Islamic Studies Hassan al-Turabi
Abdelwahab El-Affendi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0200


Hassan al-Turabi (full name: Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi, b. 1932) is a prominent, and often rather controversial, Sudanese Islamic scholar, activist, thinker, and politician. Al-Turabi came to prominence in 1964, as a leading figure in the nonviolent popular revolution that toppled the conservative military dictatorship in October that year. In the years that followed, he played a controversial, but very influential role in Sudanese politics. Despite being a leader of a small Islamist party with no more than seven members in parliament, al-Turabi managed to force the question of the “Islamic Constitution” onto the agenda and engineer a consensus around it. Al-Turabi personally played an influential role as a leading figure in the Constitutional Commission in parliament and in the Round Table Conference of 1965, which tried to tackle the civil war in the South. That is why, when secularists opposed to the idea of an Islamic constitution led a military coup in May 1969, al-Turabi and his group were singled out for particularly intense, and at times violent, persecution. Al-Turabi came to prominence again in the 1970s and early 1980s, as a celebrated Islamic reformer who sought to reform Islamic thought in social and political areas along pragmatic, some could say liberal, lines. This earned him bitter condemnation from conservative ulama and salafi-inclined scholars, inside and outside the country, and a period of ostracism by the Egyptian-led pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. It was also partly responsible for a split within his own movement, with the conservative wing forming its own rival “Muslim Brotherhood” organization in 1980. However, his ideas also inspired more pragmatic, quasi-liberal, and pro-democratic Islamist movements in Tunisia, Turkey, and Malaysia, among others. Al-Turabi stirred another string of controversies, however, this time for being anti-democratic and authoritarian. This started when the movement decided to join the regime of President Gaafar Nimeiri in 1977, with al-Turabi’s role within the authoritarian regime, and his support for Nimeiri’s controversial Islamization measures seriously undermining his credentials as a modernizing reformer. This image was all but destroyed when it became clear that al-Turabi had masterminded the coup that toppled Sudan’s fledgling democracy, in June 1989, and had presided over serious human rights violations in subsequent years. Since his forced removal from power by his own Islamist colleagues and disciples in December 1999, al-Turabi has been working hard to restore his previous image as a pro-democracy reformer, but it is a major uphill battle, to put it mildly.

General Overviews

Al-Turabi did not publish many major works during the early part of his career, preferring to express his ideas mainly in lectures, interviews, and small pamphlets, or to implement them in building social and political movements and in legislation and government programs. The situation is not helped by the relative paucity of literature on Sudan in general and on the Sudanese Islamist movement in particular. The recent increase in publications on Sudanese issues has only partially remedied this gap, as most of the literature is engulfed in the polemics and controversies that have plagued Sudanese politics in recent years. With the help of his supporters, he has been trying to remedy this by producing a series of new works or collected volumes of his earlier short interventions. However, the close interconnection between his politics and his intellectual contributions creates a serious problem about ascertaining where he stands on many issues. As a politician, al-Turabi has often taken contradictory positions at different times, as well as different positions in public and private. Of late, al-Turabi has been trying to remedy this problem by working hard to clarify his position, often taking a more daring stance on many contentious issues. However, his controversial political biography continues to overshadow these efforts. It would appear that the politician in al-Turabi has trumped, and almost obliterated, the intellectual and religious reformer. This makes it essential to approach the available material with care in order to get the full picture. In this regard, Esposito and Voll 2001 is useful in trying to get a reasonably balanced picture. El-Affendi 1991 (originally a PhD thesis) offers a nuanced reading and is a more comprehensive introduction to Islamist politics in Sudan. Aḥmad 1982 is a semi-official history of the movement, while al-Turabi 2008 is intended to be an official one, but is rather schematic. Hamdi 1998 is also a sympathetic portrayal by one of al-Turabi’s protégés, offering al-Turabi a platform to elaborate on his reforming ideas and defend his controversial politics. Abd al-Salam 2010 belongs to a different era, following al-Turabi’s accession to power and subsequent fall. But it is also a staunch defense of al-Turabi’s line on the split within Sudanese Islamism and a fierce indictment of his opponents in the regime. By contrast, Gallab 2008 is an unequivocal and comprehensive condemnation of Sudanese Islamism and its politics, and a declaration of its failure and bankruptcy.

  • Abd al-Salam, Al-Mahboob. Al-Haraka al-Islamiyya al-Sudaniyya: Khuyut al-Daw’, Da’irat al-Zalam). Cairo: Madarik, 2010.

    This is the mirror image of Gallab’s work, dealing with al-Turabi’s decade in power, but this time from the perspective of al-Turabi’s camp. Using plenty of inside information, the book chronicles the inner struggles within the movement and the regime, but insinuaes that al-Turabi’s opponents had been conspiring against him from the beginning and were the main culprits in the excesses of the regime.

  • Aḥmad, Ḥasan Makkī Muḥammad. Ḥarakat al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn fī al-Sūdān, 1949–1969. Khartoum, Sudan: Institute of African and Asian Studies, 1982.

    This is the first semi-official history of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, published when the movement was officially banned (even though its leaders participated in government). For this reason, the book does not tackle the period after 1969 and is circumspect about a number of issues. However, it remains an important source on the movement’s early history.

  • Al-Turabi, Hassan. The Islamic Movement in Sudan: Its Development, Approach, Achievements. Translated by Abdelwahab El-Affendi. Beirut, Lebanon: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2008.

    A self-evaluation of the movement’s trajectory and its ideas and political orientation. Like most of al-Turabi’s later works, it is a based on transcribed seminar presentations and discussions edited by al-Turabi. The work was published in Arabic in 1989, and so does not cover the period following the June 1989 coup. The account is often overly abstract and is short on detail.

  • El-Affendi, Abdelwahab. Turabi’s Revolution: Islam and Power in Sudan. London: Grey Seal, 1991.

    An early introduction to al-Turabi that places Sudanese Islamism within the context of modern Sudanese history. It outlines Turabi’s “ideological revolution”—the radical transformation of the ideas and practice of the movement, which made it more open and adaptive, and which brought it into the center of Sudanese politics. The book covers the period up to 1986, when the radically restructured National Islamic Front became the third largest party in parliament.

  • Esposito, John, and John Voll. Makers of Contemporary Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195141283.001.0001

    The entry on al-Turabi in this volume (Hassan al-Turabi: the Mahdi-Lawyer, pp. 118–149), offers a good introduction and an overview of al-Turabi’s career up to his ouster from power in 1999, with a focus on al-Turabi’s intellectual contribution and influence. It also sheds interesting light on al-Turabi’s background and family history. A very good starting point for exploring al-Turabi’s thought and world.

  • Gallab, Abdullahi A. The First Islamic Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

    In this book, Gallab concludes that al-Turabi’s blueprint of Islamic democracy has failed dismally. Arguing that the Sudanese experiment represents the “first modern Islamic republic,” he finds that its failure to produce a viable democratic system signifies the failure of modern Islamism in general. In addition, the ensuing crisis in Sudan has led to the disintegration of the Islamist movement.

  • Hamdi, Mohamed Elhachmi. The Making of an Islamic Political Leader: Conversations with Hasan al-Turabi. Translated by Ashur A. Shamis. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.

    This book incorporates a series of interviews conducted over a decade by a sympathetic Tunisian journalist. They cover a wide range of issues (internal politics and evolution of the movement, religious reform, Sudanese politics, Islam and the West). They offer interesting insights into the evolution of al-Turabi’s thinking during the period in question and his main pre-occupations during that period.

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