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The Intellectual Movement in the Sudan: Which Direction Should It Take?

Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub
Document type:
Articles and Essays

The Intellectual Movement in the Sudan: Which Direction Should It Take?

Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub


Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub (Sudan, 1908–1976) was a lawyer, judge, poet, anticolonial activist, and politician. Trained in colonial schools, he participated as a young man in the Sudanese intellectual reform movement that came to be known by the name of its journal, al-Fajr (The Dawn), founded in 1934. Mahjub and others in this movement sought to build a modern Sudanese identity by downplaying the sectarian and regional distinctions that divided the colony. This identity, as Mahjub argued in the essay translated here, was affiliated closely with the Arab Islamic world, notwithstanding the large number of non- Muslim non-Arabs in the south of the colony. In the 1940s and 1950s, Mahjub pushed to radicalize the Sudanese nationalist movement and helped write the Sudan's constitution and declaration of independence. Over the following two decades, he was by turns a top government official and a political prisoner, as democratic governments were succeeded by military ones. His final imprisonment and exile followed two terms as prime minister. Known as “the Boss,” Mahjub left a political legacy that included repression of leftists and southerners, in addition to fervent defense of democracy.1 Muddathir Abdel-Rahim, Imperialism and Nationalism in the Sudan: A Study in Constitutional and Political Development, 1899–1956 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 109–117; Afaf Abdel Majid Abu Hasabu, Factional Conflict in the Sudanese Nationalist Movement, 1918–1948 (Khartoum, Sudan: University of Khartoum, 1985); Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Richard A. Lobban, Jr., and John Obert Voll, Historical Dictionary of the Sudan, 2d ed. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992), p. 133; Abdel Salam Sidahmed, Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp. 35–41.

In all places and times, from the beginning of creation to this day and on to eternity, distinguished individuals and those with true culture have thought and will always think about realizing the ideal. Human effort is harnessed to achieve it, and lifestyle is improved to attain it. This ideal gives people a greater purpose for existence. Every aspect of life and each cultural ideology has its own sincere, dedicated advocates who do everything within their power to achieve outcomes that their followers among the masses perceive as difficult, if not impossible, to attain. If it were not for these sincere idealists, literature and the arts would never advance, because the nature of human beings is to fear dangers and to avoid them, to prefer the conventions of their parents, and to resist all change in ideas and action. Perhaps the universe would inevitably stagnate, were it not for the appearance of a handful of talented, sincere, and dedicated idealists who blow the trumpet and encourage people toward a goal that has to be achieved by talented people like themselves. They insist that the goal they envision is necessary for themselves and others. They have the patience, the resilience, and the power of faith that makes them trust in ultimate victory.

The ideal life is important for humans, both as individuals and as part of a group with whom they have relationships based on nationality, blood, religion, common goals, public celebrations, and shared travails. Individuals and groups should recognize and attend to the ideal life, in all its branches and subdivisions: material life and intellectual life each have their place. In recent times, humans’ goals have become deeply interconnected, making the prosperity of an individual not only in contradiction with that of others but also with the prosperity and security of the group. A piece of candy in the hands of an oblivious child means the deprivation of his sad friend. A beautifully designed house, with cozy and luxurious furniture, is inhabited by an obtuse and insipid character, lacking in generosity; whereas the poet, the singing bird, the lyre player who nearly discovers the secrets of the universe, cannot find a lowly shack, let alone a luxurious abode.

This abominable contradiction is even more apparent in the relationship among nations than among individuals. However, in the world of culture and the universe of intellect, in mental activities that elevate humanity through novel findings and innovative opinions, this cutthroat competition does not and cannot exist. This is good news for human beings. They can find happiness in the world of culture and intellect, where they enjoy creating ideal visions and rising to achieve them. Generation follows generation, but the ideal is continuously rejuvenated, as are activities to achieve it.

It is easy to imagine a situation in which every race, nation, family, and individual has an equal share of culture, justice, comfort, and status. But this situation cannot be achieved unless the individuals, nations, and races whom God has granted the privilege of intellect and morality, and are thus able to shape the future, take it as their life mission to shower their culture, science, and wealth upon their neighbors, the seekers and the weak, with the intention of celebrating the highest ethical, intellectual, and material ideals of humanity.

