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Hasan Al-Turabi

The Mahdi-Lawyer

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

As young Sudanese intellectual returning to his country in 1964 after completing his doctoral studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Hasan al-Turabi seemed about to begin a career as a distinguished academic. Instead, he became one of the world's most visible and well-known Muslim activist intellectuals.

Hasan al-Turabi had an important appointment in the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum when he returned from Paris and was poised to become a member of the Sudanese intellectual establishment. Instead he gave a stirring oration at a political rally that helped to crystallize opposition to the existing Sudanese military regime of Ibrahim Abboud. Turabi was catapulted into the center of the Sudanese political maelstrom, and he has remained there ever since. He has been an important actor in every major political development in Sudan since 1964. Turabi is reported by most observers to have been the leading ideologue in the regime that came to power in Sudan in 1989 under the banner of establishing an authentically Islamic political system and social order, and even when he was relieved of his positions in 1999 he remained a major political figure.

The ways religious revivalism is understood have changed in the 1970s and 1980s, as has the sociopolitical context, in Sudan, and these changes are reflected in Turabi's career. In the late 1970s, before the Islamic revolution in Iran and before the attempt to implement Islamic law in Sudan was undertaken by Ja'far Numayri, the establishment of an explicitly Islamic state was a less emotional and dramatic issue. Turabi played a significant role in the political transition from the acceptance of the call to implement Islam as a pious (and usually innocuous) slogan to its development into a major political program that many view as threatening.

This transition took place in Sudan at the same time that the scholarly understanding of movements of religious resurgence and renewal was also changing. Many scholars still assumed throughout the 1970s that one important dimension of the dynamics of modern history was the inevitable “decline of religion” as a major historic and societal force. However, during the 1980s, the broader understanding of new social movements and a greater recognition of the continuing vitality of the major world religions created a context in which people like Hasan al-Turabi were recognized as significant actors in the sociopolitical arena.

Turabi's life and work reflect many important trends in Sudanese history, African history, Islamic history, and global postmodern history. The great danger in viewing Turabi in such contexts is that the real person can get lost in the construction of ideal types and stereotypes. The flesh-and-blood personality should not get lost in global and analytical constructs. Journalistic coverage often utilizes stereotypical labels that obscure the distinctive individuality of people like Hasan al-Turabi. It is useful to examine Turabi as an individual, then look at him in connection with the movement that he has been a part of, and, finally, put both into a broader framework.

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