account of the international Islamic awakening; in particular, the Islamic awakening ←6 | 7→in the Arab world and the extent of its influence on Sudan, with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 158 pp.

Biographical notes

Saleem Abu Jaber (Author)

Saleem Abu Jaber is Academic Advisor and Head of the Arabic Speakers Track at Achva Academic College. He received a BA from Tel Aviv University, a MA from Bar-Ilan University, a PhD from Tel Aviv University and a PhD degree from Saint Petersburg University.


Title: The Political Thought of Hasan al-Turabi