But the teachings and generosity of a select elite are fruitless unless all people have reached a high degree of nobility. For some people do not benefit from education, and all effort to reform them is wasted—either because of the ignorance and stupidity bequeathed from past generations, or because of the evil that has overtaken them. How is it possible to rectify what time has spoiled? There is also a class of regressive and rigid people who do not accept innovative opinions even if they are right, who don’t join a caravan unless they can maintain the idea that they are crossing the desert of life unaccompanied. There are also those self-interested individuals who have been blinded by their desire to preserve the status quo, in order to retain power, however illegitimate, and to hang on to the wealth derived from this power, however unethical. Reformists must do away with such people in every time and place, and in every branch of material and intellectual life. Their self-interested recalcitrance must be confronted. Recalcitrance will evaporate when faced with loyal, selfless visionaries struggling for perfection. This struggle and ultimate victory in the battle between light and darkness, truth and falseness, progress and annihilation, depend on the zeal and integrity of the leaders of the renaissance, and on their innovativeness against the obstinacy of the propagators of rigidity and dissent.

An ideal does not know mediocrity; it requires perfection. And this is not imaginary, not a mirage. This is a conflict between people who care only about food, drink, clothing, and personal pleasures, and people who see that life is worthless when its short period is spent seeking common ordinary pleasures. Such [hedonism] is born out of ignorance, idiocy, and a stupidity that cannot imagine life as a continuous chain where the living depart, their vanishing bodies die, and their riches remain for future generations. That is why the propagators of reform and the worshipers of the ideal formulate plans that cannot be accomplished in their lifetime but must be pursued as long as life continues. They spread science and enlightenment without discriminating between classes, nations, and races. The progress of science and enlightenment weakens fanatic loyalties and competition between individuals and groups, erases differences and misunderstandings, and enables the exchange of trust and respect.

Such are the loyal reformists, the selfless propagators of the ideal, in every place and time. And we are not to be blamed for wanting to join them for a moment to formulate an ideal for the intellectual movement that we desire for this growing country. I don’t pretend to be one of those talented people to whom the secrets of the era are revealed, who peek into the past of nations and understand the fate of their intellectual movements, who then look far into the future and reveal what it portends, the opinions and actions that it requires, and who lay out the truest ideals for the intellectual movement in their country. That is an honor I cannot claim. But I am going to attempt to study the past and present of this nation, and to study the past and present of the nations I have known. Following that, I will try to direct the intellectual movement in our nation toward what I see as the ideal. If I am successful, I will be satisfied. If I fail, let my solace be that this nation will never lack offspring to rectify my mistakes and reform my errors, to present us with the ideal that we will all work together to achieve. [. . .]

The history of Islam in this country [the Sudan] dates back to the year 22 A.H., or 642 A.D., when ‘Abdullah [ibn Sa‘d] ibn Abi Sarh [died 656] was appointed to invade Nubia at the head of 20,000 warriors. Since that era, Islam spread, with the da‘wa [propagation] strengthening in this country until the Arab conquest of lower Nubia in 1318 A.D. and of upper Nubia in the year 1505 A.D. Thus Islam prevailed and became the religion of the majority of the population of this country.

The influence of Islam in this country is clear and tangible; you can see it in your [daily] comings and goings, and you can feel it in every action of the people of this country. Until recently, no movement could be successful in transforming or changing conditions unless it was a religious movement, or at least wearing the garb of religion. The story of the Mahdiyya is a recent example. The da‘wa of al-Mahdi [Muhammad Ahmad, anticolonial leader, 1844–1885] was a religious da‘wa, accepted by the people in the name of religion. As a result, they revolted against the corrupters [the colonial regime], expelled them from their country, and took over governance. If it had not been for religion, you would not have seen people dying for the sake of God and acting so bravely, seeking neither fortune nor prestige nor worldly position. The living envy the dead, who have won the honor of martyrdom. A nation with such religious fervor cannot tolerate opinions that have atheistic tendencies or break the norms of conventional morality. It accepts nothing from its intellectuals but honest words and sincere actions, virtue of the tongue and the hand, and honorable intentions.

In every place where Islam has spread, Arab literature and culture has [also] spread. The Scripture of God, the sunna [sacred precedent] of His Messenger, and the noble hadith [sayings of the Prophet] are not only in the Arabic language, but are also the purest sources of this language. It is necessary to learn, understand, and appreciate them in their original language. Muslims are very keen to come to understand and appreciate this legacy, and to become closer to the spirit of religion by studying its roots and following its precepts. That is why the Sudan was fortunate that the Arabic language spread in its lands, both because of the spread of Islam among its people, and because Arab blood has become the majority among its population. The Sudan has remained, until the last conquest in 1898, far from the influence of European languages; there were no non-Arab languages heard in it except the Turkish language, and this was after the conquest of Muhammad ‘Ali [Ottoman ruler of Egypt, 1805– 1849] in the year 1820. And even then, the urkish language was not the official state language, and was not taught in schools, but was only spoken by the Turkish rulers among themselves.

