Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (Arabic: محمد أحمد ابن عبد الله; 12 August 1844 – 22 June 1885) was a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order in Sudan who, as a youth, combined orthodox religious study with a mystical interpretation of Islam. On 29 June 1881, he was proclaimed the Mahdi by his disciples, the messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith. His proclamation came during a period of widespread resentment among the Sudanese population towards the oppressive policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers and was supported by the messianic belief popular among the various Sudanese religious sects of the time. He led a successful war against Ottoman-Egyptian military rule and achieved a remarkable victory over the British. He then created a vast Islamic state extending from the Red Sea to Central Africa and founded a movement that remained influential in Sudan a century later.
|Ruler of Sudan|
Artistic representation of Muhammad Ahmad
|Successor||Abdallahi ibn Muhammad 'Khalifa'|
|Born||12 August 1844|
Labab Island, Turkish Sudan
|Died||22 June 1885 40) (aged|
Khartoum, Mahdist Sudan
|Religion||Sudanese Mahdiyya Islam|
From his announcement of the Mahdiyya in June 1881 until 1898, many of the theological and political doctrines of the Mahdiyya were established and promulgated among the growing ranks of the Mahdi's supporters, the Ansars. After Muhammad Ahmad's unexpected death on 22 June 1885, his chief deputy, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad took over the administration of the nascent Mahdist state.
Following Ahmad's death, Abdallahi ruled as Khalifa. However, while the Mahdi had created one of the few nineteenth-century African states to have defeated a foreign colonial power, by 1899, the Khalifa's autocratic rule, as well as directly applied British military force, destroyed the Mahdi state in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of Sudan. Despite this, the Mahdi remains a respected figure in the Sudan, and a direct descendant of Ahmad, Sadiq al-Mahdi, was twice prime minister of the Sudan (1966–1967 and 1986–1989) and pursued democratizing policies.
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Muhammad Ahmad was born on 12 August 1844 at Labab Island, Dongola in northern Sudan to a humble Nubian family of boat-builders who trace their descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad through the line of his grandson Hassan. When Muhammad Ahmad was still a child, the family moved to the town of Karari, north of Omdurman, where Muhammad Ahmad's father, Abdullah, could find an adequate supply of timber for his successful boat-building business.
While his siblings joined his father's trade, Muhammad Ahmad showed a proclivity for religious study. He studied first under Sheikh al-Amin al-Suwaylih in the Gezira region around Khartoum, and subsequently under Sheikh Muhammad al-Dikayr 'Abdallah Khujali near the town of Berber in North Sudan. Determined to live a life of asceticism, mysticism and worship, in 1861 he sought out Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Nur al-Dai'm, the grandson of the founder of the Samaniyya Sufi sect in Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad stayed with Sheikh Muhammad Sharif for seven years, during which time he was recognized for his piety and asceticism. Near the end of this period, he was awarded the title of Sheikh himself, and began to travel around the country on religious missions. He was permitted to give tariqa and Uhūd to new followers.
In 1870, his family moved again in search for timber, this time to Aba Island on the White Nile south of Khartoum. On Aba Island, Muhammad Ahmad built a mosque and started to teach the Qur'an. He soon gained a notable reputation among the local population as an excellent speaker and mystic. The broad thrust of his teaching followed that of other reformers, his Islam was one devoted to the words of Muhammad and based on a return to the virtues of strict devotion, prayer, and simplicity as laid down in the Qur'an.
In 1872, Muhammad Ahmad invited Sheikh Sharif to move to al-Aradayb, an area on the White Nile neighboring Aba Island. Despite initially amicable relations, in 1878 the two religious leaders had a dispute motivated by Sheikh Sharif's resentment of his former student's growing popularity. As a result, Sheikh Sharif expelled his former student from the Samaniyya order, and despite numerous attempts at reconciliation by Muhammad Ahmad, his mentor refused to make peace.
