The Mahdi

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The Mahdi

Mohammed Ahmed (ca. 1844-1885) was an Islamic puritan, reformer, and military leader of the Sudan. He is better known as the Mahdi.

Mohammed Ahmed was born on an island in the Nile River near Dongola in what is now the northern Sudan. His father was a boatbuilder. Mohammed Ahmed took an early and intense interest in Islamic mysticism and asceticism, becoming a religious teacher and joining the Sammaniya order in 1861. Gathering pupils and disciples about him, he established his retreat on Aba Island in the White Nile south of Khartoum, where he earned a reputation for holiness and mystical powers.

Messianic Leader

His religious experiences and contemplations on Aba Island caused Mohammed Ahmed to feel that Allah had selected him as the true Mahdi, the right-guided one or the messianic leader called to battle against immorality and corruption and for the rejuvenation and purification of Islam. He saw himself as sent by Allah to purge Islam of its evils and to return it to the purity of the faith of Mohammed the Prophet. In addition, his theological views had eschatological overtones in that he not only viewed himself as the rightful head of the Islamic community fulfilling the role of Mohammed the Prophet but as the ultimate figure presiding over the end of time.

Mohammed Ahmed found ideal conditions in the central and northern Sudan for a mass emotional movement, not only in the religious devotion of the Moslem population of the area but especially in the resentment of the inhabitants toward the corruption and oppression of the Turkish and Egyptian rulers who had dominated the Upper Nile region since the reign of Mohammed Ali earlier in the 19th century. Mohammed Ahmed thus found support from the Sudanese for a variety of reasons and motives—from pious and religious believers who accepted his puritan and reformist views, from nomadic groups who opposed all governmental restrictions, and from others who profited from the slave trade and rejected efforts of the Egyptian khedive Ismail and Gen. Gordon to eliminate it.

Mohammed Ahmed's movement for reform and reorganization spread rapidly following his public appearance as the Mahdi in June 1881 because of its wide appeal. But the weakness and indecision of Egyptian authorities because of economic and political problems within Egypt played a key role in the success of the Mahdi's campaign. The Egyptian government declared its bankruptcy in 1876 owing to, at least in part, Khedive Ismail's efforts to build a vast Egyptian empire in the Sudan and Upper Nile area. Foreign debt supervisors secured considerable influence and power in Egypt in the late 1870s, thus popularizing the nationalist movement against this foreign presence and culminating in Col. Arabi's coup of early 1882 and the consequent British intervention and occupation later that year.

Military Victories

Successive victories over halfhearted Egyptian attempts to overcome the Mahdi vastly strengthened the new movement through the acquisition of much military equipment and the apparent proof of Allah's support. After the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the new British authorities in Cairo ignored the Sudan, but the Egyptian government did seek to demonstrate its own power despite British overrule by ordering a new campaign to oust the Mahdi. In 1883 the Mahdists overwhelmed the Egyptian army of Gen. Hicks, and Great Britain ordered the withdrawal of all Egyptian troops and officials from the Sudan. How could Britain reestablish financial order in Egypt if the country's resources were being utilized in expensive campaigns in the Sudan?

The victorious followers of the Mahdi occupied most of the Sudan; Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Cairo, sent the famous Gen. Gordon to carry out and accelerate the Egyptian evacuation. Khartoum, the capital and center of the country, fell to the Mahdi in January 1885 following Gen. Gordon's legendary and foolhardy defense.

The Mahdi had successfully expelled foreign influences and had united most of the Sudan area in a unique religiopolitical movement. According to Mahdist theology and theocracy, the Mahdi held his superior power directly from Allah and then delegated power directly to others as he chose. The Mahdi died in 1885, probably of typhus, but his theocratic state continued for another 13 years under his follower and friend the caliph Abdullahi. The British general Kitchener reoccupied the Sudan primarily with Egyptian troops in 1898, not only because of any threat the Mahdist movement itself posed to the British position in Egypt but because of British imperial needs in the partition of Africa among the great powers of Europe.

To members of the Ansar (Helpers) movement today, a powerful religious brotherhood and an important but conservative political factor in the Republic of the Sudan, the Mahdi was a nationalist leader who liberated the people of the Sudan from alien oppression and began the modern history of the country.

Further Reading

An old and romantic view of the Mahdi is in the biography by Richard A. Bermann, The Mahdi of Allah (1931). The Mahdist movement is well treated in A. B. Theobald, The Mahdiya: A History of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1881-1899 (1951), and in P. M. Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881-1898 (1958). For general background on the Sudan see a work by a Sudanese, Mekki Shibeika, The Independent Sudan (1959), and P. M. Holt, A Modern History of the Sudan (1966).

Additional Sources

Farwell, Byron, Prisoners of the Mahdi: the story of the Mahdist revolt which frustrated Queen Victoria's designs on the Sudan …, New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. □