It is no wonder that the language of the people of the Sudan, especially in the desert, is the closest to classical Arabic. And it is no wonder that we find the people of the Sudan inclining toward [the classical genres of] hamasa [heroic] and fakhr [vainglorious] verse, whether in their songs or their poetry. They have great passion for all kinds of horsemanship. They are noted for their generosity and openhandedness, extending protection to their guests and taking care of their neighbors. They find meanness contemptible. They do not accept humiliation, and they are not happy with defeat. Any man among them, regardless of how poor he is, would not stain himself with the humiliation of begging, and would not stoop to relinquish public duty.

And the impact of Islamic religion and Arab culture in this country is most apparent in the legacy of the past generation—literary figures such as Shaykh Husayn al-Zahra’ [died 1895], Shaykh al-Darir, Shaykh Abu’l-Qasim Ahmad Hashim [died 1934], and Shaykh [Muhammad ‘Umar] al-Banna’ the elder [circa 1847–1919]. Most of their poems were [in the genres] of al-mada’ih al-nabawaiyya [praise of the Prophet], zikr shama’il al-rasul [remembrance of the qualities of the Messenger], and the history of the Prophet's conquests and victories. Their verse also included some poetry [in the genres] of fakhr, hamasa, and al-hath ‘ala al-jihad [inspiring sacred struggle]. Each one of these poems begins with a delicate ghazal [love poetry] in the manner of the ancient Arabs. This is not all the previous generation has given us; they also left a genre of literature that, despite its originality, has been ignored by the intellectuals among us. In fact, this literature is wonderful, and unique within its genre. I refer to the stories of the mulid [birth] of the noble Prophet which are read in zikr circles. If you had the good fortune to read the mulid by the leaders of the Tijaniyya [Sufi order] entitled “Insan al-kamal” (The Perfect Human), or to hear its narration, you would doubtless find it a wonderful literature, beautiful and harmonious narratives with fine examples of rhetoric and metaphor. The late Shaykh Muhammad Hashim wrote an introduction to the mulid that is a masterpiece of rhetoric in its expressions, structure, and meaning. All of these are examples of the influence of Islamic religion and Arab literature on our life. This influence is strong and ongoing; it still affects people's minds, readers and writers alike Such influence has also increased through contact with Egypt since the last invasion, because Egypt itself is under the sway of Islamic religion and Arab

culture, despite its periodic tendencies to return to the pharaohs or to cling to the fringes of the West.

It is necessary for us to attend to this influence when we are attempting to direct the intellectual movement in this county. This influence warrants at least a brief discussion. And I state with increasing certainty that the impact of Islamic religion and Arab culture will remain part of our intellectual movement as long as this country exists, and as long as it has culture and intellectual movement. However, this impact will undoubtedly be subject to interaction with the modern opinions and Western ideas that we are acquiring. Both will be subject to the climate of this country and to ideas and imagination inspired by its geography and its nature. That is why we need to speak first about the effect of Western culture in our country, and second about the country's climate, geography, and nature, and the effect of all of these on the intellectual movement. We are attempting to draft the ideal of the intellectual movement, and to direct the movement toward the goal desired by its loyal, selfless, devoted offspring. [. . .]

Such has been the intellectual movement in our country up to now. And this is its future, as it appears to us through this exploration of the past and present of this country, the conditions required to achieve this desired intellectual movement, and the implications of its ideal.

So what is the ideal that this intellectual movement must follow? And how can it be reached? The ideal intellectual movement in this country will respect the religious practices of Islam, the true religion, and will work under its right guidance. It will be Arab in language and taste, inspired by the past and present of this country, making use of its nature and the customs, traditions, and dispositions of its people, elevated by all of these toward the goal of establishing a proper national literature. This literary movement will eventually be transformed into a political movement that leads to the independence of the country—political, social, and intellectual.

This ideal is the goal of the intellectual movement in this country. On the surface, it may seem remote, prohibitive, and hard to achieve; it calls for the effort of giants and the work of generations. But an ideal does not know mediocrity; it requires perfection. Let us make our ideal clear and draw the path to reach it. This country shall not lack dutiful, loyal, educated, and visionary offspring to take up the burden of its renaissance.

To complete our intellectual movement, we must grasp the Arab Islamic heritage. This effort awaiting us is unlike that of Shaykh Nasif al-Yaziji ([Lebanese Christian poet and philologist,] 1800–1871) and his companions, because the writings of the Arab Islamic heritage have already been published in Egypt and Syria. All that we need to do is devote ourselves to the study of this Arab Islamic heritage—a detailed study based on scrutiny, criticism, and interconnected comparisons so that we get the full benefit of this heritage.