After recognizing that the split with Sheikh Sharif was irreconcilable, Muhammad Ahmad approached another respected leader of the Samaniyya order named Sheikh al-Qurashi wad al-Zayn. Muhammad Ahmad resumed his life of piety and religious devotion at Aba Island. During this period, he also traveled to the province of Kordofan, west of Khartoum, where he visited with the notables of the capital, El-Obeid, who were enmeshed in a power struggle between two rival claimants to the governorship of the province.
On 25 July 1878, Sheikh al-Qurashi died and his followers recognized Muhammad Ahmad as their new leader. Around this time, Muhammad Ahmad first met Abdallahi bin Muhammad al-Ta'aishi, who was to become his chief deputy and successor in the years to come.
Announcement of the Mahdiyya
On 29 June 1881, Muhammad Ahmad publicly announced his Mahdiyya so as to prepare the way for the second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus). In part, his claim was based on his status as a prominent Sufi sheikh with a large following in the Samaniyya order and among the tribes in the area around Aba Island. Yet the idea of the Mahdiyya had been central to the belief of the Samaniyya prior to Muhammad Ahmad's manifestation. The previous Samaniyya leader, Sheikh al-Qurashi Wad al-Zayn, had asserted that the long-awaited-for redeemer would come from the Samaniyya line. According to Sheikh al-Qurashi, the Mahdi would make himself known through a number of signs, some established in the early period of Islam and recorded in the Hadith literature, and others having a more distinctly local origin, such as the prediction that the Mahdi would ride the sheikh's pony and erect a dome over his grave after his death.
Drawing from aspects of the Sufi tradition that were intimately familiar to both his followers and his opponents, Muhammad Ahmad claimed that he had been appointed as the Mahdi by a prophetic assembly or hadra (Arabic: Al-Hadra Al-Nabawiyya, الحضرة النبوية). A hadra, in the Sufi tradition, is a gathering of all the prophets from the time of Adam to Muhammad, as well as many Sufi holy men who are believed to have reached the highest level of affinity with the divine during their lifetime. The hadra is chaired by the Prophet Muhammad, known as Sayyid al-Wujud, and at his side are the seven Qutb, the most senior of whom is known as Ghawth az-Zaman. The hadra was also the source of a number of central beliefs about the Mahdi, including that he was created from the sacred light at the centre of the Prophet's heart, and that all living creatures had acknowledged the Mahdi's claim since his birth.
Muhammad Ahmad framed the Mahdiyya as a return to the early days of Islam, when the Muslim community, or Ummah, was unified under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. Later, in order to distinguish his followers from adherents of other Sufi sects, he forbade the use of the word darwish (commonly known as "dervish" in English) to describe his followers, replacing it with the title Ansar, the term the Prophet Muhammad used for the people of Medina who welcomed him and his followers after their flight from Mecca.
Response of the 'Ulema
Despite his popularity among the clerics of the Samaniyya and other sects, and among the tribes of western Sudan, some of the Ulema, or orthodox religious authorities, rejected Muhammad Ahmad's claim to be the Mahdi. Among his most prominent critics were the Sudanese Ulema loyal to the Ottoman Sultan and employed by the Turco-Egyptian government, such as the Mufti Shakir al-Ghazi, who sat on the Council of Appeal in Khartoum, and the Qadi Ahmad al-Azhari in Kordofan.
These critics were careful not to deny the concept of the Mahdi as such, but rather to discredit Muhammad Ahmad's claim to it. They pointed out that Muhammad Ahmad's manifestation did not conform to the prophecies laid out in the Hadith literature. In particular, they argued for the political interests of the Turco-Egyptian government and its British rulers, that his manifestation did not conform with the "time of troubles" "when the land is filled with oppression, tryanny, and enmity".
Advance of the rebellion
Egyptian authorities attempted to arrest him for inciting the Sudanese people to achieve their independence and overthrow their oppressors. A military expedition was sent to reassert the government's authority on Aba Island, but the government's forces were ambushed and nearly annihilated by the Mahdi's followers.
