Islamic Revivalism: the case of Hassan Turabi and the Islamic state

The quest for providing a framework in which a modern Islamic state should assume, particularly along democratic lines, has long been a debate raging amongst Muslim scholars, religious jurists, liberal reformers, political figures and authors. This debate spurred the Islamic modernist movement of the nineteenth century with prominent figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna, Rashid Rida and Ali Abdel Raziq at the forefront. Islamic modernism attempted to reconcile the Islamic faith and Western political institutions in response to the rapid changes Muslim societies underwent, particularly against the growing penetration of Western imperialism into the Muslim world.

The debate lulled during the mid-twentieth century where nationalism thrived as a consequence of various independence movements, particularly in the Arabic-speaking countries, to be re-examined after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which resulted in the establishment of an Islamic republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Referred to as Islamic revivalism, it sought to provide an alternative to Westernization, by placing greater emphasis on the Islamic faith, and in the case of the Arabic-speaking countries, Arabic language and it’s cultural significance in a time of cultural and political self-criticism, following the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. The Islamic Revivalist movement promised modernization, an end to corrupt and undemocratic governance, as well as political oppression.

Accordingly, many excellent works revolving around the theoretical frameworks of establishing an Islamic state in democratic terms have been produced, however it is Hassan al-Turabi who provides us with more pragmatic steps to achieve a state, in his text ‘The Islamic State’. The text describes the fundamental characteristics of the universal Islamic state as opposed to a specific Islamic state. The Islamic state is described to have a limited government, offer a large degree of freedom to the individual, and offer much religious freedom in a religion-dominated state.

Hassan al-Turabi is a Sudanese Islamist born in eastern Sudan in 1932. Early on, he was educated in Islamic sciences, something he acquired from his father, a judge trained in Islamic law. Hassan al-Turabi studied law at universities in Khartoum, London and Paris and is described as “a man of brilliant intellect and ineffable charm”[1]. He returned to Sudan to lecture at the University of Khartoum in the mid-1960s and became involved in national politics. He founded and led the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Turabi never held an official post in government, he played an influential role in the political life of Sudan by being in charge of Sudan’s political redesign, something which he called an “Islamic experiment”[2].

Sudan is home to over thirty million inhabitants who speak approximately a hundred different languages, and are divided by regional and tribal loyalties. Despite this complex mélange, the overwhelming majority of the Sudanese is Muslim, thus Islam is perceived as being “the only modernity [and…] the only doctrine that can serve as the national doctrine of [Sudan]”[3]. In the 1960s, the political scene in Sudan consisted of four main political parties. The Communist Party, the largest communist party in the Arab world at the time, was popular with university students; the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, both of which were based on traditional practices of Sufi Islam; and Turabi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Turabi’s newly established party clearly differed from the other parties as they actively sought to establish an Islamic state and implement Islamic law in Sudan’s public life. With the help of Turabi’s pragmatism, Islam rode to power in a military-led coup d’état in 1989, with Colonel Omar al-Bashir in the forefront. Subsequently, Sudan embarked on a course of Islamisation in the 1980s and 1990s.

In his text, Turabi aims to “describe the universal characteristics of an Islamic state”[4] as opposed to describing the forms an Islamic government in Sudan or any other particular country should assume. Furthermore, he hopes that by providing a generic guide for others attempting to establish an Islamic state will help guide Muslims toward greater unity, in addition to broadening their understanding of the general and the particular in Muslim life. Otherwise, he stresses, one will encounter “the confusion of a multiplicity of Islams, determined purely by historical factors”[5].

Turabi stresses that there should not be any separation between the private and public spheres, (state and society), in an Islamic state because he argues that the state is a result of the evolution of society, i.e. “the state is only the political expression of an Islamic society”[6], and it is impossible to have an Islamic state without an Islamic society. Therefore, forcing the establishment of an Islamic state for the establishment of an Islamic society would be the equivalent of imposing laws over society, and this goes against Islam, because it is based on conviction and compliance.

Furthermore, Turabi argues that an Islamic state has four essential characteristics. Primarily, the Islamic state must be a religious state. The ideological foundation of the Islamic state lies in the doctrine of the tahwid, the unity of God and human life. This entails that the state is in no way secular, hence, all public life is religious and the state must “pursue the service of God as expressed in a concrete way in the sharia’, the religious law”[7]. Turabi argues that all Muslims have a duty of maintaining this condition and must reform attitudes and institutions in the event that public life slips away from moral values and norms of religion.

