Cornel West: The Modern day Griot (Part 1)

2009 marked the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and January the 18th marked the date in which he was executed 14 years ago. Taha was a Sudanese liberal reform figure and believer in a version of progressive Islam. His vision of Islam – one in which maintained the equality of women and was dedicated to socialist republicanism – along with his protests regarding the imposition of sharia law stirred Sudan’s dictator Jaafer al-Nimeiri in the 1970’s and 80’s to the point that he, after efforts to curb his influence and ban his lectures, called for Taha’s blood.

Indeed this was to be the case, when on the 8th of January 1985 Taha, and four other comrades were put on trial for apostasy under section 96 of the Sudanese penal code. The decision was confirmed on January the 17th to execute Taha for his crimes, whereas Taha’s comrades were given the chance to appeal (provided they retracted their “apostasy”, which they promptly did). Taha was eventually put to death on January the 18th by hanging, before his body was taken to a desert location by Helicopter to be buried, reportedly in the west of Omdurman, Sudan’s largest city.

Taha’s message, expressed in his book “The Second Message of Islam”, was that the Koran had been revealed in two locations, firstly in Mecca where Muhammad and his followers were minorities, and in Medina where the city was brimming with Jews and Pagans. During his verses in Mecca, Muhammad promulgated a “peaceful persuasion,” whereas in Medina the verses are filled with rules and intimidations. The Medinan verses, the first message(s) of Islam, were directed to a whole community of early believers and not Muhammad alone, according to Taha. These messages were a sort of ‘historical postponement’ as George Packer puts it in his New Yorker article on Taha. It was the Meccan verses, the second message of Islam that would represent, for Taha in his revisionism, the perfect religion, an acceptance of equality and freedom that, in seventh-century Arabia, Muslims were ready for. This provided his grounds for a progressive Islam that the likes of Nimeiri refused to even speculate on.

In January, a two-day conference celebrating the 100th birth year of Taha at Baker University, in Kansas, USA, brought together a miscellany of important ideas that reflected the life and legacy of Taha. One of the speakers on the 18th was Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University. He, during his keynote address, called upon the audience to adopt the traits of ‘humility and love’ that encapsulated the mind of Taha. West considered some of today’s existing problems with the same character as Taha. On the question of Israeli-Palestine conflict West observed that “the spirit of Taha leads me to say: Why the relative silence on Gaza” in reference to what West considered to be the US’s refusal to speak out about the Israeli slaughter of the strip, from both Democrat and Republican camps.

The stylistic similarities in West and Taha’s work are quite clear; both have a radical streak to them, challenging the dominant forces in their society and the orthodoxy of their own religions. West’s Christianity is fused with a healthy dose of radical socialism, as was Taha’s Islam. But more than that, both actively sought to show that the existing powers have got their religions wrong. West’s America, as was with Taha’s Sudan, both use religious sentiment – or as West himself referred to it regarding America in his 2004 book Democracy Matters an “imperial Christianity, market spirituality … let’s-make-a-deal with God” mentality – to justify their wars on what they perceive to be an unholy society. In Republican America (or “the age of Ronald Reagon”, as West proclaimed that Obama’s presidency initiated the end to), the efforts to limit time on abortion, cap stem-cell research, and wage wars on foreign countries by ‘God’s own decree’ were all so-called expressions of Christian ideals. But for West, this is a peculiar use of Christianity, which, for him, should explore the problems that sexism, racism and hegemony can bring about in order to remove them. West’s first book Prophecy Deliverance in 1982 advocates the benefits of an African-American Christianity that draws its ethical dimensions from socialism and Marxism.

(Part 2 tomorrow)

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