The Mahdi and a party of his followers, the Ansār (helpers, known in the West as "the Dervishes"), made a long march to Kurdufan. There he gained a large number of recruits, especially from the Baqqara, and notable leaders such as Sheikh Madibbo ibn Ali of Rizeigat and Abdallahi ibn Muhammad of Ta'aisha tribes. They were also joined by the Hadendoa Beja, who were rallied to the Mahdi by an Ansār captain in east of Sudan in 1883, Osman Digna.
The Mahdist revolution was backed by the Northern and western regions of Sudan, and it also found a great support from the Nuer, Shilluk and Anuak tribes from southern Sudan in addition to the tribes of Bahr Alghazal, a thing which affirmed that the Mahdist revolution was a national revolution and not a regional one. In addition to unifying different tribes, the revolution also cut across religious divides, despite its religious origins. The Mahdi was supported by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. This had important implications for the slave trade, because the Mahdi, going against traditional Islamic injunctions, allowed the enslavement of free Muslims who did not support him and forbade the enslavement of the traditionally hunted non-Muslims who did support him.
Late in 1883, the Ansār, armed only with spears and swords, overwhelmed a 4,000-man Egyptian force not far from El-Obeid, and seized their rifles and ammunition. The Mahdi followed up this victory by laying siege to El-Obeid and starving it into submission after four months. The town remained the headquarters of the Ansar for much of the decade.
The Ansār, now 40,000 strong, then defeated an 8,000-man Egyptian relief force led by British officer William Hicks at Sheikan, in the battle of El Obeid. The defeat of Hicks sealed the fate of Darfur, which until then had been effectively defended by Rudolf Carl von Slatin. Jabal Qadir in the south was also taken. The western half of Sudan was now firmly in Ansārī hands.
Their success emboldened the Hadendoa, who under the generalship of Osman Digna wiped out a smaller force of Egyptians under the command of Colonel Valentine Baker near the Red Sea port of Suakin. Major-General Gerald Graham was sent with a force of 4,000 British soldiers and defeated Digna at El Teb on February 29, but were themselves hard-hit two weeks later at Tamai. Graham eventually withdrew his forces.
After much debate the British decided to abandon the Sudan in December 1883, holding only several northern towns and Red Sea ports, such as Khartoum, Kassala, Sannar, and Sawakin. The evacuation of Egyptian troops and officials and other foreigners from Sudan was assigned to General Gordon, who had been reappointed governor general with orders to return to Khartoum and organize a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons there.
Arrival of Gordon
Gordon reached Khartoum in February 1884. At first he was greeted with jubilation as many of the tribes in the immediate area were at odds with the Mahdists. Transportation northward was still open and the telegraph lines intact. However, the uprising of the Beja soon after his arrival changed things considerably, reducing communications to runners.
Gordon considered the routes northward to be too dangerous to extricate the garrisons and so pressed for reinforcements to be sent from Cairo to help with the withdrawal. He also suggested that his old enemy Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur, a fine military commander, be given tacit control of the Sudan in order to provide a counter to the Ansār. London rejected both proposals, and so Gordon prepared for a fight.
In March 1884, Gordon tried to stage an offensive to clear the road northward to Egypt but a number of the officers in the Egyptian force went over to the enemy and their forces fled the field after firing a single salvo. This convinced him that he could carry out only defensive operations and he returned to Khartoum to construct defensive works.
By April 1884, Gordon had managed to evacuate some 2500 of the foreign population that were able to make the trek northwards. His mobile force under Colonel Stewart then returned to the city after repeated incidents where the 200 or so Egyptian forces under his command would turn and run at the slightest provocation.
That month the Ansār reached Khartoum and Gordon was completely cut off. Nevertheless, his defensive works, consisting mainly of mines, proved so frightening to the Ansār that they were unable to penetrate into the city. Stewart maintained a number of small skirmishes using gunboats on the Nile once the waters rose, and in August managed to recapture Berber for a short time. However, Stewart was killed soon after in another foray from Berber to Dongola, a fact Gordon only learned about in a letter from the Mahdi himself.
