Mahmoud Taha: Heresy and Freedom by Abdelwahab El-Affendi

The lowest point for the regime of former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri (1969–1985), if not for the whole of modern Sudanese history, came on the morning of Friday 18 January 1985. At that fateful hour (around 10am), a seventy-seven-year-old man was dragged in chains to the gallows, with tens of thousands of people watching, most of them cheering with glee. The courtyard of the main prison in Khartoum, the Kober prison, was full to capacity, and the masses were queuing for miles around in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of the spectacle. Just before being dispatched, the hood covering the convict’s face was removed so that he could behold the hate and condemnation in the eyes of the crowd. To the astonishment of all watching, there was a confident and benign smile on that well-known face, with its traditional parallel scars on both cheeks. Just at that moment, the hundreds of political prisoners housed in that jail shouted in unison a slogan calling for the downfall of the regime. His smile broadened slightly as he acknowledged the implied support. His face was covered again, and he was promptly hanged. His body was then winched in a helicopter and taken to an anonymous burial spot on the edge of the desert. His grave remains unknown to his family and friends to this day.

The condemned man was Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, at the time an established religious thinker with a small but dedicated band of followers, mainly among the educated youth. He was relatively unknown outside Sudan, and was shunned by the established religious mainstream. Already a Shari’a court had condemned him in 1968 as an apostate. But since Shari’a courts, a remnant of the days of British rule, had no jurisdiction beyond personal affairs, that was more of a fatwa than a judicial decision.

However, after Nimeiri announced sweeping ‘Islamic’ legislation in September 1983, things began to change.