Secondly, the Islamic state is not a nationalistic state because “ultimate allegiance is owed to God, and thereby to the community of all believers – the umma[8]. Therefore, the Islamic state is not absolute and does not have imagined borders because Islam is universal and available to all. Although an Islamic state may have physical borders, the rest of the umma is not necessarily excluded. Turabi encourages Islamic states to develop links with one another in order to create relatively open borders for Muslims in order to achieve eventual Islamic unity. Thirdly, the Islamic state is not a sovereign entity as understood in a Western context. In Islam, sovereignty can only be bestowed upon a state by God and the sharia’, thus this rules out political absolutism and results in the development of constitutional laws, which limit state powers. This reinforces the final characteristic of the Islamic state, whereby Turabi argues that the umma is the primary institution in Islam, rather than the state itself. Therefore, the implementation of the sharia’ is left to Muslims to decide for themselves, as appropriate for their milieu. The sharia’ is what links the state to the individual and is thus best implemented by the individual himself.

Moreover, the Islamic state will be a form of representative democracy that is unfamiliar to Western states. The government of an Islamic democracy will be based on the sharia’, and since the sharia’ represents the convictions of the people; the Islamic government will assume a form of popular government. Because the role of the government is limited in an Islamic state, its main role is to guarantee “the supremacy of the religious will of the community”[9]. Therefore, there will be a consensus-oriented system whereby politicians and scholars participate in careful policy decision-making processes that will benefit the people. Turabi stresses the limitation of government powers because he wants to see a fair distribution of political power and economic wealth, as in accordance to the shura. Neither should an Islamic state degenerate into a corrupt system where there is a high concentration of wealth among a small number of people, because it will only be they who will be able to exercise their political rights and influence the decision-making process.

In addition, Turabi does not believe that a clerical or ‘ulama class should exist in an Islamic state because they do not necessarily represent the people and may even prevent the development of the state as a consequence of the rigid hierarchy it tends to create in the long run. An Islamic government should be stable because it is represents the people as well as their religion, thus the government should therefore “contribute positively to the political process”[10] that should aim to unite the population. Men and women of whatever background and affiliation are allowed to participate in the political process because they are equal before God.

Turabi also addresses the issue of non-Muslim minorities in an Islamic state. Non-Muslim minorities should not be conceived as a major problem because the first Islamic state in Medina included many non-Muslims, and so they have a guaranteed right to practice their religious beliefs. They may also be exempt from following specific laws laid down by the state if they believe it contradicts with a religious belief of their own because the Islamic state is flexible in the sense that it can allow for a “large degree of political and legal decentralization”[11].

“The Islamic State” is a significant text in the sense that Turabi has managed to develop a clearer guideline in implementing Islam at state level in comparison to other Islamists. Moreover, he proposes practical means to achieving wider Islamic unity, since his text contains many pragmatic elements, for instance, by improving relations between Islamic states and for allowing the Islamic state to be flexible in different circumstances, such as with non-Muslim minorities, thus greater individual freedom. However, he is vague in some cases, for instance, he does not explain by what means an Islamic state may come into existence, nor does he specifically explain how the government will cope with the economical aspect of running the Islamic state, because he focuses more on its responsibility to look after the social wellbeing of the population. Perhaps that is not his aim and this might be as concise as the text can become so that it can apply to any Islamic society in any social, political and economic context at any point in time. Nevertheless, Turabi has left a valuable contribution in the literature of the Islamist revivalism movement; because of its content and because of the significant influence it has had on a new generation of Muslims.

Turabi has gone further than other Islamists in describing the fundamental characteristics of an Islamic state, governmental functions, and offers possible solutions on the potential of issue of non-Muslim minorities. With this in mind, his text offers the first stepping-stones in achieving wider Islamic unity.


Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought (Princeton University Press, 2009), p207-223.

Miller, J. ‘Faces of Fundamentalism: Hassan al-Turabi and Muhammed Fadlallah.’ Foreign Affairs 73 (1994) pp123-142.

Viorst, M. ‘Fundamentalism in Power: Sudan’s Islamic Experiment.’ Foreign Affairs 74 (1995) pp45-58.

Photo source:!/image/1401687442.jpg_gen/derivatives/box_475/1401687442.jpg

(Hassan Turabi)

Photo source:

(Previous Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir)

[1] Viorst, M, (1995). Fundamentalism in Power: Sudan’s Islamic Experiment. Foreign Affairs. 74 (3), p46.

[2] Viorst, M, (1995). Fundamentalism in Power: Sudan’s Islamic Experiment, p46.

[3] Viorst, M, (1995). Fundamentalism in Power: Sudan’s Islamic Experiment, p53.

[4] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought (Princeton University Press, 2009), p213.

[5] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, p223.

[6] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, p213

[7] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, pp213-4.

[8] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, pp214.

[9] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, p216.

[10] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, p216.

[11] Eubn, R L, Zaman, M Q, Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought, p222.

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