MUḤAMMAD AḤMAD (ah 1260–1302/1844–1885 ce), Sudanese preacher and mystic who claimed to be the Mahdi of Islam. Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh was born at Labab Island on the Nile in Dongola province of a Nubian family claiming descent from the Prophet and was brought up at Karari, just north of Omdurman. He received a traditional Islamic education and at age seventeen became apprenticed to Muḥammad Sharīf Nūr al-Dāʾim, a shaykh of the Sammānīyah Ṣūfī order. He spent seven years serving and imbibing mystical wisdom from his master who then authorized him to teach the doctrines of the order and to initiate others.
In 1870 he took up residence on Aba Island on the White Nile just north of Kosti, along with his three brothers, who were engaged in the family trade of boat building. Once settled there his growing reputation as a Ṣūfī teacher and ascetic began to gain him a considerable following among the local peoples. His teacher, Muḥammad Sharīf, also established himself nearby in 1288/1872, but before long the two men fell out, perhaps because of the elder man's jealousy at this pupil's acclaim. Muḥammad Sharīf announced Muḥammad Aḥmad's expulsion from the Sammānīyah order, whereupon the latter declared his allegiance to a rival shaykh of the order and denounced his former shaykh as a man who flouted the sharīʿah.
In 1878 his new shaykh, al-Qurashī wad al-Zayn, died, and Muḥammad Aḥmad was immediately recognized as his successor. Shortly afterward he received a visit from the man who was to be his political successor, the khalīfah ʿAbd Allāh (ʿAbdullāhi) ibn Muḥammad Ādam. ʿAbd Allāh's attachment to Muḥammad Aḥmad, however, was more than that of a Ṣūfī disciple to his master. He recognized him as the expected Mahdi, the final regenerator of Islam who, it was believed, would appear shortly before the end time to usher in a period of justice and Sammānīyah equity and unite the whole world under the banner of Islam.
Up to this point there is no indication that Muḥammad Aḥmad had considered the possibility that he might be the Mahdi, though he must have been aware of the widespread belief in the Sudan and West Africa that the Mahdi would appear in the thirteenth century of the Hijrah (1785–1882 ce). Even now he hesitated, but following a series of visions he became convinced in 1881 that God had designated him as the Mahdi. For three months his Mahdihood was a secret, revealed at first only to trusted disciples and then, on a visit to al-Ubayyiḍ (El Obeid) in Kordofan, to religious scholars and finally, to the common people. Finally, on June 29, 1881, his public manifestation (ẓuhūr ) as the expected Mahdi took place on Aba Island, and he called upon his adherents to rally to him.
Events now moved rapidly. In keeping with the Prophet's practice to muster his followers and distinguish the true believers, he undertook an "emigration" (hijrah ) from Aba Island to Jabal Qadīr in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kordofan, naming those who rallied to him the "helpers" (al-anṣār ) after the Prophet's allies in Medina. While encamped at Jabal Qadīr, his supporters won two resounding victories against forces sent by the Turco-Egyptian government of the Sudan, gaining for the Mahdi enormous prestige and a considerable quantity of arms and other booty. The Mahdi now turned his attention to central Kordofan, where he had been warmly received before his manifestation and where there was already a body of believers in his mission. An initial attack by Mahdist forces on al-Ubayyiḍ in September 1882 was repulsed by government troops with heavy losses, but a siege resulted in the town's fall to the Mahdi early in 1883.
The universal implications of the Mahdi's mission were now made plain. A vision assured him that he would eventually offer prayer in Cairo, Mecca, Jerusalem, and Kufa. The first step was to strike at the heart of the Turco-Egyptian administration, Khartoum, and this city was duly occupied after considerable bloodshed in January 1885.
Following this triumph the Mahdi established his headquarters in nearby Omdurman, but he was destined to survive for only six months, dying, it is generally believed, from typhus. The Islamic state he was in the process of establishing, however, lasted for a further fourteen years until the forces of the Anglo-Egyptian "reconquest" mowed down the khalīfah ʿAbd Allāh in 1899.
The mission of the Mahdi, however, had not been to establish a lasting political structure. His claim to Mahdihood implied that the apocalypse was at hand, and he constantly exhorted his followers to reject the world and its deceits and to prepare for the life to come. As a divinely appointed leader he claimed a status only a little short of that of a prophet. While preaching strict adherence to the Qurʾān and the prophetic sunnah, he placed himself above the interpretations of the madhhab s, the Islamic law schools, and issued authoritative pronouncements on ritual, social, and economic matters through a series of written proclamations (manshūrāt ) and oral rulings issued in public gatherings (majālis; sg., majlis ). Though a Ṣūfī and shaykh of a sub-order, he ordained that belief in his mission overrode all other loyalties and that his prayer manual, the Rā-tib, superseded the litanies of the orders. Mystical ideas, however, pervaded all his thinking. His mission was announced in visions in which the Prophet invested him as Mahdi in the presence of Khiḍr, the legendary immortal "man of God," and other "saints" (awliyāʾ ). He was told by the Prophet that he had been created from the light of the core of his heart, an allusion to the preexistent light before creation that God made incarnate in Adam and other prophets and, finally, in Muḥammad and his descendants.
Although his claims to be the Mahdi must be judged to have been unsubstantiated, many Sudanese remained loyal to Muḥammad Aḥmad's memory. His posthumous son, Sayyid ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, was won over by the British administration and was able to benefit from popular pro-Mahdist sentiment (especially among the Baqqārah) to establish grass-roots support for a national political party. The Ummah party, which he founded in 1945, played the dominant role in Sudanese politics in both the first republic (1956–1958) and the second (1964–1969). The Mahdi's great-grandson, Sayyid al-Ṣādiq, a Western-educated Islamic modernist, remains an influential thinker and a key political personality.
No full-length critical biography of the Mahdi has yet been published in any European language. Ismāʿīl ʿAbd al-Qādir's hagiographical life, Kitāb saʿādat al-mustahdī bi-sīrat al-Imām al-Mahdī, has now been partially translated in Haim Shaked's The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi (New Brunswick, N. J., 1978). The best account of the period as a whole is P. M. Holt's The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881–1898, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1970). The autobiography of a Sudanese participant in the Mahdīyah (and later a pioneer of modern education in the Sudan) has been translated in Jousef Bedri and George Scott's The Memoirs of Babikr Bedri (Oxford, 1969), as have the memoirs of a European administrator in the Turco-Egyptian government, The Sudanese Memoirs of Carl Christian Giegler Pasha, 1873–1883, edited by Richard Hill (Oxford, 1984). No study has yet been made of the Mahdi's religious thought, but ample material exists in the four volumes of his proclamations, rulings, and letters in M. I. Abu Salīm's Manshūrāt al-Imām al-Mahdī (Khartoum, 1963–1964).
John O. Hunwick (1987)
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