Under increasing pressure from the public to support him, the British Government under Prime Minister Gladstone eventually ordered Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley to relieve Gordon. He was already deployed in Egypt due to the attempted coup there earlier, and was able to form up a large force of infantry, moving forward at an extremely slow rate. Realizing they would take some time to arrive, Gordon pressed for him to send forward a "flying column" of camel-borne troops across the Bayyudah Desert from Wadi Halfa under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stuart. This force was attacked by the Hadendoa Beja, or "Fuzzy Wuzzies", twice, first at the Battle of Abu Klea and two days later nearer Metemma. Twice the British square held and the Mahdists were repelled with heavy losses.
At Metemma, 100 miles (160 km) north of Khartoum, Wolseley's advance guard met four of Gordon's steamers, sent down to provide speedy transport for the first relieving troops. They gave Wolseley a dispatch from Gordon claiming that the city was about to fall. However, only moments later a runner brought in a message claiming the city could hold out for a year. Deciding to believe the latter, the force stopped while they refit the steamers to hold more troops.
Fall of Khartoum
They finally arrived in Khartoum on 28 January 1885 to find the town had fallen during the Battle of Khartoum two days earlier. When the Nile had receded from flood stage, one of Gordon's pashas (officers), Faraz Pasha, had opened the river gates and let the Ansār in. The garrison was slaughtered, the male population massacred, the women and children enslaved, and Gordon was killed fighting the Mahdi's warriors on the steps of the palace, hacked to pieces and beheaded. When Gordon's head was unwrapped at the Mahdi's feet, he ordered the head transfixed between the branches of a tree "where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above." When Wolseley's force arrived, they retreated after attempting to force their way to the center of the town on ships, being met with a hail of fire.
The Mahdi Army continued its sweep of victories. Kassala and Sannar fell soon after and by the end of 1885 the Ansār had begun to move into the southern regions of Sudan. In all Sudan, only Suakin, reinforced by Indian troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.
Death and succession
Six months after the capture of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad died of typhus. He was buried in Omdurman near the ruins of Khartoum. The Mahdi had planned for this eventuality and chose three deputies to replace him.
After the final defeat of the Khalifa by the British under General Kitchener in 1898, Muhammad Ahmad's tomb was destroyed and his bones were thrown into the Nile. General Kitchener was said to have retained his skull. Allegedly the skull was later buried at Wadi Halfa. The tomb was eventually rebuilt.
Muhammed Ahmad's posthumous son, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, whom the British considered important as a popular leader of the Mahdists, became a leader of the neo-Mahdist movement in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The Sudanese considered Abd al-Rahman to be the King of Sudan when the country gained independence, but he declined the title for spiritual reasons. 'Abd al-Rahman sponsored the Umma (Nation) political Party in the period before and just after Sudan became independent in 1956.
In modern-day Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad is sometimes seen as a precursor of Sudanese nationalism. The Umma party claim to be his political descendants. Their leader Imam Sadiq al-Mahdi, is the great-great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, and also the imam of the Ansar, the religious order that pledges allegiance to Muhammad Ahmad. Sadiq al-Mahdi was a democratic leader and Prime Minister of Sudan on two occasions: first briefly in 1966–67, and then between 1986 and 1989.
In popular culture
- In Ibn el 'amm (1887) by Karl May the Mahdi explains the death of a prayer killed by a lion.
- Im Lande des Mahdi (The Mahdi Trilogy, 1896) by Karl May, where Kara Ben Nemsi meets Muhammad Ahmad.
- In Desert and Wilderness, a young adult novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1912)
- In the 1966 movie Khartoum, the Mahdi was played by Laurence Olivier.
- In the British sitcom Dad's Army, Lance-Corporal Jones often talks about his encounters with the Mahdi.
