(1932– ) Sudanese Islamist and politician
Hassan al-Turabi was born into a respected and educated family in the central Sudan in 1932. His father was a judge, and al-Turabi is related by marriage to Sadiq al-Mahdi, the great-grandson of the 19th-century Mahdi and a former Sudanese prime minister. He is also related by marriage to the Saudi Arabian Islamist Osama bin Laden.
As a youth, Turabi received an Islamic education, but he also earned a law degree from Khartoum University and a doctorate in law from the Sorbonne in Paris. In the 1950s he joined the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood and later the Islamic Charter Front (ICF), an offshoot of the brotherhood. The party’s goal was the creation of an Islamic state as delineated in the Islamic Charter for an Islamic State. The constitution, as revised by Turabi in the 1960s, provided for the full equality of women and non-Muslims but also advocated the creation of a presidential rather than a parliamentary state. The ICF also encouraged missionary efforts to spread Islam throughout the south. Turabi opposed the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Abboud (r. 1958–64), who was overthrown in 1964. Turabi won a parliamentary seat in the 1965 elections. When Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime minister, Turabi’s influence increased until Mahdi’s political fortunes waned by 1968.
In 1969 Jaafar Numeiri, with the support of Sudanese communist allies, successfully overthrew the parliamentary government in a military coup d’état, and Charter Front members were arrested. Turabi was jailed and then went into exile in Libya. Numeiri, struggling to retain power, disavowed his former communist allies and moved closer to the Islamic forces in the Sudan.
Turabi was permitted to return in 1977 and was subsequently appointed attorney general. With Turabi’s support in 1983 Numeiri instituted sharia law in Sudan, thereby exacerbating relations with the large Christian population in the southern Sudanese provinces. This directly contributed to an escalation in the ongoing civil war between the predominantly Muslim government in the north and the southern Christian and animist south. During this period the brotherhood’s influence in key institutions, especially schools and the military, markedly increased. In 1985 Numeiri, who had become increasingly isolated from all his former allies, was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by General Abdel Rahman Mohammed Hassan Siwar al-Dahab.
In 1991 Turabi established the Popular Arab and Islamic People’s Congress, an umbrella organization of Islamist groups, and worked to bring Sunni and Shi’i Muslims closer together. He was elected secretary-general of the Congress in 1992. In the same year Turabi toured Europe, Canada, and the United States, speaking on behalf of the creation of liberal, nonviolent Islamic states. During the 1990s he also offered protection to the radical Osama bin Laden after bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for Sudan. Turabi was elected to Parliament in 1996 and became speaker of Parliament under the military dictatorship of Colonel Umar Hasan al-Bashir, who had seized power in 1989. But in 2004 al-Bashir had Turabi imprisoned; he was freed in 2005. After that time, Turabi adopted a far lower public profile, and although he was thought to exercise considerable political influence in the government, his exact role or impact remained unclear.
Turabi has never published a comprehensive study of his ideology, but his career has demonstrated considerable political flexibility. Under his leadership Islamist forces in the Sudan have played key roles in the Sudanese civil service, professions, and military. He also supported the export of Islamic movements to neighboring African nations in the north and east, particularly in Egypt.
See also Sudanese civil wars (1970–present).