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Mahmoud Mohamed Taha Student Travel Award

The African Studies Association is pleased to provide the Mahmoud Mohamed Taha Student Travel Award to support research and the exchange of ideas for students of African Studies. Established in 2023, the award was made possible by a generous gift from Dr. Steve Howard. The award is granted in acknowledgement of outstanding student scholarship to support the future of African Studies. The award consists of a travel grant and a plaque presented at the ASA’s Annual Meeting.

Each year, funds will be awarded to competitively selected students who have displayed outstanding scholarship in their area of study. Awards may be used to facilitate research, study abroad, and/or travel to present research at the ASA Annual Meeting. Individuals can expand access to this award through a tax-deductible gift to the award fund.

Eligibility

Current students pursuing African studies and/or conducting research in Africa are eligible for the award. African students and students of African descent based at U.S. universities will be given priority in the award selection process. 
Please note: supported travel must occur within 12 months of receiving the award.

To Apply

Applicants or Nominators must be current ASA Members to apply. Applications are accepted in one of the following two ways: 
Option 1: Current ASA Members are eligible to nominate outstanding students for the award.
Option 2: Student members may apply for the award along with two letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation should be submitted here.

Deadline

Applications must be received by April 30, 2024 to be considered for the award.

Committee

Aderonke Adesanya, Past President
Bright Nkrumah, ESN Board Representative
Alix Saba, ASA Executive Director

About Dr. Steve Howard

Dr. Howard grew up near Boston, Massachusetts, graduated from Georgetown University, and decided to pursue a scholarly career in African studies following his Peace Corps service. He remembers one of his fellow Chad volunteers remarking about a reading choice, “so Steve, you’re one of those guys who likes to read about Africa- in Africa…” He did his PhD in sociology at Michigan State University, writing a dissertation on Sudan. Sudan has continued to be the center of his research interests, writing particularly about a progressive Muslim social movement in that country, known as the Republican Brotherhood. His work at Ohio University, 36 years of teaching and 24 years as African Studies Program director, has led him to many other African countries as well. And many of those countries have sent him doctoral students to work with, directing almost 60 dissertations of African scholars. In 2022, Steve Howard was awarded the ASA’s Distinguished Africanist Award in celebration of his lifetime achievements as a scholar, mentor, and author. 

About Mahmoud Mohamed Taha

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985) was an author and founder of an Islamic reform movement in Sudan, the “Republican Brotherhood,” and played a significant role in setting the course for Sudan’s independence from Anglo-Egyptian colonialism. His best-known book was The Second Message of Islam, published in 1967 which offered a new understanding of Islam in the modern world, while highlighting the centrality of peace and complete gender equality, and democratic practices in contemporary Muslim society.

Taha, known to his followers as Ustadh (teacher) Mahmoud, was born in the small Blue Nile town of Rufa’a into a typically religious- Sufi- family. He was able to obtain the best Western-style education available to young men in Sudan at the time, capped by an engineering degree from Gordon Memorial College, the institution that became the University of Khartoum. That school’s alumni group, the Graduates Congress, was the crucible for Sudan’s independence movement. Taha’s participation included founding a political party, the Republican Party, whose platform was the establishment of a Republic of Sudan. That effort was dwarfed by the dominance of the two major sectarian parties, the Ummah Party, associated with the Ansar movement of the Mahdists, and the Democratic Unionist Party, the pollical arm of the Khatmia Sufi sect.

As these two parties dominated Sudan’s political discourse, Taha focused his attention on modernizing Sudan’s Islamic outlook. He led a demonstration against the arrest by the colonial police of a midwife who had circumcised her daughter, an ancient, pre-Islam practice which had recently been made illegal by the colonial authorities. Taha’s point had been that that harmful traditional practice would not be legislated out of existence or cease until Sudan’s women were better educated. Ustadh Mahmoud went to prison for several months for his leading what was called a “riot,” and when he was released, he made a Sufi retreat (khalwa) for two years.

Taha emerged from his spiritual seclusion with a new understanding of Islam and the Qur’an. He founded a new organization to help spread this understanding, which he called “The New Islamic Mission.” It was popularly referred to as the Republican Brotherhood, after his political party. As the Brotherhood attracted a modest number of members, Taha embarked on a speaking and writing campaign around the country, giving lectures to explain “the second message of Islam.”

While scholars of Islam have long noted that there are qualitative differences in the Qur’an’s texts between the revelations in Mecca to the Prophet Mohamed vs. those revealed to him in Medina, few have tried to operationalize these differences to apply to modern life. Ustadh Mahmoud taught that the Meccan revelations, which dictated the Prophet’s own sunnah, or personal practice, contained messages of world peace, and social and gender equality for universal adoption. The Medinan revelations were meant, in Taha’s view, for application in the transitional Islamic society of Medina just as the Prophet had migrated to that city with his followers. Medina was a chaotic and violent time, which called for restrictions and practices which were meant for that specific historical period.

Ustadh Mahmoud continued to lecture and write about the possibilities he saw for modern Islam. He attracted a modest following, never reaching higher than 5,000 members, many families, and many young women who admired what they heard from Ustadh Mahmoud about women’s equality in Islam. 

Mahmoud’s message was seen as a controversial or even heretical by the Muslim public at large and in neighboring countries. His work was condemned from pulpits in Egypt and he was banned from entering Saudi Arabia. The Sudan government tried him on charges of apostasy and other Islamic offenses throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Ustadh Mahmoud’s writings were also banned from Sudan’s newspapers and airwaves. His followers sold his books, cheap pamphlets in many cases, on foot and door-to-door all over the country. The ultimate Sudan government crack-down came in 1983 after Ustadh Mahmoud and the Republican Brothers and Sisters passed out a pamphlet criticizing President Nimeiri’s instituting of sharia/Islamic laws throughout the religiously diverse country. About 75 of the brothers and sisters were arrested and jailed for speaking publicly against sharia, the women becoming among the first female political prisoners in Sudan.

In January 1985, Ustadh Mahmoud and four of the brothers were brought to trial on trumped-up charges of apostasy, a crime of a “Muslim denying Islam,” and notoriously hard to prove. Taha was convicted and on January 18,1985 was hanged for his “crime.” Given that he was 76 years old at the time, his execution itself was a crime against sharia. Sharia prohibits executing the elderly.

While the Republican Brotherhood was essentially disbanded following Ustadh Mahmoud’s execution, his work has still attracted followers and scholars have studied it. The forces that brought the Sudan government to execute this leading Sudan intellectual are the same ones that have resisted and broken up any attempt to institute democracy in Sudan today. We honor this Black African thinker today for his progressive ideas, his promotion of democracy and gender equality, and his vision of a universe at peace.