- In the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, characters discuss the news of the Mahdi's destruction of the British garrison at Khartoum.
- The Four Feathers, a much-filmed adventure novel from 1902 is set during the British military expedition against the Mahdi.
- A 2007 episode of the crime drama Waking the Dead featured an attempt to locate the Mahdi's missing skull, in order to defuse tensions due to the hunger strike of a Sudanese Mahdist politician. The episode also made reference to the 1966 film in particular reference to Olivier's portrayal of the Mahdi.
- The 2008 novel After Omdurman by John Ferry deals with the reconquest of the Sudan and the destruction of the army of the Mahdi's successor, the Khalifa.
- "Winston's Lost Night", a 2013 episode of Murdoch Mysteries, involves the murder of a man for desecrating the Mahdi's tomb. The young Winston Churchill is initially suspected of the murder. He gives a speech denouncing the desecration.
- Wilbur Smith's novel The Triumph of the Sun is set around the siege of Khartoum led by the Mahdi.
- The Mahdi is an ancestor of Sudanese-English actor Alexander Siddig.
- Holt, P.M.: "The Mahdist State in Sudan, 1881-1898". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. p. 45.
- "Al-Mahdī - Sudanese religious leader".
- Holt, P.M. The Mahdist State in Sudan, 1881-1898. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. pp 45 cf.
- Holt, 54.
- Warburg, Gabriel. Islam, Sectarianism and Politics in Sudan since the Mahdiyya. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. pp. 30-42.
- Ibrahim, Ahmed Uthman. "Some Aspects of the Ideology of the Mahdiyya." See also PM Holt, p 50 cf
- Islah and Tajdid.
- Kapteijns, The Religious Background of the Mahdi
- Searcy, Kim. "The Sudanese Mahdī's Attitudes on Slavery and Emancipation". Islamic Africa. 1.1.
- Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa 1876–1912. Random House. p. 272. ISBN 978-0349104492.
- Undoing the Mahdiyya: British Colonialism as Religious Reform in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1914 Archived 2013-05-26 at the Wayback Machine by Noah Salomon (University of Chicago Divinity School)
- Stiansen, Endre; Kevane, Michael (1998). Kordofan invaded: peripheral incorporation and social transformation in Islamic Africa. BRILL. pp. 23–27. ISBN 90-04-11049-6.
- Warburg, Gabriel (2003). Islam, sectarianism, and politics in Sudan since the Mahdiyya. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-299-18294-0.
- "Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Mahdī". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2011-08-23.
- Ummah party official website Archived 2004-03-15 at the Wayback Machine
- Gamal Nkrumah (15–21 July 2004). "Sadig Al-Mahdi: The comeback king". Al-Ahram. Archived from the original on 23 January 2011. Retrieved February 1, 2011.
- Online text of Ibn el 'amm
- Online text versions of Im Lande des Mahdi
- David Levering Lewis, "Khalifa, Khedive, and Kitchener" in The Race for Fashoda. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. ISBN 1-55584-058-2
- Winston Churchill, "The River War: An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan", 1902, available at Project Gutenberg.
- THE MAHDIYAH, 1884-98, at the Library of Congress-Country Studies
- Fergus Nicoll, The Sword of the Prophet:The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon, The History Press Ltd, 2004, ISBN 978-0-7509-3299-8
- John Obert Voll, The Sudanese Mahdi: Frontier Fundamentalist, International Journal of Middle East Studies 10 (1979), p. 145–166
- Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, Short History of Sudan, iUniverse, (30 April 2004), ISBN 0-595-31425-2.
- Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, The Problem of Dar Fur, iUniverse, Inc. (July 21, 2005), ISBN 978-0-595-36502-9.
- Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, UN Intervention in Dar Fur, iUniverse, Inc. (February 9, 2007), ISBN 0-595-42979-3.
- Dominic Green, 2011. Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869–1899. ISBN 978-1451631609.