Maybe someone will ask me: And what is the way to learn this Arab Islamic heritage and become inspired by it? So I will say that learning involves only dedication and study. And those among us who wish to revive this legacy, and to draw the best conclusions from it, so as to be armed with the strongest weapon possible, need to embark upon the study of the Arabic encyclopedias such as [Kitab] al-aghani [Book of Songs] by Abu Faraj al-Isfahani [897–967], Mu‘jam al-udaba’ [Literary Biographies] by Yaqut [al-Rumi] al-Hamawi [circa 1179–1229], Wafayat al-a‘yan [Late Greats] by the judge Ibn Khallikan [1211–1282], and Subh al-a‘sha [Daybreak for the Sufferer of Night- Blindness] by [Shihabuddin Ahmad] al-Qalqashandi [1355–1418]. And they need also to embark upon the study of the fundamentals of Arabic literature such as Kamil [fi al-adab] [Literary Perfection] by [Muhammad] al-Mubarrad [died 898], Adab al-katib [The Art of the Scribe] by [Abu Muhammad] Ibn Qutayba [828–889], Bayan wa al-tabyin [Rhetoric and Clarification] by al-Jahiz [circa 776–869], and others, too many to enumerate. In this way they will come to comprehend gradually the spirit of Arabic Islamic literature, to be dedicated to the service of the language of the ancestors, and to grasp the subject matter. Literature in its entirety is but subject matter and style. The subject matter comprises the different subjects treated by literary figures, which differ according to time and place. And the style is the way these subjects are treated. [. . .]

We have followed the intellectual movement in this country from ancient times until today, and we have seen the various states and the succession of civilizations that this nation has undergone and the creeds and beliefs adopted by its offspring. We have seen the cultures to which the nation was introduced, to which its people were exposed. And we have seen that this country and its people are the result of [different] blood groups, some Negroid and some Arab, along with the Turkish and the Abyssinian, and are born out of [an amalgam of] civilizations, among them the Pharaonic, the ancient and modern Arab, and the Western. And we have seen that they [the people of this country] worshiped the gods of the ancient Egyptians and adopted Christianity for a long period of time, and then adopted Islam, the true religion, as its creed, which it would not exchange for any other. It remains for us to see which ideal the intellectual movement needs to follow in this country.

The ideal vision that the intellectual movement has to follow is for this country to have an Arab Islamic culture backed by an acquired Western culture. They should be mutually supportive in creating a proper national literature that takes the subject of its artistic narrative from the dispositions of its people and their traditions, that composes its verse and appeals to the sensitivity of this nation's offspring by describing the scenery of its jungles, the shining of the silver moon in its deserts, its fertile valleys, and the gazelles of its dunes, and finds in these the sources for its artistic imagery. The feelings of the people, their sensitivities, their movements and silences, are the sources for music. The ideal vision gives attention to the writing of the history of this country in a way that instills patriotism in its youth and a sense of duty toward the land of the ancestors. The propagators of this literature should circulate useful political research, so that the movement may be transformed from a literary renaissance to a political one, resulting in the independence of this country —politically, socially, and intellectually.

This is our ideal: to protect our Islamic religion and hold fast to our Arab heritage with complete tolerance, a widened intellectual horizon, and an eagerness to study other cultures. All these will revive our national literature and arouse patriotic feelings, so to build a political movement that cannot be refused, because it is grows out of our essence. The goal we are striding toward is our independence—political, social, and intellectual.

This is our ideal. We must stride toward it and work together to achieve it, and all work that is not aimed at independence is worthless.

Come along! O youth of this generation, and its opinion leaders, let us work together to establish this ideal. Let us work to achieve it. Let us die, and the generation after us will work to realize it. Such is the eternal dream and the work of ages. Let the loyal, selfless, dutiful, and visionary offspring of this country work toward this ideal.

Bibliography references:

Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub, “al-Haraka al-fikriyya fi al- Sudan: ‘Ila ‘ayna yajib ‘an tatajih” (The Intellectual Movement in the Sudan: Which Direction Should It Take?), in Nahwa al-ghad (Toward Tomorrow) (Khartoum, Sudan: Jami‘at al-Khurtum, Qism al-Ta’lif wa al-Nashr, 1970), pp. 209–211, 215–217, 226–227, 233–234. First published in 1941. Translation from Arabic by Hager El Hadidi. Introduction by Charles Kurzman.


1. Muddathir Abdel-Rahim, Imperialism and Nationalism in the Sudan: A Study in Constitutional and Political Development, 1899–1956 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 109–117; Afaf Abdel Majid Abu Hasabu, Factional Conflict in the Sudanese Nationalist Movement, 1918–1948 (Khartoum, Sudan: University of Khartoum, 1985); Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Richard A. Lobban, Jr., and John Obert Voll, Historical Dictionary of the Sudan, 2d ed. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992), p. 133; Abdel Salam Sidahmed, Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp. 35–41.

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