Ohio University’s Jordan Stickle writes that Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir written by Steve Howard, Director of International Studies at Ohio University, presents an insightful look into Islam, which denies Western stereotypes.
Steve Howard, now a professor and director at Ohio University, journeyed to Sudan as a graduate student, which led him to Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and the Republican Brotherhood, a reformist Islamic movement geared towards a new interpretation of Islam, where he was embraced. Modern Muslims defies the Western stereotypes of Islam, and it depicts the solidarity and immense spirituality that the Republicans’ faith provides. It also outlines an account of attempts toward gender equality in Sudan, although this elicits the only criticism about the book.
The memoir outlines the beliefs of the Republican Brotherhood in Sudan, a group of modern Muslim men and women, led by Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Ustadh Mahmoud’s purpose in forming the brotherhood was to catalyze change in Sudan, as well as within the interpretation of Islam itself, through various publications, personal events like weddings and funerals, and even imprisonment and execution for outstanding beliefs. The book also details an enlightening insight into Islam as both interpreted traditionally and through the Republican lens. The memoir is told from the perspective of Steve Howard, although there are several intertwining stories from those he encountered during his time in Sudan. Several subjects appear throughout the reading, but there is particular emphasis placed on the path of the Prophet Mohammed, the expansion of women’s rights in Sudan and in Islam, and intense spiritual and personal reform within the self.
The book provides an excellent account of Islam, both traditional and Ustadh Mahmoud’s progressive Republican ideology, that refutes the negative stereotypes often found in Western media. Many equate Muslims and Islam with terrorism, especially in light of the just concluded presidential election and due to the words of the egregious president-elect. On the contrary, “the Republicans provided an alternative to extremism and violence in the name of Islam” (29). This opposes the Western stereotype of violent Muslims in that the jihadist terrorists go directly against the peaceful tenets of Islam and should therefore not be associated with the religion. Rather, Muslims, as demonstrated through the Republican Brotherhood, exemplify “lateef, a word that could be quickly translated as ‘nice’ but which really refers to the range of behaviors around gentle, kind, friendly, graceful, mild” (52).
The memoir also describes the incredible unity amongst the Republican brothers and sisters, as well as the prosperous spirituality that reflects the path of the Prophet Mohamed and the growing connection with Allah. Howard notes that “there seemed to be an expression praising the Almighty for everything from completing a bath or haircut to starting a car, or commencing or finishing a meal” (17-18). This tremendous faith is a beautiful aspect of humanity, which is only one demonstration of the Muslim Republicans’ true appreciation of life and Allah. Furthermore, Howard mentions in the beginning of his memoir that departure from the Republican Brotherhood is a serious act, which requires a sincere departure ritual. The departure “was designed to be … an image to hold in your heart to sustain you until you returned to this group of brothers and sisters or were welcomed by the next …” (3). This is an honorable demonstration of the love for both the Republican Islam and the brotherhood itself, which speaks to the solidarity of those involved in the movement and the theme present throughout the memoir.
Modern Muslims repeatedly discusses the effort to expand women’s rights in Sudan, with varying degrees of success inside and outside the brotherhood. The author consistently denotes throughout the memoir that “women’s full participation in all of Islam’s obligations was one of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s most important goals in establishing his movement” (100-101). Contrary to the traditional interpretation of Islam, Taha believed that Muslim women deserved to be as present as Muslim men in Islamic and societal activities, and he and the brothers sought to include them in every way possible. For example, following the death of Am Fadl, the brotherhood made “an historic decision that the sisters would for the first time join the procession to the cemetery” (100). This demonstrates the Republicans’ active strides towards gender equality in Sudan and Islam because traditional Islamic “custom effectively forbade their attendance at burials” (100). Other activities, such as handing out various publications describing the Republican ideology, further allowed the sisters to demonstrate their knowledge about the Qur’an and served as an opportunity to make a public and controversial appearance. However, the traditional beliefs still hold strong within Muslim communities, including some influence within the movement itself, and there is much more that can be done to bring about total gender equality.
The Republican Brotherhood fought for women’s rights through demonstrations, as aforementioned above, as well as other matters, but inequality between genders still remains in these cultures. Veiling and modest clothing is a widely held belief within traditional Islam, stemming from the Prophet Mohammed’s turbulent time in Medina, and is often associated with women’s voices. Tradition states that “the voice of the woman is one ‘of which one ought to be ashamed’ … This essentially means that women’s voices were to be considered as requiring as much covering up as the rest of their bodies” (121-122). This leads to the sisters being conservative even in their public speaking, which can be perceived as silencing women, an act perpetuating gender inequality.
Even within the progressive Republican movement that favored women’s rights, the sisters were still unequal compared to their brothers. One example is that of the separate housing for the brothers and for the sisters. The former had personal spaces that were utilized solely by the men. The latter, however, did not have personal spaces due to living with Ustadh Mahmoud, as well as the fact that the sisters’ housing served the dual role of being both a private and public space:
“The sisters did not have a space of their own but shared their living space with the entire organization in that when they rose early in the morning to begin their days, they had to make sure all of their bedding and clothing and so on were packed away. In a few moments the space where they had slept and prayed would become the room where Ustadh Mahmoud met with his followers all day long. And if a general meeting went late into the night, that meant delaying the sister residents’ time for sleep as well” (115).
This presents a lingering inequality within the brotherhood in that the sisters were not given the same lenience or relaxation in a living space as the brothers. Rather, the sisters had to accommodate the fluctuating schedules of the brothers and Taha’s visitors, and they had to be more rigid and cleanly than their counterparts (116). Additionally, a verse in the Qur’an serves as the basis for the traditional Islamic belief of women requiring a male guardian, and this verse supports the idea that a woman should transfer from one guardian, the father, to another, the husband, without spending too much, if any, time in absence of a guardian (108). Although the women who become the sisters in the Republican movement are often unmarried single women, they still essentially have a guardian-type figure in Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in that they were living under his roof.
Modern Muslims does well to describe the feats achieved by Ustadh Taha, both posthumously and while alive, and the bond between the Republican brothers and sisters, through their religion, is humbling to witness. The memoir also does well to depict the improvement in women’s lives as compared to traditional Islam.
Although the Republican Brotherhood advocates for women and encourages significant spiritual improvement in them, unlike traditional Islam, it has a long way to go before it truly has gender equality in both the outside society and within the brotherhood itself. Finally, Modern Muslims presents an insightful look into Islam itself, which outright denies Western stereotypes. The memoir is captivating and enlightening overall, and another book from the author is anxiously awaited.
Howard, Steve. Modern Muslims. Ohio University Press, 2016.
Jordan Stickle is a Senior at the School of Media Arts and Studies, Ohio University.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Africa@OHIO or the African Studies Program of Ohio University.